Sorcerer's House (1956) by Gerald Verner

In my previous post, I reviewed John R.S. Pringle's The Royal Flush Murders (1948), published as by "Gerald Verner," which ended with the promise to immediately return to the work of this obscure, pulp-like mystery writer with, reputedly, one of his best detective novels – namely the intriguing-sounding Sorcerer's House (1956). A detective story clearly intended as a homage to the great maestro, John Dickson Carr, but without leaning on an impossible crime. Nearly everything else is pure Carr!

One of the primary characters of Sorcerer's House is a young American, Alan Boyce, who's on holiday in England and is staying with a long-standing friend of his father, Henry Onslow-White, in the charming village of Ferncross. On the day of his arrival, Boyce learns of the abandoned, decaying and haunted Threshold House. A house long forgotten by the world, but the villagers remember the time when it was used as "a kind of wizard's den" by one of history's most peculiar characters, Count Alessandro di Cagliostro.

Cagliostro was a self-professed magician, occultist, alchemist and very likely a died-in-the-wool conman.

During his second and last time in England, Cagliostro had rented Threshold House where, if local legends are to believed, he attempted to replicate his famous Banquet of the Dead in the Long Room – which has been haunted every since by "a dim, bluish glow." A mysterious light that is seen as "a sign that somebody is going to die." Violently! In recent years, the bluish light in the window preceded a deadly motor cycle accident in the village and the discovery of dead, unidentified tramp underneath the window of the Long Room.

Boyce learns of this local legend in the garden of Bryony Cottage, home of Mr. and Mrs. Onslow-White, where a group of people are sitting around in deck-chairs on a hot, airless summer evening. These people are Avril Farrell and her brother, Dr. Farrell, who's accompanied by his daughter, Flake. She naturally becomes somewhat of a love-interest to Boyce. Paul Meriton rounds out the party. The plot begins to roll when Avril Farrell makes the disturbing remarks, "there was a light in the window last night" and "I wonder who is going to die this time?"

That night, Boyce looks out of his bedroom window, overlooking the old, ruined and ivy smothered house, and sees a light in the window of the Long Room. So he decides to investigate and makes a terrible discovery. The body of Meriton lies underneath the window of the Long Room, exactly like the dead tramp, with the back of his head caved in and turns out he had been killed with "a loose banister torn from the staircase" – after which he had been pitched out of the window. So this is murder. And this brings one of Verner's short-lived series-detective onto the scene.

Simon Gale is a flamboyant, beer guzzling artist-of-leisure and an incorrigible contrarian with an unruly shock of hair, aggressive beard and the dress sense of a Dutch flower field. He smokes vile, acrid smelling cigarettes rolled from black tobacco and booms such phrases as "by the orgies of Bacchus" or "by the cloven hoofs of Pan." Gale is unmistakable meant to be a Great Detective in the tradition of Carr's Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, but many readers will probably find his mannerisms tiresome. And this probably makes him more of brand-store version of Dr. Fell and H.M. Still, I didn't entirely dislike him, but he can be tedious at times. Lee Sheldon created a very similar, but more convincing, JDC-inspired detective in Impossible Bliss (2001). Anyway, the most obvious nod to Carr had yet to come.

A key-part of the overarching plot is finding out what exactly happened to Meriton's wife, Fay Meriton, who apparently absconded with a secretive lover, but nobody has ever been able to find a trace of her. Gale is convinced there's more to her sudden disappearance and believes he'll find the answer in the decaying house. This is the point where the story becomes tricky to discuss, but Fay's back-story is directly tied to the dark and hidden tragedies of the house. However, it's not exactly what you think it is. Gale was even surprised by two of their discoveries, but, slowly, Fay emerges as a tragic and wronged woman. You can say what you want, but this largely mirrors the story of Fay Seton from Carr's classic He Who Whispers (1946).

As I mentioned above, Sorcerer's House becomes tricky, if not impossible, to discuss once they begin to explore the house in earnest, because the story is almost structured like a magazine serial and the discoveries are excellently used here as cliffhangers – baffling everyone from reader to the detective. These are some of the best set-pieces of the story and the closes Verner came to matching Carr when it came to story-telling. Verner also deserves praise for showing the excitement and gossip in Ferncross when the police and press descended on the small village. A particular highlight was the character of the village gossip, Miss Flappit, who was in "a seventh heaven of excitement" and shot all over the village like "a noisy and virulent wasp."

Plot-wise, Sorcerer's House only suffers from ramshackle clueing and an otherwise excellent, well-hidden murderer who falls for an obvious trap set by Gale, but most readers will probably forgive that last point. Because you'll get one of those great, Carr-like scenes in return. A genuine surprise played to great effect, but again, the murderer was acting as an idiot here and should not have fallen for it.

Leaving aside these imperfections, Sorcerer's House is a superior and more original detective story than either The Beard of the Prophet (1937) or The Royal Flush Murders. The former borrowed a little too freely from Agatha Christie's Murder in Mesopotamia (1936), while the plot of the latter was pretty much a pastiche of S.S. van Dine's The Greene Murder Case (1928). Yes, Sorcerer's House evidently drew inspiration from He Who Whispers, but most of the plot is entirely original. In some ways, you can even say the plot of Sorcerer's House anticipates Paul Halter's La chambre du fou (The Madman's Room, 1990). So maybe Brad and JJ want to take note of this one.

Long story short, Sorcerer's House is a good, second-string mystery comparable to the more Carr-like mystery novels by John Russell Fearn (e.g. The Five Matchboxes, 1948), but, above all, it's a much appreciated homage to the master with patches of truly great story-telling. So this one has definitely given me a reason to return to Verner in the future.


The Royal Flush Murders (1948) by Gerald Verner

John R.S. Pringle was a veritable one-man factory of crime fiction, who wrote hundreds of novels, short stories and plays, published under a handful of pennames and translated into more than thirty languages, but, upon his passing, his work began to fall into neglect – until the redoubtable Philip Harbottle intervened. Since then, a good chunk of his detective novels, thrillers and short story collections have been reissued by the Linford Mystery Library and Endeavour Media. Such as the interesting locked room novella I reviewed last year, The Beard of the Prophet (1937).

I had planned to return to his work with the promising-sounding The Last Warning (1962), but Harbottle recommended The Royal Flush Murders (1948). A mystery novel with "a very much better locked room murder" than the one from The Last Warning. Well, say no more!

The Royal Flush Murders is the ninth book in the Superintendent Robert Budd series, published as by "Gerald Verner," which has a plot with a distinctly American flavor to it. I can only describe it as S.S. van Dine's The Greene Murder Case (1928) or Ellery Queen's The Tragedy of Y (1932) as perceived by John Russell Fearn (c.f. The Man Who Was Not, 2005).

The Royal Flush Murders begins with Superintendent Robert Budd, of Scotland Yard, looking askance at a newspaper report of a murder with, what he called disparagingly, "story-book stuff," because "murder in real life was usually sordid" – without "sealed doors" or "long lists of suspects." However, the murder at the quaint, old-world village of Long Millford certainly has some very unusual features.

John Brockwell was the youngest son of Mr. Henry Brockwell, despised by everyone, whose body had been found by a forester "impaled to the trunk of a tree with a pitchfork" with the ten of diamonds "pinned to the lapel of the dead man's jacket." Three weeks pass without any arrests being made and the local authorities decide to call in Scotland Yard. And this brings Superintendent Budd to Long Millford.

When he arrives at The Croft, Budd finds a highly dysfunction family. Or, as the locals call them, "a very queer lot." Henry Brockwell is a boorish loudmouth with a short temper and constantly fights with his wife and children, which even can get physical. The two remaining children, James and Sandra, don't like each other very much either. Nor do they appear to mourn the death of their younger brother. They simply yell, fight and throw around accusations in front of the police, but, in the middle of all of this, a letter arrives with the five playing cards of a royal flush in diamonds written on it – a cross was drawn besides the ten of diamonds. The murderer more than delivers on this veiled promise of more bloodshed.

Budd has to look on, often rather hopelessly, as one family member after another gets shot, stabbed and strangled. Only clues the murderer left behind were the playing cards of the unbeatable hand in poker.

The long list of suspects with potential motives, such as revenge, extends all over the village, but Budd also has two other problems to contend with. One of them being the presence of an unpleasant tabloid reporter, Joshua Craven, who's a sour man with "a perpetual grievance against his fellow men" and functions here as a rival detective, but often appeared to act as a lazy plot-device, or deus ex machine, by uncharacteristically dropping clues and hints – which actually turned out to have simple, but decent, answer. A second problem is Budd's direct superior's getting antsy about the lack of progress, bad press and the mounting body count. And they even threaten to take replace him, which would be a black mark on an otherwise impeccable record.

When a fourth murder is committed under completely impossible circumstances, Budd is only given four more days to find the murder or be taken off the investigation completely.

Mrs. Brockwell is shot to death in her bedroom, while Budd was watching the door, and the only window was not only shut, but fastened on the inside and suicide is out of the question, because she could not have shot herself under her shoulder-blade. And there was no weapon found in the room. So how did the murderer escape from the room without being seen? The locked room-trick is modeled around a pretty standard, often used, idea in impossible crime stories, but was put to decent use here. If only as a fairly minor side-puzzle. The only problem with it is that it made it even more obvious who's behind the murders. And this is where the plot becomes quite unfair to the reader.

More than once, Budd hammered on the fact that "the most important thing about these crimes is the motive." If they knew why someone was busy exterminating the whole Brockwell family, they have have their man, but Verner holds these cards close to the chest. So you can figure out who's behind these murders, but the motive remains murky until the end. This made me eye another potential suspect based on, what I assumed was, a very lively clue.

So, yeah, the plot of The Royal Flush Murders didn't exactly gave me the "unbeatable hand" of its namesake, but it was still a really quick and entertaining read with an interesting take on the American-style mansion mysteries – transplanted here to Jolly Ol' England. More importantly, I started to like the plodding Superintendent Budd and ended the book with a line perfectly describing his role in the story, "I'm like Great Britain... I lose all the battles except the last one." I might have found a companion for Fearn in Verner!

Just so you know, I'll return to Verner with my next read, because Sorcerer's House (1956) is supposedly one of his better detective novels and very John Dickson Carr-like. Well, say no more!


Murder Around the World: A Review of Five Short Detective Stories

Exactly a year ago, I reviewed a collection of short stories, The Zanzibar Shirt Mystery and Other Stories (2018) by James Holding, which gathered all ten short stories about two mystery writers, Martin Leroy and King Danforth, who play armchair detectives with their wives during a world cruise – which were originally published between 1960 and 1972 in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Obviously, this series is hugely indebted to Ellery Queen falling somewhere between Queen's International Case Book (1964) and the Puzzle Club stories from Queen's Experiments in Deduction (1968). But with story-title structure of the early international series (e.g. The Greek Coffin Mystery, 1932).

So, I was a little surprise to learn that the man behind Wildside Press, John Gregory Betancourt, penned a brand new "Leroy King" story. You read that correctly. Betancourt wrote a pastiche of a pastiche!

"The Jamaican Ice Mystery" was originally published in Malice Domestic 13: Murder Most Geographical (2018) and reissued earlier this year, in ebook format, as a separate short story, in which Martin Leroy and King Danforth are reappear as two octogenarians – adding another layer of EQ lore to the "Leroy King" series. You see, Dale C. Andrews and Kurt Sercu wrote a superb pastiche, entitled "The Book Case," in which a 100-year-old Ellery Queen solves the murder of a collector of detective novels in 2007. This story is collected in a recent Wildside Press anthology, The Misadventures of Ellery Queen (2018).

The story opens during one of the yearly cruises of Martin Leroy and King Danforth, accompanied by their wives, Carol and Helen, who are enjoying the Caribbean sun on the deck of the Jamaica Queen. There are complaints about how the bartender doesn't know how to mix a gimlet and their disastrous Netflix miniseries. They reminiscence about "the unsettled '60s" and observe that they didn't have "a decent murder to solve in decades." And as on cue, a porter informs them a woman had been murdered and robbed in the suite next to the Danforths.

Obviously, Betancourt was having too much fun with resettling the characters into a contemporary setting, which came at the expense of the plot. They're using smartphones, Google and Twitter, but the plot is paper-thin and the two problems, a poisoning and theft of a necklace, pose no challenge to the reader whatsoever – especially when the borrowed ice bucket is mentioned. So, purely as a detective story, I can't really recommend it, but, if you're a fan of the original series, you might want to pick it up to see how Martin and King are doing.

The second story comes from one of the founding members of the shin honkaku school of detective fiction in Japan, Takemaru Abiko, who debuted last year in English with a translation of Shinsoban 8 no satsujin (The 8 Mansion Murders, 1989). A funny and clever impossible crime novel translated by Ho-Ling Wong and published by John Pugmire's Locked Room International. This time, they ferried a short story across the language barrier with a practically unique detective-character.

The Puppet Deduces from the Kotatsu
Ho-Ling Wong called "Ningyou wa tent de suiri suru" ("The Puppet Deduces in the Tent") quite good as a locked room mystery and deemed it the best of four short stories from Abiko's Ningyou wa kotatsu de suiri suru (The Puppet Deduces from the Kotatsu, 1990). The translation changed the story-title to "A Smart Dummy in the Tent" and can be found in this years double June/July issue of EQMM.

The detective of the story, or to be more precise, the vessel for the detective is a young, shy ventriloquist, Yoshio Tomonaga, whose puppet-character is the more outspoken Mario Marikōji, but this is more than merely a ventriloquist act – because Tomonaga has a split personality. And that other personality expresses itself through the puppet, Mario. Was this series the inspiration for that atrocious anime detective-series, Karakurizōshi ayatsuri Sakon (Doll Puppeteer Sakon)?

"A Smart Dummy in the Tent" takes place on the opening day of carnival, among the colored tents on large vacant lot, where Tomonaga performs in the big circus tent with Mario, but the festivities are canceled when one of the performers is found murdered. Panda Gotanda was a "slapstick magician," like Tommy Cooper, who was found beaten to death in one of the partitioned dressing rooms on the western end of the tent. The entrance to the dressing room was "under observation," until the body was found, while the hemline of the tent fabric is secured to the ground with metal anchor pins. You need a special instrument to pull them out. So this leaves the police with only a single viable suspect, Mutsuki Seno'o, who's a friend of Tomonaga. And one of the few people who know about his split personality. She encourages him to help the police solve the locked-tent murder.

The solution to the locked-tent is excellent and entirely original, which makes you wonder why nobody else came up with it before. My only complaint is the unnecessary final twist in the story's tail, but suppose it fits Abiko's tongue-in-cheek approach. Other than that, "A Smart Dummy in the Tent" is a welcome addition to the steady growing pile of shin honkaku detective stories and novels.

By the way, Abiko made a reference to "the protagonist from that famous comic by the legendary Osamu Tezuka," Jack Black, which must have pleased Ho-Ling to no end.

The next story is Paul Halter's "Le loup de Fenrir" ("The Wolf of Fenrir"), published in the double March/April, 2015, issue of EQMM, which was ranked by JJ as Halter's eighth best short story back in February – placing it above "The Abominable Snowman" and "The Robber's Grave." See, JJ, this is exactly why we had four Anglo-Dutch wars.

"The Wolf of Fenrir" opens in the winter of 1912 in the comfortable flat of Owen Burns, in St. James's Square, where he tells Achilles Stock the story of woman who was attacked and killed by a wolf in France. She was all alone in a cabin, in the wood, which was surrounded by snow and the only prints in the snow belonged to the victim and the animal she believed had been tamed. Naturally, this turns out to be a deviously contrived murder, but the solution turns out to be two very basic locked room-tricks spliced together. So not very impressive. However, the no-footprints scenario is arguably the hardest type of impossibility to plot and even harder to be original. And the rest of the plot was pretty solid.

So, on a whole, "The Wolf of Fenrir" is not a bad detective story, but Halter has written better ones. Some of those stories appeared were ranked lower by JJ.

Luckily, Halter and JJ redeemed themselves with the excellent "Le livre jaune" ("The Yellow Book"), published in the July/August, 2017, issue of EQMM and coming in third on JJ's best-of list of Halter short stories – beaten only by "La nuit du loup" ("The Night of the Wolf") and the unrivaled "La hache" ("The Cleaver"). Seriously, "The Cleaver" is one of the best impossible crime short stories ever written!

"The Yellow Book" takes place during the winter of 1938 in a small village on the outskirts of Verdun, Malenmort, where a group of people meet once or twice a month at the home of Daniel Raskin "to invoke the spirits of the dear departed." When the story opens, the group receives a message from the spirits that one of them has been murdered and they discover "the sacrificial obsidian knife in the glass-fronted bookcase" has been stolen, but nobody at the gathering has been murdered. However, one of the regular members, Captain Marc Santerre, had called earlier in the day to excuse himself. And he lives in "a small, isolated house, less than five minutes' walk" from Raskin's house.

Captain Santerre is found beaten and stabbed to death in "a chalet locked from the inside" and "surrounded by virgin snow," which had been revealed by the spirits, who accused one of the people linking hands at the table. An inexplicable crime, if there ever was one. Luckily, Dr. Alan Twist happens to be in the neighborhood and unravels this tangled skein without leaving his armchair. I love these kind of armchair detective stories!

When the yellow book and mental state of the victim was brought up, I was afraid this was going to be house-of-monkeys-style shenanigans and wanted to tar-and-feather JJ, but the explanation took a decidedly different turn with an excellent variation on a locked room-trick from an earlier Halter novel – which worked even better as a short story. So, yeah, this is without doubt one of Halter's better short stories. Highly recommended!

"The Corpse That Went For a Walk"
Finally, I have a short story from my own country: "Het lijk dat aan de wandel ging" ("The Corpse That Went For a Walk," 2019) by "Anne van Doorn," a penname of M.P.O. Books, who can be credited with having penned one of the best Dutch detective novels, De laatste kans (The Last Chance, 2011).

Several years ago, Books abandoned Inspector Bram Petersen of District Heuvelrug and introduced two new series-characters in 2017, Robbie Corbijn and Lowina de Jong, who are particuliere onderzoekers (private investigators) specialized in cold cases. This series succeeded admirably in marrying the traditional detective story to the modern misdaadroman (crime novel) and littered with impossible crimes. One of my favorite stories is the locked room mystery "Het huis dat ongeluk bracht" ("The House That Brought Bad Luck," 2018). "Het lijk dat aan de wandel ging" is not an impossible crime tale, or even an old-fashioned whodunit, but the setting makes it somewhat of a standout in the series.

Recherchebureau Corbijn – Research & Discover is located on the fifth floor of a residential tower, the Kolos van Cronesteyn, standing on the outskirts of Leiden, South-Holland. One evening, the woman living next door, Lettie Kreft, comes to them with the astonishing story that she found a body of woman, in the hallway of an apartment, on the thirteenth floor. A knife was sticking from her back. The apartment belongs to a sleazy, womanizing artist, Hans Molica, but when they arrive the body has disappeared! So what happened the body, if there was a body? And how do you dispose of a body on one of the top floors of a residential tower?

"The Corpse That Went For a Walk" is a relatively minor story, compared to some of the other entries in the series, but loved the idea of a murder-without-a-body problem with the Kolos van Cronesteyn as a backdrop. So, plot-wise, not one of the top Corbijn and De Jong stories, but still found it to be a good and fun read.

On a final note, I've some good news for all you non-Dutch speaking mystery readers: the very first Corbijn and De Jong short story, "De dichter die zichzelf opsloot" ("The Poet Who Locked Himself In," 2017), has been translated into English and will be published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine – either later this year or sometime in early 2020. Hopefully, this will kick open the door to get Een afgesloten huis (A Sealed House, 2013) and "The House That Brought Bad Luck" translated.


Hardly a Man is Now Alive (1950) by Herbert Brean

Herbert Brean was an American journalist, editor and writer, who wrote the widely acclaimed How to Stop Smoking (1951) and edited The Mystery Writer's Handbook (1956), but the bulk of his work comprises of seven detective novels and ten short stories – published in such magazines as Thrilling Detective and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. These short stories include the elusive impossible crime tales "The Man Who Talked with Spirits" (1951) and "Nine Hours Late On the Opening Run" (1954).

So, while Brean hardly was one of the most prolific mystery writers, he produced one detective novel that garnered somewhat of a reputation among locked room readers.

Wilders Walks Away (1948) was described by Curt Evans as "a fusion of Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr" in his 2014 review and you could described the plot as Queen-style Wrightsville story with a Carr-like plot. A plot concerning a series of seemingly impossible disappearances, stretching across many generations, in a historical, beautifully preserved New England town. Wilders Walks Away is a very well written, ambitious and imaginative debut with all the hallmarks of a classic, but ended in disappointment with an underwhelming solution.

Barry Ergang's wrote in his 2003 review, which alerted me to Brean, he thought he had found in Wilders Walks Away a companion to Carr's The Three Coffins (1935) and Hake Talbot's Rim of the Pit (1944) for "ultimate greatness," but that "degree of feeling didn't sustain itself" – which didn't stop him from "enthusiastically" recommending it. My fellow Carr Cultist, "JJ" of The Invisible Event, had a similar response and even awarded the book four-stars in his 2017 review.

So, in spite of its weak, underwhelming conclusion, Wilders Walks Away remains Brean's most well-known mystery novel, which I find depressing. There are three mysteries from his hands that are superior to Wilders Walks Away.

The Clock Strikes Thirteen (1954) is an excellent detective-cum-thriller set on an isolated island during a potential outbreak of a deadly, weaponized bacteria. The Traces of Brillhart (1960) is an amusing romp about a sleazy musician who appears to be impervious to death, but his true masterpiece is Hardly a Man is Now Alive (1950). A truly Carr-like detective story about a quasi-impossible disappearance, ghostly manifestations and a historical mystery as a sub-plot, but, more importantly, has a solution that delivered on its premise – which is why it deserves the reputation Wilders Walks Away still enjoys. So, I decided to reread the book to see if my high opinion on it has changed. Nope. :)

Hardly a Man is Now Alive is the third novel about Brean's series-detective and freelance photographer, Reynold Frame, which has been published in the UK as Murder Now and Then in 1952. Somehow, that year is listed on some places as the original year of publication, but it's 1950.

The story begins with Reynold Frame and Constance Wilder, who met in the now too often mentioned Wilders Walks Away, driving a battered convertible to the historical town of Concord, Massachusetts, where they plan to get married by Dr. John Annandale – a one-hundred and four years old man who "knew Ralph Waldo Emerson personally." When he was a boy of twelve, he heard from "the lips of a man who was in it," a 98-year-old Ben Tick, the story of the Concord fight in 1775. But their path to the altar is littered with obstacles.

Firstly, when they arrive at the home of Constance's Aunt Kate and Uncle Bowler, circumstances left them with only a single spare bedroom. So they booked him a room with Tom Satterthwaite down the street.

Frame learns that a previous roomers, J.J. Walmsley, who had his room disappeared six weeks ago under peculiar circumstances and left behind a baffling question: how could Walmsley "walk down an uncarpeted stair," carrying a number of traveling bags, and go past "a room in which other people are sitting" without being heard or seen? And then there's the haunting history of the bedroom itself with its ghostly manifestations.

During the Concord fight, a British soldier was mortally wounded and had died in the bedroom of the Satterthwaite house with "a betty lamp" besides him. The lamp mysteriously disappeared as the soldier took his last breath.

On his first night, Frame wakes up to find a small, sardine can-sized metal box on his bureau with a chain, hook and "a sort of sprout from which the wick protruded" – burning wick gave off a fishy smell. Next morning, the whale-oil lamp has disappeared from the room. More than once, the ghostly, disembodied sounds of "an army marching to a fife and drum" can be heard in the room. Brean's handling of these quasi-impossible situations shows he had learned from the mistakes he made in Wilders Walks Away.

The disappearance of Walmsley and the ghosts of the Revolutionary War are simply another layer of an incredibly stacked plot, instead of the focal point, which were properly clued and explained well before the final chapter rolled around. This really helped. I also think it helped that they were presented, not as impossible crimes, but simply as tricky problems and were put to good use. Even when they were already explained and dismissed. For example, in the final lines of chapter 13, Brean briefly rose to the height of Carr when he superbly used "the sound of the British detachment marching." A cliffhanger that would made any writer of magazine and newspaper serials see green with envy. However, this is still only about half of the plot.

Dr. John Annandale tells the first-hand account he heard as a boy of the battle of Concord, which is a "factual account" except for "the incident of the fleeing officer" and "the presence of Job Wilder," presenting the story with a historical mystery from nearly two-hundred years ago – why did the British officer broke and ran? The fleeing officer, Lt. Percy Nightingale, was the same officer who died and haunts the bedroom at the Satterthwaite house. This is another well-done, properly clued plot-thread with a delightfully simplistic solution that has been "staring everyone in the face for almost two centuries." Only reason why nobody noticed it until now is because "the individual bits of knowledge" were divided between several people. And it took an outsider, like Frame, to put them together. I liked it. And there's a second historical plot-thread, tied to one of the present-day mysteries, involving a long-lost secret from two of the luminaries of Concord's rich past. Still, there's more. So much more.

A badly decomposed body of a man is found in an old, disused well behind the Satterthwaite house. Dr. Annandale disappears before the wedding without a trace. A ghost is seen peeking from behind a tree. A spiritualist is very anxious to switch rooms. A séance is held and the missing ghost lamp turns up again.

On the surface, Hardly a Man is Now Alive appears to be an incomprehensibly complex, maze-like detective novel with numerous, interconnecting plot-threads stretching across two centuries, but Brean untangled them with ease and the result is very satisfying – showing how childishly simple everything looked beneath all those layers of obfuscation. Nearly every plot-thread, except for the second historical mystery, were adequately clued or hinted at and the chapters are littered with opening quotes and informative footnotes. Really, the only things missing were one or two floor plans and a challenge to the reader.

Admittedly, all of the individual plot-threads are pretty average by themselves, particular the problem of the murdered man in the well, but, when pulled together, they form a pleasantly busy and satisfying detective story. A detective story you can breeze through in one sitting and not feel like you wasted even a single second. This makes Hardly a Man is Now Alive the mystery novel Brean should be remembered for.


The Opening Night Murders (2019) by James Scott Byrnside

Last year, James Scott Byrnside debuted with an ambitiously plotted, cleverly written historical (locked room) mystery novel, Goodnight Irene (2018), which he dedicated to one of the uncrowned queens of the Golden Age detective story, Christianna Brand – whose influence on Byrnside left a noticeable mark on the plot. Goodnight Irene was deservedly received with much acclaim and enthusiasm.

Surprisingly, in an interview with "JJ," of The Invisible Event, Byrnside revealed he had only been seriously reading classic detective fiction since January, 2017, when he came across an audio-book of A.A. Milne's The Red House Mystery (1922) on YouTube. This makes Goodnight Irene even more remarkable, because the characterization, plotting and writing showed a firm grasp and understanding of the traditional detective story.

I always assumed it took years to discover, develop and fine-tune your taste, which gives you an understanding of the genre as a whole, but Byrnside moved with prodigal speed from listening to Milne's The Red House Mystery to writing a Western equivalent of a Japanese shin honkaku mystery novel – potentially lightening the spark of a second Golden Age. I, on the other hand, can still be genuinely amazed at the sheer volume of detective fiction produced between 1920 and 1960. And the resulting endless procession of obscure, long-forgotten mystery writers who keep clawing to the surface.

So most of us where eagerly looking forward to Byrnside's second impossible crime novel, entitled The Opening Night Murders (2019), which promised to be a detective story along the lines of Brand's superb Death of Jezebel (1948). Well, I was not disappointed.

The Opening Night Murders is set in Chicago, 1935, and begins on a somewhat similar note as Goodnight Irene and Death of Jezebel.

Rowan Manory and Walter Williams are two Chicago-based private-detectives who are essentially Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, but interact with each other more like Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin without them really resembling any of these characters – which makes them descendants, instead of cheap knockoffs, of those famous detectives. Their next intricately-plotted, elusive and puzzling headache of a case is brought to them by "the finest actress in all of Chicago," Lisa Pluviam.

Lisa and Jenny Pluviam are sisters who been in theater, in one form or another, their entire lives. They started in high school, "farted around flops and dives in Chicago for seven years" and studied in New York, which turned Lisa into a proper stage actress and Jenny became a director/playwright. So an unexpected inheritance from their estranged father placed in the position to open The Red Rising Theater and put on their own productions. The Balcony is one of those productions, written and directed by Jenny Pluviam, with Lisa Pluviam as the lead star of this promising play, but Lisa is "a little spooked" when she receives an anonymous death threat. A note had been left in her office, in the theater, promising she'll die on opening night and there's only a window of twenty-four hours in which the note could have been left – only seven people had access to the theater during that time frame. Two of them are Lisa and Jenny Pluviam. The others include four actors, Timothy Brown, Edward Filius, Allison Miller and Maura Lewis, rounded out by the grizzled stage technician, Sam "Grizz" Thompson.

I think the opening chapter excellently showcases Manory's experience and skill as an old, weather-beaten detective as he mines the story presented to them for facts and details, which allows him to make some accurate deductions about the characters and the play – which is always an open invitation to draw comparisons with Sherlock Holmes. However, here it wasn't done in order to dazzle the client or reader with amazing feats of deductions based on a particular type of clay or scratches on a pocket watch. Manory was earnestly probing the problem and this made him come across, in spite of his verbosity, as an honestly intelligent detective.

Lisa convinces Manory to come to the opening of The Balcony to keep an eye on her and act "sort of like a bodyguard," which might convince her would-be-assassin to abandon his, or her, plan. Sadly, this turned out not to be the case.

On the right side of the stage, there's "a twenty-foot-high tower with the two balconies side by side," on which Lisa and Edward's characters meet, but, during her balcony scene, Lisa toppled over the rail and plunged twenty-feet. She landed face first with "a sharp, sickening crack of her neck." Lisa had been all alone on the balcony and there were two-hundred people in the audience to back up that claim, but Manory is convinced one of his six suspect had planned and carried out, what looked like, the perfect murder. And now the story, or rather the plot, becomes a little tricky to discuss.

Years ago, I compared the plot of M.P.O. Books' De laatste kans (The Last Chance, 2011), one of the best Dutch detective novels ever written, to a kaleidoscopic photograph. A plot that initially appears to be a confusion of scattered, seemingly unconnected plot-threads, but, as the story progresses, the lens is slowly turned back into focus – creating a complete and coherent picture of the case. Byrnside has a similar plotting-style except with him there's never any doubt the plot-threads are connected, but the effect is pretty much the same. JJ hit the nail on the head when he called the plot of The Opening Night Murders a "mesmerizing, intoxicating performance."

The hook of The Opening Night Murders isn't simply the excellently positioned and executed impossible crime in front of two-hundred witnesses, but the way in which every single aspect and detail of the story logically dovetailed together in the end. This allowed Byrnside to play around with that beloved plot-device of puzzle-plot enthusiasts, the multiple interpretations/solutions, which is used quite effectively towards the end of the story. Simply amazing!

Once more, I can't give you too many exact details about this intricate, maze-like plot, littered with clues, but the second murder deserves a mention. A murder that's the exact opposite of the carefully planned, coolly executed murder of Lisa Pluviam. The second, gory murder was a frenzied killing carried out with a straight razor and kitchen knife. However, the murderer turned out to have a logical reason to go to town on this victim that you normally only see in Japanese shin honkaku mysteries, in which a dismembered or mutilated body often turns out to be a key-piece of the puzzle. Byrnside truly is a neo-orthodox mystery writer!

The Opening Night Murders is not simply a detective of cold, hard logic, but one that becomes very close and personal for the two detectives, which results in an unforgettable ending. Granted, I have read similar kind of endings in detective stories, but not quite like this one!

So, where the characters, plot and story-telling is concerned, I have practically nothing to nitpick about, except that the colorful vernacular of the characters seem very modern at times, but I have a piece of advice for Byrnside. Don't become a one-man tribute band by leaning too heavily on Brand as a foundation for your stories, because it's going to take away from your own ideas in the long run. Instead, you should follow the example of Paul Halter, a disciple of John Dickson Carr, who emerged from his idol's shadow to carve out a legacy of his own as a modern master of the locked room mystery. You can do it!

The Opening Night Murders has rich story-telling that logically navigates a beautifully designed, labyrinthine-like plot to its inevitable conclusion and hopefully a sign from the Gods (Poe, Doyle and Chesterton) that a second Golden Age is on the horizon. I'm eagerly looking forward to the third entry in the series, The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire (2020), which is a prequel and will be released next summer. I'm kind of curious to see how exactly R. Francis Foster's Something Wrong at Chillery (1931) has influenced the interaction between Manory and Williams (see comment-section).

On a final, semi-related note: I crammed this review in between my planned ones (still more than a month ahead of schedule) and this came at the expense of yesterday's review of The Doll Island Murder Case from the Kindaichi series. So, if you missed that blog-post, it's there.