Death and the Professor (1961) by E. and M.A. Radford

A year ago, Dean Street Press reissued three detective novels by a British husband-and-wife writing team, Edwin and Mona A. Radford, who together concocted close to forty complex, scrupulously plotted and richly clued forensic detective novels – strongly influenced by R. Austin Freeman and Ellery Queen. Murder Isn't Cricket (1946) and Who Killed Dick Whittington? (1947) were two of the titles specially selected as strong examples of their ability in constructing and tearing down intricate, unpadded plots. Radfords peppered their detective stories with challenges to the reader!

Nearly a year later, on March 3, DSP is going to release a further three novels, introduced by Nigel Moss, each "quite different in approach and style," but "retaining the traditions" of the great detective stories of yore.

The Heel of Achilles (1950) is an inverted mystery and Death of a Frightened Editor (1959) an impossible crime novel about a poisoning on a London-to-Brighton train, but the obscure Death and the Professor (1961) is of particular interest to every locked room reader. A collection of short stories structured as a detective novel with seven of the eight stories covering an entire page in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991).

The stories from Death and the Professor are centered around a small, exclusive dinner club, The Dilettantes' Club, whose distinguished members gather once a fortnight at a Soho restaurant where they dine in a private-room and debate any problem "besetting mankind" – a varied "selection of brains" browsing "the bric-à-brac of events and happenings in the world." Every member is "a doyen of his own particular profession." Sir Noël Maurice is an eminent surgeon and "one of the world's greatest authorities on the heart." Norman Charles is a psychiatrist of international repute and Alexander Purcell a Cambridge mathematician who holds a Chair in Mathematics. William James is a pathologist and Sir Edward Allen, Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, whose presence places these stories in the same world as the Dr. Harry Manson series! A very rare, but genuine, Golden Age detective crossover!

The sixth and last member of the club is a former Professor of Logic, Marcus Stubbs, who's an elderly, mild-mannered man with a goblin-like head, a shock of gray hair, "gig-like spectacles" and a stammer. A quiet, unimposing figure of a man, but appearances can be deceiving. Very deceiving! Professor Stubbs is nothing less than an armchair oracle who uses strict logic and reasoning to find solutions to the most unfathomable mysteries discussed by the club.

Nigel Moss compared The Dilettantes' Club to the Crimes Circle from Anthony Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) and Isaac Asimov's Black Widower series, but I think Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime (1929) is actually a lot closer to Death and the Professor. I've seen Partners in Crime being described as a nostalgic farewell to the 1920s with a thread running through the stories that tied everything together. Death and the Professor was published in the early 1960s, when the Golden Age had come to an end, which gives you the idea it was written as a fond farewell to that period with an armchair detective and plots paying tribute to some of its greatest hits – like a tribute band playing all the old songs. There's a red-thread running through the stories ending in knotted twist.

If a novel such as Who Killed Dick Whittington? demonstrated the Radford's plotting skills, Death and the Professor is an exhibit of their knowledge and love of the traditional, puzzle-driven Golden Age detective story. So let's dig into these (untitled) stories!

The first story briefly goes over how Professor Marcus Stubbs became the sixth member of the club before they settled down with port and cigars to listen and discuss "a very intriguing problem" brought to them by Sir Edward. A problem of a possible criminal nature that took place in the The Lodge Guest House, in Coronation Road, South Kensington, where one of the nine residents was an unlikable businessman, Frederick Banting, who was "cordially disliked by one and all." One day, after dinner, Banting retreated to his upstairs room, annoyingly slamming the door behind him, which was followed by "a second bang." A gunshot!

So the whole household rushed upstairs, opening the door with a spare key, where they find Banting lying on the floor with a revolver besides him, but the local police inspector, who spent twenty minutes in the room, called in the Murder Squad – because papers were missing. But how? Every possible exit, doors and windows, were either locked or under observation. There were only two minutes in which to commit the murder and the eight guests alibi each other. So how did the murderer manage to vanish into thin air without leaving a trace? Stubbs logically reasons his way to the answer, "logic, purely applied, can make no error," but the locked room-trick and left-handed clue are old hat. However, I appreciated how the clue eliminated all of the innocent suspects in one fell swoop!

The second story brought the distinguished company concerns two people, John Benton, who's a 68-year-old jeweler and his much younger, more ambitious, partner, Thomas Derja. Benton and Derja boarded a 9.18 train to London to personally deliver a £5,000 necklace to a client and, along the way, Derja bought a packet of wrapped sandwiches from a trolley. Derja cut the sandwiched in half and gave one piece to Benton, who took a bite, gave "a kind of gurgle" and slipped down half under the table as dead as a door nail. A post-mortem revealed cyanide had been mixed with his food and the necklace turns out to be a forgery! So did Benton commit suicide, because he knew the necklace would be recognized as fake? Or was he cleverly murdered? More importantly, how was it possible that only one piece of the sandwich was poisoned?

Stubbs uses irrefutable logic to demonstrate Benton had not committed suicide, but was murdered, why and how his sandwich was poisoned. Arguably, this is the best impossible crime in the collection with the blemish being that a well-known mystery writer used exactly the same solution in a 1950s short story.

The third story begins with a discussion on the difference between truly unsolved, practically perfect murders and murderers who are known to authorities, but there's no evidence to convict. Sir Edward tells his fellow dilettantes about "the most perfect murder" committed in Sam Reno, on the Italian Riviera, where four dead men were seated around a table – a pile of large, pigeon-blood rubies lay on the table. Three of the victims were British who were known to the police as receivers of stolen goods and the police had followed a suspicious trail to the doorstep of Villa Pinetta. Where they discovered the bodies. But how were they poisoned? Why did the murderer leave the £6,000 worth of rubies behind?

Sir Edwards ends his stories with a list of five questions, illustrating the impossibility of the murders, that "modern detective skill" have "failed to find the answers." Stubbs doesn't have to think very long to come up with the answers and an explanation how the rubies were smuggled pass customs. Solution to the impossible poisoning is another golden oldie.

The fourth story brings another jewel haul and one of those "dashed locked room problems" to The Dilettantes' Club. Ambrose & Company in Conduit Street, jewelers of some standing, where looted when burglars bypassed the steel grilled windows, treble locks and anti-burglar alarm by breaking into the tailor's shop next door and drilling through the wall – getting away with £18,500 in merchandise. The police recognized the modus operandi of a certain group of a men and the safe-cracker of the crew is a character known as "Lady Dan." A dandy, impeccably dressed womanizer who followed "every pair of trim ankles which came into his line of vision," but the police had no evidence and the case gets another dimension when the body of Lady Dan is found inside a bolted, first-class sleeping compartment of the Blue Train. He had died of a heart attack with an expression on his face of "complete and utter stupefaction."

Police found a half-full bottle of champagne and two tumbles, one with traces of a strong sleeping draught, in the compartment. Lady Dan had been seen with the lady from the next compartment, Liza Underwood, but she "disappeared as though she had never been" and there has never been passport issued in that name! And the communicating door between the compartments were bolted on both side. So how did she vanish? Stubbs gracefully thanks Sir Edwards for the "intellectual labyrinths" he has presented for their consideration and explains facts that do not conform, or are "alien to logical explanation," are impossible and therefore unacceptable. And demolishes the case. The problem of the locked compartments has a simplistic, routine answer, but the explanation for the stupefied expression on the body's face was a nice, perfectly done touch to the plot that clicked together with the premise like two puzzle pieces.

The next story is the only non-impossible crime story of the collection and is, as Moss described it, "a cleverly plotted 'eternal triangle' murder" a la Agatha Christie (c.f. "Triangle at Rhodes" collected in Murder in the Mews and Other Stories, 1937). Stubbs is the one who brings the problem to the attention of the Dilettantes.

Stubbs is convinced that the conviction of John Parker for the murder of Mary Bloss was a grave miscarriage of justice. Parker is a businessman and an enthusiastic lepidopterist (a moth collector) who had a motive, means (killing bottles loaded with cyanide) and opportunity to poison to dental cream of his mistress, Miss Bloss – who had also been a close friend of his wife, Eileen. A sordid, dime-a-dozen murder that ended with Parker being convicted for premeditated murder. So they go over the sordid history, examining every detail, with Sir Edwards representing the police case and Stubbs taking on the defense – "demolishing by pure logical reasoning" their case point by point. And, in the process, reveals what really happened. Undoubtedly, the most original and best story in the book!

Sadly, this excellent story is followed by the worst story in the collection, which is called in the story "The Strange Case of the Sleepers," in which people inexplicably lose consciousness and are robbed without remembering a thing. A very pulp-like, uninspired story reminiscent of Max Rittenberg's "The Bond Street Poisoning Bureau" (The Invisible Bullet and Other Strange Cases of Magnum, Scientific Consultant, 2016) and C.N & A.M. Williamson's "The Adventure of the Jacobean House" (The Mammoth Book of Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes, 2000). But this is the only real dud in the series.

The seventh story centers on another locked room murder, known as "the Chelsea flat puzzle," brought to the Dilettantes by Sir Edwards. Three days ago, the body of Miss Menston had been found in her ransacked flat, strangled to death, but various witness statements and a side door to an outside passage, closed from the inside by a thumbscrew bolt, turned the case into a locked room mystery. However, the whole plot borrowed a little to liberally from S.S. van Dine's The Canary Murder Case (1927). It goes way beyond saluting a past master or a classic detective novel.

Thankfully, Death and the Professor ends strongly with a two-pronged story of a man who had been murdered at 7.30, but "was seen alive at 10 o'clock" and "again at 10.30" by two different witnesses. Once again, the solution to the impossibility is not terribly original, but there's a twist in the tail tying all of the stories together that beautifully tipped its deerstalker to two classic pieces of detective fiction. I can say no more without giving anything away.

So, on a whole, Death and the Professor was obviously written as a nostalgic tribute, or a fond farewell, to the detective story's Golden Age brimming to the rim with all the classics from locked room murders and stolen gems to mysterious poisonings and a surprise ending. A tribute tour that came at the expense of the ingenuity and originality that can be found in the Radford's novel-length detective stories, but every, long-time mystery addict will appreciate this warm homage to their drug of choice.


Alice's Evidence: "The Mad Hatter's Riddle" (2009) by Dale C. Andrews

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine published a majestic pastiche in their May, 2007, issue, entitled "The Book Case," written by two long-time Ellery Queen fans, Dale C. Andrews and the creator of "A Website on Deduction," Kurt Sercu – anthologized a decade later in The Midadventures of Ellery Queen (2018). Generally, my purist streak makes it nigh impossible to enjoy pastiches, but "The Book Case" and its sequel can be counted among the exceptions.

Dale C. Andrew's "The Mad Hatter's Riddle" has, as far as I can tell, only appeared in the September/October, 2009, issue of EQMM and the story stands with one foot each in a world of the EQ multiverse.

"The Mad Hatter's Riddle" takes place in 1975, a transitional year, in which the twentieth century took "a quick breath as it prepared for the final twenty-five-year dash to the millennium." A now seventy-year-old Ellery Queen had given up on writing detective stories and now only edits the magazine, but Universal Studios has hired him as a consultant on the shooting of a very special episode of NBC's Ellery Queen – based on one of his most popular short stories, "The Mad Tea Party" (collected in The Adventures of Ellery Queen, 1933). The studio wants to use the episode as vehicle to reunite two "fabled stars of yesteryear," Ty Royle and Bonnie Stuart, who are tagged to play Spencer and Laura Lockridge in the episode.

Bonnie and Ty have been out of the public-eye for nearly three decades, redrawing inside a "comfortable cocoon," where they lived a quiet, hermit-like existence. So the episode marks the first time in twenty-five years that "the once-married duo" appeared together. Something that was easier said than done. The studio had to hire another, one-time consultant, Jacques Butcher, who previously appeared in the Hollywood-period EQ novels The Devil to Pay (1938) and The Four of Hearts (1938).

The episode has to be ready to air in six weeks. So, naturally, the whole shoot threatens to come crashing down when Bonnie and Ty announce they are going to be married (again). Something that'll end the quiet, comfortable existence of the people around them.

A second problem comes in the form of a typewritten, acrostic poem reminiscent of an untitled poem by Lewis Carroll that revealed "the name of the real Alice," but this poem only revealed a cryptic message, "trip required no chances" – a prescient "warning in verse." On the day of their announcement, Bonnie and Ty are murdered at the place they were staying for the duration of the shoot (echoing the double death from The Four of Hearts). This is the point where the story, quality-wise, splits in two parts.

The solution to the murders is routine with a decent, but simple, dying message and an alibi-trick that, while a delight to long-time EQ fans, is a trifle unconvincing. I don't believe the huge discrepancy in time would have gone unnoticed. On the other hand, the answer to the titular riddle was excellently handled and the identity of the writer was a pleasant surprise. You've no idea how clever the title of the story is until you have read it. Even if it has a touch of sadness about it.

So, purely as a whodunit, "The Mad Hatter's Riddle" is a disappointingly weak story, but the presence of the acrostic poem elevates it as an excellent code cracker and the respectful treatment of the original characters makes it a first-class pastiche. A better Hollywood-set EQ story than the original and comes highly recommended to other EQ fans.


Original Sin (1991) by Mary Monica Pulver

Back in December, John Pugmire, of Locked Room International, published the long-awaited Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019), edited by Brian Skupin, adding over 1150 short stories, novels, TV episodes, movies and anime/manga to Robert Adey's own revised edition, Locked Room Murders (1991) – which enlarged the original 1979 publication with 801 titles! I've burrowed my way through this new edition, like a miner with gold fever, but was surprised at how many titles had been overlooked. So a third, revised and expanded version would be a nice supplement to this edition. ;)

Even so, the 2019 supplement succeeded in bloating my impossible crime wishlist to the point that I started calling it Dr. Gideon Fell. Skupin underlined some fascinating-sounding stories in his preface.

One recommendation that stood out was listed under "post-1991 stories and the Renaissance," Original Sin (1991) by Mary Monica Pulver, which was spotlighted for its "considerably surprising solution." An ultimately simple explanation that "casts the entire tale in a new light" and Skupin recommended the book to those "who haven't found a locked room mystery they like." Color me intrigued!

Mary Monica Pulver is an American novelist, lecturer and educator who wrote a handful of mystery novels under own name, but Pulver penned nineteen cozy mysteries as "Monica Ferris" and co-authored a series of historical detective novels with Gail Frazer – published as by "Margaret Frazer." One of their collaborative short stories, "The Traveller's Tale," was anthologized in Mike Ashley's The Mammoth Book of Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes (2000). Original Sin is one of her contemporary novels, but the distant past is so finely ingrained into the plot that I decided to tag the review as a historical mystery. You can almost say that the story and plot are channeling and interacting with the spirits from the Golden Age!

Original Sin is the fourth title in the Peter and Kori Brichter series, commencing with the equally intriguing-sounding Murder at the War: A Modern-Day Mystery with a Medieval Setting (1987), but here we have a truly clever, deeply satisfying homage to the snowbound country house mysteries of yore.

Peter, Kori and their newborn son, Gordon "Jeep" Peter, planned a "Christmas among friends" at Kori's ancestral home, Tretower Ranch, situated just outside of Denver, Colorado. A merciless blizzard already stranded two of their friends in Denver and is going to cause more problems for them in the days ahead, but the people who made is their oldest friend, Gordon. An ex-policeman and former colleague of Peter, Frank Ryder, who remarried his ex-wife, Mary, upon retiring, but the blizzard forced them to postpone their honeymoon and stay with the Brichters. There's a maid/nanny for the baby, Jill, and Kori's groom/stable hand, Danny Bannister. Lastly, there's the elderly, long-lost and last-living relative of Kori, Evelyn McKay Biggins.

Ever since Kori became a mother, she has been rooting around her family tree and the murky, fragmented history of the house and found there was a "living link" left to her ancestral home, Evelyn, but she had been warned about poking around in its history – because "there's sour apples on many a branch of the family tree." First sign of trouble is Mary indigently refusing "to sit down and be pleasant to Evelyn McKay" and tells Frank to start packing their bags, but the blizzard prevents them from leaving. So they decide to keep the peace by keeping them separated as much as possible. Fortunately, this gives Kori an opportunity to take Evelyn aside to ask her about the history of the house.

Original Sin is as much a genealogical detective story as it's a country house mystery with the ties of blood and history being central to the plot.

The gathering goes from slightly strained to an unmitigated disaster when the power lines go down in the snowstorm and plunges the house in darkness, which is only partially relighted by a backup generator. All other rooms, "including the library," remained in darkness. The library is where they found the body of Evelyn Biggins with the top of her skull resembling "a smashed egg." Someone had murdered the elderly woman, but the isolating blizzard ruled out an outsider. And that means the murderer has to be someone in the house!

A seemingly classic premise, but not entirely, as this is a family home filled with normal, likable people who genuinely care for each other and the victim, practically stranger, is an outsider – whose murder places the specter of suspicion among friends. This makes me suspect Pulver may have read and admired Christianna Brand (c.f. London Particular, 1952). Although the characterization here is not of the same caliber nor does Pulver take the story to the same dramatic conclusion, but the plot is technically sound and meets the gold standard of a 1930s detective novel. So what about that surprise solution and locked room-angle of the murder?

Skupin described the impossibility in Original Sin as "death by powerful blunt instrument of a woman on her own in a library" with "no weapon strong enough to have smashed her skull found." The way in which Evelyn was murdered is elegantly executed how-dun-it that found a new application for an old, time-worn idea, but not an impossible crime. There are, however, two (underplayed) impossibilities that are difficult to describe without giving anything away, but I'll give it a shot.

As they poke around in the distant past, Peter and Kori track an unlikely trail to a long-held, well hidden secret. Physical evidence tells them the circumstances of the secret were known only to Evelyn, which raises the question how something could have been repeated sixty years later when only the victim was privy to the details. A second (minor) impossibility, linked to this long-hidden secret, concerns a [redacted] that appears to have broken "a long time ago" and [redacted] only recently, which left behind "a freshly-broken trail of dust" – giving the impression [redacted] was in suspended animation for decades. You got that right. These are time-locked mysteries! An original and novel impossible crime idea that deserved more consideration than it received it here.

All the same, Pulver created a beautiful and logical synergy between the past and present-day plot-strands, which are inextricably linked and adhere to the laws of cause-and-effect. Even when separated by the better part of a century! I pieced together the whole puzzle well before the end, but the quality of this good, old-fashioned piece of craftsmanship made it impossible to be left disappointing. An immensely satisfying ending! So I echo Skupin's recommendation of Original Sin as not only a standout locked room title from the 1990s, but also as a surprisingly serious and respectful treatment of the traditional, snowbound country house mystery. And the dark, snowy Christmastime setting makes it a perfect addition to everyone's 2020 holiday-themed reading lists.

So my first pick from Skupin's Locked Room Murders fared a lot better than my first pick from Adey's Locked Room Murders, which wasn't even a locked room mystery! Hopefully, this bodes well for the future and everyone better prepare for a tidal wave of rambling impossible crime review, because there's more on the way. So much more! 


Diplomatic Death (1961) by Charles Forsyte

Gordon Philo was a British diplomat and magic aficionado with a background in the secret intelligence services who, reportedly, was "instrumental in the processing and circulation of the material revealed by Russian double agent Oleg Penkovsky," which revealed the presence of Russian missiles in Cuba – a move that prevented "a catastrophic third World War." More importantly, Philo co-authored a handful of classically-styled detective novels with his wife, Vicky Galsworthy Philo.

Diplomatic Death (1961) was the first novel to be published under their shared pseudonym, "Charles Forsyte," but the introduction revealed that the period between the first draft and publication was a long, arduous journey.

During the 1950s, Philo worked at the British Consulate-General in Istanbul, Turkey, where whiled away the winter evenings reading detective stories and decided to would be more entertaining "to write one myself." So he began to work on a plot and had drafted several chapters, but abandoned the fledgling manuscript when his wife returned to Istanbul. Some years later, the manuscript was "resurrected from a drawer," completed and they entered it in a competition, but the judges commented that the ending, while original, was wrong – back "the manuscript went into the drawer." Very likely, the drawer is where the manuscript would have stayed had it not been for a chance meeting with a member of the Detection Club.

Vicky was standing at a bus stop in Maida Vale, London, when "a passing taxi was hailed by another lady in the queue" who "asked if anyone else would like to share it with her." Vicky accepted the offer and discovered that her companion was "the well-known mystery writer," Christianna Brand!

When Brand heard Vicky had co-written an unpublished mystery novel, she advised her to contact her literary agent, but the agent returned exactly the same answer as the judges. So they re-wrote the whole book, which was finally accepted and published in Britain and the United States. A great "prologue" to a wonderful detective story that even challenges the reader to spot "the original ending." I think I may have spotted the original solution and agree with the experts that it would been the wrong kind of solution for the story, but ditching it robbed the story of a murderer with an iron-clad alibi dipped in solid concrete. However, it was a necessary sacrifice.

Diplomatic Death begins with the arrival of Inspector Richard Left, of Special Branch, in Turkey on a quasi-secretive mission concerning a murder and disappearance at the British Consulate in Istanbul.

Two days before Left arrived, the Consul-General had been working late when the sound of a gunshot emanated from his office and two Vice-Consuls in the opposite room immediately investigated and found the Consul-General slumped in his chair – an automatic lay on the desk and "the unmistakable smell of powder" in the air. Hardcastle and Westers, the Vice-Consuls, checked for a pulse, but the Consul-General was "stone dead." So a senior official is called, Mr. Bretherton-Fosgill, but when they returned to the office, the body of the Consul-General had disappeared!

They combed through the garden, searched the vehicles in the courtyard and turned the whole building inside out, which even turned up "an endless grimy brick tunnel" between floors nobody knew existed, but without any result. So they decided to lock the office and sealed the door in two places with sealing wax, stamped with signet rings, until "a proper investigation can take place." Diplomatic Death has an entry in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991), but the impossibility listed is the closing of a safe-door and the presence of an item in the office at the time it had been securely locked and sealed. And not the quasi-impossible disappearance of the body. However, these aspects of the case are never treated as actual impossibilities, but as smaller pieces of a bigger puzzle and my advise is not to the read book solely for its locked room elements.

A knotted, tangled headache of a case that Left is tasked with unsnarling and you can't help but sympathize with the long-suffering, underdog policeman who's frustrated in every way imaginable, which began with "the purgatory" of a long, uncomfortable plane ride to Turkey and continued even at his hotel. A dirty, rundown place where noisy cabaret artists returned at all hours of the night and the shattering sound of the aged, under-lubricated laboring of the automatic pump of the large cistern on the roof filled Left's hotel room – keeping him awake until the early hours of the morning. And then there are all the dead-ends, red herrings and lack of tangible evidence.

Nevertheless, you should not assume Left is one of those modern, bungling detectives who accidentally stumbles to the correct solution by sheer luck. Left constructs a clever and logical false-solution based on an office chair, a sound recording, a key and a limb arm. This false-solution cracked, what could have been, a cast-iron alibi like an eggshell! A perfect use of the false-solution.

John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, wrote in a 2014 blog-post, "The Detective Novels of Charles Forsyte," that when Diplomatic Death was first published Forsyte was compared to Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen, but John thought "a more apt comparison would be Clayton Rawson" whose "impossible crime mysteries are inspired by stage illusionist's bag of tricks." Something you can definitely see reflected in the both the false and correct solution in this novel, but the plot, setting and the detective also reminded me of the impossible crime stories of Peter Godfrey. I wonder if Godfrey's Death Under the Table (1954) is one of the books Philo had been reading during the mid-1950s. I know Death Under the Table wasn't widely circulated outside South Africa and is somewhat of a rarity, but therefore not unlikely to turn up in the library of the British Consulate in Turkey. Diplomats who read detective stories would have easier access at the books not published in the Britain or the United States.

I was able to work out the correct solution based on exactly the same clues that Left used to get there, but this takes nothing away from how clever and fairly the whole plot was handled. A plot that could have been disappointing, or unconvincing, were it not for the excellent way in which setting was utilized, which created the time and space needed to make the trick work. A setting not merely limited to the British Consulate, but ventures out into the then still young Turkish republic of Atatürk where the ancient and modern world came together on the streets of Istanbul. The dual setting of the British Consulate and Istanbul where absolutely instrumental in making both the plot work and give the story a distinct personality of its own, which would have even made the story standout had it been published two or three decades earlier.

Sadly, this means you can count Forsyte, like Kip Chase and John Sladek, among the Lost Generation of Golden Age-style mystery writers who had the misfortune to arrive on the scene too late to be fully appreciated. What's even sadder is that their work is now perhaps a little too recent to be revived in our current Renaissance Age.

So, on a whole, Diplomatic Death is not only a very well-written, fairly clued mystery novel with a plot hearkening back to the golden days of the detective story, but a strong debut without any of the real flaws often found in such works. A highly recommendable first that has made me even more curious about the other Forsyte novels listed in Locked Room Murders and in particular Dive into Danger (1962), which apparently deals with the impossible (underwater) murder of a treasure hunter and a circle of suspects comprising of marine archaeologists. How can anyone resist such a premise?

To be continued...


The Nameless Detective: "The Hills of Homicide" (1949) by Louis L'Amour

Louis L'Amour was a consummate story-teller with close to a hundred novels and numerous short story collections to his name, primarily tales of the frontier, whose work was honored with the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom – making him the only novelist in American history to receive both medals. During the 1940s and 50s, L'Amour contributed short pieces of hardboiled crime-fiction to such pulp magazines as Black Mask, Popular Detective and Thrilling Detective. One of his detective stories is of the impossible variety!

"The Hills of Homicide" was originally published in the May, 1949, issue of Detective Tales and was listed by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders (1991) with an unusual lengthy comment tacked to it.

Adey described "The Hills of Homicide" as an "interesting and worthwhile story," but added that the publishing history of the eponymous short story collection, The Hills of Homicide (1983), is even more interesting. Apparently, there was an unauthorized edition with fewer stories published by Carroll & Graf, which actually preceded the complete, fully authorized Bantam edition! Adey's comment on the collection's back-story drew my attention to the fact that an "unnamed private eye" is the detective in this hardboiled, Western-tinged impossible crime tale. A literary ancestor of Bill Pronzini's Nameless Detective and John Quincannon? Let's find out!

"The Hills of Homicide" opens with the arrival of a private-detective from Los Angeles in a small, out-of-the-way mining town, Ranagat, which lay in "the cupped hand of the hills like a cluster of black seeds," where the other night Jack Bitner was murdered at his cliff-top home – a "cantankerous old cuss" who owned the Bitner Gold Mine. Sheriff Jerry Loftus only has three suspects to consider. The victim's niece and sole heir, Karen Bitner. A tough-guy gambler and an alumnus of "the Chicago underworld of the late Capone era," Blacky Caronna, who had a dispute with Old Bitner. Caronna had visited him on the night of the murder. Lastly, there's Johnny Holben, "a suspicious old coot," who had been at daggers drawn with the victim. Only reason why the sheriff focuses on these three suspects is the scene of the crime.

A three-room stone house was built on the edge of a cliff and "the wall of sheer, burnt-red sandstone looked impossible to climb." So the only way to get to the top is a narrow trail going through a cut in the rock. At a wide spot in the cut, Holben had built his cabin to annoy to Bitner and "nobody could ever get up that trail without being seen." This makes it appear to be a who-of-the-three type of detective story.

Caronna hired a big city detective to find evidence exonerating him of any suspicion and his proclamation of innocence is oddly compelling ("I ain't had a hand in a killin' in—in years"). So our nameless detective tackles the case in the typical, hardboiled manner and, more than once, has to use his fists to get out of a tight corner, but they were some of the best fistfights ever seen inside the squared circle of a pulp magazine and this should not come as a surprise – considering L'Amour competed as a professional boxer. However, the highlight of the story was the solution to the impossible murder. A solution I detested on first sight, a weird menace-type of explanation, but quickly grew incredibly fond of it.

Yes, "The Hills of Homicide" turned out to be an actual locked room mystery, of sorts, in spite of the foundation for such a story looking as leaky as the haul of the Titanic. One of the suspects found another way to reach the house, qualifying it as an impossible crime story, but the bizarre solution struck me as preposterous. Something only a pulp writer would dare to offer as a solution. However, the nameless detective mentioned that this method is used in some parts of the world by criminals "to gain access to locked houses." So looked around the web and what do you know? Apparently, this method was even used on the battlefield with a notable example dating back to the 17th century (historical spoiler, click at your own risk). This made me do 180 on my initial reaction to the solution.

"The Hills of Homicide" is a cracking example of the more plot-driven, hardboiled locked room mysteries with a plot that has time to spare to settle a score in the "best scrap" the town has ever witnessed. Quality pulp! And highly recommended!

A note for the curious: the story briefly mentions miners are smuggling small amounts of gold ore out of the mine, which should be practically impossible to do, because Sheriff Loftus explains they have "a change room where the miners take off their diggin' clothes" and "walk naked for their shower" – coming out on "the other side for their street clothes." But they always find a way to get out with some gold. Obviously, a solution is never given for this quasi-impossible crime, but I gave it some thought and came up with a more dignified way to smuggle the gold pass the change-and shower rooms. All a smuggler has to do is grow a decently sized beard and use it to tie a small, oilskin pouch under his chin that will be hidden from view by the rest of the beard. A miner's curtain! 


The Three Tiers of Fantasy (1947) by Norman Berrow

Norman Berrow was, like Fergus Hume and Arthur W. Upfield, a British-born Antipodean mystery novelist whose parents settled down in Ngaio Marsh's hometown, Christchurch, New Zealand, where he became one of the country's foremost craftsman of the locked room mystery – only Max Afford nipped close at his heels. You can find an entire page worth filled with alluring descriptions of Berrow's original-sounding impossible crime fiction in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991).

The Bishop's Sword (1948) has no less than three impossible appearances and disappearances, which includes astral-projection and the theft of a sword from a hermetically sealed cabinet. A giant, disembodied thumb crushes a man to death in The Spaniard's Thumb (1949) and Don't Jump, Mr. Boland! (1954) has a body inexplicably vanishing from the bottom of a steep cliff, but my sole exposure to Berrow had been his ambitious take on the 1855 Devil's Hoof-marks of Devon, The Footprints of Satan (1950). An impossible crime novel that turned the footprints-in-the-snow gimmick into a wintry obstacle course.

So what has kept me from exploring Berrow's work further? Honestly, I've no idea. Somehow, Berrow simply slipped through the cracks, but my fellow blogger and locked room fanboy, "JJ" of The Invisible Event, has been praising his work for years and served as a reminder to, one of the days, return to Berrow – which brings us to the subject of today's review. Another one of Berrow's detective novels listed in Locked Room Murders with several fantastic-sounding impossibilities.

The Three Tiers of Fantasy (1947) is the first title in the Detective-Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith series and has a plot comprising of three isolated, seemingly unconnected disappearance cases defying the laws of space and time.

Winchingham is "a pleasant, peaceful spot" with "an old-world, unhurried atmosphere" populated by "industrious, unassuming and law-abiding" people. A small, quiet town with "no vices," but the Winchingham became the stage of "a triple mystery" that disturbed "the cosmic calm of esoteric circles" in Great Britain and was eventually solved by "a prosaic police officer." An eerie, fantastic case of The Man Who Had No Existence, the Phantom Room and The Stolen Street!

The first fantastic tier begins with a woman, Miss Janet Soames, who lives with her "selfish, domineering old humbug" of a brother and golf was her only escape from the house. Miss Soames was on the verge of becoming a middle-aged spinster when, one day, out of nowhere, Prince Charming appears.

Philip Strong claims to have been in love with her for a long time and they begin each other, in secret, until they decide to elope under the cover of night. Philip brings her to the house of an old friend, Jimmy Melrose, who has become an ardent spiritualist in his old age and even his very own séance room, but Janet has an eerie, unsettling feeling before entering the house – like "a forerunner of the nightmare" that was about to engulf her. Janet witnesses how Philip cheerfully mounting a staircase and waited for the top board to utter its "protesting creak," but she only caught a very deep sigh and, just like that, Philip ceased to exist. Not only had he had vanished, like a popped soap bubble, but everyone denied he was ever there! A cabdriver and Mr. Melrose's butler, Porter, swear up and down Janet had arrived at the house alone. And the Philip Strong they knew had been dead for the past seven years!

The "invisible companion" had been brilliantly used by John Dickson Carr in his well-known radio-play, "Cabin B-13," which later received a highly original treatment at the hands of Edward D. Hoch with "The Problem of the Leather Man" (collected in All But Impossible: The Impossible Files of Dr. Sam Hawthorne, 2017), but the solution was underwhelming and the premise clumsily handled. Giving too much away about the overarching scheme to the suspicious-minded armchair detective. There is, however, still so much to come!

In the Second Tier, the reader is introduced to an astute businessman and embezzler, Sherman Stokes, who's in the process of absconding with a modest fortune. But he's interrupted by his private-secretary, Miss Lana Booth. She knows what he has been up to and want to share in the spoils, which comes with an offer to become his "wife" and already has made arrangements. So without much of choice, Stokes agrees and they set-off for South America, but their car breaks down in Winchingham and are forced to stay the night at a haunted roadhouse, The Welcome Inn – which was once the property of an eccentric recluse whose hobby was dabbling in mysticism. Since he died at the turn of the century, the place has been haunted by a mischievous entity that has steadily chased away paying customers. So the place is closing down the following day. Stokes and Miss Booth can only get a room with no service, but what a room!

An old-looking, but royally furnished room, with a fireplace, french-windows, tapestry and huge, Queen-like bed with red, gold-flecked bedspread and "a Tibetan devil-mask" hanging on the wall – located on the second-floor. Only problem is that there's no such room at the inn. The place doesn't even have a second-floor! The phantom room has disappeared together with a valise full of embezzled money!

This second impossibility of a phantom room and a non-existent, second-floor is easily the best of the three with a more carefully handled presentation and a satisfying solution, which is not entirely original at its core. But the idea was very well executed. Coincidentally, the earlier mentioned Hoch collection, All But Impossible, has a short story, entitled "The Problem of the Phantom Parlor," working with the same idea and plot-elements. So did Hoch read The Three Tiers of Fantasy and thought he could improve on the first two impossibilities, because I can see how he saw possibilities for alternative, more original, solutions in the answers to the tier one and two.

Funnily enough, you can find a third story in All But Impossible, "The Problem of the Missing Roadhouse," which has an impossible disappearance that's a mixture of tier two and three. But not nearly as good as the other two stories or this novel.

The third and final tier is a direct ancestor of Paul Halter's La ruelle fantôme (The Phantom Passage, 2005) with an alleyway, haunted by visions of the long-ago past, which has recently began to disappear and reappear again. Mrs. Josephine Prattley has decided to spend the weekend at the house of a local artist, Darcy Cherrington, but, when they arrive at his home, he tells Mrs. Prattley to wait outside as he puts the car away and simply vanishes without a sound – prompting her to enter the garage. She walks straight into "an medieval drinking den" with "medieval-looking people," speaking Shakespearean English, where she sees two of those people being put to the sword. A horrendous crime that took place there in 1597! Mrs. Prattley flies the scene, but, when she returns with a policeman in tow, the whole passageway has vanished. Only to reappear a short while later!

The problem of the stolen street is, sadly, the least impressive, or imaginative, of the three miraculous vanishings and even Detective-Inspector Smith admits the explanation is "disappointingly simple." But, in the defense of the author, there's only so much you can do to make a street disappear and the solution provided an entirely new answer to the problem. So there's that.

Detective-Inspector Smith makes short appearances in each tier to discuss and comment on these fantastic problems, but finally stirs to life in the fourth act, "The Toppling of the Tiers," in which he methodically reconstructs and demolishes the supernatural events that have plagued Winchingham. And there were more than those three apparently supernatural disappearances. The locked séance room of Mr. Melrose is ransacked by an evil, otherworldly, entity and a road barricade proved to have an illusory quality. Framed pictures were flying off the wall and a lift was operated by invisible hands at the inn. A man who left no fingerprints and a hat and coat go missing without anyone having been near them before they disappeared.

One by one, Smith strips them of their unearthly quality to reveal "the underlying sordid, mercenary motive" and, as an impossible crime, fanboy it was joy to read these chapters. You can figure out pretty much everything before you get to these explanatory chapters, but loved how these plot-strands were intertwined and knotted together at the end. Some other, non-impossible aspects of the solution were a bit cliché, but, honestly, I have never seen them put to better use than here.

The Three Tiers of Fantasy has a plot brimming with ghostly activities, supernatural occurrences and inexplicable disappearances, which makes it tempting to draw a comparison with Hake Talbot's Rim of the Pit (1944), but story was not packed a dark, doom-laden atmosphere – more in the spirit of a spirited, pulp-style caper (c.f. Hilary St. George Saunders' The Sleeping Bacchus, 1951). Or perhaps a better comparison would be some of the later "Carter Dickson" titles in which Carr experimented with murderless detective novels about impossible disappearances, such as Lord of the Sorcerers (1945) and A Graveyard to Let (1949), but written with the vigor of Herbert Brean (e.g. Hardly a Man is Now Alive, 1950).

So, to cut a long, rambling review short, The Three Tiers of Fantasy only failed to tax the brains of the armchair detective, but, in every other aspect, it was a thoroughly entertaining mystery caper crammed with impossible situations and locked room puzzles! Highly recommended, if your taste runs in that direction.