Department of Juvenile Justice: The Ellery Queen, Jr. Mysteries

Frederic Dannay and his cousin Manfred B. Lee, better known by their shared penname of "Ellery Queen," were two of the most important mystery writers, editors and champions of the detective story of the previous century – whose monthly Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine kept the home fire burning during darker times. It's not for nothing, Anthony Boucher proclaimed Ellery Queen to be "the American detective story" incarnate.

There is, however, another reason why Ellery Queen is typically American: the name became one of the earliest examples of a branded franchise in the publishing world.

During the 1960s, Lee's health began to falter and developed a nasty case of writer's block, which forced Dannay to assemble an all-star cast of ghostwriters to continue their work in the sixties and seventies – an assembly that included Avram Davidson, Flora Fletcher, Edward D. Hoch and Theodore Sturgeon. This came on top of the name Ellery Queen branching out in all directions. There was a popular radio-series, a TV show, movies, comic books, a magazine, board games and literal jigsaw puzzles (e.g. The Case of His Headless Highness, 1973). Only thing they missed out on was having their own burger joint in New York. Who wouldn't want to order a Velie Burger with a side of Porter Fries and a Djuna Shake at A Challenge to the Eater?

An EQ venture not as well remembered today is their excursion into the juvenile corner of the genre with the Ellery Queen Junior Mysteries, which produced eleven novels in two (short) series between 1942 and 1966. There also appears to be an unpublished, long-lost twelfth novel, The Mystery of the Golden Butterfly.

Nine of the novels star a recurring side-character from the main series, Djuna, who's the small, gypsy orphan adopted by Inspector Richard Queen when Ellery was attending college. The book-titles of this series follow The [Country] [Noun] Mystery pattern of Queen's early international series, but with colors and animals (e.g. The Black Dog Mystery, 1942). The other two novels are helmed by a specially created character, Gulliver Queen. So I wanted to take a closer look a novel from each of these series.

The Mystery of the Merry Magician (1961) is the first of only two titles in the Gulliver Queen series, but ghostwriters and unauthorized sub-ghostwriters have made determining authorship somewhat of a puzzle – which is discussed by Kurt Sercu on his Ellery Queen website (click on the covers to read more). James Holding was contracted to write the 1960s Ellery Queen Junior novels, but he farmed out the work to sub-ghosts and The Mystery of the Merry Magician was written by the author of the Dig Allen series, Joseph Greene. I understand Lee was not amused.

Gulliver "Gully" Queen is the sixteen-year-old nephew of Ellery and the grandson of Inspector Richard Queen. His father is Ellery's hitherto unknown and nameless brother, an engineer, who's in Europe working on "a long-term United Nations project," which is why Gully is staying an entire year with his uncle and grandfather in New York. The presence of the regular characters from the main series makes the book feel like a crossover and really is what makes it standout as a juvenile mystery. Ellery Queen briefly appears in the opening and closing chapters. Gully is even seen reading one of his uncle's detective novels (The Finishing Stroke, 1958). Nikki Porter is mentioned in passing, but, more importantly, Inspector Queen and my personal favorite side-character from any series, Sergeant Thomas Velie, have supporting roles to play in the story!

I've always been of the opinion it was a gross oversight to never let Inspector Queen and Sergeant Velie solve a case without Ellery helping them out. So it was nice to see them here working together in giving support to Gully.

The Mystery of the Merry Magician begins with Ellery having to break his promise to take Gully on a camping trip to the mountains, because the Treasury Department has asked him to go the New Orleans waterfront to investigate some baffling reports – a "strange creature" has been haunting the docks down there. Ellery notices Gully is trying to mask his disappointment and gives him a leather notebook, which he's to use to write down the names, addresses and the story of anyone who might come to see him. And there's only one rule, Gully is not allowed to "go off trying to solve mysteries." He just has to write down the facts in the notebook.

So, as to be expected, the moment Ellery has gone someone comes knocking at the door of the Queen residence. A boy of Gully's age, named "Fisty" Jones, who has a most astonishing story to tell and Captain Foster, "an old buddy of Inspector Queen," told him to go tell it to the inspector's son, Ellery. Gully has to keep a record for his uncle and asks Fisty to tell him the story.

Fisty was visiting Captain Foster and his granddaughter, Peggy, who live on a barge tied up at Pier A of the New York waterfront. On his way back home, Fisty passed a block of mostly abandoned, boarded-up old houses and peeked into the window of an empty story. Fisty described, what he saw, as "a monster from space." A creature with black, smooth skin, big, floppy feet and "one big, round eye," right in "the middle of his face." So they go to have a second look at the empty shop, but discover that the window has been painted black and are told by a tattooed man to mind their own business or else they might get hurt. The tattooed man has designs on the building next door, which is leased to "an old-time magician," Magnus Merlin, who now makes a living by making magic tricks and always accompanied by his happy little dog, Banjo – who proves to be a huge help to the boys throughout the story.

The central plot-thread is very basic for a juvenile mystery novel and therefore easy to figure out, but there were some nice touches that punched it up a bit.

Besides the obligatory dangers and tight corners, there's an attempt to make the role of the merry magician in the plot ambiguous (friend or foe?) and there's an honest-to-god impossible situation witnessed by Gully and Fisty! When they're swimming in the river to find origin of hammering noises heard on the barge, they see "a man walking on water." Solution is not terribly clever, but it fitted the plot. There's also very subtly done "Challenge to the Reader," when Gulliver remarks he has "a strange feeling that all the facts Uncle Ellery will need to solve the case" is in his notebook to which Peggy responds, "well, then, solve it yourself." This made the last chapter, entitled "Gully's Little Notebook," all the better. One of those nice little touches that really helped the plot.

I've to say, though, with all the magicians, magic-tricks, tattooed men and an impossible crime, the story felt more like the junior to Clayton Rawson than Ellery Queen.

All in all, The Mystery of the Merry Magician has pretty decent plot, but it's the characters who stole the show! Gully, Fisty and Peggy can stand with the best teenage detective-characters from the genre's juvenile corner and Inspector Queen and Sergeant Velie shined in their supporting roles. So I can highly recommend it to either readers of these vintage juvenile mysteries and die-hard Ellery Queen fans. Something that'll probably give JJ an existential crisis!

Now that we got the first Gulliver Queen novel out of the way, let's move on to the book that almost closed out the Djuna series.

The Blue Herring Mystery (1954) is the eighth and penultimate installment in the Dunja series, which was supposed to have been written by Samuel McCoy, but he hired a sub-ghost, Harold Montanye, to write the last six books on his contract – which were the titles from The Green Turtle Mystery (1944) to The Blue Herring Mystery. Reportedly, Montanye experienced "some difficulties getting his stake in the half share McCoy had." The Black Dog Mystery (1942), The Golden Eagle Mystery (1942) and the unpublished The Mystery of the Golden Butterfly were written by yet another sub-ghost, Frank Belknap Long. More than a decade later, Holding penned the final book, The Purple Bird Mystery (1966). Well, that's what everyone still hopes. What a goddamn mess! No wonder Lee's heart was playing up.

The Blue Herring Mystery is not as strong as The Mystery of the Merry Magician when it comes to character portrayal, or story-telling, but it found an interesting way to use EQ's signature trope, a dying message, in a detective story belonging to a usually murderless branch of the genre.

Djuna has a week-long holiday ahead of him and has a friend from Florida, Bobby Herrick, who's coming over and, in preparation of his arrival, Miss Annie Ellery takes him to Aunt Candy's house to borrow cinnamon for an apple pie. Aunt Candy is the great-granddaughter of a 19th century merchant mariner, Captain Jonas Beekman, who passed away over seventy years ago and muttered something with his last breath – telling people to "lift th' blue herrin." Some believe this was a clue to where he had hidden a fortune in pears he had brought back from the South Seas. Djuna is allowed to thumb through the captain's old logbook and reads some curious entries as well as discovering a page had been torn out.

Coincidentally, a drugstore owner, Doc Perry, is turning Captain Beekman's old house into a museum and is assisted by a mysterious, disheveled man, Professor Kloop, who has taken over the whole project. Doc Perry has become mighty suspicious of Kloop as he's always "peekin' into dark corners in the cellar" or "tappin' walls." So what is he's exactly up to?

Well, this pretty much sums up the whole plot. A paper-thin, but thickly padded, plot hinging on a single idea. The dying message. Admittedly, the solution to the 70-year-old dying message was delightfully simplistic and as believable as the one from Queen's own short-short "Diamonds in Paradise" (collected in Queen's Full, 1965), which why it drowned in this already short novel. This single idea could easily carry a short-short or a short story, but not a whole novel. And the poor characterization didn't help either.

Djuna is used in the opening chapters to explain things to its young readers and, in combination with constantly uttering "Golly" or "Jeepers," he comes across a little dull-witted. Something that strikes a false note when its time to play detective and correctly interpret the dying message of the old sea captain. Most of what happens between the opening and closing chapters is boring padding or just boring. There was such a lack of any interest in the story that it became very noticeable how much the characters were eating all the time, which ranged from apple pie, pancakes and kippers to egg salad sandwiches, baked potatoes and spaghetti – topped with chocolate nut sundaes. This only represents a small selection from their holiday menu! Just padding at its worst.

So, yeah, The Blue Herring Mystery tried to tackle an interesting concept with a good premise and solution, but it was lost in a deadly dull, overly padded story and I simply can't recommend it. I'll definitely tackle the second Gulliver Queen novel in the future, but don't expect me to return to the Djuna series anytime soon.

A note for the curious: I've already mention a missing, presumably unpublished manuscript in the EQ Jr. franchise, The Mystery of the Golden Butterfly, which reminded me of the unpublished, long-lost last novel in The Three Investigator series. Back in 2016, I put together a small selection of lost detective stories and one of them was M.V. Carey's The Mystery of the Ghost Train, which was completed when the series was canceled in 1986 and the manuscript was presumably lost. A website dedicated to the series posted an update in 2018 reporting that the manuscript is in "the possession of the Carey family," but Random House "has expressed no interest in it." Hopefully, this will change in the future.


The Bloody Tower (1938) by John Rhode

The Bloody Tower (1938) is the 32nd novel in the Dr. Lancelot Priestley series and has a plot fulfilling John Rhode's own requirements expected of a good detective story, "painstaking workmanship" and "accurate expression of fact," but the most attractive facet of the story is it was perhaps inspired by the work of his friend, John Dickson Carr – similar to how Rhode influenced Carr's The Man Who Could Not Shudder (1940). You can easily make out the contours of a Carr-like detective story when glancing at the skeletal structure of the plot.

The Bloody Tower is set in the now gloomy surroundings of "the ruined grandeur" of the once splendiferous Farningcote estate.

Sometime in 18th century, Thaddeus Glapthorne constructed Farningcote Priory with the stones of a ruined monastery and erected  "a cylinder of masonry" on the highest point of his land. An inscription carved above the lintel of the iron door prophesying, "while this tower shall stand," so "long shall Glapthorne dwell in Farningcote." One of his less fortunate descendants has religiously clung to that promise.

Simeon Glapthorne is an elderly, invalid man who lives in the bare, but habitable, central block of the Georgian house with the now closed, disused wings lying in ruin – empty rooms, broken windows and missing tiles. Every piece of furniture and book in the house was sold until there was hardly "a stick left." A significant portion of the estate consists of unproductive woodlands, some wasteland known as the warren and Farningcote Farm is leased to a dairy farmer, Thomas Chudley. So what little money comes in "almost exactly balances" the interest on the mortgage.

You can say the place has lost some of its shine over the centuries, but the old, wheelchair-bound man clings to the place and lives there with his oldest son, Caleb. A frayed, shabbily dressed butler, Bill Horning, who has been with the family for over fifty years and his bibulous wife and cook, Mrs. Horning. A younger son, named Benjamin, refused to take part in the struggle against "inevitable ruin" and became an engineer aboard a steamship. Where he dreams of a life together with his first cousin, Joyce Blackbrook, in the engine room (gross). So there's no apparent reason to suspect anything, but a tragic accident, when Caleb's body is found in the warren with part of his face blown to pieces. A burst shotgun, or parts of it, were found lying next to the body.

Inspector Jimmy Waghorn, of the Criminal Investigation Department, happened to be in Lydenbridge and talking with Inspector Appleyard, of the local constabulary, when the apparent gun accident was reported – who invites Waghorn to come along. And they soon discover there's more to the exploding shotgun than a mere hunting accident.

As their investigation progressed, Waghorn decides to consult that "queer old stick," Dr. Lancelot Priestley, who has retired and spends his days stirring up "the very devil in scientific circles" with controversial articles and attempting to satisfy his "hunger for human problems." Something the police is more than willing to help feed, but, at this point of the series, Dr. Priestley has become an armchair oracle and leaves the practical detective work to Jimmy Waghorn and Superintendent Hanslet. So he only makes a couple of brief appearances before drawing his conclusions in the last chapter.

So you might expect the story to be one of Rhode's technical how-was-it-done stories, but, surprisingly, "the mechanism of the crime" is settled early on in the book with a visit to a local gunsmith. What we're given instead is a very clever and evenly paced whodunit with an ever better executed historical plot-thread, which revolves around a coded message left by Thaddeus Glapthorne in the family bible. A cipher linking bible verses to odd, hand-drawn shapes of balloons, crescent moons, circles and squares. If you put the book aside and take the time, you actually have a shot at decoding the message. Something I didn't do myself, but someone with a mind for codes and puzzles could do it. And how it related to the old, gloomy tower demonstrated why Rhode was the Engineer of Death! This excellently done plot-thread is also the reason why I tagged this review as historical mystery. It's really that good!

Technically, the who and the cleverly disguised motive were equally well done, but the observant, cynically-minded armchair detective will have no problem fishing both of them from the small pool of suspects – which weakened the partial false-solution following in the wake of an unexpected death. A character who I didn't expect to die in this Carrian detective novel.

I don't remember who exactly made this argument, but someone posited Rhode's primary weakness was his unwarranted expectation that his readers would take anything he told them on blind faith. But when we open a detective novel, we become a very suspicious and uncharitable lot who give the stink eye to even the most innocent looking characters or actions. This is what made the murderer and motive standout in The Bloody Tower.

Nonetheless, the easily spotted murderer and lack of a strong how-was-it-done type of killing, The Bloody Tower stands as one of Rhode's better and most readable detective novels. A sobering, realistic take on the atmospheric, Gothic-style mysteries of doomed families and old, long-lingering curses laced together with an ingenious historical plot-thread. I unhesitatingly recommend it to everyone and particular to readers who are new to Rhode. You might not get to know Dr. Priestley, but it shows, in more ways than one, what Rhode could do with the detective story.


She Died Without Light (1956) by Nieves Mathews

Nieves Mathews was a Scottish-Spanish author who wrote the 606-page volume Francis Bacon: The History of a Character Assassination (1996) and worked at the Food & Agriculture Organization, of the United Nations, for twenty years, but during her early years, she wrote detective novel – a now extremely obscure and hard-to-get novel. A novel that also happened to be included in Robert Adey's bibliographic work, Locked Room Murders (1991).

So, without anymore salient details to divulge about either the author or the book itself, let's dig right in!

She Died Without Light (1956) begins with clippings of newspaper articles, gossip columns and fragments of letters reporting, or speculating, about the strange death of "the invalid owner" of the Pension des Eaux Calmes, Madame Sophie Rousseau. A tattered, rundown boarding house in Geneva, Switzerland, whose only charm was the personality of its owner. Madame Rousseau was the grand-daughter of a world famous explorer, a one-time member of the Conservatoire and "universally beloved" by "her boarders, her staff" and "by half Geneva." So the press and public where all over the case when the news broke that she had died under circumstances that proved hard to explain.

On a late September morning, the milkman heard "a most extraordinary sound" coming from the boarding house. A wailing, piteous cry that came from Madame Rousseau's car, Coralie, who's caught in a broken window-pane and was struggling to get out.

Through the glass, the milkman saw the body of Madame Rousseau, "contorted into an incredible position," with her hand stretched out towards a tumbler of water, but everyone else in the house was sound asleep – presumably under "the influence of a drug." Some witnesses have commented on the unusual fact that "the old villa had all its lights on throughout Tuesday evening." However, the authorities appoint a juge d'instruction when a postmortem revealed the presence of a large quantity of arsenic in the body, but not "a single bottle or vessel" is found in the victim's bedroom containing the slightest trace of the poison. A room that had its door and windows securely bolted on the inside!

After this opening, the story back-tracks a few days to the arrival of a British boarder, Dr. Hal Phillips, who has come "the cleanest, tidiest country in Europe" for a much-needed rest. But what he found was everything but that.

Dr. Hal Phillips becoming a guest at the rundown boardinghouse and interacting with the strange people who dwell there has all the surrealistic quality of Ellery Queen's Ellery-in-Wonderland tales (e.g. There Was an Old Woman, 1943) and the works of Craig Rice, but with an oddly Galic flavor to the plot and characters. I was somewhat reminded of Gaston Boca, Pierre Véry and Noël Vindry.

Pension des Eaux Calmes was "not quite what he had expected" and, before he even crossed its threshold, Dr. Phillips spots two eyes peeping at him over the edge of the veranda roof, which were "yellow and full hatred." The eyes belong not to Madame Rousseau's cat, but to her only son, Jean Jacques. Another man, clad in black with a green tie, is crouching, like "a wild animals," on the lowest branch of a walnut tree and jumped on a stench bench – after which he run away without saying a word. A mother of two young children, who are allowed to run amok and vandalize the place, completely ignores his existence and another, bony-looking woman shut a door in his face without giving him a second look. Welcome to Pension des Eaux Calmes!

Portuguese edition
Everyone at the boarding house, except for Madame Rousseau, received Dr. Phillips with the same look of "fear and dislike" or even abject, animal-like terror. Obviously, something was not quite what it seemed and, more than once, Dr. Phillips asks the people why they continue to hang on there. And becomes determined to find out what's at the bottom of all of it.

A problem that will take up the entire mid-section of the book and concludes with the murder reported in the first chapter, but, before reaching that point, Dr. Phillips has to contend with ghostly noises, theft, tea cups, carelessly strewn bottles of medicine or tins of rat poison and a hungry electricity meter – which keeps gobbling up coins. Not to mention two attempted murders. This approach can be compared to Cyril Hare's contentious masterpiece, Tragedy at Law (1942), with the murder being committed at the end of the book and the story showing everything that happened leading up to it. However, as previously stated, She Died Without Light has a distinctly French flavor. Characters, set-pieces and story-telling take precedence over the puzzle and plot-mechanics that are central to the Anglo-Saxon detective story.

This is not to say the plot is bad or even weakly handled. On the contrary! While the plot is a little loose in its joints, the whole structure fits together logically, but it's the mad logic of a dream. So not everyone is going to appreciate the solution, because the identity of the murderer was lifted from a well-known detective novel and the locked room-trick, which is closely tied to the murderer and personality of the victim, is a little underwhelming. Personally, I thought the solution to the murder was well-done and believe Mathews succeeded in what Ulf Durling attempted to do in Gammal ost (Hard Cheese, 1971), but I can also see why some readers might be let down by it. After all, you have to read to the end to get back to the point where you started, but with a better understanding what was going on at the boardinghouse. And some readers expect a bigger payoff than they'll get.

So, yeah, this is a difficult book to recommend, but I rather enjoyed reading this unconventional detective story that began as a tragicomedy with some surrealistic touches and slowly morphed into a bad dream ending in murder. There are, as to be expected from a first-timer, some imperfections, but the fact that this was Mathews' sole contributions to the genre is one of my two only complaints. My other gripe is that the cat in the broken window-pane has no relevance, whatsoever, on the locked room-trick. Somehow, the idea of a murder in a locked room with the only gap plugged with an angry, hissing cat is a very appealing idea.

She Died Without Light is not going to be everyone's favorite locked room mystery, but I think its rarity and well-done, if oddball, plot makes it deserving of a long overdue reprint. So maybe Dean Street Press or Locked Room International want to adopt this one?


Murder in the Dog Days (1991) by P.M. Carlson

I've always been fascinated with detective stories set in either the thick of war, the home-front or among the (societal) wreckage of their aftermath.

Whether it is the sacking of a great city in antiquity (Paul Doherty's A Murder in Thebes, 1998), inexplicable streaks of lights seen on the battlefield of the Great War (Laurance Clark's "Flashlights," 1918), a World War II prisoner-of-war camp (Michael Gilbert's The Danger Within, 1952) or the social malaise of post-war Britain (Christopher Bush's The Case of the Fourth Detective, 1951) – a well-written, war-themed mystery usually makes for an engrossing read. Sometimes having a war in the background can turn an otherwise average detective novel into a noteworthy title (e.g. Franklyn Pell's Hangman's Hill, 1946).

However, the war thorn detective novel seems to have been primarily come from the British and their contributions can fill out an entire bookcase, but our gun-toting, flag-waving American friends are surprisingly unrepresented. I can only think of handful of truly noteworthy examples of traditional, American war-themed mystery novels.

Darwin L. Teilhet's The Talking Sparrow Murders (1934) and Theodore Roscoe's I'll Grind Their Bones (1936) give the reader a visionary preview of the Second World War. Rex Stout wrote two excellent novellas, collected in Not Quite Dead Enough (1944), which are also two of the better World War II detective stories written during that period. Not quite as brilliant as Carter Dickson's Nine-and Death Makes Ten (1940) or Christianna Brand's Green for Danger (1944), but Stout has rarely written and plotted them better. Kip Chase's Murder Most Ingenious (1962) has a plot revolving around three veterans of the Korean War.

So I was intrigued when I came across Murder in the Dog Days (1991) by Patricia Carlson, who writes as P.M. Carlson, which, set in 1975, deals with the personal aftermath of the Vietnam war and the terrors of post-traumatic stress – because official declarations don't end wars for combat veterans. Another thing that attracted me to this book was Tom and Enid Schantz, of the now defunct Rue Morgue Press, praising it as "an ingeniously plotted, fair-play, locked room mystery." You know how I'm when it comes to locked room mysteries and impossible crimes!

Murder in the Dog Days is the sixth title in the Maggie Ryan series and a 1992 Edgar Award nominee/finalist. I think the Maggie Ryan & Family series would be a more apt description.

Maggie is accompanied by her "brawny, balding husband," Nick O'Connor, who's an actor periodically appearing TV commercials, her brother, Jerry Ryan, and his wife, Olivia Kerr – who works as a reporter for The Mosby Sun-Dispatch. They become personally involved when an investigative reporter for the Sun-Dispatch is murdered under seemingly impossible circumstances.

Olivia invited a colleague, Dale Colby, to take his family and come with them to the beach in order to escape the sweltering, August heat, but Dale is working on a plane crash story with political implications. So they only take his wife, Donna, and their two young daughters to the beach. Everything goes splendidly until they returned home and Dale doesn't emerge from his private office-room to greet them, which is bolted on the inside and the gauze-curtained windows were "clamped down." When the door was pried open with a crowbar, they found Dale's twisted body, "splayed on the plaid carpet," with gashes on his face and scalp!

Detective Holly Schreiner is the hard-bitten homicide cop in charge of the case and her back-story is one of the three main plot-strands that make up the plot of Murder in the Dog Days.

Holly Schreiner is an ex-army nurse who served in Vietnam, where she worked twenty-hour shifts in the operating room, but, upon her return home, she found a country hostile towards veterans. She's also haunted by horrifying images of cots filled with dead or moaning bodies, "swathed in blood-soaked bandages," and the throbbing sound of the rotors of helicopters – bringing more wounded or dead soldiers to army hospitals. This is very much a character-driven plot-thread in which Holly has to come to terms with the past and try to make peace with that peacenik, Maggie Ryan. The two other plot-threads concern the locked room murder and the plane crash story.

The plane crash story doesn't really come into play until the second half of the story when the people, who Dale wrote about in his newspaper articles, come under closer scrutiny. Dale had implied in his articles that "the survivors of the five victims were better off now than before the crash" and some of them didn't exactly appreciate his take on their personal situation. However, this is the least interesting part of the plot and primarily serves to provide the story with some excitement towards the end as some of the characters find themselves in a life-or-death situation. I was much more impressed with how the impossible murder in the locked room was handled in this very modern crime novel.

During the first half of the story, the locked room murder is giving some thought and there are even false solution proposed, such as "threads attached to the lamp, trick window frames, or mysterious screeching door wedges," but the eventual solution is pretty clever and original. One of those tricks tailor-made for a specific victim under a particular set of circumstances. Very original and satisfying! On the hand, the clueing, hinting and foreshadowing of the murderer's identity and motive were a bit iffy in key parts, because the brutal severity of the reason behind the murderer still felt like it came out of nowhere – although it was sort of hinted at. Nevertheless, the combination of a modern, character-driven crime novel with a locked room puzzle at its heart pleasantly reminded me of Marcia Muller (The Tree of Death, 1983) and Bill Pronzini (Bones, 1985).

So, all things considered, I've to honestly say not every vintage mystery reader will be able to appreciate the still very modern Murder in the Dog Days, but, if you have a special interest in impossible crime stories or army-themed mysteries, it's a title I can recommend.


Going Ashore: "The High House" (1948) by Hake Talbot

Henning Nelms was an American magician and authored a trickster's manual, entitled Magic and Showmanship: A Handbook for Conjurers (1969), but more importantly, he penned two memorable examples of the locked room mystery novel, The Hangman's Handyman (1942) and Rim of the Pit (1944) – published as by "Hake Talbot." Two very popular novels among devotees of the impossible crime tale.

Robert Adey praised Talbot in Locked Room Murders (1991) as the only mystery writer to "successfully emulate" John Dickson Carr and Clayton Rawson. A writer who combined "Carr's flair for atmosphere and the bizarre" with "Rawson's magical tricks," which endeared the books to the avid locked room reader. Not as well remembered are Talbot's two short stories.

"The Other Side" was never sold during Talbot's lifetime and remained unpublished until it was included in Murder Impossible: An Extravaganza of Miraculous Murders, Fantastic Felonies and Incredible Criminals (1990), but Jack Adrian frustratingly noted in the introduction Talbot wrote numerous short stories featuring his professional gambler and ex-convict, Rogan Kincaid – which also remained unsold and where either destroyed or lost! A similar, horrifying fate befell the third, full-length Rogan Kincaid novel, The Affair of the Half-Witness. There is, however, a second story that made it into print long before "The Other Side." It's just a little bit more difficult to find.

As far as I know, "The High House" has only appeared in the Spring, 1948, issue of the Mystery Book Magazine and nowhere else. Not in English anyway.

"The High House" begins, as you would expect from Talbot, with a dark, brooding story of a deadly, century-old curse that lies upon the house of a seafaring family. Back in the 1800s, Captain Thomas Danvers made "a voyage to the Spice Islands" and brought back a handful of natives, a father and four sons, who erected the family mansion. This explains why "the house spoke imperceptibly yet insistently of Oceania." Captain Danvers promised the natives to take them back home on his voyage, but the promise was rescinded when he got into the European trade. So the old native placed a curse on the family home and then, together with his sons, flung themselves into eternity from the captain's walk on the roof.

A curse promising that if "the heads of the Danvers family ever gave up the sea" to settle down in the ancestral seat, "the house would kill them" until "it had taken life for life" and it has lived up to its promise – killing three men over a hundred-year period. So this brings us to the present-day and the elderly, dying Admiral Nat Danvers has returned to the family home.

There are four more people in the house on that fateful evening: Everett Danvers is Uncle Nat's last living relative and the house is being manned by the son of the old Danvers' housekeeper, Steve Phelps. Anne Corwin is Everett's love interest and she brought along that adventurous-minded detective, Rogan Kincaid, who is asked by her "to lift the Doom of the Danvers from Everett." Unfortunately, Kincaid's presence is unable to prevent the Old Admiral falling to his doom from the captain's walk when he was all alone on the roof-top. Or so it appears!

However, "The High House" suffers from the same problem as "The Other Side" in that the premise was better than its ending with a solution lacking the ingenuity of the locked room-tricks from the novels. Another problem here, unlike in "The Other Side," is that the fall from the roof-top is never really presented as an impossible crime, because Talbot never showed why it should be considered a locked room murder of sorts. Something weakening a solution that already some dodgy parts in it.

The premise of "The High House" perfectly demonstrates why Talbot is always compared with Carr, eerily bringing together the lore of the sea with the superstition originating from a far-flung island, but the execution of the plot shows the short story format was not suited for Talbot's talents – who obviously needed a novel-length canvass to work his magic on. Regardless, I'm still grateful to have been able to judge this story for myself and many thanks to a certain person who kindly provided me with a copy.


The Case of the Rusted Room (1937) by John Donavan

Nigel Morland was an English editor of periodicals such as Edgar Wallace Mystery Magazine, The Criminologist and Current Crime, but carved out a name for himself in the annals of crime as a highly productive manufacturer of detective, pulp and thriller stories – reputedly churning out an average of 30,000 to 50,000 words a week. Last year, Curt Evans, of The Passing Tramp, shined a spotlight on this now forgotten teller of tall tales in a series of lengthy blog-posts, "The Many Faces of Mr. Morland," "The Many Mysteries of Mr. Morland" and "The Many Fancies of Mr. Morland."

A picture emerged from those blog-posts of a man who had adopted an American-style public persona in order to bolster his profile as a crime writer.

Morland claimed to have been Edgar Wallace's private-secretary, the notorious Dr. Crippen had bounced him on his knee as a child and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had told him Jack the Ripper was "somewhere in the upper stratum," but there's not a shred of proof for any of these stories. Obviously, Morland wanted people to believe he had a finger on the pulse of the criminal going-ons, real or fictional, in society. Someone you can trust to tell the story as it is.

My curiosity was piqued by Curt's expose and Morland is represented in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) with more than one title, but don't worry, this is not going to be another review of some obscure locked room mystery – because something else caught my eye. During the 1930s, Morland wrote a short series of scientific mysteries, published as by "John Donavan," with two additional novels published in 1940 and 1952.

The protagonist of this series is a young, scientifically educated policeman, Sergeant Johnny Lamb, who has been likened by Mike Grost to E.R. Punshon's police detective, Bobby Owen. Sgt. Johnny Lamb is the son of the late Home Office pathologist, Sir David Lamb, who "spirited him away to the library or laboratory" every time his mother's back was turned. Everyone assumed he would follow in his father's footsteps, but "at twenty-two he had revolted" and enlisted as a uniform man. Lamb was determined to earn his stripes on merit, eventually attaining the rank of sergeant, which landed him an assistant spot of one of the big Scotland Yard man, Detective-Inspector Cross. So you can easily see how Grost came to compare Johnny Lamb to Bobby Owen.

The series comprises of six, tantalizingly-titled novels, such as The Case of the Talking Dust (1938), The Case of the Coloroud Wind (1939) and The Case of the Plastic Man (1940), but the title that really captured my imagination was the first book in the series, The Case of the Rusted Room (1937) – a reference to a cluster of clues found at the scene of the crime. A cluster of clues as clever as the circles and whirligigs from John Russell Fearn's Pattern of Murder (2006)!

The Case of the Rusted Room takes place in a recently erected, red-brick monstrosity of modern architecture, Sion House, which flaunted "an aggressive austerity" that "startled the quiet Victorian dreams of Kensington." One of the tenants of Sion House is an asthmatic hypochondriac and misanthrope, Samuel Wiseman, who's tightfisted with everything except doctors, patent medicines and the latest model of inhalers.

Nonetheless, Wiseman was a gravely ill man and death was always lurking over his shoulder, which is why preferred to sit all day in front "the tightly closed window" and created "mephitic clouds" even the modern devises of Sion House were unable to cope with. 

So, when Wiseman croaked during "a violent paroxysm of coughing," the doctor saw no reason to suspect foul play and wanted to sign the death certificate, but one of Wiseman's neighbors insisted on bringing in the police. Miss Prillkins is Wiseman's vigorous neighbor who overheard an argument between him and his ward, Hugh Chandler, who's a chemical engineer in desperate need of four or five thousand pounds to further develop a new process of producing oil from coal – which unceremoniously denied and a heated argument followed. This is enough reason to begin a closer inspection of the body and room, which immediately throw up all kinds of red flags!

A medical examination reveals that the whole of mucous membrane is unnaturally inflamed, apparent caused by some irritant, but there's no trace of "irritant poisons" in the organs! Lamb discovers clusters of "abnormal rusting and fading" of fabric and metal in the room, which comes with a gorgeously drawn diagram of the rusted room with all the spots of rusting/fading marked. These clues tell Lamb how Wiseman had died, but not exactly how it was done and the solution to this problem is a good example of the interest of Golden Age mystery writers in architecture. Add a little science to it and you have a lethal combination.

Scientific nature of Samuel Wiseman's murder and the mechanics behind its achievement brought to mind other so-called nearly perfect murder and how-was-it-done mysteries like W. Stanley Sykes' The Missing Moneylender (1931), Victor MacClure's Death Behind the Door (1933) and the works of the Engineer of Death, John Rhode – e.g. Death in the Tunnel (1936) and Invisible Weapons (1938). I think it goes without saying that the how, rather than the who or why, showed the most ingenuity and constituted the best aspect of the plot. A very clever, inspired idea with its only (minor) weakness that practically everything played right into the murderer's hands. However, this was hardly enough to soil my enjoyment and it was interesting to see how Lamb eroded, what was supposed to be, a perfect crime.

But the how is only one aspect of the crime. Cross and Lamb had to find a person and motive that fitted the ingenious method of the murder.

The murder is properly motivated and was given some thought, but it's still one of those age-old motives. Still, it was not badly done. There are only a handful of suspects: namely the previously mentioned Hugh Chandler and Miss Prillkins, the boorish Brigadier-General Roland Railton-Railton and the quiet, mild-mannered Mr. Charles Nimmo, who live in the same section of Sion House as Prillkins and Wiseman. And a shady financier, Walter Brimsgrove. However, the murderer, while logical considering the motive, was the least inspired aspect of the solution.

All of that being said, I was quit impressed with the overall quality of the plot and story. I didn't expect such a sophisticated, how-was-it-done-style mystery novel with a series-character who could pass as Punshon's Bobby Owen's brother and a scientifically-grounded plot, reminiscent of the Dr. Harry Mason stories by the Radfords, from a writer perhaps best remembered for his lurid, pulp-style thrillers – some of which won't sit well with a modern audience. The Case of the Rusted Room is something else all together! If you can judge the rest of the series by this one, Dean Street Press should seriously consider reprinting all six Sgt. Lamb novels. I think this series would beautifully complement their reprints of Punshon and the Radfords.