Sleightly Invisible (1986) by Patrick A. Kelley

Back in March, I reviewed the third novel in Patrick A. Kelley's short-lived Harry Colderwood series, Sleightly Lethal (1986), which comprises of five novels about a poor, down-on-his-luck magician who moonlights as a private detective with the characters and milieus fitting the fan-and popculture themed mysteries – which proliferated during the 1980s. A period highlighted in my review of Anthony Oliver's The Elberg Collection (1985).

There are, however, two big differences between the Harry Colderwood books and other fan-and popculture themed mystery novels from that decade.

Firstly, Kelley's plots tend to be razor thin with very little adherence to the traditional detective story and appear to lack any interest in developing (new) locked room/impossible crime ideas, which marked these eighties reimagining of the fair play detective story. Such as Bill Pronzini's Hoodwink (1981) and Richard Purtill's Murdercon (1982). Secondly, Kelley obviously wrote this series with a TV deal in mind with the stories designed for small screen adaptation. From the uncomplicated, easy to follow plots to the not quite stock, but still colorful, characters (clowns, psychics and magicians), settings and scene-driven narratives. The series was written like an '80s crime drama and it would surprise me if it wasn't shopped around the networks. 

So the books are fast and fun to read, but the plots won't leave a lasting impressi on on you. This was true for Sleightly Lethal and it will be the same story with Sleightly Invisible (1986).

Sleightly Lethal attracted my attention with its intriguing cover and brief plot description, "it was murder, not magic, that put a dead clown in a locked safe," but it couldn't be further away from an impossible crime and Sleightly Invisible promised one of those séance mysteries with a missing coed as "the star of the seance" – murder is "the uninvited guest." So, in combination with the suggestive cover, it was not unreasonable to expect something in the spirit of John Sladek's Black Aura (1974) or Peter Lovesey's A Case of Spirits (1975). Well, that wasn't the case. Oh, there were fraudulent psychics with an ending staged around a séance, but, by that the time, the story had morphed into something more in line with Sharyn McCrumb's Bimbos of the Death (1987). Cover and short synopsis were made and worded to sucker in readers like me.

The story opens with Harry Colderwood performing street magic on the sidewalks of small, entertainment starved town, where he was passing through when his van broke down, but his act is sabotaged. And the culprit is his old nemesis, Birch Osborne. An ex-mentalist who, ten years ago, came very close to cashing in on Colderwood's $10,000 open challenge "to anyone who could demonstrate paranormal powers." Osborne had mocked "the laws of probability to the tune of three million to one," under close scrutiny of witnesses and cameras, when he named every card in a shuffled ESP deck in the exact order. For a whole day, the newspaper had celebrated Colderwood's defeat and it had taken him that much time to duplicate the mind reading stunt, which allowed him to stop payment on the check.

But while Colderwood's career went into a tailspin, Osborne won the lottery and voluntarily withdrew from the spotlight to live under his real name, James Cassileth, as a financial adviser. Now someone is trying to pin a serious crime on him.

One week before, a grad student in psychology, Chana Coolidge, had been kidnapped from her college library and clues were scant, but the story really heated up when her father arrived in town with his own hired help, Virginia Porter – an old and experienced hand at the psychic game. She brought her assistant and background investigator, George Zimbardo, who unearths "scraps of information that Porter can pretend to have psychically divined." Porter gave a TV interview in which she gave an uncharacteristically detailed description of the kidnapper. A description of Osborne and there are more clues that someone is trying to lead the police to his doorstep.

Osborne was very persuasive in convincing Colderwood to take the case and he discovers two important things: Chana's was doing a class project on behavior modification with the "ironclad stipulation" that "the subject of the experiment must be informed that he is the subject," but Chana had confided to her professor that she hadn't informed her subject. And now she was afraid of him. She had only submitted the title of her paper, The Game Player. Second thing coming to his attention is an experimental new hybrid game, Ultra, combining "the strategy of board games with the physical skills of sports" with costumed players being chased through a maze, based on computer-fed commands, while "shooting at each other with infrared-emitting gun" – dressed in the aesthetics of a fictitious fantasy series, The Zon Universe. So pretty much a cosplay version of 1980s Photon Laser Tag.

Admittedly, the internet aspect of the game seems a little ahead of its time, but suppose it was possible with sending short text commands and the maze provided the story with two of its best set pieces. Colderwood decides to investigate the Ultra game after closing hours and ends being chased through the maze by someone in lizard suit and a very real gun. Later he decides to stage the séance there, but more than that can't be said about the plot. Simply because there's not much more to tell.

You barely notice how little movement there's in the plot and even a late murder of an important character (shot with an arrow) goes by practically unnoticed, because you'll have reached the ending when you finally catch on how threadbare the plot really is. So he definitely knew how to tell a yarn and showed he understood with plotting with the clues he planted that hinted at what was happening, and why, but choose to keep things as simple and uncomplicated as possible. One of the reasons why I suspect he wrote the series with a TV deal in mind and perhaps knew the 1970s Ellery Queen TV series was canceled because (according to co-creator William Link) was too complicated for its own good. So he went in the opposite direction. I wonder if the failure of NBC's 1986 Blacke's Magic spoiled things for Kelley and Colderwood.

So, on a whole, Kelley's Sleightly Invisible was not necessarily a bad read, but it was very bland without anything to recommend unless you have a special interest in fiction featuring magic and magicians. I can also imagine people who grew up during the '80s and were deep into some kind of fandom/culture would get a nostalgic rush out of this series. Everyone else is advised not to break their piggy bank to obtain copies.


Sudden Death (1932) by Freeman Wills Crofts

This year, the Collins Crime Club imprint, of HarperCollins, reissued six long out-of-print novels by Freeman Wills Crofts in two batches of three with the second batch comprising of Mystery on Southampton Water (1934), Crime at Guildford (1935) and the novel that has been on my wishlist for ages, Sudden Death (1932) – which is Crofts' take on my beloved locked room mystery. Inspector Joseph French has build a reputation on being "invariably sceptical of alibis" and breaking them down with painstaking work and dogged determination. Sudden Death demonstrated French is as adept at tearing down locked rooms as he is at disassembling faked alibis with no less than two impossible murders coming his way!

Sudden Death also showed Crofts could be more, if he wanted to be, than a plot-technician with the story's viewpoint alternating between French and a young woman, Anne Day.

Anne had spent most of her early life in an old Gloucester parsonage attending her reclusive, scholarly father, Reverend Latimer Day, but when he passed away, she was left homeless with "an income of barely thirty pounds a year" – only lucky enough to find a job as a companion to an elderly lady. But when she died, a then 28-year-old Anne was forced back to the registry offices of London with no special qualifications while "shoes and gloves, and latterly even food and lodging" becoming "more and more hideously insistent problems." One day, Anne is offered a position in the home of Severus Grinsmead to help his sick, semi-invalid wife, Sybil, run the household. A well paid position with a very generous advance. Naturally, not everything is as rosy as it seems.

Surprisingly, coming from Crofts, there's a hint of The Had-I-But-Known School in the opening chapter with the line "had she known all that awaited her at Ashbridge," she "might well have drawn back in dismay" from "the agonies of fear and horror and suspense which she was fated to endure with the Grinsmeads."

Sybil is a sickly, cold and deeply suspicious woman and it takes Anne some time to gain her confidence, but she didn't need it to understand that the relationship between husband-and-wife resembles that of an armed truce between two hostile nations. Sybil is aware her husband is having an affair with the local grass widow, Irene Holt-Lancing, which convinced her that they want her dead and biding their time for the right moment – ensuring Anne there will be an accident or "it may look like suicide." Puzzling, Anne becomes privy of evidence and information both confirming and contradicting Sybil's deadly fears. I think False Impressions would have been a better title than Sudden Death, because it fits so many aspects of the plot and story.

Nevertheless, not everything is laden with impending doom or suspicion. Anne comes to find out that the governess to the Grinsmead children, Edith Cheame, shares a similar life story to her own and that Severus Grinsmead's mother is not quite as stiff or censorious as Sybil made her out to be. She also strikes up a friendship with the children and gets on with the chauffeur/gardener like a house on fire. So she could almost forget her employers unhappy marriage, infidelity and suspicion, but that all changes one morning when Anne went to her bedroom to bring her tea. Anne's knocking remained unanswered by the invitational click of the electric, push-button operated bolt. She then noticed that there was "an odd smell of gas" in the corridor and quickly realized "gas was simply pouring out" of the keyhole of Sybil's room. A hammer and chisel were needed to demolish the lock and open the solid door, but help had arrived too late. Inspector Kendal, of the local police, goes over the room with a fine tooth comb, but finds "an enclosed affair" that "you couldn't very well temper with." So concludes it was a suicide and that's the verdict at the inquest.

There are, however, some minor details bothering Kendal and Scotland Yard assigned Inspector Joseph French to the case to go over all the details again and give them a second opinion. I suppose this is where people who dislike Crofts will very likely stop liking Sudden Death.

Crofts tried to write a novel of character (singular) with Anne Day as in the lead during the first third of the story, but French's thorough and painstaking investigation of the locked room problem proved his heart lay with the nuts and bolts of the plot – coming up with a number of ways to gas someone behind a locked door. My fellow impossible crime enthusiast and Crofts aficionado, "JJ” of The Invisible Event, suggests in his review that "dazzling array of options" can be counted as "a Locked Room Lecture that predates that of The Hollow Man (1935) by John Dickson Carr," but Crofts is "less showy" about it. For once, I've to agree with JJ. Crofts doesn't break the fourth wall to acknowledge the reader and it's not presented as a lecture, but it can be read as a proto-Locked Room Lecture. Something that will no doubt please anyone with a special affinity for impossible crime fiction.

Another thing that occurred to me while reading is Crofts might have created the most convincing and believable of all so-called fallible detectives. Anthony Berkeley usually made an ass out of Roger Sheringham (e.g. Jumping Jenny, 1934) and Ellery Queen too angsty (e.g. Ten Days' Wonder, 1948), but Crofts created a competent, intelligent and imaginative Scotland Yard inspector, which are admirable qualities, but they come without cast-iron guarantees of success attached to them. French is not an enigmatic detective who can deduce the truth from a bowl of daffodils or the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime, but he does use the Sherlockian inspired method of rejecting the impossible and "see what is left." A thorough, painstaking process of elimination and fine-tuning of possibilities that has many dead ends and constant second guessing whether, or not, he was building his theories on "an foundation of sand." And it was a nice touch by making French sink his teeth in the case with a future chief inspectorship in the back of his mind.

You can, however, argue French came up a little short on this occasion with only a second death preventing a terrible mistake when one of his main suspects committed suicide in a room with all the doors and windows locked, or fastened, on the inside – forcing him to go back to the drawing board and start over again. So how good is Sudden Death as a locked room mystery novel with its two murders-disguised-as-suicides in completely locked rooms? Well, not too badly!
The solution to Sybil's murder in her locked bedroom is, to my knowledge, original and don't believe it has been used since, but, as you can probably guess, the trick is a technical, semi-mechanical nature. Not everyone is going to like it. The solution to the second impossibility is an old dodge of the locked room story, but it was put to good use and provided the story with a last clue to the murderer's identity. So, on balance, Sudden Death is not a classic of its kind, but as a good and solid take on the impossible crime novel. And not one that should be solely judged on the content of its locked rooms.

Crofts was one of the often maligned, so-called humdrum writers who were more interested in the how than the who-and why, which means that their murderers tend to be easily spotted. I wrongly assumed that the case here, but the murderer and motive were cleverly hidden with "the closed room as a blind." Crofts knew what makes a sound plot tick and that makes it the more baffling he left a small aspect of the first locked room murder unexplained. I can accept that from a mystery writer who's more interested in character or storytelling or a second-stringer, but the Chief Engineer of Crime should have known better and it seriously detracted from, what would otherwise have been, the best Inspector French novel to date. Now I have to reluctantly place it slightly below The Sea Mystery (1928), Mystery in the Channel (1931) and The Hog's Back Mystery (1933).

Omission not withstanding, Sudden Death is a fine piece of old-fashioned, Golden Age craftsmanship and it was fun to see the master of the unbreakable alibi apply himself to the locked room mystery while dabbling a little in domestic suspense and HIBK. Sudden Death shows Crofts is as deserving of being revived as he was undeserving of his old reputation as the writer who cured insomnia. Now all I want is a reprint of Crofts' second locked room novel, The End of Andrew Harrison (1938), but until then, my next stop in the series is probably going to be Sir John Magill's Last Journey (1930). So stay tuned!


Room 103: "The Half-Invisible Man" (1974) by Bill Pronzini and Jeffrey Wallmann

Bill Pronzini and Jeffrey Wallman's "The Half-Invisible Man" was originally published in the May, 1974, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and reprinted in Cop Cade (1978), but the story never made an appearance in any of the locked room-themed anthologies and there's more than enough here to merits its inclusion in a future anthology – not merely for its locked room-trick. "The Half-Invisible Man" has one of the most memorable, one-shot detective characters.

Patrolman Fred Gallagher is the half-invisible man of the story. A 50-year-old, 27-year veteran of the force, but he was "a quiet, passive, deferential individual by nature" with "the kind of mind which did not easily assimilate academic knowledge." So he never got promoted and this turned him into an "uninvolved, perpetually detached observer" who feels like he has done little more during his career than standing guard at crime scenes. Where he glimpses through doorways "every conceivable type of crime man could perpetrate against his fellowman." A half-invisible man.

"The Half-Invisible Man" opens with Gallagher posted outside the open door of Room 103, in the fashionable Whitewater Motel, listening to his superiors discussing the murder Aaron Maddox. A hotel guest who had been shot ten minutes after he had checked in, but every door (two) and window was securely locked, or bolted, from the inside and the gun was found outside, on the terrace, the locked glass door – wiped clean. An impossible crime if there ever was one!

There are, however, some suspects to consider. The occupant of the two room adjacent, Gordon Severin in 105 and Ralph Oakley in 101, who are partners in a small New York investment counseling firm. Maddox was the third partner and he had placed Severin and Oakley in enviable position by siphoning money from their clients and firm, which brought one of their clients to the hotel to confront the trio. So more than enough suspects with a motive, but they first have to figure out how the murderer got out of that locked motel room.

While his superiors go over all the details, Gallagher begins to see a pattern and, when he has a moment alone, he gets an opportunity to confirm his suspicions and presents Lieutenant Conroy and Captain Fabian with a complete solution to the locked room problem upon their return. A very good, fairly clued explanation offering a new variation on an old, somewhat famous trick, but the story is so much more than a well executed detective and locked room story – because there's a surprisingly deep and satisfying layered feeling to this short story. There's the inversion on the armchair detective reminiscent of Henry from Isaac Asimov's The Black Widowers series. An armchair detective who stands, waits and listens quietly as he puts together the pieces in his mind, which worked just as well with a patrolman as with a waiter. Secondly, there's the rather tragic character of Gallagher himself. Even with his short-lived moment of glory, "The Half-Invisible Man" is a synopsis of his past, present and future. A half-invisible man who was looked at without being seen and destined to one day completely vanish. And that also makes it one of the best takes on G.K. Chesterton's "The Invisible Man" (collected The Innocence of Father Brown, 1911). A depressing take, sure, but seldom done better.

"The Half-Invisible Man" is a fine example of how the traditional, plot-oriented detective story/locked room mystery can be merged with the modern, more character-driven police procedural and they can compliment each other in the right hands. Definitely recommended. Hopefully, it will turn up in some future locked room anthology for my fellow impossible crime junkies to enjoy.


Almost Instantly (1953) by C. Buddingh'

Cornelis Buddingh' was a Dutch poet, critic, chess player, translator and a connoisseur of detective stories who translated novels by Herbert Brean, Leslie Charteris and Ethel Lina White into Dutch and some of his reviews can be read on the DBNL website – discussing writers like Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen and Zelda Popkin. Although I was not a fan of him trashing John Dickson Carr's writing or describing Sir Henry Merrivale as a "vage houten klaas" ("a sketchy wooden Punch puppet").

During the early 1950s, Buddingh' opined that, "if the Dutch detective wants to have its own atmosphere and character," the Dutch detective story has "to have a Dutch setting, populated with Dutch characters, where a murder committed by a Dutchman is solved." You have to remember that a big chunk of our pre-WWII detective fiction took place on foreign soil and this slowly began to change towards the end of the 1940s, which had absolutely nothing to do with us losing the colonies. We were planning to go home anyway. So with the detective story coming home, the 1950s became a short-lived Golden Age for Dutch detective fiction. A fact I've only recently uncovered and it lead me to A.R. Brent's Voorzichtig behandelen (Handle with Care, 1948) and W.H. van Eemlandt's Kogels bij het dessert (Dessert with Bullets, 1954), which is why I reviewed them back-to-back last month.

A year after his public proclamation on the future of the Dutch detective story, Buddingh' published his own detective novel, Vrijwel op slag (Almost Instantly, 1953), but as we all known, it's easier to be a critic than a craftsman – something the noted mystery critic and author Anthony Boucher could have attested to (e.g. Rocket to the Morgue, 1942). Buddingh' was already on thin ice with me for badmouthing Carr (pure heresy!). So let's see if he was as good at putting a plot together as he was in picking them apart.

Buddingh' picked as his detective the son of the former Chief Commissioner of Rotterdam, Rokus Huet, who's studying medicine in Amsterdam, but prefers to spent most of his time procrastinating or playing chess. Huet looks with horror at his future as a doctor and having to rise before noon. When the story opens, Huet is visiting an old friend in Gouda, Inspector Karel Jonkman, who's an artistically-inclined detective who donned a police uniform to honor the memory of his father, but his heart wasn't fully dedicated to the job. What he really wanted to do was paint.

During his stay with Jonkman, Huet is introduced to a local painter and friend of the inspector, Gerard van Gelderen, "who swears by Picasso" and they meet a young couple when visiting the artist at his studio, Marius Weekenstro and Elly Kreukniet – more or less secretly engaged. And upon hearing Jonkman is a police inspector, Marius seizes to opportunity to complain about Elly's uncle and legal guardian, Jochem Kreukniet. Kreukniet is a legal adviser who reputedly made his small fortune with blackmail and collaborated with the Nazis during the occupation, but at home, he acts like Victorian-era domestic despot and treats his niece with "a subtle sadism" that translated in Nelly being "bullied and harassed and humiliated" on a daily basis. And he's assisted in this by his wicked housekeeper, Ms. Gonda Luning. Generally, she's kept on a very tight lease and her uncle even sicced the police on Marius, because they kept seeing each other every opportunity they got. This is why Elly is taking drawing lessons in secret.

Jochem Kreukniet is practically tailormade to be the victim and, two days later, he's indeed murdered at his home with a blow to the back of the head, but his murderer didn't stop there. The murderer emptied an ashtray over the body, placed a folded one gulden bill in his lapel and drew a circle with purple lipstick on his forehead!

Jonkman and Huet quickly catch on that there were a lot of people, personal and professional, who had a reason to beat Kreukniet into an early grave. De Lange (didn't catch a first name) is Kreukniet's slippery business partner, who badly needed money, but their partnership had begun to deteriorate and Kreukniet had hinted that he was going to be cut out of his will. But there were also three women in his life who had either lost something or stood to gain tremendously. Eliza Westvaan is new, very posh, secretary and could have been the future Mrs. Kreukniet. She had pushed Kreukniet's previous secretary and mistress out of the picture, Okkie Maffel. The third woman was actually the first Mrs. Kreukniet and she inherited her ex-husband's house and nearly half of his fortune.

Almost Instantly is pretty much a by-the-numbers whodunit with a slightly eccentric detective, an official police inspector, a body, a small circle of suspects, some bizarre clues and detective work mainly contained to interviews – occasionally testing an alibi or clearing up a side-thread. Naturally, this wasn't helped by the fact that nearly everyone was up to something around the time of the murder. Some of which took place around the scene of the crime. I think you can best compare Almost Instantly to a competent, but fairly average, Christopher Bush novel from the same period. Not bad, but not outstanding.

So, technically, Buddingh' succeeded in writing a genuine detective novel, but stylistically, Almost Instantly isn't a Dutch detective novel. It's a British detective novel with a Dutch setting and Dutch characters. You can't miss how much Buddingh' was influenced by the British Golden Age mystery writers and there was even a bookshelf scene in which Huet sees a whole row of Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Nicholas Blake, Edmund Crispin and Michael Innes novels. Huet identifies them as "his own favorite authors in the genre," but the explanation makes it even more obvious. Such as the choice of murderer and (uncommon) motive, which recalls a certain mystery writer and the reason why the murderer planted those strange clues on the body had been used before by Carr. Carr executed that idea better and with much more subtly than Buddingh'. Not so easy, is it? :D

A second, stylistic, flaw are the nonsensical names of some of the characters. I'll admit that it was mildly amusing to name the victim Kreukniet (does not crease) and have him bludgeoned to death, but it didn't help give the story that authentic Dutch character Buddingh' had been pleading for the year previously. You would think that was the one thing he wanted to do with Almost Instantly.

So, yes, technically, Almost Instantly is a decent and solid enough detective novel with a well hidden murderer, who can still be spotted, but most of the story travels over territory that had been trampled during the first half of the previous century and only difference is that it was written in another language – even that was done with a distinctly English accent. Nevertheless, it's always a pleasure to read an honest to God detective novel in my own language, which makes its blandness a little more forgivable.


Ask DNA: Case Closed, vol. 75 by Gosho Aoyama

The 75th volume of Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed, originally titled Detective Conan, begins, as so often is the case with this series, with the conclusion to the story that left the previous volume with an open end, which began with a dead man's letter summoning Harley Hartwell to Tokyo – where he and Conan become involved with the murders of two of the dead man's relatives. Conan and Harley were present when his son ate a randomly picked, poisoned slice of cake and Harley found the body of his mother in her study. However, "she was alone in the study" and "the room was guarded by cops." So it was either suicide or "a locked room murder."

This is a long, involved and somewhat complicated story in which two different cases overlap and the focus in these last two chapters are on the two poisoning-tricks, because the plot-threads revolving around Harley's dead client are quickly resolved through a written confession. Such as who killed him and why his dying message was destroyed. Conan and Harley turn their attention to the brace of seemingly impossible poisonings.

Thankfully, the weak and dangerous explanation to the first poisoning, given in the previous volume, turned out to be a false-solution with the actual solution being so much better, cleverer and more believable – a neat trick making good use of the visual comic book format. The second (locked room) poisoning-trick is a lot harder to swallow and the method struck me as very unreliable. But, in either case, it was disturbing to see how carelessly the murderer flung cyanide around the place like it was candy on the 5th of December.

So, on a whole, a good and decent enough story, but not one of the best Conan/Harley team-up stories. Not by a long shot.

The second story is an interesting one! Conan and Rachel accidentally discover that someone is posing as her father, Richard Moore, who has been visiting the 70-year-old Takae Kiritani and "solving cases free of charge." Moore refusing to accept money? Something smells fishy! Conan and Rachel confront the man posing as the great "Sleeping Moore," Ryohei Onda, who turns out to be a young college student and is engaged to the granddaughter of the old lady, but why the deception. Ryohei explained that she had been afraid of burglars and posing as a famous detective, to help install new locks, helped to make her feel safer, but she kept calling him to give small cases to solve. Such as finding a lost cat or why her TV kept changing the channels even though she "wasn't touching the zapper." Conan decided to help fake Moore solve the case of the living room poltergeist, who kept changing the channels, but then a murder is discovered next door.

A very loud, rude and much disliked resident is found dead when his neighbors forced open the door of his apartment, because his alarm-clock kept beeping, where they find him slumped against a wall with his throat slit and clutching a bloodied knife – a key is lying near the body. Conan immediately deduces that the murderer has to be one of the three neighbors who discovered the body, but the murderer's alibi-trick proved to be a tougher nut to crack than the locked room-trick.

This is undeniably a minor entry in the series, but also a perfect example of Aoyama's abilities and talent as both a plotter and storyteller. A relatively simplistic story with multiple, beautifully dovetailed layers. Firstly, you have the breakdown of the locked room and alibi-tricks. Secondly, the true reason why Ryohei is posing as Richard Moore and why he's so interested in the old lady. Thirdly, why the old lady habitually raises her voice and barks out orders. Everything is connected, one way or another, which include the throwaway problem of the living room poltergeist. Yes, Conan's initial solution was wrong! So, yes, I liked this amusing and clever story.

The third story is another chapter in the ongoing soap, known as the Metropolitan Police Love Story-arc, in which Detective Chiba is entirely oblivious that his first, long-lost love is the new police recruit of the traffic department, Neako Miike. Conan and the Junior Detective League try to bring them together as they're trying to find someone who spray paints cars with the slightly hostile message, "DROP DEAD." The plot hinges on finding a link between the vandalized cars and why they were being targeted, which had been well-clued in advance. Another relatively minor, but good, story.

The fourth and last story ends this volume with a punch to the gut! A dark and sad story as good and strong as "The Poisonous Coffee Case," from vol. 60, which brings Richard Moore to a belated engagement party of an old high school friend, Raita Banba, who will be married to the next day to Hatsune Kamon – only she never makes it to the wedding. Hatsune burned to death that night and evidence at the scene suggests it was murder.

I spotted the key piece of the plot on the second page, but refused to believe what I was reading and didn't expect Aoyama would go there. But he did go there. And how! I know most of you don't read this series and you might have gotten the idea from the bright, colorful covers or cartoon-like premise that Case Closed is a comic cozy, but Case Closed is no stranger to some gloom and doom. I already mentioned the very noir-ish and excellent "The Poisonous Coffee Case" or the second story here has Conan (pretty much a small child) crawling around a dead man who had bled to death in his home. Case Closed is by Western standards not exactly kid friendly (rated T+ in America), but it's still a traditional, puzzle-oriented detective series. And these type of detective stories tend to eschew certain crimes or subjects. For example, I've read an ungodly amount of detective stories, but can only remember three novels in which a rape occurred. While this story uses something very different, I honestly never expected it to be used in this series.

Even with stumbling to it early on in the story, the solution still delivered its intended blow. Even without the tragic ending, the plot is a minor technical masterpiece with a solution woven around to normally unpardonable sins. One of them is a personal dislike and the other a rule that was set in stone nearly a century ago, but miraculously, they both worked under these very specific set of circumstances. Proving once again that the rules and conventions of the detective story can be broken, or bend, but only by people who understand and respect them. Aoyama also demonstrated modern forensic science, like DNA, doesn't have to be a stumbling block or obstacle.

My only complaint is that [redacted] decision seems a little too radical and drastic. There's no denying [redacted] situation is not an enviable one, but surely, there must have been a better solution. Otherwise, this was a very good and memorable story that came close to matching "The Poisonous Coffee Case." The story also introduces a new face to the ever-growing cast of recurring characters, Toru Amuro, who's a private detective.

So, yeah, a pretty solid volume with two minor, but well written and plotted, stories bookended by a big Conan/Harley team-up and one of the most tragic cases in the series. I wasn't disappointed.


The Padded Door (1932) by Brian Flynn

Brian Flynn's The Padded Door (1932) is the eleventh title in the Anthony Lotherington Bathurst series and has plot resembling Tread Softly (1937), in layout and structure, but The Padded Door worked its way towards a much more traditional conclusion than Tread Softly – which can be partially seen as a very early precursor of the modern crime novel. Just an example of Flynn's versatile abilities as a writer and plotter that allowed him to effortlessly shift from classic whodunits and impossible crimes to scheming serial killers and pure, undiluted pulp fiction.

Nevertheless, while The Padded Door is on the surface a typical, plot-oriented 1930s detective novel, it has one of the most audacious solutions of the period that begins with an astonishing surprise at the halfway point. So it's going to be one of those reviews where I dance around the finer plot details.

The first half of The Padded Door centers on the murder of a shady moneylender, Leonard Pearson, whose business practices "sailed exceedingly close to the wind and lay perilously near to blackmail." On the night of his murder, Captain Hilary Frant called on Pearson to fork over a thousand pounds in exchange for letters that belong to his sister, Pamela, which could ruin her engagement to the heir of tobacco empire, Richard Lanchester. Pearson's butler overheard Captain Frant telling his master he would like to cave in his skull and that "the world will be a thundering sight better place to live in," before making his exit through the french windows with the letters in his pocket. But the next day, Pearson is found beaten to death in his study and the money is nowhere to be found.

Detective-Sergeant Waterhouse and Detective Inspector Andrew MacMorran quickly pick up the scent of Pearson's last visitor, Captain Frant, when he finds his name and time of appointment written down in the victim's diary, but things go from bad to worse when he tries "to foist on Scotland Yard a counterfeit alibi" – nor was it very helpful that he lost his heavy, knobbed walking-stick. So he was arrested and charged with murder. Pamela tells their father, Sir Robert Frant, to get Sir Gervaise Acland for the defense and Anthony Bathurst to find the real murderer, but he's abroad on another case. Six weeks elapsed before he could be "called to the scent" and by then, it was "within an ace of being cold." And it was way too late to stop Captain Frant from going to trial.

You can argue that the whole buildup to the trial, culminating with the verdict, is nothing more than one long prologue to the second murder, but the first and second act were so cleverly and daringly tied together that it worked. Second act opened with a smashing surprise with the discovery of a body stuffed inside a large cabin-trunk that was left near a village road. Honestly, I didn't expect [redacted] to bite the dust! This makes everything that preceded it not look as straightforward as it was initially laid out.

Unfortunately, this makes discussing what happens in the second half very difficult, but let's give it the good old college try.

Bathurst has more to do, as a detective, in the second act and becomes ensnared in a webbing of contradictions, dead ends and a latticework of strange clues such as blue-veined cheese, a magazine interview, uncharacteristically light thuds and a cinema fire that claimed the lives of seventy people – a tragedy that had briefly pushed Pearson's murder from the headlines. But even with all those clues and foreshadowing, I was unprepared for the ballsy solution or how the two murders linked up. Flynn came up with something fresh and original here, but it's the kind of cleverness and originality that cuts on two sides. As ingenious as the solution is, it stretches credulity to its limit and it's the kind of precarious, tight-rope stunt more commonly associated with Flynn's better-known, celebrated contemporaries. John Dickson Carr managed to do it with The Hollow Man (1935) and Agatha Christie did it with The Murder on the Orient Express (1934). Very fittingly, the plot of The Padded Door, like The Murder on the Orient Express and The Hollow Man, hinges largely on the author's specialty. I don't believe he'll ever play that game better than he did here.

A second, incredibly cheeky, move is the truth behind Pearson's murder and how it related to the second killing, but the who is something most of his contemporaries would have probably shied away from. Flynn made it work and, while stretching things considerably, did it seemingly effortlessly. I also begin to believe Flynn loved Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes more than oxygen. Flynn was a little more subtle here and the only obvious nod to Holmes was reference to making bricks out of straw, but you can see how big of an influence Doyle had on Flynn in the finer details of the solution.

So, all of that said, not everyone's going to agree with my praise and, by the time this review is posted, surely some reviews of that effect will already have appeared. After all, I was less enthusiastic about Tread Softly than Steve and Kate, but The Padded Door was the antidote I sorely needed after a string of weakly plotted, lightweight and somewhat disappointing detective novels. Sometimes it's just fun to have clues thrown in your face and the wool pulled over your eyes at the same time.


The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire (2020) by James Scott Byrnside

The locked room mystery and impossible crime story comes in many different shapes and forms, opening the door to endless possibilities and variations to kill, or disappear, people under circumstances that can only be described as miraculous – whether the victims were in a sealed room, closely guarded or in an open space. And then there are the miscellaneous impossibilities such as levitation, phantom fingerprints, predictive dreams and the physical alibi. So the possibilities really are endless and mystery writers have been tinkering with it ever since Edgar Allan Poe wrote "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" in 1841. 

There is, however, one type of impossible crime that appears to be incredibly restrictive without much room for innovation or originality. I'm talking about the no-footprints scenario. 

John Dickson Carr's name is synonymous with the locked room and impossible crime story, but even the master himself only produced two really good and original no-footprints novels, The Hollow Man (1935) and She Died a Lady (1943) – latter published as by "Carter Dickson." If you look at what other mystery writers have written, there are no more than a dozen novels and short stories that stand out as inspired and original. Some examples that come to mind are Hake Talbot's Rim of the Pit (1944), Norman Berrow's The Footprints of Satan (1950), Douglas Ashe's The Longstreet Legacy (1951), David Renwick's Jonathan Creek episode The Black Canary (1998) and two masterly done short stories, Robert Arthur's "The Glass Bridge" (1957) and Arthur Porges' "No Killer Has Wings" (1960). Japan also produced some fine examples (e.g. Gosho Aoyama's "The Magic Lovers Case") and recently Paul Halter came up with a creative variation on the no-footprints scenario in La montre en or (The Gold Watch, 2019). This short list of notable titles is why I've come to regard the no-footprints scenario as the most challenging and tricky impossible crime to tackle. A puzzle for experts.

So I was excited when the prodigy child of the Renaissance Era, James Scott Byrnside, announced his third novel featuring a killer who can apparently walk through walls and doesn't leave any footprints in the snow! 

The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire (2020) is a prequel to Goodnight Irene (2018) and The Opening Night Murders (2019), set in November, 1920, which takes Rowan Manory and Walter Williams, Chicago's finest, to Barrington Hills – located "deep within the recesses of untamed Illinois." Thomas Browning, a rich railway magnate, wants a reputable private detective to debunk a psychic, Madame Cuchla, who has convinced his business partner, Hadd Mades, that turning Barrington Hills in a resort town is a bad idea. Madame Cuchla claims the region is haunted by one of the town's most notorious past residents, Otto Savore. Someone believed by the locals to be a vampire who, in 1875, allegedly killed more than fifty people in a single night with "none of the doors or windows of his victims were trespassed" and "no footprints in the snow." So, quite naturally, the townspeople buried him alive and "no grass ever grows on the vampire's grave." Madame Cuchla warns that death will come if the ground is ever build on.

Manory tells Browning that "any number of Chicago-River gumshoes could explain" the parlor tricks employed by psychics for a third of his price, but Browning wants a reputable detective to convince Mades. Manory certainly delivers the goods as he not only explains Madame Cuchla psychic reading of Williams, ghostly knocking and a floating face that vanished in a puff of smoke, but also gives a solution to the vampiric bloodbath from forty-five years ago. So the opening alone is good enough to be added to the list of debunked séance mysteries, but the problems that follow are of a less conventional nature. And they're all "damned impossible."

A New Mapback!
Early next morning, Mades returns to the remote house, hammering on the front door and yelling blue murder, because the vampire is in the house and Browning is in grave danger. Mades shows Manory the developed photographs that were taken of the house the previous days and one of them shows a grotesque-looking creature standing outside the balcony door, "sharp nails were touching the glass," as if trying to enter. But how did the vampire get on the balcony? There's no way to reach the balcony from the outside and the freezing cold makes it unlikely someone was waiting on the balcony for the right moment to photobomb without being seen. So that's the first impossibility stumping Manory, but "an agonizing scream" quickly announces a second one.

Thomas Browning's body is found in the garage with a twisted spine, broken bones, a slash across his right wrist and two bleeding puncture marks in his neck, but how had the murderer entered, or exited, the garage – only footprints going from the kitchen door to the garage belong to Browning. Another set of footprints goes from the kitchen door into the direction of the forest. A third and fourth set of footprints go from the garage window and back into the forest. Finally, two footprints are found next to the skylight on the garage roof, but none of them explained how Browning could have been attacked and killed. The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire is brimming with impossible material. There's a past murder case in which severed hands were left in the bedroom of a locked house and a second murder is committed inside a locked bedroom while Manory was sitting guard in the corridor. However, the story should not be judged solely as an impossible crime novel. 

The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire has a small pool of suspects comprising of Browning's much younger wife, Madelaine, who sleepwalks and the reason why they have a live-in specialist, Dr. Sinclair. A daughter from a first marriage, Gertrude, who used to be married with a socialist associated with a band of hardliners, but he was "suicided" in a jail cell. She had not been on speaking terms with her father until he summoned her back home with the promise of a surprise. Howard Amorartis is a writer of supernatural horror and hopes his name will one day be as well-known as Poe, but now he has been commissioned to pen Browning's biography. Belby is the butler-chauffeur who's "not intelligent enough to devise a murder plan," but perhaps "subservient enough to carry one out." And there's always Browning's frightened business partner, Mades.

I think The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire is actually more accomplished as a whodunit than as a locked room mystery with a murderer who was hiding in plain sight (always satisfying) who had an original motive to engineer a whole series of otherworldly crimes. Just like in previous novels, the plot resembles a Matryoshka doll with multiple, interconnected problems that not only includes a plethora of impossible crimes and elusive murderer, but a dying message that had to be violently pried from the victim's clenched fist or why the murderer had no option to sever the hands of the second victim – a kind of corpse puzzle you normally only come across in Japanese shin honkaku detective stories. Add to this the excellent clueing, the characterization of the two bantering detectives and all of the various, moving plot-strands grasped in an iron-clad grip demonstrating why Byrnside might very well turn out to be the herald of a Second Golden Age.

A Classic Mapback
But what about the impossibilities? Can they stand toe-to-toe with the ten no-footprints novels and short stories mentioned above? Yes... and no. The plot is crammed with the impossible crimes, but quantity doesn't always mean quality and only two of them are good.

Firstly, while the murder in the snow surrounded garage didn't came up with a new footprint-trick, everything else about this tricky murder made it an excellent impossibility with a good explanation why the witness at the window saw him fight with an invisible entity. Honestly, the whole situation that brought about this murder was quite clever and something that would have gotten the approval of Carr. Secondly, the murder in the locked and guarded bedroom has a routine solution, where the locked door and guard are concerned, but Byrnside succeeded in making one of my biggest no-noes perfectly acceptable and logical. And then there's the reason why the murderer had to cut off the hands. Unfortunately, the explanations to the past case with the severed hands that were left in a locked house or how the vampire was able to reach the balcony were underwhelming.

Nevertheless, when the plot resembles a nesting doll and practically everything is done correctly, the less than impressive explanations to two of the impossibilities is a blow the story can easily absorb without any damage to the overall plot. Byrnside continued to be awesome with how he handled the ending. Chapter 17 is a Challenge to the Reader asking eight questions that have to be answered before the case can be considered solved. Manory gives his explanation of the case at the annual dinner of the Detectives Club and there's a Rival Detective in attendance, Miss Genevieve Pond, who plays armchair detective and tries to deduce the solution before Manory gives it. I suspect she'll either become Manory's love interest in a future novel or become an antagonist when Byrnside decides to tackle the inverted detective story with an impossible, but it's probably the former. After all, Manory needs someone to bounce off on. They're polar opposites, is what I mean.

So, a long, rambling story short, Byrnside performed the hat trick with three back-to-back gems of the Western-style, neo-orthodox detective novel covering various styles and subgenres. All three are historical mysteries written in the typical, hardboiled style of the American pulps, but plotted and clued like a traditional, Golden Age detective stories filled with locked rooms, dying messages and bizarre murders – which all pay subtly homage to some of the greats of that bygone era. Goodnight Irene was an ambitious debut and The Opening Night Murders showed prodigious improvement with its labyrinthine plot, which can also be read as the two of the longest fan letters everyone has ever written to Christianna Brand. Byrnside moved away from using Brand as a foundation stone for his work and the result is The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire is a fully realized, modern incarnation of the classic detective story that can stand on its own. One of the bright lights of 2020 and all three come highly recommended.

On a final note: sorry for the flurry of 2020 reviews, but had to rearrange some posts and cram them all in here.