The Sulu Sea Murders (1933) by Van Wyck Mason

The Fort Terror Murders (1931) served as my introduction to both the pulpy, spy-tinged crime fiction of Francis van Wyck Mason and an exceedingly rare, well hidden subcategory of the locked room and military mystery novel – set in lonely, desolate army posts and fortresses. Since then, I've found two more novels that belong to this very specific subcategory, George Limnelius' The Medbury Fort Murder (1929) and Mason Wright's The Army Post Murders (1931).

Brian Skupin's Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019) appended that list with a fourth novel, Van Wyck Mason's The Sulu Sea Murders (1933), which described the locked room problem as the "shooting of a man alone in a room at the guarded top of a tower on a military base." The military base here is a godforsaken outpost on a small, sultry island, Sanga Sanga, on the edge of the Sulu Sea in the southwestern Philippines.

The Sulu Sea Murders is the seventh title in the Captain Hugh North series and begins with Captain North listening to the dying words of a pearl diver, George Lee, who had been shot at a dive bar, but the only substantial thing Lee can tell him is that the shooter had a butterfly tattooed on his arm – mostly rambling and raving about a sunken ship, pearls and the "blue dog's belly." So its up to Captain North, an intelligence officer of the Department of Criminal Investigations, to apprehend his murderer. A task bringing him to the gates of Fort Winfield.

Fort Windfield is an old Spanish fortress, nicknamed Killers' Castle, where the "withering, nerve-blasting heat" made "killing easy" and the natives say that the fort has been unlucky ever since "the bleeding hands of Spanish slaves" had reared its solid walls. A commander during Spanish times had gone on a killing spree and there have always been "an unholy lot of suicides," which makes "a sinister Jolly Roger" more suitable to raise on the top of the guard tower than the Stars and Stripes of the United States. A bad reputation that scarcely improved under the iron rule of the unpopular, much despised commanding officer, Major John Flood.

Captain North feels upon his arrival that something is not quite right, because normally, men tucked away in distant corners of the world welcomed strangers and particularly an army legend, like North, but the "weary, heat-tortured men" reminded him of card players "interrupted by an intruder" – right before a game for high stakes. Why is everyone so interested in the barometer dropping? These are the first signs that the case is not going to be as easy as Captain North had hoped.

The man who killed George Lee is quickly identified as Private Paul Laval, of B Company, who's placed under arrest and confesses to have shot the diver during an argument. But what Captain North learns too late is Laval's past circus career as an acrobat, escape artist and human-fly. When goes to check on the prisoner, Laval had indeed found a way out and left behind a dead guard. A second, practically identical, murder soon follows with the victim dying with that strange phrase on his lips, "blue dog's belly."

The Sulu Sea Murders actually comprises of two different, intertwined, story lines tied together in the last few chapters, but the contrast between the first and second half of the book showed how much this series occupied the borderlands between the adventure, detective, espionage and pulp fiction – colored with the palette of the regional mystery novel. The first half is a mild adventure/thriller with an escaped murderer running loose on "a postage-stamp island" and Captain North eavesdropping military style or diving to the sunken ship without any equipment, which gave the book one of its best and most memorable scenes. Captain North is presented as someone who's as much at home on the pages of an adventure story as he would be tangling with villains in James Bond-style spy thriller, but the second half revealed him to be somewhat of a Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Thorndyke!

After the second murder, the primary suspect is kept in protective custody in one of the top rooms of the tower, guards posted at the stairs, with the only other way up being two hundred feet of unbroken masonry. A physically demanding wall to climb and impossible to complete without being seen by the sentries below, but the person who was held there was found with his head blown to pieces. However, the description from Locked Room Murders: Supplement wrongly described that the victim had been all alone, which is incorrect, but a chemical experiment eliminated this suspect when it showed his gun had not fired the fatal shot. Captain North also relies on his scientific knowledge to crack the locked room problem, but not before carefully constructing and then having to discard a "once glittering theory." A unexpected, but nicely done, false-solution.

The correct solution to the shooting at the top of the guarded tower was and unexpectedly good, and interesting, trick, but not for the usual reasons.

Van Wyck Mason shamelessly "borrowed" from two short impossible crime stories written by the same, highly regarded, writer, but I detest those two stories and finding out that their solutions were melted together here to create a superior locked room-trick earned him my forgiveness – because he showed how these tricks should have been used in the first place. Although some will likely disagree with me on that point. But there's more to the second half than the impossible shooting.

I already mentioned Captain North conducting experiments and building theories, but there's also a surprisingly amount of clueing and fair play that almost makes you forget certain details were glossed over. The Sulu Sea Murders has a busy plot and might have missed a thing, or two, but don't believe it was ever explained how exactly Laval got out of his prison cell. You can say he was an escape artist, but the cells are inside a centuries old fortress with thick walls, arrow slit windows and iron eyes where prisoners were shackled to back in the days. So you have to show how exactly he was able to escape. Another thing that remained unexplained is who bandaged the wounded pearl diver.

Nevertheless, in spite of these smudges on some of the finer details, the main plotlines were clearly stated and resolves in a highly readable blend of the traditional, Golden Age detective story and the pulp-style adventure thriller. And these two different styles came together in a spectacular way when Captain North tried to lay a trap for the murderer. Sometimes things don't go exactly as planned! This all helped make The Sulu Sea Murders the best I've read so far by Mason and will be hard to beat as my personal favorite Captain Hugh North title, but The Yellow Arrow Murders (1932), The Hong Kong Airbase Murders (1937) and The Munitions Ship Murders (1941) all look promising. There's always Mason's standalone locked room mystery novel, Spider House (1932). So this blog hasn't seen the last of Mason or Captain North.


Murder Jigsaw (1944) by E. and M.A. Radford

So this was supposed to be a review of Todd Downing's penultimate detective novel, Death Under the Moonflower (1939), but the poor, mind-numbingly boring storytelling and pacing ruined, what could have easily been, an excellent mystery novel – quickly becoming a chore to get through. A dizzying plunge in quality from Murder on the Tropic (1935) and The Last Trumpet (1937)!

So I abandoned Death Under the Moonflower and started looking around for a palate cleanser, which brought me to the recently revived Edwin and Mona A. Radford. A husband-and-wife writing team who followed in the footsteps of R. Austin Freeman with a competent, long-running series of forensic detective novels.

Murder Jigsaw (1944) is the second novel featuring their series-detective, Dr. Harry Manson, who's the head of the Scotland Yard Crime Research Laboratory, Medical Jurisprudist of the national Police Force and the author of a number of standard works on different "branches of the Pathological side of criminal investigation" – while holding the rank of Chief Detective-Inspector. A scientific detective with a remarkable diverseness of knowledge with dry-fly fishing as his only pastime. This hobby of his was nicely dovetailed with his work as a forensic investigator in Murder Jigsaw.

The Tremarden Arms is a Cornish fishing hotel where Dr. Manson had planned to spend a short leave on the water, but ended up solving "a problem that had puzzled the Cornish police for weeks" when an unpopular hotel guest got himself killed.

Colonel Donoughmore is one of those stock-in-trade characters whose only purpose in a detective story is to provide the other characters with motives to want to shoot, stab, strangle or bludgeon them to death, but the murderer in this case was a bit more subtle about it. This murderer didn't resort to the sure-fire bullets from an old service pistol or a dagger snatched from a curio cabinet, but staged an accident that certainly had the local police fooled. Apparently, the colonel had fallen down a steep, dangerous slope and had struck his head on the way down – where he was found floating, face down, below the surface of the water. Dr. Manson observes too many coincidences and he has "a very profound suspicion of coincidence." Even more so when "it is connected with police matters." And he has to go over the heads of the local authorities to continue his investigation.

A painstaking and meticulous examination of every microscopic clue, detail and fact that comes to light during the investigation.

Dr. Manson attends the autopsy that reveals tiny, green-colored objects in the victim's throat and lung-and stomach content, which is analyzed and comes back with an answer that leaves no doubt that the colonel was murdered. More interestingly, Dr. Manson has a portable laboratory, known as his "Box of Tricks," which he uses to collect and analyze various samples. He also uses the marvels of forensic science to make a well-hidden fingerprint appear on an object that previously showed "no trace of prints." The forensic detective work and scientific deductions done by Dr. Manson betrayed just how much of fan Edwin Radford was of Freeman's Dr. John Thorndyke. And, if I remember correctly, the forensic detection in Murder Jigsaw is somewhat similar to Dr. Thorndyke's investigation in The D'Arblay Mystery (1926).

But to erase any doubt that Murder Jigsaw belongs to the much maligned "Humdrum" school, the Radfords had Dr. Manson meticulously pick apart "a carefully prepared alibi" in the tradition of Freeman Wills Crofts. So some of you are probably throwing up your hands in desperation, but, if you dislike the Humdrum writers, you're very likely to hate Murder Jigsaw. Slow, meticulous gathering and examination of clues, alibis and possible scenarios is the best the story has to offer, because the nuts and bolts of the plot begin to suspiciously rattle towards the end – without being flawed or unfair. I believe the problem is that (ROT13 to decode spoilers): gbb znal crbcyr jrer vaibyirq va gur “cresrpg wvtfnj bs pbvapvqrapr” jvgu gur svefg crefba chapuvat uvz haqre gur puva, gur frpbaq crefba penpxvat uvf fxhyy naq gur guveq crefba qebjavat uvz naq zbivat gur obql. Naq guvf znqr na nccneragyl fuerjqyl cybggrq, arneyl cresrpg zheqre zber n pevzr bs bccbeghavgl gung nalguvat ryfr. Honestly, it's a cheap plot-device that can be used to turn the most simplistic situations into a tangled web. So not every reader is going to appreciate it.

I appreciated the solid detective work, logical reasoning and a plot with a sense of direction, even if it took its sweet time getting there, but the solution sadly makes Murder Jigsaw the weakest Dr. Manson title from the current Dean Street Press reprints. If you're new to the Radfords, I advise you start with Murder Isn't Cricket (1946), Who Killed Dick Whittington? (1947), The Heel of Achilles (1950) or Death of a Frightened Editor (1959).

Murder Jigsaw was the last Dr. Harry Manson novel on my big pile and look forward to the next titles to be reprinted, which will hopefully include such titles as Death of a Peculiar Rabbit (1945), A Cosy Little Murder (1963), The Hungry Killer (1964), Murder Magnified (1965), Trunk Call to Murder (1968; locked room mystery) and Death of an Ancient Saxon (1969). For some reason, their 1960s novels have very alluring premises!


The Kindaichi Case Files: The Bloodthirsty Cherry Blossom Murder Case

The Bloodthirsty Cherry Blossom Murder Case was originally serialized in Weekly Shōnen Magazine in 2015 and collected, together with the second half of The Antlion Trench Murder Case, in volumes 6 and 7 of Seimaru Amagi's The File of Young Kindaichi Returns – praised as "surprisingly refreshing" to long-time readers. Since I've always had a love-hate relationship with this series, I decided to pick The Bloodthirsty Cherry Blossom Murder Case over the new 37-Year-Old Kindaichi Case Files as my next stop in the series.

The Bloodthirsty Cherry Blossom Murder Case brings Hajime Kindaichi, Nanase Miyuki and Saki (#2) to a Western-style mountain inn, in Yozakura Village, where they intend to research an old murder case for their school's Mystery Club. The inn used to be a private sanatorium, in the 1960s, but the arrival of Dr. Kigata Ouryuu coincided with the disappearance of a worrying number of patients.

On a dark evening, in late winter, a night nurse caught him burying a dismembered patient under the cherry blossom trees, where the police later found a private graveyard, but Dr. Ouryuu had already disappeared – never to be seen again. But when spring came, something unbelievable happened. Where the bodies had been buried, the trees bloomed with "crimson-colored cherry blossoms" that "looked like they'd sucked blood." So the story stuck in the public imagination, but everyone in the village prefers to forget it ever happened and that includes the elderly owner of the inn, Aizen Yoshino. She advises the three students to enjoy the crimson cherry blossoms and then return home. But things are never that easy in a detective story!

When they arrive at the inn, they meet Fuyube Sousuke, Etou Chinatsu and Onoda Kyouichirou, who have been friends since their schooldays and visit the village each year during the cherry blossom season. Miyazawa Shouku is an artist who comes each year to paint the crimson cherry blossoms. Toramoto Katsuo is an old man with a facemask and does very little except intently observing the cherry blossoms. The place is staffed by two part-timers, Hazaki Shiori and Shikishima Daigo, and a cook, Kitayashiki Gouzou.

So had this not been a Kindaichi story, there would have been scarcely a hint of the bloodletting awaiting them the next morning when Onoda didn't turn up at the breakfast table. The door of his room is locked and has to be opened with the master key. What they found behind that locked door was a spectacle, even for this series!

Onoda Kyouichirou is lying in the middle of the room with petals covering his body and the branch of a bloodthirsty cherry blossom piercing his heart, as if a small tree had grown out of his chest overnight, but equally curious is a braided cord "tied in a complicated manner" to the branch – a cord with the room key on it. The key is "an old model, German-made key" with a complicated design that's hard to duplicate and the master key was kept in a safe. A safe to which one person held the key and another the passcode. And with the windows securely fastened, Kindaichi and Inspector Kenmoichi are faced with a locked room murder.

Naturally, the murderer is not done yet and one of the subsequent murders is committed under practically identical circumstances in a locked and guarded room, but with a very different kind of solution. A solution that was audaciously foreshadowed in a much earlier chapter. However, the locked room-tricks are not the main draw of the story and neither is the who or even the well handled why. One of the locked room-tricks can only be described as routine and the other is a daring play on a true-and-tried impossible crime technique, while the murderer (purposely?) stands out in the cast of characters.

So what makes The Bloodthirsty Cherry Blossom Murder Case a noteworthy entry in the series is the way in which Amagi toyed and subverted the expectations of long-time readers who are more than familiar with the cliches and tropes of the series.

A good example of Amagi toying with readers expectations is the first page, a one-panel prologue, which made think, "ah, this old song and dance again," but then it was openly admitted to and discussed about a quarter into the story – something that has never been done before in the series. Amagi delivered on the promise with a nicely done spin on the motive that has been done to death in Kindaichi. The identity of the murderer, while a little obvious, proved to have a surprise in store when it was revealed why the murders were presented so bizarrely. But were ultimately very simplistic.

So the (relative) simplicity of the locked room murders were a worthwhile sacrifice, because they served a clear purpose that paid-off in the end. And what a coincidence, I decided to read The Bloodthirsty Cherry Blossom Murder Case right after Graham Landrum's The Rotary Club Murder Mystery (1993), which ended up doing the opposite.

All in all, The Bloodthirsty Cherry Blossom Murder Case is not the best title the series has produced, but it's a top-rank title on account of how creatively Amagi played with the expectations of his readers. The story almost reads like a knowledgeable, fan-written pastiche that had fun with the established cliches and tropes of the series. Recommended to fans of the series!


The Rotary Club Murder Mystery (1993) by Graham Landrum

Graham Landrum was an American college professor of English and a school teacher in the Presbyterian Church, but more importantly, he authored a handful of detective novels, published around the mid-1990s, that form the Borderville series – helmed by an 88-year-old widow and amateur sleuth, Mrs. Harriet Bushrow. A modern series of apparently classically-styled detective stories, but with menacing hints of coziness in the patterned book titles and cover art. Normally, I likely would have never touched this series had Brian Skupin not included The Rotary Club Murder Mystery (1993) in Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019). So the decision was taken out of my hands.

The first thing that has to be said about The Rotary Club Murder Mystery is that Landrum used multiple narrators, no fewer than five, to tell the story, which is not a revolutionary new idea, but one that has been scarcely employed in the (traditional) detective story – only a couple of examples spring to mind (e.g. Michael Innes' Lament for a Maker, 1938). Two of the narrators are Rotarians, Henry Delaporte and Dr. Frederick M. Middleton. Henry is married to the woman who narrated The Famous DAR Murder Mystery (1992), Helen, while Frederick has the inside dope when a body is discovered at local motel. Maud Tinker Bradfield is the third narrator and has been close friend of Mrs. Bushrow for over seventy years. One of the suspects even gets a whole chapter to tell her side of the story, but most of the chapters come from the hand of Mrs. Bushrow. No matter how tired she gets of "all this writing."

So this makes The Rotary Club Murder Mystery very aware that it's a mystery novel. The suspect who gets to tell her side of the story begins with the statement that it was "a bad idea" to include her as a narrator, because "it removes me from the list of suspects." Mrs. Bushrow is recognized in a public library and is asked to sign a copy of The Famous DAR Murder Mystery. Graham Landrum has an off-page cameo explaining to Mrs. Bushrow that "detective stories are classical" with "a beginning, a middle, and an end." Everything that happened "up to the time when the crime takes place" settles "what happens all the rest of the way until the mystery is solved." The middle part is where "everything is developing and confused." Yes, this marked the beginning of the middle portion of The Rotary Club Murder Mystery. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.

The Rotary Club Murder Mystery begins with the visit of the Rotary district governor, Charles Hollonbrook, to speak at the Rotary Club of Borderville, Tennessee, but Hollonbrook failed to emerge from his motel room and the door had to be broken open to get inside – where his body was found lying on the bed. A small entry wound below his chin and a bullet embedded in the headboard correspond with the service .45 automatic near his right hand and a suicide note on the bedside table.

So with the only door locked and securely chained on the inside and a heavily draped, plate-glass window, "incapable of being opened," it could have only been suicide. Dr. Middleton is suspicious of the strangely worded suicide note and the fact that he apparently shot himself in the middle of a good book. And he has a point there.

Mrs. Bushrow is encouraged to shake the mothballs out of her deerstalker and carry out a private investigation with the (financial) support of the Rotary Club's version of the Baker Street Irregulars. She travels between Tennessee and North Carolina to collect alibis, clues and motive, which is easy enough, since Hollonbrook had an insatiable sexual appetite and an expensive taste. A lifestyle that came with a hefty price tag and a lot of resentment.

So everything was present to craft a good, old-fashioned and conventionally plotted locked room mystery with a modern backdrop, but the whole structure collapsed once it became apparent Landrum had committed a grave, unpardonable offense – first degree aggravated cheating with intent to underwhelm or disappoint! You see, Landrum didn't merely withheld an important piece of information, which would have been bad enough. He not only tried to be sneaky about it, which would have been much worse. Oh, no. What makes it unforgivable is that he had the gall to be cute about it!

On the cover of the St. Martin's edition, Mrs. Bushrow is examining the chain-bolt on the motel room door, which is how the bolt is presented in the story, until one of the last chapters reveals the bolt is actually "a loop of brass." A U-shape screwed into the door "in such a way that the loop swivels back and forth." This unfairly changed the whole locked room problem during the final stages of the story. Mrs. Bushrow had shown that the locked door was not the problem, but had no answer how the bolt could have been engaged, or disengaged, from the outside. So my solution was that the murderer was hidden in the motel room, laying low until Hollonbrook had taken his sleeping pills, before emerging and shooting him – arranging everything in the room to make it look like a suicide. Then unscrewed the plate of the bolt, stepped outside, and used the small crack that the chain-bolt allowed to superglue the plate back in place. And than closed and locked the door behind him/her. But the U-shaped loop destroyed that theory.

Nonetheless, I still had a small flicker of hope that Landrum, who had shown some imagination in storytelling, had played his cards too close to the chest because he had come up with an original and ingenious locked room-trick – a trick he intended to be a genuine surprise. Even if he had cheat the reader. So do you know what was waiting for me in the penultimate chapter? A big, unapologetic fuck you, that's what.

Skupin mentioned in Locked Room Murders: Supplement that the 1990s was a lean decade for the English-language locked room mystery novel as Herbert Resnicow had abandoned it in the late 1980s and Bill Pronzini only wrote short impossible crime stories during that period. But even by the standards of '90s, The Rotary Club Murder Mystery stands as an astonishing disappointing and unimaginative locked room mystery. A lean decade that still produced such notable titles as William L. DeAndrea's Killed on the Rocks (1990), Nicholas Wilde's Death Knell (1990), Mary Monica Pulver's Original Sin (1991), Peter Lovesey's Bloodhounds (1996) and Paul Doherty's A Murder in Thebes (1998).

The who-and why had some interesting ideas, but they were also bugged and diminished by similar fair play issues that plague the last quarter of the story.

The Rotary Club Murder Mystery began interesting with its multiple narrators, locked room murder and the promise of something good, or even original, but the solution was enraging and left me with slight homicidal tendencies. So not recommended to mystery readers with an easily irritated purist streak lurking underneath their civilized facade. The reader has been warned!


Murder on the Tropic (1935) by Todd Downing

Earlier this month, I reviewed Todd Downing's The Last Trumpet (1937), a minor gem of the North American regional mystery novel, which Coachwhip reprinted as a paperback in 2012 and discovered at the time a handful of Downing's Hugh Rennert novels were reissued in March as ebooks – courtesy of MysteriousPress/Open Road. Since we're about a month into the summer, I decided to delve into the sultry-sounding Murder on the Tropic (1935). I was not disappointed!

Murder on the Tropic is the fourth title in the Hugh Rennert series, an agent of the Customs Bureau of the United States Treasury Department, who discovered he's getting older and started looking towards retirement with purchase of a citrus farm. An early spring freeze ruined a lot of citrus fruit down in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and this cold wave had hit Rennert's hundred and twenty acres hard, but a proposal to go on "a little mission" comes with a paycheck that will replenish his coffers.

Edward Solier is a Texas businessman with an interest in a remote, isolated hacienda down in Mexico, named Flores, which had been bought based on certain information that the new Pan-American Highway, to Mexico City, would cut through the track of land and wanted to erect a luxurious hotel on the spot – a plan that was spoiled when the route of the highway was changed. So now he was left with an isolated and practically useless property on his hands.

A company had been formed to buy the property and build the hotel, which sold shares, but now they want to get rid of it. Only problem is that one person refuses to sell back her block of shares.

Miss Bertha Fahn is a botanist who invested a small sum of money and has been staying at the hacienda to do "some kind of a study of plants and flowers," but they have no idea why she flatly refuses to sell. Or why she requested 126 postcards. Solier wants Rennert to persuade Miss Fahn to sell back her shares and find out who has been emptying bottles of water during the night, which is becoming a problem now that springs are drying up and the place is becoming dependent on bottled water. Rennert accepts an easy paycheck, but discovers that the quiet, isolated hacienda has a palpable "undercurrent of repressed emotions" and compared his task with "sitting on top of a volcano."

When he arrived at the hacienda, there are eight people: Solier's two business partners in the failed project, Tilghman Falter and George Stahl, but Stahl unexpectedly died of sunstroke and his interest went to his stepson, Mark Arnhardt – who's also present at the hacienda. Stephen Holman is the architect who designed to the hotel, but came down with tuberculosis and stayed there with his wife, Ann, in the hope that the climate would help him. Esteban Flores is a young Mexican whose airplane crashed there and is trying to get new parts to repair the plane, but the place used to belong to his family. And he spends his time searching for the long-lost body of his grandfather. Miguel and Maria Montemayor have been caretakers of the hacienda since the days of Flores' grandfather. Lastly, there's the stubborn Miss Fahn and the Chinese cook, Lee, who returns from a family trip after Rennert's arrival. 
All of these characters come with a little side-mystery that has to be solved or else carry a piece of the puzzle, which means Rennert has to clear a lot of debris before he can reveal who has been behind a series of very subtly executed murders. A series poisonings with all the unnerving and fantastic eeriness of John Dickson Carr!

George Stahl had supposedly died of sunstroke before two weeks before Rennert arrived at the hacienda, but "he kept talking about the air being yellow" and "the strange illusion" that everything appears yellow is recurring symptom of the people who fall ill and die at the hacienda – three of them in total. These mysterious illnesses and deaths add substantially to, what's arguably, the strongest aspect of the story, the isolated setting.

Hacienda Flores is situated in "a hidden pocket of the mountains," on the Tropic of Cancer, where "a precipitous valley debouched onto the desert." Downing doesn't relay on cheap or crude plot-devices to completely seal the characters away from the outside world. There's a short-wave radio set that allows constant communication with the outside world, but it gets through the story undamaged and the tropical hurricane lurking in the background only temporarily hinders their movement towards the end. Regardless of these exists, or air holes, Murder on the Tropic is one of the best and most convincing isolation-mysteries on the book. You really get the idea that the characters are tucked away in a lonely, nearly unreachable pocket of the world. Even though that's not entirely the case (they get bottled water trucked to them everyday), but the illusion of isolation is very convincingly and effectively done.

There are, however, two weak spots in an otherwise solid and cleverly constructed plot: the clueing is a little iffy in certain places (such as the nature of poison) and even with the clues that were given, the twist ending is easily anticipated – because the murderer (sort of) stands out. A kind of cliche that will make any seasoned mystery reader suspicious. But these minor drawbacks were hardly enough to ruin an engagingly written and leisurely plotted detective novel. A detective novel full of dreamlike, but often unsettling, mysteries and wonder of the desert.

Honestly, if Murder on the Tropic had been published 5-10 years later, I would have assumed Downing had been trying to emulate some of Agatha Christie most well-known mysteries, but she had not yet written Murder in Mesopotamia (1936), Death on the Nile (1937), And Then There Were None (1939) and Evil Under the Sun (1941) at the time. So, if you liked any of those titles, you'll likely find a lot to enjoy in Murder on the Tropic.

I'll end this review with a warning to everyone who's new to Todd Downing: don't begin with The Cat Screams (1934), because its an inferior work compared to Murder on the Tropic and The Last Trumpet that has kept me away from Downing for nearly a decade. But now that I have rediscovered him, I'll try to read and review The Case of the Unconquered Sisters (1936) and Death Under the Moonflower (1939) before the summer draws to a close.


The Longest Pleasure (1981) by Douglas Clark

Last year, I tumbled across the work of Douglas Clark, a British mystery writer, who wrote, what appeared to be, typical post-World War II police procedural novels, but with classically-styled plots crammed with medical puzzles, ingenious poisoning methods and the occasional impossible crime – closely aligning himself with R. Austin Freeman and John Rhode. So you can argue that Clark was the last true Golden Age mystery writer to arrive on the scene.

An anonymous commentator left a handful of insightful comments on my review of the excellent Death After Evensong (1969) and recommended two specific titles, Premedicated Murder (1975) and The Longest Pleasure (1981).

I had already been looking at such promising-sounding novels as Sweet Poison (1970), The Gimmel Flask (1977), The Libertines (1978) and The Monday Theory (1983), but The Longest Pleasure had an unusual and intriguing premise. Curt Evans praised it in his 2016 review as "a smartly designed and original police procedural." So, for once, I decided to listens to my peers instead of diving head first for one of the impossible crime novels in the series and moved The Longest Pleasure to the top of the pile.

The Longest Pleasure could easily have been one of the oddest detective stories I've come across in a long time had it not been for my recent reading of Edward D. Hoch's "The Cactus Killer," collected in Hoch's Ladies (2020), which found a weirdly compelling way to combine a medical and scientific mystery with the serial killer story – poured into the mold of a modern crime novel/police procedural. The focal point of the plot is a string of manufactured outbreaks of botulism that either made people gravely ill or killed them!

The first outbreak occurred on Exmoor where Mr. and Mrs. Burnham with their two children, aged eight and ten, were taking a camping holiday and ate a tin of ham with their tea. On the following day, two students on a walking tour found the family lying around the campsite and their serious condition is aggravated on account that "no medical help had been given until thirty-six hours after the suspected ham had been eaten." And two of them pass away. A second and third outbreak rapidly follow each other and they can all be traced back to strip-cans of beef and luncheon meat. All three of the infected tins came from the same chain of stores, Redcoke Stores.

Detective Chief Superintendent George Masters and DCI Bill Green, of Scotland Yard, have been handed the investigation, but they hardly know where to begin as this particular has a dazzling array of possibilities and avenues to explore – without giving them a proper foothold to get started. One of the first hurdles they have to take is a quasi-locked room mystery and deals with how the culprit was able to send "dollops of botulism bugs" into a can of meat "without puncturing the skin." Botulism spores are "totally anaerobic" and can't tolerate any oxygen, which is why they a can of food from which all air has been dispelled before "they can thrive and produce their exotoxins." There's also the questions how the culprit had been able a pure and rare type of botulism, why this person has been targeting Redcoke Stores and how many more contaminated strip-cans are still on the shelves or residing in "the larders of unsuspecting housewives."

Masters wants to alert the public and warn them against the Redcoke strip-cans, but the higher-up refuse to comply and believe such "a warning would cause a panic" and "a consequent breakdown of medical services," because everyone who has recently eaten from a Redcoke strip-can (potentially millions) would immediately start filling sick. And their demands to be tested would swamp the laboratories. On top of that, Masters doesn't want to help the culprit with vilifying and destroying Redcock Stores ("a national asset"). So they have to work hard and fast to get to the bottom of the case before more people fall ill or die.

The Longest Pleasure has all the ingredients of a modern thriller with dangerous bacterium or killer virus on the loose, but Clark's treatment can almost be described as cold and clinical with research being the primary method used to tackle the problem – which covers a large swath of this relatively short novel. I suppose some would call The Longest Pleasure a fictionalized textbook with Clark acting more as a lecturer than an author. However, the subject matter and how it was cultivated to act as pure and dangerous poison is fascinating enough to keep reading. An approach that betrayed how incredibly close Clark's detective fiction is linked to such scientific mystery writers as R. Austin Freeman, Arthur Porges and the Radfords.

Around the halfway mark, Masters decides to sprint towards a resolution with "a long shot" that reduced the number of suspects from tens of millions to a small and select group of people. A long shot that would have been a decidedly unfair shortcut had the reader not been prepared for it early on in the story.

But, however you look at it, The Long Pleasure is an anomaly that can not be compared to anything that qualifies as a traditional detective story. A detective story in which the victim's are names in newspaper articles or police reports and the murderer does not appear until the end, which also reveals a motive that would actually been more at home between the pages of a serial killer thriller. Instead, the lion's share of the attention goes to a primitive micro-organism and what makes that little rod-shaped bacteria tick. You can safely say that the botulism bacteria is best fleshed out character in the story.

So I don't know whether, or not, to like The Long Pleasure. The book has a fascinating premise and an oddly compelling, if a little dry, approach to the multifaceted problem, but, on a whole, it was not even half as satisfying as Death After Evensong or Plain Sailing (1987) – two genuine neo-classical detective novels. This is why the next stop in the series is going to be The Libertines. A novel promising two poisonings of which one is mathematically and the other physically impossible.