The Hog's Back Mystery (1933) by Freeman Wills Crofts

Freeman Wills Crofts was one of the earlier Golden Age mystery writers and he was among the first whose work was resurrected in the early 2000s, courtesy of House of Stratus, before slumping back into obscurity again – until fifteen years later when the British Library Crime Classics and Collins Crime Club began reissuing his work en masse. Collins Crime Club is going to publish six more long out-of-print titles in Crofts' Inspector French series concluding in September with the reprint of his eagerly anticipated locked room novel, Sudden Death (1932).

So I wanted to remove one, or two, older reprints from my to-be-read pile before adding new ones to it and decided to finally take a shot at The Hog's Back Mystery (1933). One of those simon-pure jigsaw puzzle detective novels with a plot that, sort of, flirts with the impossible crime story.

The Hog's Back Mystery, published in America as The Strange Case of Dr. Earle, takes place in "the heart of wild Surrey," with "the spine of that curious narrow ridge known as the Hog's Back" in the background, where the retired Dr. James Earle settled down with his wife, Julia, in a typically English cottage – all around it was the woods. Giving the cottage that it might be "the only dwelling in the world." This where the Earles have decided to life a quiet, docile existence with Dr. Earle working on his manuscript on germ cultures and Julia buzzing around the place doing the household chores.

So, to liven up the place a little, Julia invited two guests to spend a short holiday at the cottage. Marjorie Lawes is Julia's unmarried sisters who lives most of the year abroad and churns out reams of sentimental love stories as a living. Ursula Stone is their childhood friend and the honorary secretary of a children's hospital in Bath, but she's the one who discovers that there was no love between James and Julia. They merely tolerated each other "in the spirit of trying to make the best of a bad bargain." What's more, Ursula discovers that Julia is probably involved with her next door neighbor, Reggie Slade. And even the mild, elderly James seems to be involved with a much younger woman dressed entirely in gray. This little, dime-a-dozen domestic intrigue turns out to be foundation for an extraordinary and baffling string of inexplicably disappearances.

On a Sunday evening, Dr. James Earle was seen sitting, before the fire, with his house slippers on and reading a newspaper, but, three minutes later, the newspaper was on the chair and he was gone – vanished without a trace with no hint of cause or method. Dr. James Earle had been spirited away! The way in which he disappeared was like "seeing the impossible happen before one's eyes."

Granted, the disappearance of Dr. Earle is not exactly an impossible crime, but, as Inspector French soon discovers, the case is as baffling and complex as the most intricately plotted and executed locked room mystery. The first disappearance seems simplistic enough with having to decide whether Dr. Earle had disappeared voluntarily or had been murdered, which appears to be answered when French discovers the woman-in-gray had also disappeared without a trace. French is not satisfied with this answer and the way in which he reasons the pros and cons of the various possibilities showed Crofts had great respect for the intelligence of his readers.

Every possible scenario and lead is discussed, closely examined and followed to its logical conclusions, which, on more than occasion, turns out to be incorrect and the reader is shown, through French's reasoning, why he had been wrong – right down to the last detail. French might not be an eccentric scientist-detective or an amateur reasoner of some celebrity, but his performance here, alone, makes him one of the Great Detectives of the Golden Age. The way in which French tries to get a firm grasp on the problems is a sheer joy to read, if you like your detective stories pure and undiluted with any literary pretensions. The Hog's Back Mystery is an exercise in rationality and stubborn, dogged determination.

Something else to admire about The Hog's Back Mystery is that the central problem keeps developing and expending the number of combinations and possibilities. You won't appreciate the full scope of the problem until a third person vanishes from an upstairs bedroom with people sitting in the room below, but it is this disappearance that provides French with the (physical) clues needed to force a much-needed breakthrough. What he discovers makes him determined to ensure the person responsible will pay "the heaviest penalty that the law allowed."

All of that being, I fear some readers will struggle with the slower, more plodding, final quarter of the story, particularly the last chapter, which hinges on timetables and movements of the suspects used to destroy a sturdy alibi. Don't worry. You're not expected to do any math homework. French is there to walk you through it.

The Hog's Back Mystery is an intelligently plotted and surprisingly charmingly written detective story. A little plodding in parts, perhaps, but I think it helped the story here as you can't help sympathize with French as he continues to plug away at a seemingly insoluble problem using little more than clear, honest reasoning and humanity's famous, mule-headed stubbornness. Needless to say, I loved the result.


Food for Thought: "Dead of Winter" (2007) by Catherine Mambretti

Catherine Mambretti is a former college professor and, among other things, a scholar of 17th century literature and an expert in manuscripts and rare books, but she has also written a number of short detective stories – one of her stories should have been listed in Brian Skupin's Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019). A historical impossible crime story with Pocahontas as one of the characters and a Native American shaman as the detective.

"Dead of Winter" originally appeared in the December, 2007, issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and learned of its existence through our very own genre-sherpa, Mike Grost, who briefly discussed and praised the story on his website.

The story takes place in Jamestown, Virginia, during the harsh winter of 1609 and is told from the perspective of a 17-year-old white slave, Edward, who had been one of the ship boys that had been sold for corn to the Indians when they landed in 1607 – which was hardly enough to keep the settlers fed. Emperor Powhatan had prepared his people and his storehouses "were packed with bearskins, smoked oysters, char-kee, walnuts, maize" and "other riches." A treasure worth its weight in gold when all the settlers had to eat were "old boots and thrice-boiled horse bones."

Edward had been sent by his shaman master, Araparedhunt ("known as Redhunt to his friends"), to Jamestown to spy at a time when he was sure the settlers had "nothing left to eat except each other," but Edward had been sent back with a message from the commanding officer. Captain Percy had decided to content to marry the Powhatan's daughter, Princess Pocahontas, with "some corn" as a dowry. Pocahontas was already married to a warrior, Kakoum. She has to right to exchange Kokoum for Percy, but Redhunt told Edward to prepare to return to Jamestown with a polite refusal. And then she burst into his yehawkans, asking the Great Shaman to find her husbands murderer.

Kakoum's body had been found in the snow, near the Great Fertile Swamp, with a pierced skull and still clutching his bow. A hundred feet away from the body was a blood-covered boulder, which suggests he might have wounded one of his attackers, but, whoever had attacked him, they left no footprints – as "if they had wings." So rumors begin to swirl around and suspicion falls on the white, starving cutthroats of Jamestown, but Redhunt found an unexpected solution when he closely examined the scene of the crime.

This is where "Dead of Winter" changes from a historical story to a slightly unusual impossible crime story. Particularly for something that was written and published only thirteen years ago.

Firstly, Redhunt is a literary descendant of Arthur W. Upfield's half-aboriginal police detective, Napoleon "Bony" Bonaparte, who are both trackers with an uncanny ability to uncover clues from their natural surrounding – drawing deductions from animals, plants or the unmarked snow around a body. Redhunt uses this method to explain how Kakoum died in that lonely place. Grost pointed out the solution is a variation on a well-known trick, but originally used here to create a no-footprints scenario, which helped give the story an old-world feeling. A solution that firmly places the story in the impossible crime tradition of L.T Meade and Robert Eustace's A Master of Mysteries (1898) and the stories collected in Keikichi Osaka's The Ginza Ghost (2017).

So, purely as an impossible crime story, Mambretti's "Dead of Winter" is a bit of a throwback to some of the earliest locked room mysteries and impossible crime stories, but it worked really well. Combined with the historical set, you have another good story that future locked room anthologists should keep in mind. More importantly, it shows that there's more than enough material out there to justify another supplementary edition of Locked Room Murders. Not that I need another supplementary edition, or anything, but you know, it's handy to have around when you're suffering from a crippling impossible crime addiction. My copies of Adey and Skupin constantly reassure me that my supply of locked room mysteries are still far from being exhausted.


Death for Madame (1946) by R.T. Campbell

Last year, I read Unholy Dying (1945) by Ruthven Todd, published as by "R.T. Campbell," who penned a flurry of lighthearted, satirical detective novels published during a two year period, 1945 and 1946, which feature a loud, portly and beer guzzling botanist-cum-detective, Professor John Stubbs – a literary relative of Sgt. Beef, Dr. Gideon Fell and Simon Gale. So a perfect series to read if you're in the mood for something bright and cheerful. I was definitely in the mood for a comedic mystery with a boorish, elephant-in-a-china-shop detective trampling through the case.

John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, nominated Campbell's Death for Madame (1946) as the "Best Vintage Mystery Reprint of 2018," released by Dover, but decided at the time to go with Unholy Dying instead. I now have to agree with John that Death for Madame is probably the best and funniest of these recent Dover reprints.

Death for Madame stands closer to the humorous, tongue-in-cheek mysteries of Leo Bruce than Unholy Dying, or Bodies in a Bookshop (1946), with the narrator, Max Boyle, playing the Lionel Townsend to Professor Stubbs' Sgt. Beef. A well done contrast between the quiet introvert and the overly social extrovert.

Max Boyle was looking forward to a quiet, peaceful life with "nothing moving any faster than a seed germinates" when he became the assistant of Professor Stubbs, but living with Professor Stubbs had been "one damned murder after another" – even in between murders he had no peace. Professor Stubbs is a large, mustachioed man, both in stature and personality, who smokes pipes filled with wickedly-smelling tobacco or black cigars that could fumigate "a ward of patients suffering from bubonic plague" and has all the tact of an air-raid siren. So what should have been a quiet, scholarly life went from "one crack-brained scheme" to another, interspersed by a murder or two, which prevented them from doing any serious work on The History of Botany.

A situation trying enough for the long-suffering Boyle, but a personal friend of Professor Stubbs, a Mr. Ben Carr, has an equally disruptive personality and is "in and out of the house at all hours of the day and night." Usually, Carr strings them along to replicate experiments he read about in eighteenth century books.

One day, out of nowhere, Carr asks Stubbs if he knows his aunt, Lottie Rattigan. A "most extraordinary old cuss" who used to keep a brothel in Brussels, but she found "the wear and tear too great" and now she runs a seedy residential hotel, The Boudoir, in Bayswater – as "hotels go it's pretty mad, too." And wonders if he liked to meet her. Naturally, Professor Stubbs is only too willing to go out and meet this eccentric relative of his friend, but this would come back to haunt him. Lottie Rattigan can meet the boorish, wheezing and overweight botanic detective pound for pound.

Lottie is an enormous woman, in her late nineties, who rarely leaves her rocking chair in the hallway of the hotel and runs the place from that chair in a way that would drive any sane bookkeeper to either mental breakdown or over a window ledge, whichever is more convenient at the time. She actually remembers Professor Stubbs' father, "dressed in lavender silk combinations," who used to dance the can-can in her rooms in Brussels. This embarrassed Stubbs and pleased Boyle to no end.

"R.T. Campbell"
On the following day, Stubbs is called by Carr with the news that Lottie had been killed during the night. She was found lolling in her rocking chair with a piece of electric flex tied around around her neck. The problem this murder poses has a deceptively simplistic appearance.

Firstly, there are only a handful of suspects. Carr is the principle legatee under his aunt's latest will and becomes the police's primary suspect, which infuriates Stubbs to no end. Roland Grimble is Lottie's second nephew and a good-for-nothing young man who becomes furious when he discovers his generous inheritance comes with strings attached. James and Sybil Baker used to visit country house parties, like Raffles and Bunny, but nowadays run a discreet gambling den. Lottie approved of gambling and rewarded them accordingly in her will. Miss Annie Aspinall was a long-time companion of Lottie and she left Annie the tidy sum of five thousand pounds. There's an aged, world-weary waiter, Arthur Niven, and a chambermaid, Janet Morgan, who both received a generous sum of money.

So everyone appears to have a money-backed motive and not an alibi between them worth, or desired, mentioning, but the motive is not as strong as it appeared on account of Lottie's habit of adding, or cutting, people out of her will on a weekly basis – nobody knew for sure whether, or not, they were in the will. This made Lottie more valuable alive than dead. Everyone appears to have had the opportunity to kill Lottie without having an alibi, but banking on an inheritance would have been a pure gamble. That makes it a slightly different kind of detective story. A detective story with a solution that took me by surprise, because I was suspecting something completely different.

Stubbs has a bookcases crammed with thrillers, muscling in on the shelf space of the Botanical Magazine, who reads "the latest detective story by John Dickson Carr" during his investigation and remarks that "the worst kinda thriller" has the killer enter the story at the very end, while in "the best thrillers the murderer is there all the time" – one of the minor side-characters happens to be an outsider on the inside. Mr. Hillary St. John Smellman is Lottie's lawyer and before reading her will, he noted that looking after her affairs was "no sinecure." Regularly, Smellman had to come down to the hotel to make (minor) alterations to the will and was there only a day before the murder to perform his usual duties. I took these bits and pieces as clues and hints that Lottie had finally driven Smellman to temporary insanity and had he killed her to put a stop to the song and dance with the will. It would have fitted the tone and circumstances of the story, but Campbell decided to end the story on more serious and tragic note. But it made for a strangely effective ending.

All in all, Campbell's Death for Madame is one of the funnier takes on the so-called hotel-mysteries with a good plot and great characters that will charm and entertain readers who count Leo Bruce, John Dickson Carr and Edmund Crispin among their favorite detective novelist. Very much worth your time.


Cue for Murder (1942) by Helen McCloy

If Agatha Christie was the British Queen of Crime, then Helen McCloy was the First Lady of the American detective story. A first-class mystery writer whose cunningly plotted, subtly clued and excellently characterized detective novels can only be compared to the works of Christianna Brand and John Dickson Carr, who all three wrote more than one celebrated locked room mystery, but McCloy differed in two ways from them – an interest in Fruedian psychology and suspense fiction. This lead her to write some unusual detective novels that were a little off the beaten track.

McCloy's Through a Glass, Darkly (1950) is arguably the detective story's most well-known treatment of the doppelgänger phenomena and she decided to develop a taste for the traditional locked room puzzle during a period when the light of the Golden Age had dimmed considerably. Such as blending espionage and suspense with a locked room problem (The Further Side of Fear, 1967) or penning one of the best rooms-that-kill stories (Mr. Splitfoot, 1968), which is as good as anything written by Carr.

So, in comparison, I always assumed Cue for Murder (1942) was one of McCloy's more conventional novels with a theatrical murder committed in full view of the audience, but, now that I've read it, I can only describe it as a demonstration of her abilities as a plotter – devilish complex in its simplicity. McCloy felt confident enough to give her readers the most important clues up front. What a woman!

The prologue states that the Royal Theatre was "solved through the agency of a house fly and a canary." The fly discovered "the chemical evidence that so impressed the jury at the trial," but "the canary provided a psychological clue to the murderer's identity" before "the murder was committed."

Cue for Murder begins with Dr. Basil Willing, medical assistant to the District Attorney, specializing in psychiatry, reading a "pleasantly trivial" newspaper column reporting a puzzling burglary at Marcus Lazarus' knife-grinding shop. The shop is little more than a shack, tucked away in an alley, which contained nothing worth stealing, but the intruder had opened "the cage of Lazarus' pet canary and set the bird free." A petty little problem that teased Dr. Willing's imagination "as prettily as a problem in chess or mathematics," but he would grasp the importance of the freed canary until he attends the opening of a revival play of Victorien Sardou's 1882 Fedora – because the shop in the alley leads to the stage door of the Royalty Theatre. The curtain was raised on murder long before the actors climbed on stage!

During the first act, there are four actors on stage. The leading lady and star of Sam Milhau's theatrical company, Wanda Morley. A young and upcoming actor, Rodney Tait, who's been seen a lot in public with Wanda and an engagement is rumored, but all the time he had been engaged to the costume designer, Pauline. Leonard is the more experienced and talented actor of the group who recently returned to the New York stage after a year's illness. Finally, there's the unknown man who plays the quiet, undemanding role of the mortally wounded Count Vladimir. A character who lies quietly in alcove on stage without uttering a single line, but at the end of the first act, he's discovered with "the grooved handle of a surgical knife" protruding from his chest.

This discovery presents Dr. Willing and Assistant Chief Inspector Foyle with a diabolically planned and executed murder, committed within the forty-eight minutes of the first act, by one of those three actors on stage – all of whom had opportunities and no alibis. Dr. Willing notes that, as a rule, murderers try to disassociate them from the murderer with a false alibi, but this murderer realized there is safety in numbers and "obliterated the alibi of two other people." So the murderer "dissipated suspicion by diffusing it equally among three people."

A situation very reminiscent of Christie's Cards on the Table (1936) in which a man is stabbed while the only four suspects were playing bridge and the deceiving simplicity of the situation is what made it one of Christie's trickiest whodunits. The reason why the clues and psychology of the suspects are so important in Cards on the Table and Cue for Murder. Regrettably, there's a tiny weakness to the clueing and psychology of the suspects that prevented the story from being an undisputed classic.

The clues are mostly excellent. I already mentioned the clue of canary, but there's also the curious behavior of the fly that kept "banking and diving like a miniature plane" around the knife-handle. But never landing on the bloodstained blade. There's manuscript with a seemingly unimportant, but ominous, line underscored and the best clue is perhaps the title of the book. However, the problem is that the clues, physical and psychological, can fit any of the suspects without showing why the two other suspects couldn't have committed the murder – even the titular clue is hardly cast-iron evidence. Because they have no way of telling when exactly the fatal knife blow was delivered. A lawyer would have torn that piece of evidence to shreds in court.

Another problem is that everyone appeared to have an association, or fondness, for canaries, which showed the influence of Freudian psycho-analyses had on McCloy ("no human being can ever perform any act without a motive"), but it severely weakened that clue. And it hampered the fair play aspect of the story. A story that would have otherwise been as close to perfection as you could wish a detective story to be.

Regardless of my technical nitpicking, you should not feel discouraged and drop the book to the bottom of your to-be-read pile. Cue for Murder is not one of McCloy's greatest triumphs, but it's unquestionably one of the better and most original theatrical mystery novels from the genre's Golden Age. McCloy brilliantly used the psychology of actors and the closed environment of the stage, "the frontier between reality and illusion," to create a truly baffling murder mystery. Only thing it lacked was a process of elimination clearly demonstrating why the other suspects couldn't have committed the murder, which would have strengthened instead of weakened those crafty clues. But, in the end, Cue for Murder is a near-classic that can still be admired and enjoyed for the all things it did right rather than leaving the reader annoyed at its few mistakes. I definitely enjoyed it. Recommended, with reservations.

A note for the curious: the prologue mentioned how the chemical evidence impressed the jury at the trial, but the murderer took the easy way out in the last chapter. So there was no trial! McCloy was a little sloppy here when it came to the finer details of her storytelling and plotting.


The Unreachable Past: Q.E.D, vol. 9 by Motohiro Katou

I ended my twofer review of Motohiro Katou's Q.E.D. volumes 7 and 8 with the promise to do another paired review of volumes 9 and 10, but had not counted on volume 10 comprising, entirely, of a novel-length story – making it better suited for a single review. So I decided to discuss volumes 9 and 10 separately.

The 9th volume is another textbook example of what makes Q.E.D so different from other anime-and manga detective series with two stories in which the motives take precedent of the puzzles. These puzzles are perfectly fine with a locked room problem in the second story reminiscent of the impossibly walled-in body from volume 5, but what drove the culprits to create these puzzles is the key to solving them. And the distant, out-of-reach past is the theme tying these stories together.

"The Rules of the Game" revolves around  "a world-class billionaire," Jonas Solomon, who's the chairman of the Solomon Foundation with the power to destabilize the economies of nations "by just flicking his fingers," but the focus here is on his annual private game he hosts behind closed doors – inviting only the smartest people to participate. A huge money prize is awarded to the winner, but the losers have to enter into a conspiracy of silence. They have to keep the secret of the game until death and "even stating an opinion or inquiring about it is forbidden." One of the participants broke the rule with devastating consequences to his company.

Roy Hills, an MIT graduate, build a successful venture enterprise, but needed more money to operate the company and decided to participate in Solomon's private game.

Solomon declared him to be one of the losers. A judgment Hills could not except, because he was convinced he had the correct answer and began asking the other contestants for their answers, but found "an unexpected truth" of the game. And then Solomon began to extract his revenge on him. So he made his escape to Japan where he came across a familiar face, Sou Touma!

Touma graduated at the age of 15 from MIT, but wanted to experience life as an ordinary, Japanese high school student and moved back home. They were in the same class at MIT and Hills tells Touma that, if he want to know more, to enter the game, but Touma tears up the paper – refusing to take part in a potentially dangerous game. Kana Mizuhara disagrees. She ensures her friend receives an invitation in the mail. They soon find themselves as guests at a remote and imposing mansion with geniuses from China and Italy, but the puzzle they have to solve, and the hidden-hidden object puzzle, are not the motor of the plot. The motor is why Solomon created the unusual and even harsh rules of the game, what his dead wife has to do with it and his stubborn personality. And the answers to these questions yield answers to the material puzzles.

One more thing you have to know, to understand "The Rules of the Game," is that it's set during Christmas and can be read as a detective story retelling of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843) with Touma playing the Ghosts of Christmas to Solomon's Ebenezer Scrooge. The result is an unconventional, character-driven take on the good, old-fashioned seasonal detective story and the kind of unusual story I've now come to expect from this series.

The second story, entitled "The Frozen Hammer," is another story with a puzzle-within-puzzle, but the motivation of the culprit and the nearly unreachable past provide the keys to the unlocking the truth of these puzzles.

The story begins when part of a dried up, mummified arm with a wristwatch dropped from an iron pipe underneath the Kachidoki Bridge on a passing boat and caused a huge sensation, because the rest of the body is found inside the pipe – in the part of the bridge that raises and lowers. And it's "blocked with steel" at both ends! So, in order to extract the body, the bridge has to be raised which "hasn't been done for 30 years." You have to keep in mind that the story is set in either late 2000 or early 2001, which is important when the police learns that the wristwatch on the corpse was made in 1975! That means that the corpse was placed inside the pipe after the bridge was last opened, but how did the murderer managed to do that? The bridge had to be raised just to get the body out and there's no way it could have been placed there when it was closed. But this is not the only impossibility of the plot.

A piece of paper is found on the corpse with a map of rivers and bridges. Touma recognizes it as a centuries old mathematical problem, Seven Bridges of Königsberg, which poses the question whether it's possible "to cross each bridge only once in a single trip" – a similar problem on the Sumida River area map from 50 years ago. But these puzzles are only means to an end. The raising of the bridge drew quite a crowd and Touma is recognized by an old man, Kishizaki, who attended a lecture given by the boy wonder at Princeton University, which prompted him to invite Touma and Mizuhara to his home. Where he shows them pictures, maps and confesses it was him who placed the body inside the bridge, but challenges the "know-it-all kid" to prove whether that's true or not.

A splendid and original premise for a locked room problem, confined to an iron pipe sealed inside a closed bridge, which is given a good solution that was wonderfully foreshadowed in the way the police tried to extract the body. Touma even provided a solution for the bridge-puzzles, but they're only of secondary importance. A tool to tell the story of the old man and his tragic backstory. A backstory that explains why the body had to be hidden inside the bridge and why Touma decided to keep the truth from the authorities. What I loved most about this story is that the culprit actually succeeded in bringing a brief, but tangible, glimpse of the past back into present! But, as one late panel shows, it came at a cost!

So, all in all, this was an excellent volume with two well done, unusually character-driven puzzle stories and can't understand why this series is not enjoying more popularity among mystery readers from anime/manga corner of the genre. Highly recommended!

My current plan for future Q.E.D. reviews is doing volume 10 as a single review and another twofer review for volumes 11 and 12, because the last story from volume 12 is directly linked to the story from volume 10. I'll probably return to The Kindaichi Case Files before, or after, my review of volume 10. Maybe it's time to give 37 Year Old Kindaichi Case Files a try to see what that series is all about. So stay tuned! 


Murder at Bayside (1933) by Raymond Robins

Raymond Rodney Robins was an American soldier with a distinguished military career and there were few officers, if any, who knew as much about the capabilities and limitations of tanks, but he didn't earn his stripes on the battlefields of that small, European skirmish – known in the annals of history as the Second World War. Robins was one of the dedicated and competent professionals who prepared his nations for "the challenge of a global war." You can read a memorial to Robins here.

The memorial also highlighted "an intensely cultivated and literary side" to Robins, which manifested in a book written together with his wife, Ruth. A detective novel in which "the inner workings of the Colt .45 Service Revolver" supplied "the intricacies of the plot" and "the key of the mystery."

Robins' Murder at Bayside (1933) is not particularly well remembered today and too obscure to be even listed on the Golden Age of Detection Wiki. A veritable who's who of who the hell are these guys, but a (digital) copy of Murder at Bayside is surprisingly easy to obtain. You can download a free copy from the Internet Archive or buy a properly edited, dirt cheap ebook edition published by Phocion in 2019. I believe the reason why Murder at Bayside had slipped through the cracks of public consciousness is that the book is somewhat of an anomaly within the American detective story of the 1930s, because it squarely falls within the thoroughly British "humdrum" school of Freeman Wills Crofts and John Rhode – focusing more on the how than the who-and why. I was particularly reminded of Victor MacClure's Death Behind the Door (1933).

This is, perhaps, not very surprising considering the engineering background and technical expertise of Robins, but an American "humdrum" mystery is not something I had read before. So let's dig in!

Robert Williams is a young, Baltimore lawyer and narrator who receives an invitation from a client, Charles Evans, to "go down to Bayside for some duck-shooting." Charles and his brother, Edwin, were born out of their time and have "the temper which would have written fresh pages in the history of the old West," but they're kept in check by their uncle, Cyrus Evans. A self-made man who made his pile in "the swashbuckling days of the turbulent nineties" and kept "an inquiring finger on the business of the South" during his retirement years. Strangely enough, his adopted son, Tom, is "a chip off the old block with a vengeance." And he made a name for himself as a criminal lawyer. They lived together at Bayside with Charles and Edwin subsisting on their uncle's charity.

When he arrives at Bayside, Williams learns from Tom that someone has been lying low around the premise and suspects this is not an ordinary hobo, but a former client he defended in court, Jim Hirstein – a convicted murderer whose day of execution had been set when he broke jail. Hirstein becomes the first suspect when Cyrus is found down by the boat landing with a bullet in his back.

However, the police quickly receives confirmation that Hirstein has an unassailable alibi for the time of the murder and they shift their attention to the people who were present at Bayside when that mysterious, fatal bullet was fired. Williams statement that he heard only one shot, where others have heard two, places one of the family members in the dock. And what follows is a trial that ended (melodramatically) as quick as it started without resolving the murder. This is the point where the detective of the story, John Patrick, enters the picture.

John Patrick is Williams' senior partner, a southern Dr. Lancelot Priestley, who looked like "the living prototype of the traditional Southern Colonel" and he had developed "a belated interest in the field of criminology," but was "more fit for arm-chair detection" than good, old-fashioned legwork. Patrick and Williams decide to ferret out the murderer, but, regrettably, the second half of the story was a bit dull compared to the opening chapters that concluded with the hasty trial. You can blame this on the second half continued the play story as a whodunit, instead of an inverted detective story, because the murderer and overarching scheme have become blindingly obvious at this point – which made clearing all the extraneous matter dull, unexciting detective work to read. Not even a second, somewhat late, murder could liven up the story.

All of that being said, the gun-trick was not bad and can be viewed as a borderline impossible crime, in line with Ellery Queen's The American Gun Mystery (1933) and John Dickson Carr's "Inspector Silence Takes the Air" (collected in Thirteen to the Gallows, 2008), which is why the second half should have concentrated on figuring out how it was done. It would have probably made for a much more interesting and engaging read.

So, on a whole, Murder at Bayside is not an unheralded, long-lost classic of the detective story, but, as an American take on the British humdrum school of detection, it's a fascinating curiosity that comes recommended to fans of Crofts, Rhode and MacClure.

A note for the curious: Murder at Bayside was published under Raymond Robins' own name and Ruth Robins is not credited as co-author, but the novel is dedicated to "the girl who really wrote this book."


Up This Crooked Way (1946) by Hugh Holman

Hugh Holman was a Professor of English at the University of North Carolina and "a distinguished Southern US academic," who co-founded the Southern Literary Journal, but, more importantly, Holman authored six detective novels – three of which are listed in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) and Brian Skupin's Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019). This is not very surprising since Holman expressed his "highest admiration" for constructors of complex, elaborate plots and impossible crimes. And he was "inordinately proud" that John Dickson Carr dedicated his last novel, The Hungry Goblin (1972), to him.
So here we have a long-forgotten mystery writer who wrote good, old-fashioned detective stories, full of southern local color and impossible crimes, but Holman's novels have been out-of-print for decades. It probably would have taken me a lot longer to get around to him had I not been gifted a copy of one of Holman's obscure locked room mysteries, Up This Crooked Way (1946).

Five of Holman's detective novels feature Sheriff John Ewell Macready, who represents the law in the fictitious Hart County, South Carolina, which were written during the 1940s and was followed by a standalone mystery, Small Town Corpse (1951) – published as by "Clarence Hunt." Apparently, the Sheriff Macready stories fused the American regional novel with the campus murder mystery. I suppose you can describe Up This Crooked Way as a mix of Timothy Fuller and Addison Simmons, but with an undeniable, erudite hint of Michael Innes.

Sheriff Macready has to share the stage in Up This Crooked Way with Philip Kent, associate professor of English at Abeton College, who has been living under a dark, secretive cloud of suspicion.

Kent used to teach at Axminster College, in the Mid West, where a public quarrel with a colleague provided him with a motive for murder, but a jury finally gave him "a clean slate." The trial had ruined him in the Mid West. Luckily, the president of Axminster believed him to be innocent and arranged a teaching position at Abeton College. Where he rents a room at the home of Walter G. Parkings, of the Abeton Greeting Card Company, who lets rooms exclusively to college folks, but it has come to his attention Kent had once been indicted for murder and doesn't want a possible murderer living under his roof – gives him his ten days' notice. Kent's anger is described as "a white-hot steel rod, tipped at each end with acid." Something that becomes a problem when, mere minutes later, Parkings is found slumped in his chair with a knife-handle sticking out of his chest.

A second problem is that the only, unlocked, way into that room is the door at the end of a hallway, which was under constant observation. Kent even looked into the room minutes before the body was discovered and saw a very lively leg, in green trousers, moving over the arm of the chair. Since nobody came in, or went out, the front door, "somebody in the house must be guilty."

This small circle of suspects comprises of Jacqueline "Jackie" Dean, a reference librarian at the college, who went in the room to pay her rent and found the body. Steele Carlile, a physics instructor, who had an argument with the victim over an unpaid bill after Kent had received his notices. Robert Herbert teaches history and was upstairs when the body was found. John R. Albert is a pressman in the Parkins printing shop and came to see his boss on "a little union business," but stopped on the way out to chat with the new widow, Mrs. Olga. A woman who turns out to have a very unpleasant personality. And the role of outsider is fulfilled by Jackie's older half-sister, Celia Dean.

He understands Macready
A good and promising opening with a murder in a locked and watched room, but it's Sheriff Macready who carries the story with his personality and the way in which he grappled with the case.

Sheriff Macready is a "big, quiet, uncouth man," honest and friendly, but "almost illiterate in speech and a lover of Chaucer." A man who "never had much schooling," but is often found in the college library reading classic literature, philosophy, history and science books. So not "a country hick who had been lucky on two murder cases" and "will grab up the first suspects he finds to keep his reputation," which is what previous experience had learned Kent, but Kent "hastily revised all former opinions of John Macready" when he attended one of his lectures as a special guest – surprising him when he begins to quote Chaucer. This reminded me of Lt. Columbo in the episode The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case (1977) in which Columbo confessed he had always been surrounded by people who were smarter than him and had to work harder, put in more time and read all the books to make it, which worked as the ending of the episode showed. Macready can be viewed as a rural counterpart to Columbo.

Macready confesses to Kent he still has an "an inferiority complex where smart folks are concerned" and enlists him to help dig around the college town, which is highly irregular, but Macready has never "been famous for regularity." There's more than a seemingly impossible stabbing that comes their way.

There are mysterious letters, a blackmail plot, a second, very gruesome murder and a quasi-impossible disappearance from a guarded house, but the murder of Parkins is the strongest aspect of this relatively light plot. How the murderer got in, and out, of the room is a play on an old, shopworn piece of misdirection, but the bit with the leg lifted the locked room-trick above that of a routine job. However, it's not something that will fool any seasoned mystery reader or anyone who has read a copious amount of Case Closed. If you know how the trick was worked, you can spot the murderer by the end of the third chapter and clumsy handled clue didn't exactly helped either. Holman pretty much directed a bright spotlight on it to ensure the already suspicious-minded armchair detective didn't miss it.

Something else that baffled me is that the Axminster College murder eventually faded out of the story, unresolved, without even giving an explanation why the past and present murder were committed under practically identical circumstances. I've only Up This Crooked Way as an example, but I strongly suspect Holman was a better writer than plotter.

So, plot-wise, Up This Crooked Way is not a perfect example of the kind of complex and elaborate impossible crime stories Holman admired, but it's a spirited attempt at constructing one by someone who was described by Steve Lewis and Bill Pronzinione of the classiest writers to be published by Phoenix Press” – with an appealing lead detective carrying the story. Sheriff Macready is a character you want to spend time with. So my intention is to return to this series by trying to get my hands on such promising-sounding titles as Slay the Murderer (1946) and Another Man's Poison (1947).