The Back-Seat Murder (1931) by Herman Landon

Herman Landon was a Swedish-born American writer best remembered for his pulp stories and novels about a reformed arch-criminal, "The Gray Phantom," but how did the obscure, largely forgotten Landon appear on my radar – since he was even omitted from the GADWiki. Well, Robert Adey listed two of his regular mystery novels in Locked Room Murders (1991). I know, I know. You're stunned with surprise.

The two impossible crime novels listed in Locked Room Murders are the plainly-titled Mystery Mansion (1928) and the more intriguing-sounding Three Brass Elephants (1930), alternatively published as Whispering Shadows, which concerns the disappearance of "a red-and-black room that had contained a body." I haven't tracked down either of these titles yet, but I did stumble across another one of Landon's locked room mysteries. One that was entirely overlooked by Adey!

The Back-Seat Murder (1931) immediately plunges the reader in the middle of a dark, murky and ominous plot that begins in the cellar of Peekacre. The country home of a well-to-do businessman, Christopher Marsh.

Leonard Harrington is the private secretary of Christopher Marsh and, "a little after two o'clock in the morning," is raking an ash pile in the cellar, but he's caught in the act by the live-in nurse of Mrs. Marsh, Theresa Lanyard – who asks him a startling question. She asks him if he thinks the cellar is "the place where David Mooreland was murdered." Seven months before, Mooreland disappeared before he could "lay certain unpleasant facts before the authorities" that would probably have resulted in a lengthy prison term for Marsh. Mooreland had visited Peekacre on the day of his disappearance, but the house was searched and not a trace was found.

So the pseudo-private secretary believes Marsh has destroyed the body to the best of his ability, but had "failed to realize that even in a raging fire a body can't be completely obliterated." Harrington has found a gold tooth in the ash pile that already been identified. Who are Harrington and Lanyard? What links them to the missing and presumably dead Mooreland?

All these questions remain unanswered, for the time being, but they decide to work together to prove Marsh has murdered Mooreland to save his own neck. And here the plot begins to thicken considerably.

On the following morning, Marsh dictates a letter addressed to the attorney prosecutor of the county, James C. Whittaker, but the content is unsettling to Harrison. Marsh brazenly accuses the newly-minted partners in crime, Harrington and Lanyard, of plotting his murder and the former is ordered to deliver the incriminating letter, in person, to Whittaker – which is when two utterly impossible situations follow each other in short succession. The first impossibility occurs when Harrington has been driving for forty-five minutes and glances in the rear-view mirror to see "the course, crafty and malevolent countenance of Christopher Marsh" in the back-seat.

Harrington had been going between thirty-five and forty miles an hour. He was the sole occupant of the car, which is confirmed by the garage owner who changed the car-battery after he left Peekacre, but somehow, Marsh had miraculously appeared in the back-seat of the car! An impossibility very reminiscent of Edward D. Hoch's "The Theft of the Bermuda Penny," collected in The Thefts of Nick Velvet (1978), but in that short story someone disappeared from the back-seat of a car going seventy miles an hour.

Marsh has a gun and tells Harrington to drive to an old, abandoned mountain top hotel, where he plans to dispose of him, but, when they arrive, Marsh is murdered in the back-seat – stabbed in the neck while Harrington was looking him in the eyes! They were the sole occupants of the car. Three of the four doors were locked and the fourth door, unlocked, was on the right side of the driver, but no mere mortal could pull off "a murder in such stealthy fashion" without being seen by Harrington. The windows were closed and there were no footprints in the soggy dirt road surrounding the car.

A solid premise with an intriguing, double-barreled impossible situation, but Landon was unquestionably a second-string mystery writer and The Back-Seat Murder reads like a cheap dime novel.

There a number of shady and sinister personalities moving in-and out of the story. Such as the scrawny blackmailer, Samuel B. Tarkin. After Marsh is murdered, Harrinton finds Lanyard in the abandoned hotel with strange man, Harry Stoddard, who calls her "a lying, cheating, two-faced, double-crossing crook." The elderly and obliging Martin Carmody had lent his car and chauffeur to Lanyard on her "mysterious mission" to the hotel. Rounding out the list of suspects is the dangerous, thickset Roscoe Carstairs.

They're all unconvincingly-drawn, paper thin stock-characters who are annoying secretive about their motivations and act only in service of the plot, which makes it appear only the murderer acted semi-logical throughout the story – because this character actually had a reason to act like that. But, on a whole, the characterization is very poor.

However, there's a good, undeveloped pulp-style short impossible crime story buried in The Back-Seat Murder. The attorney prosecutor, Whittaker, acts as the primary detective of the story, but a chunk of the credit for the work has to go to a county policeman, Storm, who has "the right kind of brains for this sort of job." Admittedly, they did a fine job in selling the impossibilities as they go over all the possibilities and this convinced me the solutions were either going to be good or pretty bad. Luckily, they were more good than bad.

The solution to the seemingly impossible appearance of Marsh in the back-seat of a speeding car was something you would expect from a locked room yarn by Hoch. I assumed Marsh had simply emerged from the empty space under the back-seat, but this was a pleasant surprised. The second impossibility, stabbing in a locked car with an innocent eye-witness, is rooted in the traditions of the pulpiest of impossible crimes (c.f. John Russell Fearn's Account Settled, 1949) and certainly is an original, one-of-a-kind trick, but a lack of clues made it hard to swallow. However, Landon made a sporting attempt to produce a fairly clued, last-minute surprise, but one of the chapter-titles in the table of content ruined that party. So avoid it like its Julian Symons.

I don't remember who of you said that a case can be made that good ideas should be taken away from bad writers, but The Back-Seat Murder should be entered as Exhibit A. The impossible situations in the locked car were original and genuinely baffling, which were actually played to good effect, but Landon simply was not good enough to fully deliver on them. So you'll end up with a mixed, poorly written bag of tricks.

Still... I didn't entirely disliked it. Yes, this mainly has to do with the originality of the two impossible crimes. Landon was a second-string (perhaps even third-string) writer of pulp stories and dime novels, but appeared to have contributed some interesting and original titles to the locked room library. So you can expect me to return to Landon at some point in the future, because I'm an unrepentent locked room fanboy.


Lion's Den: "Circus in the Sky" (2000) by Edward D. Hoch

Back in March, I reviewed a short parody story by Jon L. Breen, entitled "The Problem of the Vanishing Town" (1979), which satirized one of Edward D. Hoch's most popular and unforgettable series-characters, Dr. Sam Hawthorne – a country physician who's a magnet for seemingly impossible crimes. Breen littered his parody with passing references to unrecorded locked room problems that have taken place in the small New England town of Northsouth.

One of these references was to the inexplicable murder of a circus clown, who was mauled to death by "a lion on the fifth floor of the Northsouth Hotel," but "the lion was in his cage five blocks away." The idea behind these references was to describe a situation so utterly impossible that "no one could possibly solve it rationally." Twenty years later, Hoch found a solution to the problem and worked it into a short story.

"Circus in the Sky" was originally published in the anthology Scenes of Crimes (2000) and reprinted in the June, 2001, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

The story is narrated by a computer programmer in his mid-twenties, whose name we never learn, working for a month in an unfamiliar city far from his home office and decides to kill a boring evening by going to circus – which no longer played "in big tops set up along the railroad tracks in cities like Omaha and Des Moines." A big circus were now arena events competing rock stars, ice shows and professional wrestling for the best dates.

After the show ended, the narrator goes to a late-night restaurant to have a drink and strikes up a conversation with the female lion tamer the Breen Brothers Circus, Mimi Gothery, whose stage-name is "Carpathia." They're interrupted by two policemen who request they accompany them to the seventeenth floor of the office building across the street. The body of a lawyer, Richard Strong, had been found in his high-rise office with his face and suit "shredded by bloody claw marks" as if "a lion had appeared from nowhere," lashed out violently, "and then vanished."

Richard Strong was "one of the business acting as clowns" at that night's performance, which is done for charitable or promotional reasons, but, during the lion tamer's act, he attempted to push some flowers on Carpathia. And he was brushed aside. However, the narrator is her alibi and the physical evidence is on her side, but it makes the murder look even more impossible than it already did.

The police matched the claw marks on the body with the paw of one of Carpathia's lions, Gus, but nobody believes she walked around that night with "a lion on a leash" and there are two witnesses, circus owner and a stable boy, who swear Gus was in his locked cage after his performance – either one or the other was around the lion's cage the entire night. So nobody could have taken him out of the cage to commit a murder in a very dangerous and roundabout way.

Breen has admitted he has no earthly idea how to explain the miracle problem he had posed in "The Problem of the Vanishing Town," but Hoch explained the conundrum of the invisible lion with a devilish ease with all clues you need to figure it out yourself (I did!). More importantly, the simple, down-to-earth explanation didn't fell flat coming on the tail-end of such a fantastical premise. You can almost describe "Circus in the Sky" as a Clayton Rawson impossible crime story ("Claws of Satan," 1940) as perceived by John Dickson Carr (The Unicorn Murders, 1935). And the fact that the central puzzle started out as a throw-away joke in a parody of Hoch added another layer to the overall story.

So, all in all, Hoch's "Circus in the Sky" is another one of those impossible crime stories baffling absent from any of the locked room-themed anthologies published during the last two decades, but anthologists should keep it in mind for potential future anthologies. This short story is vintage Hoch and shows why he was the flesh-and-blood incarnation of the American detective story (after Ellery Queen, of course). Highly recommended!


Zaregoto: The Kubishime Romanticist (2002) by NisiOisiN

Back in January, I reviewed Zaregoto series: kubikiri saikuru (Zaregoto, Book 1: The Kubikiri Cycle, 2002) by the palindromic "NisiOisiN," the open, stylized penname of Nisio Isin, who produced nine so-called "Light Novels" (Young Adult) in the fanciful, off-beat Zaregoto series – complete with manga artwork depicting the various characters from the stories. The Kubikiri Cycle is a traditionally-structured mystery novel centering on a group of people stuck on an island with someone who has a talent for murder. There are even two impossible crimes and the solution to the murder in the locked storage room is a paragon of the locked room story!

Zaregoto series: kubishime romanchisuto (Zaregoto, Book 2: The Kubishime Romanticist, 2002) is the followup to The Kubikiri Cycle and takes place a mere month after the murders on Wet Crow's Feather Island, but the plot is markedly less conventional.

The nameless narrator of the series is an apathetic 19-year-old university student, nicknamed Ii-chan, who considers himself "a broken thing" and developed a "go-with-the-flow type" of personality in order to avoid any kind of conflict or disagreement – someone who really prefers to be "a passive bystander." So he often downplays his own abilities and say whatever it takes to keep things as uncomplicated as possible, which also makes him an unreliable narrator. But a compelling one at that.

The Kubishime Romanticist opens in one of the practically deserted dining halls of Rokumeikan Private University. Ii-chan is grappling with his bowl of kimchee when a classmate, Aoii Mikoko, plops down in front of him, but he's pretty bad at even remembering personal encounters with people and is afraid "this might prove to be a painful encounter." And he's not entirely wrong.

Ii-chan and Mikoko-chan not only take the same core subjects, but they were in the same foreign language classes, who had been paired up in English class, which meant they had met and talked a number of time – only he couldn't remember her at all. Mikoko-chan is not difficult to remember, because she the hyper personality of child addicted to pixie sticks. She invites Ii-chan to a small, intimate birthday party of another one of their classmates, Emoto Tomoe, together with two of their fellow students, Atemiya Muimi and Usami Akiharu. All four of them are long-time friends. Naturally, Ii-chan doesn't remember anyone of them and doesn't want to intrude, because "a fifth person would throw off the balance," but his don't-rock-the-boat attitude makes him accept the invitation.

So why would a close, intimate circle of friends invite a solitary, anti-social outsider, like Ii-chan, to a birthday party? Obviously, Mikoko-chan likes Ii-chan, but he misses all the cues. Or did he? You can never be exactly sure with him.

Anyway, the birthday party, small as it was, can be considered a success, but the following morning, he finds two police-detectives of the Kyoto Police First Investigative on his doorstep. Emoto Tomoe had been murdered after the party ended and her four classmates are the prime suspects, but all four appeared to lack a proper motive and they all have alibis, of which the strongest is the double alibi of Ii-chan and Mikoko-chan – who returned to his apartment and the neighbor vouched for them. So who murdered the student mere hours after her twentieth birthday?

If you haven't read The Kubishime Romanticist, you would probably assume from all of this that the book is a fairly conventionally-structured detective novel, but the murder is not the focal point of the story. Ii-chan and his interactions with the other characters in the story are the focal point. And that brings us to one of the more unusual characters he interacts with.

Kyoto is plagued by a serial killer, christened "The Prowler," who has murdered and dismembered six random people when the story opened, adding six more to his body count before the end, but these killings are largely irrelevant to the plot. However, what's important is that Ii-chan has an unexpected encounter with this elusive serial killer, Zerozaki Hitoshiki. Ii-chan and Zerozaki turn out to be "the same breed," like "mirror reflections of one another," but with the difference that one of them is a passive bystander and the other an active serial killer – which gives them something to talk about. They even have a philosophical conversation in a karaoke bar, of all places, about their damaged personalities and the murders.

So here we have a protagonist, in what's still essentially a mystery novel, musing philosophically with a murderer about life, death and his crimes. Something I have always associated with the psychological crime stories and police procedural from continental Europe. This is something you would expect from a German krimi-series, such as Derrick, or Tim Krabbé's overrated novella Het gouden ei (The Golden Egg, 1984). But not from a zany, manga-esque Japanese light novel populated with quirky, anime-like characters.

Nosing around when "one of his classmates is murdered" and maintaining "friendly relations with serial killers" brings Aikawa Jun back in his life. Aikawa Jun is known as mankind's greatest private contractor, a jack-of-all-trade, who turned her hands to "walking dogs, solving locked-room murder mysteries or catching mass murderers." As long as there's buck to be earned, she would take the job. And what she wanted was The Prowler.

The Kubishime Romanticist is, plot-wise, a step down from the brilliant, traditionally-structured The Kubikiri Cycle, but the plot-threads surrounding the murdered university students was still pretty solid with a good alibi-trick and a nice play on the least-likely-suspect. I found one aspect of the second, quasi-locked room murder a little hard to swallow, which, considering the solution, could have been easily remedied. However, the plot stuck nicely together for a somewhat unconventional, character-focused mystery novel. And I really liked it. I'm also becoming fond of that cold, hardhearted narrator and would like to read more, if more of them get translated.

Well, here's where I can end this review with some good news about the Zaregoto series. The Kubikiri Cycle and The Kubishime Romanticist were originally translated and published by the now defunct Dey Rey, but Vertical has revised and reissued them under slightly altered book-titles, Decapitation: Kubikiri Cycle and Strangulations: Kubishime Romanticist. Vertical is continuing the series with a brand new translation of the third book, Zaregoto series: kubitsuri high school (Zaregoto series, Book 3: Hanging High School, 2002), which is scheduled for release on September 24, 2019! So I will try to get to Hanging High School before the end of the year.


Spitting Image: "The Lithuanian Eraser Mystery" (1969) by Jon L. Breen

Some months ago, I reviewed two short stories by Jon L. Breen, "The House of the Shrill Whispers" (1972) and "The Problem of the Vanishing Town" (1979), which are gentle, but expertly done, parodies of John Dickson Carr's Dr. Gideon Fell and Edward D. Hoch's Dr. Sam Hawthorne – two iconic detective-characters who are inextricably linked to the timeless locked room mystery. Breen is the genre's resident satirist and has taken the mickey out of many of the greatest mystery writers.

Frederick Dannay was one half of the bodily incarnation of the American detective story, "Ellery Queen," who invited Breen to take a shot at the Ellery Queen character. The result is a parody hearkening back to "the early Ellery of the pure-puzzle days." Naturally, there's a dying message and a challenge to the reader.

"The Lithuanian Eraser Mystery" was originally published in the March, 1969, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and reprinted in the anthology Ellery Queen's Eyes of Mystery (1981).

E. Larry Cune is a world famous detective and "The Lithuanian Eraser Mystery" takes him back to "the scene of his first great triumph," Greek Theatre, where he solved the murder of an asthmatic audience member, Mr. Anagopolous – a case commonly known as The Greek Coughin' Mystery. There are many more of these sly nods and winks in the story to EQ ("this is a calamity, Towne").

Orson Coward's new musical comedy, Gold, is debuting at the Greek Theatre and Cune is in the audience, but realizes that his mere presence put "the fear of sudden death in all those around him." The great detective hasn't attended a play or party without having "to solve a murder at some time during the festivities," because potential murderers are champing at the bit "to match wits with him." By the way, this "match wits" line also appears in the challenge to the reader. So is this story where the 1975 Ellery Queen TV-series got the idea for the famous "match wits with Ellery Queen" line? I don't remember it ever being used in any of the novels or short stories. Anyway...

Something is definitely happening, or has happened, backstage. When the show begins, the songs are out-of-order and during the intermission, Cune is told that Coward has been murdered. A weighty volume, entitled The Complete Wit of Orson Coward, appears to have been the murder weapon.

Cune deduces Coward expected to be murdered, but, when he saw Cune sitting in the audience, he knew it was going to be that night and left him a clue to help him identify his murderer, which Coward did by rearranging the songs – a predying message, if you will. Usually, in a detective parody, the answers to these kind of problems are nonsensical (e.g. "The Problem of the Vanishing Town") or disappointing, but the predying message can (sort of) be solved. I think the key to the meaning of the first, out-of-order song, "Never Been Kissed," is a bit more nebulous than "Alone in My Solitude" and "I Know the Score Now." However, if you get those last two, you can probably guess the answer to the first. And certainly pick the murderer's name from the cast of characters.

What has the Lithuanian eraser of the story-title to do with this theatrical mystery? Well, that's the punchline of the story. Something you have to read for yourself.

All in all, "The Lithuanian Eraser Mystery" is another excellent parody by Breen, who understands the writers he's lampooning, which is what makes them work and this time it even has a clever take on the dying message, but, more importantly, it was funny. My favorite scene is perhaps when Cune walked on stage to tell the audience there has been an unfortunate accident and immediately "men with black bags began making their way to the aisles all over the massive playhouse" (no, we don't need doctors, he's quite dead). This story should have made it into The Misadventures of Ellery Queen (2018). Definitely recommended, especially if you like Ellery Queen. Or simply in the mood for something light hearted and short.


The Case with Nine Solutions (1928) by J.J. Connington

"J.J. Connington" was the pseudonym of Professor Alfred W. Stuart, a Scottish chemist and lecturer, who produced close to thirty mystery novels over a twenty year period with his series-detective, Sir Clinton Driffield, starring in seventeen of them – fulfilling the role of Chief Constable of a fictitious county. The books garnered critical acclaim from such luminaries as Jacques Barzun and T.S. Eliot. John Dickson Carr praised Connington in his famous 1963 essay "The Grandest Game in the World" (collected in The Door to Doom and Other Detections, 1980).

I had read only two of his mystery novels, Murder in the Maze (1927) and Jack-in-the-Box (1944), which bristled with promise, ingenuity and originality. But my third read in this sadly neglected series turned out to be a minor masterpiece.

The alluringly titled The Case with Nine Solutions (1928) is Connington's sixth detective novel, but only the third title in the Sir Clinton Driffield series. Nonetheless, Sir Clinton here's at the top of his game as he delves into a bizarre, quadruple murder case to which there are nine possible solutions. So let's dig in!

The Case with Nine Solutions opens with Dr. Ringwood, who's working locum for the sickly Dr. Carew, but a localized flu epidemic has prevented him from having as much as two hours of continuous sleep – concluding that "general practice is a dog's life." So an unexpected social call from a colleague, Dr. Trevor Markfield of the Croft-Thornton Research Institute, is a welcome distraction from his workload. Until the "stifled malediction" of the telephone bell summons him to the home of Dr. Silverdale.

However, the town of Westerhaven is draped in a thick fog and Dr. Ringwood, who's new to the place, has no idea how to find the place.

Dr. Markfield kindly offers to shepherd Dr. Ringwood to the Silverdale home and they tailgate through the dense fog, but, in spite of his guide, Dr. Ringwood enters the wrong house and makes a terrible discovery. A fair-haired young man lying mortally wounded on a chesterfield in the smoking-room. He has two bullet wounds and the last thing Dr. Ringwood hears him mutter is "...caught me... pistol... shot... thought it was... all right... never guessed." Dr. Ringwood immediately notifies Sir Clinton and then attends to one of the sick maids next door, but when he returns to Silverdale home with Sir Clinton, they find the body of the maid who had admitted the doctor to the house on his earlier visit. She had been strangled "pretty efficiently" with a homemade garroter.

The dead man is identified as Edward Hassendean, "the cub who was hanging round the skirts of Silverdale's wife," Yvonne, who kept the hopeful young man "on her string for her own amusement," but don't waste your sympathies on young Hassendean – because Sir Clinton's excellent detective work reveals he got his just desserts. In any case, this double murder already looks like it's going to be a lot of trouble, but then Sir Clinton receives an anonymously send telegram (signed "Justice"). The message brings them to an empty bungalow where they find the body of Mrs. Silverdale sitting in a big arm-chair with a bullet wound in her head and an automatic pistol lying at her feet. However, the cause of death is hyoscine poisoning!

As noted above, Sir Clinton is in superb form here and makes some excellent deductions leading to the conclusion that the bungalow was the primary stage of two of the three murders. A conclusion that somehow makes the case both simpler and more complicated at the same time.

Sir Clinton tells Inspector Flamborough that "deaths by violence fall under three heads:" accident, suicide and homicide, which includes murder. There were two violent deaths at the bungalow and "in each case the death must have been due to one or other of these three causes." If you take one or two of these three possible ways as the cause of Hassendean and Mrs. Silverdale's deaths, there are "nine different arrangements" (see table). You shouldn't read The Case with Nine Solutions expecting to find something along the lines of E.C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case (1913), Anthony Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) or Ellery Queen's The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932), because the titular solutions are understandably nothing more than possibilities – although a detective novel with eight false solutions would have been amazing! Nevertheless, Sir Clinton competently distills the truth from these nine possibilities by being observant enough to spot the differences between the real and manufactured clues.

The Nine Possibilities
The Case with Nine Solution has a truly brilliant plot unhampered by the narrow "circle of inquiry," which comprises of only two or three viable suspects, but, even if you spot the murderer, you're still left with explaining what exactly transpired. An apparently incomprehensible sequence of events that turned out to have an ultimately simple explanation effortlessly reconstructed by Sir Clinton. And this is topped by the final chapter, "Excerpts from Sir Clinton's Notebook," which shows you all the clues you might have missed. Why have I been neglecting Connington for so long?

Patrick Ohl, of the still dormant At the Scene of the Crime, observed in his 2011 review that you can see some of Connington's influence in Carr's work, "particularly the impressive reconstructions of Dr. Gideon Fell," but The Case with Nine Solutions brought the bewildering crime from Carr's The Four False Weapons (1937). If I remember correctly, there's some passing plot-resemblance between them. 

Equally interesting, Connington also seems to have left his mark on the work of another personal favorite of mine, Christopher Bush, whose The Case of the Tudor Queen (1938) was very likely inspired by The Case with Nine Solutions. The Case of the Tudor Queen also concerns a double death in an empty house, which could have been either murder, suicide or a combination of the two. And in both stories, the female victims are found poisoned, sitting in a chair, in an empty room. Not to mention Bush's fondness of these confusing, closely-concurring multiple murders during his early days as a mystery writer (e.g. Dead Man Twice, 1930).

So, a long story short, The Case with Nine Solutions proved to be an cleverly structured, fairly clued and solid plotted detective novel with a simple, but satisfying, solution to a confusing and seemingly inexplicable string of murders – which makes it a minor classic. On top of that, it appears to have influenced two of my favorite mystery writers. You can expect this book to make an appearance on my best-of list of 2019 and I won't wait until 2020 to return to Connington, but my next stop is going to be one of those delightful Japanese locked room mysteries. So stay tuned!


The Gates of Hell (2003) by Paul Doherty

Last year, I tackled the first two parts of Paul Doherty's historical "Telamon Triology," The House of Death (2001) and The Godless Man (2002), which takes place in 334 BC and follows the tribulations of a talented young physician, Telamon – who's the trusted confident of his boyhood friend, Alexander the Great. Alexander and Telamon were raised together, as boys, "in the Grove of Mieza at Aristotle's academy," but Alexander's god-like aspirations ensures an endless supply of challenges for the level-headed physician.

The red-thread running through this trilogy is the escalating war activities between Macedon and the sprawling Persian Empire of Darius III.

Alexander has captured or sacked city after city and has crossed into Asia, but Darius III and his menacing spy, Lord Mithra, have been plotting his downfall and even enlisted a Greek mercenary, Menno of Rhodes. One of the few generals to have defeated Macedonian troops in battle. Persian assassins and spies have been active in Macedonian army camps (The House of Death) and captured cities (The Godless Man), which resulted in a bloody trail of revenge, intrigue and miraculous murders dragged across Alexander's marching route "to the edge of the world" – solved by the agile mind of Telamon. Lion of Macedon was now poised to take "the great prize."

The Gates of Hell (2003) is the final book of the "Telamon Triology" and Alexander has set his sight on the city of Halicarnassus with its deep harbor on the Aegean. If the city falls, every sea port on the Aegean will be Alexander. Something that's easier said than done.

Halicarnassus is well fortified with "towers, walls and citadels" with its southern line "protected by the sea and the Persian navy." A moat has been dug around the city "twenty-five feet broad and very deep," which Alexander has to cross before he can attack the walls, but the conditions outside the walls are extremely unfavorable to an invading army and it's "almost impossible to mine underneath" – making the city practically unconquerable without an Archilles' Heel. Well, if a legend is to be believed, there's a weak spot in the city's defensive bulwark.

Pythias was a sour, embittered, but brilliant, mathematician who claimed King Pixadorus, of Halicarnassus, had "cheated him out of certain treasure," but Pixadorus dismissed these accusations as nonsense. After a while, the king grew tired of accusations and threatened to seize Pythias' wealth. So he fled the city, but left behind a cipher, known as the Pythian Manuscript, which revealed both where the treasure was hidden and "an intrinsic flaw" in one section of the city wall. A "terrible weakness" any besieger could exploit. Alexander is in possession of the cipher!

Pamenes is a skillful scribe "versed in translating secret codes and ciphers," who's one of scholars laboring on deciphering the Pythian Manuscripy, but he has not emerged from his room. A room known as the Ghost Chamber with creaking floorboards that has inspired ghost stories, but sadly, nothing is done with the room. Anyway, the creaking floorboards is how people in the room below heard the scribe pacing up and down. However, the door remained bolted and there's no answer to the knocking. So the door is battered down and the body of Pamenes is found on the pavement outside, under the open window, with bird seed scattered around him, which suggests an accidental fall, but Telamon suspects foul play – begging the question how a murderer was able to enter or leave a locked room. This is not the only (quasi) impossible situation in the story.

Alexander and Telamon believe there's a spy in their camp who, somehow, has found a way to dispatch incredibly detailed messages with "a richness of information" into the besieged city. The messages must have been incredibly detailed that it's very unlikely, if not impossible, someone shot an arrow with a message attached to it over the city wall.

Doherty has never been squeamish about padding the body count of his stories and The Gates of Hell is no exception.

A cook and his daughter are poisoned. A Cretan archer is murdered a mile from Alexander's camp and the murderer took his bow and arrows. A woman is found strangled to death in the Ghost Chamber, which appeared in the room after it had been searched. This all takes place against the bloody siege of Halicarnassus. Needlessly to say, this really pads the body count of the book and that's not even counting a number of executions.

So this makes for a very eventful and exciting story full with epic battles, spy activities, ciphers and bloodshed, but Doherty is at his best when seamlessly intertwines historical events with the detective story and The Gates of Hell fell a little short of the mark – because there was only one plot-thread that delivered. The method the spy used to dispatch detailed information to the besieged city was beautifully simple. And neatly linked to the cipher. I suppose the cipher could be a good second, if the average reader actually stood a chance at solving it.

However, the solution to the locked room murder of Pamenes was disappointing. I would have been happy with something half as clever as the impossible fall from the locked tower room in A Murder in Thebes (1998), but this locked room-trick was uninspired. It didn't help that the clueing was sparse and the main culprit stood out like a sore thumb.

The Gates of Hell is strong on historical content and a fine example of Doherty's talent to write mystery novels as historical epics, brimming with historical battles, events and figures, but this time with a very middling plot – ending the Telamon Triology on a weak note. So not one of Doherty's most successful historical mysteries.


The Case of the Fourth Detective (1951) by Christopher Bush

The Case of the Fourth Detective (1951) is the thirty-ninth mystery novel about Christopher Bush's intelligent and urbane series-detective, Ludovic Travers, who started out as a bespectacled meddler with amateur status, but has slowly transitioned into a genteel private-investigator with a license – a change influenced by the American school of hardboiled crime fiction. A change that began with a shift to first-person narration (The Case of the Kidnapped Colonel, 1942) and was completed with Travers becoming the owner of the Broad Street Detective Agency.

Reprinted by Dean Street Press
Travers came into his new position when the previous owner of the agency, Bill Ellice, unexpected died from a heart attack.

The Case of the Fourth Detective begins when a prospective client, Owen Ramplock, calls the agency and his call is taken by a former Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard, Jack Norris. Ramplock is interrupted and Norris hears him say, "Prince... what the devil are you doing here?" Several months before, Travers had met Ramplock on the golf course and decides to go Warbeck Grove, a block of palatial flats, but when he arrives, he finds Ramplock lying on the floor of Flat 5 – "deader than last year's hit-song." A visiting card of Mr. A.W. Prince is found in the pocket of the body with a bold warning printed on the back, "You'll Be Sorry."

Owen Ramplock is the second generation chairman of Ramplocks, a chain of thirty-four provision shops, which he inherited from his late father, Old Sam Ramplock. However, his son proved to be a poor replacement.

Ramplock could be charming in his "own peculiar way," but being head of Ramplocks had inflated his ego and has become "impatient of advice" and "contemptuous of protests." And his personal life was not exactly spotless either. So they have to unsnarl a tangle of personal and private motives to get to the murderer. There's no shortage of suspects.

There's the evasive Mr. A.W. Prince and his equally elusive motive. A mysterious black-haired woman who appeared to have Ramplock's secret lover and regularly visited his private flat, but nobody seems to know who she is. There's his estranged wife, Jane Ramplock, who first refused to divorce him and than flat-out refused to take him back, because someone can hurt "a person even quite a lot" and "then they do just something else" – at once "everything's changed." She refuses to tell Travers what has changed. The last potential suspect on the home front is Jane's delightful uncle, Matthew Solversen, may well have been modeled on E.R. Punshon (see Curt Evans introduction).

On the "Big Business" side of the murder, there are the people working at Ramplocks: Henry Dale (manager director), Charles Downe (chief accountant), Miss Susan Haregood (secretary), Richard Winter (sales) and the company typist, Daisy Purkes. None of them were too happy with Owen Ramplock succeeding his father.

Essentially, The Case of the Fourth Detective is a relatively simple, uncomplicated and straightforward detective story. You have a body surrounded by a group of suspects with motives and those pesky alibis, which are either watertight, incomplete or non-existent. Answers to all the questions posed here perfectly demonstrates Bush had moved on from those elaborate, intricate Golden Age baroque-style plots of the thirties with precise, minutely-timed alibis (e.g. Cut Throat, 1932) and even the occasional impossible crime – e.g. The Perfect Murder Case (1929) and The Case of the Chinese Gong (1935). However, the solution here was uncomplicated simple and can even be called it slightly uninspired. Even the alibi-trick was child's play compared to the earlier titles in the series.

However, The Case of the Fourth Detective is, in spite of its simplistic plot, not too bad a mystery novel, but one that mainly draws its strength from its depiction and use of the post-war malaise in Britain. A country where food rationing continued until July, 1954!

Ramplocks is plagued by shortages, war damage claims, rising overheads, labor troubles and "the devil knows what." Not to mention "the ravishing inheritance tax" (a.k.a. death duties). Old Sam had "enough salted" to pay for the inheritance tax when he passed away, but, with the murder of Owen Ramplock, they once again have to cough up those death duties. And scramble to find a way to raise the money. Two solutions that are constantly mentioned is either selling out or selling shares publicly to cover the cost, which would turn the family company into a public one and is fate shared by many companies – such as the "remarkable newsstand and bookstall empire," W.H. Smith and Son. This casts a gloomy, somber and even depressing shadow over the story. Something you can find in other British mysteries from this period. Cyril Hare's When the Wind Blows (1949) and Leo Bruce's Cold Blood (1952) immediately come to mind.

So, all in all, the plot of The Case of the Fourth Detective is a little simple when compared to the earlier entries in the series, but the financial and social upheaval of post-WWII Britain offers a fascinating backdrop, to say the least. As was how these changes affected the murder of Owen Ramplock. However, if you're new to the series, I advice you to begin at an earlier point in the series, because this one will only be appreciated by seasoned Bush readers.