The Dog Was Executor (1973) by K. Abma

Karel Abma was a Dutch notary and the author of De hond was executeur (The Dog Was Executor, 1973), a practically forgotten and long out-of-print novel, which has been summarily described on the internet as a detective story about "an inheritance issue and a divorce case" – converging around the tangled legacy of a lonely miser. If you glance at the cover, you can probably make an educated guess what drew my attention to this little-known mystery novel.

Unfortunately, The Dog Was Executor is not exactly an all-out, guns blazing, locked room mystery and the locked room element was so insignificant, I decided against tagging this review as an impossible crime. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Riemsdorp is the backdrop of The Dog Was Executor, a village "rich in front gardens and white-painted bridges," which is slowly being annexed, "field after field, yard after yard, with everything on it," by Amsterdam – less than 5 kilometers (3 miles) away. The bailiffs perpetually haunted the village with "a bag full of expropriation writs." Setting the tone for the rest of the story.

Johannes Blaudop is a 77-year-old recluse and miser who lives in a small, blue plastered house on the Vaartweg, known locally as "het Zwartelaantje" (the dark lane), where his only companion is a Belgian shepherd, Argus. Blaudop is "criminally tight" when it comes to spending money and notorious for his dogs, which has lead to legal problems on more than one occasion. The villages thought he was mostly crazy, but with "damned cunning" edge to his twisted mind and they generally disliked him. So nobody really missed Blaudop when he didn't show his head for a couple of days until the mailman notices a card stuck behind one of the windows, saying "On Holiday," but the dog can be heard frantically barking inside. And the odor emanating from the place has the kind of presence that lingers.

The police is notified and they enter the house to rescue the dog, but what they find is Blaudop's decomposing body in the anteroom, close to the wardrobe, where he had been laying for nearly two weeks! Blaudop had a died of cardiac arrest, but a slight head wound showed he had fallen with his head against the wardrobe and the card behind the window, in combination with the missing key to the backdoor and the presence of a bloodstained handkerchief, suggests the possibility of murder – leaving the authorities with a plethora of unanswered questions. Admittedly, the premise of a man of whom no one can say for sure whether, or not, he was murdered and whether he was rich, or poor, sounded intriguing, but don't expect too much from the answers to this various questions. The Dog Was Executor is an entirely different type of animal compared to the Golden Age and neo-classical detective novels that dominate this blog. A character-driven crime novel with a social conscience and a handful of different "detectives" to tackle the various criminal and legal aspects of the case.

Chief Inspector Messing is officially in charge of the case, but Blaudop named his former lawyer, Karel IJ. van Woudrichem, his testamentary executor and is tasked with finding his long-estranged daughter, Dinie. She was taken as a 9-year-old girl to Canada by his ex-wife, which is the source of Blaudop's bitterness and disdain for authority because they allowed his daughter to be taken. And the legwork of the tracking down the inheritors (including a not-legally disinherited son) is placed on the shoulders of a junior notary, Evert Dijkgraaf. Frank Kok is the police's dog expert-and trainer who has to get the wild dog out of the house and tame it. Lastly, there's the village itself, which is always buzzing with rumors and speculations about the case.

The questions they try to answer is who was in the house when Blaudop died and did this person had a hand in his death? Why didn't his dog defend him? Was there a modest fortune in 1000 gulden banknotes and what happened to it? Where's his daughter and who was the mysterious fisherman? Why was a World War I photograph stolen after the body had been found and removed? There are even some courtroom scenes when someone is apprehended with incriminating evidence on him and is charged. So the story is busy enough, but hardly any of it made for a good or even mildly satisfying detective story.

K. Abma
When I started reading The Dog Was Executor, the plot's legal wrangling brought the novels of Cyril Hare to mind (e.g. Tragedy at Law, 1942), but written in the style and spirit of the Realist/Social School of Georges Simenon and Seicho Matsumoto, until turning over the last page and realized it was very similar to another 1970s "detective" novel – namely Ulf Durling's Gammal ost (Hard Cheese, 1971). Hard Cheese is a Swedish novel that began as an old-fashioned, classically-styled homage to the Golden Age detective novel, but the ending revealed it to be a novel of character and petty crimes masquerading as locked room mystery. You can pretty much say the same about The Dog Was Executor. Only difference between the two is that Abma obviously never had any intention, whatsoever, to write anything remotely resembling a traditional whodunit. The Dog Was Executor is a modern crime novel with a pinch of social commentary loosely based on true stories reported in the daily newspapers, which Abma acknowledges in "A Message to the Reader" printed on the opening page covered with newspaper clippings.

So, all in all, Abma's The Dog Was Executor was not exactly a rewarding read, if you prefer the plot-driven puzzle detective story, but it was a shot in the dark based solely on the cover art vaguely hinting at the possibility of a locked room mystery. The book could have been a brilliant and criminally forgotten impossible crime novel, but it wasn't. I took a gamble and lost, but hey, it was worth a shot. And if you actually like these social/realists crime novels (why?), you might actually enjoy this atypical crime novel.

I can't really be angry that the book didn't turn out to be one of those very rare, completely forgotten Dutch locked room mysteries, such as Cor Docter's Koude vrouw in Kralingen (Cold Woman in Kralingen, 1970), but I was disappointed that the story had all the material necessary to have made it a full-fledged locked room mystery with some minor tweaks to the plot. So why not end this review on positive note and pad it out with the locked room-trick I envisioned. Some very mild spoilers ahead!

Needless to say, the tightfisted Blaudop acquired an expensive watchdog to guard something on the premise and, let's say, X suspected what it was and wanted to get his hands on it, but how to get pass the locked doors, latched windows and an a hungry watchdog – because Blaudop was also very economical when it came to feeding Argus. So my idea is that X waited until Blaudop left the house to go fishing and began to carefully remove one of the windows panes and flung drugged piece of meat through the opening, which puts Argus (temporarily) to sleep. X then puts his hand through the opening to unlatch the window and enter the house to begin his search, but places a "Gone Fishing" card on the front door window to prevent any unexpected visitors from intervening. Whether, or not, the search is successful is irrelevant. X leaves the same way as he came in and replaces the window pane with fresh putty, but had forgotten to take away the "Gone Fishing" sign!

So, when Blaudop comes back, he sees the sign on his front door window and, immediately suspicious, goes inside (locking the door behind him) and finds his unconscious dog on the floor. Blaudop rushes towards the dog, but slips on some dog drool and smashes with his head against the wardrobe. The excitement and shock is too much for his heart. The red handkerchief had been carelessly dropped by X and a dying Blaudop had mindlessly picked it up to press against his bleeding head wound. And died in a perfectly locked room, or house, with the keys of the back-and front door in his pocket and evidence all around him that a second person had been present when he died. But he had been alone with his sleeping dog when it happened.

Only problem with my solution is that it effectively removed the evidence of the dog, which was vital to identity the culprit, but in my scenario you can use the fingerprints left on the "Gone Fishing" sign. Yes, not very elegant, but fits the anti detective-like approach of The Dog Was Executor.

Notes for the curious: in case you wondered, Argus survived his ten-day ordeal because there was a large aquarium in the house and the book was actually turned into TV-movie in 1974, but have been unable to locate any copies or find it anywhere online. Lastly, you can expect a new review to be posted tomorrow, because this book obviously holds no interest to 99% of people who read this blog.


The Longstreet Legacy (1951) by Douglas Ashe

John Franklin Bardin was an American crime writer best remembered today as the author of three early psychological thrillers, whose admirers were as diverse as Edmund Crispin and Julian Symons, but, under the name "Gregory Tree," he produced two courtroom dramas and an impossible crime novel, A Shroud for Grandmama (1951) – which comes with all the trappings of a gloomy, old-fashioned Gothic romance. A Shroud for Grandmama was reprinted under yet another penname, namely "Douglas Ashe," as The Longstreet Legacy.

Back in 2014, John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, posted a review on his blog calling A Shroud for Grandmama "a lively and entertaining detective" with a fantastic and engaging narrator, but warned that it "is somewhat scarce in either hardcover or paperback." So the book lingered on my wishlist, like an earthbound spirit, when recently, I lucked upon an inexpensive, well-worn copy.

Miss Abigail Longstreet is a young, beautiful woman in her late twenties, but speaks and dresses as a woman from the turn-of-the-century. Abigail preferred "the joys of introspection and the lady arts" to the people of her own age and the modern world, which she deemed as "vulgar and footling." This meant she lived quite a solitary existence, but not to the same extent as her eccentric grandmother, Ella Longstreet, who lives like a hermit in a dark, imposing New York mansion – where she has denied the existence of the outside world for the past fifteen years. Abigail is the only line of communication between her grandmother and their greedy relatives who are always in need of money. And this is why she's the only one of the family who knows that Ella is completely blind.

So, naturally, she was quite perplexed when a man, Arthur Crump, turned up on her doorstep with a crumpled note, saying "come in haste," with her grandmother's engraved wedding wrapped inside. Crump tells her the package had struck his head in the streets and thinks it had been thrown at him from an upstairs window, which could mean that her grandmother is in trouble. Nothing could have prepared Abigail for what she found when crossing the threshold of the great house where she had spent her girlhood.

Ella Longstreet's emaciated, nearly naked body, scantily dressed in "one of those scandalous swimming suits," a bikini, lying at the bottom of the staircase on the dust covered parquetry of the long, two-storied hallway, but the body is surrounded by "a circle of waltzing footprints" – as if "someone had gone round it" in "a frenzied haste." Inexplicably, there were no other footprints going to, or leaving, the circle on the thick layer of dust carpeting the hallway! Abigail does exactly what her grandmother would have wanted, avoiding a scandal, by destroying the evidence and carrying her grandmother's body to her bedroom to put some decent clothes on her to face the undertaker. However, she discovers that the closet is empty with the exception of a stiff, grim-looking funeral shroud!

Shortly after Abigail finished tidying up the crime scene, the doorbell pealed and she found Deputy Chief Inspector Stephen Eliot standing on the doorstep.

According to Eliot, there are more than a thousand known recluses, on all levels of society, in the jurisdiction of Manhattan and Ella Longstreet was "the wealthiest and most notorious." A nominal supervision is kept of all of them, wherever possible. Abigail learns from Eliot that the house of her grandmother resembled a busy thoroughfare on the day of her dead, which attracted the attention of the beat cops.

Apparently, the whole family visited Ella that day with a written invitation in hand that also contained references to the notorious family ghost, Sybil. A poltergeist with an undying love for dancing and pelting people with objects.

An utterly bizarre and impossible problem, but Eliot is a sharp, tricky customer who loves to set out verbal traps and somewhat reminded me of Lt. Columbo. His questioning of the family is illuminating to both Abigail and the reader. Abigail comes to see many of her relatives in a different light and learns more about herself than she would have been comfortable with in the first chapter, but these interviews also provide the reader with pieces of the puzzle, which gives answers to some of the more outre aspects of the case – such as why the body was dressed in a bikini. Slowly, but surely, a picture begins to emerge of the truth and the keen-eyed reader will be able to fill-in the blank spaces, but beware the slippery red herring. Because your ego can break its neck when you slip on the neatly positioned red herrings in this story! Yeah, I sort of Roger Sheringhamed it.

But, for me, the absolute highlight of The Longstreet Legacy was not the who, or why, but how the murderer was able to place the body in a circle of footprints without disturbing the dust that covered the rest of the floor. A fantastic and entirely new solution to the no-footprints problem. However, while the solution is entirely original, you can easily see which well-known impossible crime novel gave Bardin the idea, which is to his credit, because I would have never thought of using it like that in a million years!

So, on this count alone, The Longstreet Legacy comes highly recommended to fans of the impossible crime story and particularly those fans with a special affinity for the no-footprints puzzle.

The Longstreet Legacy is an excellent throwback, or homage, to the turn-of-the-century Gothic tale, full of dark, long-held secrets, a ghost and family skeletons, but told with a traditional slant on it and a great detective who cuts through the web of lies and deceit. Honestly, my only complaint is how fast I burned through the pages of this immensely enjoyable detective yarn and I'm baffled that it has been out-of-print for so many decades. It deserves to be reprinted. But, in the mean time, I recommend you keep an eye out for an affordable, secondhand copy, because you want to have this one in your collection.


Murder at Beechlands (1948) by Maureen Sarsfield

Maureen K. Heard was a British author who had a brief, fleeting career as a fiction writer during the 1940s, producing sevens novel from 1943 to 1948, comprises of four children's books, two detective novels and a mainstream book – published either under her married name or penname, "Maureen Sarsfield." Those two, once long-forgotten, detective novels have been hailed in more recent times as "gems of the British school."

In 2003, the still sorely missed Rue Morgue Press reprinted Sarsfield's Green December Fills the Graveyard (1945) and A Party for Lawty (1948), but gave their editions new, more genre-driven, titles, Murder at Shots Hall and Murder at Beechlands.

Tom and Enid Schantz explained their decision that the original, nondescript titles "may have been partly to blame" for, what they assumed, "were unimpressive sales." I kind of liked the original titles. Sure, they're perhaps "a bit too literary," but fitted the smartly written, character-driven detective novels that can be ranked alongside the works of Dorothy Bowers, Moray Dalton, Joan Cowdroy and Elizabeth Gill. The new titles are too simple and generic.

Sarsfield's lead-character is a Scotland Yard detective, Inspector Lane Parry, who "twice finds evil deeds in the backwaters of Sussex" and remember enjoying Murder at Shots Hall with a slew of poisonings surrounding a bombed, partially destroyed manor house, but Parry got upstaged by one of the characters, Flikka – a young sculptor who lives and works at the manor house. So I always wanted to read the second novel and, looking for a non-locked room mystery, I decided to finally take Murder at Beechlands from the big pile.

Murder at Beechlands finds Inspector Lane Parry stranded in a drift by the side of the road, "feet deep in snow," with his car refusing to move another inch. A raging snowstorm has turned the Sussex landscape into a white, practically impassable, hellscape.

Parry decides to follow "an enormously high, forbidding stone wall" on foot in the hope of finding a lodge or gate, but half expects to find a derelict mansion, prison or a mental institution behind the fortified wall obviously intended "either to keep people out or to keep them in." What he found convinced Parry he had stumbled his way to a private lunatic asylum, where the inmates were loudly screeching ("Lawty! Lawty! Lawty!") and fighting in the snow, but the woman, Mrs. Anabel Adams, who he had pecked as the matron turned out to be the owner of Beechlands Hotel. A small, financially troubled country hotel with a less than spotless reputation in the region. And they were hosting a party in honor of a well-known, womanizing World War II Wing Commander, Lawton "Lawty" Lawrence.

A party not everyone turned up to on account of the snowstorm and the hotel is practically empty when Parry arrived.

The people who did make it to the hotel are Jim Bridges, severely burned during the war, who had lost his wife to Lawty when he lay "all mashed up in hospital" and Christie Layne had lost her virtue to the bomber pilot, but they were there strictly on the invitation of Mrs. Adams. Cintra Norton is "the greatest film star we ever sent to Hollywood" and used to be friends with Lawty before he went abroad. Marigold Trent is a natural platinum blonde, who was sent down by some very old friends of Mrs. Adams, but she hadn't paid her bills since she arrived. Lastly, the party is rounded out by the hotel receptionist, Miss Killigrew, and two London businessmen, Julian Frake and Paul Livington, who might be willing to invest money in Beechlands – one of the reasons why they were invited by Mrs. Adams. She wanted to "suitably impress" them. 

And now, this unlikely party is trapped together in the partially empty hotel for the night. Something that would not have been a problem had it not been for Lawty's battered body underneath the window of his room. Parry quickly deduces Lawty's death wasn't an accident or suicide, but cold blooded murder!

Normally, a raging snowstorm is used as nothing more than a device to confine the characters to a single location, but Sarsfield used it to wage a war of nerves on her characters as the lights begin to slowly die and incidents keep happening. A second body is discovered in the boiler room, but Parry keeps this second death a secret "to keep everyone on such tenterhooks" that, whoever committed the murders, "get in such a state of nerves he'll give himself away." Parry is assisted in mounting the tension by several attacks, professionally disabled phone lines and the unlucky past of the hotel with its unnerving, ghostly taps said to be heard before someone dies, but even Parry is not immune to his gloomy, nerve-stricken surroundings and wonders how long he would "be able to go on keeping his temper."

So, when it comes to handling atmosphere and tension, Sarsfield's Murder at Beechlands is what Ngaio Marsh tried to do with the abysmal Death and the Dancing Footman (1942).

Where the plot is concerned, the journey to the ending was better than the solution, which was not bad or atrociously clued, but found it underwhelming with only the motive standing out, because usually, this type of motive is only mentioned in (Golden Age) detective stories – not often used as an actual motive for the murderer. One of many (small) signs in this book that times were slowly starting to change for the traditional detective story. Nevertheless, Murder at Beechlands is a busily plotted, eventful detective story that keeps you reading and has a few memorable setpieces.

I mentioned that one of my reasons for picking Murder at Beechlands is that it's supposed to be a non-impossible crime novel, but technically, I should label this post as a locked room mystery. And there two of them!

Firstly, there's knocking and yelling from behind the locked door of the room where the bodies are kept, but they never get an opportunity to consider it a locked room mystery because the situation immediately resolves itself with a very simplistic explanation. But still, it made for a great scene. Secondly, one of the characters vanishes from the snowbound hotel and is not found when the place is searched, which gives it the appearance of locked room mystery, until you learn the solution. So these minor, quasi-impossibilities doesn't make Murder at Beechlands a long-overlooked locked room novel, but appreciated Sarsfield flirted so heavily with my favorite detective story trope. It also gave me this dreadful feeling that she actually wrote and completed a third, full-blown impossible crime novel, but the unpublished manuscript got lost and any trace of it was lost to time. Because that's how it usually goes.

So, all in all, Murder at Beechlands is a mostly well-written, excellently characterized and atmospheric treatment of the snowbound murder mystery, only marred by an underwhelming solution, but, like RMP, you have to wonder where Sarsfield's career would have brought her had "she continued in the vein of these two books."


Conundrums with Corpses: Q.E.D, vol. 5 by Motohiro Katou

I've remarked in past reviews that Motohiro Katou took a different route to other, more well-known, anime-and manga detective series when it came to the characterization of the protagonists, the type of cases they get to solve and volume structure – making Q.E.D. vastly different compared to Case Closed, Detective Academy Q and The Kindaichi Case Files. The previous volume was a perfect example of these dissimilarities with a scam story and a quasi-techno thriller, but the cases in volume 5 were unexpectedly close to the kind of stories littering the Case Closed series!

The first of two stories, "The Distorted Melody," is an inverted detective story, a la Columbo, but with a quasi-impossible problem of where the body was hidden at the time the murderer was orchestrating an unimpeachable alibi.

Hirai Reiji is a world-famous young cellist and an equally celebrated symphony orchestra had added him as their main attraction for an upcoming concert, but the President of Kouwa Industries, Okabe Kousuke, canceled their long-running sponsorship. A decision Hirai, "a slave to a great art," simply could not allow to stand. So, when Okabe visits him at his remote, cliff side cabin, Hirai strangles him and sews together an alibi by inviting a small party of high-school students, which includes Sou Touma and Kana Mizuhara – only they arrived a little too early. This leaves Hirai with mere minutes at his disposal to hide the body inside a small, sparsely furnished cabin without any apparent hiding places. Somehow, he managed to do it, but how? And, no, the body wasn't stuffed inside the cello case.

Two days later, Okade's body is found at his home, crammed inside a disused, filled-in water well, but "the kids testified that there was no corpse in the house" and supporting evidence, namely a train ticket and a phone call, cemented Hirai's alibi.

Touma believes the young cellist murdered the tightfisted businessman and begins, piece by piece, to tear down both his story and carefully constructed alibi. The solution hinges on the use of the cello, a piece of classical music and cellphone feedback, but the highlight of the solution is the place where the body had been hidden. A simple and elegant solution marred only slightly by the lack of (visual) clueing, but still a clever take on the hidden object puzzle.

As an aside, this story was loaded with translator's note and had a floor plan of the cabin, which, in combination with the search for a missing, cleverly hidden object, also made the story vaguely feel like an American Golden Age detective story.

Where's the body?
The second and last story of this volume, entitled "The Afterimage of Light," is, story-wise, right up there with "Rokubu's Treasure" and "The Fading of Star Map," as one of the better tales so far and serves the reader a bizarre, neatly posed locked room mystery – buried in the dimly remembered past. A story that begins, or ended, when Touma and Mizuhara buy an old camera on a flea market only to discover a role of undeveloped film inside. A film with five snapshots of a doll, a storage house, three children, a mountain and a blurry picture of a man's shoulder.

So they decide to follow the clues of the camera and pictures original to Otowamura, a small mountain village, where they find the "surprisingly small," windowless storage that turned out to have a weird and sad history behind it. Once upon a time, it was simply used to store rice and farming tools, but when tuberculous reared its ugly head in the region, it was converted into a sanatorium. A lot of people died in there. However, the weirdest story to come out of the store house is that of a little girl, Kuwano Taki, who had tuberculous and was confined to the windowless store house. But, every day, the girl told her visiting mother what had happened that day outside the storage house and replicated this ability in public experiments. She was "shut up in a big box" from "where she would tell people what was outside," but this is only of two locked room puzzles the story has to offer!

Touma and Mizuhara, with the unwilling assistance of a local policeman, break open the door of the storage house, because the key had gone missing of thirty years ago and nobody appears to have entered it during that period. Curiously, while the walls are crumbling, one of then looks whiter than the other as it was plastered over in the past, but part of the wall disintegrated upon being touched – revealing a decomposed skeleton behind it. The sole, long-lost store house key had been in the pocket of the body all this time. So how was the murderer able to leave a locked door behind and who did the murderer hide in the wall? And how does this long-hidden murder linked to the photos, the now three grownup children and the story of the clairvoyant girl?

The Locked Room Mystery

A really well done detective with many moving, interlocking parts that beautifully dovetail together in the end. Once again, the clueing is not always pitch-perfect and one clue, in particular, is impossible to correctly interpret, but enough of the plot can be worked out to satisfy most armchair detectives.

I think a good chunk of readers will be able to work out the clairvoyant images of the little girl, which is a surprisingly modern take on the naturalistic impossible crime fiction that was somewhat popular during the turn of the previous century (e.g. L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace's A Master of Mysteries, 1898). The result is something pleasingly different than what you usually get in these stories about faked psychic abilities. I liked the explanation as to how the skeleton ended up behind the wall of a locked room, but worked out the trick when I read Ho-Ling Wong's double review of volume 4 and 5. I misunderstood the exact situation of the locked room, but the hint in my comment (mild spoilers) was spot on! To be honest, there's really only one way that specific locked room-trick could have been worked. I still liked it.

The strength of the story is how all these plot-threads were tied together and the fact that the statute of limitation has ran out, which means that the murderer not only gets away with killing an innocent person, but is not even confronted by Touma – reminding the reader that Q.E.D. is not like the other manga detective series. Even when it tries to be!

So, all in all, this is easily my favorite volume up to this point in the series and, while not entirely spotless, I found the stories to be excellent with some original ideas and tricks. Definitely recommended!


White for a Shroud (1947) by Don Cameron

Donald Clough Cameron was an American journalist who worked as a crime reporter for the Detroit Free Press and the Windsor Star, a Canadian newspaper, in the 1920s, but in the 1930s Cameron moved to fiction and began writing detective novels, pulp stories and comic books – reportedly making some notable contributions to the Batman mythos. Such as creating a precursor to the Batcave and introducing Alfred as Bruce Wayne's butler. Cameron also co-created and wrote the earliest Superboy stories in More Fun Comics. But what about his legacy as a mystery writer?

Cameron wrote six detective novels, three of which, Murder's Coming (1939), Grave Without Grass (1940) and And So He Had to Die (1941), featured a young criminologist, Abelard Voss. The other three titles, Death at Her Elbow (1940), Dig Another Grave (1946) and White for a Shroud (1947), appear to be standalone novels, but none of them have been reprinted since the mid-1950s. And they've all been pretty much forgotten today.

I know Anthony Boucher lukewarmly praised Dig Another Grave, a story of newsmen, racketeering and cafe society, as "acceptable" in The Anthony Boucher Chronicles: Reviews and Commentary (2009). So not very encouraging to start digging around, but what secured this long-forgotten writer a spot on my wishlist was a 2014 review, posted on Past Offenses, of White for a Shroud. A review describing a fascinating detective story set in a small, isolated Michigan town paralyzed by an unforgiving blizzard, an avalanche of snow and frozen corpses – dug out of the snowbanks all over town. White for a Shroud finally made it to the snow-topped peak of Mt.-to-be-Read!

Red Rock County is a small community of "1,300-odd men, women and children" are facing "a storm that may rank with the worst on record," which will isolate them to their tiny corner of the world for the better part of a week.

The "snow was an aerial avalanche of glassy points" that choked highways, ditches and streets, blotted out railways and "rose like floodwater in the Upper Michigan forests." Snow blocked the doorways of houses and stores that were laboriously excavated, replacing the familiar storefronts with "doorways in the snow," reinforced by planks and bearing makeshift signs. A wide and lofty tunnel had been dug from a local bar to the keep the local day laborers warm as everything around them has come to a grinding halt. So, as all they can do is sit around, drink cheap whiskey and hate, there are still "plenty of barroom fights."

Andrew Brant, editor and owner of the Red Rock Reporter, remarks to Sheriff Ed Worth that, statistically, there are two murderers in Red Rock because "one in every six hundred and fifty will commit murder" and its 1,300-odd citizens have now "anything to do but murder" – a remark that would come back to haunt him later that day. And the problem concerns two of his loyal, long-time friends, John and Ella Macfarlane, who get stuck up to their necks in coldblooded murder! Brant picked up the rumor that Macfarlane is closing down his paper mill for the rest of the winter, but when goes out to investigate, he discovers Macfarlane's unconscious body on the floor of the foreman's room. A hunting cap, a fur-lined mitten and blood on the conveyor belt of the wood chopper suggests the unpopular straw boss, Ralston Crane, had been disposed of in "the thousands of gallons of pulp and acid" of the paper mill's pulp room. A perfect murder with "no possible way of proving the corpis delicti."

Macfarlane has no memory of what happened, but thinks he could have thrown him in and turned on the machine. Brant is not prepared to hand over his friend to the police and decided to make everyone believe Crane lost his way in the snow, which apparently was not uncommon at the time. Brant expects stories to appear in the newspapers about "farmer who had died between their barns and houses, motorists who had frozen in their car" and "children who had lost their ways and would never return home." Unfortunately, Macfarlane is shot and seriously wounded that night. And then, the frozen bodies begin to turn up.

This is where the plot of the story becomes nigh impossible to discuss in detail without tearing through the paper-thin layers that make up the whole plot.

I guess the plot is best described as a chain reaction, one thing leading to another, which gives the illusion of a tangled scheme, but there's really nothing clever, or inspired, to be found in any of the razor thin, poorly clued plot-strands – except for the storyline between Brant, John and Ella. White for a Shroud is an average detective novel with a, on a whole, a weak plot that was propped up the beautifully depicted, snow-buried setting. So still a perfectly acceptable, relatively short book to kill two or three hours with during one of those long, cold winter days. As long as you don't expect a stone cold classic.


Unfinished Business: "The Genesee Slough Murders" (1966) by John Holbrook Vance

In my previous posts, I reviewed the only two Sheriff Joe Bain novels John Holbrook Vance completed, The Fox Valley Murders (1966) and The Pleasant Grove Murders (1967), which were excellent, but this only left me with third, partially finished and unpolished manuscript of the third novel, "The Genesee Slough Murders" (1966) – a novella-length plot outline eventually published in The Work of Jack Vance (1994) and The Joe Bain Mysteries (2013). Photocopies of the typescript draft had circulated among collectors for many years.

I expected the manuscript to be similar to the outline of Ellery Queen's unfinished novel, collected in The Tragedy of Errors (1999), but "The Genesee Slough Murders" is not as detailed and much more of bare bones outline. But the whole plot is there. Frustratingly, if it had been finished, it would probably have been the best of three Sheriff Joe Bain novels!

The Fox Valley Murders was a detective story about the people of San Rodrigo County, while The Pleasant Grove Murders focuses on the suspects living along Madrone Way, but "The Genesee Slough Murders" would have dealt with literal, tree hugging hippies – descending on the county to protect the trees growing on the levees. A conflict that would have provided the backdrop for "The Genesee Slough Murders."

The line of division between land and water, "namely the levees," have become "a cause of bitter conflict." The trees growing on there weaken the levees with their roots and, in order to protect the waterways, they have begun to remove the trees, but protesters have gathered along Genesee Slough "to prevent any further stripping of the levees." Sheriff Bain is observing the protest in the second chapter, but takes a very hands-off approach when it comes to policing the protest. Very much to the annoyance of his long-time nemesis, Howard Griselda, who runs the local newspaper. Griselda would like to see nothing more than Bain getting replaced by a modern, efficient and progressive sheriff.

Vance fleshed out some parts, here and there, but mostly it's a rough outline of how the story is going to progress with its main plot-line, side stories and characters.

Bain deftly solves a home burglary and the way in which he resolved the issue showed Griselda had a point when he labeled the sheriff an ethical relativist in a previous novel. Not necessarily a bad thing when trying to resolve problems in a small, tight-knit community. There's also a hit-and-run accident, mysterious phone calls to his daughter and "a grisly discovery" is made when the low tide revealed a sunken car in the slough with two bodies inside – a young woman and a baby. Two days later, three people are gunned down in a single night with bullets fired from the same gun!

Vance gives a very brief, bare bone outline of the solution, but the idea behind the murders is really clever and you can see how well it would have worked had it been presented as a completed detective story. I have to stress that the motive for the three murders, more important here than normally, is so original that I know of only one other detective story that used it. One of the anime-and manga detective series used a nearly identical plot and motive for one its stories, but can't tell you any more than that without giving anything away.

Even if "The Genesee Slough Murders" is only a scantily dressed plot outline, I think it's still worth reading, if only to see how the sausage is made.

So, after having read two novels and an unfinished manuscript, I'm left wondering why Vance abandoned the series, because, had he continued writing mystery novels, he would have become one of the top-tier writers of the post-GAD era. And perhaps the one who could have lit the flame of a Silver Age. Luckily, I still have The Four Johns (1964) and The Madman Theory (1966) that he wrote as Ellery Queen on the big pile, but next up, is a return to the Golden Age with a truly obscure title. So stay tuned!