So, here we are again, gathered at the yawning grave of another year that has passed too soon and, before we start shuffling dirt on the casket, I like to take a moment to go over my best and worst reads of 2019. Merry Christmas by the way!
This year provided me with an interesting best-of list. The 1920s and 2010s are surprisingly well represented here, but the 1930s and 1940s still dominate the list. Same can be said about the omnipresent locked room mystery and more than a dozen non-English (translated) mysteries made it on the list, but, astonishingly, I reread more novels and short stories than I remembered – because a handful of them made it on the list. However, the undisputed winner of 2019 is Brian Flynn with four individual entries. So lets run down the list.
THE BEST MYSTERY NOVELS READ IN 2019:
One of only four (translated) novels based on the long-running and popular manga series, The Kindaichi Case Files, in which Hajime Kindaichi gets lost in a snowstorm and ends up on the doorstep of Silverwood Lodge. A place where a members of an on-line, detective-themed chat group, On-Line Lodge, have a meeting at the time. There is, however, a shadowy person among them, "The Trojan Horse," who's plotting wholesale murder. This is perhaps the first traditional detective story that used the internet in any meaningful way. And it has a great alibi-trick!
The Murder of Cecily Thane (1930) by Harriette Ashbrook
This is arguably the weakest title on the list, but the debut of both Harriette Ashbrook and her series-detective, Spike Tracy, was such a fun, lighthearted take on The Van Dine-Queen School of Detective Fiction I had to include it. Spike helps his beleaguered brother, District Attorney R. Montgomery Tracy, to find the murderer of the wife of a rich diamond merchant and destroys an iron-clad alibi in the process.
Murder Makes Murder (1937) by Harriette Ashbrook
On the other hand, Murder Makes Murder is easily one of the more memorable titles on this list and without a question Ashbrook's strongest mystery novel. Spike is traveling down to a small island, off the coast of Maine, to be the best man at a wedding, but, on the second night, the bride-to-be is gruesomely murdered in her bed and a storm cuts has cut them off from the outside world – which forces Spike to play detective once again. A very human and tragic detective story with a shockingly original motive.
The 3-13 Murders (1946) by Thomas B. Black
I enthusiastically called The 3-13 Murders one of the greatest hardboiled detective novels in my review, but not everyone agreed with me. Nonetheless, I quite enjoyed tailing Al Delaney around Chancellor City, in yellow cabs, as he tackled numerous intertwined cases. I liked it.
The Rilloby Fair Mystery (1950) by Enid Blyton
The second novel in the only series Blyton wrote for children older than eleven, "The Barney “R” Mysteries," in which a lively, convincingly drawn group of children solve a long string of baffling thefts of historical and valuable documents – snatched away from locked and guarded rooms. Admittedly, the solution is nearly as old as the locked room mystery, but Blyton added something new to it that made it acceptable again in 1950.
Les invités de minuit (The Seventh Guest, 1935) by Gaston Boca
A very unusual impossible crime novel about a strange night at a walled-in manor house, "as impregnable as a tombstone," where an uninvited, seemingly invisible, guest performs a number of unnerving parlor tricks. One of the more fantastic titles published by Locked Room International.
Hardly a Man is Now Alive (1950) by Herbert Brean (a reread)
A superior detective novel than Brean's most well-known mystery, Wilders Walks Away (1948), in which Reynold Frame and Constance Wilder's plans to get married in the historical town of Concord, Massachusetts, get imperiled. They are flung head first into a case involving a ghost lamp, a phantom army, a quasi-impossible disappearance and an excellent historical mystery. This is the book that Brean should be remembered for.
The Bloody Moonlight (1949) by Fredric Brown
Am and Ed Hunter are engaged to investigate whether, or not, a revolutionary new invention is worth a five-thousand dollar investment. A radio-device that can pick up all kinds of signals, but the inventor claims he has been receiving signals from the planet Mars! A marvelous and original, semi-hardboiled detective novel with a hint of science-fiction.
The Case of the Dead Shepherd (1934) by Christopher Bush
Murder brings Ludovic Travers and Superintendent George Wharton to a co-educational school where a dying teacher was found in common's room and the hated headmaster is beaten to death. This was a welcome return to those tricky, clock-work plots of early Bush.
Goodnight Irene (2018) by James Scott Byrnside
An ambitious debut of, what may be, one of the first mystery writers of the Second Golden Age that will come into full bloom around 2030 (mark my words). A mystery novel not only with all the brilliance of a Japanese shin honkaku, but also one of those rare homages to Byrnside's favorite mystery novelist, Christianna Brand. Something that becomes very obvious when you reach the solution to a case comprising of such bizarre elements as an armor-clad body, a locked room, dismembered corpses and a dying message. So what's there not to like?
The Opening Night Murders (2019) by James Scott Byrnside
A detective novel with a dazzling, kaleidoscopic plot written by someone who has only been reading classic mysteries since 2017, but moved with prodigal speed in mastering all the aspects of story-telling, plotting and characterization – delivering a modern masterpiece. The rich and complex plot is hard to briefly sum up. So just read it for yourself.
Till Death Do Us Part (1944) by John Dickson Carr (a reread)
A novel once considered to be one of Carr's mid-rank (locked room) mystery novels, but, over the past fifteen years, its status has been elevated to one of his ten best titles. This made me decide to reread the book and it definitely held up. A cleverly spun story about a young playwright who becomes involved with a woman, Lesley Grant, who's accused of being a serial-poisoner – having left three men dead inside locked rooms. This is followed by an impossible murder inside a locked room. A five-star detective novel that indeed deserved a reappraisal.
Where There's a Will (1961) by Kip Chase
An admirably attempt to fuse the traditional detective story with the modern, character-driven crime novel and introduced Chase's wheelchair-bound detective, Justine Carmichael. A former police chief who's regularly consulted by his ex-colleagues whenever they encounter a case outside of the normal routine. What a shame Chase only got to write three detective novels.
Death After Evensong (1969) by Douglas Clark
A classically-styled detective novel presented as a modern police procedural that brings the police-detective to a bleak, desolate village where time moves a lot slower and the inhabitants are stuck in a previous era. The detestable vicar of the place is found shot to death in a classroom of an abandoned school building, but the bullet seems to have miraculously vanished. A splendidly written and evocative novel with an original and well-done impossible crime.
The Case with Nine Solutions (1928) by J.J. Connington
The title of the book is a little misleading, because the titular solutions are no more than nine different possibilities, or combinations, of accident, murder and suicide Sir Clinton Driffield has to consider in a quadruple murder case – ending with an elegant solution to a problem of labyrinthine proportions. A classic detective novel from the 1920s.
The Glass Spear (1950) by S.H. Courtier
A great specimen of the anthropological detective novel, steeds in folklore and Gothic atmosphere, which takes place on a Australian sheep-and cattle range dominated by the family matriarch, Huldah – who lives a reclusive existence in a locked suite of rooms. Only two people are ever allowed to enter her private domain. Around her several murders take place that could only have been committed in Australia. A beautifully written and plotted mystery showing why Courtier deserves to be reprinted.
The Night of Fear (1931) by Moray Dalton
An excellent example of the Christmas mystery with a solid plot and an intriguing premise: a costumed Christmas party ends with a game of hide-and-seek in the dark, but a blind guest finds a body in the long gallery. The solution is not is pitch-perfect. However, the book still holds up as one of the better Christmas mysteries.
De man die zijn geweten ontlastte (The Man Who Relieved His Conscience, 2019) by Anne van Doorn
My country is not exactly known for its traditionally-styled, plot-driven detective fiction, but "Anne van Doorn," the penname of M.P.O. Books, has been working hard to alter this shameful state of affairs. So I'm glad to report that he produced one of my favorite detective novels of 2019! A truly excellent detective novel that begins with a false deathbed confession, which brings to light well-handled (locked room) murders. However, what elevates the book to classic status is the revelation about one of the protagonists that completely and utterly floored me. My ego got schooled hard on that one.
The Mystery of the Peacock's Eye (1928) by Brian Flynn
Brian Flynn is my Great Discovery of 2019 and The Mystery of the Peacock's Eye is one of the better titles reprinted by Dean Street Press, in which Flynn expertly tied together a case of Royal blackmail with a poisoning at a dentist's surgery. A book obviously written as a homage to Conan Doyle (c.f. "A Scandal in Bohemia," 1891), but was more reminiscent of early Agatha Christie.
The Murders Near Mapleton (1929) by Brian Flynn
One of the earliest and best examples of the Christmas mystery novel that became popular in the 1930s. The story begins with Sir Eustace Vernon excusing himself during Christmas dinner and vanishes from the house, but the case gets rolling with three subsequent discoveries: a suicide note, the body of the butler in the pantry and a badly mangled corpse on the train tracks. The solution glistens and shines with all the brilliance of the Golden Age.
Invisible Death (1929) by Brian Flynn
A most uncommon impossible crime novel, framed as Doylean thriller, in which a man is poisoned under inexplicable circumstances during a siege on a house by members of a sinister society, The Silver Troika – who were decimated by the victim during the Great War. But where they responsible for his death? The plot is a little light, but the sheer joy of the story-telling and original premise made this one of the more fun detective novels read this year.
Murder en Route (1935) by Brian Flynn
One of the regular commuters on the bus from Estings to Raybourne, who always traveled on the open top, doesn't descend the stairs one day and when the conductor goes to investigate he discovers that the man has been murdered. However, the man had been up there all alone. So how did the murderer get to him? Flynn only wrote a handful of impossible crime novels and this is his best one.
The Gold Watch (2019) by Paul Halter
A time-bending detective novel stretched across nearly a century, between 1911 and 1991, which masterfully intertwines two different narratives comprising of a hunt for a copy of long-lost film and two impossible crimes – one of them committed in 1966. A tour-de-force that will stand the test of time and will one day be considered a classic impossible crime novel of the 2010s.
The Medbury Fort Mystery (1929) by George Limnelius
A fascinatingly written novel, set at an army fort, which tries and succeeds in being both an inverted mystery and proper detective novel simply by inverting the inverted detective story. An approach anticipating Anthony Berkeley's Jumping Jenny (1933) and Trial and Error (1937). And the locked room aspect was just the cherry on top.
The Further Side of Fear (1967) by Helen McCloy
A relatively minor novel, especially for McCloy, but the plot pleasantly blended suspense with espionage and presented as a locked room mystery, which begins when a shadowy visitors enters and leaves the locked apartment of the heroine. It deserves to be better known.
Zaregoto series: kubikiri saikuru (Zaregoto: The Kubikiri Cycle, 2002) by NisiOisiN (a reread)
The award-winning debut of "NisiOisN" and the book is, what's known in Japan, as a Light Novel (Young Adult) illustrated with manga artwork that tells the story of the reluctant protagonist, Ii-chan – who accompanies a friend to a gathering of geniuses on Wet Crow's Feather Island. There he's forced by circumstances to take a proactive hand in capturing a ruthless killer. One of the murders is a gruesome beheading in a locked storage room and has a solution as brilliant as it's original.
Murder Isn't Cricket (1946) by E. and M.A. Radford
This is, what Anthony Boucher called, the simon-pure jigsaw puzzle detective story that used scientific detection to slowly, but methodically, unravel an impossible murder committed during a cricket match – liberally using challenges to the reader to keep the armchair detective on their toes. If you like plots, you'll love the Radfords.
Who Killed Dick Whittington? (1947) by E and M.A. Radford
A surprisingly successful hybrid of the sophisticated theatrical mysteries of Ngaio Marsh with the science-based detection of R. Austin Freeman and Ellery Queen-like challenges to the reader. The problem here centers on the mysterious poisoning of the lead actress in the Christmas pantomime Dick Whittington and His Cat during the dream-scene.
Senseijutsu satsujinjiken (The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, 1981) by Soji Shimada (a reread)
A macabre, grisly tour-de-force and the cornerstone of the Japanese shin honkaku movement, which skillfully manipulated the multiple strands of a complicated plot involving a legendary unsolved case from 1936, body parts scattered across Japan and an impossible murder. A bloody jigsaw puzzle eventually pieced together by an astrologer and fortune-teller, Kiyoshi Mitarai. There are some minor imperfections, but the central puzzle, tying everything together, is simply ingenuis. A genuine classic!
Naname yashiki no hanzai (Murder in the Crooked House, 1982) by Soji Shimada
This long anticipated second translation of the doyen of shin honkaku, Soji Shimada, which takes place in a Western-style house, Ice Floe Mansion, with a bizarre, glistening cylindrical tower – perched at the top of a snowy cliff. The owner has invited a group of people to spend the Christmas holiday there, but then people start to get murdered in locked rooms. Not as grandiose as its more famous predecessor, but it's still a solid detective story with a classic locked room-trick. And the story made excellent use of diagrams.
The Corpse with the Sunburned Face (1935) by Christopher St. John Sprigg
A very unconventional, but surprisingly successful, merger of a satirical English village mystery and a sultry thriller taking place in Africa, peppered with a dose of social comedy, which showed Sprigg was an excellent writer and plotter – blessed with a wealth of imagination. The result here is one of his more memorable detective novels. What a shame he died so young.
The Missing Moneylender (1931) by W. Stanley Sykes
A book aspiring to be both R. Austin Freeman and Dorothy L. Sayers with a plot concerning the unexpected death of a doctor and a missing moneylender, but Sykes brought an original idea to the table. A way to commit an almost perfect murder.
Shisei satsujin jiken (The Tattoo Murder Case, 1948) by Akimitsu Takagi (a reread)
A richly detailed detective story, set in the bombed ruins, shuttered buildings and makeshift shops of post-war Japan, but with a plot deeply emerged in the “shadowy, sensual world” of tattoos and cursed ink. An iconic locked room mystery from one of the pioneers of the original honkaku era.
They Walk in Darkness (1947) by Gerald Verner
This is an incredibly dark, pulpy take on the quintessential English village mystery steeped in witchcraft, serial killings, vigilantism and an impossible crime of the no-footprints scenario. One of Verner's longer novels that obviously tried to be a little more than most of shorter novels. I believe he succeeded.
Sorcerer's House (1956) by Gerald Verner
A fine example of the pulp-style detective story and a warm homage to John Dickson Carr's He Who Whispers (1946), which centers on a tragically wronged woman, Fay Meriton, whose back-story is tied to a dark, long abandoned house that once belonged to one of history's more illustrious figures, Cagliostro. Villagers claim they still lights moving around the dark house and bodies tend turn up below the window of the Long Room. One of Verner's best mystery novels.
The Laughing Dog (1949) by Francis Vivian
Inspector Gordon Knollis is called on to investigate the murder of Dr. Hugh Challoner, who was found strangled in his surgery, which is case full of doodles of the titular dog and a tightly-drawn, closely-knit group of suspects. A solidly plotted detective novel and one of my favorite entries in the series.
THE BEST SHORT STORIES READ IN 2019:
Short Stories from Collections:
Challenge the Impossible: The Final Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (2018) by Edward D. Hoch
"The Problem of the Potting Shed"
"The Problem of the Haunted Hospital"
"The Problem of the Secret Passage"
The Pleasant Assassin and Other Cases of Dr. Basil Willing (2003) by Helen McCloy
"Through a Glass, Darkly"
"The Singing Diamonds"
"Thy Brother Dead"
"The Bug That's Going Around"
The Cambodian Curse and Other Stories (2018) by Gigi Pandian
"The Haunted Room"
"A Dark and Stormy Light"
Single Short Stories:
Takemaru Abiko's "Ningyou wa tent de suiri suru" ("A Smart Dummy in the Tent," 1990)
Eric Ambler's "The Case of the Overheated Service Flat" (1940)
Jon L. Breen's "The Lithuanian Eraser Mystery" (1969)
D.L. Champion's "The Day Nobody Died" (1944)
Carter Dickson's "Blind Man's Hood" (1937)
Paul Halter's "Le livre jaune" ("The Yellow Book," 2017)
Edward D. Hoch's "The Case of the Modern Medusa" (1973)
Edward D. Hoch's "Circus in the Sky" (2000)
J.A. Konrath's "With a Twist" (2005)
E.C.R. Lorac's "Remember to Ring Twice" (1950)
Rintaro Norizuki's "Toshi densetsu pazuru" ("An Urban Legend Puzzle," 2001)
Edogawa Rampo's "Yaneura no sanposha" ("The Stalker in the Attic," 1925)
THE WORST OR MOST DISAPPOINTING READS OF 2019:
The Rat-a-Tat Mystery (1956) by Enid Blyton
A book with plenty of wintry charm and a lingering Christmas spirit, but the plot was razor-thin and uninspired, which was a huge disappointment after reading The Mystery of the Invisible Thief (1950) and the previously listed The Rilloby Fair Mystery.
The Dead Don't Care (1938) by Jonathan Latimer
This poorly written and plotted piece has replaced Ellery Queen's The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935) as the most transparent novel from an otherwise highly regarded Golden Age author. A paper-thin plot filled with shallow, immature characters and a bare amount of detective work by a couple of holidaying private-eyes. Like I said in my review, the dead don't care and neither should you.
The Army Post Murders (1931) by Mason Wright
A book with a strong opening and a great setting, a lonely army fortress in the middle of nowhere, but with an uninspired ending. Very disappointing.