I Want to Play a Game: "With a Twist" (2005) by J.A. Konrath

J.A. Konrath is an American writer of more than twenty novels and over a hundred short stories, mostly crime and horror fiction, who has won the Derringer Award and Ellery Queen Reader's Choice Award, but my only exposure to his work has been "On the Rocks" – a short story anthologized by Mike Ashley in The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries (2006). A good little locked room story featuring the forty-something Chicago homicide detective, Lieutenant Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels. This was not the last time an impossible crime would be dropped into her lap.

"With a Twist" originally appeared in the December, 2005, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and republished in 2011 as an ebook. This story is, in my opinion, a minor classic and I'll tell you why in a moment.

The story opens with Jack Daniels and Herb Benedict, of the Chicago Police Department, standing in the blood-splattered living room of the Edward Wyatt, a 67-year-old retiree, who lies splayed out on the beige carpeting "damp with bodily fluids" – his skull had been shattered and "his spinal column looks like a Dutch pretzel." Evidently, Wyatt had fallen from a great height, but the ceiling is no higher than eight foot and the place had been securely locked up. The front and back door were fitted with so-called privacy locks and dead-bolted from the inside. Same story with the windows, which were also locked from the inside.

You probably think the whole scene was staged by a devious killer, but all of the physical evidence, including the locked doors and windows, point towards an impossible suicide.

There are hundreds of carpet fibers embedded in the body and the wall-to-wall carpeting has a secondary splatter, indicating that the body bounced when it hit the floor, which is all consistent with a fall from a great height. A religiously-worded suicide note is found on the bookshelf. Wyatt could have only taken his own life that way, if he had taken off the roof, "jumped out of a plane" and "landed in his living room." So, either way you look at it, the case is an impossible one.

Where the story becomes truly great is when items in the house reveals the victim to have been "a man who loved mysteries, games, and puzzles." The book shelf was crammed with mystery novels, such as G.K. Chesterton and John Sladek, puzzle magazines, books on logical thinking and some old-fashioned (puzzle) games – like Clue and a 1980s Rubik's Cube. They also found cancer drugs. And this is where the game really begins.

Lt. Daniels quickly comes to the conclusion that this was a very ingeniously contrived and elaborately arranged suicide, staged by a puzzle fiend, who wanted to go out on his own terms and hid tell-tale clues, codes and messages all over the house – somewhat reminiscent to an escape room game. But here it gives you the solution to a seemingly impossible puzzle.

So what exactly makes "With a Twist" a minor classic of the modern locked room story? I hate and loath it when an impossible crime is explained away as a suicide-disguised-as-murder, because it's a bullshit cop-out and, worst of all, hacky. It barely requires any imagination or plotting skills. For example, you can have a stabbing inside a sealed, concrete bunker and explain it away by saying the victim committed suicide by walking backwards into the knife that was wedged in between something.

I never expected to read an impossible crime story, with a suicide, that not only worked, but was good. Konrath pulled it off here by making it clear early on Daniels was investigating a suicide. And she had to figure out how it was done. This approach made for an interesting take on the inverted mystery and helped making the more labored aspects of the plot more acceptable, because you know the victim was a dying man who loved puzzles and why he would go through all trouble of turning his suicide into one big riddle – which I completely respect. I liked it there were basically two impossibilities, an impossible fall and a locked house, of which the latter was better than the former. A simple, straightforward, but effective, locked room-trick that nicely played on an old idea.

So, all in all, "With a Twist" is a good and fun detective story with a victim who played the role of a benevolent Jigsaw Killer, from Saw (2004), which resulted in an unusual, but pleasant, locked room tale. I would like to read his third locked room story, "Mixer" (2015), which he apparently co-wrote with Nick Andreychuk, but it appears to have been scrubbed from the internet. It's not available anywhere. Hopefully, that one will get reprinted, because I would like another shot of Jack Daniels.


Murder Isn't Cricket (1946) by E. and M.A. Radford

Edwin and Mona A. Radford were a British husband-and-wife writing team who compiled several encyclopedic works, such as the Encyclopedia of Superstitions (1949), but they wrote mostly "well-conceived and cleverly plotted murder mysteries," thirty-eight in total, which were published between 1944 and 1972 – thirty-five featured their series-character, Dr. Harry Manson. A scientific detective along the lines of the many detectives created by John Russell Fearn and Arthur Porges.

There is, however, an important difference in that Dr. Manson is not only the head of the Forensic Research Laboratory, but also a high-ranking Scotland Yard detective who attained the rank of Commander. So here we have a genuine rarity of a character fulfilling the dual role of police detective and a scientific consultant.

Edwin Radford was a voracious reader of the Dr. John Thorndyke mysteries by R. Austin Freeman, whose forensic detective stories left their prints all over this series, but even more remarkable is the undeniable influence of Ellery Queen, because the Radfords made liberal use of the "Challenge to the Reader" to alert the reader to the presence of clues – scattering these challenges across numerous chapters throughout a story. Apparently, the Radfords were not above bragging that the fair play principle is the foundation of their detective novels by providing their readers with "the facts and clues to give them a fair opportunity" in "solving the riddle."

Sadly, the Radfords have been out-of-print for decades and practically forgotten today, but, once again, Dean Street Press is here to save two more mystery writers from biblioblivion.

Earlier this month, DSP reissued three titles, Jigsaw Murder (1944), Murder Isn't Cricket (1946) and Who Killed Dick Whittington? (1947), which were selected for their "strong plots, clever detection and evocative settings." This time with an introduction from another genre historian, Nigel Moss. Now here's where the story gets interesting.

Edwin and Mona A. Radford occasionally dipped their pen in the (invisible) inkwell of the impossible crime genre and they produced four titles, three novels and a short story collection, but only three were listed by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders (1991) – two have now been reprinted by DSP. Firstly, there's the short stories, collected in Death and the Professor (1961), which stars their one-time sleuth, Prof. Marcus Stubbs, who solves some of their more conventional impossible crimes. Such as shootings and strangling deaths in locked or guarded rooms. Who Killed Dick Whittington? and Death of a Frightened Editor (1959) deals with seemingly impossible poisonings.

Finally, there's the overlooked Murder Isn't Cricket and probably flew under the radar, because the murder is not really treated/viewed as an impossibility. More like an improbable crime. Nonetheless, it certainly qualifies as an impossible crime novel. Or, in this case, an open air locked room mystery. 
Murder Isn't Cricket is set in the village of Thames Pagnall, in the county of Surrey, which has been embroiled in a century-old rivalry with the cricket team of the neighboring village of Maplecot. On a Saturday afternoon, their a tie-breaking match between the two villages, which ended in a draw, but the damper came when a man is found slumped in a deck chair. A bullet wound is later found in his back. The victim was a complete stranger and the man has no identification on him, but a diary shows he had been touring the British countryside on a round of sightseeing and had come to Thames Pagnall with the same reason. So why kill a complete stranger in full view of a thousand people? And why did saw the murder happen or spotted the shooter?

The county police are out of their depth and Doctor Harry Manson, of Scotland Yard, is placed in charge of the case and they begin a meticulously, step-by-step, reconstruction of the murder by using logic and old-school CSI work – such as the use of mini-vacuum cleaner to such "the dust thickly engrained in the cloth" of the victim's clothes. This helped them to identify the victim and opened another avenue in their investigation closely linked to the criminal underworld. Every couple of chapters, the reader is asked either to answer certain questions or whether they spotted all the clues given in that chapter.

So the unraveling of the story is like walking down a dark pathway with a flashlight, illuminating more of the path with every step, until you reach the end. An ending you can anticipate, if you picked up all the breadcrumbs that were dropped along the way. Something that should appeal to fans of early Ellery Queen (e.g. The French Powder Mystery, 1930).

All of that said, the story would have really benefited from a clear, well-drawn map of the crime scene and Doctor Manson made an amateur mistake when he referenced Edgar Allan Poe's pioneering 1841 short story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," but described the plot of another iconic tale by one of the giants of the detective story. Very sloppy.

However, those are minor flaws and the only thing that really bothered me was Doctor Manson's illogical statement that something, like heads in a coin toss, can "turn up twenty million times in succession" and "still leave the law of averages undisturbed," because some time within "the next twenty million years," or so, tails can turn up an equal number of times. I could be completely wrong here, but, when someone keeps getting head when tossing a coin or keeps throwing sixes with dice, the law of averages dictates that the person is probably playing with a double-headed coin or loaded dice – which is the only thing that annoyed me a bit. Otherwise, this was quite an enjoyable detective story with barely an ounce of fat (i.e. padding) on the plot.

Murder Isn't Cricket is, what Anthony Boucher called, the simon-pure jigsaw-puzzle detective novel that eagerly played the Grandest Game in the World. A spirited game that not only included numerous challenges and sign-posts to where the clues can be found, but the Radfords even included a clue-finder going over all of the clues. I wanted to kick myself for having missed that obvious slip-of-the-tongue. Oh, well, better luck next time.
I'm tempted to make Who Killed Dick Whittington? my next read, but I'll probably take a look at another little-known mystery writer who was recently brought back into print. So stay tuned!


The Ghost It Was (1936) by Richard Hull

Only a year or two ago, Richard Hull was dimly remembered as the author of an unconventional inverted detective story, The Murder of My Aunt (1934), but the rest of his work remained in the shadows of obscurity until the British Library and Agora Books began reprinting his lesser-known work – such as Keep It Quiet (1935), Murder Isn't Easy (1936) and Excellent Intentions (1938). After half-a-dozen reprints, Hull emerged as an innovator of the inverted detective story and arguably one of the most popular rediscoveries of the present renaissance of the Golden Age mystery. Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if he turned out to be more popular today than during his own lifetime.

Hull has regained his reputation as an experimenter and innovator of the inverted mystery, but he has also tinkered with the conventions of the traditional detective story. And that book was reprinted last year by Agora Books.

The Ghost It Was (1936) has been described as an homage to John Dickson Carr and black comedy in the best English tradition, but, this time, there are quite a few contrarians and Steve, of In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, posted a less than exciting review in January – on which two people commented that they were unable to finish the book. So how good, or bad, is The Ghost It Was? Well, let's find out.

Gregory Spring-Benson is a man of "unlimited effrontery" with "exclusive and expensive tastes," but his bank balance was insufficient to meet the demand of the ever growing stack of unpaid bills and he has been unable to hold a job. As a previous employer remarked, "perfect idleness and sarcasm" are poor substitutes for more humdrum, but useful, qualifications. So he decided to up his "debonair frankness," combined with "a pose of specious honesty," to obtain an introduction to Linnell, deputy sub-assistant editor of The New Light, who sends the impertinent Gregory packing.

However, Linnell tells Gregory that, if he happens to have any ideas for a story, he can send it to him personally and an idea is presented when reading a poorly written column in The New Light.

The column reports that a well-known, international financier, Mr. James Warrenton, has returned to his ancestral village, Amberhurst, where he has purchased a mansion with "a private ghost" haunting the tower standing at the north-west corner of the house – who happens to be Uncle James to Gregory. Unfortunately, Uncle James has told his insufferable nephew to never darken his door again. So he has to find a way to worm his way back into his uncle's household and Warrenton, who's as impudent as his nephew, makes a sporting bet with Gregory. He gives Gregory six months to swindle him out of "an appreciable sum of money" using spiritualism.

I suppose this is where the story began to lose the previously mentioned commentators, on Steve's review, because the plot began to drag here. Don't get me wrong. This is a well-written, darkly comedic detective story, but the main plot was barely moving after this point and instead we got a closer look at the characters and some of their schemes, which eventually result in murder. But it takes a while to get there. I think it was a mistake to compare The Ghost It Was to Carr, because the similarities (impossible crimes, a haunted tower and ghost stories) are only superficial and not even Hull could match him in the plotting department. In my opinion, the book is much more black send-up of Edmund Crispin (c.f. Buried for Pleasure, 1948) with a hint of evil and full of wittily couched insults, verbal digs, unpleasant or downtrodden relatives and even a scheming parson. So, if you're going into this book expecting a Carrian pastiche, you'll end up disappointed or even giving up before reaching the final chapter. The reader has been warned!

Around the halfway mark, the plot begins to roll again and the people at the mansion witnessed a figure, who seemed "to emanate a radiance," on the tower "clad in a gown" and a short sword or dagger, which glowed, hung from "a ribbon that seemed to be attached to the waist." When this figure appears for a second time, Warrenton recognizes the ghost as one of his relatives and bursts out laughing, but suddenly, another figure came along the top of the turret with it's "right arm stretched out menacingly" and the other figure plunged to his death – a scene eerily reminiscent of the tragic ghost story from 1535. This is only quasi-impossible murder, but the second death on top of that haunted tower is indisputably a locked room mystery.

One of the household members, Emily, notices a strange gleam on the top of the tower from her bedroom window, moving backwards and forwards, before realizing it was either a dagger or a knife. A floating weapon that plunges itself in the only person who was standing on the tower, but here's the real kicker. Everyone was locked into their rooms to prevent them from playing the ghost. These two (impossible) murders were superbly handled, a nice spoof of the theatrically-staged murder mystery, which had a nice, uncomplicated solution with a beauty of a clue subtly foreshadowing the trick the murderer used on the tower. A clue actually worthy of Carr himself.

Regrettably, the way the final chapter was handled made the solution fall flat on its face and this was completely unnecessary.

Obviously, Hull was a writer who tried to be innovative and decided to do this, in this very conventionally structured detective novel, in the last chapter by not mentioning the murderer by name. Now this could have worked had the murderer not been so obvious and the reader had to pay close attention to find all the clues to piece together who they were talking about, which certainly was not the case here and this made Hull look like he was being difficult for the sake of being difficult – reflecting poorly on an otherwise pretty decent country house mystery.

In closing, The Ghost It Was is a good, but not great, detective story drenched in black humor, ghostly murders and an excellent portrayal of a dysfunctional family who dance to the purse-strings of the family patriarch. Only the unnecessary and irritating obfuscation about the murderer's name in the last chapter is a real blemish on the plot.


Myths and Murders: "The Case of the Modern Medusa" (1973) by Edward D. Hoch

Edward D. Hoch had a storied, decades-long career as a voluminous writer of short stories and passed away, in 2008, with close to a thousand short stories to his name, but he was equally productive when it came to creating series-characters – somewhere around twenty of them. Some where better known or had longer lifespans than others.

I've previously discussed short stories collections starring some of Hoch's most celebrated series-detectives, such as The Thefts of Nick Velvet (1971), The Ripper of Storyville (1997) and Challenge the Impossible (2018), but there's an entire roster of lesser-known, secondary series-characters whose stories have remained uncollected to this very day. A roster comprising of characters such as Father David Noone, Ulysses S. Bird, Sir Gideon Parrot and Paul Tower. Most of them only appeared in a handful of stories.

I've yet to encounter any of these characters, but plan to track down a couple of these uncollected stories from some of Hoch's short-lived, unsung series and found an excellent locked room mystery from the slightly more successful Interpol-series – counting fourteen stories that were published between 1973 and 1984 in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. The protagonists of this series are Sebastian Blue, "a middle-aged Englishman formerly of Scotland Yard," who now works for Interpol and has been paired with a promising talent from the translation department, Laura Charme, to investigate "airline crimes around the globe." They operate from an office on the top floor of the Interpol headquarters in Saint-Cloud, Paris, France.

The third story in the series, "The Case of the Modern Medusa," was originally published in the November, 1973, issue of EQMM and brings the two Interpol agents to Geneva, Switzerland.

Two years ago, Otto Dolliman opened a Mythology Fair in Geneva and it appears to be merely a tourist attraction, but Interpol has reasons to believe the Mythology Fair is a cover for "a gold-smuggling operation" linked to the world-wide narcotic trade. A suspicion strengthened when Gretchen Spengler, a West German airline stewardess, was murdered shortly after "the live-action tableaux" of Perseus slaying Medusa. Gretchen Spengled worked at the Fair during her spare time and Interpol believes she used her position, as a stewardess, to smuggle cold out of Switzerland. So they send down Charme to take Spengler's place, as Medusa, but a few days later, the murderer strikes a second time and this murder is an impossible crime – except that "the room wasn't really locked."

Otto Dolliman has a small office-room dominated by an eight-foot-tall statue of King Neptune, holding a very real and sharp trident, which was driven by the murderer into Dolliman's stomach. There are only two problems: the only window in the office was covered with a wire-mesh grille, firmly bolted in place, while the only (unlocked) door had been under constant observation by Sebastian Blue!

A great locked room situation with an excellent and original explanation, easily one of Hoch's better impossible crime stories, but as good as the locked room-trick is a cheeky clue that doubled as a red herring by diverting your attention away from the truth. A splendid locked room-trick that perhaps would have better at home in the Dr. Sam Hawthorne series, where it would have been more appreciated, but "The Case of the Modern Medusa" predates the first Dr. Hawthorne story, "The Problem of the Covered Bridge," by more than a year – published in the December, 1974, issue of EQMM. So, purely as an impossible crime story, this one comes highly recommended to every locked room reader.

The pool of suspects is practically bone dry and the murderer is pretty much the only person standing in it, but, since this is a how-was-it-done, not a whodunit, this is of no consequence. A well-hidden murderer would have certainly rocketed this story to the status of a modern classic, but I'm more than happy with what I got. And then there are the two detectives.

Admittedly, Sebastian Blue and Laura Charme aren't exactly three-dimensional characters, who appear to lean on the gimmick of being police-detectives without borders, but they pleasantly reminded me of Robbie Corbijn and Lowina de Jong – creations of Dutch mystery writer "Anne van Doorn." A somewhat older, former policeman who mentors a younger woman and they're occasionally confronted with an impossible crime.

All in all, "The Case of the Modern Medusa" has a cleverly constructed locked room problem and would like to see more of Blue and Charme. So I'll definitely be returning to this series and, predicatively, I'm already eyeballing "The Case of the Musical Bullet" (1974).


The Capital Murder (1932) by James Z. Alner

Dr. James A. Tobey was "a prominent public health official" from the United Stated, serving with "numerous public and private health organizations," who wrote such books as Riders of the Plague: The Story of the Conquest of Disease (1930) and Cancer: What Everyone Should Know About it (1932) – in addition to countless medical articles about cancer quacks, leprosy and venereal diseases in the army. So Dr. Tobey had a long, distinguished record as an authority on public health issues, but what has been forgotten today is that he once wrote a detective novel under the name of "James Z. Alner."

The Capital Murder (1932) was a truly obscure, virtually forgotten detective novel until Coachwhip reissued the book in 2018. A brand new paperback edition with an introduction and afterword by one of the Doyens of the Renaissance Age, Curt Evans.

The Capital Murder is more of a fascinating curiosity of the genre than one of its long-lost classic, but the detective-characters and structure of the plot were not without interest. The detectives are five distinguished members of the Serpentine Club, located in N Street, who were "directly interested" or "even involved in the science of criminology." These men are Commissioner Henry Selden, of the Public Service Commission of the District of Columbia, whose high-ranking position in Washington, DC, allowed his fellow club-members to play detective in an official police investigation.

An investigation primarily carried out by Trevor Stoke, an epidemiologist with the federal health service, assisted by "an utter nonentity," Jim, whose only purpose is to tell the story as Stoke's Dr. Watson – or, to be more precise, playing the S.S. van Dine to Stoke's Philo Vance. Other members are the Lieutenant Runy O'Mara of the United States Navy, Dr. Basil Ragland, an eminent psychiatrist, and a famous architect, Lance Starr-Smith. These men were gathered in the walled garden of the Serpentine Club on a warm June night, "six years ago," which fittingly places the story in the 1920s. Their discussion is cut short when they heard knocking against the garden door, "as if someone was knocking against it with a metallic instrument," followed by plaintive, agitated voice wailing "Madre de Dios." And what they find was a knife-handle protruding from the upper portion of the door.

A discovery followed by their attempts to deduce, what they came, from the dagger and wailing, but this is, again, cut short when an urgent message arrives summoning Selden to a house in Q Street.

An Argentinean woman, Beatrice Sigurda, was found dead "under conditions that are extremely suspicious" and murder is suspected. Sigurda was found by her servants, sitting upright, on a divan fully clothed with "a look of inexplicable horror" – two tiny puncture marks, a quarter of an inch apart, were found in the neck of the victim. A peculiar sort of poison appeared to have been employed here!

The Capital Murder was listed by the late Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders (1991), which is where I learned of the book before it was republished, but this is not an impossible crime story. There are some locked room features to the murder, because the doors to the sitting room where either locked or blocked, but the window was open and a ladder was found in the garden. Someone used this ladder. More than once, but it was not the murderer. However, the trick the murderer used here was to create an alibi and not a locked room illusion. And the murder is never treated or even alluded to as an impossible crime. So, no, this is definitely not a locked room mystery.

Secondly, Curt noted in his introduction that the murder method in The Capital Murder somewhat anticipates "a celebrated slaying" in the debut novel by "a vastly better-known mystery writer from the 1930s," but this passing similitude is not as interesting as the semblance the basic plot has to a very well-known detective novel from the 1920s. No, it's not Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926). This resemblance gave me an idea where to look for the murderer, but let's get back to the story.

Stoke and Jim become informal assistants to Detective Yates, of the D.C. Police, who looked the part of "the typical gum-shoe man" and chewed on the stump of a cigar, which brought Rex Stout's Inspector Cramer to mind, who never even lit his cigars – merely mangling them. Initially, Yakes is skeptical of Stokes and his methods, but slowly, he begins to warm to his schemes. And eventually even goes along with them. Stoke and Jim path to the solution to the murder is fraught with danger and excitement.

I would not go as far as the synopsis, saying the story has all "the rapid action" and "the breath-taking speed of the thriller," but the book can be summed up as darker, grimmer reimagining of A.A. Milne's The Red House Mystery (1922) with two friends getting into trouble while they attempt to track down a murderer. Just like The Red House Mystery, they only have a very swallow pool of suspects to work with. There are only three suspect: the gardener of the victim, Miguel San Remo, her neighbor, Professor Kent, and Dr. Roger Rollin. Naturally, these few suspects needlessly complicated the investigation by having been on, or around, the scene of the crime and they're all holding back why. This is what makes The Capital Murder a curiosity.

The Capital Murder is not only set in the 1920s, but really belongs to that era and particular the type of twenties detective novel that had not fully shaken the sensationalists elements of the Victorian era (c.f. the work of G.E. Locke). One of the very last chapters even has a Doylean flashback to an episode in Argentine, which finally revealed the motive for the murder. A motive you could never have deduced, or even guessed, from the investigation and this made the murderer all the more difficult to identity.

The murderer had a couple of clumsy slip-ups and there were some vague hints, here and there, but nothing constituting proper clueing or fair play. I really disliked how obliging the purportedly clever murderer was in helping drawing the noose tighter during the final confrontation with Stoke.

So, purely as a 1930s detective story, The Capital Murder came up a little short, but Alner deserves praise for how the murder weapon was handled. An "object of destruction" that could have dragged the whole book down to the level of a dime-store thriller, but I can accept how it was used here and it certainly helped the murder was not presented as a locked room mystery. Otherwise, the murder method would probably have struck me as a huge letdown.

Secondly, Curt Evans and Chad Arment, of Coachwhip Publications, deserve some praise for reprinting the book without scrubbing the "offensive renderings" or remarks of the non-white characters in the book – a tendency of the publishers when confronted with "the unfortunate temper of the times" in vintage crime fiction. Sanitizing these books only robs the reader of "a valuable and fascinating" record of "American and British literary and social history before World War II." So they reprinted the book, uncensored, with a fore-and afterword discussing the times and racial opinions aired by the characters in the book. I firmly believe this is how it should be done.

This makes me hopeful Coachwhip might take a look at W. Shepard Pleasants' The Stingaree Murders (1932). A wildly original, pulp-like locked room novel with no less than three impossible crimes and eerily foreshadowed the assassination of the then former Louisiana governor Huey “The Kingfish” Long, but remember it being worse than The Capital Murder when it comes down to racial opinions of the characters. So the book was never reprinted and most publishers today would never touch it. However, it has a genuinely good plot with a series of imaginative and original impossible crimes and solutions, which deserves some recognition. At the very least, it should be accessible to readers who want to weigh and judge the book for themselves.

Well, let's take this poor, rambling review behind the shed and end it already. The Capital Murder is merely a curio of the genre with an uneven plot, wire-walking between the detective and thriller story, full of unlikely coincidences and completely unnecessary deaths. Even by detective story standards! You can even say it's a poor specimen of detective story, especially when compared to the other titles in the Coachwhip catalog, but it would be a lie to say it was a boring story. Hardly a technical masterpiece or an engrossing character study, but it entertained me for an hour or two.

Finally, I have gotten my hands of a much-praised and recently reissued mystery novel for my next read. So stay tuned!


The Laughing Cure: "The Problem of the Vanishing Town" (1979) by Jon L. Breen

A week ago, I reviewed Edward D. Hoch's Challenge the Impossible: The Final Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (2018), which is the last collection of short stories about a retired New England medico, Dr. Sam Hawthorne, who begins every story with pouring a small libation before telling about one of the innumerable impossible crimes that plagued Northmont in the past – a small American town and locked room murder capital of the world. So with the publication of Challenge the Impossible there was nothing left to read in this series. Or is there?

Jon L. Breen is an award-winning mystery critic who took over The Jury Box column in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (hereafter, EQMM) from John Dickson Carr in 1977 and relinquished the column in 2011 to Steve Steinbock, but Breen is more than just a critic. Over the decades, Breen has penned over a 100 short stories and garnered a reputation as a "premier parody-pasticher" as he satirized his illustrious predecessors and contemporaries alike. Some of his parodies have been collected in Hair of the Sleuthhound (1982) and The Drowning Icecube and Other Stories (1999).

The Giant of the Short Story was not exempt from a friendly ribbing at the hands of Breen and in the November, 1979, issue of EQMM he aimed "the point of his pen at one of the favorite series characters in EQMM," Hoch's Dr. Sam Hawthorne.

"The Problem of the Vanishing Town," subtitled "A Chapter from the Memoirs of Dr. Sid Shoehorn, New England General Practitioner," takes place in the small town of Northsouth. A quiet, peaceful place where nothing ever happens except the absolute impossible. An inebriated Dr. Shoehorn begins his tale with relating some of the unholy miracles that have taken place in Northsouth and they're gems.

One day, "the public library disappeared overnight," leaving behind a vacant lot, but the disappearance was "a publicity stunt on the part of the librarian," who are "a militant lot," to protest budget cuts – she put it back the next day. Obviously, this story takes place in the same universe as Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979). A second incident that livened up a pleasantly dull Northsouth summer when an old man, Noah Zark, who claimed he was 2000 years old "challenged the Devil to a duel in the middle of the town square." But he was run through with "a pitchfork that came out of nowhere" in "full view of more than a hundred people." Why has nobody attempted to turn this premise into an actual story?

"The Problem of the Vanishing Town" takes place on a day in late August of 1928 and Dr. Shoehorn had delivered triplets that morning, attended to "a case of the black plague" and learned Sheriff Aperture got a telephone message saying that at three o'clock that afternoon "the whole town of Northsouth will disappear from the map." So they have to figure out how someone can make a whole town disappear.

I'm not sure whether, or not, "The Problem of the Vanishing Town" qualifies as an impossible crime story, because the plot only has a promise of an impossible situation. However, the explanation as to how the town of Northsouth eventually vanished, here played for laughs, could easily be used to explain the miraculous appearance of an entire town. So I decided to tag this post as a "locked room mystery" and "impossible crime," if only for being a parody of the Dr. Hawthorne series.

Since this is purely parody, there not much else I can say about "The Problem of the Vanishing Town," in terms of plotting or characterization, except that it's a fun, tongue-in-cheek treatment of one of Hoch's most popular and beloved series-characters. Crippen & Landru should have included it as a bonus story in Challenge the Impossible. Just like William Brittain's "The Men Who Read Isaac Asimov" in the posthumously published The Return of the Black Widowers (2005). So, long story short, "The Problem of the Vanishing Town" is unreservedly recommended to fans of Hoch and Dr. Hawthorne.

A note for the curious: one of the impossible murders Dr. Shoehorn casually described at the start of the story is the death of a clown, who was "mauled by a lion on the fifth floor of the Northsouth Hotel" when "the lion was in his cage five blocks away" – which was deemed "kind of interesting" by Dr. Shoehorn. Hoch picked up the challenge and turned this idea into a short story, entitled "Circus in the Sky," which was published in Scenes of Crime (2000). So I'll see if I can track down that story for one of my next short story reviews.

Next up on this blog is a review of a very obscure mystery novels from the 1930s that was reprinted last year.


Kirin's Horn: Case Closed, vol. 68 by Gosho Aoyama

The 68th volume of Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed, published in the non-English speaking world as Detective Conan, begins with the final chapter of the story that closed the previous volume and has one of those which-of-the-three setups littering the series, but here it was poorly executed with a painfully obvious solution – resulting in an incredibly mediocre story. Luckily, the next two stories are much better.

The plot of the second story centers on another ill-fated attempt by Rachel to get her estranged parents, Richard Moore and Eva Kaden, back together and the birthday of her mother provides her with an opportunity. Rachel has won a weekend getaway at the Shizuoka Seaside Hotel, which is a perfect location for a small, intimate birthday party, but the series murder-magnet, Conan, tagged along with Rachel, Richard and Eva. So a murder interrupting the birthday party is a question of when, not if.

Eva Kaden is a busy, successful attorney at law and had to reschedule an important meeting to the hotel where she was having her birthday party.

Kaden's client are a former model, Akiho Kokubu, who has been the victim of a stalker and her husband, Takehiko Kokubu. Their appointment was to arrange an out-of-court settlement with the mother of the man who was stalking her, all of whom are in the hotel, but, before their scheduled meeting can take place, Akiho's body "appeared out of nowhere" in Kaden's hotel room when she was taking a shower – which is patently impossible. The hotel room has a door that can only be opened with a key card and has a small window without a balcony. So how did the murderer enter or leave the locked room?

The problem of the locked room is practically immediately solved, but this answer reveals a second problem hiding underneath it. How could the murderer have carried out a certain task requiring two, or more, people? One of the clues gave me an idea how this could have been done, but failed to completely envision the trick before it was revealed. So a good, richly clued story with a sugary ending.

The third story marks the return of my favorite recurring side-character, Jirokichi Sebastian, who's Serena Sebastian's rich uncle and sworn nemesis of that infamously elusive thief, Kaito KID. Jirokichi has attempted to capture KID numerous times, such as in volumes 44, 61 and 65, but it was Conan who, time and time again, prevented KID from getting away with a valuable object – something that gave the old man an idea. Jirokichi has gotten the traditional warning note from KID promising that, when the moon is full, he'll appear again "to take the Kirin's Horn," but this time he had added a post-script. A post-script asking Jirokichi to "put aside childish things" and "settle this like men."

Jirokichi deduces from this that he wants adults present, not children, because "children are Kaito KID's weakness." After all, not even a master of disguise, like KID, can pass himself off as a child. So he places Conan and the Junior Detective League in the limelight. Admittedly, this was certainly the most original way to shoehorn them into a case without them just being there. Conan remained surprisingly cool-headed in the face of all those rollings news camera considering that it could blow his cover wide open. Anita at least pulled her hoodie over her head, but Conan like a deer in the headlights.

Anyway, the Kirin's Horn is "a rare piece of amber" containing "a seed that's ten of thousands of years old," which was recently discovered in a shrine constructed by the devilishly ingenious 19th century craftsman, Kichiemon Samizu – whose "tricky devises" has given Conan and KID hard times on several occasions. However, the presence of his long-dead hand, sort of, gave away the mechanics of the plot.

Nevertheless, the impossible situation that emerged from this setup was an intriguing one: the Kirin's Horn is part of a statue, well hidden inside a mechanical pillar, which stands in the middle of a small room with four differently colored pedestals in each corner. All of these pedestals have keyholes and the four colored keys have to be turned at the exactly the same time to make the statue inside the pillar appear. Jirokichi ordered an electrical current to be placed on the pedestals and placed members of the Junior Detective League in front of the keyholes. Finally, Jirokichi nailed the keys into the wall with a big staple.

Well, in spite of all the security measures, the lights go out as predicted and it takes KID only a minute to steal the horn, but he has a problem, because the trap is sprung and he's trapped inside the shrine – along with the police, a film crew and Jirokichi. Uncharacteristically, KID has taken Conan out with a taser and spends most of the story lying in the middle of the room, like John Kramer, but why?

Seriously, I began to suspect KID had gotten his hands on some short-term APTX 4869 and had taken Conan's place, which would be perfectly acceptable within this universe and this would explain why Anita and Conan acted differently towards the news cameras. You know, KID would look practically identical to Conan as a child. Luckily, this turned out not to be the case and the explanation showed a little but more ingenuity. The locked room trick is mainly a mechanical one, which is hardly a spoiler, but still required enough subterfuge and manipulation of the situation to not make the mechanical aspect feel like a cop-out.

As a bonus, KID gives the reader a second locked room mystery when he appears to be trapped, but simply vanishes when the lights go out for a second or two! The solution is very comic book-like, but have come across it before in a short story and admired the skillfully placed red herring that made it very easy to overlook the solution.

Admittedly, this is far from the best story with either Jirokichi, KID or the lingering presence of Kichiemon Samizu, but still found this to be a wonderfully imagined, cleverly constructed and enjoyable story.

Regrettably, this volume is book-ended by two incredibly mediocre stories and the final story deals with a purse snatcher, disguised in a goofy-looking Hyottoko mask, who targets tori-no-ichi markets and his latest victim is Rachel's best friend, Serena Sebastian – who's determined to get revenge. So they're present when the purse snatcher wounds a man with knife and the victim, before losing conscious, gives Conan a cryptic, near-death-message. However, Western readers rarely have a shot solving the codes or dying messages in this, because they nearly impossible to translate. And this story is no different. So that probably detracted something from this pretty average, uninspired which-of-the-three detective story.

All in all, this was a fairly balanced volume with weak stories opening and closing this collection, but wedged in between you'll find two solid cases and one of them has appearances of some of my favorite recurring side-characters. And those two stories were more than enough to leave me satisfied.