Swing Low, Swing Death (1946) by R.T. Campbell

Ruthven Campbell Todd was a Scottish-born artist, critic and poet who wrote eight lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek detective novels in the mid-1940s, published as by "R.T. Campbell," which mostly star his botanist and amateur meddler, Professor John Stubbs – a character who was obviously modeled on John Dickson Carr's Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale. These amusing takes on the detective story seemed to be well on their way to being forgotten, until Dover Publications started reprinting the series in 2018.

I've already read and reviewed Unholy Dying (1945) and Death for Madame (1946), which left me with Swing Low, Swing Death (1946), but the book turned out to be, for better and worse, the weirdest, most unorthodox, of the lot. Now, before I can get to the good stuff, I need to talk about the bad first.

Firstly, there's a continuity issue that really bugged me. Peter Main wrote an introduction for the new Dover editions and provided a list of all published Professor Stubbs novels "in the order they were presumably written," based "on references that appear within them to previously occurring events," but Swing Low, Swing Death is listed last and introduces a character, Ben Carr, who had a prominent role in a previous novel – namely Death for Madame. So it can't have been a very close examination of the series, because this continuity error stands out the moment his name is mentioned. There's another character, Douglas Newsome, who previously appeared in The Death Cap (1946), which has its solution (name of murderer + method) spoiled on the third page "Part 2-Chapter 1: The Joy of Return." So the reader has been warned!

Sure, these are very minor issues, smudges really, which should not negatively affect the overall story, or plot, but that's where the biggest problem of the book rears its ugly snout: Swing Low, Swing Death is not a detective novel.

Technically speaking, Swing Low, Swing Death qualifies as a detective novel, but it really is a satire on modern art cloaked in the feathers of a detective story. There's a body, a murderer, a closed circle of suspects and a detective with his Dr. Watson in tow, but there are barely any clues to mull over and the murderer stands out like a jarring piece of modern architecture. And the body doesn't make a public appearance until the second half of the story. Something that will grate and test the patience of readers who detest long buildups to the murder.

So what happens until the murder finally happens? Campbell shows the reader the preparations for the opening of Miss Emily Wallenstein's Museum of Modern Art and takes the piss out of the whole situation and the characters. You would almost get the impression he hated modern art and its puffy champions.

Miss Wallenstein is a millionaire's daughter with "a penchant for all that was modern" and surrounded herself with all kinds of modern monstrosities, such as fur-lined teacups, colored tubes of sand and pieces of junk, but she's about to open Pandora's Box on the unsuspecting populace of London with her Museum of Modern Art – first of its kind in London. She's advised by a pompous art-critic and "fashionable arbiter of taste," Cornelius Bellamy, who believes that his books are "the absolute essentials to anything in the way of an understanding of, say, a Miró, a Klee, or a Picasso." Bellamy latest discovery is Ben Carr, now an interior decorator, who festoons walls with disregarded rubbish. Carr himself "could not quite understand how he had become an interior decorator," but, if people wanted to pay him to cover their walls with rubbish, "he saw no reason why he should not humour them in their fancy." A job's a job. Douglas Newsome is a quasi-alcoholic poet who, somehow, became the gloomy librarian of the museum and tries to complete a catalog before the opening. The cast is rounded out by a gallery owner, Julian Ambleside, and an art expert, Francis Varley.

So, while they prepare a "brutal and forthright" exhibition with the sole aim to leave the visitors "insulted and outraged" and "to commit a mental rape upon their virgin security," the authenticity of a Chirico painting is questioned. A file is taken from the library archive, photographs disappear and a painting is slashed to ribbons, which culminates on opening night when the unveiling of a painting reveals a body dangling from a picture hook. This is the point where Chief Inspector Bishop, Professor John Stubbs and his long-suffering chronicler, Max Boyle, enter the picture. But don't expect much in the way of an actual detective story.

I suspect Campbell probably would have preferred continuing his satire of the modern art scene as his heart just wasn't in it during the second act. There a few bright spots. Such as Ben Carr's centenarian, gin-soaked mother and her "crazy logic," a cameo by Ruthven Todd and the final confrontation with murderer on the rooftop of the museum, but nothing more than that. Professor Stubbs was not as lively, or disruptive, as in previous novels and Boyle futilely hacked up his familiar lines ("I want a quiet life with nothing going faster than the germination of a seed"). The only real clue is a slip-of-the-tongue that could have had a perfectly normal explanation, which Bishop pointed out in the last chapter. Not that you needed that clue to spot the murderer, but it's all a little disappointing coming after Unholy Dying and Death for Madame. Luckily, I still have Take Thee a Sharp Knife (1946) and Adventure with a Goat (1946) to look forward to.

So, purely as a detective novel, I can't recommend Swing Low, Swing Death unless you're a fan of the series, British comedy or hate modern art. And, in the last case, you don't have to read the second act.


The Marloe Mansions Murder (1928) by Adam Gordon Macleod

Adam Gordon Macleod is one of those thoroughly forgotten mystery novelists, who's so obscure that the Golden Age of Detection Wiki doesn't even list his name, but five minutes of playing internet detective revealed that he was an engineer and a World War I veteran – who passed away in 1945 aged 62 (dates check out). During the 1920s and '30s, Macleod signed his name to (at least) four detective novel and one of them is listed in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991). You're surprised, I know.

The Marloe Mansions Murder (1928) was reprinted as a two-part serial in the March 14 and 21, 1936, issues of The Thriller under the titles "The Marloe Mansion Murder" and "The Murderer of Mr. Slyne." And that was the last time the story appeared in print until Black Heath reissued it as an ebook in 2017. Nearly 90 years later!

The Marloe Mansions Murder seems to be the first novel starring Sir William Burrill, late of the Yard, who was the younger son of a younger son with far-off expectations of an inheritance, but unexpectedly succeeded to baronetcy. So he retired holding the rank Detective Superintendent and retreated to the family seat, Scawdel Hall, where he dedicates his time to fishing, shooting, stamp collection, writing a standard work on criminology and maintaining "a full-bodied beard," which had been "born and nursed to maturity during the long watches of 1914-1918" – while mine-sweeping in the North Sea. Sir William is accompanied in The Marloe Mansions Murders by his fair, blue eyed and clean shaven nephew, Robert "Bobby" Burrill, who wears a patch over his right eye. A souvenir from "a very gallant performance some years ago by one Temporary Second-Lieutenant R. Burrill." The ghosts of the First World War lurk in the dark and shadowy corners of the story.

Sir Burrill enters the story not as a detective, but as a stamp collector who goes to Marloe Mansions, London, to see Ganthony Slyne (a villainous name, if there ever was one) on some rare postage stamps. But when they arrive, the elevator door opened to reveal the huddled and bloodied remains of Slyne!

They immediately notify Scotland Yard and Inspector Ellershaw is dispatched to Marloe Mansions, but when they go to investigate the victim's apartment, plunged in darkness, Ellershaw "vanished as completely as if the earth had opened and swallowed him." The hall door had been locked behind them and all the windows were securely fastened on the inside, which makes his disappearance next to impossible without him being hidden somewhere. Ellershaw is nowhere to be found... until his body turns up in an unlikely place somewhere else in the building.

So the investigation, and style, of the story is split in two parts: Bobby is chasing the mystery woman of the story, Miss Sheelagh Vaile, who was seen leaving the building right after the body was discovered and Bobby is determined to clear her of every ounce of suspicion – which is easier said than done because Miss Vaile believes she killed Slyne. This is mostly done behind the backs of Sir William and Inspector Brett. Bobby's share of the story is, for the most part, a typical and mild thriller of the period with the only jarring note being Bobby threatening to torture information from a suspect using a red hot poker. You rarely come across such scenes in a traditional detective and, despite its thriller-ish trappings, The Marloe Mansions Murder is very much a traditional detective story.

Sir William stays behind with Inspector Brett to continue the investigation and he does some surprising scientific detective work. Such as determining whether a tiny hole in one of the window panes was drilled from the outside or the inside and there was a clever piece of trick photography, which felt a little out of place, or time, but special effects are almost as old as photography itself. So it feels out of place/time because it's not very often used in these vintage mysteries. A second point in favor of the plot is the locked room-trick, which is crude and clunky by Golden Age standards, but not as crude and clunky as a secret passage or "one of those fantastic doors of fiction" with hinged and movable frames. The locked room idea is much better than that and somewhat ahead of its time, because it would be another 70-80 years until two locked room artisans used this idea to its full potential.

I don't want to overpraise The Marloe Mansions Murder too much, because it's a very minor detective novel and, on a whole, the book is nothing more than an amusing curiosity, but it gives you the idea its better than it really is. The opening chapters braced the reader for a lurid, badly dated thriller with detective interruptions and half-expected, based on a bloody print of a mutilated hand, the murderer to be a disfigured WWI veteran who Slyne had hidden away from the world and it would place a line from the prologue ("Am I so repellent?") in a very different light – only it turned out to be a detective novel with a few thriller-ish interruptions. I don't think the eventual solution will blow anyone away and it's not particularly well clued, but those final lines were genuinely sad and tragic.

So, yeah, The Marloe Mansions Murder is an old-fashioned and uneven, but interesting, curiosity from the 1920s that is perhaps best read as a transitional mystery novel with some good and fresh ideas and two detective characters who stand out. But it was mostly handled and presented as a crude turn-of-the-century dime novel, which will never make it anymore than that. Nonetheless, I might still try one of his two 1930s novels, The Case of Matthew Crake (1932) and Death Stalked the Fells (1937).

A note for the curious: a plot linking a harmless hobby, like stamp collecting, to the horrors of the First World War is unusual, but it was done successfully in Harriette Ashbrook's A Most Immoral Murder (1935).


Handle with Care (1948) by A.R. Brent

Alfred Rodrigues-Brent was a Dutch-Portuguese journalist, a World War II resistance fighter and, like Rex Stout, a World Federalist who wrote a detective novel and at least two short stories, "De dame in the rij" ("The Lady in the Queue") and "Moord in den morgen" ("Murder in the Morning") – published in the nondescript Detective Magazine. An obscure, short-lived publication from the late 1940s, but have been unable to locate these short stories anywhere. Fortunately, it was a lot easier to obtain an affordable copy of Brent's sole detective novel.

Voorzichtig behandelen (Handle with Care, 1948) is, as far as I can tell, the only recorded case of Chief Inspector Albert Joosten, of the Rijksrecherche (National Department of Criminal Investigation), who resembles "a well-fed baker" with a huge blind spot for official procedure and red tape. Joosten has a very personal and unorthodox methods that had raised some eyebrows in the higher echelons of the Dutch police apparatus, but even his superiors couldn't deny that, every now and then, his methods "produced brilliant results." So why get rid of a difficult, but excellent, police detective when you can simply add a little correction. A correction that came in the guise of an ambitious and promising young policeman, Inspector Sterck, but there's no animosity, or rivalry, between Joosten and Sterck. And when the story opens, Joosten admitted to the reader he had already succeeded in winning over the young inspector and, more or less, "bend him to his will."

Handle with Care begins with two longshoremen loading cargo from a ship onto a rail car when one of them notices a crate, marked "VOORZICHTIG BEHANDELEN," with three bullet holes in it.

Chief Inspector Joosten personally comes down to the docks to oversee the opening of the crate and discover the body of a woman, wrapped in a piece of tarp, who had cracked her skull in "the way an eggshell is smashed with a spoon" and she been dead for some time – somewhere between eight and fourteen days. So what about the bullet holes and, more importantly, who was the victim? What follows are excerpts from the autopsy report, chemical analyzes and answers to request for information from all over Europe, but much more amusing was Sterck's short excursion to France.

The crate had been shipped from Cannes, France, where Sterck's northern frame of mind and logic struggled with the southern logic of the French police. They were entrenched in their opinion that Sterck's "countrymen had abused French hospitality to settle their disputes on French soil" and "the possibility that any French citizens were involved was rejected out of hand." And this is why not being French is the foundation stone of Dutch and British identity.

Anyway, the body remained unidentified and, without any further leads, the case is temporarily shelved until new information or clues come to light.

So with an opening, like that, I expected this longer than usual detective novel to be Brent's take on Freeman Wills Crofts' massive debut novel, The Cask (1920), but the second part of the story was not, what you would call, a typical humdrum affair and strongly reminded me of a certain French mystery novel – namely Gaston Boca's Les invités de minuit (The Seventh Guest, 1935). The crate, one of many, came from the French villa of the elderly Otto van Everdingen and contained his household effects that were shipped to villa in the Netherlands. Van Everdingen had planned to permanently move back to his home country, but died before he could and now his relatives have gathered at his Dutch villa to divide the inheritance. They represent branches of two different families, Van Everdingen and Harms van Beuningen, who were tied by two or three marriages. Admittedly, the family ties can be a little confusing at times, especially in the beginning, which is not helped by a mistake in the family tree on the first page. According to the family tree, Frits remarried Marie's second husband, Gerard Voortman, which would have been a good fifty years ahead of its time. So my advise is to just read the story to get a handle on who's who.

When the family patriarch passed away, "the monarchy changed into a family republic" and that would have been difficult enough without a string of bizarre, inexplicable and ghostly incidents happening at the villa. A piece of paper appears in the middle of a room with "I wish to know where I stand, tonight. I will not be mocked" written on it, while other letters disappear as easily as they reappear. Strange laughter is heard and suitcases are searched. There are only two possible explanations: either one of them is searching for something or someone has gained access to the village and is creeping around them like "some kind of invisible man." Sadly, the closest Brent came to including a full-fledged impossibility is when the intruder was spotted in a hallway and vanished, but this situation is almost immediately explained. And hardly qualifies as an impossible crime.

Joosten reenters the picture when, in the middle of the night, a painting is torn off the wall and burned, which could have set the whole house on fire, but he struggles with the plethora of incidents and mysteries facing him – which reaches it boiling point when one of them is nearly beaten to death. On the up side, these incidents finally revealed to him the identity of the dead woman in the crate and how her murder is tied to the people in the house... and the unseen prowler. This is also the point where the strength and weaknesses of the story became apparent.

So let's begin with the good: the plot comprised of many loose and moving parts, often operating independently, which could have easily resulted in an absolute mess, but Brent remained in full control and provided logical and rational answers to every single plot-thread. Some of the answers were very clever indeed. Such as why Otto Jr. gave Winnifred Smit the cold shoulder when they were reunited at the villa or why there were bullet holes in the crate, which was preceded by a false solution to the problem. The murderer was skillfully hidden and, while I spotted this character, it's the kind of revelation you hope to find in a vintage detective novel. Even if you anticipate it with a quarter, or so, of the story left to go.

On the downside, Handle with Care missed the polish of a more experienced mystery writer and the last leg of the story, in particular, was entirely absorbed by tying up all the loose ends, false solutions and eliminating suspects. Somewhat of a recommendation to Ellery Queen loyalists, but it can become tedious and the dated, old-fashioned writing style slackened my reading pace, which sometimes made it feel like those last dozen chapters never ended – taking some shine of an otherwise excellent detective novel. Another drawback diminishing, what should have been, a grand revelation is the patchwork nature of the plot. A plot driven by misunderstood actions and incidents. A shrewd use of a series of misunderstandings and incidents, but you expect something much grander from the premise. I can't help but wonder what the plot could have been in the hands of an expert plotter and master stylist (like John Dickson Carr).

Nevertheless, Brent spins a great deal of complexity around an ultimately simple situation and its always a pleasure to come across an authentic Golden Age detective novel written in my own language. Regardless of some of its shortcomings, Handle with Care is one of half-a-dozen Dutch detective novels I unhesitatingly recommend as a candidate to be translated. Most of its (stylistic) flaws can easily be ironed out in a modern translation. So, yeah, recommended with some very minor reservations.

A note for curious: if you're curious about my other recommendations... M.P.O. Books' De laatste kans (The Last Chance, 2011) is one of the best Dutch whodunits with one of the all-time greatest clue that you either immediately spot or miss completely. Books also wrote two excellent locked room mysteries, Een afgesloten huis (A Sealed House, 2013) and De man die zijn geweten ontlastte (The Man Who Relieved His Conscience, 2019; published as by Anne van Doorn). Cor Docter wrote three pure detective novels in the early 1970s that were structured as a whodunit, a locked room mystery and a dying message. Droeve poedel in Delfshaven (Sad Poodle in Delfshaven, 1970) is a superb whodunit, but can't remember why I changed the title to Melancholic Poodle in Delfshaven in 2012. I suppose “sad” didn't really fit the story. Koude vrouw in Kralingen (Cold Woman in Kralingen, 1970) gives the reader an entirely new locked room situation with an original solution that I've seen before or since again. Rein geheim op rijksweg 13 (Pure Secrecy on Highway 13, 1971) is a solid ending to the Commissioner Vissering trilogy. Eugenius Quak's Gruwelijk is het huwelijk (Marriage is gruesome, 2017) would be a challenge to translate, but a pleasantly weird blend of the modern (style) and classic (plot) detective story. Ted O'Sickens' De man die 'n paar maal vermoord was (The Man Who Had Been Murdered a Few Times, 1942) is very minor, but spirited, detective story with a literary relative of Dr. Gideon Fell playing the role of Great Detective. I also give my vote to (new) translations for Bertus Aafjes and A.C. Baantjer.


Dessert with Bullets (1954) by W.H. van Eemlandt

Willem Hendrik Haasse was a civil servant in the Dutch East Indies and spend the duration of the Second World War interned in a Japanese prison camp, but, after the occupation ended, briefly returned to his old position – until ill health forced him to return to the Netherlands. Haasse retired in 1950 and began to write detective novels in the Anglo-American tradition at the age of 64! And he produced them at a prodigious rate.

Under the penname of "W.H. van Eemlandt," Haasse penned no less than a dozen detective novels during a three year period, between 1953 and 1955. Four more novels were published posthumously with the last two based on unfinished manuscripts that were completed by Hella Haasse and Joop van den Broek. Hella Haasse was his daughter an an accomplished novelist in her own right, which is why her father adopted a pseudonym. Van den Broek was the author of the first Dutch hardboiled thriller, Parels voor Nadra (Pearls for Nadra, 1953).

I've been aware of Van Eemlandt's Commissioner Arend van Houthem series for years, but, somehow, he never made it to my to-be-read pile until I recently coming across two comments describing Kogels bij het dessert (Dessert with Bullets, 1954) as a variation on the locked room mystery on par with Carter Dickson – which is enough to catch my full attention. A second and closer scrutiny of Van Eemlandt revealed that he was quite an traditionalist, old-school mystery novelist who appeared to have been the Dutch S.S. van Dine or Ellery Queen. But now that I've read Dessert with Bullets, I can only group him with the members of the much maligned British "humdrum" school of Freeman Wills Crofts and John Rhode. Dessert with Bullets particularly reminded me of Victor MacClure's Death Behind the Door (1933) and Raymond Robins' Murder at Bayside (1933). So let's take a look at the plot.

Commissioner Van Houthem, of the Amsterdam police, is invited to a homely dinner with his wife at the home of a respected notary, Mr. Arnold Baerling, who wanted to add the Commissioner of Police to his already interesting list of dinner guests.

Eduard Després is a world traveler, financial speculator and an old friend of Baerling, who's in the country for a few days, which netted him an invitation to the dinner, but he brought along his latest girlfriend, Madame Zadova – who works as a commercial artist in Paris. Evert van Hooghveldt is a young lawyer and a criminology student who's engaged to Baerling's niece, Betty Gertling. Bert Verdoorn is "the writer of extremely exciting detective novels" and is accompanied to the dinner by his wife. Baerling assures Van Houthem they're all good company to spent an evening with, but the conversation during the dinner party quickly goes to murder. And the difference between theory and practice.

Van Houthem guarantees the table that even "the cleverest writer of detective novels" would find himself neck deep in trouble "when we confront him with reality," because the moment the police arrives on the scene, "the facts are immutably fixed." The image that the investigator sees is real, "even if that reality seems to contain deceptive suggestions." The murderer, unlike a mystery writer, can't go back to alter the facts, or change what he has said, once murder has been done. It's those facts, jumbled as they may be, that will be "scrutinized, disentangled, analyzed and cross referenced with other clues" until "every fiber of the intricate pattern has been examined." So an amateur murderer stands no chance against such an experienced, well-oiled machine as the police, which is an opinion that will be seriously tested that same evening.

After dinner, the table was cleared for coffee and sweets (dessert) and Després offered to get a box of cigars from Baerling's private office, but, as the coffee is poured, two gunshots are heard followed a more muffled noise – as if somewhere a door was slammed shut. Van Houthem needs 10 seconds to get to the office where he finds Després body with two very neat bullet wounds in his forehead and the balcony door had been forced open. So, on first sight, it appears as if Després surprised a burglar who was taking a crack at the office safe, but this hypothesis collapsed when all of the known facts are considered. And what emerges is somewhat of an impossible crime.

Firstly, the balcony door had been forced when it was unlocked and the murderer didn't have enough time, between firing the shots and Van Houthem's arrival, to collect the shell casings and disappear, which is only 10-15 seconds. Secondly, the shots, according to medical examiner, "had been fired with near supernatural precision" and that murderer must have had "a perfectly steady hand," because the shots were aimed at exactly the same point. Only reason why there were two bullet holes, instead of one with two bullets, is that Després was walking when he was shot.

Van Eemlandt once said that "I expect intelligence from my readers" and he respected it here by acknowledging the machine-like nature of the shooting, but the possible presence of a deadly gadget only makes the murder even more of possibility. Such a device would have needed to be mounted onto something, which should have visible left traces, but none were found. What happened to it right after the shooting, because the murderer had no opportunity to dispose of it. Nearly everyone was alibied by Van Houthem with exception of Verdoorn, who was on the toilet with indigestion, but he could only have gotten rid of the gun, or a device, by eating it or flushing it – neither of which is the case. So here we have a murder in an unlocked room that time and opportunity turned into a tightly sealed room.

Van Houthem's investigation runs along two different tracks: working out the exact circumstances of the shooting and sorting out the sordid past of the villainous victim, which furnishes the plot with a classic motive. This is done in the slow, methodical pace of the humdrum school in which every inch and possibility of the case is closely examined and tested. I know the humdrum school is not popular with everyone (Hi, Kate), but, if you're more interested in the intellectual machinations of the detective rather than his private life, or personal music taste, you'll enjoy being able to observe the inner-workings of Van Houthem's mind as he struggles with the problem. A 220-page mental catch-as-catch-can wrestling match between common sense and the lying truth.

Interestingly, the first and second chapter immediately suggest an obvious solution, but a solution that makes no sense on account of the apparent randomness of the shooting. For example, the murderer couldn't possibly have known it would be Després who went into the office to get the cigars, but who would want to kill Baerling? So the lion's share of the investigation is done in clearing up this picture and the effect was very pleasing with the highlight being the answer why the room had to be physically unlocked. Van Houthem acknowledged that the murder could have been presented as a classic locked room scenario with all the doors and windows locked on the inside, but there was a very sound reason why the murderer didn't do this.

So, yes, the murderer is obvious from the beginning with the plot hinging on getting a clear picture of what exactly happened, why it happened, and how to prove it. You'll find the same approach in MacClure, Rhode and Robins.

But even with the murderer standing out, I half-suspected the mystery writer, Verdoorn, who could have used a homemade, double-barreled, revolver (no shell casings) that he disassembled on the toilet and disguised the loose parts as "pocket litter" – such as pens, a lighter, matchbox, etc. Some of the small parts could even be mixed with the coins in his wallet. The actual locked room-trick, of the unlocked room, is perhaps a little contentious in nature. Van Eemlandt didn't cheat and fairly clued the solution, but, stylistically, I can see why some readers might feel cheated and cry foul. And other readers simply don't like this type of locked room-trick.

Either way, I personally liked Dessert with Bullets as an original, but tricky, take on both the locked room mystery and the British humdrum school, which makes it all the better that it was penned by a Dutchman. I can't help but feel proud whenever I come across a Dutch detective novel that can stand with its American-Anglo counterparts. So you can expect Van Eemlandt to make a return to this blog sometime in the near future. I already have Moord met muziek (Murder with Music, 1954) on the big pile and have my eyes on Arabeske in purper (Arabesque in purple, 1953), Dood in schemer (Death at Dusk, 1954), Zwarte kunst (Black Art, 1955) and Duister duel (Dark Duel, 1955).


The Purple Onion Mystery (1941) by Harriette Ashbrook

A year ago, Black Heath resurrected the long-forgotten, criminally underappreciated Harriette Ashbrook by republishing her Spike Tracy series of seven novels, originally published between 1930 and 1941, which can now be marked as one of the best and most consistent bodies of work of the American detective story – sporting clever plots, lively characters and originality. Some of her novels were a good decade ahead of their time and likely contributed to her breakneck plunge into obscurity.

Ashbrook began conventionally enough with The Murder of Cecily Thane (1930) and The Murder of Steven Kester (1931), which are lighthearted takes on the Van Dine-Queen School, but The Murder of Sigurd Sharon (1933) was both a game changer and a rule breaker. An original piece of detective fiction praised by both Nick Fuller and John Norris. A Most Immoral Murder (1935) is a relatively minor detective story, but with a moving and original motive. Ashbrook reached her zenith with the superb Murder Makes Murder (1937) and the excellent Murder Comes Back (1940). This brings me to the last title in the series.

I approached The Purple Onion Mystery (1941) with some trepidation because it's the only title in the series that has gotten decidedly negative or lukewarm comments and reviews.

Mike Grost "thought it was awful" and a contemporary reviewer called it "tame game," which made me suspect that the series was going to end with a whimper instead of a bang, but now that I've read The Purple Onion Mystery, I can describe it as a very fitting end to the series – as it incorporated elements from all of the previous novels. The Purple Onion Mystery takes the same good natured, lighthearted approach to the Van Dine-Queen detective story as The Murder of Cecily Thane and The Murder of Steven Kester, but with an original motive and backstory as dark and serious as those found in A Most Immoral Murder, Murder Makes Murder and Murder Comes Back. So it turned out to be a better and stronger conclusion than expected!

The Purple Onion Mystery finds our playboy detective, Spike Tracy, drunk and hijacking a taxicab, as part of a drinking game, with a young couple inside and wakes up the following morning in the apartment of Cassie Framp. A middle-aged woman who shares the place with another woman, Miss Anne Penton, who was in the taxicab. Cassie cooks him a fine breakfast and would have been the end of a fun night in the city, but then "the long arm of coincidence" is stretched "from here to hell and back again."

Inspector Herschman, chief of the New York homicide squad, calls on Spike and pressures him into taking charge of a red hot murder case. Spike is not only given full reign over the investigation, but pretty much spends the whole case impersonating a police officer and never bothers to correct people who think he's a real policeman. I'm not jealous. Just disgusted with a world in which this isn't an actual possibility. I would make a great amateur detective!

The murder in question is that of Lina Lee, "beautiful and crooked," who was the personal secretary of the president of Penton Press, Felix Penton. Lina Lee had been shot in her office, where she lay over the weekend, but, when her body was finally discovered, two people have unaccountably disappeared – namely Felix Penton and Stanley Bishop. Their names appear in the logbook of Friday evening together with that of Helen Martin. A character who's "trying to act like a 'mystery woman' in a detective story" and she's not the only one to assume that role. One of the main characters has an almost unearthly link with mysterious veiled woman, dressed in all black, who "always appeared like a deus ex machina" to extricate him from a dire situation. The first time happened on the Western front of the First World War. A very well done plot-thread that was neatly tied to the solution.

It's not just the parade of vanished, incapacitated, lying and ghost-like suspects and witnesses making things needlessly difficult for Spike, but the physical clues, such as emerald jewelry, jagged pieces of paper and a little purple-skinned onion, tell a muddled story. They actually turn out to be supporting evidence with all the tell-tale clues hidden in the characterization and dialogue (very Christie-like) that revealed a rare kind of criminal (ROT13: n fvyrag fgnyxre/yhexre qevira gb zheqre).

However, if you've read the previous novels and have some idea how Ashbrook's mind worked when she plotted her detective stories, you can instinctively guess the murderer's identity and motive with the rest of the story filling in the blanks. A bit of a double-edged sword since you can only truly appreciate The Purple Onion Mystery, if you have read the previous novels. You almost get the idea Ashbrook wrote it as a fond farewell to her readers as she began to move away from the detective story to try her hands at writing suspense thrillers as "Susannah Shane."

So, no, The Purple Onion Mystery is not the best detective novel Ashbrook produced during her too short career, but it's still a very readable, solidly plotted and fitting end to the series with a plot drawing on previous novels – like a band playing its greatest hits. If I have anything to complain, it's that Patsy didn't return to play Jeff and Haila Troy with Spike. Something that was vaguely alluded to in Murder Comes Back. Otherwise, The Purple Onion Mystery comes especially recommended to fans of the series, but readers new to Ashbrook are advised to begin at an earlier point.


The Body Vanishes (1976) by Jacquemard-Sénécal

Yves Jacquemard and Jean-Michel Sénécal were French actors and playwrights who first met at the lycée (high school), where they formed a dramatic society, but they didn't start writing plays together until 1963 and collaborated on a handful of detective novels in the 1970s – published under the name "Jacquemard-Sénécal." A collaboration that only ended with Jacquemard's passing in 1980.

Two of their novels have been translated into English: Le crime de la maison Grün (translated as The Body Vanishes, 1976) and Le onziéme petit nègre (translated as The Eleventh Little Indian, 1977). The latter has been widely praised as "a loving homage" to Agatha Christie and "a good old-fashioned style detective novel," while the former accidentally wandered onto my locked room mystery wishlist. John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, got confused in his 2012 review and described the second murder as an impossible crime "that John Dickson Carr might have dreamed up." But it's not an impossible crime story.

I've not read The Eleventh Little Indian, but The Vanishing Body can also be described as a tribute to the Queen of the Crime with the clueing, red herrings and the main plot components obviously drawing inspiration from some of Christie most well-known and lesser-known mystery novels – disguised as a conversational, typically continental, roman policier (police novel). So the story reads more like Ngaio Marsh than Christie, but the plot and solution possess all the ingenuity of the latter.

The Body Vanishes takes place in Strasbourg, on the French-German border, where in the early hours of a Friday morning "a bundle of white rags" is discovered floating near the river bank. A closer look revealed the bundle to be the body of young, red-haired woman entangled in the tall reeds by the river's edge, but, when Superintendent Lancelot Dullac arrives, "the dead woman had disappeared." However, the people who had spotted the body recognized Dyana Pasquier in the red-haired corpse dressed in a tight-fitting white blouse and long black skirt.

Dyana Pasquier is engaged to the son from "a family one hundred percent Strasbourgeois," Denis Grün, who live together (in sin) on the second floor of the old Alsatian mansion belonging to his imposing father, Wotan Grün, and his much younger stepmother, Edwige. Wotan is a fine-art bookbinder and a seller of rare books in the original binding, which he had either restored or were entirely his own work, but in both cases they were considered objets d'art of great beauty – allowing him to maintain a large house and cultivate an artistic reputation. So when Dullac visits Wotan to ask when he last seen Dyana, they discover her body in Wotan's locked and burglarized workroom. A million francs worth of antiquarian books and quite a quantity of gold leaf were missing.

I can understand why The Body Vanishes could be mistaken as a locked room mystery, because the disappearing, and reappearing, body is presented as an impossibility. Dullac even hypothesizes that the body could have been brought in through the open, but shuttered, window by slipping "a knife-blade between the two panels and jerk the crossbar up." A trick that can be used in reverse to latch the shutters on the inside, but, as you'll eventually discover, The Body Vanishes is not a locked room mystery. It's a pure, Agatha Christie-style whodunit with a cleverly hidden motive and diabolical murderer.

But to get to the good parts, you have to sit through a lengthy series of interviews with all the suspects and witnesses. Something of a rut in every detective story that Brad, of Ah, Sweet Mystery, has affectionately dubbed "dragging the marsh" in honor of Ngaio Marsh. She usually divided her detective novels in two parts: a prelude to the murder followed by a series of interviews with all the suspects.

During these interviews, a solid 100 of 170 pages, Dullac talks with the Grün family that includes Wotan's independent minded daughter, Claire, who regular takes sides with her brother against their father – who complains to Dullac that "one's a red and the other's an anarchist." So there were regular verbal clashes at the Grün home, but Dullac also has to talk with the various members of a discussion group headed by Wotan. A group who had recently rebelled against him and lost. Another thing emerging from these talks is that Wotan has, or had, in his possession an ancient tome that holds the secret of how to transmute lead into gold! But the main point of this big chunk of conversations is to establish that all of the important characters have, what appears to be, unshakable alibis.

Towards the end of the middle, The Body Vanishes gets back on track with an attempted murder, some theorizing with a false solution and a second murder disguised as suicide, which culminates with Dullac gathering everyone at the Grün house. Where he seems to accuse people, left and right, until he reveals the fiendish plot behind the murder. An elaborate and fantastic solution full with sneaky alibis, secret alliances and a hidden motive, which strikes a jarringly false note with the dull middle portion that immediately preceded it.

I can see why Jacquemard-Sénécal decided to take this approach, because it has an artistic and challenging appeal to try and hide a fantastical, almost Grand Guignol-style, plot inside a humdrum police novel, but it has two drawbacks that will keep it from a classic status – one of them being the slow pace of the middle portion. It gives you the feeling that you're reading a book twice its length. The second drawback is that the ending seems a bit too much and contrived coming right after that middle portion. Just imagine being fed a scrumptious three-course gourmet meal after you've lived on dry crackers and water for months. Surely, it will be absolutely delicious, but perhaps also a bit too mighty in taste. That's how the ending impressed me.

Nevertheless, if you can take the Marsh-style procedure with the Christie-like plot, The Body Vanishes stands as an extremely clever and warm tribute to the most iconic mystery writer from the genre's Golden Age.