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 BEST DETECTIVE NOVELS READ IN 2020:
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.
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”
“Death in Early Spring”
“The Clown in the Tunnel”
“The Red Locked Room”
SINGLE SHORT STORIES:
Anthony Abbot's “About the Disappearance of Agatha King” (1932)
Jerry Coleman's “The Super-Key to Fort Superman” (1958)
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)
THE WORST OR MOST DISAPPOINTING READS OF 2020:
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!