Noose for a Lady (1952) by Gerald Verner

Back in June, I looked at the second detective novel from the short-lived Simon Gale series, entitled Sorcerer's House (1956), which Gerald Verner unmistakably intended as an homage to one of John Dickson Carr's most celebrated mystery novels, He Who Whispers (1946) – without becoming too derivative or having to lean on a locked room gimmick. Surprisingly, the book actually succeeded in being an obvious tribute that told its own story and that piqued my curiosity about the first title in the series. A mystery novel that has consistently been compared to the work of Agatha Christie.

John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, left a comment on my review of Sorcerer's House saying Noose for a Lady (1952) is "very much like a Christie novel" just as Sorcerer's House is "like Carr." I agree. Personally, the book reminded me of Christie's Sad Cypress (1940) and Ordeal by Innocence (1958) with a hint of Cards on the Table (1936).

Noose for a Lady opens with the conclusion of the trial of Margaret Hallam, who has been found guilty of the murder, by poison, of her husband, John Hallam.

John Hallam died at his home, Easton Knoll, from "an overdose of barbitone" administered in a glass of hot whiskey and milk. A mixture prepared by Mrs. Hallam. There were only two set of fingerprints found on the glass, which belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Hallam, but, even more damning, is that she had been taking a preparation of barbitone for insomnia and kept her supply in a locked drawer in her bedroom – she kept the key in her purse. Two days before the murder, Mrs. Hallam had bought a new bottle containing "containing twenty-five five-grain tablets," but the police only found three tablets in the bottle. Mrs. Hallam was unable to account for the missing tablets.

So the jury returns with a unanimous guilty verdict and the judge, who gets the square of black silk draped over his wig, announces that Mrs. Hallam will be "taken from this place to a lawful prison" and "thence to a place of execution" where she'll be "hanged by the neck until you are dead." Mrs. Hallam continues to proclaim her innocence, but the only person who believes her is her stepdaughter, Jill Hallam.

Jill Hallam last hope is enlisting a childhood friend of her stepmother, Simon Gale, who recently returned from Italy and has read "one of the scurrilous rags" for the past eight months. So, when he learns her execution is scheduled to place within a week, Gale thunders "do you mean these blundering, incompetent numskulls are going to hang her?" and is determined to reverse the verdict before that seven day time-limit. But his approach and even personality noticeably differed from his second appearance.

Sorcerer's House was written as a homage to Carr and called Gale in my review a store-brand Dr. Gideon Fell or Sir Henry Merrivale, because he constantly smoked vile, acrid smelling cigarettes rolled from black tobacco and booms odd, classically inspired phrases – such as "by the golden apples of Hesperides" and "by the cloven hoofs of Pan." These Carr-like personality traits were entirely absent here. Gale still has a loud, boorish personality, but now he stands much closer to either Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple than to Dr. Fell or H.M. A detective who hunts for psychological clues in the personalities of the suspects.

Gale is a professional portrait painter and admitted he knew nothing about "as cigar ash, fingerprints, alibis, and tangible clues of that kind," but knew Mrs. Hallam didn't poison her husband because it was "psychologically wrong." Mrs. Hallam has an infernal temper and she would have used a poker or bread-knife, but not poisoning his nightcap with a dose of sleeping pills. So he descends on the village of Wickham Green to find out who, of its inhabitants, fits the psychological profile of "one of the most dangerous types of murderer," the sly poisoner.

This proves to be somewhat of a Herculean task. Not only have they less than a week to find this unknown murderer, but the victim, John Hallam, is revealed as "a mental sadist." Someone who liked to find out people's dirty secrets and torture them, privately, with the threat of exposure and there were quite a few people in the village who were caught in his torturous web. There's a malicious village gossip, Mrs. Ginch, who poses as a pious church lady. A collector of some exquisite pieces of china, Robert Upcott, whose spirit was broken when his wife ran away with another man. An ex-military man, Major Fergusson, who has seen things in the war that keeps him awake at night. A tartar of a woman, Mrs. Langdon-Humphreys, who's always accompanied by her niece, Vanessa Lane. Lastly, there the typical country physician, Doctor Evershed, who's the only one in the village that has threatened Mrs. Ginch with lawsuit for the lies she told behind his back.

Noose for a Lady largely comprises of ferreting the long-held secrets from this closed-circle of suspects, but they're incredibly reticent and Gale compared his task to turning on "a bright light in an old, damp cellar" as "all kinds of nasty, crawling things go scuttling away to their holes" – in order "to get out of the glare." All the while, the clock is rapidly ticking away the days that Mrs. Hallam has left to live.

So I can understand why the story has been described as an Agatha Christie-style novel and Verner took many of his cues directly from some of her detective stories. I already mentioned Sad Cypress and Cards of the Table, but one piece of psychological clueing tore a page directly from Christie's widely praised masterpiece, Death on the Nile (1937). However, the ending betrayed the fact that Verner was not quite in the same league as Christie.

John Norris wrote in his blog-post, entitled "Neglected Detectives – Simon Gale," that "the ending is histrionic in the extreme" with too much "explained away as madness" and made "the entire story seem prosperous." Santosh Iyer was a lot nicer, but his one complaint was "the unnecessary melodrama at the end." I mostly agree with them, but the reason why melodramatic ending didn't work, in my opinion anyway, is the vulgar motive to get rid of John and Margeret Hallam. A more personal and emotional motivation would have made the ending more acceptable. An incident was mentioned that could have been turned into a motive that, psychologically, fitted the murderer.

So, in spite of the slightly botched ending, Noose for a Lady is a well-done, much appreciated attempt at a classic, cleverly-done whodunit, a la Christie, which made for an exciting and intriguing detective story, but Christie would have handled the surprise ending so much better. Just compare Noose for a Lady to Peril at End House (1932) and Lord Edgware Dies (1933), you can't help but to appreciate her lesser-celebrated novels all over again. However, it isn't really fair to compare Verner to Christie and, by his own standards, Noose for a Lady is as good a second-string mystery as Sorcerer's House. Purely recommended for readers who either want to read something like Christie or readers who love obscure detective stories.

A note for the curious: Noose for a Lady began as a radio-play and was adapted in 1953 for the movies. You can watch the trailer here.


The Orange Axe (1931) by Brian Flynn

When you're a wholesale consumer of detective fiction, like yours truly, you inevitably come to appreciate originality and, as Steve Barge stated in his introduction to The Orange Axe (1931), Brian Flynn made "an effort to do something original with each of his books" – which should explain why I've been enjoying his work so much. The Orange Axe has an original premise that allows the story to be told as both an inverted mystery and a fully realized whodunit.

André de Ravenac is an unmerciful blackmailer and likely the Parisian serial killer, known as "Le Loup de Poignard" (The Dagger Wolf), who murdered "nine of its most worthy citizens" with "a dagger through the victim's heart." Unfortunately, the French authorities were too late to apprehend him and he had cleared out of the country before they could get to him. Now he has turned up in England as a high society blackmailer with the wife of a British minister as his latest victim. However, Josephine Pelham counts a number of "certain men of honour" among her inner circle who are more than happy to remove De Ravenac from her life.

Major Daniel Wyatt summoned these men to a private-room of a restaurant, in Soho, where he unfolds a plan to them to commit the perfect murder.

This group comprises of Lady Pelham's brothers, Dick and Robin Blaker, their cousins, Gerald and Nick Twining, and journalistic friend of Major Wyatt, Martin Pierpoint – who are told about De Ravenac's bloody past in France. So they all agree that he has to be removed, but, as one of them ask, is "a beetle worth hanging for?" The answer is clearly no, but Major Wyatt has plan that should prevent them from meeting the hangman.

Sir Beverley Pelham is the newly appointed British Minister at Santa Guardina, the capital of the fictitious Republic of San Jonquilo, in South America. A bal masque is scheduled to take place at the Pelham house in honor of San Jonquilo's President, Sebastian Loredana. De Ravenac has secured an invitation to the carnival ball.

So the plan is to, anonymously, assign everyone a random role to play in the murder by drawing lots. The person who draws "the slip of paper that means 'direct' action" may be any one of them and only one "will ever do more than suspect who it actually is." A very original premise, especially for the time, which appeared to have gone off without a hitch when De Ravenac's body is found, lying across the threshold of the refreshment-room, with a long, ivory-handled knife in his chest and clutching a torn piece of black and orange silk – which are the national colors of the Republic of San Jonquilo. This murder brings an honored guest at the ball to the scene, Sir Austin Kemble of Scotland Yard, but President Loredana, angered by the murder, tells him to call upon the "finest English detective" he knows. And that brings Anthony Bathurst into the case.

Obviously, the readers knows a little more than Anthony Bathurst, but this is hardly any help as another original bit turns up in his investigation: two "absolutely different sets of clues." Not a set of false and true clues, but two sets of "thoroughly authentic and genuine" clues. Such as strange discovery they made in the bowl of claret cup and the inexplicable fact that Señor Miguel Da Costa, the Chancellor of San Jonquilo, was apparently in two different places at the same time. These complications, in combination with the masked ball, gives Flynn an opportunity to indulge in his beloved Doylean disguises and false-identities. Something he was hesitant to fully utilize was the impossible crime element.

There were locked room and seemingly impossible murders in The Case of the Black Twenty Two (1928), Invisible Death (1929) and Murder en Route (1930), which were clearly defined as impossibilities, but the murderer in The Orange Axe apparently managed to escape from a place a rat couldn't get out of without being seen. So, technically, this would qualify as a locked room mystery, but, the semi-inverted nature of the plot, made me decide against labeling this review as such and that's a shame – because the answer to this impossibility helps Bathurst demolish a number of alibis. However, this is just nit-picking on the part of a chronic sufferer of miraculitis and the main tricks of the plot are the two sets of clues and the breaking down of alibis. Not just the previously mentioned cast-iron alibis, but also "an absolutely perfect alibi" the murderer concocted.

If there's anything to honestly complain about The Orange Axe, it's that the semi-inverted approach allowed to reader to catch on what really was happening way too early. The clues become less mystifying and the murderer is not the surprise it could have been. That being said, Flynn did his damnedest to mislead the reader until the last possible moment, which actually made me second guess myself. Something I can always appreciate in a mystery writer.

Flynn was evidently experimenting with the possibilities the detective story has to offer in these first ten novels and The Orange Axe is a good example of this. The story and plot are not entirely flawless, but has good story-telling with a complex and innovative plot that coherently sticks together. Add to this a galore of fabricated alibis and you have a detective novel that comes particularly recommended to fans of (early) Christopher Bush and Freeman Wills Crofts.

Well, I only have three more reprints, from Dean Street Press, left to go, The Five Red Fingers (1929), The Creeping Jenny Mystery (1930) and The Triple Bite (1931), which makes me really hope there will be more next year, because I want to see where Flynn goes from here. So I'll try to save at least two of them for early next year.


The Rat-a-Tat Mystery (1956) by Enid Blyton

Enid Blyton's The Rat-a-Tat Mystery (1956) is the fifth of six novels in The Barney "R" Mystery series, the only series she wrote for children over the age of eleven, which follows the exploits of "a down-at-heel circus-boy," Barney – whose sole companion used to be his pet monkey, Miranda. A rather lonely existence that ended when he befriended two siblings, Roger and Diana Lynton, along with their mischievous, trouble-making cousin, "Snubby," in The Rockingdown Mystery (1949).

So now they're spending their holidays together and these sleepovers generally result in the Lynton home resembling a disaster-stricken area.

The Rat-a-Tat Mystery opens with Mr. Lynton putting down his newspaper, as a crash came from upstairs, asking his wife "how long do these Christmas holidays last." Christmas had been "a mad and merry time" in the house with a drizzling rain keeping the children indoors and Snubby's always enthusiastic black cocker spaniel, Looney, sweeping through the place "like a hurricane" – slowly driving Mr. Lynton to his limits. Luckily, an unexpected telephone call from Barney invited Roger, Diana and Snubby to come and stay with him for the remainder of their holiday at a big lakeside house that his grandmother owns. Apparently, Barney found his long-lost family in The Rubadub Mystery (1952).

Rat-a-Tat House is an old, remote place with turrets, towers and tucked-in windows, where "Oliver Cromwell once stayed" and "a celebrated Spaniard" was imprisoned, which lays at a now frozen lake. The house also has a ghost story to tell.

Originally, the place was named after the lake and village, Boffame House, but 250 years ago, someone began hammering on the front-door with "the enormous lion's head knocker." When the footman hurried to answer the door, nobody was standing there. This phantom knocker went on for a hundred-and-fifty years and people believed it was a warning that there was "a traitor in the house," but it has been over a hundred years since the ghost "hammered at the door" with the lion-headed knocker. So why would it start it now, right?

Well, the first few days at Rat-a-Tat House were pure bliss with them playing card games, ice skating, snowball fights, tobogganing and building a huge snowman, but the silence of the second night is broken by a strange, eerie knocking sound ("RAT-A-TAT-TAT! RAT-A-TAT-TAT!") – someone was hammering on the front-door with the knocker. When they go investigate the following morning, they discover a singe track of heavy boot prints going to the bottom of the front-door steps. There were, however, "no footmarks showing that he walked away again." Whoever this person was, he could not have entered the house through the front-door, because it was securely locked on the inside with two great bolts, top and bottom, two locks that were stiff to turn and "a heavy chain." So how did this person manage to vanish into thin air? And this is not the only impossible situation of the story.

Mrs. Tickle is the sister of Barney's grandmother's cook and the adult supervision at Rat-a-Tat House. She witnessed how the big snowman the children had made, which has now disappeared, shuffled pass the kitchen window and had looked inside! Add to this that the snowfall has cut them off from the outside world and the presence of two of unsavory characters with an interest in the cellar, they once again find themselves up to their necks in trouble. Sadly, this charming and intriguing premise is as good as The Rat-a-Tat Mystery is going to get.

I've praised Blyton's superb handling of the clues and red herrings in The Mystery of the Invisible Thief (1950) and the warm, lively characterization and sparkling humor of The Rilloby Fair Mystery (1950), which also had a clever innovation on an age-old locked room-trick, but none of those qualities were present here – as the plot is largely uninspired and razor-thin. The solution to the single track of prints in the snow is another oldie, but this time without a touch of originality and the answer to the peeping snowman was disappointingly simple. And those two shadowy villains lurking around the house? They only briefly appeared, but mostly remain in the background and the conclusion to these main plot-threads, which tied everything together, was concluded off-page.

The Rat-a-Tat Mystery still has some wintry charm and a lingering Christmas spirit, but lacked the lively, sparkling humor and characterization of The Rilloby Fair Mystery. It didn't exactly helped that the plot was uninspired and starved of even an ounce of ingenuity. So you can say this was a bit of a letdown.

However, I don't want to end this review on a sour note and so decided to give you my own two alternative solutions to the two impossible situations from this story. If only to prove why I'm everyone's favorite locked room fanboy (right, guys?).

Firstly, we have the puzzle of the single track of boot prints in the snow, but my answer depends on a third, mini-locked room puzzle: how where the villains able to enter the kitchen when Mrs. Tickle had locked and bolted the kitchen-door? The answer to this little side-puzzle is quickly found and I would have used as both a clue and as the key to the ghostly knocking on the front-door. In my scenario, one of the villains would enter the house through the kitchen and unlocked the front-door, while the other walked towards it, knocked and entered – locking the door behind them and vanishing from the house with their kitchen-door trick. This would make it appear as if the knocker had impossibly vanished from the front-steps. You only have to come up with an explanation as to how they got their hands on a (duplicate) key to (un)lock the front-door.

My alternative solution to the wandering snowman may seem obvious, but there were certain items present in the story offering a way to make the situation appear to be truly impossible.

I would have tightly wrapped a piece of tarpaulin, taken from the boathouse, around one of the toboggans and remade the snowman on top of it, because one snowman looks very much like the other – especially if you dress him up with the ornaments from the original snowman. And then you drag it across the kitchen window. Why wrapped the toboggan in tarpaulin, you ask? The tarpaulin helps make the track-marks of the toboggan look (slightly) different from the track marks the children made with the unwrapped toboggans. More importantly, it would give the impression that the snowman had actually come alive and had dragged himself through the snow.

So what do you think of my two alternative solutions? Would you accept them as solutions to these, admittedly, originally posed impossible problems?

Anyway, The Rat-a-Tat Mystery was a huge disappointment after being pleasantly surprised by the unexpectedly good The Mystery of the Invisible Thief and The Rilloby Fair Mystery, which I didn't expect from Blyton, but if you're looking for a harmless, wintry mystery with a little charm, you can easily throw this one on your holiday reading-list. Other than that, I can't really recommend it.


The Frozen Teacher: "The Touch of Kolyada" (1989) by Edward D. Hoch

December is nearly upon us and, if you're an incurable mystery addict, you probably have some of festive detective novels, short stories and perhaps even an anthology, or two, lined up to read during the Christmas season – a Victorian tradition that is still very much alive in the detective story. One of my reasons to always start relatively early with reading and reviewing these seasonal mysteries is that the holiday season has the habit to begin prematurely in my country. You can usually get Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) candy as early as September or October.

Another reason is that I want to give my fellow mystery addicts a recommendation or two, before December, which is why I have tackled so many of the lesser-known Christmas-themed mystery novels. Such as Moray Dalton's The Night of Fear (1931), C.H.B. Kitchin's Crime at Christmas (1934) and Francis Duncan's Murder for Christmas (1949).

So, today, I have a festive, quasi-impossible crime story that was intended for last year, but didn't get around to reading it then.

Edward D. Hoch's "The Touch of Kolyada" was originally written for a Christmas-themed anthology, Mistletoe Mysteries: Tales of Yuletide Murder (1989), edited by award-winning mystery writer, Charlotte Macleod. The detective of the story is the first detective-character Hoch ever created, Simon Ark, who claims to be a 2000-year-old Coptic priest wandering the world in the hope of meeting the devil in combat.

When the story opens, Simon Ark has been living at a university near "the northern tip of Manhattan," where he has been studying medieval legends, but "an unusual situation" has developed among some of his academic friends – a situation Ark described as "a mystery of good rather than evil." There are many Russian emigres on the faculty, who moved there with the family over the past twenty years. But a figure from Russian folklore appears to have followed them to America.

Kolyada is a beautiful elf maiden, cloaked in "a luxurious white robe and hood," who's said to ride a sleigh, from house to house, delivering gifts much as "Santa Claus does in Western countries." Recently, the children of the faculty members claim to have seen Kolyada. She has even entered homes to leave gifts for the children. So a very benevolent mystery, but it takes a dark, sinister turn when Ark and the narrator witness Kolyada appear behind the window of Professor Trevitz house.

A figure in a white-hooded robe carrying a basket, crammed with candy and fruit, who goes from the kitchen into the living-room where she bends over Professor Trevitz, who's sitting in a chair, touches his cheek with her outstretched fingers – only to flee when Ark yells out her name. When they enter the place, they discover the icy cold, solidly frozen body of the professor sitting in the chair. Suggesting that he had instantly frozen to death the moment the robed figure had touched him.

Unfortunately, Hoch never developed this premise into a full-fledged impossible crime and the story, which is not one of his greatest, sheds the intrigue of the opening pages to become regular, somewhat routine, detective story. This was a bit disappointing. Nonetheless, it was still a fun and unusual Christmas-themed detective story with a memorable set piece. I also enjoyed how much of the plot resembled the kind of stories you often find in Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed (Detective Conan) series. I can easily imagine Conan becoming involved with an utterly bizarre, borderline impossible murder apparently committed by ghostly figure from folklore and the motive didn't help dispel that illusion.

A note for the curious: I took "The Frozen Teacher," in the title of this blog-post, from an early Detective Conan story collected in volumes 14 and 15, which have been translated and are currently available in English. Just a friendly reminder that there's gold in those hills.

Anyway, "The Touch of Kolyada" is hardly one of Hoch's greatest detective stories, but a perfectly suitable Christmas read with a great premise, a memorable scene and a serviceable ending. So a little average, perhaps, but certainly not bad.


Invisible Death (1929) by Brian Flynn

Invisible Death (1929) is the sixth novel about Brian Flynn's Holmesian gentleman detective, Anthony Bathurst, which has the distinct honor of being the most unconventional, but very memorable, entry in the series – written and structured like a turn-of-the-century shilling shocker. I think Flynn intended to write the book as an homage to Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four (1890), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) and The Valley of Fear (1915), but ended up being more reminiscent of Agatha Christie's The Big Four (1927). Only Invisible Death has much more consistency than the patchwork plotting and story-telling of The Big Four.

Anthony Bathurst receives a letter from Constance Whittaker, a cousin of Diana Prendergast from The Murders Near Mapleton (1929), who pleads for him to come down to Shallowcliff Hall in Lacashire. The letter strongly hinted that "something very dark and very sinister" had placed her husband, Major Guy S. Whittaker, in "grave danger."

So, since he never lets a cry for help go unheeded, Bathurst sets out for Shallowcliff Hall, but, the moment he sets foot in Liverpool, he finds there are some nasty-looking shadows close on his tail.

There's a man with a withered arm. A fat, silky-voiced slug of a man. A huge man with a, dirty, brown-beard. Lastly, a man with mutilated lips who turns out to be the leader of the group. Bathurst later learns these men are what remains of a Russian society, The Silver Troika, who were decimated by Major Whittaker during a special in the Great War – returning to England with the documents, papers and minute-books of the society. Now they want it back! Since the favorite afternoon pastime of the Troika is the same as the evening occupation, namely murder, only "a trifle more so," Bathurst decides to enlist the help of an old acquaintance.

Peter Daventry is the young lawyer who brought Bathurst into The Case of the Twenty-Two Black (1928), but here, to fit occasion, Flynn transformed him into one of those posh, smart-aleck men of action. A handy person to have around when you find yourself in the middle of a chase thriller.

Bathurst and Daventry attempt to sneak their way up to Shallowcliff Hall unseen and have to go through several middle-men, give them passwords and cross Ugford Moor, locally known as The Knype, into the eerie, foggy Little Knype Wood. Needless to say, this is quite a departure from the more conventional novels that preceded it, like The Mystery of the Peacock's Eye (1928), but I thought it was very well done. And an excellent premise for what is about to happen!

Shallowcliff Hall eventually comes under siege by the Silver Troika, but, before they can get their murderous hands on Major Whittaker, he suddenly drops dead without anyone being nowhere near him and a post-mortem reveals he had been cleverly murdered – poisoned with a "tincture of aconite." Only question is how the poison could have been administrated without being seen. This poses a two-sides problem: on the one hand, Bathurst has to deal with the Silver Troika, while on the other hand he has to figure out who poisoned Major Whittaker. And how. A pretty and unusual puzzle comprising of such pieces as a stolen letter and the presence of an American entomologist, Horace Garland-Isherwood, who has the habit of surreptitiously sneaking around the garden.

The only plot-thread here that can really be discussed, without spoilers, is the impossible murder, but there's one part about the siege of the Silver Troika that needs to be highlighted.

There's a brief, uncharacteristic torture-scene in which the Troika try to extract from Major Whittaker's batman, Neville, with a so-called "Persuader." A tool that left Neville's right thumb "a piece of red, raw pulp." You practically never find this kind of gory violence in the work of writers associated with the traditional detective story and, if you ignore the rare third-degreeing at the hands of the police, the only other example I can think of is Rex Stout's The Golden Spiders (1953) – in which Archie uses some physical persuasion to make someone talk. Stout had the excuse of being an American. So this is just a very small example of how unusual a mystery this one really is.

However, you're not here to read about the professional proclivities of a bunch of homicidal villains who were plucked from the pages of a dime pulp. You're here for the impossible crime! Why else would you come here?

Steve Barge, the Puzzle Doctor of In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, who wrote the introductions for these new Dean Street Press editions said in his 2017 review that the poisoning method, as far as knew, "original for the time." This is kind of true. The trick has been used since 1929, one example can be found in a late '90s episode from the Dutch TV-series Baantjer, but there's a little-known short story from 1928 that used a similar poisoning-trick. Nonetheless, the book may be a first in another department.

Invisible Death intriguingly merged the impossible crime story with the dime thriller by setting it in a house under siege by criminals. An original premise more famously used in T.H. White's Darkness at Pemberley (1932) and Carter Dickson's The Unicorn Murders (1935), but Flynn's Invisible Death was there first.

Admittedly, the book is, plot-wise, the lightest so far encountered, but what it lacked in complexity was made up by the sheer joy of the story-telling, the weirdness of the plot and the evil, pulp-style villains – something that would have sunk it in the hands of a lesser writer. This is how you book evil foreign heels! As usually, Flynn's undying love for Sherlock Holmes bleeds through the pages and it's starting to have its effect on me. I now want to reread The Sign of Four or The Hound of the Baskervilles before the year draws to a close.

So, in closing, I highly recommend Invisible Death to everyone who already has read some of Flynn's conventional detective novels, because he'll be giving you something completely different here that worked surprisingly well. Invisible Death is easily one of the most fun detective stories that I have read this year.


The Case of the Black Twenty-Two (1928) by Brian Flynn

The Case of the Black Twenty-Two (1928) is only the second entry in the Anthony Bathurst series, but the plot already showed improvement over Brian Flynn's debut, The Billiard-Room Mystery (1927), skillfully unraveling two distinctly different, but inextricably intertwined, murders – committed on the same night while miles apart. Flynn's admiration for Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes very subtly bleeds through the story. But more on that later.

The Case of the Black Twenty-Two begins when a solicitors firm, Merryweather, Linnell and Daventry, receive "a rather peculiar commission" from an American millionaire, Laurence P. Stewart.

Stewart is a collector of "articles of great historical significance" and proudly possesses more than two-thousand objects of "historical interest and association," which have found a home in his private museum. Stewart has a strong preference for historical items with a Royal association, but has "a perfect mania" for anything connected to Mary, Queen of Scots. This all-consuming passion is why he reached out to the firm with a curtly worded letter with instructions.

The senior partner, David Linnell, is instructed to act on Stewart's behalf and purchase three historical articles, a collar of pearls, a tapestry fire-screen and a rosary of amber beads, which all have been "indisputably the property of Mary, Queen of Scots" – all three items will be on sale shortly at the Hanover Galleries. A not entirely conventional request, but a snappy telegram from Stewart confirms the commission. So the junior partner, Peter Daventry, goes to the gallery to inspect the articles in question, but, when Linnell goes there the following day, he found the gallery in "a condition of extreme excitement and agitation."

During the night, the gallery was robbed and the three items on Stewart's shopping list, the pearls, fire-screen and rosary, were taken away, but tragically, the night-watchman was brutally murdered during the robbery. And while Linnell is talking with Detective-Inspector Goodall, Daventry calls the gallery to tell his partner that the son of their client, Charles Stewart, has informed him that his father was bludgeoned to death last night in his library at Assynton Lodge. Inexplicably, the library door and french-windows were securely locked or fastened on the inside. Nothing appears to have been stolen from his private museum room. A pretty solid premise!

But before I continue, I've to pause here a moment and point out two interesting facts about the private museum in The Case of the Black Twenty-Two.

Firstly, a collector's private museum, or room where a collection is stored, is a trope commonly associated with S.S. van Dine and his followers, most notably Clyde B. Clason, but Flynn's use of it anticipates Van Dine – who used it for the first time in The Bishop Murder Case (1929). I thought it was very fitting the museum here is the property of an American millionaire. Secondly, there's a gem of a Sherlockian reference hidden in the museum. A reference that was never acknowledged, but one that can unmistakably linked to one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes stories and, if you spot it, the reference works as a bonus clue to the underlying motive that ties the cases together. What a fanboy!

Daventry has a brother, Gerald, who was peripherally involved in The Billiard-Room Mystery and "never tires of singing Bathurst's praises." So when Charles asks the solicitors to recommend him "an efficient, discreet, and trustworthy private detective," Daventry suggested seeking the help of that budding detective. Anthony Bathurst plays the role of Great Detective with his accustomed vigor and deduces his way from stolen fire-screens and little brown stones in a ink-bowl to a missing bullet and an obscure, murky passage of history. A passage telling of a Cardinal's great gift, the Black Twenty-Two. This titular plot-thread is very much in the Doylean tradition and can be linked to that fantastic Sherlockian reference that can be found in Stewart's private museum.

In my opinion, the historical mystery of the Black Twenty-Two is one of the better and most imaginative aspects of the plot. Only overshadowed by the reconstruction of the murder in the locked library. Unfortunately, there are also some less than stellar aspects of the plot that drags it down to the apprentice level of The Billiard-Room Mystery.

Even if you're really generous, there are only a handful of viable suspect. There's the son, Charles Stewart, the victim's ward, Marjorie Lennox, and his private-secretary, Morgan Llewellyn. You can add the mysterious man and who to the list who are, somehow, connected to the gallery murder. But when the genuinely surprising murderer is revealed, you want to cringe so damn hard you start believing Julian Symons had a point after all. A second drawback is the clumsily handling of the locked room angle, which had an uninspired, routine solution, but it hampered the murderer more than it helped – because leaving the french-windows open would have thrown red herring across the trail. Now all of the focus was on the people inside the house.

So, on a whole, Flynn's The Case of the Black Twenty-Two is an entertaining, well-written, but typical 1920s, detective novel with all the flaws and gusto of a burgeoning mystery writer. What really is impressive, considering the imperfections of The Billiard-Room Mystery and The Case of the Black Twenty-Two, is how the quality of plots and originality shot up like a bottle rocket in his next two novels. The Mystery of the Peacock's Eye (1928) and The Murder Near Mapleton (1929) are two of the best detective novels from the twenties, which followed on the heels of two apprentice novels. That kind of rapid improvement is something to be admired.

I want to read Invisible Death (1929) or The Orange Axe (1931) next, but I'll probably cram something else in between to keep things a little varied.