The Red Locked Room (2020) by Tetsuya Ayukawa

Tetsuya Ayukawa was a mystery writer who has been described as "the Japanese honkaku mystery story," comparable to how Ellery Queen is called the American detective story, whose forte were cast-iron alibis that were minutely-timed with "the diverse trains" that ran along "the web of railways that covered the islands of Japan" – as well as having a predilection for the locked room mystery. Ayukawa had an interesting perspective on the impossible crime and unbreakable alibi: an alibi is a "locked room in time" while a locked room is an "alibi in space." Just like that, Ayukawa handed us an excuse to include alibi-tricks in the next supplement edition of Locked Room Murders. Get to work, Brian!

Ayukawa created two very different detectives to tackle these, somewhat, specialized tropes.

Chief Inspector Onitsura is "Ellery Queen wearing the face of Inspector French" and his métier is disassembling carefully fabricated alibis, which means that his stories have the outward appearance of a Croftian police procedural, but his cases are crammed with "original tricks and impressive lines of logic." Ryūzō Hoshikage is a dashing, well dressed, but obnoxious, pipe smoking merchant with pencil mustache and "a gifted amateur detective" – who earned the respect and admiration Chief Inspector Tadokoro. Hoshikage mainly acts as an armchair detective who listens to Tadokoro every time he gets stuck in one of those locked room mysteries, mutters some cryptic remarks and than produces a solution that had eluded every one else.

So how can you not be enticed by a traditional detective novelist whose assets were locked rooms and unbreakable alibis? John Pugmire, of Locked Room International, agreed and formally introduced Ayukawa, Hoshikage and Onitsura to Western mystery readers with a collection of specially selected short stories.

The Red Locked Room (2020) comprises of seven stories, originally published between 1954 and 1961, which were translated by our resident tour guide in the world of the Japanese detective story, Ho-Ling Wong. Taku Ashibe penned an informative introduction to Ayukawa and his two series-detectives. So let's investigate.

The first story in The Red Locked Room is "The White Locked Room," which opens with a female student, Kimiko Satō, visiting the snow-covered, cottage-like home of Professor Zama, but the door is answered by the editor-in-chief of New Century, Nobuo Mine – who came to have the professor proofread one of his articles. Nobuo tells Kimiko he arrived only three minutes before her and found the professor's body in the study. Chief Inspector Tadokoro when the murder turns out to be an impossible crime. The whole house had been searched, top to bottom, but "not even a mouse was found" and the only, untampered traces in the snow were the footprints of Kimiko and Nobuo. So how did the murderer entered and left the house without leaving any footprints behind?

Tadokoro decides to consult his friend and celebrated detective, Ryūzō Hoshikage, who acts more as an armchair oracle than an armchair detective. Hoshikage listens to every detail of the case, makes some cryptic remarks and asks a baffling question ("any talk about a cat or dog being burnt in the neighbourhood?"), which he neatly works into a logical and ultimately simple explanation. A clever locked room-trick that uses a well-known impossible crime technique to create a new solution to the no-footprints problem. I don't recall having ever come across this exact solution before. So well done, Ayukawa!

The second story is "Whose Body?" and has a plot suggesting to me that the unbreakable alibi is not the only reason why Ayukawa's Chief Inspector Onitsura novels and short stories are "often categorised as realistic police procedurals." This story hinges entirely on breaking down someone's identity. An important feature of the Realist School.

"Whose Body?" begins with showing why the exterior of a police procedural can be deceiving and exposed it ties to the intuitive school of detective fiction. There are three artists who all receive packages respectively containing a recently fired gun, a rope and an empty bottle of acid. Some get mad, while others assume it was a prank, but the person whose name was used to send the packages claims to be innocent. And then a body is discovered in the basement of a burnt-out building. A headless body with his hands chemically burned, but the victim still had all his possession and the name tags were not ripped out of his clothes – making identification of the mutilated victim suspiciously easy. Chief Inspector Onitsura finds an "exceptionally intelligent" killer who came up with a scheme that would have tricked a less astute policeman. A well-done play on an age-old trick.

"The Blue Locked Room" is the next story in line and starts with a drunken actor, Fuyuto Shinano, assaulting his stage director, Katsuhiko Kashimura, with a knife, but the timely arrival of a police officer prevented them from killing one another. However, the next morning the director is found murdered in his bedroom with the door locked from the inside and the open window overlooking a flowerbed, which was unmarked by any footprints. So, once again, Chief Inspector Tadokoro turns that famous amateur detective, Ryūzō Hoshikage, but the person he fingers as the murderer shocks even him.

A good and decent enough story, but very much a patchwork of old ideas and therefore can across as a trifle weak surrounded by more original and intricately-plotted stories. Edward D. Hoch actually wrote a story so similar to "The Blue Locked Room" that Hoshikage's summation of the case gave me déjà vu, but you can probably ascribe that to Ayukawa and Hoch using the same locked room mystery as their model. However, they both used a different locked room-tricks.

"Death in Early Spring" is an outstanding example of how to apply a classic impossible crime technique to the manufacturing of indestructible alibis! Chief Inspector Onitsura has to find the murderer of a young man, Kazuomi Kokuryō, who had been strangled to death at a construction site on the outskirts of Gofukubashi 3-Chōme – a one, or two, minute walk from the Yaesu Exit of Tokyo Station. Only suspect is a rival in love, Fukujirō Fuda, who possesses an unshakable alibi. Ayukawa assured the reader in the opening of the story that it was "necessary to examine a dry series of railway timetables" to understand "how the culprit managed to mystify the chief inspector without utilizing any special trickery." I count this as a challenge to the reader and perhaps the most fitting story to use it in. Ellery Queen would have approved!

It's very tempting to compare the next story to John Dickson Carr, but "The Clown in the Tunnel" stands much closer to Carr's modern-day followers and imitators. Such as Paul Halter, Jean-Paul Török and David Renwick.

A clown is witnessed entering the lodgings of a band, Swing Wagon Lodge, where stabs the singer to death in the bathroom and than ties up the maid in the kitchen. After the clown had washed his hands and tidied up his custom, his went outside and the maid saw him disappear into the tunnel that connected the house with the streets. There was, however, a traffic accident on the street-side of the tunnel and the policemen on the scene swore that nobody, let alone a clown, emerged from the tunnel. So what happened to the clown inside the tunnel and how was the vanishing-trick pulled off?

Chief Inspector Tadokoro and Ryūzō Hoshikage have to closely examine and weigh every minute that had ticked away between the moment the clown was seen entering the building and was seen escaping through the tunnel to uncover the solution – which revealed one hell of a trick! The previous story used an impossible crime technique to create an alibi, but this story employed the tricks of the alibi story to make a clown vanish into thin air. Something tells me this story is going to turn up in a future anthology of locked room and impossible crime stories.

The next story is "The Five Clocks" and has Chief Inspector Onitsura doggedly pursuing a murderer whose alibi was backed by five different clocks in as many different locations. A clock in the study. The wristwatch of a witness. A radio broadcast. The clock at the murderer's tailor and the clock at the wall of a soba restaurant, but more is not always better and only the trick with the restaurant clock was impressive. So not exactly a classic of the alibi story, but a good example of how to break them down.

Finally, we come to the titular story, "The Red Locked Room," which is a simple red brick building, containing the dissection room, standing on a lonely corner of a university campus. Honestly, a dissection room or mortuary has not been used enough as a setting for a locked room story, because the mood and atmosphere practically creates itself. This time, Tadokoro and Hoshikage are confronted with the body of female student, Katsuki, who had been expertly cut to pieces and left behind the locked door of the dissection room – secured on the outside with a combination-lock. And only one person knows the combination to that lock.

However, if you're familiar with the tropes of the Japanese locked room mystery, or are simply aware of them, you should be able to work out the trick before Hoshikage reveals it to a baffled Tadokoro. Still a solid impossible crime story and another possible candidate for inclusion in a future locked room anthology.

On a whole, The Red Locked Room is an excellent and highly recommended introduction to a writer whose debut novel, Petrov jiken (The Petrov Affair, 1950), was seen as at the time as "a bellwether of the arrival of a new generation of honkaku mystery writers." So, hopefully, this isn't the last we have seen of Ayukawa in the West.

On a last, semi-related note: I didn't want this review to linger in my blogging queue for over a month and decided to find a hole in the schedule to cram it in, but now have to find another hole to play armchair detective. You see, there's a change I might have figured out the true/double identity of the mysterious boss from Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed. I know I'm not far enough in the series to officially know about the revelation that was hidden volume 30, but bits and pieces have been spoiled to me over the years. Recently, the pieces began to fall into place. I still have to work out the details in my head, but it makes sense up there. Nobody on the internet seems to have considered this possibility! And even if it collapses, I'll probably still post my little theory just for the fun of it.


Dead Weight (1946) by Addison Simmons

Addison Simmons was an American writers described by our resident genre-historian, Curt Evans, as "a prolific professional writer of both short stories and radio plays" who produced two detective novels, Death on the Campus (1935) and Dead Weight (1946), which had been withering away in obscurity – until Coachwhip Publications decided to reissue them in 2018. And, as to be expected, Evans penned an excellent introduction to those brand new editions.

Years ago, I came across a short reference to Dead Weight in The Anthony Boucher Chronicles: Reviews and Commentary, 1942-47 (2009), praising the book as a small town mystery with "quite a bit of ingenuity," which earned it a notation on my wishlist.

Needless to say, I was glad to see this little-known novel returning to print, but the due to the deluge of reprints, translations and my crippling impossible crime addiction, it took me more than a year to get to it. So my only regret is that I didn't read it sooner. What an enjoyable and interesting little piece of detective fiction!

Dead Weight centers on the creators of "a nice quiet little radio serial," Ed MacIntyre and Walt Tuttle, who formed "a perfect combination" with Walt cobbling together the plots and Ed writing the dialogue, but Home Town became "the top ranking serial on the air" – playing havoc on Ed's digestive system and nerves. For years, Ed and Walt have been battling their sponsor, Slade Lattimer, who's "one of the wealthiest men in the country" with the habit of treating his employees as stooges who have "to be beaten into line." And every single day, for two years, Lattimer interfered with the scrips and direction of the show. So when an opportunity presented itself to get out, Ed and Walt eagerly grabbed it.

Walt returned to his old home town, Hamsted, where he bought a drug story that came with two full-time registered pharmacists, a store manager and a girl at the soda fountain. Only thing they have to do is learn how to sell the patent medicines, candy and hardware, which will land them a comfy 75 bucks a week!

Shortly after they arrived, Ed discovers Walt's slumped body in one of the ice cream booths at the pharmacy, clutching a torn piece of paper, with an overturned glass of strawberry soda next to him. Someone had shot him! Curiously, on the night of the murder, there were several people from their Chicago past in town. One of them was their old radio-executive, Harry Leibowitz, but also the hotblooded, short-tempered daughter of their former sponsor, Sandra Lattimer, who's passionately in love with Walt and nearly killed him back in Chicago – when she confronted him with a loaded gun. There are also potential suspects closer to home who warrant some consideration. Such as the strawberry soda guzzling village idiot, "Dodo," who's holding something back and the "tight and bitter" Forsythe family. Years ago, 19-year-old Calla Forsythe was murdered and her body dumped in Hamsted Wood, but the murderer was never caught and Ed discovers Walt used the case as a story-line in Home Town.

So, together with his wife, Binnie, Ed decides to get to the bottom of this business, but that's easier said than done when you're dealing with a missing dying message, lying witnesses, hostile suspects and a growing bodycount.

There aren't any references in Dead Weight to other mystery writers, or detective characters, but the plotting and writing suggests Simmons admired Ellery Queen and Craig Rice. Dead Weight has the type of characters and background recalling Queen's Hollywood and Wrightsville novels, but, as Evans described it, "baroque in plot" reminiscent of the earlier, more puzzle-driven, Queen novels. I think the presence of a dying message was the clearest evidence Simmons aligned himself with Queen, but Dead Weight also has a dreamy, slightly surrealistic quality. Ed has some very strange dreams, "like Alice Through the Looking Glass," which actually help him get closer to the solution. Something that reminded me of the often dreamlike detective stories by Rice. Another mystery writer who also greatly admired Queen.

But how well was this Queen-Rice style detective executed in the hands of Simmons? As usually, Anthony Boucher was right when he wrote that Dead Weight has plenty of ingenuity, but this doesn't come into play until the final quarter of the book when the dying message turns up and an alibi-trick came into play – skillfully blindsiding this unsuspecting armchair detective. So I was very pleased with how the story and plot developed and turned out.

Dead Weight is not a shimmering, long-lost classic of the Golden Age detective story, but it's a tremendously enjoyable, well written and handily plotted novel with good ideas, memorable scenes and served with a slice of small town Americana. A fine example of "the entertaining legacy" left behind by those "young detective fiction enthusiasts of eighty and ninety years ago." Recommended, especially if you have a special fondness for the classic American detective stories of writers like Queen and Rice.


The Scythe of Time: Case Closed, vol. 73 by Gosho Aoyama + Bonus Mini-Review

The 73rd volume of Gosho Aoyama's long-running Case Closed series, published in Japan and elsewhere as Detective Conan, begins with the two concluding chapters of the fascinating story that ended the previous volume, "The Blade of the Keeper of Time" – a clock-themed impossible crime in the spirit of John Dickson Carr and John Rhode. A seemingly impossible murder announced in a letter that was signed "The Guardian of Time."

Rukako Hoshina is a wealthy family matriarch with an obsession for clocks, but every year, she receives a threatening letter accusing her of disrespecting "the flow of time" and foretells she'll fall to "a shapeless sword" at the time she came into the world. So she hired the well-known sleeping detective, Richard Moore, who's accompanied by Conan and Rachel to the Western-style clock mansion of his client. Unfortunately, they're unable to prevent the murderer from striking down Moore's client.

Just as she blew out the candles on her birthday cake, the lights went out and Rukako Hoshina was stabbed in the chest. When the lights came back on, the murderer appeared to have disappeared through the open door of the balcony, but it had been raining until early in the evening and the ground below was muddy – unmarked by any footprints. So the killer hasn't left the house, but the spray pattern showed the culprit had to be "doused in blood." Nobody had enough blood on them to have delivered the fatal blow. And what happened to the murder weapon?

There are many cogs and wheels moving to make this locked room-trick work, which makes it workmanlike rather than inspired, but what makes the story brilliant is the nature of the shapeless sword, why the murderer didn't get spattered with blood and the "strange description" of the culprit who brushed against several people when the lights went out. A description suggesting "a large, fat, fast-moving woman in a dress." So, on a whole, a very satisfying detective story.

The second story has a familiar premise, a poisoning at a restaurant, which has become one of the specialties of the house in this series, but, more interestingly, it leaves Conan alone with Moore – who rarely, if ever, tackle a case without Rachel being there. Rachel is staying at school overnight to practice with her classmates for the big karate tournament and this means he has to Conan out to have dinner, but Coffee Poirot is closed and they end up at a grimy, rundown noodle shack with "ramen to die for." And the ramen proved to be absolutely delicious!

Conan and Moore learn that the owner is feuding with an unscrupulous real estate developer, Tokumori Saizu, who has been trying to buy out all the stores on the block to make place for a shopping mall. Saizu doesn't shun rough, underhanded tactics to get his way. So when he drops dead in the restaurant, of cyanide poisoning, everyone present has a rock solid motive, but how did the murderer administer this very dangerous poison?

Aoyama is one of the most versatile plotters of our time, who can turn his hand to any kind of chicanery, but, when it comes to doling out poison, he's the uncrowned king of poisoning tricks – even better than either Agatha Christie or Paul Doherty. For example, the ingenious method employed, in volume 15, to poison a loan shark or the murder, in volume 63, at a sushi bar where plates of food can be taken randomly from a conveyor belt. Yes, here too, Aoyama came up with another deceivingly simplistic method to transfer a deadly amount of poison to the victim without him being aware of it. As if the murderer "was pulling his strings from the moment he walked in," but it always makes me a little antsy to see how cyanide is being handled in these stories. Nevertheless, a solid story with a very well done setting and trick.

The third story introduces a new character, Masumi Sera, who's a self-proclaimed high school detective ("a girl Kudo") and recently transferred into Rachel and Serena's class, but she seems very interested in Conan. She becomes involved in a case with him when they're both present when a phone scammer apparently jumped to his death. Conan and Sera astutely deduce that the scammer was cleverly murdered, however, picking apart the carefully planned and executed trick takes some time and ingenuity. Conan has to phone in his part of the solution with his Jimmy Kudo voice. A good introduction to a new character with a trick that used an cast-iron alibi to create an impossible crime.

The premise of the last story immediately reminded me of Ed McBain's Killer's Wedge (1959) with the grieving brother of a dead mystery writer strapping explosives to his chest and taking Richard Moore, Rachel, Sera and three other people hostage at his office – demanding that the famous "Sleeping Moore" solves the murder of his sister. Miku Sawaguri has become one of the youngest, bestselling mystery novelists in Japan, but she apparently committed suicide at a hot spring, inside a locked room, by slitting her wrists. Something her brother refuses to accept and believes that one of the three women, all aspiring mystery writers, who went with her to hot springs murdered her. So, once again, Conan has to assume his old identity over the phone to help Moore identify the murderer. And, hopefully, prevent a bloodbath. This story will be concluded in the next volume.

So, all in all, volume 73 was one of the strongest volumes, in a while, full of clever tricks, good settings (ramen shop) and the introduction of new recurring character with ambiguous intentions. A fine example of why Case Closed is the greatest detective story of our time and criminally ignored by Western mystery readers.

But wait, there's more! In my previous blog-post, I reviewed Michael Dahl's second Finnegan Zwake archaeological mystery novel, The Worm Tunnel (1999), which is a series I described as a cross between Case Closed and the 1990s cartoon-series, The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest. Something unexpectedly came my way that was perfect to tack on to this review.

During the mid-to late 1990s, HarperCollins published eleven TV tie-in novels of The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest, written by Brad Quentin, but calling them novels is being generous, because my edition of Peril in the Peaks (1996) only has 110 pages in large print – which probably means you could reissue the entire series as one, or two, short story collections. The Quest Team travel to the remote Tibetan mountains where an ancient ghost plane has been spotted and cargo planes disappear without a trace in place called Cloud Alley. Soon they're embroiled with cloud surfing sky pirates and have to cross swords with the dictator of long-lost valley, named Sharma-La, where people have lived under the cover of a mysterious and magical blanket of clouds for more than fifty years. The people believe the clouds protect their spiritual leader, The Little Lama, who hasn't aged for the better part of a century!

So there's more than enough to do for the Quest Team and Quentin packed those scant, 110-pages with a ton of adventurous scenes and exciting developments, which made for an entertaining, fast-paced read, but the only real reason to pick up one of these tie-in stories is nostalgia and nothing else. If you're feeling nostalgic, Peril in the Peaks will give you a fun hour of childhood escapism.


The Worm Tunnel (1999) by Michael Dahl

I began this month with a review of the fourth title in Michael Dahl's five-book Finnegan "Finn" Zwake series, The Viking Claw (2001), which are archaeological mystery novels, written for a teenage audience, best described as a cross between Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed and The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest – originally published between 1999 and 2002. More importantly, the series is littered with imaginatively-posed impossible crime scenarios and locked room mysteries!

The Viking Claw treated the reader to a disappearance from an inescapable hammock-camp clamped to the side of a cliff and a no-footprints-in-the-snow puzzle from the past. The second title in the series, The Worm Tunnel (1999), offers a murder inside a sealed, high-tech tent at an archaeological dig in Mexico.

Finnegan Zwake is the now 13-year-old son of two archaeologists, Leon and Anna Zwake, who disappeared while searching for a lost city "tucked somewhere among the frozen volcano-cones of Iceland" (see The Viking Claw) and have been legally declared dead, but Finn knows they're still alive. Finn argues that everyone in his family is "an expert on dead things" and they known "if something is dead or not." One of many dark clouds looming over this teenage detective novel.

So now Finn travels the globe with his famous mystery writing uncle, Stoppard Sterling, in the hope of finding a clue to the whereabouts of his missing parents, which brings them to some exotic, colorful locations and archaeological hotbeds, but the Ackerberg Institute is always ominously lurking in the background – a shadowy organization who used to employ his parents. Apparently, Finn and Uncle Stop had an encounter with agents of the institute in The Horizontal Man (1999) and they dress in "black suits, black ties and black leather gloves" with sunglasses. I like to believe the Ackerberg Institute is a subsidiary of the Black Organization from Case Closed.

The Worm Tunnel brings Finn and his uncle to a fictitious Central American country, Agualar, where, years previously, a 6-year-old Finn had accompanied his parents on an Ackerberg sponsored dig.

A dig that uncovered a historical treasure trove of gold Mayan artifacts, but Hurricane Midge forced them to abandon the campsite and return to the United States. There was, however, "a mysterious thief at the dig site" and, in order to protect a precious artifact, called crocodile de ouro, he "buried the golden crocodile under his tent." Something they learned from his diary and it's still buried there!

Finn wants to dig it up and use it to finance a hunting expedition for his parents, but the place is dangerous to travel to and they are accompanied by their cop buddy, Jared Lemon-Olsen. And one of those dark clouds briefly drifts over the story. Jared points out that forty tourists are killed there every year and tells Finn he intends to bring him back home with his head still attached to his shoulders and all of his fingers in place. So, what he was saying here, is that Finn better listens to him unless he wants to end up in an abandoned warehouse being whittled down by a cartel member with a pocket knife. I never expected to read a line like that in a juvenile detective novel.

When Finn, Uncle Stop and Jared arrive at the old campsite, they find that the former dig site is now occupied by a group of dinosaur hunters and paleontologists, under the guidance of the hated Professor Tuscan Freaze, who found fossilized eggs of a new species of dinosaur – believing the place used to be nesting ground in prehistoric times. Professor Freaze is accompanied by his son, Dr. Tulsa Freaze, who took along his wife, Fleur. There are three other members, Dr. Himmelfarben, José Mirón and Gabriel Paz, who unexpectedly joined by a well-known Chinese paleontologist, Nixon Wu. Wu was one of the scientists who dug up one of "the largest collection of prehistoric eggs ever discovered" in Mongolia and, when he heard that the famous professor was hunting dinosaur eggs in Agualar, he decided to offer his services.

Unrelated Filler Cover
On a side note, Wu was spotted in the opening chapter by Finn, but Jared refused to stop the car and, when they looked out of the back window, Wu had vanished from the empty desert background! As if he had vanished into thin air in a matter of seconds. An impossible disappearance mystery solved in chapter 5.

The Worm Tunnel offers a genuine, double-layered and beautifully executed locked room mystery in chapter 8 when Professor Freaze's body is found sprawled on a cot in the middle of his tent. A "gleaming knife" protruded from his back! The problem is that the high-tech tent was completely closed up and sealed from the inside with zippers and turn-locks, which is why they had to cut their way into the tent. The second impossibility concerns the murder weapon, "a golden knife with feathers carved into the handle," but Finn and his uncle were looking at the knife inside a locked trailer when the murder was discovered. And when they returned to the trailer, the knife had vanished! So how could the knife have been in two places at the same time?

They closely examine the tent, discuss various methods how the zippers, or turn-locks, could have been manipulated and Stoppard discusses one of his own locked room plots, which share some similarities with the sealed tent murder, but the clues that lead them to the solution are a balloon and the victim's dirty socks – unveiling a completely new and satisfying locked room-trick. I was tempted to draw a comparison with the equally original solution to the locked tent murder from Takemaru Abiko's short story "Ningyou wa tent de suiri suru" (1990), recently translated as "A Smart Dummy in the Tent," but the nature of the trick places The Worm Tunnel right next to Carter Dickson's The Judas Window (1938) and Arthur Porges' "The Unguarded Path" (collected in These Daisies Told: The Casebook of Professor Ulysses Price Middlebie, 2018). A locked room stories about invisible doorways that only murderers can reach through to get to their victim's when they're all alone in a sealed room. So, needless to say, I rate this locked room-trick quite high.

Unfortunately, this double-layered impossibility is what gave the otherwise skin-and-bones plot some much needed bulk, because the murderer was not difficult to spot and the motive felt tacked on. The motive was briefly foreshadowed, but to actually use it as a motive detracted a little from the fascinating background of fossil hunters. So, very much like The Viking Claw, this turned out to be another mixed bag of tricks, but with the good definitely outweighing the bad.

That being said, taken purely as a locked room mystery, The Worm Tunnels ranks as one of the better, more original, juvenile detective novels and strangely fitting that the book was published at the tail-end of 1999. The 1990s were not particularly well-known for its high-quality impossible crime fiction, not until recently anyway, but that decade is book-ended by Nicholas Wilde's Death Knell (1990) and Dahl's The Worm Tunnel – two teenage crime novels with the best locked room-tricks of the decade. You can now certainly look forward to reviews of The Horizontal Man, The Ruby Raven (1999) and The Coral Coffin (2002). Not necessarily in that order.


Death Knows No Calendar (1942) by John Bude

Some years ago, I reviewed three, once very obscure, mystery novels by John Bude, The Cornish Coast Murder (1935), The Cheltenham Square Murder (1937) and Death on the Riviera (1952), which were well written and amusing enough, but thinly plotted and flimsily clued – striking me as stories about detectives rather than detective stories. So my interest in Bude had waned over the years until the British Library announced a twofer volume with a hard-to-find, long out-of-print locked room mystery was scheduled for 2020! Well, that was enough to get me back on board. I'm easy like that.

Earlier this year, the British Library released Death Knows No Calendar (1942) together with Death in White Pyjamas (1944) in a single volume and these novels promised to be very different from his Detective-Inspector Meredith series. Very different.

Death Knows No Calendar is one of only two of Bude's impossible crime novels, preceded by Death on Paper (1940), which is listed in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) with a murder inside a locked studio and an inexplicable disappearance. A pretty little puzzle posing a challenge not to one of Bude's intelligent and sympathetic policeman, but an affable and enthusiastic amateur detective, Major Tom Boddy, who gorged himself on detective stories – accumulating "a vast knowledge of time-factors, alibis, motives, ballistics, moulage, photo-micography and police procedure." Major Boddy is assisted by "a small bird-like man," Syd Gammon, who had once been his batman. And he plays his role in helping to find the key to this locked room puzzle.

Lydia Ardunel is an accomplished painter and one of the leading lights of the village, Beckwood, but she's a woman of "twisted values" who moved through "the world perfectly aware of the spells she cast over others less gifted."

Five years ago, Lydia seduced the preacher, Reverend Peter Swale-Reid, whose soul and religion has been torn apart over his mistake. Always living in fear that his parishioners suspected and secretly looked upon him as a hypocrite unworthy to be their spiritual guide. Stanley Hawkinge is a simpleminded, but an honest, hardworking farmer, who had "burst into a great erotic conflagration at the age of twenty-eight" and had been pathetically devoted to Lydia for ten years – until he met someone else. Something that did not sit well with Lydia. Lastly, there's Lydia's husband, John Ardunel, who used to be an actor and his marriage to Lydia had "hauled him at a single pull out of obscurity and poverty," but deep down he hated his wife with "a cold and calculated hatred."

So there you have all the ingredients for a nice little murder mystery! A victim practically tailor-made to be murdered. A cozy circle of potential murderers equipped with motives and alibis. A whole series of strange events in the parish preceding the murder. One evening, Major Boddy hears the news that Lydia has been found dead in her studio, following a gunshot, with a Colt. 45 by her side. The door was locked on the inside with the key stuck inside the lock. The window was securely locked with the curtains drawn and the fixed skylight can't be opened. So, on the surface, it looks like a clear case of suicide, but a closer examination of the wound and position of the gun opens the possibility of murder.

Nonetheless, the locked situation of the studio convinced the jury to return a verdict of suicide at the inquest and gives Major Boddy a freehand to begin playing amateur detective.

Major Boddy not only has to figure out who of the small group of suspects shot Lydia, but how he get, or out, of the locked studio. A peach of a problem sweetened when they're all armed with "impregnable alibis" and one of the suspects goes missing! And there are more problems and puzzles on the horizon to contend with. Such as a car that vanishes practically in front of Major Boddy and an ingenious, mechanical crime/alibi very late into the story (murderer is already known by then).

So you can probably understand why I liked Death Knows No Calendar so much. It has a lively amateur detective who brings the same kind of energy to the investigation as Anthony Berkeley's Roger Sheringham. A galore of alibis reminiscent of Christopher Bush and John Dickson Carr's dedication to the locked room mystery, but plotted with the technical know-all of a John Rhode novel and Death Knows No Calendar actually reminded me of Invisible Weapons (1938) – which share some (superficial) resemblances when it comes to tricks and structure. This book gives you something, usually the best, from all those writers.

Death Knows No Calendar is purely a how-was-it-done with the murderer's identity becoming more, and more, obvious with each passing chapter and emerges long before the final chapter comes around. A lot trickier is destroying this person's alibi or figuring out how Lydia was killed while all alone inside a locked room. And proving it! Major Boddy has to conclude that the murder was the work of "a deft and brilliant artist in crime" who created "a murder de luxe."

Admittedly, the schemes and tricks hatched by the murderer are, perhaps, too workmanlike and mechanical in nature to be artistically labeled de luxe, but the whole plot is a fine example of good, old-fashioned craftsmanship without getting the story bogged down in technical details.

So, all in all, Death Knows No Calendar was the polar opposite of my previous encounters with Bude. A clever, resourceful and engagingly written detective novel with a crammed plot that left me wanting more! Needless to say, you can expect a review of Death in White Pyjamas before too long.