Murder with Minarets (1968) by Charles Forsyte

Earlier this year, I was introduced to the excellent detective fiction of "Charles Forsyte," a penname shared between Gordon and Vicky Philo, who wrote four detective novels in the traditional mold of the genre's Golden Age – three of which Robert Adey listed in Locked Room Murders (1991). Diplomatic Death (1961) evoked the spirit of Clayton Rawson with a murderer resorting to stage illusions at the British Consulate in Istanbul. Diving Death (1962) uses a tight bundle of alibis to create an impossible murder at the bottom of the sea, but their last novel has a surprisingly chatty, character-driven story and plot.

Murder with Minarets (1968) is a standalone mystery novel with the center stage being a block of flats, in Ankara, Turkey, where the British Embassy houses its staff members. Story is mainly concerned with the domestic and social side of the diplomatic life with dinners, social functions and a picnic filling out the story, which is the dominion of the Embassy wives.

Embassy wives "as a breed were no better and no worse than any other group of woman in a small community," but they "could be nearly as devastatingly cruel as small children to anyone who does not go with the herd." Nobody tried harder to belong than the Austrian wife of one of the First Secretaries, Magda Tranter. An unlikable and impossible woman who could have been forgiven her unsuitable clothes, artificial manner and tantrums, but she had "no vestige of a sense of humour" – British "can forgive almost anything but that." But it still comes as a shock when her husband finds her body in the bathtub. Apparently dead of a heart attack.

Magda was under treatment for a weak heart and was buried without any questions being asked, but Paul Tranter is behaving oddly after her funeral and people begin to imagine things. But, as one of them states, "do you really want to hang him?" It's not until Paul dies in that same bathtub that an investigation, official and unofficial, is carried out. This time, it could have been nothing else than murder! But first there's something I need to nitpick about.

Murder with Minarets is listed in Adey's Locked Room Murders as "death by induced heart attack in a locked room," but there never was any mention of a locked or broken down door in Magda's case and with the second death it was explicitly mentioned that the door was unlocked. So not a locked room or impossible crime at all. I suppose the clever method would have allowed for an impossible crime scenario, even with an unlocked door, but, for that to have worked, the murderer needed a dominant alibi. And then you would have gotten an impossible crime akin to Henry Wade's Constable, Guard Thyself (1934).

Nevertheless, even without resulting in an impossible murder, the trick is a clever one and worthy of the bizarre murder methods that was one of the specialties of the Golden Age detective story. Jan Duquesne is one of the Embassy wives who had nagging questions about the death of Magda and, when Paul is killed, she decides to turn amateur detective together with her sister, Gina, and a visiting archaeologist, Christopher Milner-Browne – who's the brother of a Second Secretary, Peter Milner-Browne. But they have to look for the murderer among some very familiar faces.

Tom Hadley is Her Majesty's Consul in Ankara and lives with his wife, "Ba," and their two children on the second floor of the Embassy block, which they shared with the Tranters. The thin wall separating the two flats made it impossible not to hear the Tranters rows and Magda's "mid-European tantrums." The spacious flat on the floor below is occupied by the Counsellor, Charles O'Halloran, and his wife, Laura. Peter Milner-Browne has the floor above the Hadleys and Tranters, but there also two outsiders who have to be considered. Francis Allerdyce is a violin professor at the Ankara Conservatoire and had "not only a natural inclination to meet Magda's advances halfway," but "a conviction that it was almost a professional necessity" to do so. And then there's his wife, Doune Allardyce. Most of the clues have to be picked from what they did or, more importantly, what they said.

John Norris said in his review that he had the feeling the female half of the writing duo was in charge of writing Murder with Minarets, which is exactly the impression I got while reading the story. I suspect Gordon's most important contribution to the plot was the murder method. Everything else is exactly what you would expect from the some of (lesser-known) Crime Queens.

To quote John, "the ingenious murder method" is "reminiscent of the kind of thing Christianna Brand would dream up" with "the best clue planting is done in casual conversation," which is another reminder of such writers as Brand, Dorothy Bowers and Helen McCloy. So the plot is very talkative and without the focus on alibis, false-solutions and impossible crimes, the book notably differs from its predecessors in tone and style. But not for the worst!

Murder with Minarets is purely a character-driven whodunit with cleverly planted clues in seemingly meaningless patter or casual remarks, which can make the technical murder method feel a little out of place in a novel resembling a gentle comedy-of-manners – coated with a thin veneer of the detective story. But don't be mistaken! Underneath the chatter and cocktail parties, there's a genuine detective novel that would have been more at home in 1938 rather than 1968. So definitely recommended, but, depending on your personal taste, you might want to begin with either Diplomatic Death or Diving Death.

Hold on! Just one more thing... Over the past year, or two, I've come across three writers, Kip Chase, Charles Forsyte and Jack Vance (Sheriff Joe Bain series), who wrote a few traditional, classically-styled detective novels in the 1960s and abandoned the genre or stopped writing altogether. Does anyone know of any other mystery writers from that period that fit the profile? I would like to read more from this lost generation of Golden Age mystery writers.


Death at the Château Noir (1960) by E. and M.A. Radford

Over the past two years, Dean Street Press expanded their catalog with reissues of six obscure, hard-to-get forensic detective novels written by a spousal writing team, Edwin and Mona A. Radford, who were strongly influenced by Freeman Wills Crofts, R. Austin Freeman and Ellery Queen – resulting in an amalgamation of the American and British detective story. For example, Murder Isn't Cricket (1946) is a thoroughly British sporting mystery grounded in scientific detective work and littered with challenges to the reader.

I've read all six of them and likely had to wait until DSP reprinted the next three novels in early 2021, but then changed upon a hardback copy (no dust jacket) of one of the scarcer titles in the Dr. Harry Manson series.

You can't find much online about Death at the Château Noir (1960), the twelfth Dr. Manson novel, except for a small, blurry cover image of the Ulvercroft edition and a brief plot description, "evil kills a succession of owners of the chateau," in a 1990 large print bibliography (PDF). A more detailed synopsis in my copy suggested a detective story reminiscent of John Dickson Carr's "The Devil's Saint," complete with rooms-that-kill, but turned out to be much closer to John Rhode and Douglas Clark. An ingenious little story that produced "a death method unique in the annals of detective fiction."

Dr. Harry Manson is on holiday in Menton, on the French Riviera, where he obverses from a balcony an elaborate funeral procession, "a picture from the medieval ages come to life," passing by which had started at the Château Castellare – "a square, ugly erection of grey stone" with two towers. An ill, foreboding place where death is delivered in "nasty ways" and locals have come to call it Château Noir. So the black château changed owners numerous times over the centuries, but, more often than not, it ended in tragedy. And the present owners were not spared a similar fate.

Angus Mackinnon, "a self-made Yorkshireman," bought the château, but, one day, he was taken ill, developed jaundice and passed away. When his children returned from the funeral, in Yorkshire, their plane crashed. Philip Mackinnon broke his ribs and his sister, Mrs. Lilleth Egon, had her face badly burned, which required months of plastic surgery and recovery.

So another one of those local legends people continue to elaborate on with each passing, but Dr. Manson gets to witness several incidents directly linked to the Mackinnons. Philip Mackinnon unexpected pass away from heart failure and the frightened servants left en bloc, but, even more curious, is Dr. Manson's chance meeting with an old acquaintance, Frederick Burleigh – a legal adviser to an insurance company. Burgleigh was on his way to ask Philip about an inexplicable mistake in his signatures on a £15,000 life insurance policy. You can imagine Burleigh's surprise when Dr. Manson tells him Philip died shortly before his arrival.

However, it takes several months these curious stories and incidents into a case of "death and superstitious beliefs" that "brought again drama to the black château." A case pitting Dr. Manson against a murderer who wiped out a whole family!

Scotland Yard is consulted by two insurance companies who, in a little over four years, paid out the sum of £34,000 on three members of the Mackinnon family who died well before their time. The insurances required a medical examination that in each case "disclosed no evidence of any heart infection" and were all classed "as perfectly free from disease of any kind." So, if they were killed, how was it done. More importantly, why? Because the insurance money is a pittance compared to the money Angus left them.

Dr. Manson returns to Menton to assist the local police in clearing up the matter, but the black château now resembles the deserted Mary Celeste and, instead of working as a scientific detective, he now has to act more as a woolgathering, intuitionist sleuth and historian – picking clues from what was left behind and talking with people who knew the family. Biological and chemical science, as well as the exhumations and autopsies, yield the most important pieces of the puzzle, but the interpretation of some good, old-fashioned and bizarre clues were one of the two highlights of the plot. Such as the marzipan cake, a sun lounge and the key importance of Lilleth's borderline impossible murder. Second highlight of the plot was an impressive juggling act with identities that would have made Brian Flynn jealous.

What also should be noted that, unlike in the previous novels, Dr. Manson has a minor and personal plot-thread, which nets him a fiance, but it barely intrudes on the plot. Alice even hands him an important clue that helped settle the case. I think the Radfords had begun to take notice of the changes in the genre (Death and the Professor, 1961) and decided to give a personal dimension to the otherwise purely professional character of Dr. Manson, which is likely also the reason why they gave him “a new experience” of being “told that he was wrong in an analysis.” The times were a-changing in 1960.

But in every other way, Death at the Château Noir is an undiluted, Golden Age detective novel with a solid plot, bizarre clues and an ingenious method to dispatch an entire family, but the imaginative premise, investigation and storytelling elevated a good plot to excellent. A great how-was-it-done that's no doubt one of the candidates to be reprinted by DSP.


The Whistling Legs (1945) by Roman McDougald

Roman McDougald was a little-known, now long-forgotten, American detective novelist, who's usually grouped with the hardboiled writers, but his private investigator, Philip Cabot, is "a clever, sophisticated man about town" – whose "cases always seem to involve locked rooms, impossible crimes and the like." Philip Cabot's page, on Thrilling Detective, states that the dusting of "slightly hardboiled prose" can't disguise that McDougald's novels were "more traditional and genteel than most private eye stuff of their era."

A comparison is drawn with S.S. van Dine's Philo Vance and John Dickson Carr, but having now read two of his novels, The Whistling Legs (1945) and The Blushing Monkey (1953), I can say McDougald was one of the odd ducklings in the Van Dine-Queen School. A group of writers whose novels share some features of the Van Dine traditional without exactly fitting in. Such as Anthony Abbot, Harriette Ashbrook, Kelley Roos and Roger Scarlett.

The Whistling Legs is set in the home of a member of New York City's upper crust and the plot has ties to the impossible crime story, in which the movements of suspects around the house is crucial to the puzzles. Cabot is not only friendly terms with the authorities in charge, but is married to the sister of the District Attorney, Jefferson Boynton. Where the series differs is that Cabot is not some genius amateur sleuth, to whom detective work is nothing more than an intellectual exercise, but a normal, commonsense private investigator and The Whistling Legs has this weird, almost misplaced, lighthearted and satirical tone – reminiscent of Roos and the Lockridges. McDougald also included a rival detective who's both an amusing and exasperating parody of Sherlock Holmes and Philo Vance.

The Whistling Legs begins on the day Cabot married his secretary, Deb, who's the sister of the D.A. and they have ten days to spend together before he has to leave New York in the uniform of a Captain of Artillery. And on their first evening together, Cabot receives a phone call from someone who sounded "crazy in a very casual manner."

Darryl Rand is the manufacturer of a new kind of explosive, called Magnamite, which creates "a sort of artificial earthquake" that offers "tremendous possibilities in warfare" and landed him a contract with the War Department. But the story he has to tell is even weirder. Rand is convinced that somebody in his home will be murdered and fears that the police investigation will establish "a reasonably strong suspicion" that he committed the murder, which the members of his household will support with testimonies that he had been overworked due to his wartime responsibilities. And that he had simply buckled under great nervous strain. A theory that will be confirmed when they find his body besides a suicide note that he had admitted to have written, but he wanted Cabot to come along to give him all the details. Somehow, he decides to go.

The dwelling on Riverside Drive houses some of the usual, and some unusual, characters who could potentially fit the role of murderer or victim.

Gail is Darryl's beautiful wife and he's devoted to her, but this puts him at odds with her more intelligent sister, Miss Jan Utley, who lives with them and she doesn't like Darryl – which is entirely mutual. Greg Rand is Darryl's second-cousin who he had treated like he was a son, but Greg only has kind words for Gail. A more unusual character is a young, twenty-some man, "Deb," who had been run over and now has lost his memory. Darryl had witnessed the accident and rushed him to the hospital. And he has good reasons to believe the amnesiac has a link to one of the people living under his roof. Cabot quickly discovers there's an undercover private investigator among the staff members, but the best character of the lot is his rival detective, Carlo Pugh.

Carlo Pugh is the brother of Darryl's first wife and an analytical chemist, who came into the company when it was organized, but, more importantly, he's "America's Number One Mystery Novel Fan." The walls of his room are lined with "the brilliantly colored jackets of mystery novels," hundreds of them, which also doubles as forensic laboratory. There's a table with a large microscope, test tubed and a photographer's darkroom. Pugh has been carrying out an investigation long before Cabot arrived on the scene and has already discovered the murderer, but he missed one essential thing to make his case complete. A corpse!

Throughout the story, Pugh talks in the pompous, self-aggrandizing tone of Philo Vance, while trying to come across like Sherlock Holmes, which should have made him an intrusive joke on an otherwise moody and serious detective story. Pugh does crawl around the corpse with a tape measure before saying that he would "not state categorically that the killer was an ape," but that it was definitely someone, or something, with "apelike characteristics." But some of his detective work actually got results that helped Cabot putting all the pieces together. So you're never sure whether he's sincere or playing a deep game.

Purely seen as a rival detective, Carlo Pugh is a precursor of Simon Brimmer from the 1975 Ellery Queen TV-series.

Anyway, Cabot took precautions to prevent a murderer from striking at the obvious candidates and, if it happened, it would be "one of those sealed room things," but the murderer did strike and left behind a body – as well as his client in a drug-induced stupor. However, the plot becomes a bit tricky to discuss in detail, because a lot involves the movements of the various characters, but the storytelling never sacked. And the numerous impossibilities, and quasi-impossibilities, were put to good use to keep the story moving.

The first murder is not, strictly speaking, a locked room mystery, but it shows the murderer's peculiar ability to appear inside room that were thought to be either unoccupied or locked. Only the family cat, Cotton, has the ability to sense the murderer entering a room before appearing. This is always accompanied by "an unprecedentedly strange sound." A sort of whispering or whistling sound in the darkness. So the murderer has the unnerving presence of a dark, tangible shadow who can only be glimpsed from the corner of your eye. You can sort of see the comparison with Carr.

A second and third impossibility are introduced quite late into the story. Someone manages to get to third floor when the upper floors were under close police surveillance and the fingerprints of an innocent person on a bloodstained knife that the police laboratory determined to have been "physically impossible" to "have been made by anyone except the last person who grasped the handle." Sadly, none of the solutions showed any ingenuity, or imagination, but they were put to good use to advance the overarching plot and kept the story rolling – although the reason why Cabot had to be knocked unconscious was a clever piece of the puzzle. Something else that stood out is that the second murder was not merely treated as getting rid of annoying witness to pad out the story, but the elusive shadow coldly murdering this person was genuinely depressing and made the first murder even more tragic in light of the solution. Very well done!

So, while not an unsung (locked room) classic, The Whistling Legs stands as an engrossing, slightly unconventional detective novel in which McDougald expertly turned a relatively simple, uncomplicated plot into a maze-like structure. A maze with filled with frightened cats, solid shadows, rival detectives and impossible crimes. More than once, it managed to confuse and throw me off the trail, but there are worst places to get lost in. Warmly recommended to fans of the American Golden Age detective story.

Good news! The Whistling Legs is available as an inexpensive ebook from Phocion Publishing.


Death of a Swagman (1945) by Arthur W. Upfield

Arthur W. Upfield's Death of a Swagman (1945) is the 9th novel about one of the most unique and striking characters from the genre's golden era, Detective-Inspector Napoleon "Bony" Bonaparte of the Queensland Police, but the book could have easily been the first in the series – as it can be read as a character introduction to Bony. I don't remember any other title in the series in which Bony's personality and philosophy is as central to the story as here.

Bony is an half-Aboriginal police detective and expert tracker who became "an investigator of violent crime in Australia's outback." A vast, untrammelled place where "the science of crime detection" differed enormously from its city counterpart.

In the city, the sciences of fingerprinting, blood grouping, photography and a close examination of the crime scene is of "paramount importance," but a crime scene in the bush is not confined to a single room, flat or street – extending instead for beyond its immediate locale. As criminals don't sprout wings, they have to get around on foot, horseback or in a car, which inevitably leave tracks for Bony to read. Bony refers to the soil as pages in the Book of the Bush that are regularly wiped clean by the rain and wind. So, in the bush, it's more important to be able to tell "the difference between the tracks made by a dog and those made by a fox" than finding fingerprints or analyzing drops of blood.

Bony's skill as a tracker is complemented by his personal, almost Buddhist, philosophy on crime and how to apprehend criminals. A philosophy that reveals Bony to be a terrifyingly efficient manhunter with an inhuman amount of patience.

Bony believes "evil is always countered" and, having recognized this universal law years ago, he never proceeds with undue haste. He calmly waits, watches and observe as Providence tosses the clues in his open hands, because Providence is always kind to patient detectives. So he's basically a big black, blue-eyed cat who patiently stakes out a mouse hole, but his method has a serious drawback. While he waits for Providence "to lend a hand" another "poor devil may be murdered." A serious possibility that comes to haunt him in Death of a Swagman.

Death of a Swagman takes place in Merino, a small township of eighty souls, in the south-west corner of the state of New South Wales where the view is dominated by an extraordinary, wind-built barrier of snow-white sand some twelve miles long, three-quarters of a mile wide, and several hundred feet high – referred to locally as the Walls of China. Six weeks before, the body of a stockman, George Kendall, had been found in an isolated hut lying within the sunrise shadow of the Walls of China. Kendall had been beaten to death and the local police had gotten nowhere near an explanation.

So, eventually, the murder comes to the attention of Bony and his specialized skill set and a record "unblemished by failure" afforded him the luxury to pick and choose his cases, because he refuses to stultify his brain with common murders. What excites him are the "unusual circumstances governing" some murders. The unusual circumstance here was gleaned from a crime scene photo of the hut with a game of naughts and crosses scrawled with chalk on the door. Six weeks later, Bony arrives in Merino in the guise of a stockman, Robert Burns.

The first thing he does upon arriving is getting arrested for loitering outside a licensed premise and being insolent to a police officer, but, once safely behind bars, he reveals his identity to Sergeant Richard Marshall – who's the senior officer of Merino Police District. Bony convinces Sergeant Marshall to arraign him before the local magistrate and ensure he gets two weeks detention to paint the police station. So, while he paints the station by day, he gets to spend a little money in the evening at the hotel saloon and people will talk freely to that poor stockman ensnared by the strong arm of the law. However, while Bony patiently observes and listens, the body count begins to climb.

Edward Bennett is an elderly man who lived in a makeshift hut, on the outskirts of the town, where he was found dead by his daughter. Apparently, Old Bennett had died of fright and cut his head as he fell. A short while later, Bony and Sergeant Marshall find the body of a swagman hanging from the crossbeams of the hut where Kendall was murdered, but it's not until someone goes missing that Bony begins to doubt his own philosophy. A person very near and dear to Bony. And he knew if this person were to die, the "edifice of the philosophy responsible for his success in crime detection would fall" possibly "without replacement by any other." So "the mood of self-condemnation" was heavy upon him towards the end. What baffles them the most is the apparent absence of a motive for any of these crimes.

Upfield retraced and thoroughly redressed the plot of Winds of Evil (1937) in Death of a Swagman, which mainly hinges on the psychological motive of the murderer, but that hardly detracts from the story, because the plot is of secondary importance here – taking a backseat to show how Bony struggles with the case and with himself. Normally, this is a grave, inexcusable offense to plot purists, like myself, but Upfield's writing is so evocative and rich that he can get away with it. Upfield was a master storyteller and an artist who can paint vivid, colorful landscapes with words, which is what makes him the best of the so-called regional mystery writers. But he also knew how to stage good, memorable set pieces. Such as Bony's Jail Cell Tea Party with Sergeant Marshall's 8-year-old daughter or the hearse that comes racing back to town from a half-finished funeral with a mighty thunderstorm licking at its heels. Bony also has a nighttime encounter with the masked murderer, on horseback, which is a scene that would not have disgraced the pages of a good western.

When it comes to the plot, Death of a Swagman is not the strongest title in the series, but, even with the plot taking a backseat, Upfield wrote another enthralling and fascinating story about strange crimes and peculiar characters that are as unique to Australia as the kangaroo and koala. A one-of-a-kind detective series that's not appreciated enough these days.


Edward D. Hoch: The Bullet from Beyond and Other Ben Snow Tales

Edward D. Hoch wrote nearly a thousand short stories and created a retinue of detective characters, some with more storied careers than others, who were, as Mike Grost so astutely described it, custom designed "to personify different mystery subgenres" – allowing him to write or indulge in any kind of detective story and trope. Hoch pretty much used his series-characters as a set of skeleton keys to go from the locked room mystery to the historical mystery, police procedural or the spy story. Clever guy!

So everyone has their own favorite series-character, or characters, that tend to reflect their personal taste to some degree. Unsurprisingly, my personal favorite is Hoch's 1930s New England country physician, Dr. Sam Hawthorne, who exclusively solves locked room murders and other seemingly impossible crimes. Dr. Hawthorne is nipped at the heels by Ben Snow and Nick Velvet.

The most important difference between these three divergent characters, a country doctor, a gunslinger and a professional thief, is that there have been multiple short story collections featuring Dr. Hawthorne and Velvet, but only one that stars Snow – namely The Ripper of Storyville and Other Ben Snow Tales (1997). Since C&L have no immediate plans to publish a second volume, I decided to make up my own collection (all in my head) with uncollected stories.

Ben Snow is a turn-of-the-century gunslinger roaming the Americas around the time modern civilization began to encroach, and tame, the Wild West, but not without a fight. Old customs and legends lingered on, up and down, those dusty trails. Such as Snow's remarkable resemblance to that notorious outlaw, Billy the Kid, who had been reportedly shot and killed in New Mexico! So he regularly comes across people who either want to take a crack at the ghost of Billy the Kid or hire the fastest gun in New Mexico.

I assembled a six-shooter loaded with, as of now, half-a-dozen uncollected Ben Snow tales with story titles or plot descriptions that sounded promising. Yes, my selection includes more than one locked room and impossible crime story. Let's hit the trail!

"The Victorian Hangman" appeared in the August, 1988, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (hereafter, EQMM) to the town of Oceanfront, California, where he's hired by the owner of the Oceanfront Hotel, Douglas Rutherford. A guest had apparently hanged himself from the bandstand roof with "the traditional thirteen turns of the rope such as hangmen use," but his wife claims he couldn't even tie a square knot. Shortly after his death, the hotel received an ominous note in the mail: "ONE FOR THE HANGMAN. MORE TO COME." A promise that's kept during Snow's short stay at the hotel and the key to solving the murders is finding the motive linking the victims together. An unusual, but well done, serial killer/whydunit story.

"The Headless Horseman of Buffalo Creek" was published in the June, 1991, issue of EQMM and opens with Snow heading south to avoid the Montana winter, which, one evening, brings him to Buffalo Creek just after sundown. In the gathering gloom, Snow sees with his own eyes a rider, "dressed like a cowhand and urging his horse on with a beating of the reins," who has no face or head! A headless horseman!

Snow meets a local newspaper reporter, Thelma Blake, who tells him that the headless horseman is a recent addition to the town and she has been staking out the place where a regular appears, near the Clayton ranch, in the hope of catching a glimpse of the ghost – which is why he decides to accompany her the next night. They're rewarded with a headless horseman, but, this time, it's not a ghost or someone playing a ghost. It's a headless body riding a horse! Something had just whisked off the head as he rode, but there's no sign of a wire. Very clever to immediately eliminate the possibility of a stretched wire, because it added to the overall mystery.

I'm not sure whether, or not, to classify "The Headless Horseman of Buffalo Creek" as an impossible crime story, but the explanation is excellent and has a first-class, double edged clue alluding to both the who-and how. The answer to the subplot of the ghostly horseman places the story squarely Scooby Doo for grownups territory. One of the better stories in the series with a solid plot, clever clueing and a satisfying end.

"The Granite God" was published in the June, 1995, issue of EQMM and is a minor story, compared to the others reviewed here, which begins when Snow is hired by a retired cavalry officer, Colonel Faraway, to bring back his maid, Esmeralda. Colonel Faraway tells Snow she had "gone to the mountains to see the Lord." The mountain in question is near a silver mine, where they were blasting rocks, when the image of God appeared on a slab of granite. So people began to flock to the granite image, which is where Snow finds Esmeralda, but she's stabbed to death while kneeling in front of the image. I appreciated what Hoch tried to do here, but somehow, it left me completely underwhelmed. So moving on!

"The Bullet from Beyond" was published in the August, 1998, issue of EQMM and brings a creature to turn-of-the-century Oregon commonly found roaming "musty castles and fog-bound streets" of the Old World – an alleged vampire! Snow returned from the Yukon Territory, in Canada, to Grants Pass where he had stabled his horse five months previously. Something had changed since he was away. Six weeks previously, someone, or something, started killing animals and "the veterinarian who examined them said the blood had been drained out of their bodies." Snow is roped in to confront this alleged vampire, Ray Ridge, who's suspected of having "killed his wife up north about twenty years ago" and now lives as a recluse in an isolated cabin in the woods. But what he gets to witness is an impossible murder.

Ray Ridge is shot in front of his eyes, shots were heard outside, but "the windows were unbroken" and "the walls unpunctured," which means that the three armed men outside couldn't have fired the silver bullet. And the two other people inside the cabin were unarmed. So is there's any truth in the old legend that a silver bullet can penetrate a wall, or window, without leaving a mark and still kill a vampire?

Hoch naturally provides the story with a rational explanation, which is not one of his most ingenious locked room-tricks, but a footnote revealed that the solution was plucked from the pages of history. I checked it and, sure enough, it's true. You can read about it here (spoiler warning). So, on a whole, a pretty decent and readable locked room story.

"The Daughters of Crooked River" was published in the November, 1999, issue of EQMM and has Snow arriving in the middle of a racially charged dispute in the small town of Crooked River, Saskatchewan, part of the Northwest Territories – a place settled a generation ago by French-Canadian hunters and fur trappers. Indian women bore their children, the Metis, who now claim the land as their own. But the railroad has opened Saskatchewan to eastern wheat farmers and immigrants who want their share of the land. A complicating factor in the dispute is the death of the Metis leader, Anatole Dijon, who was shot and killed in his cabin with the door bolted on the inside. Only representative of the law, a Mountie, concluded that “his dog put its paw on the trigger of his rifle and fired it.” But not everyone is willing to swallow that story.

Usually, Snow's detective work is limited to observing and noticing small mistakes or incongruities, which spells the truth to him, but here we actually get to see him do some old-fashioned detective work. Snow tries to reconstruct the shooting in the victim's cabin, before realizing that he approached the locked room problem from the wrong angle. The locked room-trick is a good one and neatly fits the exact circumstances of the murder, but it's a variation on a trick that has been used before in the series. However, it's different and original enough to justify it being reused here.

"The San Augustin Miracle" was published in the January, 2001, issue of EQMM and Snow has drifted south to Tucson, a city of about 7,500 residents, located on the often-dry Santa Cruz River. Snow decides to stay when he hears a balloonist, Pancho Quizas, is en route with an hot-air balloon to give an exhibition, but he's not the only one looking forward to see the balloonist. A gruff, old-school gunslinger, Scooter Colt, is waiting for him with his right hand resting on the butt of his gun, but it never comes to confrontation as Pancho miraculously vanishes from the balloon basket as it descended. This situation becomes even more impossible when an irate Colt begins firing his six-shooter at the sky. Believe it, or not, but "the sky fired back." Colt dropped to the ground with a bullet in his eye!

A marvelous setup for one of those rare, two-way impossibilities with the strength of the solution laying in how these two impossibilities, minutes apart, connect and not how Pancho disappeared or how Colt was shot – which, by themselves, are nothing special. But with everything stitched together, you have a good and entertaining detective yarn.

So, all in all, my random selection of stories turned out to be a strong sampling of the Ben Snow series with the quality of stories ranging from outstanding ("The Headless Horseman of Buffalo Creek") to fairly decent ("The Granite God"), which is not a bad score for a hypothetical short story collection. Hopefully, this review will help a little bit in helping justify that second (official) volume.

A note for the curious: Nothing is Impossible: The Further Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (2014) collects a rare crossover story, "The Problem of the Haunted Tepee," in which an elderly Snow meets Dr. Hawthorne. I love crossovers almost as much as a good locked room mystery and would love to see Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller writing a crossover in which Snow crosses paths with their 1890s San Francisco gumshoes, John Quincannon and Sabina Carpenter. I know they'll treat Snow as if he was one of their own characters.


The Fourth Door (1948) by John Russell Fearn

John Russell Fearn was an incredibly prolific fictioneer who cut his teeth in the American pulp magazines of the 1930s, writing primarily science-fiction, but in the mid-1940s he began to move into the hardcover novel market with wildly imaginative, pulp-style detective novels – bubbling with creativity, original ideas and some innovative tricks. Fearn had an fundamental understanding what makes a detective story tick with his own ideas what can be done with it, but he was also a pulp writer in heart and soul. So he wrote fast and what he wrote often lacked the polish of his more well-known Golden Age contemporaries.

Nevertheless, Fearn could be a tremendously entertaining mystery writer whose rich imagination and original ideas turned many of his second-string mystery novels in clever or innovative pieces of detective fiction. Sometimes, he produced something that was more than merely a fun, second-string pulp mystery.

Within That Room! (1946) is mostly a throwback to the turn-of-the-century detective story, but distinguished itself with a unique locked room-trick concerning a haunted room where, once a year, a demonic entity appears – levitating in mid-air! They Arm Alone (1947) has, what can only be described as, a "once in a lifetime" crime never used before or since in a detective story. Except for One Thing (1947) is an inverted mystery with the main question being what happened to the body and the solution is shockingly original. The Master Must Die (1953) preceded Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel (1954) as an experiment in transporting the traditional (locked room) detective story to the science-fiction genre, which has a sequel in The Lonely Astronomer (1954). A less than perfect blend of the two genre's with an annoying detective at the helm, but the absolute loopy, purely science-fiction solution to the impossible murder was vivid and original.

The inventive impossible crimes, the creative scientific murders and his deeply-rooted ties to the pulps aren't the only things that sets his detective novels apart. Fearn set some of his best detective novels among the lower-and working classes of society, which give them a very unusual atmosphere for traditional detective novels.

One Remained Seated (1946) and the posthumously published masterpiece, Pattern of Murder (2006), take place among the people who work at movie theaters in the 1940s and 50s, while Death in Silhouette (1950) is a locked room mystery with an ordinary, working class family home as the backdrop – which has a great play on the double-solution. Flashpoint (1950) gives the reader flashes of the malaise in post-war Britain. So you don't come across large, sprawling mansions or country houses in Fearn's detective story, but, when they're used as a setting, there tends to be a utilitarian reason behind it.

The Crimson Rambler (1947) takes place in-and around a big, rambling manor house, some hundreds of years old, but a large place with surrounding grounds were needed for the intricate locked room-trick to work. Account Settled (1949) introduced a large, isolated house in its second half that had been converted into a giant, mechanized death trap.

So with all of that in mind, I expected the subject of today's review, The Fourth Door (1948), to follow a similar track with its manor house setting as The Crimson Rambler or Account Settled. Philip Harbottle noted in his 2017 guest-post, "The Detective Fiction of John Russell Fearn," that The Fourth Door has "some impossible crime sub-texts," but that's not the case and the story, while toying with fingerprints, is not one of Fearn's science-based mysteries – instead opting to play around with some dusty old tropes from a bygone era. Fearn emptied a bag of 1920s mystery cliches, a big manor house, twins and an oriental dagger, which he used to confuse and mislead the genre-savvy reader. Something he succeeded in doing for a good chunk of the story!

The Fourth Door takes place amid the flat, densely wooded countryside of Caldon Village, Berkshire, which is overlooked by a hill with a ruined castle perched on its summit. This beautiful, picturesque sight is what greeted Elva Reeves when she arrived there from London.

Elva Reeves has been engaged as the new parlor maid at the home of Drake Caldon, Caldon Manor, where he lives with his cousin, Barry Wood, who works as his estate manager and a small staff – most notably the butler and housekeeper, Mr. and Mrs. Carfax. There used to be a twin brother, Arthur Caldon, but the brothers had one hell of a row three years ago. So now Arthur lives in a cottage, half a mile from the cottage, "where he dabbles at painting for fun," but he still loves to spite his brother. Such as getting engaged to Jessie Standish, who runs a garage with her brother, because getting "the chance of tying up the Caldon name with a garage" amuses him. Arthur also has in his possession a antique, oriental dagger with "an extra long, thin blade" that will become an important piece of evidence in a murder case.

A very conventional premise that seemingly becomes predictable when Wood tries to make a move on Elva, but Drake tells him to go pound dirt, because he intends to make Elva his wife. But then the story unexpectedly abandons the well-trodden path.

Elva has no interest in the salaried estate manager as "a possible man to help her climb the social ladder" and naturally agrees to become Caldon's wife. She goes from parlor maid to personal secretary to lady of the manor in mere weeks, but less successful is her attempt to end the feud between her husband and brother-in-law, which forces her to side with her husband. And it is revealed that Caldon has Wood completely under his thumb, because he has another man's life on his conscience.

So you would assume that everything has been put in place for the murder of either Arthur or Drake, but it's Jessie Standish who's murdered with the oriental dagger in her bedroom and her brother witnessed Arthur fleeing the scene – or was it his brother? After the murder, Arthur disappears and his cottage is torched to the ground. A pretty problem for the rustic Inspector Butteridge, "the best criminal expert for miles around," who's faced with "a lot of tomfool clues" suggesting three equally maddening options: (A) Drake framed his brother and perhaps even murdered him (B) Arthur committed the murder and perhaps could have taken his brother's place at the manor house (C) a third person is pulling the strings from the shadows. A possibility that cannot be discarded out of hand.

The groundwork for The Fourth Door is rock solid with an original take on some old, hackneyed tropes and fully expected the ending would cement it as one of Fearn's best detective novels, but the plot began began to fall apart towards the end of chapter 15. My problem is not that an important clue fortuitously fell into Elva's lap, but that's where the trouble started with the plot. Next thing that happens is unexpected, completely ridiculous, twist in the plot-thread about the past murder. A twist that could not possibly have been secret to Wood, because he kept a steel cashbox in his room with newspaper clippings. I don't believe the newspapers would have neglected to mention such an important and essential detail, but it was necessary to add another dimension to option C and to tidy up another (minor) plot-thread.

What ultimately prevented The Fourth Door from becoming an alternative classic, of sorts, is the ending. Fearn came up with a truly imaginative designed to trick and confuse experienced mystery readers, but he decided to go with obvious and least imaginative explanation. So the intriguing premise was completely wasted. I can't help but think what John Dickson Carr or Agatha Christie could have done with the setup, because The Fourth Door had all the potential to be a detective novel like Carr's Death Turns the Tables (1941) and Christie's Peril at End House (1932). But this unfortunately turned out to be a case in which Fearn's pulp tendencies, fast writing and careless plotting, worked against him. The Fourth Door should have been so much better!

Interestingly, the multi-faceted motive of the murderer showed some of his usual ingenuity and creativity, of which was one facet was something new (certainly at the time) that should have been explored further.

On a whole, The Fourth Door started promising, but failed to deliver on its promise and therefore hard to recommend to anyone who's not a fan of either the author or obscure, second-string mystery novels – which is, admittedly, a very niche corner of the genre. So, if you're new to Fearn, I recommend you start with his masterpiece, Pattern of Murder or the excellent Flashpoint. John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, wrote glowing reviews of those two titles here and here.