The Clock Strikes Thirteen (1954) by Herbert Brean

Herbert Brean's The Clock Strikes Thirteen (1954) is the fourth and final novel starring Reynold Frame, a freelance writer, photographer and amateur detective, which began life as a short story in the June, 1952, issue Cosmopolitan – expanded two years later as a suspenseful mystery. A thriller with a detective plot that has one of the best and most memorable take on Anthony Berkeley's Panic Party (1934) and Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1939). 

I've wanted to take a second look at The Clock Strikes Thirteen ever since rereading Hardly a Man is Now Alive (1950), but then 2020 happened and decided to put it aside. You see, the story takes place on a desolate, rocky island where germs and viruses are being weaponized.

So it's not merely the presence of a murderer that puts the small, isolated group on edge, but also a splash of weaponized bacteria and viruses let loose on the island. Not exactly a comfort read. Rupert Penny's Policeman's Evidence (1938) convinced me it would be a waste not to use a quarantine-style detective novel to close out 2020. Go hoard some rolls of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, because we're about to enter a viral hotspot. 

The Clock Strikes Thirteen begins with a midnight phone call to freelance photographer, Reynold Frame, who's to take the place of a Russian-born photographer on a secret assignment to Kilgore Island, Maine – twenty-four miles out in the Atlantic. North Wayland is the current owner of the island who used to be the "most skilled brain surgeon in the world," but became a changed man when he lost his wife and children in the war. Wayland became a bacteriologist and dedicated his life to researching the kind of science "doing its darnedest to kill off man in wholesale lots," namely biological warfare, which is why he located to the remote island and erected a private laboratory. Wayland apparently has developed a biological weapon capable of "wipe out an entire country" and "conquer the rest of the world." So, naturally, the U.S. military is deeply involved in the project and the reason why the original photographer failed to get security clearance.

Reynold Frame and Leon Exeter, a writer for Picture magazine, voyage to Kilgore Island with Major Harry Geddes and Captain Jonas Kilgore, who was born and raised on the island, but now refuses to stay there. Not without reason. Kilgore Island resembles "the other side of the moon." A bleak, rocky protrusion in the sea crowned with a clump of dead, prickly trees. Wayland lives and works there with his assistants, Val Chesnikoff, Susy Smith, Clare Quarles and Dr. Mike Inglehart – who's the chief assistant in charge. Finally, there's an overworked cook and her slow-witted son, Tom. And it doesn't take very long before things go south.

Wayland shows Frame around the laboratory and he wants to take a photograph of the bacteriologist holding a test tube, but Wayland corrects him that they chiefly use Petri dishes. So he goes to get some samples, but when doesn't return, Frame begins to look for him and discovers his body on the floor of the barn. Slashed to death with a scalpel and covered with fragments of broken glass with "a gelatinous substance" stuck to the shards. What has been spilled in there is agar, which is used for growing cultures. If there were bacteria cultures in it, they're now all over the place. That's very bad news, if they contained Wayland's secret weapon. But it gets worse!

Since they've no idea what the incubation periods is, they have everything from twelve hours to two, or three, days before they know what they're up against. But it gets even worse. North's taste for fresh food means that there's no canned food on the island and they can't eat any uncovered food, due to contamination, which means they now have to survive on water and some eggs until Old Jonas returns – ensuring a few days of extreme dieting. On top of that, Tom disappeared around the time of murder and Frame's lack of motive finds him a captive of Major Geddes. Oh, and there's no radio to contact the mainland. Can any more go wrong for Frame? The answer is yes. Yes, it can.

As noted above, The Clock Strikes Thirteen is an expanded short story and the core of the plot, who, why and how, is relatively simple and straightforward. Something you would expect from a short, 10-page story with the highlight being a brief lecture on "the essence of a perfect alibi." During this short lecture, Frame mentions the main principles of the alibi-trick (booby traps, concealed weapons, manipulated clocks and the unconsciously coached witness) and demolishes everyone's alibi by demonstrating that "the really perfect alibi" is "the one that is so natural and ordinary that it is never even suspected." Sadly, this lecture covers only the last two, or three, pages of Chapter 9, but should still delight fans of Christopher Bush and Freeman Wills Crofts.

So, as far as the plot is concerned, The Clock Strikes Thirteen is decent enough, but compared to Wilders Walk Away (1948), Hardly A Man is Now Alive and The Traces of Brillhart (1960), is Brean's thinnest detective novel. The Clock Strikes Thirteen is mainly carried by its storytelling, setting and a truly original premise, which has to my knowledge never been done before or since.

When I read it for the first time, the story struck me as a good, old-fashioned piece of detective fiction spiced with some cold war paranoia, but, having lived through 2020, their situation became much more relatable – although nobody ever mentioned toilet paper. Neither is there the same level of mental breakdown among the characters as in Berkeley's Panic Party, Christie's And Then There Were None or Robin Forsythe's Murder on Paradise Island (1937), which is replaced with the gloom of a possible death sentence hanging over their heads and a growing, gnawling hunger. This situation makes one scene, in particular, very effective when Frame finds himself in the role of "someone in a story from the Arabian Nights" and had "rubbed a magic lamp." Only for the mention of germs for reality to come crashing down all around him. An absurd, but good, intermezzo reminiscent of those Baghdad-on-the-Thames scenes in John Dickson Carr. 

The Clock Strikes Thirteen is, plot-wise, not quite as good as Brean's other detective novels, but the writing and its suspenseful take on the closed-circle of suspects/isolated island situation helped elevate the story to something very much worth your time. Even more so if you like these type of mysteries centering on a small, isolated cast of characters. Brean was great even when playing with a weak hand.

So, in closing, I want to wish everyone of you a happy new year and hope 2021 will treat us all better than 2020 has, but if 2021 decides to outdo its older brother, I'll be seeing some of you in the trenches. We will identify to each other with the phrase, "you have been to Afghanistan, I perceive."


Lending the Key to the Locked Room (2002) by Tokuya Higashigawa

The map of the detective story is dotted with charming, unassuming and sleepy hamlets, villages and small towns, but, as Sherlock Holmes observed, "the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin" than those tiny, outwardly peaceful communities – some of these fictional places have an alarmingly high bodycount. Murder, She Wrote had to turn Jessica Fletcher into a globetrotting mystery writer to not completely deplete the population of Cabot Cove and Midsomer Murders takes place in the undisputed murder capitol of the genre, Midsomer County. You can also find such crime-ridden hellholes, like Agatha Christie's St. Mary Mead, Ellery Queen's Wrightsville and Edward D. Hoch's Northmont, on the printed page. 

So a location can be as much a murder magnet as the detective, such as Midsomer County, but the latest translation from John Pugmire's Locked Room International found a new way to use this trope. 

Misshitsu no kagi kashimasu (Lending the Key to the Locked Room, 2002) is the first novel by comedic mystery writer and current president of the Honkaku Mystery Writers Club of Japan, Tokuya Higashigawa, whose Ikagawa City series features "an ensemble cast with different colorful characters all solving part of the mystery" – or "they make things more confusing." The series is a personal favorite of the translator, Ho-Ling Wong, who did a sterling job in delivering another one of these tantalizing Japanese locked room mysteries to our shelves. 

Lending the Key to the Locked Room begins with a prologue introducing the reader to a once thriving and growing port, Ikagawa City, where squid fishers became rich overnight, but "the massive armies of squid have not visited the port once in the last twenty years." So the place began to lose its luster and the aging mayor feared "the city would eventually be drained of its youth," which is why he initiated the creation of the first college in the city. Ikagawa City College is not ranked particular highly, but attracted attention all over Japan as the only college with a Film Department.

Ryūhei Tomura is a student of the Ikagawa City College Film Department, who "dreamt of becoming a legendary director," but, as a third-year student, he came to realize his limitations and decided to secure a normal, stable job within the industry – drawing on a connection he has with a small production company. Kōsaku Moro was a fourth-year student when Ryūhei was in a first-year student and helped him on his graduation project. They have been friend ever since. Kōsaku ensures Ryūhei he has a job with the IKA Film Company when he graduates, which leads to an angry, relationship ending row with his girlfriend. Yuki Konno accuses him of giving up on his dreams and they have an embarrassing, somewhat public breakup.

This situation sets up one of the more ambitious, intricately plotted, but ultimately simple, detective novels I've read in a while and presented a truly baffling problem with only a few characters.

Ho-Ling introduced Tokuya Higashigawa on his blog as a numerous writer who uses comedic antics as a "camouflage for cleverly-plotted mysteries" and his storytelling is certainly tongue-in-cheek, but not as funny as, let's say, Takemaru Abiko's Shinsoban 8 no satsujin (The 8 Mansion Murders, 1989) nor did it camouflage the cleverness of the plot – as the opening chapters stressed that the author was playing a deep game. Setup of the story is littered with timestamps and it becomes very obvious the movement, or locations, of the characters are a key-element of the plot. A setup culminating with Ryūhei finding himself in an apartment with a dead body in the bathroom, but all of the windows were locked with a crescent latch and the sturdy, steel front door is chain-locked. 

Ryūhei knows didn't commit the murder, but finding himself in the middle of an honest to God locked room mystery is not his only problem. Another person was killed that night and Ryūhei is the only link between the two victims, which places him in the cross-hairs of Chief Inspector Sunagawa and Detective Shiki. So he turns to the only person who could possibly help him, Morio Ukai, who's Ryūhei's ex-brother-in-law and a private detective who advertises with "Welcome Trouble!" Admittedly, Ukai dragging Ryūhei around the place as they impersonate police detectives, when Sunagawa and Shiki were unaware there was a second body, was genuinely amusing. I much more admired the undisguisable clever plotting, clueing, red herrings and the false solutions.

One of the false solutions is proposed by a homeless man, Kinzō, who hopefully returns in a later novel, or short story, because he would be perfect as a one-shot detective who operates in the cardboard section of Ikagawa City. By the way, the story mentioned his name literally means "moneybags" in Japanese. It would be a waste not to use him again. 

Lending the Key to the Locked Room tries to pass itself off as a comedic mystery novel, but everything about the plot, despite some modern touches, reminded me of early period Christopher Bush with a plot revolving around two murders committed within "a very short time-frame" and the two detective each finding a part of the overall solution – not to mention the presence of a brilliant alibi-trick with the locked room angle being a bonus. Nearly everything fits together perfectly, clues, red herrings and the general cussedness of things, but there are a few smudges and imperfections. Most glaring flaw being the question of motives, which is obfuscated until either very late into the story or only revealed at the end. It's not unimportant to the solution either and robs the reader of the opportunity to put all the pieces together themselves.

Secondly, there's a rather important aspect to the solution to one of the murders that's not brought up until quite late in the story and not every reader is going to appreciate the answer, but personally, I didn't dislike it. It could have been clued a bit better and earlier, but suppose you can chalk that down to a debuting writer being anxious not to give the whole game away too early because otherwise the clueing was top-notch.

So barring these minor smudges and imperfection, Lending the Key to the Locked Room is now one of my favorite titles to come out of LRI and another testament to the greatness of the shin honkaku school. Not only have the Japanese been awesome custodians of the detective story and rejuvenated the genre, showing an old dog can learn new tricks, but their first novels usually hit the ground running. Not always entirely perfect. But they're usually impressive first stabs at the genre. Tokuya Higashigawa's Lending the Key to the Locked Room is no exception. Highly recommended!

My apologies for cramming this review so shortly after the one of Marcel Lanteaume's La 13e balle (The Thirteenth Bullet, 1948), but had nowhere else left to put it before the end of the year. Yes, this one has earned a spot on my 2020 best-of list.


The Thirteenth Bullet (1948) by Marcel Lanteaume

Thirteen years ago, the name of Marcel Lanteaume figured on, what's objectively, the best internet best-of list of the 2000s, John Pugmire's "A Locked Room Library," which described him as an impossible crime author who, like so many French mystery writers, appreciated "a touch of fantasy" in his crime fiction – which remained tantalizingly inaccessible to non-francophone readers. That is, until last October. 

Lanteaume's La 13e balle (The Thirteenth Bullet, 1948) is the latest translation published by John Pugmire's Locked Room International and comes with an introduction by French anthologist and genre scholar, Roland Lacourbe. A short introduction that will both fascinate and horrify every obsessive locked room reader.

Lacourbe presents Lanteaume as a shooting star, "a temporary streak of light in the night sky," who wrote "three exceptionally works" between 1942 and 1944 to battle boredom during his captivity in a German prisoner-of-war camp, which actually reminded me of Joseph Commings – who wrote short stories to amuse his army comrades. Lacourbe compared Lanteaume to the "brilliant and fleeting" wonder of Hake Talbot, because they both disappeared after only a few novels. La Labyrinth published his three novels following the liberation of France and contained "a mouth-watering list of books in preparation," but they were never published following poor sales numbers. Disappointed with his failure, Lanteaume destroyed the unpublished manuscripts with such intriguing-sounding titles as Crime rue des fantasques (Crime in Weird Street), Le barbier massacré (The Butchered Barber) and La plaine sous le soleil (The Plain Under the Sun). Lost forever!

So, lamentably, we have to add Lanteaume's name and about a handful of his novels to the shelves of the Phantom Library of Lost Detective Stories. Thankfully, one of his novels that was published finally made its way, through LRI, to our our shelves. 

The Thirteenth Bullet is, to quote one of the characters, "pure pulp fiction" reminiscent of Alexis Gensoul and Charles Grenier's La mort vient de nulle part (Death Out of Nowhere, 1945), John Russel Fearn and Gerald Verner. One of those wildly imaginative, hardly credible, but terribly fun, fairground rides that chases a serial killer who threatens the stability of France.

An average looking, clean-shaven man wearing a gray overcoat with a trilby of the same color is often the last person seen with the victims on a growing list of murders, usually harmless bachelors, whose only tangible link are the bullets that ended their lives – which were all fired from the same pistol. The press christened the murderer the man in gray, but, as the bodycount rises, the murders begin to have political implications. So the noted biologist and criminologist, Professor Fernand Richard, is asked to take charge of the case. Professor Richard predicts the man in gray is going to give them a lot of trouble, because murderers who think they're clever complicate things. This killer simplifies, "a sign of superior men," with clean and simple murders (a bullet to the heart). And he was right.

The first half of the story mostly consists of "running to prefectures of police all over France" to look "at bodies of males of various ages" and "questioning witnesses who have heard nothing and seen nothing." These dead men are nothing more than names in the story with exception of the shopkeeper, René Grandjean, who's described as a neighborhood detective with "astonishing powers of deduction." René Grandjean had used his deductive skills to solve baffling crimes "based on simple indications in the newspapers" or more "practical problems brought to him by his friends." So a whole series of untold armchair detective stories about a sharp-minded shopkeeper cruelly ended here with the detective falling prey to a serial killer or did get one or two of his stories get told? But they were among the destroyed manuscripts. These are the kind of questions that keeps an unrepentant fanboy, like myself, awake at night.

Anyway, the bodycount is close to touching double-digits before Professor Richards discovers something that puts them on the trail of the next victim, but they arrive too late and find another victim. But this time, the murder was committed in a house locked and bolted on the inside with steel shutters covering the windows. A murder with far reaching consequences that turns this almost routine serial killer story into a ripping pulp yarn that stockpiled wild twists and far-fetched turns.

Firstly, the murder in the locked house brings the real detective into the story, Bob slowman, who has "a prodigious intuition" allowing him to reach a conclusion Professor Richard "can only arrive at after fastidious and methodical effort." Slowman is a detective halfway between Sherlock Holmes and Sexton Blake who makes some astonishing deductions about the locked house mystery, which places a crown witness in their hands. A witness who has to be protected at all costs. So they decide to place him inside an impenetrable bunker.

A bunker with walls and ceiling a meter thick and four meters of earth on the top and around it. The floor is a concrete slab and the thick, steel door has two bolts on the inside and can only be opened two keys – one of them in possession of the Gouverneur Militaire de Paris. Sentries are placed all around the bunker. Nobody could have gotten inside to kill their prized witness, but the next day they have to cut through the door frame with a blowtorch. What they find inside is a familiar scene: a dead man with a bullet in his heart. I can see why Pugmire picked The Thirteenth Bullet to translate. The premise alone is great and while the solution has a core element locked room readers will recognize, Lanteaume unexpectedly turned the idea on its head. It also helped a lot that the locked room-trick is the strongest clued part of the plot. You can't figure out what peculiarity connects all the victims together or how that links up with the fabulous motive, but there are definitely clues to the locked room-trick. And when you know how it was done, you know who has done it. Or so you think. Lanteaume keeps throwing twists, surprises and dangers before, during and after the unmasking of the "super-criminal" who had terrorized an entire nation. 

The Thirteenth Bullet is a glorious, unapologetic flight of fancy and can stand with the best pulp-style locked room mysteries, but you have to appreciate Fearn and Verner to be able to appreciate Lanteaume. I sure did. Hopefully, translations of the other two novels by the French Talbot will not be far behind.


Murder in Retrospect: The Best and Worst of 2020


Traditionally, I begin my annual best/worst list with respectfully acknowledging the passing of another year, but when I got here, I found 2020 crumpled on the floor with half-a-dozen knives, daggers and arrows sticking out of its back. I counted at least eight bullet holes, the severed head was beaten to a bloody pulp and caught the distinct smell of bitter almonds. All of you sitting here with angelic expressions on your faces and blood-drenched clothes, looking all innocent and pure. Well, I suppose we can sweep this one under the carpet as an unfortunate accident or elaborate suicide before going over the list. 

A list dominated by the 1930s and '40s, but the 1960s and '90s have a surprisingly strong representation on this year's list with the 1950s having to take a step back. But not as much as the Japanese honkaku and shin honkaku detective story, which are represented by a single novel and six short stories. Something that needs to be remedied in 2021. One thing that remained pretty much the same is the locked room mystery and impossible crime story dominating the entire list. So let's go down the list.

Click on the book titles to read the full review. 



The Longstreet Legacy (1951) by Douglas Ash

A highlight of the impossible crime story of both the 1950s and 2020! A notorious, elderly New York recluse, Ella Longstreet, is found under bizarre circumstances in the long hallway of her gloomy mansion. Ella Longstreet's emaciated body is dressed in a skimpy bikini and there's a circle of footprints around the body, but the dust everywhere in the hallway is undisturbed! A splendidly done homage to the turn-of-the-century, Gothic tale of long-held secrets, family skeletons and an original impossible crime. 


Away Went the Little Fish (1946) by Margot Bennett 

I found an old copy of a Dutch translation of this long out-of-print mystery. A witty, lighthearted take on both the comedic and the more sophisticated British detective novels by Edmund Crispin and Michael Innes. A little over written in parts, yes, but the result is a thoroughly amusing whodunit with a locked room angle as a bonus. 


The Three Tiers of Fantasy (1947) by Norman Berrow 

 An incredibly entertaining, pulp-style mystery caper in which a man, a whole room, a roadhouse and even entire passages of time miraculously vanish into thin air! Solutions to all of these impossible problems aren't as imaginative as their premises, but that doesn't diminish the fact that this was a great read. 


The Case of the Seven of Cavalry (1937) by Anthony Boucher 

An ambitious and promising all-out debut detective story from respected genre critic and science-fiction author, Anthony Boucher, who would go on to show more restrained in better or more iconic novels. But this little college murder mystery radiates with the spirit of the Grandest Game in the World. An understandable fan favorite that comes highly recommended. 


Voorzichtig behandelen (Handle with Care, 1948) by E.R. Brent 

This is the only novel-length detective story Brent contributed to the genre and lacks the polish of an experienced hand, but it was a pleasure to read an authentic, Golden Age detective novel in my own language. I'm going to try to find more of them in 2021. 


The Case of the Counterfeit Colonel (1952) by Christopher Bush 

Another gratifying job from one of the most reliable detective novelist of the period with a deceiving uncomplicated front. Ludovic Travers accepts a routine assignment to help find a man who disappeared a long time ago, which naturally leads to the discovery of a fresh corpse. Solution hinges on weighing the evidence of a fabricated alibi against an incriminating fingerprint. What really earned this book a spot on the list is that Bush got more out of plot than was put into it. That's something to be admired in a mystery writer. 


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

James Scott Byrnside is the antidote to the misery of the modern crime novel and his third novel is a prequel to his previous two novels, Goodnight Irene (2018) and The Opening Night Murders (2019), which brings his series-detectives to a remote, untamed area of Illinois – where they have to stop a murderer who can apparently walk on snow without leaving footprints. So, while it's an impossible crime novel, it actually works better as a pure, neo-orthodox whodunit that continues the traditions of the Golden Age. Only drawback to having a writer, like Byrnside, is that you actually have to wait a year for his next novel, but that sort of adds to the GAD experience. 


Death for Madame (1946) by R.T. Campbell 

This is easily the best and funniest of the comedic mystery novels about Campbell's John Dickson Carr-inspired detective, Professor John Stubbs, who's a large, mustachioed man who smokes black, vile-smelling tobacco and all the tact of an 18th bone saw – told by his long-suffering chronicler, Max Boyle. On top of that, it's also one of the funniest take on the hotel-set mystery novel. 


Sudden Death (1932) by Freeman Wills Crofts 

Crofts is usually associated with three things: timetables, trains and unbreakable alibis, but on two occasions, he turned his technical expertise to the locked room mystery. Unfortunately, those two novels have been out-of-print for decades and secondhand copies expensive. This year, Sudden Death (1932) finally made its way back into print and finds Inspector French investigating two murders cleverly disguised as suicide in sealed rooms. Crofts handled the locked room with the same expertise as the cast-iron alibi. 


The Hog's Back Mystery (1933) by Freeman Wills Crofts 

An intelligently and meticulously plotted detective novel in which Inspector Joseph French stubbornly keeps plugging away at the problem of a series disappearances in the heart of wild Surrey. The ever-developing plot and expanding number of combinations and possibilities and clear logic made this engaging read. 


The Worm Tunnel (1999) by Michael Dahl 

The second title in the juvenile adventure/mystery series about 13-year-old Finnegan “Finn” Zwake and his mystery writing uncle, which is best described as a cross between Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed and The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest. Story takes place in a fictitious, Central American country where they become involved in an archaeological search for prehistoric eggs, but then a dinosaur is murdered under seemingly impossible circumstances – stabbed inside a sealed, high-tech tent. Yes, The Worm Tunnel earned its spot on the strength and originality of the locked room-trick. 


Rechercheur De Klerck en de ongrijpbare dood (Inspector De Klerck and the Elusive Death, 2020) by P. Dieudonné 

Not your typical Dutch politieroman (police novel) which, as a rule as, place storytelling ahead of the plot, but Dieudonné went all out in his third novel with no less than three impossible disappearances and reappearances! A body vanishes from a burning building under lock-and-key and a mysterious motorcyclist is performing death defying stunts with the police close on his wheels. But miraculously vanishes every time they think they've trapped, or cornered, him. Such as disappearing from a sealed tunnel and rematerialization behind the police cordon. I want to read more of this in my own language! 


Murder on the Tropic (1935) by Todd Downing 

A blisteringly written, leisurely plotted regional mystery which takes place at a remote, isolated hacienda tucked away in a mountain pocket on the Tropic of Cancer – where people mysteriously fall ill or die. Only drawback is that seasoned mystery readers will have no problem in figuring out who's behind the murders. Nevertheless, it's a great summer read! 


The Last Trumpet (1937) by Todd Downing 

This was Downing's redemption arc! Downing had repelled me with the disgustingly overpraised The Cat Screams (1934), but The Last Trumpet is a triumph of the regional mystery novel with a hectic plot that turned to be pretty solid in the end. 


The Padded Door (1932) by Brian Flynn 

Flynn's brilliant and staggering contribution to the classic courtroom drama with the murder, arrest, trial and verdict serving as a long prologue to the second half, but how the first and second were tied together proved Flynn was a master of his craft – punctuated with one of the most audacious solutions of the period. A solution that almost beggars belief! 


The Edge of Terror (1932) by Brian Flynn 

Somewhat of a fairground ride of a novel in which an elusive serial killer, “The Eagle,” preys on the increasingly more panicky citizens of a small English town. This is one of Flynn's pulp-style detective novels reminiscent of John Russell Fearn complete with a cinema murder and trampled piece of candy as a clue. I enjoyed it from start to finish. 


Fear and Trembling (1936) by Brian Flynn 

One of Flynn's ten best novels and another one of his tributes to Conan Doyle and the gaslight era of crime fiction, but he has one hell of a trick up his sleeve. Something you come to expect from the best of the 1930s and demonstrated that the rules of the detective story can only be broken, twisted or subverted by people who understand and respect them. 


Diplomatic Death (1961) by Charles Forsyte 

Gordon and Vicky Philo were the husband-and-wife writing tandem behind the penname “Charles Forsyte” and they're my favorite discovery of 2020, but sadly, they only wrote a handful of detective novels – three of which feature their series-character, Inspector Richard Left, of Special Branch. Diplomatic Death brings him to the British Consulate-General in Istanbul, Turkey, where the Consul General apparently committed suicide and then proceeded to vanish into thin air! A splendidly done throwback to the 1930s mystery novel with a vividly depicted backdrop. 


Diving Death (1962) by Charles Forsyte 

Inspector Richard Left is on a much deserved holiday when he becomes involved with an archaeological expedition to the recently discovered, spongy remains of an ancient Greek shipwreck where Roman coins had been found. But his holiday is totally ruined when one of the divers is harpooned under seemingly impossible circumstances. Another winner filled alibis, clues, false solution and a very fallible detective. 


Murder with Minarets (1968) by Charles Forsyte 

Diplomatic Death and Diving Death are purely plot-driven affairs, but Murder with Minarets is a character-driven mystery, in the style of Agatha Christie, which takes place inside the domestic and social bubble of the British Embassy staff in Ankara, Turkey. Clues are cleverly dropped in casual conversations or meaningless patter. So my suspicion is that Vicky had bigger hand in the plotting/writing, but the solution had a surprisingly technical aspect and betrayed that this was not a solo effort. Either way, they deserve to be reprinted. 


The Devil Drives (1932) by Virgil Markham 

I described The Devil Drives in my review as a bundle of contradictions with a loose, episodic plot stitched together with a string of coincidences and there's no earthly reason why it should have worked, but, somehow, it worked surprisingly well – topped with a very unusual locked room-trick. 


The Sulu Sea Murders (1933) by Van Wyck Mason 

A highly readable combination of the traditional, plot-driven detective story and the pulp-style adventure thriller in which Captain Hugh North chases the murderer of pearl diver to a military island fortress. A place that soon becomes the scene of a manhunt and an impossible murder at the top of a guarded tower. So far my favorite in the series! 


The Whistling Legs (1945) by Roman McDougald 

A textbook example of how to erect a twisted, maze-like plot crawling with solid shadows, a rival detective, a frightened cat and seemingly impossible crimes – blending the hardboiled with the plot-driven detective story along the way. There even was a particular clever reason why the detective had to be knocked unconscious. 


Policeman in Armour (1937) by Rupert Penny 

Penny's redemption! Sealed Room Murder (1949) was an atrociously paced, tortuous to read mystery, but Policeman in Armour showed Penny as an old-fashioned craftsman who constructed a maze-like plot around a quasi-impossible stabbing. A crime in which the murderer had plot a path through, or pass, doors with noisy locks, closed windows, occupied rooms and ticking clocks. So not a bad penny after all. 


Original Sin (1991) by Mary Monica Pulver 

This novel was spotlighted by Brian Skupin in Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019) as a rarity of the 1990s, a good locked room mystery, but what Pulver wrote was so much more than merely an impossible crime novel. Original Sin appears on the surface to be one of those many, often futile attempts at recreating the snowbound country house mystery, but Pulver actually succeeded in summoning the spirit of the Golden Age. You can feel its present throughout the story and how it interacts with the present day plot-threads is a work of art. 


The Heel of Achilles (1950) by E. and M.A. Radford 

Unlike the previous entries in the series, the eighth Dr. Harry Manson novel is an inverted mystery with the first part showing what lead up to the murder and the second half detailing the impersonal police investigation. The Heel of Achilles is one of the most intelligently plotted inverted mysteries demonstrated that every contact leave traces. No matter how hard the murderer tried to alter or erase those traces. 


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

An ancient, unseen evil is held responsible for the deaths of a succession owners of a black, ugly looking château on the French Riviera, but Dr. Harry Manson finds a murderer of flesh-and-blood. A murderer who found an ingenious way to dispatch an entire family. One of the last glowing embers on the hearth of the Golden Age and as good as anything by John Rhode. Good news: Dean Street Press seems to have plans to reprint this one.


The Bloody Tower (1938) by John Rhode 

Rhode was the Engineer of Crime and there's an example of his craftsmanship within the pages of The Bloody Tower, but this time, Rhode dispenses with the technical how-was-it-done to treat his readers to a pure whodunit with a cleverly executed historical plot-thread – concerning an 18th century code and a gloomy tower. Very Carr-like without having to lean on an impossible crime to do so! 


The Woman in the Wardrobe (1951) by Peter Shaffer 

A long out-of-print, eagerly sought after collector's item with an almost mythical reputation as both a clever parody of the detective story and a brilliant locked room mystery, which is more often than not a recipe for bitter disappointment. The Woman in the Wardrobe actually lived up to expectations and the only thing that can be held against it is its shortness, but even that was somewhat remedied with sketched of all the characters by Nicholas Bentley (son of E.C. Bentley). A bright spot in an otherwise abysmal year. Hopefully, the equally obscure, hard-to-get Withered Murder (1955) will be reprinted next year. 


The Death of Laurence Vining (1928) by Alan Thomas 

The Death of Laurence Vining is another elusive, long out-of-print detective novel with a tantalizing reputation as an original locked room mystery with a brilliant spin on Sherlock Holmes. I can tell you it more than lives up to its reputation. A Sherlock Holmes-like figure is murdered while traveling alone in a moving, closely watched elevator and it falls to his Watson to help the police find the murderer. Good news! Curt Evans announced in the comments of my review that he has “plans afoot to get all his books back in print.” 


The Joe Bain Mysteries (1966-67) by Jack Vance. 

The tragedy of my second favorite discovery of 2020, Jack Vance's short-lived Sheriff Joe Bain series, is that they were written a good twenty years too late. The Fox Valley Murders (1966) and The Pleasant Grove Murders (1967) gives the reader a glimpse what the genre would have looked like, if the Golden Age had continued into the 1960s and beyond – which adds Vance to the Lost Generation who were briefly active in the sixties. Such as Kip Chase and Charles Forsyte. Vance's bare bones plot outline/unfinished manuscript, “The Genesee Slough Murders” (1966), could have been another winner with a kicker of a motive. 


Death Knell (1990) by Nicholas Wilde 

An unexpected and surprising discovery! A locked room murder mystery for teenagers written in the spirit of John Dickson Carr, Paul Halter and Derek Smith. Two 14-year-old boys, Tim and Jamie, spend the winter holiday in old-world Norfolk. They become involved in a strange case when they find a body in a haunted crypt with the door not only locked from the inside, but blocked by a giant stone with a legend attached to it. This is easily one of the best juvenile locked room mysteries I've read to date and deserves to be reprinted.


Honjin satsujin jiken (The Honjin Murders, 1946) by Seishi Yokomizo 

The eagerly, long-awaited second translation of the giant of the honkaku era and a classic of the Japanese locked room mystery, which also marks the first appearance of his iconic detective, Kosuke Kindaichi. A problem concerning the slaughter of a groom and his bride on their wedding night in a building surrounded by untouched snow with a brilliantly tricky solution. Japanese may have arrived relatively late on the scene, but when they picked up steam, they performed miracles with the detective story. And they're still in their Second Golden Age!


THE BEST SHORT STORIES READ IN 2020 (collections):

The Bullet from Beyond and Other Ben Snow (a selection) by Edward D. Hoch

“The Headless Horseman of Buffalo Creek” 

“The Daughters of Crooked River”

“The San Augustin Miracle”


The Helm of Hades (2019) by Paul Halter

 “The Ladder of Jacob”

“The Scarecrow's Revenge”

“The Yellow Book”

“The Robber's Grave” 


Hoch's Ladies (2020) by Edward D. Hoch

“A Parcel of Deerstalkers”

“An Abundance of Airbags”

“A Shower of Daggers”

“The Invisible Intruder”

“The Cactus Killer” 


Locked and Loaded (a selection)

H.C. Kincaid's “Murder on a Bet”

Francis Bonnamy's “The Loaded House”

Charles B. Child's “The Thumbless Man”

David Braly's “The Gallowglass”


The Red Locked Room (2020) by Tetsuya Ayukawa

“The White Locked Room”

“Whose Body?”

“Death in Early Spring”

“The Clown in the Tunnel”

“The Red Locked Room” 




Anthony Abbot's “About the Disappearance of Agatha King” (1932)

Jerry Coleman's “The Super-Key to Fort Superman” (1958)

MORI Hiroshi's “Sekitō no yane kazan” (“The Rooftop Ornaments of Stone Ratha,” 1999)

Edward D. Hoch's “The Flying Fiend” (1982)

Edward D. Hoch's “The Theft of the White Queen's Menu” (1983)

Louis L'Amour's “The Hills of Homicide” (1948)

Thomas Narcejac's “L'orchideé rouge” (“The Red Orchid,” 1947)

Arthur Porges' “In Compartment 813” (1966)

Bill Pronzini and Jeffrey Wellmann's The Half-Invisible Man” (1974)

Mike Wiecek's “The End of the Train” (2007)




De hond was executeur (The Dog Was Executor, 1973) 

I hunted down a copy on the strength of the cover art, which suggested an impossible crime, but it turned out to be an anti-detective story with a social conscience. So it left me both disappointed and dissatisfied, but had fun constructing my own locked room situation and solution from the various story-and plot elements.


Death Under the Moonflower (1939) by Todd Downing

I was unable to finish this mind-numbingly boring, atrociously paced story. 


The Five Red Fingers (1929) by Brian Flynn 

Flynn is one of the most important rediscoveries of the past few years, but The Five Red Fingers was disappointing with too many red herrings smothering the genuine clues and a coincidence-laden explanation with one of them bordering on an Act of God – ruining a detective story that started out promising enough. So don't start here when you decide to pick up this excellent series. 


The Rotary Club Murder Mystery (1993) by Graham Landru 

Admittedly, this one started out promising with its multiple narrators and an 88-year-old widow, Mrs. Harriet Bushrow, investigating an apparent suicide in a chain-bolted motel room, but ended in disaster with both the author and cover artist lying to the reader. Even by 1990s standards, The Rotary Club Murder Mystery is a poor specimen of the locked room mystery. 


Demons' Moon (1951) by Colin Robertson 

A good example of a bad detective novel and why some writers are forgotten today, which came to my attention through an error in Brian Skupin's Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019). I livened up my review with a short overview of obscure, odd and anomalous entries in Skupin.


I wish everyone of you a Merry Christmas!


Policeman's Evidence (1938) by Rupert Penny

Back in January, I took a second look at "Rupert Penny," penname of E.B.C. Thornett, whose promising-sounding Sealed Room Murder (1941) was such an ordeal to read that it put me off his work for nearly a decade, but "JJ," of The Invisible Event, kept singing his praises – culminating with "Policeman's Lot – Ranking the Edward Beale Novels of Rupert Penny." Policeman in Armour (1937) came in third on that list as Penny at his "most presentable" with a plot that unrolls with "seamless efficiency." Shockingly, Jim was right and Penny redeemed. 

So, hoping lightening will strike twice, I consulted the list to help pick my third Chief Inspector Beale novel, but decided not to go with his #1, The Lucky Policeman (1938), because that would be too much like playing Russian roulette. It's Jim we're talking about. I played it save and picked one of Penny's two (not three) locked room mysteries, Policeman's Evidence (1938), which is #5 on the list, but Jim named it his personal favorite. Let's see how this penny stacks up. 

Policeman's Evidence marks fifth appearance of Chief Inspector Edward Beale, who narrates the second-half of the book, but the first portion of the story is told by his friend, Tony Purdon.

Purdon is staying at the Gloucestershire country home of an acquaintance, Major Francis Adair, who's a "crack experts on codes and ciphers" and "a civilized bully," which are two qualities that are relevant to what's to come. Eighteen months ago, Adair bought an old leather-bound volume written in a kind of shorthand he hadn't seen before and was determined to decode, and translate, the private shorthand as a personal challenge, but the text revealed the history of the Mauberley family – particular of its last surviving member, Jasper Mauberley. A "cantankerous cripple" who lived as a recluse until he died in 1706 without leaving a trace behind of his purported wealth. So everyone assumed at the time Jasper had been poor instead of mean-spirited, but the shorthand diary proposes that "the clue to the whole matter should be found in the panelled room" near the end of the Long Gallery. Adair has plenty of money, a strain of avarice and enough mule's logic to purchase Mauberley Grange. Setting the stage for an all out treasure hunt!

When he arrives at Mauberley Grange, Purdon finds a curiously and mixed household of family members, guests and employees. Adair is a widower with a daughter, Tilly, who's "ugly as Anubis" and is treated abysmally by everyone. He also has an adopted daughter, Lina Hipple, who he treats as if she was his real daughter and the apple of his eye. Hinkson is Adair's personal secretary and had been engaged on account of his own knowledge of ciphers, but only after his predecessor, Warner, got sacked for theft. Apparently, Warner now bears a grudge, which is why Adair also hired a gangland-type bodyguard, Buck. Roger Montague is another "queer bird" and an old friend of Adair who has various ailments and bored, cynical demeanor. Finally, there a various servants such as the cook, chauffeur-gardener and the butler.

So there's enough animosity and greed bubbling underneath the surface of Adair's household without a treasure hunt among people who either hate his guts or need money. Something that becomes only too apparent when the long hidden clue is found with "a token of the real treasure," an unset, pea-sized ruby, and another homemade shorthand cipher. The ruby disappears, perhaps stolen, while an intruder attacks the butler. Purdon asks his hosts to extend an invitation to his friend.

Chief Inspector Edward Beale barely crossed the threshold of Mauberley Grange or the butler announces he was bringing Adair his customary evening sandwiches and hot milk, but he doesn't answer his knocking and it becomes clear they have to break open the door, which had been locked on the inside and double bolted – top and bottom. And when the door crashed open, Beale found Adair's body slumped in a chair with an automatic pistol lying on the floor. The window was covered with a makeshift, two-part wooden partition locked on the inside with a padlock, which can be fastened only with a key that was found inside Adair's pocket. One of the clearest cases of suicide, but Beale wants to be sure and this poses a problem. Penny came up with an original solution to Beale's quandary.

Since the case looks undeniably like a suicide, Beale needs to find authoritative grounds to stick around and not give people a reason to ask why he's still hanging around. So he makes a few phone calls and several hours later a telegram arrives to inform them that the place is placed in a two week quarantine, because a suspect Beale had interviewed was diagnosed with hospital smallpox. The gates into the road were padlocked and supplies were tossed over it. But, hey, who knew that rambling, badly kept 300-year-old place so closely resembled a house of the future ready for that 2020 lifestyle.

Anyway, the quarantine gives Beale all the room and time to carefully examine the supposed suicide, which comes with some quasi-self awareness as locked room mystery. There's the obligatory reference to John Dickson Carr's Locked Room Lecture from The Hollow Man (1935) with a promising line that "nowadays nobody dares write a sealed-room mystery" unless he's found, or thinks he has, "a new method for eventually unsealing his room" – tailed by a tabulation of all the facts and a challenge to the reader. So, far, so good, but it's the solution that left me in two minds about Policeman's Evidence. If you strip the story down to its bare essence, you're left with the pulpy, second-string mystery I associate with John Russell Fearn and Gerald Verner. Something that's particular true for who's behind the murder, but the locked room-trick itself is also nothing more than a redressing of an age-old trick. What prevented me from either hating it or having to write a lukewarm review?

Penny did nothing noteworthy with the treasure hunt, subsequent murder or the locked room puzzle, but what he did with it, he did very well with some solid detective work and good piece of misdirection that briefly fooled me. Even the locked room-trick, while done before, was played perfectly. Penny made lemonade out of lemons with Policeman's Evidence and the end product, somehow, managed to be better than ingredients used to make it. I don't know how he did it, but he did and that says something about his talents as a plotter and writer. So, yeah, I kind of misjudged him based on a single bad penny. And, perhaps, it's time to excavate The Talkative Policeman (1936) from the subterranean caverns of Mt. To-be-Read.

Yes, Jim was right again, but, in order to keep up appearances, I've to vehemently disagree with his five-star rating of the book. Five stars is preposterous! A solid, three-star rating is much fairer reflection of a well-handled plot that, perhaps, promised more than it eventually delivered without losing the reader at the finish line.