The Five Red Fingers (1929) by Brian Flynn

Several years ago, I reviewed Annie Haynes' The Crime at Tattenham Corner (1929) in which a well-known racehorse owner on the eve of the Derby, but the victim owned the odds-on favorite to win the race and the rules are clear on this – an owner's death renders void all his horses' nominations and entries. So the death of the owner took the prospective winner out of the race.

Brian Flynn was a criminally underappreciated mystery writer, as well as a racehorse enthusiast, who used a practically identical premise in one of his earlier detective novels. A novel that was published in the same year as The Crime at Tattenham Corner.

The Five Red Fingers (1929) is the fifth entry in the Anthony Bathurst series, rediscovered by Steve Barge and Dean Street Press, which centers around a South African millionaire, Julius Maitland, who returned to England to indulge in his ruling passion – horse racing. Maitland and his much younger wife, Ida, each own a racehorse, Red Ringan and Princess Alicia, who have the odds in their favor to win the Big One of the racing season. But, even more than that, Maitland dreams of "the classic double" of Derby and Oaks "won by husband and wife."

A good portion of the first half flies through the year leading up to the Derby with hints drops throughout the narrative that something is amiss.

Maitland suffered a severe shock when he spots a stout, overdressed man and a dark-haired woman of "very uncertain years" passing through the corridor of a train, but the person with him could not say whether it was the man or woman who shocked him. Even stranger is that Maitland is unexpectedly called back to South Africa to attend to an extremely urgent and important business matter, which means he has to miss the highly anticipated Derby. And with her husband out of the picture, Ida decides to run her own horse in the race.

Red Ringan and Princess Alicia "pulled up within a few yards of each other past the winning past," respectively coming in first and second, which is a huge victory for Maitland's stable, but as the results were flashed around the world, the police station at a seaside village receives a frantic phone call – a man shouting he's being murdered. What the policeman on the phone hears next is a heavy thud, loud laughter and the strains of a violin before the line goes dead. So they go to the bungalow from which the telephone call came and find the body of Maitland. Shot through the throat! And according to the medical examiner, he had been "dead for a good couple of days."

This has costly, far-reaching consequences because, under Derby rules, his horse had "no right to run in the race" and is retroactively disqualified with Princess Alicia declared the new winner. A change that was either a deadly blow or an unexpected blessing to the people who had either drawn Red Ringan or Princess Alicia in the Calcutta Sweep.

Flynn never explained what, exactly, the idea behind the Calcutta Sweep is, but Steve Barge, our very own Puzzle Doctor, explained it in the introduction as follow: "a high money sweepstake, linked to important races, where, for a significant sum of money, a ticket is bought that is randomly assigned to one of the horses. The money is put into a prize pot, but then the tickets are potentially auctioned off, with that money also going into the pot. The prizes are then apportioned between the owners of the tickets for the first, second and third horses." You only get an idea how high the stakes truly were until Maitland is willing to part with twelve thousand pounds for half a share on a single ticket. If you adjust for inflation, "£12,000 in 1929 is equivalent in purchasing power to about £767,355.07 in 2020."

So with all the bizarre circumstances and high stakes, Sir Austin Kemble, Commissioner of Police, immediately throws up his hands in despair and tells the family that he's prepared to hand over the case to "a brilliant man" who "has helped Scotland Yard more than once when it has confronted very grave difficulties," Anthony Bathurst – a dilettante with no official standing whatsoever. I liked it!

During their investigation, I began to disagree with the general consensus that The Five Red Fingers is not to be counted among Flynn's best detective novels, but that was because I was following a false trail with a familiar scent to it.

I was already gravely suspicious of the gunshot wounds to the throat. You can bet dollars to donuts that every notable deviation from the knife in the back, bullet to the head or twist with the scarf usually turns out to be an important piece of the puzzle. Robin Forsythe made it a specialty of his Anthony Vereker series (e.g. The Ginger Cat Mystery, 1935). So when Bathurst comes across a nest of clues, inside a disused barn, I read them to mean that the plot was a delightful, Golden Age-style elaboration on a very well-known Sherlock Holmes story. Flynn was not only a horse racing enthusiast, but also a massive Conan Doyle mark and his detective novels are littered with references to the Great Detective and Easter eggs.

Well, I missed the mark completely here. The Five Red Fingers does a good job in setting out false trails, real or imagined, with strategically placed red herrings all over the place, but there were so many of them that actual clues became scarce and weakened an already coincidence-laden, sometimes illogical, solution even further – with one of the coincidences bordering on an Act of God. An anti-climatic and deeply unsatisfying solution to a detective story that began with the promise to play a high-stakes game.

So, yes, The Five Red Fingers is not representative of Flynn's work of the period and, if you're new to him, I recommend you begin with either The Mystery of the Peacock's Eye (1928) or Murder en Route (1930). But if you, like me, are waiting for the next ten reprints to be released, The Five Red Fingers will do until then.


Exit for a Dame (1951) by Richard Ellington

Richard Ellington was an American radio actor, announcer and scenarist, who was the main writer on Dashiell Hammett's The Fat Man, but between 1948 and 1953, he also penned a handful of "deftly plotted, satisfyingly complex mysteries" with "an appealing medium-boiled hero" – an actor turned private investigator, Steve Drake. Ellington abandoned his writing career to run a small hotel, Gallows Point, on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. You can read more about Ellington's fondly remembered hotel in the comments of a 2008 review of It's a Crime (1948) posted on the MysteryFile blog.

The Thrilling Detective described the Steve Drake novels as "one of the unfairly forgotten P.I. series" of the period that at times "seemed to be almost wandering into amateur sleuth territory" with one of them "recalling an Ellery Queen impossible crime story."

Exit for a Dame (1951) is the fourth entry in this short-lived series and is listed in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) with no less than three, distinctly different impossibilities, but there are five in total – although the additional two are variations on the other impossibilities. So why is a detective novel littered with impossible crime material hardly remembered today? Well, the book has somewhat of a poor reputation. Barry Ergang told me to avoid it, because the impossibilities were "not fairly clued" or easily guessed at. And responded to my question on whether, or not, the impossibilities were at least somewhat original with a short, "no, not at all." A double negative!

So you can hardly call that encouraging, but, as a hopeless detective addict with an insatiable craving for locked room mysteries and impossible crimes, the prospect of a mediumboiled detective novel with a string of impossible situations still had its appeal. Since my expectations had already been blown to pieces, I decided to take the plunge without any expectations and turned out to be much better than expected! Not anywhere near an unrecognized masterpiece of the impossible crime story, but neither is it to be avoided. And now having read it myself, I understand why the story has left so many locked room readers crestfallen.

Exit for a Dame begins strongly with an excellently written, detailed account of the multi-impossibilities, covering the first seven chapters, which have the potential to deceive the unsuspecting reader into believing he's reading something on par with Norman Berrow's The Three Tiers of Fantasy (1947), Herbert Brean's Wilders Walks Away (1948) and Hilary St. George Saunders' The Sleeping Bacchus (1951) – topped with a slight hint of Theodore Roscoe and Hake Talbot. Sadly, this side of the story was pushed aside in Chapter 8 to make room for a much more mundane, sordid and run-of-the-mill crime story. However, it did regain some of its earlier magic in the chapters explaining the various miraculous disappearances and ghostly occurrences.

Exit for a Dame has a great opening that begins on "one of those windy, screwball days in late March" when "spring decided to open the door on winter and gets kicked in the teeth for trying" on streets of Greenwich Village, New York.

Steve Drake is on an early morning stroll through Greenwhich Village when his hat is knocked off by a piece of heavy brown cardboard with "HELP" crudely scrawled on it with crayon. Drake noticed an elderly lady sitting in the open, second-floor window of one of the apartment buildings and her eyes are staring straight down at him. She kept staring at him in silence and unnervingly began to nod when he pointed to the piece of cardboard, but she remained silent and kept nodding her head. When the building's superintendent opened the door, they discovered that the old lady has been dead for over a week!

So how did the very dead corpse of Old Mrs. Vogelmeir nod her head? Who moved the curtains? How did this person, if there was somebody else in there, managed to get out of the apartment without being seen? And it was out of the question that anyone could have left through the windows. Drake witnesses a second impossibility when he returns there and is confronted with old Mrs. Vogelmeir's empty rocking chair creaking "gently back and forth against the bare floor" of the locked apartment. One of the two impossibilities not mentioned in Adey's Locked Room Murders.

I think the problem of the nodding corpse and her supposedly haunted apartment is one of the two highlights of the story, which is given a wonderfully simplistic, but entirely acceptable and believable, explanation – imaginatively used to create two very different impossibilities. Ellington would have done his idea and legacy a service had he condensed it into a short story, or novella, as it's too good to be stuck in this mostly mediocre novel.

Another impossibility comes to light with the introduction of Drake's ex-girlfriend, Marge Lewis, who walked into the apartment building minutes after the body of the old lady was found, but immediately walked out when she heard the police were on their way. She later explains that one of the residents of the apartment is Virginia May Roundtree, a female Uriah Heep, who had played a very dirty trick that had cost Marge a very good and cushy job. So he has a good reason to hate her, but now she fears the police will think she had motive to get rid of her, because Virginia Roundtree "literally vanished" in front of her eyes. One second Marge saw Virginia walking along the sidewalk towards her and the next she was gone. She had simply vanished in the blink of an eye!

An excellently posed and presented miraculous vanishing with several references to the unsolved disappearance of New York State Supreme Court Justice Joseph F. Crater, in 1930, but the practical solution is both disappointing and uninspired. Comparable to the strange, but disappointingly explained, vanishings from Brean's Wilders Walk Away.

The second highlight of the story comes when Drake is inspecting Virginia's "well-filled bookcase" crammed with book-of-the-month club novels, some of the obvious classics, bibles and "a sprinkling of mysteries," but there are also several hidden books of a more mature nature that leads him to a secondhand book dealer, Sydney Scales – who sells under the counter smut. Virginia's reading taste also included the occult with a special interest in demonology, witchcraft and voodoo. Drake found a copy on her shelves of Tom Toms in Top Hat and Tails written by a well-known paranormal investigator, Carol Sleet. One of the chapters detailed a series of experiments with the Yi King, an ancient Chinese book dealing with divination and magic, which "had been written long before the time of Confucius." An experiment with a set of so-called magic wands that could open a doorway to another world, but it ended with the strange, inexplicable disappearance of the woman who had attempted to open that phantom door. A trick that would later be repeated with Sleet's maid vanishing from a closely watched room.

Regrettably, the disappearance mentioned in the book is left unexplained, but you have to assume Sleet made it up in order to "fluff up" his material and the solution to the last vanishing is almost an insult to the reader's intelligence! Just mindbogglingly stupid.

There's not much that can be said about the seedier, mediumboiled side of the story. A murder in a secondhand bookshop is, or could possibly, be linked to the large sum of money that had been taken from Mrs. Vogelmeir's apartment, Virginia's mysterious disappearance and a couple who cheat on each other, but it was all done halfheartedly. And there were some missed opportunities. Such as the suggestion of a name-based alibi or the underwhelming identity of the murderer, because the relationship between the murderer and victims had an interesting aspect that should have been used as a red herring earlier on in the story. It could have made the reveal a genuine surprise.

Exit for a Dame was published around the time Ellington was winding down his writing career to move to the Virgin Islands (having already purchased the land in 1948) and strongly suspect he wanted to use as many of his best ideas before bowing out. So what he did is smash together two, or even three, different stories together to create Exit for a Dame. You can even see the seams where he stitched the plots together! For example, the parade of impossibilities in the opening chapters turn out to be incidental to the culprit. You'll know what I mean when you read it.

I can see why some people would end up hating it, but with your expectations dialed back to zero, Exit for a Dame can be an entertaining, pulp-style detective novel with the various impossibilities and linked plot-threads giving the plot a pleasant, maze-like quality – even if it failed to do something really good with it. So, year, it's mostly a mediocre novel, but I didn't hate it. And should not be avoided by rabid locked room readers. Just don't expect too much from it.


A Wreath for the Bride (1957) by Maria Lang

Earlier this year, Kate and Laurie reviewed two of the three available translated detective novels by one "Maria Lang," a nom du plume of Dagmar Lange, who's considered "to be Sweden's answer to Agatha Christie" and "one of the big four of Swedish fair play mystery writers" – together with Stieg Trenter, H.K. Rönblom and Vic Suneson. Swedes who wrote well-crafted, traditionally-styled detective novels instead of padded out suicide notes (i.e. Scandinoir)? You sure don't see that anymore today!

Lang wrote forty-two detective novels in as many years and was one of the founding members of the Swedish Crime Writers' Academy, but only three of her novels received an English translation in the 1960s. All three were reissued, as ebooks, in 2014. But both times, the English releases largely flew under the radar of Golden Age mystery readers. An oversight that needed to be remedied!

So I decided to take a closer look at what exactly Lang had to offer and discovered that there were not only three English translations at my disposal, but four of her novels had been translated into Dutch with old, secondhand copies still floating about the web – broadening my scope with three more titles. However, the one that beckoned my attention happened to be present on both the Dutch and English list. Easy pickings!

Kung liljekonvalie av dungen (King Lily-of-the-Valley, 1957) was translated in Dutch as De verdwenen bruid (The Vanished Bride) and the English translation gave it the most fitting book-title, A Wreath for the Bride. What attracted my attention is that the synopsis promised an impossible disappearance of the titular bride. Well, you know me!

A Wreath for the Bride takes one of her leading detective characters, Chief Inspector Christer Wick, to the fictitious village of Skoga, which is apparently Lang's St. Mary Mead. Wick is traveling to Skoga to attend the wedding of his mother's goddaughter, Anneli Hammar. A slim, quiet and self-absorbed girl who "nabbed the richest bachelor in the whole district," Joakim Cruse, an eccentric, monocle-wearing multi-millionaire who settled down in the district. Cruse is the dictionary definition of an outsider. Someone who's seen by the villagers as incomprehensible and suspicious, but his wealth and standing made his wedding the event of the year.

So when the story opens, the preparations for the wedding are in full swing when a nervous Anneli bumps into her life-long friend, Dina Richardson, at a street corner where she tells Dina she's on her way to the florist, Fanny Falkman, to inspect her bridal bouquet – a giant spray of lilies-in-the-valley. Dina watched Anneli disappear into the floral shop and talked with two elderly ladies on the doorstep during a brief, but important, shower of rain. Nobody could have entered, or exited, the floral shop unobserved, but Anneli never came back out again. Astonishingly, Fanny swears Anneli didn't set a foot inside her shop or that she heard the doorbell tinkle when she was seen shutting the door behind her. Even if she managed to sneak in without being seen, or heard, she could not have escaped through the backdoor without definitely being noticed by Fanny!
Yeah, it's a classic and promising setup of a person impossibly vanishing "as if swallowed up by the earth" and Wick notes that "one is almost tempted to turn to the occult for an explanation," but the explanation to this piece of the puzzle thoroughly demolishes it as a proper locked room mystery (Goddamn Swedes!) – an explanation used to shine a light on two of suspects. So that was a little disappointing.

Dutch edition
Nevertheless, the strange disappearance of the bride on the eve of her wedding proves the beginning of a murky mystery, "which was to perplex and agitate Skoga more than anything else in its hundreds of years of history" and telephone lines reverberated with gossip. The fourth chapter opens with a brief and humorous scene with everyone in Skoga calling each other until the youngest, overworked and stressed out telephonist "finally collapsed and began to weep over the switchboard." But the chatter went on. Anyway...

Chief Inspector Christer Wick, of the Stockholm Crime Squad, is there as a visitor and therefore acts as a quasi-official assistant to the local policeman in charge, Superintendent Leo Berggren. This makes it difficult not to see him as an amateur sleuth rather than as a police detective. Wick even finds Anneli's body at the edge of a lake with her hands "peacefully clasped round a bouquet of lilies-of-the-valley" and a terrible stab wound to the chest. Another thing placing the book squarely in the Intuitionist School of the amateur detective is the lack of physical clues.

Lang hides her clue in the things her characters say, or do, which usually turn out to have an alternative explanation. Such as why Anneli was coming out of the office of her ex-employer, Sebastian Petren, with tears in her eyes or why Petren had to sneak out of the floral shop on the day Anneli vanished. Nothing is really what it seems and this subtle ambiguity opens the door to multi interpretations. This makes the movement of everyone involved as important to the plot as the verbal clues, which Lang cleverly used to camouflage the murderer and misdirect the reader.

So I can see the comparison with Christie and not one that's entirely undeserved, which is usually the case, but the comparison is not particular fair and places the bar, as well as expectations, way too high – which can ruin the fun for some. A Wreath for the Bride is a finely crafted, old-fashioned village mystery, but compared to Christie's body of work, it would only rank with her lesser-known, mid-tier novels. Such as The Sittaford Mystery (1931), Peril at End House (1932) and The Moving Finger (1943).

My recommendation is not to approach Lang as the Swedish incarnation of the Queen of Crime, but as a Swedish mystery writer a fan of Christie can warm to and enjoy. That's why you can expect more reviews of Maria Lang's other detective novels sometime in the future. So stay tuned!


The Woman in the Wardrobe (1951) by Peter Shaffer

Anthony and Peter Shaffer were twin brothers, celebrated playwrights, screenwriters and novelists with three revered, frustratingly rare and highly sought after detective novels to their name that have gained an almost mythical reputation over the decades – ensuring a small circulation among collectors. Two of the three novels have vainly topped the wishlists of impossible crime fans for nearly seven decades.

During those seven decades, The Woman in the Wardrobe (1951) and Withered Murder (1955) enchanted mystery readers with their oracular reputation of unheralded, long-lost classics. Regrettably, the Shaffers "resisted numerous offers to republish them" and the hefty, triple-digit price tags (plus shipping) on the limited number of secondhand copies kept them elusive collector's items. And when a copy turns up, it's usually gone within a blink of an eye.

So you can imagine how much locked room readers rejoiced when the British Library announced they were reissuing The Woman in the Wardrobe!

The Woman in the Wardrobe not only lived up to its near-mythical reputation, but is guaranteed to win this year's Reprint of the Year Award. A comedic take on the classic detective story that at first seemed to take the lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek approach of Leo Bruce, R.T. Campbell and Edmund Crispin, but the writing, characterization and even the plotting have a biting, sardonic sense of humor – a tone you would expect from a mean-spirited deconstruction rather than an homage. But it worked! And the ending delivered "a brilliant new solution" to the locked room problem.

Mr. Verity is an unflattering, acerbic parody of the Great Detective and very likely modeled on John Dickson Carr's famous detectives, Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale.

Verity is "an immense man" with startling brilliant eyes, a chestnut Van Dyke and a winter cloak who has been "a noted figure in the world of detection" and enjoys the respect of the Yard, but he was "almost as much respected as disliked." He was actually very much disliked, because he was so often right and solved murders, "between tea and supper," with "a mixed display of condescension and incivility" towards the regular police – who were dead and spent with fatigue. A loud, highly opinionated man with questionable ethics (having "more archaeological thefts to his credit than the governing body of any museum in Europe") and prone to giving elaborate lunchtime lectures who annoying made himself indispensable by always being right. And he knows it! Mr. Verity is also abnormally curious and when he sees a man climbing furtively out of a first-floor window, of the Charter Hotel, he decides to ask the manager, Miss Framer, whether it's hotel custom to use windows as an exit.

They're interrupted by one of the guests, Mr. Paxton, flying down the stairs screaming blue murder. Paxton found the body of another hotel guest, Mr. Maxwell, but when they go up to investigate, they discover that the door of Maxwell's room was now locked on the inside. And at that same moment, a police constable enters the hotel with yet another guest, Mr. Cunningham, who caught coming out of one of the first-floor windows.

So the door is forced open and discovered a ransacked, blood-soaked room with Maxwell's body laying among the debris on the floor and the hotel waitress, Alice Burton, tied up in the wardrobe. A wonderfully intricate, neatly posed locked room problem that was succinctly summarized as follow:

"A murder is committed in a room. Two men are immediate suspects. Suspect A enters by the window and leaves by the door. Suspect B enters by the door and leaves by the window. Suspect A can lock the window but not the door. Suspect B can lock the door but not the window. Neither can lock both—yet both are locked: and from the inside. And all the while a body, which medical evidence proves could not have done the locking itself before it expired, leaks blood over the carpet of an empty room."

Detective Inspector Rambler enters the fray and perhaps the only man who stands on equal footing with the Great Detective. Only difference between them is that Verity has a temper and a beard, while Rambler is a professional who could afford neither, but Verity "respected the tamed logic in Rambler" and "Rambler the explosive vision in Verity" – together they pour over this pretty puzzle. They review possibility, suggest solutions and pry clues from the various suspects and witnesses, which include the amusing character of Richard Tudor. A pretender to the throne of England who claims to be a direct descendant of King Edward the Sixth, son of King Henry the Eighth, who died unmarried at the age of fifteen.

There's not much else that can be said about the plot, or investigation, because The Woman in the Wardrobe is a very short, tautly written story with the page-count padded out with some nice sketches of the main characters by Nicolas Bentley (son of E.C. Bentley). So it really had no right to be anything more than a comedic curiosity, but the explanation to the locked room, in combination with the identity to the murderer, turned it into an unmitigated classic. A superb and truly original locked room mystery!

The Woman in the Wardrobe is the novel Ulf Durling tried to write with Gammel ost (Hard Cheese, 1971), which could have worked had Durling not occupied himself with gutting the plot of everything that made it a detective story. Shaffer succeeded in both sardonically poking fun at the genre and doing a bit of deconstruction on the side without comprising the essence of a detective story. Chuck in a startling original solution and you have something special and memorable that cemented a top spot on my list of favorite locked room mysteries. Highly recommended!


The Elberg Collection (1985) by Anthony Oliver

I've noticed over the years there was a short-lived revival of the traditional, Golden Age-style detective story in the 1980s that began to sputter a decade earlier with William L. DeAndrea, Bill Pronzini and John Sladek, but quickly assumed an identity of its own – complete with identifiable characteristics. An identity best described as a hybrid of the American and British detective story.

Generally, the detectives tend to be either professionals (non-detectives) acting as amateur sleuths or hold some kind of quasi-official position with their cases taking place against specialized backgrounds. Such as the theater, commerce and museums or private collectors. This neon-illuminated age of the traditional detective story even his its own sub-category of pop-culture inspired mysteries that take place at conventions or among fandoms, which began with Pronzini's Hoodwink (1981) and Richard Purtill's Murdercon (1982) added modern fandoms and pop-cult references. Good examples are Patrick A. Kelley's little-known Sleightly Lethal (1986) and Sharyn McCrumb's award winning Bimbos of the Death Sun (1987).

More interestingly, these writers showed a healthy interest in the locked room mystery and often brought new innovative ideas to the fore.

Herbert Resnicow was a former civil engineer who brought his drafting pencil to the detective story and turned the locked room puzzle on its head by turning wide open, three-dimensional and multi-floored spaces into tightly sealed rooms – making him one of the leading lights of this brief revival. Resnicow penned about half a dozen of these innovative locked room puzzles, all with specialized backgrounds, but his best two are The Gold Deadline (1984) and The Dead Room (1987). Marcia Muller is not as closely associated with the impossible crime story as her husband, but she engineered one of her own large-scale, museum-set locked room conundrums in The Tree of Death (1983). Ellen Godfrey cleverly made use of the locked computer room of a software company in Murder Behind Locked Doors (1988) and Kate Wilhelm's experimental Smart House (1989) takes place in a fully automated, computerized house. There are also some British specimens, such as Roger Ormerod's More Dead Than Alive (1980) and Douglas Clark's Plain Sailing (1987), but they have the tendency to stand closer to the European police procedural rather than the American Van Dine-Queen style detective story. But they fit the mold.

So I may be completely wrong here with my narrow, specialized reading creating a pattern, where there isn't any, because similar type of mystery novels were published in the 1970s (Lionel Black's The Penny Murders, 1979) and 1990s (Peter Lovesey's Bloodhounds, 1996). Nonetheless, they obviously proliferated during the eighties and gives the impression of a resurgence, short-lived as it may have been, of the traditional detective story. And it coincided with the rise of the shin honkaku movement in Japan! But in the West it petered out after merely a decade.

Why this long-winded introduction? The subject of today's review made me think of all these authors, novels and the possibility of an unrecognized Neon Age (can't think of a better name).
Anthony Oliver's The Elberg Collection (1985) is the third novel in a short-lived series about a retired policeman, John Webber, and his Welsh housekeeper, widowed Mrs. Lizzie Thomas, who appeared together in only four detective novels – published between 1980 and 1987. These four novels appear to have a unifying theme: shenanigans and skulduggery in the world of antique dealers and collectors.

The Elberg Collection begins on the beach of a small, French seaside resort, Le Bosquet, where David and Jane Walton walked, arm in arm, when Jane caught fire and turned into "a flaming torch within seconds." David must have tried to smother the flames, because "their arms were still round each other when the first people got to them." French police believes the wind blew glowing tobacco from David's pipe and "slammed the shower of blazing sparks" into her "highly inflammable" dress. Since the incident was witnessed by a maid and no other footprints to show someone had "approached them on that fatal walk," the French authorities filed it away as a bizarre accident. However, the daughter of the Waltons, Jessica Elberg, refuses to accept the verdict.

A friendly conspiracy between Detective Inspector Snow and Lizzie to put their recently divorced and retired friend, ex-Detective Inspector John Webber, back in the game by landing him his first assignment as a private investigator. Hans Elberg has agreed to foot the bill to help his wife come to terms with the death of her parents.

Webber warns Jessica that he has "never yet inquired deeply into the circumstances of sudden death without upsetting some," but, once all the formalities are settled, they begin a two-pronged investigation with the slightly eccentric, French-speaking Lizzie crossing the channel – snooping around the scene of the crime. Webber stays behind in England to look into the professional side of the case. Walton was a talented potter and part-owner of a pottery firm, which allowed him to help his father-in-law accumulate an impressive collection of antique pottery. What they uncover is a dead witness who left behind a dying message. A rotting corpse of a another murder victim and a disturbingly fresh suicide. A missing, or stolen, manuscript that could throw "a spanner into the international market for English pottery" and a mysterious figure who's willing to spend both money and bullets to get them off the case. And all of this comes with an odd assortment of suspects, motives and clues.

One clue, in particular, deserves to be highlighted. Snow has a young bright son, Alan, who likes computers and dates the story by saying he writes his own programs on a computer with 48 K RAM and "a data transfer rate of 16 bytes a second." Snow gives his son a purely hypothetical situation, two people impossibly burned to death on a lonely beach, to test his analyzing program. It came back with eight possibilities that ranged from flamethrowers, incendiary bombs and missiles to meteors, satellite debris and an Act of God – along with the more plausible murder/suicide or a suicide pact. You won't find the correct solution on Alan's list, but when you learn how it was done, you realize how cleverly it hinted in the right direction.

I think it could have been one of the best and most original clues of the decade had Oliver played the game fairly across the board.

I could have easily forgiven the obvious murderer, who stood out like a billboard, but the sudden, anti-climatic ending revealed that Webber and Lizzie had been investigating only one side of the case. The case has an entirely different angle that throws an entirely new light on the charred bodies, the dying message and the messy suicide, but they were left in the dark until it was time to wrap things up. They're also told that the murderer will never be brought in front of judge, which makes for an unexciting and disappointing payoff to what could have been a first-class detective novel.

Webber at least got the satisfaction of explaining to the big bugs how the Waltons were burned to death and the fire-trick, in theory, is excellent and a perfect example of the impossible crime story moving along with the times. Something fresh and original. Practically, the fire-trick has a glaring weakness that can be partially blamed for the weak ending.

The Elberg Collection is the proverbial mixed bag of tricks. A leisurely paced, thoroughly British detective novel with some good and original ideas, but the weak and botched ending only makes it worth your time if your interested in plot-mechanics or obscure impossible crime novels.


Sweet Poison: Case Closed, vol. 74 by Gosho Aoyama

The 74th of Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed, published in Japan as Detective Conan, begins with the conclusion to the case that closed out vol. 73 in which an armed man with explosives strapped to his chest takes Richard Moore, Rachel, Sera and three aspiring female mystery novelists hostage – demanding that the famous "Sleeping Moore" identifies the murderer of his sister. Miku Sawaguri had become one of the youngest, bestselling novelists of Japan when she was found dead, in a locked room, at a hot spring resort. She apparently committed suicide, but her brother refused that explanation.

Just before she died, Miku posted several messages online indicating she had three visitors to her hotel room, whom she referred to as the elephant, fox and mouse, to ask for an autograph. So one of these three visitors must be the killer, but who and how?

Conan has to assume his original identity and reason with the hostage taker over the phone to both solve a murder, in record time, as well as preventing a small bloodbath, which is done with an excellent use of the false solution – based on the victim's superbly titled novel, The Grim Reaper's Funeral Procession. Conan even gives a brief description of the plot and it's a psychological thriller about a homicide cop investigating his own murders. Anyway, the locked room-trick is nothing special and a slight variation on an age-old trick, but the vital clue pointing straight to the murderer was beautifully hidden in plain sight. So, technically, a good and solid story, but nothing to make it standout in the series.

The second story is going to be hard to properly describe, because the plot appears to be all over the place with recurring characters turning up or being mentioned. A trend that runs, like a red-thread, through the entire volume.

Doc Agasa found an old pot in his shed that he once bought at a flea market and posted a video online asking for an appraisal, but Anita accidentally appeared in the video. Conan is afraid that the video might lead members of the Black Organization to their doorstep, which is exactly what seems to happen when Amy, not Anita, is kidnapped. But the case takes a bizarre turn when they find a cellphone with a note saying, "read the text and follow the orders." Whatever they expected the ransom demand to be, it certainly wasn't that!

I've said several times before that kidnapping stories are my least favorite kind of detective story, because they're rarely any good, but, every now and then, a truly good one turns up and it's usually in this series – such as the excellent second story from vol. 72. This one is even better! I thought it was very clever to (ROT13) pbire-hc bar pevzr (gursg) jvgu nabgure (xvqanccvat) giving gur xvqanccref na rkphfr gb hfr gur eht gb jenc naq pneel Nzl va jvgubhg nggenpgvat fhfcvpvba. Normally, this would be good, if minor, entry in the series, but then there are all the recurring characters suspiciously sneaking around in the background or mysteriously being referred to. Masumi Sera is asking pesky questions and obviously is up to something. Subaru Okiya is spying and eavesdropping on Conan. A lost cat features in the story and has a coincidental link to another familiar face in the series. Black Organization is ominously referred to as "Them."

Somehow, Aoyama got more out of the plot than was originally in out with the result being an excellent and memorable story. A story that comes highly recommended to fans of Edward D. Hoch. You'll know why when you learn the solution. Only disturbing thing is how effortlessly Amy shrugged off her harrowing kidnapping experience. Have the Junior Detective League really become this callous and jaded?

The third story brings Harley Hartwell (Heji Hattori) back to Tokyo, but, before he can tell Conan why, Kazuha calls him to tell that she's detained at a restaurant where a man had died in the bathroom – apparently after eating poisoned candy. A foreign guy had found the body and ordered nobody to leave. And that guy is the FBI agent, André Camel, who previously appeared in vol. 58. Camel overheard the victim talking on his phone to someone he called his childhood friend and admitting to have murdered a man ("I'm the one who poisoned Abe"). Then he heard a groan, broke down the door and found the body. But did Camel correctly understood what he heard? Masumi Sera proposes to use the case to settle the friendly rivalry between the Great Detectives of the East and West, Jimmy Kudo (Conan) and Harley Hartwell.

I imagine Ho-Ling must have loved this story with its linguistic clues and plot balanced on the differences, and nuances, between regional dialects. And how it can even fool native Japanese speakers. A good and decent enough story that, once again, elevated by everything playing out in the background.

The last story tells why Harley traveled to Tokyo, "a letter from a dead man," who expressed his wish to meet the young detective to confess a sin and told him he'll be waiting at "the house of he murdered man" on "the night of the next full moon" – enclosed is a key and an address in Osaka. The writer is the president of design company, Wakamatsu, who was suspected to have been killed by a burglar at his summer villa. But when the appointment was held, they found someone in the bathroom who inexplicably "vanished into thin air." A message had been carved into the wall, "E-Y-E."

Harley arranged a meeting with the victim's family to discuss the case, but they couldn't been inside for more than 30-minutes when one of the family members is impossibly poisoned with a slice of cake. A single slice of poisoned cake that could not have been poisoned or have been forced upon the victim to take. These kind of mysterious poisonings have become a staple of Case Closed and often have solutions that are simultaneously very simple and devilish ingenious (e.g. "The Loan Shark Murder Case" from vol. 15), but this one was a little too simplistic and dangerously careless with cyanide! There's also an obliterated dying message that has to be found at the first crime scene, which is in the hands of two other characters who had previous appearances. Very fitting that they had to be the ones to handle that side of the case. Finally, a second poisoning adds a third victim to the bodycount and ends this volume on a cliffhanger.

On a whole, this was not a bad volume at all, but all of the stories, including the splendid and original second story, used the appearances, cameos and references to all those recurring characters to bolster their plots. For example, the third story would have been a very minor, forgettable case without Agent Camel, Masumi Sera and the battle-of-wits between Conan and Harley. But that's one of the perks of a long-running series that put in the effort to setup an entire fictional universe. So, yeah, an enjoyable volume for fans.

On a last, somewhat related note: three months ago, I posted my fan theory, "Detective Conan: Who's the Boss?," speculating on the true identity of the B.O. leader. Ho-Ling and 8bitorne shot the poor thing to pieces in the comments, but still like the idea of him being Conan's Moriarty.