The Night of Fear (1931) by Moray Dalton

Back in March, Dean Street Press reissued a handful of long out-of-print detective novels by the elusive "Moray Dalton," a penname of Katherine M. Renoir, who wrote close to thirty detective novels branded by resident genre-historian, Curt Evans, as "one of the more significant bodies of work by a Golden Age mystery writer" – which remained accessible "almost solely to connoisseurs with deep pockets" for decades. The Strange Case of Harriet Hall (1936) was recommended by Evans as "one of the finest detective novels" of the period.

I politely disagreed with Evans on The Strange Case of Harriet Hall, but he commented that The Night of Fear (1931) or Death in the Cup (1932) were probably more to my taste.

So, with the final quarter of the year in front of us, I decided to go with Dalton's take on the traditional, Christmas-themed country house mystery. A note for the curious: this review was written in late June.

The Night of Fear opens with a telephone call to Sergeant Lane, of the Parminster constabulary, summoning him to the home of George Tunbridge, Laverne Peveril, where a costumed Christmas party concluded with a game of hide-and-seek in the dark – during which one of the participants found a body in the long gallery. Hugh Darrow is an old school friend of the host, blinded in the Great War, who had hidden himself behind the curtain of an alcove in the gallery. As he sat there waiting, he heard a steady dripping, "like the ticking of a clock," but slower. The sound seemed to come from another alcove and when he investigated he found the body of another party member, Edgar Stallard. Who's known to the general public as "a prolific writer of memoirs of a certain type."

Laverne Peveril was packed with family and guests at the time of the murder: there are Mr. and Mrs. Tunbridge. His cousin, Sir Eustace Tunbridge and his much younger fiancée, Miss Diana Storey, who's accompanied by her domineering grandmother, Mrs. Emily Storey. She arranged the marriage between Sir Eustace and Diana. Two of his old friends, Hugh Darrow and an American, Ruth Clare. There's "a kind of protégée" of Mrs. Tunbridge, Angela Haviland, who brought along her brother, Julian. Jack "Rags" Norris brought his two sisters and two of his undergraduate friends with him. So fourteen potential suspects in all, if you exclude the servants.

Sergeant Lane is glad to have his old friend, Inspector Hugh Collier, staying with him over the holidays and assists him in the initial stages of the investigation, but, after interviewing everyone, the story takes a departure from the conventional country house mystery – resulting in Collier exiting the case on two separate occasions. Normally, in a Golden Age mystery, the local authorities tend to be grateful to have the good fortune to have a reputable inspector or famous amateur detective in the neighborhood when a body turns up, but Dalton broke with that tradition in The Night of Fear.

Colonel Larcombe is the Chief Constable and he sends Collier packing, because he prefers to run his own show with his own men. Only to call him back the following morning when Sergeant Lane is found gassed in his bedroom, but he's again removed from the case after a complaint from Sir Eustace. Collier was replaced by Chief Inspector Purley, a policeman of the treat-'em-rough school, who immediately makes an arrest. And his take on the case was nearly identical to my (incorrect) solution.

I assumed the murder of Stallard was the result of an unfortunate set of circumstances that started with the suggestion of a game of hide and seek in the dark.

You see, Darrow drew a pension as a disabled veteran and my suspicion is that he shammed his blindness, which was discovered by Stallard when he saw the supposedly blind man stumbling around in the dark when the lights went out and this was grist on his mill – because Stallard was a sensationalist who dabbled in blackmail. So he had to be silenced. Dalton provided Purley's case against Darrow with a more tangible motive, but either way, Darrow is placed in the dock. This adds one last name to the list of detectives working on the case.

In his introduction, Evans compared Hermann Glide, a private inquiry agent, to an obscure, little-known Agatha Christie character, Mr. Goby, who appeared in The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928), After the Funeral (1953), Third Girl (1966) and Elephants Can Remember (1972). A wizened little man who looks "like a sick monkey" and is constantly kneading "a lump of modeling clay." Collier recommended Ruth Clare, who's in love with Darrow, to engage Glide to help her prove his innocence. And the clock is ticking!

So, after my first, incorrect solution, I spotted the murderer, but there was a surprising, final twist in the tail of the story. A twist that would have been more effective had it been fairly clued or foreshadowed. Now this bolt out of the blue stands as the only flaw in an otherwise excellent detective story.

All in all, I found The Night of Fear to be a more accomplished detective novel than The Strange Case of Harriet Hall and one of the better Christmas-themed country house mysteries from the Golden Age. Highly recommended for those darker, longer days of December.

On a final, semi-related note: The Night of Fear was published in the same year as Molly Thynne's seasonal mystery novel, The Crime at the Noah's Ark (1931), which made me wonder if these two novels started the tradition of Christmas mystery novels – since every single example I can think of were published after these two mysteries. I know there are some short stories predating them, but not full-length mystery novels.

Just run down the list: Anne Meredith's Portrait of a Murderer (1933), C.H.B. Kitchin's Crime at Christmas (1934), Pierre Véry's L'assassinet du Père Noël (The Murder of Father Christmas, 1934) Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot's Christmas (1936), Mavis Doriel Hay's The Santa Klaus Murder (1936), Constance and Gwenyth Little's The Black-Headed Pins (1938), Georgette Heyer's Envious Casca (1941) Francis Duncan's Murder for Christmas (1949), Gladys Mitchell's Groaning Spinney (1950), Cyril Hare's An English Murder (1951), Ellery Queen's The Finishing Stroke (1958) and Ngiao Marsh's Tied Up in Tinsel (1972). So are there are any seasonal mystery novels from the 1910s or 20s that I overlooked?


The Army Post Murders (1931) by Mason Wright

Major Mason Wright was a public relations officer to General Joseph W. Stillwell during the Second World War and later became the head of the Armed Forces Radio Services in Hollywood. I found a brief reference to Major Mason Wright, of the Army signal corps, in the May 10, 1941, issue of Motion Picture Herald expressing "official appreciation" from the War Department for "the production of service training films" – only here the trail grew cold. This represents nearly all the internet was able to tell me about this obscure, long-forgotten army major.

Well, all except for the fact that Mason Wright penned two equally obscure, long out-of-print mystery novels.

Murder on Polopel (1929) was co-written with William R. Kane, a magazine and journal editor, which was reprinted in the May, 1934, issue of Star Novels Magazine, but I'll be taking a look at his second novel. The intriguingly-titled The Army Post Murders (1931), originally published in the February, 1931, issue of Excitement, which I accidentally stumbled across when looking for army-themed, Golden Age mystery novels – a search inspired by George Limnelius' The Medbury Fort Murder (1929). Surprisingly, The Army Post Murders turned out to be a (minor) locked room mystery as well. 

The Army Post Murders has a premise that's somewhat similar to The Medbury Fort Murder: a murder on "a military reservation in time of peace" deeply entrenched in the private lives of the military characters and their families. This makes them a little different in tone compared to the army-themed detective novels from the Second World War (e.g. Christopher Bush's The Case of the Murdered Major (1941) and Franklyn Pell's Hangman's Hill, 1946).

The backdrop of The Army Post Murders is the historical Fort Comanche, built in 1869 as one of "the first of the permanent frontier garrisons," on the prairie grasslands of Oklahoma. A remote, out-of-the-way army post where the monotonous, humdrum army existence has played havoc with the mental state of Captain Harland "Hal" Baldwin's wife, Dorothy.

Dorothy "Dot" Baldwin has become overly emotional, easily irritated and prone to violent temper tantrums. She has started running up the bills, complains constantly and has set the fort ablaze with rumors of an affair between her and the commending officer of the 15th Field Artillery, Colonel Martin Kalendar – a character as tailor-made to be murdered as Lieutenant Charles Lepean from The Medbury Fort Murder. And with a name like that, you knew his days were numbered the moment he showed up!

Dot and Hal had planned on a dinner party with their friends, Captain Jerrold "Jerry" Costain and his wife, Minna, but Colonel Kalendar turns up claiming to have been invited by Dot. She says this is not the case and Hal urges her to get rid of him.

After the turmoil of his unannounced visit, Colonel Kalendar is found sitting next to the table in the middle of the Baldwin's living room pinned to his chair by a large carving knife! General Alonzo Phipps is informed, but, when they return with him, "the body of Colonel Kalendar had disappeared." A problem with the appearance of a quasi-impossible crime, but nothing to get excited about. So, confronted with a murder and a body that has been spirited away, General Phipps asks the United States District Attorney to send down Jimmie Boodler – a special investigator from Washington. Boodler is a pleasantly active, but bland, detective-character with a slight hint of Philo Vance. A brainy, ex-college professor who can still execute a perfect judo move on a trained soldier (c.f. The Benson Murder Case, 1926).

Boodler is not a particularly memorable detective, personality-wise, but very acts as a proper detective as he pries information from the suspects, sniffs around the army base for tangible clues and philosophies. There are three scenes from his investigation that stand out.

Firstly, there's his meeting with the victim's masculine, strong-willed, but impulsive housekeeper, Jennie Hugot, who made Colonel Kalendar's striker leave by beating him up. Boodler has to threaten her with "a sock in the jaw" to get a minuscule amount of collaboration. Secondly, there's the investigation of the private study of the victim, which revealed Colonel Kalendar was not the sadist Boodler had assumed him to be, but "suffered from a reversion of the beast." A man in whose brain "the door to those dark, anthropoid ages" has been "left ajar." I think his personality should been explored deeper, because it would have strengthened the motive of the murderer. Lastly, there's a nice scene in which Boodler goes horseback riding to course jack rabbits with wolf-hounds on the prairie. And makes a gruesome discovery in a natural seepage of crude oil.

Honestly, if the plot had been a little better or more original with its solution, The Army Post Murders would have been a perfect fit for the line of regional flavored, American Golden Age mystery novels from Coachwhip Publications – such as Tyline Perry's The Owner Lies Dead (1930), Kirke Mechem's The Strawstack Murder Case (1936) and Anita Blackmon's There is No Return (1938). Unfortunately, a promising and intriguingly posed impossible crime ended up completely deflating the plot.

A double murder is discovered in the living quarters of two of the suspects with all the doors and windows locked on the inside, but this impossibility was explained with one of the oldest tricks in the book. Only interesting point were the historical touches to the locked room-trick, which is something I can always appreciate.

However, I expected, not completely unjustified, the locked room-trick would involve one of the half dozen ferrets Colonel Kalendar kept as pets, because it was casually mentioned electric companies use them to crawl through pipes. A string is tied to a ferret and in that way complete "the first step preparatory to pulling a cable through the pipe." Since one of the ferrets was found in the basement of the fort, I assumed it was used in a variation on the old-fashioned wire-trick to lock one of the doors or windows from the inside.

A bigger problem is that the double murder in the living quarters reduced the handful of suspect to only two, which deflated anything of interest in the story. The murderer is hard to miss at this point. The solution to the locked room murders turned out to be a huge letdown. The motive was interesting, harking back to the horrors of the Great War, but hardly clued or explored. This is why the background and war record of the victim should have gotten closer scrutiny, which could have improved the second half greatly.

The Army Post Murders opened strongly with "a jigsaw puzzle of human emotions," set in an army fortress in the middle of nowhere, tackled by a tireless detective, but the explanations for the various puzzle pieces were routine or uninspired. It would have been nice to have found an good, unsung detective novel worthy of being reprinted, but you're not missing out on anything, if you're unable to find an affordable copy. I recommend you find yourself a copy of the previously mentioned The Medbury Fort Murder instead, which played a similar game with better and more original results.


Terror Tower (1935) by Gerald Verner

Several months ago, I read two detective novels by the prolific "Gerald Verner," a penname of John R.S. Pringle, of which the Paul Halter-like homage to John Dickson Carr, Sorcerer's House (1956), encouraged me to delve deeper into his work – which brought me to Terror Tower (1935). A pulp-style take on the quintessential English village mystery.

Terror Tower is set in a little place named Stonehurst, an old-world village on the Kentish coast, where the building plans for a factory in the middle of the village has split the community in two groups. On the one hand, you have the villagers who believe a factory will turn Stonehurst from "a village to a prosperous town." On the other hand, you have "the more conservative members of the community" who wish to preserve the village for themselves. And they have a majority vote.

John Tarley is the leading voice of this conservative faction and proposes to raise the money to pay for the several acres of land that was mortgaged by the now late owner, Owen Winslow, but five thousand pounds is more than "the village could rake up in a century." So they decide to make an appeal to the new owner of the village and the ancient Greytower, Jim Winslow, Old Winslow's nephew.

Greytower was "an ancient creeper-covered building," originally an old fort, "standing in its own well-wooded grounds in the centre of the village" and was expanded with a left-hand wing in 1890s – where Owen Winslow lived as a recluse. Jim Winslow inherited the place from his uncle and arrived in the village with a friend in tow, Ian McWraith, but almost immediately they got a taste of the "atmosphere of terror" which brooded over the whole place. Greytower is run by a butler and housekeeper, a Mr. and Mrs. North, who act very suspiciously. There's a mysterious, solidly locked door underneath the spiral staircase that can't be opened, because they have no idea what happened to the key. McWraith's nightcap is doctored with a sleeping drought. Winslow witnesses from his bedroom window how a shadowy figure pushes around a wheeled-ambulance with the body of a man on it!

On the following morning, the body of a stranger is found at the cross-roads just outside the village a bullet in his head. And this is not the only problem that has attracted the attention of Scotland Yard.

Over a two year period, a number of police-detectives have disappeared within the vicinity of Stonehurst and the last disappearance occurred only three weeks ago. So the Yard puts one of their best man on the case, Inspector Shadgold, who immediately turned to his talented friend, Trevor Lowe – a dramatist and amateur criminologist. Lowe opened strongly, in the third chapter, as he critiqued and sniffed savagely at the "so-called psychological novels."

His secretary, Arnold White, asks Lowe about the book he has been reading and answers that there isn't "a solitary character in it who isn't cross and nasty." They all have "kinks of some sort or another." These characters spend pages analyzing themselves "to find out what they are" and "pages more to find out why they've got them!

A pernicious type of literature that only "portrays a crumb" of the world as a whole, because the world is made up of mostly of decent, hardworking people who are too busy earning a living to inhibitions. Lowe shudders to think the effect such dreary books have on people who are just reaching adolescence. Young men and women who dig down into their subconscious to try discovering "things that don't exist" and have their minds poisoned by "a long dose of this 'nothing-is-worth-while' creed." It teaches self-analysis in the wrong way. Hear, hear! Go to Hell with your drab, mundane realism! I want ingeniously constructed, labyrinthine plots full of danger, romance and murder! I want hansom cabs rattling through the London fog and a track of footprints in the snow that impossibly end in the middle of an open clearing! Give me the Great Detectives of yore!

Yeah, in spite of some of his shortcomings as a plotter and storyteller, I'm beginning to warm to Verner.

Somewhere around the halfway mark of the story, Terror Tower slowly changes from a, more or less, conventional village mystery into an old-timely, dime thriller complete with gangsters, but first, the reader is treated to a classic cliché and trope of the traditional detective story – courtesy of a murderer with a good sense for dramatic timing. One of the suspects is about to sing like a canary, but is shot in front of the detectives by a murderer who makes a successful escape. A second suspect is poisoned in a locked and bolted bedroom, but the impossible crime was only a very minor aspect of the plot. However, the solution made me wonder what Agatha Christie could have done with this idea for a locked room poisoning. There was something about the trick that fitted her work like a glove.

Sherlock Holmes stated in A Study in Scarlet (1887) that, criminally, "there's nothing new under the sun" and that "it has all been done before," but the central plot-idea that emerged when Terror Tower turned into a thriller struck me as completely original. I'm not as familiar with these dime thrillers as with the classic detective story, but the overarching scheme of the villains seemed pretty original to me. There was even a touch, or suggestion, of the horror story when that evil scheme began to emerge and take shape. A slightly better writer might have gotten more out of the idea, but Terror Tower was an entertaining, old-timely gangster thriller, fraught with danger, presented as a village mystery. And I appreciated the bits of foreshadowing.

So, all things considered, Terror Tower can hardly be labeled as one of the greatest pieces of crime fiction from the genre's Golden Age, but still made for a good read with an exciting ending and perhaps a truly original idea at the heart of the plot – neatly tied to the missing policemen and (locked room) murders. Yeah, I'm now convinced I have found my next John Russell Fearn.


The Case of the Hanging Rope (1937) by Christopher Bush

Christopher Bush's The Case of the Hanging Rope (1937) is the seventeenth detective novel in the Ludovic Travers and Superintendent Wharton series, rechristened as The Wedding Night Murder in US., which was published during what some consider to be a vintage year for the genre – a golden year, of the golden decade, of the Golden Age. A fine year with an excellent harvest of detective stories. Some of them are still considered classic masterpieces today.

Classics such as Anthony Berkeley's Trial and Error (1937), John Dickson Carr's The Four False Weapons (1937), Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile (1937), Gladys Mitchell's Come Away, Death (1937) and John Rhode's Death on the Board (1937).

So where does Bush's The Case of the Hanging Rope exactly stand in this illustrious class of '37? Well, let's find out!

Sonia Vorge is an Anglo-Russian aviatrix, like Amelia Earhart, who was driving race cars at eighteen, "picking up prizes at Brooklands," before she started competing in "the international circuits and holding her own against men," but, during an Alpine race, she wrecked her car – killing her friend and passenger, Irene Carne. Sonia escaped with a broken arm and smashed ribs. After her stint as a female dare-devil of the race track, she picked up parachuting, gliding and finally long-distance flying.

A second tragedy happens when Sonia crashes her plane in the Austrian Alps and her co-pilot, Maurice Trove, damaged his legs and is unable to walk. So she went looking for help, but she wandered around for two days until by "sheer bling, blazing luck" stumbling across a forester. The wreck and Trove's body were never found, but rumors of "reliable evidence" of Trove's survival have begun to circulate. A man claimed to have seen Trove in Odessa, Russia, three months after the plane crash. Even the newspaper headlines are now boldly asking the question "IS MAURICE TROVE STILL ALIVE?"

These rumors and public speculations begin on the eve of her marriage to a well-known theatrical producer, Sidley Cordovan, who had broken off his initial engagement to Sonia. Cordovan had "some pretty hard things" to say about his former fiance, but they became reengaged in the wake of the plane crash.

Sidley and Sonia have a modest wedding ceremony at a London registry office with Ludovic Travers, an acquaintance of Sonia, acting as one of the witnesses.

When Travers congratulates the newlywed Sonia, she invites him to have lunch with him the following day and promises with "a sardonic delight" that he won't be bored, but why delay their honeymoon for a casual lunch? The day had been heavy with portent. Early next morning, Travers is called out of bed, by Wharton, with the news that Sonia Vorge had been murdered at Montage Court – where they had been spending their wedding night. Sonia was stabbed to death in her bridal bed and Sidley was found in the next room, drugged and dazed, with a noose of stout linen-line hanging from a cross-beam. A poor attempt by the murderer to disguise the crime as a botched murder/suicide. 
A salient detail is that the elderly caretaker, Coales, claims to have seen the foreboding "apparition" of the Lame Monk of Montage, "quite a well-known ghost," on the night of the murder. Travers would probably have believed Coales had he seen the ghost on any other night, but not on that specific night.

Travers and Wharton begin to delve into the backgrounds of everyone involved, which brings Wharton to France to talk with the eccentric owner of Montage Court, Sir Raphael Breye, who left England to live as a recluse in the south of France with his vast collection of paintings. This charming little excursion to France shows why Wharton has become my favorite Golden Age policeman. Meanwhile, Travers is doing what he does best: testing the soundness of everyone's alibis.

Some of the alibis aren't only cast-iron, they appear to be made of hand-wrought steel, but "hand-wrought may be home-made" and they've demolished seemingly unbreakable alibis before. Travers gives a practical demonstration on how to make a homely alibi. However, the murderer's alibi-trick is something different altogether.

Bush's best and most successful alibi stories either have minutely-timed, clockwork-like plots (The Case of the Missing Minutes, 1936) or were carefully staged tricks (The Case of the Murdered Major, 1941), but here the murderer's unshakable alibi relayed on something unpredictable – which could have rendered the alibi completely useless. Sure, the murderer had an excuse to explain this unpredictable element, but it would still left this person without an alibi. Still, the idea behind the alibi-trick is original and possibly unique. Only problem is that it's a risky method to use in a crime that can get you hanged. Murderer was really lucky it worked exactly as planned.

The explanation as to who murdered Sonia, drugged Sidley and why there was a rope hanging from a cross-beam formed an interesting play on the tightly-linked, closely-timed double murder puzzles Bush specialized in before World War II. Dead Man Twice (1930), Dancing Death (1931) and The Case of the April Fools (1933) are great examples of them, but the multiple, interacting plot-threads of The Case of the Hanging Rope were loosely tied together. Something that would have been less of a problem, if the murderer had a stronger motive and the characterization had been better. There were only three convincing characters, besides Travers and Wharton, which is why I didn't go over the list of suspects. They were mostly colorless.

Unfortunately, these shortcomings prevented The Case of the Hanging Rope from securing a spot in the top-rank in Bush's oeuvre, but I can still recommend it to his loyal readers as a good, but loosely plotted, entry in the series with an insanely original alibi-trick. And if you specifically like detective stories that center on destroying alibis, you have to read The Case of the Hanging Rope, because this one doesn't rely on screwing with people's perception of space and/or time.

My last few excursions into this series haven't exactly been as successful as my earlier ones. So my next read from Dean Street Press is probably going to be return to always wonderful E.R. Punshon.


The Locked Room Reader XI: A Return to the Phantom Library

Back in 2016, I compiled a brief overview, under the title "A Selection of Lost Detective Stories," listing a number of examples of long-lost or unpublished manuscripts from the hands of celebrated and lesser-known mystery writers – such as Glyn Carr, Joseph Commings, Theodora DuBois and Hake Talbot. The idea of the existence, or partial existence, of a phantom library is as fascinating as it's frustrating. Even more so, when it disproportionately affects a writer you happened to be very fond of.

One of my favorite second-stringers, John Russell Fearn, was a prolific writer of lost detective stories and he didn't limit himself to merely losing sight of manuscripts. Philip Harbottle kindly provided me with all the background details.

A fragment from an alt-reality
Harbottle told me that "several wonderful impossible crime novels," written by Fearn in 1946, were lost and apparently destroyed, because hardcover publishing in the U.K. suffered from paper shortages during the post-war years and many books were delayed – often "never appeared at all" and "were lost." Fearn sold three novels under a penname, "Rosina Tarne," of which only one came close to actually being published.

You Murdered Me would have told the story of the ghost of a murdered woman who helps her grieving boyfriend/detective bring her killer to justice and the manuscript was proofed, blurbed and appropriately advertised on the jacket of Gordon Meyrick's The Ghost Hunters (1947). There are only "half a dozen scattered pages of mss carbon" left of the second novel, entitled The Eyes Have It, which reveal that the story followed a husband-and-wife detective team investigating "a dead body in a swimming pool" with resonances of Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone (1868). Yes, a Fearn mystery novel along the lines of Kelley Roos' The Frightened Stiff (1942) got lost. God has some serious explaining to do!

Sadly, Murder in Suburbia has been completely erased from existence as nothing, whatsoever, is known about it and "nothing has survived." However, the title makes me wonder if Fearn rewrote the story nearly a decade later as Lonely Road Murder (1954). Murder in Suburbia strikes me as an uncomplicated, straitlaced crime story without any locked rooms, cast-iron alibis or science-based death-traps – like Lonely Road Murder. Something not entirely out of the realm of possibilities, because there's a possible change that the presumed lost Partners in Crime was eventually published as Murder's a Must (1949; retitled later as The Tattoo Murders). However, this is just an educated guess by Harbottle.

The last title to be added to this lamentable list is about "an impossible murder on a railway," titled Unfinished Journey, which he intended to get published under the name of "Hartley Grant," but manuscript was apparently rejected. Regardless, Fearn was an amateur cineaste and, in 1949, created the Fylde Cine Club. One of the movies they made was an ambitious, full-length (silent) movie adaptation of Unfinished Journey starring Fearn, Matt Japp and published author Audrey Weigh, who recorded the lines on a tape recorder – a tape that got either lost or destroyed! However, Harbottle salvaged three boxes of the club's 16mm films and them transferred to VHS tapes, but the firm managed to mix "the running order of the three film spools" and made them run backwards. Harbottle said he only watched the silent VHS once, a quarter of a century ago, and was "so traumatized" that he never watched it again.

Honestly, I would love to get a glimpse of that silent film. Not just to get a taste of a lost impossible crime story, but just to watch Fearn acting. Someone should convert those VHS tapes and upload them to YouTube.

Seems appropriate
Sadly, Fearn is not the only one who lost a handful of manuscripts: R.T. Campbell wrote eight popular detective novels about a botanist and amateur detective, Professor John Stubbs. Five more titles were announced as forthcoming, namely The Hungry Worms Are Waiting, No Man Lives Forever, Death is Not Particular, Death is Our Physician and Mr. Death's Blue-Eyed Boy, but his publisher went into liquidation in 1948 and the manuscripts were lost to history. So just between Campbell and Fearn, you have nine or ten mystery novels that were expunged from our time-line. And, yes, there's more. There's always more of the bad stuff.

Willoughby Sharp was the author of two published detective novels, Murder in Bermuda (1933) and Murder of the Honest Broker (1934), who provided this list with the most peculiar and tantalizing lost title. A third novel was announced for 1935, intriguingly titled The Mystery of the Multiplying Mules, which came with a short description of the premise and the story would have made for a most unusual locked room mystery – as mules keep turning up inside the locked barn of the Logan family. No reason was ever given why the book got canceled.

Another mystery writer with a short-lived career was Kirke Mechem and only saw one of his detective novels get published, The Strawstack Murder Case (1936), which has a strong rural flavor. This is likely the reason why his second Steven Steele novel was never published. The plot of the story, titled Mind on Murder, dealt with miscegenation in Kansas and Doubleday, Doran, turned down his manuscript "on account of this sensitive subject matter." The three novels by Mechem and Sharp have been reprinted by Coachwhip Publications.

Christopher St. John Sprigg plunge into Marxism and untimely death in the Spanish Civil War ended a short, but promising, run as a mystery novelist. Recently, Sprigg has profited from our current renaissance era and all of his seven novels has been reprinted as paperbacks and ebooks, but Curt Evans reported in 2013 that there two unpublished short stories, "The Case of the Misjudged Husband" and "The Case of the Jesting Miser" – existing as typed manuscripts in Sprigg's papers at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. Evans describes them as "longish short stories" with a certain appeal and a noteworthy detective, Mrs. Bird.

So these two short stories still have a fighting chance to get published and maybe sooner than we think. A recently published anthology, Bodies from the Library 2 (2019), had never before published material by Christianna Brand, Edmund Crispin and Dorothy L. Sayers. I say we loot salvage as much as possible from this phantom library!

Well, hopefully, this rambling filler-post wasn't too depressing and I'll return to you presently with a regular review of a detective story that wasn't cruelly snatched away from us.


The Flimflam Affair (2019) by Bill Pronzini

The Flimflam Affair (2019) is the seventh, full-length historical mystery novel in the John Quincannon and Sabina Carpenter series, a pair of private-investigators from San Francisco of the 1890s, which were originally penned by the husband-and-wife writing tandem of Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller – a collaboration that ended with The Dangerous Ladies Affair (2017). Pronzini has continued the series on his own beginning with The Bags of Tricks Affair (2018).

On a side note, three years ago, I reviewed The Plague of Thieves Affair (2016) under the blog-title "A Stuffed Bag of Tricks" and this made me assume I had already read The Bags of Tricks Affair. Yes, I'm an imbecile.

The plot of The Flamflim Affair is an amalgamation of two short stories originally published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, "Medium Rare" (1998) and "Burglarproof" (2010), expanded with two personal plot-threads concerning John Quincannon and Sabina Carpenter. Their relationship had been "strictly professional," but Quincannon has been spending the past five years convincing Sabina that his intentions were honorable and has "finally worn down her resistance" – admitting to herself that John was more than just a business partner and friend. A second plot-thread brings back a ghost from the past, but first, they have to clear up two cases that were brought to Carpenter & Quincannon: Professional Detective Services.

Sierra Railway Company has engaged Quincannon to track down "a considerable sum" in gold dust and bullion, stolen from the express office of the Tuttletown depot, but the audacious thieves didn't simply crack the safe. Oh, no! They carried off "a four-hundred-pound burglarproof safe," filled with gold, in the middle of the night. A dairy farmer finds the opened and looted safe in a field, but this discovery turned a burglary into an impossible problem.

The black, circular door of the safe was partially detached, hanging by "a single bolt from a bent hinge," showing "the door had clearly been forced somehow," but there are no powder marks or other evidence of explosives having been used – which makes this a highly unusual impossible crime. Quincannon demonstrates here why he thinks he's "the best detective west of the Mississippi" as he follows such clues as blood, dried putty, a piece of straw and the cold, damp interior of the safe to the doorstep of the culprits.

However, the best part of Quincannon's case is undeniably the method the thieves employed to wrench open a reputedly burglarproof safe. Something you normally would expect to find in a scientific impossible crime story by Arthur Porges.

Sabina Carpenter receives an assignment from a rich investment broker, Winthrop Buckley, whose daughter was "a childhood victim of diphtheria," but his wife, Margaret, has never been able to accept her death. Margaret believes she can "obtain an audience" with the ghost of their daughter, Bernice, with the help of Professor Abraham Vargas of the Unified College of the Attuned Impulses. Buckley is a skeptic and believes Vargas to be a fraud, but he needs hard, cast-iron evidence in order to convince his wife. Sabina goes undercover as "Dorothy Milford" with a fabricated story about a dead brother and discovers Vargas to be "a philandering flimflammer" who "preys on vulnerable women" and grieving families, which is painfully demonstrated during the fatal séance when he manufactured the disembodied voice of Bernice – making her grief-stricken mommy and daddy promise to come again. Vargas more than deserved to have that ornamental dagger shoved down his neck.

Coming in 2020
This is exactly what happened in the pitch-black séance room: Vargas is stabbed from behind, twice, while everyone around the table was holding hands and the only door was locked from the inside. The locked room-trick here is the proverbial mixed bag of tricks. I appreciated how much of the trick was tied to the tools of the trade of fraudulent mediums, but disliked how the murderer managed to get pass the locked door, which is something of a cheat. Still a good example of the murder-during-a-seance locked room mystery.

The problems posed by Vargas takes up the lion's share of The Flimflim Affair, as Quincannon only needed five chapters to bring the burglary case to an end, but the murder of Vargas is solved with ten chapters left to go. 

This portion of the story concerns "a notorious counterfeiter," Long Dick Darrow, who had a fatal encounter with Quincannon during his tenure as an operative of the Secret Service. But he appears to have risen from his watery grave and has brought his distinctive counterfeit one-hundred dollar bills back into circulation. I didn't really care about this last plot-thread and felt tacked on to the plot in order to pad out the book to a novel-length story.

The Flimflam Affair is a patchwork mystery novel of old and new material, which can make the story feel a little disjointed at times, but on a whole, it was vast improvement over the very minor The Plague of Thieves Affair and the overtly political The Dangerous Ladies Affair (2017) – hearkening back (quality-wise) to the earlier The Bughouse Affair (2013) and The Spook Lights Affair (2013).

The next entry in this series, The Stolen Gold Affair (2020), is scheduled for next year and has the best cover-art of the whole series! I hope it means we'll be getting an impossible crime inside a sealed mine shaft.