10/25/21

Polaris (2004) by Jack McDevitt

Several months ago, I probed A Talent for War (1989) by Jack McDevitt, an American science-fiction author, who specialized in futuristic archaeological and historical science-fiction mysteries asking that age-old question, "what in heaven's name is going on here" – strongly influenced by G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown. McDevitt prefers the how-the-hell-was-it-done over the whodunit and cites he has "always been a devotee of the locked room murder" with Chesterton's "The Arrow of Heaven" (The Incredulity of Father Brown, 1926) as a personal favorite. So you can probably understand how a pure science-fiction writer appeared on my radar. 

McDevitt's admiration for Chesterton's detective fiction found an expression in his series about a space-faring antique dealer, Alex Benedict, who plies his trade among the stars and settled worlds a hundred centuries in the future. Trouble usually knows where to find him through his business dealings in rare and valuable space age artifacts or sticking his nose a little too deep in a historical mystery.

Alex Benedict was introduced as a one-and-done deal in A Talent for War, but the various characters, fascinating premise and the vast, richly detailed setting would have been wasted in a standalone and so he was brought back in the 2000s – adding seven novels and two short stories to the lineup. I believe these additional novels is what earned McDevitt a comparison with Ellery Queen as most of his attention in the first novel was directed to an impressive and convincing piece of world-building. A multi-world civilization, spread out across the stars, populated with a thousand billions human beings and one other intelligent species, the Ashiyyur, that humanity has come across during its exploration of the Milky Way. But there are still some serious limits to the technology that allowed humanity to colonize distant planets. And the humans who inhabit those planets are still very human. They left behind more than ten thousand years of history, space age urban legends and a ton of unsolved mysteries.

There aren't that many examples of world-building in the traditional detective story. You have Christopher St. John Sprigg's Death of a Queen (1935), Peter Dickenson's The Poison Oracle (1974) and Seimaru Amagi's Ikazuchi matsuri satsujin jiken (Deadly Thunder, 1998). Robert van Gulik's reconstruction of Tang Dynasty-era China in his historical Judge Dee series has been likened to the world-building more commonly associated with the science-fiction genre. So I'm always impressed when someone can make an entire, living and breathing, civilization appear out of thin air.

However, as impressive as the world-building was in A Talent for War, I was glad to discover there was an actual detective hook in the second novel with an intriguing central puzzle. A puzzle that can be summed up as the Mary Celeste in outer space!

There were fifteen years between the publication of A Talent for War and Polaris (2004), which came with a notable change. The books are now narrated by his assistant and superluminal pilot, Miss Chase Kolpath. She has been with him since the Corsarius affair, twelve years ago, which "led to some rewriting of history" and "a small fortune for Alex." This time, they're confronted with another problem that was left open ended in the history books.

Sixty years ago, "six of the most celebrated people in the Confederacy" boarded a luxury, the Polaris, to accompany a scientific expedition to a 6-billion-year-old star, Delta Karpis, "drifting quietly through the great deeps with its family of worlds" – now counting down its final hours. A year previously, a white dwarf entered the planetary system, "scattering worlds and moons," became "a dagger aimed directly at the heart of Delta Karpis itself." So there are several ships closely observing the approaching destruction, which is both spectacular and tragic as one of the planets is the home of "large animals, living oceans, and vast forests." But has this closely observed collision anything to do with what happens next? Polaris is ready to make the jump back home and Captain Madeleine English tells the communication officer at the Indigo Station, "departure imminent," but the starship never appeared on the other side.

Another starship was dispatched to the last-known position of the Polaris and was discovered a week later, substantially off course, without a trace of the VIPs or crew! There's no sign of a struggle or evidence of a hurried departure. Someone, or something, eliminated "the sole witness the investigators might have had" by shutting down the ship's AI. This suggested to some people "the existence of a supernatural power out there somewhere" that's "capable of invading a sealed ship before an alarm could be sent." Since there was no real answer to be found, the incident passed into the realm of conspiracy theories with the most popular explanations inevitably involving a third, unknown race of aliens. Even ghosts enter the picture as people claim to have seen spirits on the now renamed ship.

Sixty years later, Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath have discovered and are in the process of exploring the ruins of a giant, eighteen hundred years old Shenji outstation orbiting a blue giant on the on the edge of Confederacy space. The locations of many of these outstations were lost to time and finding one will get the attentions of archaeologists, historians and collectors. Such as Winetta Yashevik, archaeological liaison at the Department of Planetary Survey and Astronomical Research, who plan to open a new wing to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the Polaris incident. Survey is planning "a two-week-long extravaganza" with a banquet and an auction to sell off some Polaris artifacts that were locked in storage for decades. Alex and Chase seize the opportunity to pick some choice items for themselves with the outstation as exchange, which is both a stroke of luck and a harbinger of doom. A huge bomb explosion at the Survey destroyed the entire Polaris collection except for the artifacts currently in Alex and Chase's possession. That's where the problems really begin for the two antique dealers.

The customers who bought the artifacts receive strange visitors, one aptly named Flambeau, who show great interest in the artifacts, but nothing appears to be stolen or anything to suggest criminal intentions – besides, you know, the bombing of the Survey. But this changes when an attempt is made to get Alex and Chase out of the way. More than once. So, naturally, they begin a deep dive into history as they interrogate virtual rendered avatars of the people ("a projection backed by a data retrieval system") who went missing and talks with some very old witnesses and somewhat lonely AI stuck on a distant outstation. While they're rooting around in the past, they come across a string of missing persons with dodgy records and even some (suspected) murders. More importantly, two hot button issues of the future begin to drift to the surface.

Firstly, one of the VIPs on the Polaris, Professor Tom Dunninger, had devoted his life to cracking the secret of life extension, or practical immortality, "who was reported to have been on the track of a major breakthrough" before boarding that doomed starship. There were rumors that "a few immortals were actually created" who were still out there somewhere. Stuff of legends. However, it got the professor in the crosshairs of some people and groups who believed it would lead to even more over population, which might seem silly when you've got an endless, practically empty, universe to explore and colonize. But there's a logical reason given for this concern. Technically, they could move people from a densely populated world to the virtually empty super continent on Sacracour, but the 1064 superluminals of the Confederacy has an average passenger capacity of twenty-eight people. Just try moving even a fraction of the eleven billion people on Earth to Sacracour with those numbers. So not everyone was happy with Dunninger's work during a time when people already had an average lifespan of more than a hundred years. Secondly, there's the mind wipe and personality adjustment technology used to give incorrigible criminals an entirely new identity, psyche and memories, which comes with more ethical exclamation and question marks than the death penalty. I'm honestly surprised its use was implemented without a huge conflict or an outright, multi-world war. I think mind wipes is something people would go to war over, if it was forced on them.

So the backdrop here is as alive as in the first novel, but what about the mystery? The detective pull of the plot? You have to keep in mind that Polaris is not a traditionally-structured, or plotted, detective story, but the central puzzle was pretty good with the problem of how the people disappeared from the derelict Polaris counting as a legitimate locked room mystery – although one with a relative simple and routine solution. Still a very well presented and handled impossible situation. Much more inspired was the motive behind all these incidents and one person in particular turned out to have been the victim of a truly hellish crime, which definitely had a Chestertonian touch. Something that reminded me of "The Worst Crime in the World" from The Secret of Father Brown (1927). 

Polaris definitely benefited from not having to setup an entire section of the universe, populated with two technically advanced species with tens of thousand years of history between them, which made for a stronger and more focused science-fiction mystery. I very much look forward to the third entry in the series, Seeker (2005). 

Notes for the curious: I couldn't cram this in anywhere else, but one of the little touches to the backdrop that made the setting so convincing and alive is the distribution between alien life and intelligent, technologically advanced species. There's humanity, the Ashiyyur and the fifty-thousand-year-old ruins on a now inhospitable planet, which were once "humanity's only evidence that anything else had ever gazed at the stars" (mentioned in A Talent for War). There's plenty of life to be found on the planets. Alex and Chase visit the previous mentioned Sacracour that has an eight billion year old bio-system complete with "walking plants, living clouds, and, arguably, the biggest trees on record." Polaris also provides an answer how humans can settle all these living worlds without getting sick and dying. Apparently, the viruses and germs on most worlds are incompatible with humans with an occasional exception, like Markop III, where "viruses and disease germs loved Homo sapiens." I doubt this is scientifically accurate, but that's where the fiction in science-fiction comes into play and appreciate the attention to detail. This is something McDevitt easily could have glossed over without anybody noticing.

10/23/21

More Mysteries for Robbie Corbijn (2021) by Anne van Doorn

Four years ago, M.P.O. Books launched a new series under a now open penname, "Anne van Doorn," which starred two particuliere onderzoekers (private investigators), Robbie Corbijn and Lowina de Jong, who specialize in cases that have gone stone cold and occasional miscarriages of justice – ranging from missing persons to murder cases. Fascinatingly, Corbijn and De Jong were introduced in a promotional freebie, "De dichter die zichzelf opsloot" ("The Poet Who Locked Himself In," 2017). A short story that actually received an English translation and appeared in the September/October, 2019, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine

I have since read and reviewed two novels, two short story collections and a handful of short stories culminating with the magnificent De man die zijn geweten ontlastte (The Man Who Relieved His Conscience, 2019). A monument of a Dutch detective novel with two impossible crimes, a dying message and a revelation about one of the characters that caught me by complete surprise. One of those painful moments in which the professional mystery novelist showed the amateur armchair detective who the real murder expert is.

The series went dormant for nearly two years, but has now reemerged with a third volume of short stories, entitled Meer mysteries voor Robbie Corbijn (More Mysteries for Robbie Corbijn, 2021), collecting ten detective stories of various plumage – including two previously unpublished stories. However, I've already read and reviewed "Het huis dat ongeluk bracht" ("The House That Brought Bad Luck," 2018), "De bus die de mist inging" ("The Bus That Went Into the Fog," 2018) and "De brieven die onheil spelden" ("The Letters That Spelled Doom," 2018) on this blog before. So I'll skip them for the sake of brevity, but it needs to be said that they represent the standouts of the collection. And with that I mean they're the most classically-styled of the bunch full with unbreakable alibis, impossible murders and ghostly mischief. Don't overlook those separate short story reviews. 

"Het schilderij dat niet bleef hangen" ("The Painting That Didn't Hang Around," 2018) is a case that was nothing more than "a comical snack" to Robbie Corbijn, but not to the people who were directly affected by it. Isabelle Valck comes to Recherchebureau Corbijn – Research & Discover to ask them to reopen an unsolved, thirteen year old case concerning a 350-year-old painting by Jan Steen. The painting was stolen in 2003 from De Catharina Hof, in Gouda, where Maarten Lippinkhoff was the curator of the museum when the burglary took place. Lippinkhof was Valck's father and he had always been haunted by the theft, but Valck received a shock when she discovered the stolen painting, badly damaged, in his attic shortly after he passed away. She really wants to know what exactly happened and the painting is closely examined, but, whether the painting is authentic or a masterly done forgery, neither gives a satisfying answer why it was found in the attic of the former conservator. Not until Corbijn forces someone's hand by staging a denouement in the attic and has a laugh at everyone's else expense. A fun and almost typically Dutch little crime caper. 

"De vrouw die onraad rook" ("The Woman Who Smelled Trouble," 2018) presents Lowina de Jong, series-narrator and detective-in-training, why Corbijn has "a spitting hatred for adultery cases" and thoroughly vets prospective clients – before accepting or turning them down. De Jong remembers Corbijn harshly turned down such a case, but De Jong wants to help her out. Melanie van Staveren-de Maillie tells De Jong her tragic history that eventually lead her to be kind of unfaithful to her husband, which now has some potential devastating consequences. She has received a threatening warning letter and had an eerily realistic dream in which “an ice cold hand” was chocking her. But was it a dream? A week later, De Jong reads her obituary in the newspaper and suspect foul play, but Melanie appears to have died from natural causes in her sleep. When she was all alone in a locked house (not an impossible crime) and the clock is ticking away the hours until the body is cremated.

So a how-was-it-done kind of detective story, but the impressive part of the story is not the how or why. It's the slippery, but impressive, wire-walking act Corbijn had to perform to convince the reader the who was completely fair. When I learned the identity of the murderer, I frowned disapprovingly at the page as it was just plain unfair. Corbijn started to explain and pointing out why the solution is correct and not unfair at all, which is technically true, but not very satisfying. Not one of my personal favorites. 

"De pianist die uit de toon viel" ("The Pianist Who Fell Out of Tune," 2018) has a disappearance problem somewhat reminiscent of Freeman Wills Crofts' The Hog's Back Mystery (1933) with a solution that twists and snakes like a John Dickson Carr story! Maurice Kleinluchtenbeld was a famous pianist who reached the charts in most European countries in the 1990s with "his modern, romantic interpretations and arrangements of classical pieces," but vanished under mysterious circumstances in 2004. Corbijn remembers the case and described it to De Jong as having the appearance of "a botched magic trick." One moment the pianist was walking back home across a hill, De Soester Eng, which is surrounded on all sides by houses and the next moment he was gone. Vanished without a trace! Now he son wants the case reopened.

Corbijn and De Jong have two logical, yet unlikely, possibilities to explore: a voluntary disappearance or foul play, but, if he disappeared voluntarily, how could a famous musician with striking features stay hidden without ever getting spotted or even discovered – murder should have produced a body. The time, place and eyewitnesses at the time of the disappearance places constraints on a murderer with barely enough time to get rid of the body so effectively it was never found. Solution is a thing of beauty, "a clever magic trick," which rendered more than one character practically invisible. A pure, neo-Golden Age detective story. 

"Het bruidje dat geen afscheid nam" ("The Bride Who Didn't Say Goodbye," 2018) is a more of a thriller than a detective story and puts the spotlight on Corbijn's assistant, Lowina de Jong. Two times before, De Jong had been allowed to handle an investigation on her own and the first and last time her involvement lead to someone's untimely death. This third case is the second time it goes horribly wrong. De Jong took some vacations days to go to Finland to help find a missing and recently married woman, but the trip, told through a series of diary entries, is turned on its head when she finds herself trapped on a remote, desolate island with a captor who can vanish and reappear out of nowhere. There are some touches of the Had-I-But-Known School ("If only I had stayed in the Netherlands" or "if I hadn't kept deadly quiet, I probably would have ended up with my throat cut"), but the punch of the story is in its tragic and almost cruel ending. An ending that taught the detective-in-training a harsh lesson. 

"De man die wilde vliegen" ("The Man Who Wanted to Fly," 2021) is the shortest and perhaps the most ambitiously-plotted story of the collection. A story in which Corbijn tells a story to De Jong about his time with the police that taught him a valuable lesson. Always beware of the unreliable witness.

Ten years ago, Corbijn accompanied his then chef to the scene of what appeared to him to have been an impossible murder. A man had fallen to his death from a watchtower in a wooded, hilly area and there were two witnesses present who saw and heard the man fall. One of them was ascending the staircase and heard the victim hit the ground, while the other saw him fall and was seen bending over the body when the first witness arrived at the top of the tower. They all knew each other and the two witnesses have a strong motive, but neither witness/suspect were close enough to have pushed the man and that gives them, what can be a called, a positional alibi – which opens the door to a series of false-solutions. Corbijn demonstrates why "the unreliable narrator is a pitfall in any investigation" with an unexpected, third possibility. Anthony Berkeley would have loved this story that proved Anthony Boucher right that the rules and conventions of the genre can only be broken by writers who understand and respect them.

On a side note (Spoilers/ROT13): Z.C.B. Obbxf/Ina Qbbea unf orra rkcrevzragrq va gurfr fgbevrf jvgu znxvat gur zheqrere n crevcureny punenpgre be rira na haxabja K, juvpu (vs V erzrzore pbeerpgyl) snvyrq gb jbex va “Qr negf qvr qr jrt xjvwg jnf” (“Gur Qbpgbe Jub Tbg Ybfg ba gur Jnl,” 2018). “Gur Jbzna Jub Fzryyrq Gebhoyr” jnf n grpuavpny vzcebirzrag, ohg ur anvyrq vg jvgu “Gur Zna Jub Jnagrq gb Syl.” This is why this story deserves to be translated, because an international, English-speaking mystery reading audience will appreciate it more than Dutch readers. One is sadly more knowledgeable than the other where classic detective fiction is concerned. 

"De studente die zichzelf tegenkwam" ("The Student Who Met Herself," 2018) shows the author of these stories is not only a traditional mystery novelist and a modern crime writer, but also a massive Sherlock Holmes fan. A story with an unmistakable hint of Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches" (collected in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1892). Veerle Peeters is an archaeology student and active in an amateur theater company, but recently, she got involved in a bizarre situation. Veerle wants Corbijn and De Jong to find out whether she unwittingly collaborated in something criminal, or not, because a sick woman might be held against her will by her own family. The student was hired by a Hilda Jonckheere to play the real-life part of her terminal ill daughter, Bernadette, who was summoned to the deathbed of her estranged grandfather. Something is obviously at stake for the parents. But following a few critical questions, Hilda and her family simply vanish without a trace. So what really happened? What's the significance of the tattoo Veerle spotted on the wrist of the dying Bernadette? More importantly, what happened to everyone? And why? The plot and solution is a grand play on breaking down identities and really deserved a novel-length treatment. There were some great scenes, discoveries and revelations that would have been perfect to pace out and deepen the plot of a detective novel. And then there's the ending. Corbijn receives an envelope with a missing piece of the puzzle, but who mailed him the newspaper clipping is "a mystery that has never been solved." I vaguely remember that happening at least once before in another story and perhaps The Man Who Relieved His Conscience has made me paranoid, but begin to suspect there's a shadow detective looking over Corbijn's shoulder. You won't fool me this time. I think I can make an educated guess who this potential rival-detective could be. 

"De man die liever binnen bleef" ("The Man Who Rather Stayed Inside," 2021) is a perfect specimen of, what I like to call, oranje pulp (orange pulp) and I say that with the upmost affection as the story delivers a pulp-style locked room thriller remindful of two writers previously discussed on this blog – namely John Russell Fearn and Gerald Verner. A case with very little interest to Corbijn, a broken relationship without an apparent crime, which is why De Jong is tasked with most of the work. De Jong has to try to get into contact with a reclusive software millionaire, Hadley Green, who lives in a manor house on an estate "separated with a high fence and barbed wire" from the outside house. One day, without an explanation, he kicked his girlfriend and their 5-year-old son out of the house. She desperately wants answers. De Jong quickly finds out that getting past the gatekeeper and estate manager is easier said than done. She eventually gets passed the gate on a dark, stormy night when the entire house is plunged into darkness and potentially crawling with intruders culminating in a shooting in a tightly locked bedroom. Just when I thought I had figured everything out, De Jong's return to the estate the following morning threw an entirely different complexion on the case. A very well done take on the pulp-style thriller with an impossible crime in a house under siege (see Brian Flynn's Invisible Death, 1929).

So that brings us to the end of More Mysteries for Robbie Corbijn. A rewarding collection with a dodgy story, or two, but without a single genuine dud to be found and traditionally there are one or two bad stories in every short story collection and anthology – speaking volumes about the overall quality of the series. Another plus is the variety within the series and this collection. Covering everything from armchair detection and (pulp) thrillers to locked room mysteries and contemporary interpretations of the Doylean-era crime story. This type of crime-and detective fiction is regrettably all too rare in my country, because not that many Dutch writers have the know-all to clue, misdirect or play around with the conventions and tropes of the genre. That's why I've been enjoying this series so much, but don't assume that completely clouds my judgment. Only a little. And many of the stories collected here would charm the pants off of non-Dutch detective fans, if they ever get translated. Here's hoping!

10/21/21

The Money Supply: "Karmesin and the Meter" (1937) by Gerald Kersh

Gerald Kersh was a British naturalized American writer and one of the more popular and prolific storytellers of his day, hammering out thousands of articles, dozens of novels and numerous short stories like a sloshed conveyor belt, but enjoyed most of his popularity with his short stories – many of them "horrific or fantastical in nature." There's one character who appeared in seventeen of Kersh's short stories and garnered him some very famous fans such as Rex Stout, Basil Rathbone and Sir Winston Churchill. 

Karmesin (pronounced carr-muh-zin) debuted in the eponymously-titled "Karmesin," published in the London Evening Standard on May 9, 1936, who may or may not have been inspired by a real-life acquaintance of Kersh.

Karmesin is a middle-aged with a "vast Nietzsche moustache," light brown with tobacco smoke, "which lay beneath his nose like a hibernating squirrel" who regularly meets with Kersh to tell him tall tales of his past criminal escapades – which are "so outrageous that they cannot be true." The question Kersh always asks himself whether Karmesin is "the greatest criminal" or "the greatest liar of his time," but you cannot help liking the man. Karmesin is the kind of man, "if he stole your wallet," you would say, "I'm sorry there's not more in it." You would rather be swindled by Karmesin than by anybody else. So the series is the Rogue's School answer to the armchair detective story! More importantly, one of the stories is listed in Brian Skupin's Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019) with a promising-sounding locked room-puzzle, to say the least. 

"Karmesin and the Meter" was originally published as "Karmesin and the Big Frost" in the 1937/38 Winter issue of Courier and reprinted under variously different titles in Argosy, The People and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Finally collected under the current title Crippen & Landru's Karmesin: The World's Greatest Criminal—Or Most Outrageous Liar (2003).

The story begins with Karmesin visiting Kersh when his gas-ring goes pop and doesn't have penny in his pocket to feed the gas meter, which made Karmesin recall the time he swindled a French gas company for thousands of francs.

Years ago, Karmesin contracted a severe attack of influenza in Paris, while temporarily short of money, confining him to a bed in an abominable little rented room in the atrocious cold of one of the severest winters on record, but he had no money to heat the room – only a threadbare blanket to give him the illusion of warmth. But during one of his fever dreams and cold shivers, Karmesin hit upon an idea that would both heat his room and put some spending money back in his pocket. On the next day, his gas lights were burning, the gas radiator was glowing and he had stopped shivering. But at what price? Several weeks later, the man from the gas company came to empty the meter, but, when he removed the padlock, the meter was empty! Not a penny had been paid for the consumed gas. Karmesin told him he had no idea what he was talking about and to "go to the devil." So the meter was padlocked and resealed.

Two weeks later, the collector returned without another official, examining "the seal on the padlock and found it intact," but the box was again empty. Even though the lights in the room were glaring and the stove red hot! But the padlocked was protected with "one of those complicated lead seals" that's not easily be tampered with. So they replaced the meter with a new and different model, but the same song and dance was repeated for a third time.

Just as he expected, one of the directors of the gas company came to visit him to ask what kind of tricks he has been playing with his meter, but the answer to that questions comes with a prize-tag. If they're not willing to pay up, Karmesin is going to tell the public how they can consume as much gas as they want without paying a single penny. Needless to say, they were more than willing to do business. 

"Karmesin and the Meter" is not a traditional detective story and therefore not traditionally clued, but, if you take the circumstances of the story into consideration, you can work out the general idea behind the meter-trick. An ultimately very simple trick, but, as Karmesin wisely says, "all truly great crimes are simple." A marvelous reimagination and reapplication of an old impossible crime dodge. I enjoyed it! Very much recommended. And I'll definitely return to the other stories in Karmesin: The World's Greatest Criminal—Or Most Outrageous Liar.

10/17/21

Six Against the Yard (1936) by The Detection Club

The members of that august body known as The Detection Club, a Who's Who of British Golden Age mystery writers, produced a number of experimental collaborations that, nearly a century later, are still practically unique in the genre's history – which too often get dismissed as mere trifles or curiosities. Sure, the Detection Club collaborations never produced a genuine genre classic, but their experiments are not entirely without merit or interest. 

The Floating Admiral (1931) is a round-robin mystery novel written by no less than thirteen  different authors with each one, like a potluck luncheon, bringing something new and unexpected to the story. An experiment that should have ended in an unmitigated disaster had it not been for Anthony Berkeley's last chapter, "Cleaning Up the Mess," which made it appear as if they had planned the whole thing from the beginning. No mean feat! Ask a Policeman (1933) is not only one of those exceedingly rare crossovers, but a very unique type of crossover in which the collaborating writers exchanged their series-detective characters. So you have Berkeley taking on Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey and Sayers getting to work with Berkeley's Roger Sheringham. And they're all investigating the same murder! Something that was never done before or since. Not in our genre, anyway.

Not as experimental, but no less fascinating, is The Anatomy of Murder (1936). A collection of five true crime essays, penned by the likes of Berkeley, Sayers and E.R. Punshon, who shine their light on some infamous murderers and murder cases – such as Henri Landru and the Julia Wallace murder case. So you basically get a handful of mystery novelists who play armchair investigative journalists with real-life murder cases. Funnily enough, the Detection Club published a collection of short stories in which the roles are reversed with a former policeman nipping at their heels! 

Martin Edwards said Six Against the Yard (1936) is an ingenious and perhaps unique "variation on the conventional detective fiction anthology" with a half-a-dozen stories in which club members present their "potentially foolproof murders," but each chapter is followed by an analysis from ex-Superintendent Cornish of Scotland Yard. And it's his task to expose "the flaws in the criminal scheme" presented to him. A true battle-of-wits pitting theory against practice! Yes, I'll be keeping score throughout the review. 

Margery Allingham is the first in line to take a crack at devising the perfect murder with "It Didn't Work Out," a theatrical mystery of sorts, in which she kind of casts herself in the role of murderer, but not as Margery Allingham, the mystery writer – assuming the identity of a stage actress, "Polly Oliver." The story plays out over several decades during which Polly has to look on hopelessly as a close stage pal, Louie Lester, who married Frank Springer. A "four-flushing gasbag" with "such an inferiority complex" that "his whole life was spent trying to boost himself up to himself." And "the more weak and hopeless and inefficient he saw himself the wilder and more irritating his lies became." Over the years, decades even, he tore down his wife career and spirit. Until, many years later, they become lodgers of the now elderly and retired Polly who started her own boarding house. Polly decides enough is enough with Frank's charming personality and circumstances presenting her with an opportunity to stage a fatal accident.

Ex-Superintendent Cornish admits that Allingham's murder is "diabolically ingenious" and under favorable circumstances can be completely successful, but he can't be sure whether, or not, the murder truly represents a perfect crime. Because there are some avenues for the police to pursue. However, Cornish only gives a possible outcome of a more thorough police investigation, which depends the mentally unbalanced murderer confessing, but the altruistic motive and method would make securing a conviction a Herculean task. Cornish points out that a successful murder could emboldening Polly "to stage another apparent accident" when another situation arises that convinces her murder is "a reasonable and laudable act." But that's mere conjecture. So Allingham takes the first point for the Detection Club. TDC vs. Cornish: 1-0.

The very cheeky Father Ronald Knox presented with "The Fallen Idol" the most striking, unusual and non-inverted story of the bunch with a Ruritanian murder plot in Latin America. Somewhat reminiscent of Roger East's Twenty-Five Sanitary Inspectors (1935). Enrique Gamba, the Inspirer of the Magnolian Commonwealth, who emerged victorious from a coup and rules over the country with his right-hand man, General Almeda, but unpatriotic messages and threats are circulating the capitol city – promising to burn down Gamba's house with him in it. All of these threats were signed by "The Avenger." There's a fire at the house and Gamba is killed, shot through the head, before his body is flung out of an open window. Colonel Weinberg, the Chief of Police, has the unenviable task to find out who, how and why, which is a hazardous undertaking in a country like Magnolia. Fortunately, ex-Superintendent Cornish is in the luxurious position to not having to take the tinderbox politics of the country into consideration as he explains his case against the murderer and what probably happened after Knox ended the story. A very convincing account that evened the score. TDC vs. Cornish: 1-1.

So the previous story took place in an imaginary, cloud cuckoo-cuckoo land in South America, but Berkeley's "The Policeman Only Taps Once" imported a hardboiled confidence trickster from the United States to Jolly Old England. Eddie Tuffon managed to keep his record spotless, but the place was getting too hot and decided to go to England to give the marriage swindle the good old college try. A huge mistake! Eddie managed to get himself tied to an enormous, square-faced woman with numerous chins, Myrtle, who constantly bosses him around. Nor is she as rich as he had hoped. Myrtle constantly reminded him that her income is hardly enough "to keep an able-bodied husband in idleness" to the point where he "pretty near slugged her once or twice." Eddie comes to the conclusion that she has to go, but, even in an inverted mystery, there's always room for one of Berkeley's trademark twists. Unfortunately, Cornish points out in his analyses of the story, entitled "...And Then Come the Handcuffs," that Berkeley was "more successful in his clever and amusing parody of the new manner in American fiction than in his 'perfect murder''"– "ingeniously as he has worked it out." The twist in the story could very well end up being the one that tied the hangman's knot. Although he does admit that his case purely rests on a heap of circumstantial evidence, but, if there is enough of it, "circumstantial evidence is just as deadly as direct testimony." TDC vs. Cornish: 1-2. 

Russell Thorndike is a new name to me who warrants further investigation, because "The Strange Death of Major Scallion" is easily my favorite from this collection. Such a well written and imaginative story in which the narrator tells the reader about his intention to kill his cousin, of sorts, the titular Major Scallion. A "fat, full-blooded, loud-voiced, bearded and young" man full of conceit, self-satisfaction and tall tales who likely never served a day. Major Scallion has a hold over the narrator which he handily uses to make a claim on his purse and hospitality. Nothing more, nor less, than blackmail. Slowly, the narrator's disgust turned into a cold, terrible hatred and began "a close study of murder as an art" to concoct the perfect method to avoid scaffold. Interestingly, the murder that inspires the narrator comes from an account of Thorndike's anti-hero series-character, Doctor Syn, who's an 18th century parson and smuggler. He even name drops his off-page opponent ("that other enemy to murder, Mr. Cornish"). Eventually settling on a seemingly ingenious method involving Major Scallion's excessive smoking habit, homemade nicotine poison and "a sinister family of house beetles." Regrettably, for our narrator, the method is full of holes and you don't need Cornish to spot the fatal flaw that will deliver him into the capable hands of the public hangman. TDC vs. Cornish: 1-3.

Dorothy L. Sayers returns to the theater setting with "Blood Sacrifice" as a young playwright, John Scales, finally gets his big break when a well-known actor-manager, Garrick Drury, decides to put on his play, Bitter Laurel – which was intended to be cynical and shocking play. Drury slowly reshaped the play into something "revoltingly different" that appealed to the masses and not without success. Scales even wrote the new scenes and lines himself, because "his own lines would be less intolerable than the united efforts of cast and producer to write them for themselves." This killed him on the inside as his name is now associated with sob-stuff and ruined his reputation with his artistic friends, which made him think of murder. However, the inevitable death of Garrick Drury wasn't a premeditated murder or even an act in the heat of the moment. Drury was send flying through a shop window by a skidding car and cut an artery in his arm, which required a blood transfusion to safe his life. So while the doctor and ambulance men try to safe his life and test everyone to find the right blood group, Scales notices the test plate get mixed up. Drury likely got a deadly blood transfusion, or did he? Not even Scales is entirely sure what he saw, but he kept his mouth shut.

Ex-Superintendent Cornish admits he "could not hope to prove, either to a jury's satisfaction or to my own, that John Scales was guilty of the crime of murder," but points out that "neither could any other detective." Not even that distinguished amateur, Lord Peter Wimsey, because Sayers had "failed to establish the fact of murder." There's a case to be made that Scales is morally guilty, but nothing that can be brought home unless the police can prove that he knew the test plates were mixed up and said nothing. Something that's next to impossible. So, in spite of Cornish's objections, Sayers scored a much needed point for her team. TDC vs. Cornish: 2-3. 

Freeman Wills Crofts has the opportunity to end this battle-of-wits in a draw with his contribution, entitled "The Parcel," which is as simple as it's technical tricky and comes with a diagram of the murder weapon. The premise of the story is practically identical to Thorndike's "The Strange Death of Major Scallion" in which rehabilitated, one-time criminal, Stewart Haslar, returns to England with a wife and a modest fortune that he made when he sold his Australian chain of fruit stores. Only person who knows his real identity and past, Henry Blunt, returns to impose on Haslar's generosity. After nearly two years, Haslar comes to the conclusion Blunt has to go and devices, what he thinks, is a bombproof plan by sending his blackmailer a homemade explosive over the mail. A plan hinging entirely on the assumption that there's no traceable link between Blunt and Haslar, but, as Cornish pointed out, Blunt is unlikely to have covered his tracks as thoroughly as Haslar, which is one of the many paths the police can investigate in this murder – slowly building a complete case to present to the judge and jury. And "there is little doubt what the verdict will be." TDC vs Cornish: 2-4.

The 2013 reprint edition of Six Against the Yard closes with an afterword, or rather an introduction, to a 1929 true crime essay by Agatha Christie, but the only reason it was included was to emblazon her name on the cover. Why not include her own perfect murder story, “Wireless” (1926), with an analysis from a modern police inspector, or forensic detective, to show how the police could have brought the killer to justice. That would have given them a legitimate reason to plaster her name on the cover. Now it borders on false advertisement. Anyway, the introduction to the essay ended with this bummer of a line, "sadly, Superintendent Cornish, who died on 6th February 1959 at the age of 85, is unavailable for comment..." A salute to you, Superintendent Cornish! You were no Lestrade!

So, all in all, the Detection Club lost rather badly here with four of the six ending up in the docks, but the end score could have easily been flipped around had Berkeley and Knox showed off their plotting skills instead of their storytelling abilities. Nonetheless, I enjoyed these stories tremendously and particularly Cornish picking them apart that showed the police has one critical advantage over the amateur criminal: a ton of experience. Highly recommended! Particularly to mystery readers with a fondness for the inverted detective story.

10/15/21

Sunken Secrets: "Death Dives Deep" (1959) by Robert Arthur (writing as "Brett Halliday")

Back in June, I read Murder and the Married Virgin (1944) by "Brett Halliday," a pseudonym of Davis Dresser, which came recommended to me as hard-paced locked room mystery and introduced to Halliday's private eye, Michael "Mike" Shayne – a hardboiled counterpart to Ellery Queen. A series with distinctively different periods and localities, a monthly short story magazine and eventually a who's who of ghostwriters. 

Murder and the Married Virgin was as solid as a punch to the face and invited further investigation, which added several impossible crimes and a potentially interesting-looking World War II mystery to the big pile. But what really caught my attention was a short story by one of Halliday's well-known ghostwriters. A beloved writer around these parts of the internet with a legacy of his own. 

Robert Arthur was a pulp and mystery writer who famously created a radio anthology series, The Mysterious Traveler, but most readers today will remember him as the creator and first author of The Three Investigator series – producing ten novels before passing away in 1969. But his dalliance with the juvenile mystery novel represents only a small portion of his output. Arthur mainly wrote short stories that were published in everything from Amazing Stories and Black Mask to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

During the late 1950s and early '60s, Arthur wrote two short Mike Shayne stories under the Halliday name. One of the stories sounded like it could belong with Allan R. Bosworth's Full Crash Dive (1942), Charles Forsythe's Diving Death (1962), Micki Browning's Adrift (2017) and Joseph Commings' short story "Bones for Davy Jones" (1953) to that rare subcategory of detective stories with submerged setting. So let's walk the plank and find out. 

"Death Dives Deep" was first published in the January, 1959, issue of Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine and collected in Mike Shayne's Torrid Twelve (1961).

Mike Shayne, "tough as raw leather" and "not afraid of cops or crooks," is asked by Sandra Ames to undertake a job where he has two employers and "must keep an eye on both" to "see that one doesn't try to double-cross the other" – something "umpires do it every day of the baseball season." So he has no particular objections and deduces that his second employer is Captain Tod Tolliver. Shayne received a package that afternoon with an old, worn Spanish gold coin minted in 1670 and a note telling that "there's more where this came from." Before he can meet his second employer and get to work, Shayne is knocked unconscious and Captain Tolliver is kidnapped from his office by two thugs.

This is where the narrative begins to twist and turn like the Queen of Hearts maze with body around every corner. Seven in total! So you're never quite sure what to expect or what kind of detective story you're actually reading. Early on in the story, I began to suspect "Death Dives Deep" was cleverly played con-game with a hidden, quasi-impossible crime, but it didn't turn out to be one of those hard-hitting, cerebral private eye stories. Just a very well written piece of hardboiled pulp fiction and enjoyed it very much.

I particularly liked the treasure hunt and what, exactly, lay hidden on the seabed. Is it an old Spanish ship with "a strong room full of treasure" collected from all over South America or something more recently? And while the entire story takes place on the surface, the diving expedition is aptly incorporated into the plot and briefly turned the story into survival thriller when Shayne is stuck on a raft in the open ocean. Another point of interest is that, early on in the story, Shayne has a beauty parlor girl, named Ireneabelle, who is linked to the kidnappers and he calls another woman with her own beauty shop – requesting her call all her friends in the business and ask them. If they don't know, she has to ask them each to call five friends and keep the ball rolling until she's located. This is the exact same "Ghost-to-Ghost Hookup" system Jupe, Pete and Bob would go on to employ in The Three Investigators series (e.g. Arthur's The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy, 1965).

So, all in all, "Death Dives Deep" is an engaging, hardboiled private eye story with some good action scenes (the helicopter!) and an excellently used backdrop, which once again made me understand why so many people are fascinated by the figure of the tough private eye figure. I remember someone compared the private eye to comic book superheroes who matured and lost their cape, but stubbornly continued to try to do something good in a hard, crime-ridden world where it's practically impossible to keep your hands entirely clean. Sometimes it seems pointless, but characters like Shayne continue to try to do right thing and restore some good to the world. No matter how many times they get knocked out or crack a knuckle. Arthur's "Death Dives Deep" is a good example where a lot of bad things have to happen before a little good can come out of it.

That being said, you expect something more traditional and plot-oriented in the next post. So stay tuned!

10/13/21

Music Tells All (1948) by E.R. Punshon

I promised in my previous review to return to the detective story's shining era and initially it was going to be a toss-up between two options, Christopher Bush or Brian Flynn, but there's another name from Dean Street Press' stable of resurrected writers who has been criminally neglected on this blog – namely "kindly Mr. Punshon." There's one of his detective stories that I had set aside for a very specific reason. 

E.R. Punshon's Music Tells All (1948) is the twenty-fourth Bobby Owen mystery and a very rare instance of two series-characters crossing paths. Crossovers always have been one of a guilty pleasure of mine. 

Curt Evans wrote in his introduction that Dorothy L. Sayers "affectionately dubbed" Punshon's first series-detectives, Inspector Carter and Sergeant Bell, "that blest pair of sirens." Carter and Bell debuted in The Unexpected Legacy (1929) and appeared together in five novels, published between 1929 and 1932, in which Sergeant Bell did all "the hard work of actually collecting facts and deducing solutions" – while the publicity-seeking Inspector Carter "received all credit and promotions." As if Punshon had reconceptualized the Sherlock Holmes series with "Holmes as a preening fraud and Watson as a wise drudge." I expected DSP would complete their Punshon run with his "earlier, critically-lauded" Carter and Bell series, but the last Bobby Owen novel (Six Were Present, 1956) was reprinted in 2017. But, as of this writing, the Carter and Bell series is still out-of-print.

So I really should have gone with either Suspects – Nine (1939) or So Many Doors (1949), but the lure of a genuine and extremely rare crossover was too great a pull. Even without having encountered Sergeant (now Superintendent) Bell while he was still working alongside Inspector Carter. A decision that I'll no doubt come to regret when my review is followed by the surprise announcement that the Carter and Bell series will be reissued in 2022. Anyway... 

Music Tells All opened a new chapter in the series as Bobby and Olive Owen returned from Wychshire, a rural county where Bobby acted in various capacities and eventually became the Acting Chief Constable (It Might Lead Anywhere, 1946), which provided a sometimes dreamy and magical backdrop for nine novels. Such as Ten Star Clues (1941), Diabolic Candelabra (1942) and There's a Reason for Everything (1945). Now they're back in London and the post-war malaise is putting its stamp on British society.

These were the dark days of food-and petrol rationing, clothes coupons, societal upheavals, poaching and crime waves – not to mention a severe housing shortage. So, upon their return to London, the Owens find themselves living in a hotel room without hot water, because "the hotel's stock of coal had run out." Everything was in short supply. Olive couldn't believe her eyes when she notices an ad in the newspaper that a charming cottage to be let near the village of Much Middles. Only twenty miles from London. Bobby is very skeptical and believes the place is either unaffordable, haunted or merely a practical joke, but they receive an invitation to view the cottage. And they end up getting "the cottage on a three-year lease at a rent of a hundred a year." More of a heist than a bargain during those days, but the Owens find they have a strange lot as neighbors.

Mr. Fielding is their landlord and a semi-retired city speculator who's a chubby, good-tempered with an almost childlike trustfulness beaming from his candid eyes and exuding general air of a happy, which is "strangely unlike those supposed to mark the professional speculator he was describing himself to be." Bobby briefly glimpsed another personality underneath his friendly exterior. A brief, unguarded moment when Fielding went from "beaming like a happy child upon a friendly world" to "an Ishmael whose hand was against every man as every man's hand was against him." Fielding has a curious, double-edged attraction with the Owens next door neighbor, Miss Bellamy, who has an otherworldly aura about and plays "passionate, possessive strains" on her grand piano. The music "flowing passionately" from Miss Bellamy's cottage has a strange, appealing effect on everyone who hears it and the vicar, Mr. Gayton, believes there's a pagan element to her music. There are also a brother-and-sister, George and Rhoda Rogers, who share a cottage and they're as curious a pair as everyone else in the neighborhood. George Rogers is a self-professed scholar, "engaged on a most interesting inquiry" to prove that the Old School Tie "an unconscious symbolism of the infantile desire to return to the safety and comfort of the maternal womb," as well as being an outspoken pacifistic and conscientious objector during the war, but reportedly got his ass handed to him in a scrap with Fred Biggs – who's Mr. Fielding's battle-scarred chauffeur. Rhoda served in the Middle East as part of the A.T.S. and received a recommendation when opened fire with a tommy gun on two Egyptian spies in the pay of the Nazis, which prevented important secret documents falling into the wrong hands. Well, you can't pick your neighbors.

So, while Olive begins working on the cottage, Bobby returns to Scotland Yard and now holds the temporary, undefined position of "temporary-acting-junior-under-deputy-assistant-commissioner." A result of the war having depleted the ranks of the C.I.D. and a meeting is planned to reorganize the department, but until then, they have to begin to stem the tide of a growing wave of crime with the primary focus on an epidemic of smash and grab raids. This assignment places Bobby smack dab in the middle of a very cheeky and daringly-staged crime.

One of the smash and grab gangs somehow managed to coincide a jewel robbery with a Scotland Yard test from a suitable place from which to send out a test alarm of a smash and grab raid. A motor cyclist put a phone booth and the wireless in Bobby's car out of action with a spanner, which leads to a high speed chase with the mysterious cyclist seemingly inviting Bobby to pursue him. A merry-go-round leading straight to Much Middles where the motor cyclist performed a "vanishing act" near the cottage of one of his new neighbors. And he thought he recognized Fred Biggs in the motor cyclist's mannerisms. But he has "a complete alibi." Why did this smash and grab raid practically lead back to Bobby's own doorstep? Was there a reason behind their incredible luck in getting the cottage during a housing crisis?

A problem that takes on a whole new complexion with the discovery of murder victim, shot to death, inside a disused, half demolished air raid shelter at the bacl of Fielding's house – a dispatch case is found underneath the body. A dispatch case crammed with jewelry, but not the smash and grab loot. All of it's "dud stuff" barely worth a fiver.

Bobby is placed in a difficult position and is more than a little relief that the murder is the official responsibility of the self-effacing, mildly cynical Superintendent Bell. And, while Bell the general routine of the murder investigation, Bobby probes the people involved to see how, or where, the smash and grab raiders overlap with his next door neighbors or that mysterious, haunting music. A task not made easier with suspects and witnesses who are either missing, lying or unwilling to cooperate with a second murder complicating the case even further. This second murder provides the story with its best idea and a great answer to that "perennial difficulty in murder," which concerns how to dispose or hide a dead body. Unfortunately, the idea is not used to its full potential here, because Music Tells All is not exactly a conventional, Golden Age detective story.

Punshon was born in 1872 and in his late twenties at the dawn of the twentieth century, when the modern world began to take shape, but remarkably, his detective novels were hardly updated relics from the past. They were very much of their time and sometimes even (far) ahead of their days, but there were also some very clear clues and hints that Punshon belonged to a previous generation. Punshon had an old-fashioned, melodramatic streak, but never the corny, over-the-top kind like can be found in Anthony Wynne's mystery novels – who truly arrived on the scene two or three decades too late. Punshon could be genuinely dark and brooding, unashamedly indulge in the macabre and the imaginative or produced something that was years or decades ahead of its time (see the very modern The Conquerors Inn, 1943). More than once, Punshon gave me the impression the classic ghost-and horror genre lost a great name when he decided to write crime-and detective fiction (see the ending of The Dark Garden, 1941) So you can never be quite sure which direction one of his mysteries is going to take or in what way it's going to end. 

Music Tells All is not a detective story in which Punshon pulls out a string of clues and red herrings from his sleeve with a murderer tied to it at the end. Music Tells All is a tragedy of characters posing as an early police procedural (of sorts) with the strains of haunting music and crossover element making everything curiously reminiscent of one of Gladys Mitchell's criminal flight of fancies. Yes, the solution is, for better or worse, somewhat Mitchell-like in nature. So you can file this one under "acquired taste." Sorry, Jim!

Nonetheless, I very much enjoyed my time with Music Tells All and a return to Punshon was long overdue, but readers who are new to him are advised to begin at an earlier point in the series. Such as Bobby Owen's debut as a fresh-faced constable in Information Received (1932), Death Comes to Cambers (1935) or the previously mentioned There's a Reason for Everything. I'll probably return to Bobby and Punshon before the end of the month.

10/10/21

Stone Cold Dead (1995) by Roger Ormerod

My previous reviews took a closer look at two of Roger Ormerod's detective novels, One Deathless Hour (1981) and When the Old Man Died (1991), which were published a decade apart and represented two distinctly different periods in his writing career – respectively his private eye and neo-traditional periods. Only thing that both novels have in common is Ormerod's creative and often original bend of mind when it comes to plot-construction. So I decided to go for the hat-trick and pick another one of his nineties mystery novels, but don't worry. I'll return to the Golden Age in my post. 

Stone Cold Dead (1995) is listed online as the final entry in the Richard and Amelia Patton series, but The Night She Died (1997) is the title that closes out the series. This is almost a pity as Stone Cold Dead is Ormerod's most traditionally-styled mystery from this period with a surprisingly uncomplicated plot.

There are no shattered clocks, fabricated alibis, apparent impossibilities or messing around with cars and target pistols. Just a deceivingly simple murder in a small, tightly-knit community "firmly and delightfully living in the past" in a (socially) isolated location. A place that resisted and shown the modern world the door for two centuries. 

Stone Cold Dead begins with the Pattons traveling to Flight House to visit Amelia's goddaughter, Amelia "Mellie" Ruby Fulton, who's celebrating both her eighteenth birthday and her engagement to a young police constable, Raymond "Ray" Torrance – who spend £800 pounds on an engagement ring. Mellie is the daughter of Amelia's old school friend, Ruby Fulton, who's married to an old-fashioned, old-world country lawyer, Gerald Fulton. But his household situation is a little out of the ordinary. Gerald Fulton pays his son, Colin Fulton, a nominal rent to live there. Flight House looks down on a canal basin with locks, pounds and an old toll booth with people living "all the year round in their houseboats" on the canals. So there has to be a permanent lock-keeper, Colin, who was preceded by his uncle and grandfather.

The canal is privately owned by "three old dears," Adolphus, Alexandra and Victoria, who buried themselves even deeper into the past than the people populating their farms, villages and canals. Nowadays, Flight House is presented rent free to the lock-keeper with no salary, but the tradition is to tip the lock-keeper for helping the boats through. So they lived and worked in "an environment established over 200 years before" with "the physical isolation" cutting "them off from the present pace of life." There's "no radio, no TV set, no CD player" at Flight House, which are deemed to modern, but the outside world sometimes seeps into this isolated community. And having values, modern or old-fashioned, doesn't automatically mean you always live up to them. Something the Pattons begin to find out before they even arrived at the house.

Richard and Amalia drive to Flight House during snowy weather and come across an abandoned, unlocked car with the engine still warm and the keys hanging from the ignition lock – fuel gauge indicated half a tankful. What happened to the driver? A question that will be answered later that night.

They receive a warm welcome when they arrive, but there are some undercurrents during the birthday/engagement party. Gerald is not exactly charmed by his future son-in-law as "the young foul" thinks it's humorous to take constant digs at Gerald with his "really very immature authority." Ray comes to the party in his uniform and a joke ready ("is this bar licensed, may I ask?"), but Richard notices he has been "drinking as one who sought oblivion." And he refused to show Mellie the ring. So the stage is set.

Later that evening, while taking a stroll around the promise to smoke his pipe, Richard sees a human hand sticking out of the water of the pound. However, I can't reveal anything about the victim, because the victim's identity is a genuine "Ooh, the plot thickens" moment. A very well done effect considering the victim is somewhat of an outsider who has not been mentioned, or named, until the body was discovered. Ormerod tried to repeat this trick when Richard finds someone in very poor condition on one of the houseboats along the canal, but not quite to the same effect as the murder. Although it definitely thickened the plot even further and it made me look in a completely different direction for an answer.

So, while the case appears to be relatively simple and straightforward on the surface, the local policeman in charge, Inspector Ted Slater, had "nothing of a routine nature that he could pursue" with means and opportunity being the same very everyone involved – numerous motives were "jealously guarded." Richard Patton is more than a little guilty of guarding all the motives and keeping evidence from the local authorities. This is both a strength and a weakness of the plot. As noted above, Stone Cold Dead has a very simple, uncomplicated crime without the problems of broken windows, smashed clocks, faked alibis, impossible crimes and toying around with firearms. So there's less physical evidence and clues to betray the murderer or obscure the trail, which is probably why Ormerod didn't dare to go all-in with the puzzle surrounding the missing murder weapon. A very clever idea that could have been on par with the brilliant, double-edged central clue from The Key to the Case (1992) had been properly clued. Now you can only make an educated guess, if you can spot the murderer, that is.

Technically, the plot is sound enough and Ormerod told a fascinating story with a very well realized setting, memorable set-pieces and some good pieces of reasoning, but, purely as fair play mystery, Stone Cold Dead lagged behind his other novels from the same period. The Key to the Case, A Shot at Nothing (1993) and even And Hope to Die (1995) are shimmering examples of what could have been had the Golden Age never ended in the 1960s and continued to develop. Stone Cold Dead started out as something resembling a throwback to the old-fashioned, traditional detective story, but rapidly began to change into a more character-driven, modern crime novel. And not a bad crime novel at all. But hoped to find another one of his sublimely plotted, neo-Golden Age mysteries in Stone Cold Dead. So only recommended to readers who are already a fan of Ormerod and the series. 

A note for the curious: there's a very small, unsolved slice-of-life mystery in Stone Cold Dead. During the second-half of the story, the police begin to drag the locks in the hope of finding the elusive murder weapon. The locks had not been pumped dry in one, or two, centuries and the police collected "piles of sundry junk," which included everything from pram wheels to "a complete chandelier." There were also two shopping trolleys. Patton wonders how they got there, because "no canal user would load a trolley on to his boat" as it would be a devil of a nuisance and no shopper too idle to return the trolley to the store "would have walked it at least two miles to reach these locks." I know this is not as big of a mystery as who killed the chauffeur in Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep (1939), but I'm Dutch. And this little waterway mystery fascinates me. My solution is that some holidaymakers or canal boat residents went to the village to stock up on supplies, but their car broke down on the way back. So they fetched two trolleys to get their supplies to the boat and then dumped the trolleys into the lock.

10/6/21

When the Old Man Died (1991) by Roger Ormerod

Previously, I reviewed Roger Ormerod's last novel in the David Mallin and George Coe series, One Deathless Hour (1981), which ended his run as an author of British private eye novels and ushered in a more traditional period – during which he refined and polished his plots to almost perfection. More importantly, Ormerod succeeded in updating the traditional, plot-oriented detective novel and finding a balance between the classic and modern style. The Key to the Case (1992) is a great example of combining a good, old-fashioned locked room mystery with the grit of today's crime novels. 

So thought it would be a nice idea to skip a decade ahead and read one of his novels from the early nineties, which gave me about five titles to pick from. I randomly settled on When the Old Man Died (1991) and couldn't have picked a better title. John Dickson Carr would have found much to enjoy about this curious, almost out-of-time detective story! It has everything from antique clocks and quasi-impossible situations to a traveling fair. Step right up, step right up! 

When the Old Man Died is listed online as the eighth title in the Richard and Amelia Patton series, but several of Ormerod's series novels, like the previously mentioned The Key to the Case, are listed as standalone mysteries. So don't pin me down on the exact chronology of his books. 

When the Old Man Died begins with ex-Detective Inspector Richard Patton getting a visit from a former colleague, Chief Inspector Wainwright, who wants to speak with him about a ten year old murder case – which represented Patton's "first big case as an inspector." A decade ago, Patton was called to the town of Markham Prior where an old, dreary and unkempt farmhouse surrounded untended fences and outbuildings became the scene of a very peculiar murder. The owner of the home is the grouchy, anti-social Eric Prost, "suspected of writing scurrilous letters to all and sundry," but poison pen letters lost their power to "to bring about any shivers of apprehension" in modern times. Nonetheless, this didn't prevent Prost from writing abusive letters and had been writing one at the time of his death.

A milkman on his early morning rounds arrived at Winter Haven, as Prost called his house, to find no empty bottles on the steps. So he walked around the house to peek through to the windows and discovered Prost's body, head down on his desk, in his study, but the doors were locked and the windows, upstairs and downstairs, were latched. Some of the latches were "rusted solid." But was the house really locked up as tightly as it appeared? The "side door was so floppy in its frame" that Patton "could slip the latch easily" and two shots were fired through a small, but "critically important," hole in the corner of the pane of the study window – clearly done years before and never replaced. One bullet struck a small, vulnerable spot in the nape of Prost's neck. The second bullet had struck the face of an old, valuable grandfather clock, or long-case clock, standing by the side of the door. Apparently, the bullet stopped the clock at eight-ten and "the shattered glass from its face had been all over the floor" where the door opened. So "nobody could have entered or left the room" without disturbing the carpet of glass. The door had swept a wide arc in it when Patton entered the room.

Patton was hardly fooled by the smashed clock ("who's going to fall for that, these days?") and suspected a faked alibi, but the shots were precise and exact that required the practiced hand of a marksman. Enter the antique dealer and gun enthusiast, Mr. Julian Caine, who's name was on the license of the murder weapon. He had a motive of sorts and a laughable alibi. So he was arrested and received a life sentence on his day in court.

Chief Inspector Wainwright informs Patton one of his then underlings, Detective Constable Arthur Pierce, died last month following a car accident, but he made a statement before passing away. A statement that opened an old, timeworn can of worms. Arthur Pierce climbed to the rank of Chief Superintendent, but "one tiny error in his whole career" had haunted him. He had mishandled the murder weapon and, as a consequence, "the evidence, as presented to the court, wasn't safe." So the conviction was quashed and Julian Caine was released from prison. Four months later, Caine appears on the Pattons doorstep to ask the man responsible for putting him behind bars to now prove his innocence.

While the courts quashed the conviction, Caine is still guilty in the eyes of the town and he already had threats stuck through his letterbox and a brick through the window. Caine admits he was angry enough with Prost to have shot him, but not that precious, nearly 300-year-old Tompion long-case clock. And he could never have brought himself to harm it.

This is easier said than done, because ten years have passed and, every time Patton searched for a way out for him, Caine became "almost frantic to prove that nobody else but himself could have done it" – covering everything from his alibi and motive to access to his pistols. There are many more curious, almost impossible, aspects of the case revealed during this part of the story. Firstly, the pistols were kept in "a room almost as secure as a bank vault" with a cleverly hidden key, but Patton discovers the hiding place was to deceive burglars and crooks. Not friends or anyone else who came over to his home. Secondly, there was something weird and explainable that Patton didn't put into his report. Every clock in the house, "the whole collection," had stopped at eight-ten! This brings to mind old stories of "clocks stopping at the time of their owner's death," but even stranger is that the clocks were started up again after the house had been locked and sealed by the police. A particular bizarre aspect when you consider the bullet made "no more than a dent" in the brass face of the clock. Just a shame Ormerod didn't delve deeper into the lore surrounding old clocks.

Naturally, there are many more problems and side issues complicating Patton's investigation even further. Eric Prost lost his wife in a terrible car accident and the woman who caused the crash was seen fleeing the scene, but remained elusive unidentified. Arthur Pierce car crash very likely was murder and his deathbed statement resulted in an internal investigation, which is going to leave a reputation in tatters and Wainwright can only imagine what the media is going to do when the story gets out. So this means Patton has to lock horns with another ex-colleague, which is one of Ormerod's personalized tropes. Another one is his interest in cars and how they can be used by criminals and murderers in all kinds of different ways. Yes, there's a third victim of the four-wheeled menace when one of the characters is seriously wounded when he/she is rundown in the street. You can already see his interests and pet ideas being turned into personalized tropes in One Deathless Hour and An Alibi Too Soon (1987). Lastly, Eric Prost was related to the people of a traveling fair and Winter Haven was the nerve center where everything's organized and doubled as their winter quarters. When Patton returned, the fair had returned to their winter quarters to refurbish and repair their attractions and sideshows.

Admittedly, the story sags a little in the second-half, which is why think the clock-lore was underutilized, but the story and plot picked up again during the final quarter. A sudden change of pace that begins with one of the most unusual, but original, "courtroom" scene on the books. Patton has a stubborn, unbending sense of right and wrong, which forces him to interfere in "a kangaroo court" that took place in complete secrecy. Even though the accused was guilty of what he had been accused of (not murder), but without being able to defend himself. Patton elbows his way to the stage to do an improve impression of Perry Mason, but, during his improvised defense, he finally saw the complete truth that had eluded him for so long.

I pieced together most of the pieces except for two, not wholly unimportant, key-pieces of the puzzle. I had a pretty solid idea who had a hand in the (attempted) murders, but not quite as I imagined and therefore technically incorrect. Neither did I appreciate, or understand, how craftily and ingenious Ormerod combined the strands of the locked room mystery with old-fashioned alibi-trickery, which strongly reminded me of the short stories in Tetsuya Ayukawa's The Red Locked Room (2020) – which also used the tricks and techniques of one trope to create the other. Ormerod created a hybrid of the locked room and alibi with the murder in that puzzle box house with clocks that stop and start on their own volition. This is another personalized trope as Ormerod doesn't appear to have been interested in conventional alibis. My impression is that Ormerod was more interested in the difficulties of fabricating alibis and the problems that can arise from them, because they had unforeseen consequences or were misinterpreted.

So, while Ormerod had some favorite tropes and hobbyhorses, he also possessed a creative and imaginative mind capable of producing some original ideas, which prevented him from repeating himself. He simply found new ways to use or look at them. When the Old Man Died is no different with only a slower, less imaginative middle part of the story preventing me from ranking it alongside The Key to the Case and A Shot at Nothing (1993) as one of Ormerod's best retro Golden Age detective novels. But its not all that far behind. Just remember that the strength of the book is in its first-half and an ending as solid as it's satisfying.

A note for the curious: I only noticed this while working on my review and reading back what I wrote about One Deathless Hour, which made me realize how much synergy there really is between One Deathless Hour and When the Old Man Died. While Malling and Coe were on their last recorded case, Patton was solving his first unrecorded case around the same time. Both stories involve murders with a twenty-two target pistol, smashed clocks, apparent impossibilities and a flimsy alibi involving a shooting club. Yet, they're two very different detective stories. Ormerod was criminally forgotten and deserves to be rediscovered as showed what could have been, if the Golden Age never ended.