Sable Messenger (1947) by Francis Vivian

Back in 2018, Dean Street Press resurrected another, long out-of-print and forgotten mystery novelist, Arthur E. Ashley, who produced eighteen crime-and detective novels from 1937 to 1959 under his penname of "Francis Vivian" – half of them starring his series-detective, Inspector Gordon Knollis. Vivian's work often straddles the line between the traditional detective story and the then slowly, more character-oriented crime novel with various degrees of success. I wasn't too impressed with The Sleeping Island (1951), a drab, gloomy affair, but The Threefold Cord (1947), The Laughing Dog (1949) and The Singing Masons (1950) were more than deserving of being lifted from obscurity. The Elusive Bowman (1951) distinguished by being one of those very rare, archery-themed mysteries. 

I wanted to continue rooting around in the series, but Vivian and Knollis were buried under an avalanche of Christopher Bush and Brian Flynn reprints rolling of the DSP printing press. A return to Vivian has been long overdue and there has been one title, in particular, that caught my attention. 

Sable Messenger (1947) is the second entry in the Inspector Knollis series and synopsis promised a detective story along the lines of Bush "a crime with no apparent motive" and "a host of alibis," which has to be broken down, one by one, before the situation can be resolved – except that the story played out very differently than expected. The final chapter is almost a story by itself, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The story begins with the statement that "if Lesley Dexter had not been a snob her husband might have lived out his three-score-and-ten years." Robert Dexter "wanted to flow easily through life" and enjoy his hobby, collecting Elizabethan poetry and plays, but Lesley had "ideas of advancement by rush methods." She pushed him to study all the subjects that would help him get promoted and began climbing the ladder to become the manager of the Packing Department of the Groots Chemicals Limited. A remarkable accomplish considering his age and size of the company. So they moved from their humble lodgings in Denby Street to Himalaya Villa in River Close. One of the better suburbs where Lesley could play the socialite and get her name in the local paper as being 'among those present' at various functions.

So nothing out of the ordinary, for the English, but, one night, Lesley is keeping Robert awake with her modern poetry and she hears someone knocking on the door of their next door neighbors, the Rawleys. She overhears Margot Rawley directing the midnight visitor to their house and this person gently begins to tap on their front door. Robert goes down stairs to answer the door, but Lesley heard him swear, "oh hell," followed by a thud. And then silence. When Lesley went down to see what happened to her husband, she finds Robert lying on a blood soaked doormat with a knife wound in his chest. The man-in-black with the black velour trilby hat is nowhere to be found.

Inspector Russett, chief of the Burnham Criminal Investigation Department, is immediately sidetracked by the Chief Constable, Sir Wilfrid Burrows, who asks the Yard to immediately dispatch Inspector Gordon Knollis to River Close. Knollis used to hold Russett's position until he solved The Death of Mr. Lomas (1941) and was requisitioned by the Yard, because "the war had justified many unconventional happenings." Now he returns to his old stomping ground with his good natured, intelligent assistant, Sergeant Ellis.

Knollis and Ellis have to cover a lot of ground and collect a ton of puzzle pieces as they attempt to make sense out of a coldblooded murder without the slightest trace of a motive. All though one part of the solution kind of stands out, "it looked all too complicated" and "there were loose ends sticking out at all angles." So, to the reader, Sable Messenger is more of a what-happened and why than a whodunit and you can't help but think the murderer is a complete idiot. As the story progressed, I kept being reminded of that quote from R. Austin Freeman's Dr. John Thorndyke how "the cautious murderer, in his anxiety to make himself secure, does too much" and "it this excess of precaution that leads to detection" – of which Sable Messenger is a textbook example. Such as the cleverly contrived, but insanely risky, alibi-trick. One that never stood a chance when closely scrutinized by the police. If the murderer had simply killed him on his way to work or home and took his wallet, Knollis would have had a very difficult job delivering the murderer to the hangman ("the sable messenger, whose errand knows no mercy").

So, while the bulk of the plot is uneven, the second-half and the last chapter elevated Sable Messenger to a slightly above average mystery novel. Firstly, there's the solution to the presence of the man-in-black and you'll probably crack a smile when you learn what it is. Something you either spot or completely miss. Secondly, the last chapter has a plot (of sorts) of its own when a second crime occurs in River Close. A mysterious man knocking on a front door, but was not seen by the policemen guarding the area and swore no one had entered the close. Yes, an impossible crime that comes with an apparently cast-iron alibi for the culprit. Knollis demolishes the problem almost as quickly as it was presented, but it served its purpose as it made the story, as a whole, suddenly appear much stronger than it actually was. 

Sable Messenger is perhaps not the best entry in the series, but the plot has some clever, if sometimes impractical, touches and the last chapter acted as forceful punctuation mark that helped raise up the weaker aspects of the plot. So not the best place to be begin, but, if you already like Vivian and Knollis, you shouldn't ignore it either.

Well, that about wraps it up for 2021. I wish you all a Happy New Year and hope to see back here in 2022!


A Tough One to Lose (1972) by Tony Kenrick

Tony Kenrick is an Australian author who started out in advertising and worked as a copywriter in America, Britain and Canada, but abandoned his career in advertising in 1972 to become a full-time writer specialized in comedic capers and heist thrillers – which earned him a favorable comparison to the work of Donald E. Westlake. A number of his novels were optioned or bought by Hollywood with only Faraday's Flower (1985) making it to the big screen as Shanghai Surprise (1986). 

So not a likely writer to wash up on this blog, but Kenrick's A Tough One to Lose (1972) is listed and highlighted in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991). Praising it as "a pacey, often humorous novel in which the author successfully de-and re-materialized a Jumbo Jet full of passengers." If memory serves me correctly, I have come across a vanishing aircraft only once before in Richard Forrest's Death Through the Looking Glass (1978). When a copy came my way, I snapped it up to see what it's all about.

First of all, Kenrick completely subverted my expectation of how the story would play out. I expected an all out, blockbuster-like heist thriller with the lives of 360 missing passengers and a multi-million dollar ransom at stake, but the story turned out to be surprisingly small scale, almost a traditional detective story, reminiscent of the comedic mysteries by Kelley Roos – like you're following around two side-characters away from the action. There's also this weird balance between the darker, thriller-ish aspects mixed in with the shenanigans of the two protagonists. Somehow, it worked better than it should have done.

William Verecker is a down on his luck lawyer who had been a junior partner in an old, conservative established firm until an embarrassing incident with a society hostess ended up in the paper. The "firm hadn't accepted the explanation and neither had his wife," Annie, who thought Verecker was a better boss than husband. So she came back to work as his secretary in his newly established law firm and mostly spend her working day "being sweet to the many people they owed money to and tough with the handful who owed them." This all changed when Verecker is contacted by an old Air Force buddy, Phil Rinlaub, who now works as a troubleshooter for one of the domestic airline giants, Calair. Rinlaub wants him to identity a pair cuff links belonging to a client of his. A client who's one of more than three hundred passengers caught up in the crime of the century, which is kept under tight wrap by the authorities.

Rinlaud tells Verecker in confidence that "Friday night somebody pulled a stunt that makes the Brink's job look like kid stuff" and called it "the Great Plane Robbery." A 747 Jumbo Jet going from San Francisco to New York vanished from radar about thirty minutes after the flight took off and the authorities quick began to suspect something was up. They couldn't get the passenger list out of the computer, duplicates of the tickets were missing and all the copies of the flight manifest had disappeared, which meant there's "a missing airplane full of people" they "had no record of" – a situation that went from bad to worse. Calair receives a package with items belonging to some of the passengers and a ransom demand of $25 million in uncut diamonds! How do you hide something the size of a Jumbo Jet and where do you store over three hundred hostages? The disappearance of the plane seems like an insoluble problem, but Verecker sees an opportunity to net a huge reward from the insurance company that would solve all their money problem. Verecker unwittingly has a clue in possession that the authorities are unaware of.

On the morning of Rinlaud's visit, Verecker played golf with a client and there was a row of holes on the fairway with burnt-out fireworks at the bottom, but, going back to the golf course to have a second look, he discovers a dozen holes set at ten-yard intervals. Like a makeshift landing strip with flares for a small airplane. A suspicion confirmed by the discovery of twin ruts and an oil slick. Excitedly, Verecker returns to Annie with a branch ("Wonderful. We can use it to beat off creditors") which he uses to make a clever deduction how they can figure out who landed there. So they have an inside track the authorities are unaware of. But don't expect a serious thriller.

William and Annie Verecker begin to follow up on their lead and get caught up absurd, sometimes hilarious situations throughout their investigation. Verecker's discovery at a supposedly empty school would not have been out of place in an episode of Jonathan Creek, while Annie's attempt at an undercover operation would have made Haila Troy proud. Their shenanigans are interspersed with the introductions of the hijackers who are referred to as "The Skycap," "The Bookie," "The Pilot," "The Stewardess" and two baggage men, but there's also a dark horse lurking in the background, "The Bomber." A character who deserved his own novel, because he has a very novel motive. Whenever they appear, together or alone, the story becomes more serious in tone. Such as some of their background stories or when they feel drastic action have to be taken against that meddling lawyer and his ex-wife/secretary, which should have struck a jarring note with the comedic stylings of the Vereckers. But didn't.

So what about the plot? That's a mixed bag of nuts and bolts. Firstly, Kenrick came up with a good solution how (theoretically) a giant airplane with more than three hundred people aboard can disappear and stay hidden, while everyone from the FBI to the insurance investigators are combing the state with a fine tooth-comb, but a few details of the plan were a little hard to swallow – mostly to do with numbers. However, it was something different from what you might expect, because there's only so much you can do to explain away vanishing rooms, houses, streets, trains and airplanes. I appreciate the Vereckers were bouncing false-solutions back and forth throughout the story. Some were more seriously than others ("a 747 was too big to disguise as a diner"), but I thought the half-serious suggestion the hijackers "dug a hole in the desert big enough to take a 747" was as interesting as it was impractical. And the one with a foreign hijacker being flown in to disguise a mass murder as a skyjacking/kidnapping was as practical as it was dark. That trick would probably have worked better (especially in 1972) than the one they settled on.

So that's something the more traditionally-minded mystery reader can enjoy, but don't expect too much from everything surrounding the mystery of the vanishing airplane. Not every detail is fully explained, one plot-thread is left unresolved and the fascinating clues that were introduced during the second-half turned out to be of little relevance to the solution. But, then again, A Tough One to Lose was not written and plotted like a full-blown, traditional detective novel. Kenrick wrote a crime caper that went for both laughs and thrills. In addition to the impossible crime at the center of the plot with all its false-solutions certainly makes it an item of interest to obsessed fans of locked room and impossible crime fiction.


Murder in Retrospect: The Best and Worst of 2021


Well, it's that time of the year again. The yearly roundup of the best and worst detective novels and short stories, past and present, read in 2021. Traditionally, the list is dominated by locked room mysteries and the Golden Age detective stories, but the non-English (untranslated) have a strong representation this year in addition to a surprising number of rereads. So, in spite of my personal taste, a very varied list and, hopefully, it will help fatten some of your 2022 wishlists. 

So, before running down the list, I want to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy 2022!


About the Murder of the Night Club Lady (1931) by Anthony Abbot 

One of the best and strongest novels in the Thatcher Colt series. This time, the Police Commissioner of Greater New York is faced with an inexplicable murder in a top floor penthouse and a second body miraculously materializing on the thoroughly searched, closely guarded premise. A criminally underappreciated locked room mystery blazing with all the ingenuity of the 1930s. 

Operazakan aratanaru satsujin (The New Kindaichi Files, 1994) by Seimaru Amagi 

A landmark story in The Kindaichi Case Files franchise as it marked Hajime Kindaichi's first return to Hotel Opera, on Utashima Island, where he solved his first multi-murder case. Four years later, the original theatrical hotel had been torn down and rebuild to stage a new adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, but then a new murderer takes the stage and crushes an actress underneath an enormous chandelier in the auditorium – which had been completely locked up at the time. A first-rate theatrical mysteries and one of my favorite stories from the series. 

Ikazuchi matsuri satsujin jiken (Deadly Thunder, 1998) by Seimaru Amagi 

A relatively minor mystery novel and entry in the Kindaichi series, but has an impressive, small-scale piece of world-building as Hajime Kindaichi and Miyuki Nanase travel to a remote village to visit a former classmate – a place with its own unique culture and traditions. Such as the three-day Thunder Festival and a rare kind of clay used for pottery. This provides the background for a cleverly construed murder of the impossible variety involving something else that made isolated village famous in certain circles. A wild variety and sheer number of cicadas. 

The Mystery of the Disappearing Cat (1944) by Enid Blyton 

Yes, a children's detective story, but Blyton proved with The Mystery of the Vanishing Thief (1950) and The Rilloby Fair Mystery (1950) that she could plot. And knew how to handle an impossible crime situation. The Mystery of the Disappearing Cat belongs on that list as The Five Find-Outers and Dog try to clear a friend under suspicion of having stole a prize-winning cat. Not a problem that will fool any adult reader, but fairly clued and perfectly suitable for its intended audience. Surprisingly mature and unpleasant in some aspects. 

The Case of the Unfortunate Village (1932) by Christopher Bush 

A surprisingly unassuming, character-driven, but still thoroughly absorbing, story plotted around a series of incidents, personality changes and accidents that have changed the mood in the village of Bableigh for the worst. A very original, first-class village mystery. 

The Case of the Curious Client (1947) by Christopher Bush 

One of the more tidiest whodunits Bush wrote during the late '40s with a solution that got more out of the plot than went into it, but the story is also an interesting additional to the library of (post) World War II mysteries with a plot rooted in the pre-war period. And it's always a pleasure to see Travers reunited with Wharton. 

The Three Coffins (1935) by John Dickson Carr (a reread)

This is one of Carr's landmark novels and a monument of the locked room mystery, but, over the past fifteen years, The Three Coffins status as a classic underwent a devaluation as readers today find it not very technically sound – missing the point completely. The Three Coffins is the utterly bizarre and fantastic done right with all the logic of a mad dream. An impressive juggling act, which tiptoed across a slippery tightrope, reaching the end without the very tricky, maze-like plot becoming an incomprehensible mess. This is an almost otherworldly performance only few mystery writers are capable of producing. Carr was one of them. 

The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939) by John Dickson Carr (a reread)

A double triumph as Carr demonstrated he didn't need seemingly impossible crimes to create truly baffling, maze-like plots and presented the reader here with a murder during a psychological experiment to proof the unreliability of eyewitnesses – a murder both witnessed and filmed. One of the pleasures of rereading Carr is noticing how daringly he dangles clues or even the truth in front of your eyes. Or simply admiring how he created a psychological blind spot where he hid the murderer. 

The Libertines (1978) by Douglas Clark 

An earnest, rock-solid continuation of the Golden Age traditional, but Clark disguised his traditionally-styled plots as contemporary police procedurals. This time, George Masters and Bill Green have to bring clarity to two closely-linked poisonings during a cricket fortnight at a large farmhouse. 

Golden Rain (1980) by Douglas Clark 

This novel about the poisoning of the beloved headmistress and benevolent dictator of Bramthorpe College for Girls begins slowly and delays the most important plot-pieces until the second-half, but the end result is excellent. Another neo-Golden Age detective novel masquerading as a modern police procedural. 

Murder on the Orient Express (1934) by Agatha Christie (a reread)

This another one-time classic whose status has been called into question during the internet era, but, to me, Murder on the Orient Express is to the closed-circle whodunit Carr's The Three Coffins is to the locked room mystery. The completely fantastical and unbelievable done convincing with the most memorable cast of characters and setting in the genre. So the plot had to fit such a grand stage and assembly of characters. And it did! 

Evil Under the Sun (1941) by Agatha Christie (a reread)

One of Christie's triumphant masterpieces that's often overshadowed by her even bigger and more famous masterpieces, but Evil Under the Sun is a first-rate entry in the Hercule Poirot series as his holiday is cut short by the murder of a well-known actress – which he neatly solves. Having read the novel before, I could sit back and admire the brazen clueing and shrewd misdirection. She created an apparently maze-like plot without an exit while the open door was in plain sight the entire time! 

Six Against the Yard (1936) by The Detection Club 

Technically, this is a collection of short stories and should be mentioned below, but it seemed to fit in better here as the stories form a very novel collective. Six members of the London-based Detection Club, some better known and remembered than others, match wits with Superintendent Cornish. Can the real life detective unravel the schemes of the Merchants of Murder? Superintendent Cornish was no Lestrade and demonstrated the police has one advantage over the amateur criminal: a ton of experience. 

The Reader is Warned (1939) by Carter Dickson (a reread)

An underrated, low-key masterpiece in which Sir Henry Merrivale is confronted who claims to possess telepathic powers. Allowing him to read minds, predict the future and kill with his mind. There are several, seemingly inexplicable, deaths to back up his claim, but the Old Man is not that easily tricked. A nigh perfectly plotted detective novel and a masterclass in cavalier clueing and devious misdirection! 

Rechercheur De Klerck en moord in scène (Inspector De Klerck and Murder on the Scene, 2021) by P. Dieudonné (untranslated)

I was initially a little skeptical when the synopsis was released as the plot is centered on a deadly rivalry between two rap groups in Rotterdam, but Dieudonné proved in his previous four novels, like Rechercheur De Klerck en de ongrijpbare dood (Inspector De Klerck and the Elusive Death, 2020), he was not another pale imitation of the late Appie Baantjer. There's more rhyme and reason to the seemingly ordinary and sordid crimes De Klerck and Klaver have under investigation, which turn out to be set to a very familiar and classical tune. A late-minute highlight of 2021!

Twenty-Five Sanitary Inspectors (1935) by Roger East 

The last novel in a short-lived series of proto-police procedurals in which the now retired ex-Superintendent Simmy Simmonds becomes embroiled in sabotage, murder and political intrigue on a fictitious, pocket-sized island republic in the West Indies – ruled over a by generalissimo. During the first-half, the story appeared to go nowhere with Simmonds' situation and his comic opera police force being played for laughs, but the ending revealed a deviously planned whodunit with an original motive. 

The Fortescue Candle (1936) by Brian Flynn 

A little loosely plotted in parts with one plot-thread annoyingly left unresolved, but nonetheless a detective story as intriguing as it's intricate with Flynn tying together the shooting of an unpopular Home Secretary and the poisoning of a stage actress. While some parts were better handled than others, the solution is far from disappointing and an example why this has become a household series of Dean Street Press. 

The Ebony Stag (1938) by Brian Flynn 

Admittedly, this is not the strongest title in the Anthony Bathurst series, but it's a tremendously entertaining one and, surprisingly, contained a locked room-puzzle not recorded in either Adey or Skupin. However, the impossibility is only a small part of this old-fashioned whodunit involving a very strange weapon, false-identities, hidden alibis, coded messages and a historical mystery. 

Glittering Prizes (1942) by Brian Flynn 

This one is a perfect example of Flynn's versatility as both a plotter and storyteller. A rich, elderly American widow who puts her entire fortune at the disposal of the British Empire to combat the Nazi menace. She handpicked nine men and women with outstanding public records and put them through a test to see which two would receive a small fortune to help protect their way of life, but the game turns into a sensational murder case when the winners are found murdered under bizarre circumstances. A case in point why Flynn has more than deserving of being rediscovered. 

Murder and the Married Virgin (1944) by Brett Halliday 

A hard-paced, hardboiled private eye novel in which Mike Shayne is hired by distraught army lieutenant to find out why his fiance committed a suicide a day before they were to met at the altar. Or was she perhaps murdered? One of the better attempts at the time at combining the hardboiled private eye with the impossible crime. As solid as a sock on the jaw!

La toile de Pénélope (Penelope's Web, 2001) by Paul Halter 

I've been hoping and waiting for a translation of Penelope's Web ever since reading Xavier enticing review back in the late 2000s. So not only was it very satisfying to finally have the book available in English, but it mostly lived up to my expectations. A very well done, Agatha Christie-style whodunit with an unusual impossible murder in a locked room with the open window covered with an intricately-woven, unbroken web. My sole complaint is that the second victim would have made a great (one-shot) detective character.

La maison interdite (The Forbidden House, 1932) by Michel Herbert & Eugène Wyl 

Arguably the best French-language locked room mystery novel from the 1930s and '40s to come out of John Pugmire's Locked Room International. A masterpiece worthy of the label that not only asks who, why and how the crime was committed, but also who the detective is going to be. A story curiously prescient of Leo Bruce's Case for Three Detectives (1936).

Blind Man's Bluff (1943) by Baynard Kendrick 

Baynard Kendrick created a unique link between the comic book superhero and capeless crusader from the pulp magazines of the 1940s in the guise of a detective, Captain Duncan Maclain, who lost his eyesight during the First World War and had a superhero-like training to become a private eye – directly inspiring the creation of Daredevil. This novel ranks with The Whistling Hangman (1937) as the best the series has to offer as Maclain has to contend on his own with a string of suicides which were very likely disguised murder. A pulp-style rendition of John Dickson Carr's The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) with the only drawback being that it lacked the showmanship and magical touch of the master.

The Three Taps (1927) by Ronald A. Knox 

A humorously written and cleverly plotted detective novel, crammed with clues, detectives and false-solution, which read like a portent of things to come and possibly influenced some of the celebrated British mystery writers of the 1930s – like Anthony Berkeley and Leo Bruce. Only drawback is that one of the false-solution is somewhat better than the actual solution. 

Shijinso no satsujin (Death Among the Undead, 2017) by Masahiro Imarura 

A modern classic that "made enormous waves in the world of Japanese mystery fiction" by blurring the lines between the detective and horror genres without compromising the integrity of either. Death Among the Undead is an ingenious, traditionally-plotted detective novel, but set during a small, localized zombie apocalypse that added a new dimension to both the closed-circle situation and locked room mystery. A very rare success story of the hybrid mystery novel that can only be likened to Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel (1954). 

A Talent for War (1989) by Jack McDevitt 

This science-fiction series came to my attention because it was compared to Ellery Queen and McDevitt cited G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown as a huge influence on it. Alex Benedict is an antique dealer who solves historical mysteries ten thousand years into the future when humanity had formed a troubled, multi-world Confederacy. I loved the world-building with a fascinating historical mystery surrounding 200-year-old lost warship. 

Polaris (2004) by Jack McDevitt 

The sequel to A Talent for War with more focus on the historical, space-age mystery plot than world-building, which concerns the Mary Celeste-like disappearance of a scientific expedition who were observing the destruction of an ancient star system by a white dwarf. But there's much more to this very tricky, complicated plot with a truly horrifying crime at the heart of story. 

The Key to the Case (1992) by Roger Ormerod 

This criminally underrated entry in Ormerod's Richard and Amelia Patton series represents his best attempt to consolidate the traditional, plot-oriented detective story with the gritty, character-driven crime novel of modern times – centering on the murder of a convicted rapist and suspected murderer. A murder that took place in a hermetically sealed, practically fortified house and the who is even better than the how. 

A Shot at Nothing (1993) by Roger Ormerod 

An honest and successful attempt at imagining what the Golden Age mystery novel would look like in the '90s and it feels like the genuine article. There are some modern touches and smudges to the plot, but, on a whole, it's very handled and particular the impossible crime in combination with the second murder. 

She Had to Have Gas (1939) by Rupert Penny 

There's not much I can say to sum up this utterly strange detective novel except to quote my own review, "one of the most delightfully bizarre, ambitiously plotted and convoluted curiosities of the genre's Golden Age."

The Stolen Gold Affair (2020) by Bill Pronzini 

There are several plot-strands that make up this novel, but the one that can be called "The Monarch Mine Case" is what earned the book a spot on this list. John Quincannon goes both undercover and underground to dismantle a high-grading operation, but finds himself in a tight corner when an impossible murder occurs in a closely watched crosscut. A mine is such a great setting for a detective story! 

Hoteldebotel in een hotel (Pell-Mell in a Hotel, 2021) by Eugenius Quak (untranslated)

An ambitious, madcap and pulp-style homage to Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen in which outlaw detective and wanted fugitive, Eugenius M. Quak, goes into hiding at his aunt's beach side hotel, De Rode Haring (The Red Herring). Everything goes hilariously wrong when a guest dies under suspicious circumstances and the hotel is overrun with policemen, which forces Quak to do some highly unorthodox detective work. This detective novel has everything. A plot stuffed to the gills with clues, red herrings, false-solutions and challenges to the reader, but everything fitted together logically and satisfactory in spite of all the madcappery. What a shame neither the traditional nor the pulp-style of detective fiction is so unpopular in my country. 

The Frightened Stiff (1942) by Kelley Roos (a reread)

This is one of my all-time favorite comedic mysteries and should be the measure stick of the murder-can-be-fun school. A genuinely funny detective story in which the newlywed Jeff and Haila Troy overhear a man in a telephone booth planning to meet someone in the basement of the Greenwich Village apartment they moved into, which ends with a body in their garden and police knocking on their door. Tom and Enid Schantz wrote in their introduction that the series gives reader a snapshot of "what it was like to be young and in love in the New York of the 1940s" when "mysteries were meant to be fun," but it should not be overlooked the plots are generally better than found in other series with bantering, mystery solving husband-and-wife teams. So, yes, this one more than stood up to rereading. 

Lamb to the Slaughter (1995) by Jennifer Rowe 

The last novel in the now largely forgotten, long out-of-print Verity Birdwood series that admirably found a balance between the modern, character-driven crime novel and the traditional detective story. Lamb to the Slaughter has a modern exterior with its cast of characters coming from the bottom rungs of society, who have to deal with an unpleasant, recently freed murderer returning to their neighborhood, but appearances can be deceiving – used here to both hide a clever plot and misdirect the reader. A bright light in the dim nineties of the traditional detective story. 

The Listening House (1938) by Mabel Seeley 

Arguably one of the strongest debuts from the American Golden Age and praised, past and present, as "spirited updating of the HIBK novel," but with a much grittier edge. More importantly, it has a plot that twists, turns and coils like a snake lost in a hedge-maze exposing the peril of being an amateur detective along the way. The two well-done locked room mystery were the icing on the cake. 

De moord op het sloependek (The Murder on the Boat Deck, 1941) by Vanno (untranslated)

Only a second-string detective novel compared to its American and British contemporaries, but a surprising and welcome addition to the too short list of genuine, Dutch-language Golden Age mystery. The story takes place during a pleasure cruise in the Aegean Sea when a murder of the impossible variety cuts short the holiday of Inspector Barry D. Weston and that amateur detective of some notoriety, Charles Venno. 

Moord onder astrologen (Murder Among Astrologists, 1963) by Ton Vervoort (untranslated)

Now this was a pleasant surprise! I picked this barely remembered, long out-of-print Dutch detective novel as a contrast to W.H. van Eemlandt's astronomically-themed Dood in schemer (Death in Half-Light, 1954), but, as Kacey Crain pointed out in the comment-section, the story about the pseudoscience turned out to be more rigorously plotted of the two – a Dutch take on the American detective story of S.S. van Dine and Ellery Queen. Complete with bizarre architecture, crackpot characters and a dying message. 

Moord onder de mantel der liefde (Murder Under the Mantle of Love, 1964) by Ton Vervoort (untranslated)

A bizarrely structured detective novel that starts out as a fairly convention whodunit with a murder among the members of an old, dysfunctional Amsterdam family, but the second-half has the killer cut loose from the closed-circle situation. What follows is a parapsychological manhunt for a serial killer who targets the city's invalids and future victims. Strangely enough, it actually worked! The characters and situations made it an unmistakable, almost stereotypical, Dutch detective story. 

Murder at Monk's Barn (1931) by Cecil Waye 

Cecil Waye is the least-known pseudonym of John Street, better known as John Rhode and Miles Burton, who added four more titles to his already impressive bibliography under the Waye name. However, the Waye novels tend to lean more towards the thriller genre, but Murder at Monk's Barn is straightforward, 1920s style mystery novel with a brother-and-sister detective team investigating an impossible murder. 

Catt Out of the Bag (1939) by Clifford Witting 

A seasonal, more lighthearted offering from the humdrum and realists school which appears to have a plot as unassuming as it looks unexciting, pilfering of a collection box during Christmas, but there's a fairly clued, solidly plotted detective story hiding underneath it all – like a wrapped present. Just like presents, you're best off knowing as little as possible before unwrapping it. A perfect mystery for those cold, dark December days. 

Mom Meets Her Makes (1990) by James Yaffe 

Not your typical Christmas detective novel. No quiet, snowed-in mansion in the British countryside where the stingy, hated family patriarch is murdered, but an American town loudly decorated from end to another – complete with gunfire, small town politics and religious strife. A classic play on the dying message trope and the multi false-solutions makes this a first-rate, EQ-style detective novel.

THE BEST SHORT STORIES READ IN 2021 (collections):

The Island of Coffins and Other Mysteries from the Casebook of Cabin B-13 (2021) by John Dickson Carr 

"The Man Who Couldn't Be Photographes"

"The Blind-Folded Knife Thrower"

"No Useless Coffin"

"The Power of Darkness"

"The Street of the Seven Daggers"

"The Island of Coffins"

"Lair of the Devil-Fish"

"The Man with Two Heads"


Meer mysteries voor Robbie Corbijn (More Mysteries for Robbie Corbijn, 2021) by Anne van Doorn (untranslated) 

"The Letters That Spelled Doom"

"The Painting That Didn't Hang Around"

"The Pianist Who Fell Out of Tune"

"The House That Brought Bad Luck"

"The Man Who Wanted Fly"

"The Bus That Went into the Fog"

"The Man Who Rather Stayed Inside"


The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories (2018) edited by Martin Edwards 


Selwyn Jepson's "By the Sword"

Carter Dickson's "Blind Man's Hood"

Ronald A. Knox's "The Motive"

Cyril Hare's "Sister Bessie or Your Old Leech"

John Bude's "Pattern of Revenge"

John Bingham's "Crime at Lark Cottage"


Locked and Loaded, Part 2 


Edgar D. Smith's "Killer in Khaki"

Bruce D. Pelletier's "The Hedgehog and the Fox"

Don Knowlton's "The Room at the End of the Hall"

Edward D. Hoch's "The Weapon Out of the Past"



G.K. Chesterton and Max Pemberton's "The Donnington Affair" (1914)

Simon Clark's "The Climbing Man"  (2015)

Joseph Commings' "The Grand Guignol Caper" (1984)

Carter Dickson's "The Silver Curtain" (1939)

Martin Edwards' "The House of the Red Candle" (2004)

Edward D. Hoch's "The Spy and the Snowman" (1980)

Edward D. Hoch's "The Bad Samaritan" (1981)

Matt Ingwalson's "Not With a Bang" (2016)

Gerald Kersh's "Karmesin and the Meter" (1937)

John Sladek's "Scenes from the Country of the Blind" (1977)



Voodoo (1930) by John Esteven

A mystery novel that sounded and began promising enough, but an indecisive, directionless writer plunged the story to the ranks of overly cliched, third-rate pulp fiction. What killed the story was the incomprehensibly idiotic solution to the impossible murder that can cause a brain aneurysm. The reader has been warned! 

Na afloop moord (Afterwards, Murder, 1953) by Bob van Oyen (untranslated)

A so-called military mystery set among the engineering officers of the Genie-bureau and had a premise with potential, but completely dissolved as a detective story as the non-existence of the plot became painfully obvious. No idea how it earned this place in a detective story competition with 169 other entries. However, I did enjoy skimming over my review and read back all the brilliant armchair detective work that went nowhere. That name-clue would have been really clever! 

Pink Silk Alibi (1946) by Bruce Sanders 

An amusingly enough written crime novel full with bantering, smart-aleck dialogue and humor, which certainly went a long way in covering up the fact that the plot is practically non-existent. Nothing more than a bit of fluff demonstrating why some writers or novels went down into obscurity.


The Finishing Stroke (1958) by Ellery Queen

The mystery writing cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, better known by their shared penname of "Ellery Queen," likely intended The Finishing Stroke (1958) to be their last Ellery Queen novel and designed a plot befitting a farewell performance to the American detective – an ambitious plot covering a period of fifty-two years. Fittingly, for this time of year, the story is written around a parody of "The Twelve Days of Christmas." So why not give it a second look now that nearly all memories of the story have faded from my memory. 

The Finishing Stroke begins on January, 1905, when publisher John Sebastian and his pregnant wife, Claire, were driving from New York to Rye in "a blizzard and smashed their car up near Mount Kidron." Fortunately, they crashed near a little house where Dr. Cornelius Hall lives, but, as a result of the accident, Claire went into premature labor and gave birth to twins. She survived delivering the first baby, but not the second. A wounded and shocked John denounced his second son on the spot ("the little monster killed my wife"), which is rather fortunate for Dr. Hall and his wife. They never had a child and that has remained a source of unhappiness to them.

John Sebastian agreed and promises to setup a trust fund, but dies of an untreated head injury less than a week later. He only acknowledged one son, John Sebastian Jr, who's to inherit his entire, multi-million dollar estate on his twenty-fifth birthday and is under the guardianship of his father business partner and friend, Arthur B. Craig. So nobody, except the Halls, knew there were two sons and they had a reason to keep quiet. This was also the year Ellery Queen was born.

Twenty-five years later, Ellery took his first, tentative steps as one of those meddlesome amateur detectives when helped his father navigate "the labyrinth of the Monte Field case" and wrote down the case in a bestselling novel, The Roman Hat Mystery (1929) – reviews were, on a whole, nourishing. Only taking offense to the being called "a philovancish bookworm" and accused of being merely competent. But, on a whole, things were looking bright for the young author and sleuth. So he was going up in the world when he accepted an invitation to attend a Christmas and New Years house party in Alderwood, New York, culminating in a birthday bash.

Young John Sebastian is now "a dilettante poet of great charm" and an acquaintance of Ellery whose engaged to a fashionably textile designer, Rusty Brown, whose creations "were beginning to be mentioned in The New Yorker's 'The Talk of the Town''and sought out by Park Avenue." In two weeks time, John turns twenty-five and comes into his full inheritance as well as seeing his first book of verse published. So things are looking very bright for everyone and the reason why he's invited a dozen guests to the home of his guardian to celebrate the season. John promises a huge surprise at the end of the twelve-day holiday.

Arthur Craig is the host of the party and not only had he to be a father-figure to the young poet, but also to his orphaned niece, Ellen Craig, who's like a sister to John. Mrs. Olivette Brown is John's future mother-in-law who's a devotee of astrology and an amateur medium. Valentina Warren is a theatrical actress whose "great crusade" is to get to Hollywood to became a famous movie star. Marius Carlo is a composer with an "adoring clique of Greenwich Village poets, artists and musicians who had attached themselves to him like a fungus," but earned a living playing in Walter Damrosch's symphony orchestra "heard coast-to-coast each Saturday night at nine over NBC." Dr. Sam Dark has been the family doctor ever since he came to Alderwood and Roland Payn. Dan Z. Freeman, of The House of Freeman, is Ellery and John's publisher. Lastly, Reverend Mr. Andrew Gardiner, recently retired from his Episcopal rectorate in New York, who's a friend of the Browns. And, of course, Ellery Queen.

So an interesting cast of characters to put together for a fortnight in a large, rambling country house during the holidays and mysterious, inexplicable things begin to happen almost immediately.

On a snowy, Christmas morning, the house awakens to discover the packages under the Christmas tree missing, but, mere moments later, a Santa Claus appears in the hallway with the presents and begins "distributing the gay little packages with wordless gusto" – before vanishing without a trace. The spotless, unmarked snow anywhere near the house proved nobody could have left the place, but a search didn't turn up a thirteenth house guest. Surprisingly, the story is full with these quasi-impossible situations and near locked room situations. More interestingly, the nature of presents reveals to Ellery that all twelve of them were born under different signs of the zodiac. So here we have "twelve people in the party, twelve days and nights of Christmas, and now a vanishing Santa Claus who distributes twelve signs of the zodiac," but things get much stranger and more incomprehensible.

During those twelve days, on each of those twelve days, a neatly wrapped package addressed to John Sebastian is found in the house. Every package has a card attached to it with a parody on the carol "The Twelve Days of Christmas" and some have weird doodles on the back, which serve as a kind of dying message. But the content of the packages would continue to puzzle Ellery for more than a quarter of a century. And, to complete the mystery, the body of an elderly man turns up on the library rug with a dagger in his back. Nobody knows who the man is or how he got into the house and there are no identifying marks. So the police officially confines the party to the house pending the investigation.

So an intriguing, intricately-presented problem, but, before getting to the plot, it should be mentioned The Finishing Stroke can be counted as an early example of the historical mystery with the majority of the story taking place in the last week of 1929 and the first week of 1930 – concluding nearly three decades later in 1957. There are references throughout the story to what happened in the world during that period. They listen on the radio to Chris 'Red' Cagle, the Cadets' great All-American halfback, playing his last college game. They discuss the Hoover administration, mock New York's Mayor Jimmy Walker being sworn in "for his second hilarious term" and talk international politics ("the growing power of the Dutchman") and other subjects of the time ("the new I B M calculator"). Naturally, there are plenty of references to "the ravages of Prohibition" and Black Thursday, but Ellery also reads Anthony Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) and How Like a God (1929) by "someone named Rex Stout." These historical crumbs served their purpose by placing the setting in that particular period in time, but let the reader be warned. Not everything is period dressing!

But what about the plot, you ask? That's an entirely different kettle of fish. The Finishing Stroke is more interesting in what it tried to do than how it was done. 

The Finishing Stroke is, technically speaking, a fair play detective story, but the clueing is too esoteric and the red herrings too rich to give average reader a fair shot to arrive at the same conclusion as Ellery. You can spot the murderer by figuring out the motive, but deciphering the secret of the Christmas packages is beyond most readers. Not everything is explained. What about the locked bedroom door and where were the packages hidden? A bit sloppy compared with the methodical plotting of the 1930s EQ novels. However, the central idea behind the whole plot was devilish clever and possibly unique at the time as (ROT13) gur zheqrere unq ernq Ryyrel'f obbx naq qrfvtarq n cyna pnyphyngrq gb znavchyngr naq zvfyrnq uvz. Something that had, to my knowledge, not been done before. I think our mystery writing cousins deserve praise for how they handled one of the biggest no-noes of the detective story. 

Father Ronald A. Knox stated in his "Ten Commandments for Detective Fiction" (1929) that "twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them." Not only was the reader duly prepared for the presence of a twin brother, which took away the problem of how John Sebastian could be in two places at the same time, but Queen somehow succeeded to get several extremely ingenious twists out of that lengthy prologue. If you're going to use twins in a detective story, this is how its done! But the end result is a very uneven, atypically EQ novel.

Ellery Queen is often called the embodiment of the American detective story, but this intended last outing strangely reminded me of two novels by a highly unorthodox, British mystery writer, Gladys Mitchell – who's as different from EQ as a witch is to a mathematician. Mitchell's The Echoing Stranger (1952) is another detective novel that knew how to use spotty twins, but The Finishing Stroke reminded me the most of her own trip down memory lane. Late, Late in the Evening (1976) is, like The Finishing Stroke, a nostalgic trip back to the 1920s. Both stories almost read like the detective story itself is reminiscing about happier days. And the uneven plotting did very little to dispel that impression. 

The Finishing Stroke is not the best or fairest of the Ellery Queen novels, but the plot toyed with some interesting, even original, concepts and ideas to tell a detective story. Despite some of its shortcomings, the story of a cocky, know-it-all Ellery ("I must have been insufferable") failing to solve the case until he matured into middle age is fascinating and would have made a fitting conclusion to both the character and series. So not to be skipped by true EQ fans.

Notes for the curious: out of simple, historical curiosity, I looked up the football player (Chris Cagle) and discovered he was born in 1905 and died the day after Christmas, 1942. The body on the library rug in the story is discovered on December 26. A coincidence or done by design? And why? Lastly, The Finishing Stroke revealed just how much Ton Vervoort's Moord onder astrologen (Murder Among Astrologists, 1963) was modeled on Queen's work.