Space Junk: Q.E.D, vol. 12 by Motohiro Katou

Earlier this month, I returned to Motohiro Katou's Q.E.D. series with a review of vol. 11, which came after an unintended five-month-long break, but hopefully, I'll be able to come closer to vol. 30 than vol. 20 by the end of 2021 and have now arrived at vol. 12 – a sequel of sorts to the novel-length story in vol. 10. A story that had been recommended to me for over a year now. 

The twelfth volume of Q.E.D. comprises, as usually, of two stories and begins with a relatively minor story, "In the Corner of the Galaxy," with a rarely used background. 

"In the Corner of the Galaxy" opens with a televised panel discussion the possible existence of aliens and visitations to Earth. A UFO researcher, Megiyama Shunichi, claims to have more than enough proof of aliens to "force the government to release documents about them" and plans on holding an exhibition to present all of his accumulated evidence, but the skeptically-minded Professor Osamu Kotsuki asks for a bombshell revelation in "the form of indisputable evidence." What he shows them is a strange picture of an alien drawn by an American who claims to have been abducted by such a creature, which can hardly be considered evidence. One of the skeptics points out that drawings of aliens usually turn out to be copied from movies or book covers, but Professor Kotsuki ("who hates UFOs") finds the drawing to be quite interesting. Surprising everyone!

Professor Kotsuki turns up with a TV crew at Shunichi's warehouse, where he stored his "very valuable objects that prove aliens exist," which comprises of such items as "a can containing air from Mars" and "a signature of an alien from Saturn" (named Hobo Gas) – as well as "a sink for 3m tall aliens." Very tongue-in-cheek. However, the drawing gets stolen and the main suspect is Kana Mizuhara. So it falls to her friend and teenage detective, Sou Touma, to explain this quasi-impossible theft from the closely watched warehouse.

As a detective story, "In the Corner of the Galaxy" is very minor and the solution is neither particular ingenious, or memorable, but liked that it tackled something that has been consistently ignored by (Western) mystery writers. Curses, haunted houses and seances have been a staple of the (impossible crime) detective story ever since Edgar Allan Poe took a spare heart from the horror genre and buried it beneath the floorboards of the locked room mystery to give life to the detective story, but an extraterrestrial element would open up new possibilities and give an entirely different flavor to the detective story. But it has been rarely touched in the West. So a fun little story, but nothing special or memorable.

The second and longest story of vol. 12, entitled "Rainbow Mirror," is a sequel to the novel-length story from vol. 10, "In the Hand of the Witch," which begins with one of the murderers from that story receiving a visitor in prison, but the murderer drinks from a poisoned cup of juice and dies. So the guards immediately pounce on the visitor, Sou Touma! Luckily, there's security camera footage proving his innocence and is released, but where has he gone to? Kana Mizuhara, Yuu Touma (his sister) and Syd "Loki" Green go out to look for him, but someone is attacking and killing people who were involved in that old murder case.

These two linked stories are supposed to be two of the best stories in the series and they're certainly important, character-wise, as it touches on Touma's misfortune of attracting problems that hurt other people, but "In the Hand of the Witch" had a ramshackle plot and the focus on "Rainbow Mirror" was purely on character – not plot. This time, the story was trying to hard and it didn't work as well as the character-driven stories from previous stories. Even the ending missed, what was intended to be, the emotional gut-punch that landed so perfectly in other stories. And the plot of “Rainbow Mirror” walked back a major incident from "In the Hand of the Witch." So, no, this story didn't do it for me.

Regrettably, the end result is the weakest and least satisfying volume up to this point in the series, but this won't lead to another five, or six, month pause. You can expect another Q.E.D. review in February and it could be another twofer volume. So stay tuned!


The Fortescue Candle (1936) by Brian Flynn

Brian Flynn's The Fortescue Candle (1936) is the eighteenth novel in the Anthony Bathurst series and had not been reprinted since its initial publication, 85 years ago, which Dean Street Press finally rectified last October with their second set of Flynn reprints – introduced by the doctor of puzzlelogy, Steve Barge. The synopsis promised a detective story reminiscent of early period Christopher Bush and Steve's introduction made even more curious as he named it "one of my favourite motives from Golden Age detective fiction." I can appreciate a good and original motive as much as an expertly crafted alibi or locked room-trick. The Fortescue Candle didn't disappoint! 

The Fortescue Candle begins with the unpopular Home Secretary, the Rt. Honorable Albert S. Griggs, giving consideration to "one rather troublesome problem" that "must be settled within the next twenty-four hours" at "the most generous estimate." Walter and Harper Fowles, two brothers, were condemned to death for the murder of a servant girl during a botched burglary. Griggs was now "the sole arbiter of life and death for two fellow-creatures," but decided not to overturn the verdict. On a wet morning in early March, the Fowles brothers, blazing with resentment and proclaiming their innocence, were duly hanged. And they left a very angry, spiteful father behind.

A few months later, the chambermaid of the Lansdowne Hotel finds the body of Griggs half lying out of his bed with a bullet hole in his throat, but the absence of a gun rules out suicide. There may be more to the murder than mere revenge.

Griggs is somewhat of a philanderer and, before his untimely passing, he had been visited by a rough character, Charles Wells, who promises "to let the daylight into his ugly carcase," if he continues to molest his daughter, but Griggs had already set his sights on another woman, Phillida Fortescue – a stage actress who found his attention unwelcome. Nevertheless, "the Griggs moth flutters to the Fortescue candle" (hence the title) and his stalkerish behavior gave his murder its most curious and baffling aspect. Shortly before his murder, Griggs followed Phillida to the Pier Pavilion, at the seaside town of St. Aidans, where an actress, Daphne Arbuthnot, was poisoned on stage during a performance. Griggs was backstage when it happened! The "two murders are so different in every way," but both cases pretty much share the same cast of players. Pure chance or a sinister design?

So the police reaches out to that amateur reasoner of some celebrity, Anthony Bathurst, who recognizes that the double-sided investigation is "one of the most remarkable cases with which he had ever been called upon to deal" as works hard to separate the genuine clues from the red herrings. And there are plenty of both to be found in this case!

Just consider the following: a small, white cube of chalk found in the pocket of the dead man's pajamas and drawings of a skull and crossbones, drawn in chalk, on the soles of his shoes. A maid passing the door of Griggs' hotelroom and catching snippets of a conversation mentioning murder, fowls and Griggs stating they belonged to him and entitled to do with them as he pleased. The missing glass of "poisoned spirits" that Bathurst expects the murderer disposed of in "an unexpected manner" at the pavilion. A coil of rope that the electrician of the pavilion, Mr. Fowles (yes, him), wore around his body and melon seeds found inside the pages of a book Griggs was reading before he was shot, which can be construed as a warning from "a mighty secret society" that "strikes absolute terror into the hearts of those unfortunate enough to incur its enmity," the Ku-Klax-Klan – which has to be given some serious attention as two witnesses have unexpectedly departed for America. Obviously, this plot-strand is Flynn's obligatory nod and a wink to Conan Doyle and this time picked the least triumphant of all of Sherlock Holmes' cases, "The Five Orange Pips" (collected in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1891), to pay homage to. Not as customary with Flynn is that aspect of the plot pays tribute to that "marvelously clever creation" of G.K. Chesterton, Father Brown, who he trashed in The Billiard-Room Mystery (1927). Steve suggested Flynn might have been angling for an invitation to the Detection Club. Anyway... 

The Fortescue Candle is "a labyrinthine chase" with many, independent or incidental moving parts and treacherous red herrings, which comes with both up-and downsides, but either way, it's very impressive Flynn succeeded in stringing everything together in a coherent and logical way. Some parts of this plot shined with Flynn's usual creative and innovative brilliance. One example is the original motive for one of the murders, which certainly was a new one to me, but Flynn also snug one of those double-edged red herrings into the story. A red herring that becomes a clue once you realize it's a red herring and stands in stark contrast with the other, more crudely executed red herrings.

There is, however, a downside. Very nature of the plotting and storytelling makes the whole scheme a little loose in the joints and some aspects needed a little shoehorning to make it all fit. For example, a very little, but very convenient, coincidence allows one of the most important clue/red herring to the first murder fit the story like Cinderella's slipper or the unanswered question (ROT13) jub ernyyl xvyyrq gur freinag tvey? Jrer gur Sbjyre oebgure'f gur ivpgvzf bs n zvfpneevntr bs whfgvpr be qvq gurl qrfreir gb unat? I thought it was weird to leave this thread dangling considering its importance to the overall plot.

So this looseness in the joints of the plot prevented The Fortescue Candle from taking a place among Flynn's top-tier novels, like The Mystery of the Peacock's Eye (1928), Murder en Route (1930) and Fear and Trembling (1936), but it's a genuine, Golden Age mystery with a complex, maze-like plot littered with clues and red herrings – some a little better handled than others. But the logical conclusion is everything but disappointing. Flynn deserves a posthumous Detection Club membership!


And Hope to Die (1995) by Roger Ormerod

Last week, I reviewed Roger Ormerod's A Shot at Nothing (1993), a splendid tribute to the great detective stories and locked room mysteries of yesteryear, which convinced me to explore this modern, but already forgotten, author further – who tried to marry the traditional detective story with the contemporary crime novel. Some attempts were more successful than others. But what matters is that he tried to keep the plot-driven detective story alive during a period when something else was expected from crime writers. More importantly, Ormerod had an undeniable fondness for locked room mysteries and impossible crimes! 

Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) listed three novels, A Spoonful of Luger (1975), The Weight of Evidence (1978) and An Open Window (1988), but have since then identified More Dead Than Alive (1980), One Deathless Hour (1981), A Shot at Nothing and And Hope to Die (1995) as impossible crimes. But there's more! I recently discovered Face Value (1983; published in the US as The Hanging Doll Murders) and The Key to the Case (1992) can be added to the list. Time to Kill (1974) has David Mallin handing the murderer a cast-iron alibi, which could possibly translate into a quasi-impossible situation.

So that makes about nine, or ten, of his fifty-odd novels impossible crimes and you can bet there are probably a few more that remain unidentified, which is very promising, because Ormerod had a magic touch when it came to fabricating miracles – making him one of the most important and prolific (British) contributors of the period. During the 1980s and '90s, the impossible crime story had become to domain of American and yet to be translated, non-English writers. These writers include Edward D. Hoch, Bill Pronzini, Herbert Resnicow, Paul Halter, Soji Shimada and his shin honkaku movement, but only a few Brits carried on the tradition during the 1970s, '80s and '90s. I can think of only three names, Douglas Clark, Paul Doherty and Roger Ormerod, who wrote impossible crime fiction in a significant quantity during those decades.

You would assume locked room readers would treasure a writer, like Ormerod, but he appears to have been forgotten the moment he stopped writing in 1999 and passing away, aged 85, in 2005. Not even Adey and Brian Skupin were aware how much he actually contributed to the locked room mystery. Fortunately, I've some experience tumbling down these rabbit holes of obscurities. 

And Hope to Die is listed online as a standalone mystery, but it's the fifth Philipa Lowe and Oliver Simpson novel with Third Time Fatal (1992) being the third title that's listed as a standalone. So the series counts six, not four, novels in total comprising of Hung in the Balance (1990), Bury Him Darkly (1991), Third Time Fatal, A Shot at Nothing, And Hope to Die and Landscape with Corpse (1996). I've read two novels from this series and think I can safely state that it likely represents Ormerod at his most traditional, slanting heavily towards the classics, but with the characterization having a distinctly modern flavor. And Hope to Die gave a much clearer picture of our dating detectives in its opening chapter.

Philipa Lowe is the daughter of Chief Superintendent Lowe and is the widow of Graham Tonkin, a well-known water colorist, who left with her modest income, but that becomes a bone of contention in her relationship with the ex-police inspector, Oliver Simpson – whose career "disappeared in one flash of shot" when he tried to wrestle a shotgun from a madman. A shower of shotgun pellets to his right arm ended his career and the opening chapter revealed it will "gradually going to deteriorate" over time, which proves to be an obstacle to getting married. Oliver doesn't want to live on Philipa's money. So he hasn't set eyes upon for weeks as he secretly got a job with a security firm.

Philipa is soon reunited with Oliver through a bit clever maneuvering by her solicitor and family friend, Harvey Remington, who asks her to go to an in situ auction to gauge the authenticity of a water color painting. A portrait reputedly painted by her late husband, but he had painted only one portrait and that one was sold to a collector. Oliver will be there as part of the security team. There reunion at Mallington Hall is only slightly dampened by discovering the painting is a partially nude portrait of her on a bath stool, but notices that a very distinctive birthmark is missing. Something her late husband would certainly have included, but this plot-thread is eventually brushed aside (technically, that's not a pun, please don't bludgeon me) when it served its purpose, as a clue, to the main problem of the plot.

Mallington Hall is the old, neglected home of the demure Mrs. Drew, her dark, saturnine son, Derek, and his younger sister, Pattie. There's also their "sort of cousin," Wilfred Lyle. Under the rule of Richard Drew, they lived a far from happy existence as old-world country gentry folks, but nine months ago, Drew shot himself in the library. The thick, solid door was locked on the inside, key still in the locked position, while the metal catches of the old bay window "had long ago rusted solid" with decades old layers of paint sealing the opening section – whole "now had to be considered as one solid window." So the police concluded it couldn't have been anything else except suicide, which spelled disaster for the family, because his life insurance had a suicide clause in it. Consequently, the family were forced to auction the content of the home and move to farmhouse to keep chickens.

Pattie has heard of Philipa's reputation as an amateur meddler in police cases and asks her to prove her father was murdered in exchange for a brass paraffin lamp. A beautiful piece of antique that would look great in her cottage, but the offer comes with a caveat. She wants her to prove it was "murder by somebody from outside the family." This is not easy when everything points towards suicide.

A noteworthy moment from her investigation is when she shows the old-fashioned library door key to an expert (i.e. a career criminal) to see if he can detect any traces of tempering, like scratches on the stem, which would indicate the key was turned from the outside with pliers. This was not the case and the story from here on out quickly turns into a much darker, character-driven crime novel with all the trappings of a 1920s whodunit. Solution to the problem is hidden in the actions and personalities of the characters, which comes with a packet of depressing and sordid back stories. And in particular of Derek and Pattie. However, the key to the case is the character and story of their late father.

Richard Drew was "all dignity and gentlemanly superiority" living "in a world that disappeared long, long ago," but he had his personal set of principles and, when an grim incident ten years ago broke his civility (to put it mildly), he locked himself away from the world in his personal library. A decade later another incident apparently resulted in him taking his own life, but Philipa slowly becomes convinced it was actually murder. 

So far, so good, but let the reader be warned: the answers to these questions don't show Ormerod's usual creative and original approach to the detective story and locked room mystery, but it speaks volumes that he still succeeded in dropping me off at the final page without really being disappointed.

Firstly, the small pool of suspects and a second murder makes the murderer stand out like a scarecrow and the locked room-trick is an old dodge that you shouldn't get away with today or in 1995, but Ormerod played it serious with a straight face – oddly enough it made it much more convincing. Usually, these modern send ups of the country house/locked room mysteries that trot out this particular trick feel like a novelty store item, but And Hope to Die (despite the contemporary touches) felt like the genuine article. It reminded me in that regard of Michael Innes' final novel, Appleby and the Ospreys (1986).

All in all, And Hope to Die was a little disappointing, because Ormerod has written much better and more ingenious detective stories, but it was rather interesting to see a modern, character-driven crime drama being played out as a Golden Age mystery – adapting to it (locked room-trick). But if you're new to Ormerod, I recommend you start with More Dead Than Alive or A Shot at Nothing.


The Three Coffins (1935) by John Dickson Carr

Back in 2019, I decided to reread Till Death Do Us Part (1944) by John Dickson Carr, the warlock of Golden Age detective fiction, because it underwent a reevaluation over the past fifteen years and its status raised from a mid-tier title to one of Carr's ten best novels – a trend that began on the now defunct JDCarr forum and Yahoo GAD group. A trend that continued through this blogging era. Yeah, it was a deserved, long overdue reevaluation of an often overlooked and underappreciated novel in Carr's oeuvre. 

What's not as well deserved, or acceptable, is the simultaneous devaluation of Carr's landmark locked room mystery novel, The Three Coffins (1935; originally published as The Hollow Man).

I noted in my review of Till Death Do Us Part that book earned its new status on technical points rather than a knockout, but The Three Coffins seems to have lost its classic status on points. Sure, technically, it's perhaps not quite as sound as, let's say, She Died a Lady (1943) or He Who Whispers (1944), but I think readers today miss the point why it was considered a monumental contribution to the genre – a landmark only comparable in status to Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) and Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1939). The Three Coffins is the utterly bizarre and fantastic done right. An impressive juggling act, traversing a slippery tight-rope, which reached the ending without the intricate, complicated plot becoming a tangled, incomprehensible mess. It worked with all the mad logic of a dream! That's what generations of (locked room) mystery readers admired about it.

However, there's one difference between the mystery readers of yesterday and today: we have a larger frame of reference, as there's more available today, which can give a new perspective on a long-held, settled opinion. Just look at my own downgrade of Robert van Gulik's Fantoom in Foe-lai (translated as The Chinese Gold Murders, 1959). So it was time to give The Three Coffins another read to see how well its reputation stands up to rereading and standing it did. The Three Coffins is written proof that there's no one, past, present or future, who can hold a candle to Carr. He proves it on the very first pages of the story! 

The Three Coffins opens with the statement that "those of Dr Fell's friends who like impossible situations will not find in his case–book any puzzle more baffling or more terrifying" than the murder of Professor Grimaud and "later the equally incredible crime in Cagliostro Street" – committed in such a fashion that the murderer must have been invisible and "lighter than air." A stone cold killer with all the otherworldly qualities of a goblin or mage. Some began to wonder that the killer really was nothing more than hollow shell and that if you took away "the cap and the black coat and the child's false–face," you might reveal someone "like the man in a certain famous romance by Mr H.G. Wells." An extraordinary and confusing murder case, but Carr hastens to add that "the reader must be told at the outset" on "whose evidence he can absolutely rely." Such as the witnesses at Professor Grimaud's house and Cagliostro Street. This is the kind of the confident bravado that separated the masters from their apprentices.

Dr. Charles Grimaud a teacher, a popular lecturer and writer whose specialized in "any form of picturesque supernatural devilry from vampirism to the Black Mass." Every week, Dr. Grimaud holds court at the Warwick Tavern in Museum Street with a small group of his cronies, but, during their last meeting, there was an unexpected guest. A magician by the name of Pierre Fley challenges Dr. Grimaud that there are men who can get out of their coffins, move anywhere invisibly and four walls are nothing to them. Frey claims to be one of them and has a brother who can do even more, but he's dangerous and says either himself or his brother will visit Dr. Grimaud very soon. Dr. Grimaud tells him to send his brother and "be damned."

A few days later, Dr. Gideon Fell is sitting in front of a roaring fire of his library with Superintendent Hadley and Ted Rampole when the latter tells them about the incident at the Warwick Tavern. Dr. Fell immediately springs his immense bulk into action to pay Dr. Grimaud a visit, because he fears the worst has already happened.

The "first deadly walking of the hollow man" took place that night, shortly before Dr. Fell, Hadley and Rampole arrived at the scene, when "the side street of London were quiet with snow" and Dr. Grimaud received a strange, bundled up visitor – whose face was obscured by child's false-face resembling a Guy Fawkes mask. He was seen talking with Dr. Grimaud by the open door of his study, before entering and locking it behind them. A gunshot was heard and when the door was finally opened, they found a dying Dr. Grimaud, but not a trace of the shooter or the gun. There's an unlocked window in the study, but it overlooks a large, unbroken blanket of virgin snow and the locked door was under constant observation.


So, according to the evidence, the murderer drifted into the house without leaving any footprints on the sidewalk and floated out of the study window!

Dr. Fell is having a field day with this one and is more actively woolgathering than usual, but he still does it with all the tact of "a load of bricks coming through a skylight." He lumbers through the crime scene, while Hadley is questioning people, as he inspects the slashed painting of three coffins, pounces on the most disreputable-looking volumes on the bookshelves and went down wheezingly to look at the fireplace. Somehow, Dr. Fell combined his observation with Dr. Grimaud's dying words and "interpreted in jig–saw fashion" part of the backstory to the murder that's buried in Transylvania. I had completely forgotten The Three Coffins is not only a monumental locked room mystery, but also made perfect use of the dying message and the correct interpretation is another clue that a master was at work here.

There are many layers to this story, which have to be slowly peeled away, but as layer after layer gets removed, they expose new questions and complications. Such as a second, seemingly impossible, murder.

Cagliostro Street is a little cul-de-sac, no more than three minutes' walk from Grimaud's house, where a man was shot and killed under circumstances suggesting that he was "murdered by magic." Several witnesses at either end of the street heard a voice saying, "the second bullet is for you," followed by a laugh, a muffled pistol shot and man walking in the middle of the street pitching forward on his face – shot close enough that the wound was "burnt and singed black." There were no footprints in the snow but his own. This second murder allows Dr. Fell to reach his full potential as he goes into overdrive. Dr. Fell lectures on ghost stories, gets lectured on magic tricks and culminates with one of the most iconic chapters in all of detective fiction, "The Locked Room Lecture," in which Dr. Fell famously breaks the fourth wall ("because... we're in a detective story, and we don't fool the reader by pretending we're not") to talk about all the known locked room-tricks at the time! Just one of those many touches that makes this is a genuine classic.

The masterstroke comes when Dr. Fell visits Cagliostro Street and observes "a big round–hooded German clock with moving eyes in its sun of a face," in a shop window, "seeming to watch with idiot amusement the place where a man had been killed" and hears church bells in the distance that he finally sees the whole picture – which translates in one of the best surprise solutions of the period! A beautifully executed solution, reversing everything you thought was true, that pays homage to G.K. Chesterton (plot) and Conan Doyle (backstory). Sure, the critics have a small point that the solution is a little improbable in certain places and aspect can be hard to swallow. But, as stated before, it's the utterly bizarre and fantastic done right with all the mad logic of a dream and (impressively) Carr in full control of every moving bit and piece of a staggeringly complex plot, which is still easy to visualize once everything is explained. 

The Three Coffins is an almost otherworldly performance that nobody else could have pulled off except Carr. There have been those who tried. Clayton Rawson's Death from a Top Hat (1938), John Russell Fearn's The Five Matchboxes (1948) and Paul Halter's La quatrième porte (The Fourth Door, 1987) spring to mind. There even have been those who came close, like Christianna Brand's Death of Jezebel (1948) and Hake Talbot's Rim of the Pit (1944), but there will never be another Carr or The Three Coffins.

So, no, I don't agree with the downgrading of The Three Coffins at all. It's deservedly the most famous of Carr's many masterpieces and a landmark of the locked room mystery. Recommended unreservedly! I hope my fanboyism didn't bleed through too much.


Familiar Faces: Case Closed, vol. 76 by Gosho Aoyama

The 76th volume of Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed, a.k.a. Detective Conan, opens with a big, five-chapter long story covering nearly half of the volume and starts out as a fairly standard detective story, but then the plot takes a wild left turn and becomes part of the main storyline – revealing the potential presence of a Black Organization spy. A dramatic, double-layered case that began as a routine assignment. 

Conan built a website for Richard Moore's detective agency, "Private Eye Extraordinair," which netted him the first paying client who hired him over the internet. And the case looks like easy money.

Kei Kashitsuka found a key to a coin locker in the belongings of her recently deceased brother and hired Moore to find the locker, because "it might something important that could be placed in the stiff's coffin," but text messages about scheduling results in missing each other – returning to the office without having met their client. But upon their return, they notice someone has been in the office and they find their client tied up in the bathroom with her assailant, dead as a door nail, sitting on the toilet. Kashitsuka tells them she came to the office and was met by a man claiming to be Moore's assistant, but he knocked her out with a stun gun and came to in the bathroom "bound with duct tape" when Moore with his entourage returned. The man panicked and shot himself. Only minute traces of gunshot residue found on her body and clothes confirm she didn't fire the gun, but Conan has his suspicions.

So this part of the story is basically an inverted mystery with the question how-and why it was done with the shooting being a (borderline) impossible crime and the motive is tied to a botched bank robbery. During the robbery, a bank teller was shot and his last words form one of the most elegant and natural dying messages I've come across since Ellery Queen's short-short "Diamonds in Paradise" (collected in Queen's Full, 1965). This makes for a nice little detective story, but the situation takes an unexpected turn when Conan is kidnapped and everyone comes into action to find him, which include three of the most recently introduced recurring characters, Toru Amuro, Subaru Okiya and Masumi Sera.

All three of them obviously have ulterior motives to hang around Conan and Moore, but the final page of the story suggests one of them is a Black Organization spy, "Bourbon." Considering the three suspects and Aoyama's style of plotting, Bourbon will probably turn out to be a sheep in wolves clothing pretending to be a wolf in sheep's clothing (i.e. a double agent). A good, eventful story with a new development in the ongoing storyline.

A note for the curious: there's a brief reference in this story to the "Silver Witch Case" from vol. 63, which is a fun impossible crime story about a phantom car that can fly!

Unfortunately, the second story is one of the weakest, most unconvincing stories in the series in a very long time and begins when Doc Agasa, Conan and the Junior Detective League are invited to a barbecue at the home of Sumika and Takushi Konno – a married couple who they met and helped during a camping trip. However, they're constantly arguing with each other and ends with Amy seeing Sumika threatening Takushi with a knife and yelling "I've had enough... I'll kill you." But when Agasa and Conan hurry to the scene, it's a wounded Sumika who's on the floor with a knife sticking out of her body. This could have been a decent enough detective story and one line in particular, "you always get carried away with pranks," suggested the Konnos could have prepared a prank for the young detectives by staging a little domestic murder. Takushi simply took advantage of it to take his wife out the picture in a way that looked like self-defense. Sadly, the solution leaned heavily character manipulation and timing, which was neither cleverly done or very convincing. And the happy, lighthearted ending struck a jarring note with all the drama preceding it.

The third and last story of the volume is a Metropolitan Police Love Story, but this time, it's a thriller! Detective Takagi disappears and a package is delivered to his colleague and girlfriend, Sato, which contains a modified tablet with a live stream – showing Takagi in a precarious situation. Takagi lies flat on his back, tied up and gag, on a wooden plank on a very high construction surrounded by tarp. A noose is tied around his neck and without any clues, or demands, they only have his past cases to go in order to find him. A story ending on a cliffhanger that will be concluded in the next volume.

On a whole, it's not too interesting a story (so far), but one aspect of the plot deserves to be pointed out. This is the second time, in the entire series, Western readers have an advantage over Japanese readers when it comes to a language-based clue, which this time was impossible to hide in the English translation. You've to be denser than Arthur Hastings to miss it. You can find that first story in vol. 55.

So, yeah, it's difficult to rate this volume, because all of its strength is in the first story, but followed by a very weak one and something I fear will turn out to be nothing more than thriller-filler. But then again, if you're this far into the series, you'll be more than happy with the first story!


A Shot at Nothing (1993) by Roger Ormerod

Over the past few years, I've read four novels by Roger Ormerod, a jack-of-all-trades and second-string mystery writer, who evidently tried to find a balance in his stories between the traditional detective stories of yore and the contemporary, character-driven crime novels of the 1970s, '80s and '90s – which he did with various degrees of success. So it's understandable why Ormerod hasn't stood the test of time and is not as well remembered today, but locked room readers should take note of him. Ormerod was not impartial to the locked room mystery and, when it came to manufacturing miracles, he was not bereft of talent either! 

The Weight of Evidence (1974) is a little clunky, as a whodunit, but the synergy between the solutions to a strange disappearance from a construction shed and the discovery of two bodies in a bolted cellar room made for an original, one-of-a-kind impossible crime. More Dead Than Alive (1980) is a grand, old-fashioned and rambling detective novel littered with multiple, false solutions and a daringly original final explanation to the locked room problem. The Open Window (1988) is the weakest of the lot that withholds clues from the reader, but the locked room-trick still had flashes of ingenuity and probably would have worked better in a short story. 

A Shot at Nothing (1993) is the third title in the short-lived Philipa Lowe and Oliver Simpson series and it's a more conventional, relatively simplistic, locked room mystery. But, in every other regard, it's his clearest written and most consistently plotted detective novel I've read to date.

Philipa Lowe is the daughter of Chief Superintendent Lowe and is somewhat of a "lady sleuth," having been "successful two or three times in sorting out other people's problems," who's currently in a relationship with a former policeman, Oliver Simpson – whose career ended prematurely with a shotgun blast. A Shot at Nothing opens with them haunting for a house and Philipa eye caught Collington House. An over sized bungalow with a sprawling estate with a hedge maze blocking the front door and the father of the present owner had the place "laced with alarms" connected "to the nearest police station." Surprisingly, the place is dirt cheap and she soon finds out why Oliver has his objections to the place.

During his time as an inspector in the district, Oliver had an illicit affair with the lady of the manor, Clare Steadman, who's currently serving out a life sentence for murdering her husband, Harris Steadman. Oliver happened to be nearby when the burglar alarm was triggered and dispatched to the house.

Six years ago, Clare and Harris had a spousal spat over money. Clare refused to cough up the money to pay his debts and he angrily stormed into the gunroom, where her late father's collection of valuable shotguns reside in glass cabinets, locking the door behind him. And through the locked door of solid oak, Harris began to taunt Clare, smashing the glass cabinets and flinging the guns through the french windows onto the lawn. Yelling how much "they'd be worth after a dose of rain." So she armed herself with two twelve-bore cartridges, ran outside and started tossing the shotguns back into the room, but Harris closed and locked the french windows. Clare picked up a shotgun, loaded both barrels and blasted the lock.

A shot that did three things: it jammed the lock, blasted a hole in one of the double glazed window and Harris was showered in glass splinters. Clare saw him through the hole in the glass, slumped against the wall, assumed he was dead and called the police, who were already on their way, but this is where the story begins to fall apart – because her story is that she fired one barrel outside. Harris was showered in glass, but what killed him was a second shot fired at close range. There were two emptied barrels in the shotgun and the spread makes it "damn near impossible" the second shot was fired through the hole in the window. Oliver found the door the gunroom unlocked, but what sank Clare was her insistence that she heard "an unexplained third shot." So, naturally, the police doesn't buy her story.

Oliver asks Philipa if she "could prove her innocence for her," which doesn't go over well, but she can't help being fascinated and in particular about that unnecessary, illogical third shot that went against all the evidence. Or how it can be linked to a shotgun missing from the collection. Not to mention whether, or not, the gunroom was locked from the inside. She knows that if "something happens that's illogical in the known circumstances" then "there have to be different circumstances in which it is logical," but this case is not going to be purely an intellectual exercise.

Clare is released early, out on a license, returned to her home when Philipa and Oliver were there, which made for an awkward reunion, but Philipa quickly realizes she's dealing with "quite a personality." She needs to break down the walls of lies and false fronts Clare had erected all around to get to the truth of those three mysterious shotgun blasts six years ago. Something that's easier said than done. Harris was despised in the district and Clare received a hero's homecoming complete with a village fête on the estate, but her first day back ends with another murder!

As stated as above, A Shot at Nothing is Ormerod's clearest, most consistently plotted and written detective novel with a lot to recommend to connoisseurs of the traditional, puzzle-oriented detective story, but there are one or two things that need a little nitpicking – mostly concerning the clash of the old and new school of crime-and detective fiction. Philipa and Oliver are a far cry from the bantering, lighthearted mystery solving couple found in Delano Ames, Kelley Roos and the Lockridges, but their relationship tensions and troubles were actually tied, or relevant, to the plot. So it didn't bother me too much. However, their characterization and Oliver's personal involvement showed Ormerod tried to frame the story as a modern crime novel/quasi-police procedural. I think this took away a little from an otherwise solid detective novel with some ingenious and inspired plotting.

The solution to the impossible shooting is at it's core an elaborate reworking of a locked room-trick vintage mystery readers have seen before, but it was very well done and expanded with all the confusing and complications surrounding the various shots. Solution to that third, unnecessary shot was a clever touch and gleamed with the ingenuity, but not as much as the unexpected and surprising truth behind the second murder. The original motive behind this murder elevated the whole story to something worthy of the great mystery writers of the past. I can easily imagine Brian Flynn pulling a stunt like this and made up for some minor smudges on the plot. Such as the vague and obscure clue to the motive for the first murder or not treating it as a locked room murder until very late in the story.

But when you take A Shot at Nothing as a whole, it's only true flaw is that it was published in 1993 and not 1933 or 1943, because it would likely have been better and more fondly remembered by locked room readers and classic mystery fans. A highlight of an otherwise meager decade for good, old-fashioned detective fiction.

On a final, related note: A Shot at Nothing has convinced to return to Ormerod before too long and see what he did with his other locked room and impossible crime novel, which all have intriguing sounding premises. A man is shot and killed in A Spoonful of Luger (1975), but the gun was locked in a box and the victim had swallowed the key. One Deathless Hour (1981) has two murders, miles apart at the end of an hour's drive, but carried out with the same gun and within minutes of each other. And Hope to Die (1995) tackles the classic murder in a locked library scenario. There possibly more of them hidden among his various series and standalone novels. I'll find them, if they're out there. To be continued...


The Cabinda Affair (1949) by Matthew Head

John Canaday was a World War II veteran, educator and had a two-decade long career as the leading art critic for The New York Times, but more importantly, he wrote seven crime-and detective novels – published between 1943 and 1955 under the penname "Matthew Head." Four of those novels feature his series-detective, Dr. Mary Finney, who's the American Miss Marple of the missionary brigade in the Belgian Congo. 

The Cabinda Affair (1949) marks the second appearance of Dr. Mary Finney and Hooper Taliaferro (pronounced Tolliver), but she spends 2/3 of the story listening to Hooper's recounting his recent Cabinda adventure.

Hooper has remained in the Belgian Congo following the events recorded in The Devil in the Bush (1945) and now works for a US government agency called the War Contracts Settlement Commission (WCSC). His latest assignment brings him to a small, hard-to-reach town of a Portuguese enclave, Cabinda, that's "old as towns go" in those parts, but its appearance "screamed aloud for a watercolorist." Cabinda is dotted with boxcar-like, candy-colored houses with false-front type, like an old American western town, "except that they had all been painted in these soft Easter-egg shades of blue and vermilions and creams and gray-lavenders and whites" – trimmed in contrasting colors. Hooper is deployed to this enclave to help settle "one of those good will contracts" worth four million dollars! That's an awful lot of goodwill.

During the war, the US was very anxious for Portugal to stay neutral ("so was Portugal") and the generous contract was a friendly gesture from Uncle Sam to the Portuguese, but the war is over. And they don't need the overpriced mahogany anymore. Since there had already been two long extensions on the date of delivery of the first load, the contract only has a week left before it becomes cancelable.

Hooper is accompanied to Cabinda by a lawyer and troubleshooter, Cotter, who arrived sick as a dog, but what concerned Hooper more is his boyish, movie-star good looks. Not without reason when their business dealings begin to blend with the domestic affairs of their shady host, Falcão. Falcão is a stockholder and local manager of the Companhia Khaya who lives in Cabinda with his young and beautiful wife, Ana Falcão. She has a mesmerizing effect on Hooper and Cotter. Falcãos also have two children. A 17-year-old daughter, Maria, who's an innocent, frail-looking beauty with a humped back. Henriques is her old brother and he would be rather back in Lisbon than running the logging camp. Lastly, there's a disreputable lawyer, Maximiano da Cunha, and a nosy wood importer, Pete Caulsworth-Bigg.

So the business end of their meeting gets quickly mixed up with the personal and Hooper, while sick  with fever, witnesses several things he was not supposed to see. This culminates with him finding a body in the adjacent room with a knife wound before passing out again.

Miss Finney listened to the whole story and called his mental processes and powers of observation "an exercise in the distortion of obvious fact by the application of sentimental prejudice," because things happened right under his nose without catching on "anything's happened at all" – which is the crux of the plot. There aren't any physical clues to examine with the truth being hidden in the psychological makeup of the suspects. What they see or how they behave holds the key to the solution. Something that would not have been half as difficult had Hooper not wrongly interpreted everything he saw and heard, but it's a clever play on the unreliable narrator by using "a sentimental fool" with tropical fever.

Despite the African setting, the character-driven plotting and storytelling places The Cabinda Affair, weirdly enough, among the novels of the uncrowned British Crime Queens like a Moray Dalton or Maureen Sarsfield. A final flick of the knife gave the solution a twist justifying its inclusion among the Crime Crimes (crowned or uncrowned). There is, however, one noticeable difference. While the character-driven plotting and storytelling is very reminiscent of the Crime Queens, the tone is not as polished or sophisticated. I suppose most you go, "oh, no, the book takes place in Africa," but don't worry, it's not rampant, colonial-era racism. It's actually the opposite. The Cabinda Affair has some passages that you expect to find in a modern crime novel instead of a vintage detective story from the late 1940s. And in this regard, the frank, open-minded Miss Finney stands closer to Gladys Mitchell's Mrs. Bradley than Agatha Christie's Miss Marple. 

The Cabinda Affair began with Hooper doing all the talking, recounting everything that happened in detail, but Miss Finney began asking questions as the story progressed and under her scrutiny everything Hooper assumed was "pretty obvious and logical" began "to stop making sense" – exposing that case was not closed. So she accompanies Hooper on a return journey to Cabinda where she effectively destroys a criminal scheme and reveals a murderer who's both surprising and obvious, which revealed another clever aspect of the story. The Cabinda Affair is mostly a decent, character-driven crime novel leaning a little too heavily on the colorful setting, but there's another layer to the plot Head used to give a satisfying twist to Miss Finney's explanation that elevated it to a genuine detective novel.

So, yeah, The Cabinda Affair is a little out of the ordinary for a 1940s whodunit with clashing contrasts between tone and style, but Head made it work and it's an accomplishment to come up with a gracefully simple twist that upgrades a plot from decent to quite good. Recommended! And I'll be moving Head's The Smell of Money (1943) and The Congo Venus (1950) to the top of my wishlist now.


Give Up the Ghost: Q.E.D, vol. 11 by Motohiro Katou

On January 19, 2020, I reviewed volume 4 of Motohiro Katou's Q.E.D. series and intended to reach volume 10 before the end of the year, which was accomplished in August, but the idea to end 2020 with a review of volume 20 didn't get anywhere – decided to give myself an extension until the end of 2021. So here we are and, hopefully, I'll manage to get closer to volume 30 than 20. 

The eleventh volume of Q.E.D. comprises of the usual two stories with the first one being fairly conventional and not unlike the detective stories that can be found Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed. But the second story is the irregular, off-the-wall kind of mystery that this series has entirely made its own. 

"Sea of Refuge" takes place in a small, seaside village with two kilometers (1.4 miles) from the shore a horse-shaped rock sticking out of the water. At night, at high tide, "only the head of that rock could be seen above the water" and you had to swim at night "to climb the head of the rock," which is why the locals scared their children – telling them they'll be if they ever "touch the head of Horse Rock." A warning that was ignored by four children. Forty years ago, they swam to Horse Rock, but only three returned. The body of the fourth washed up on the beach the next day.

Decades later, the father of the dead boy and his three friends receive an anonymous letter telling them "that there was something suspicious about the accident." And invites them to return to the village.

Sou Touma and Kana Mizuhara happened to be on a class trip to the beach and they not only become aware of that 40-year-old tragedy, but it's Mizuhara who spots a body floating next to Horse Rock. A body belonging to one of three men who swam to the rock all those years ago. So they begin to poke around the case with Touma doing all the mental work and Mizuhara the legwork, which revealed more than just a murderer. The solution added another, bitter tasting layer to that decades old tragedy. These tragic, very human puzzle stories with an emotional punch (let's call them heart breakers) is another type of detective story that Q.E.D. turned into a series trademark. "The Fading of Star Map" (vol. 3), "The Afterimage of Light" (vol. 5) and "The Frozen Hammer" (vol. 9) are good and strong examples of these heart breakers. So the who-and why are the strongest joints of the plot, but completely undersold a great alibi-trick and clue. More could have been done with that. 

"Sea of Refuge" is a pretty standard fare for this series, but still a good and solid read with an ending showing that the truth is not a soothing balm for the soul.

The second story, "Winter Zoo," is a different story altogether and breaks one of the cardinal sins of the detective story without, technically, breaking or even scuffing it – which is done by employing it as a (mostly) powerless spectator. What can break a rule without actually breaking it, you ask? A restless ghost! 

"Winter Zoo" begins with an aspiring mystery writer, Shitatsumi Nagao, walking down the street with the accompanying text, "this is what I looked like when I was alive." Nagao is on his way to a publishing company, but, without noticing it, he lost his manuscript. Luckily, it was found by Touma and Mizuhara. Touma deduced the manuscript back into its owner's hands, which amazes Nagao and assures Touma he's "going to be an amazing kid detective one day." So all is well that ends well? Of course not. A few panels later, the ghost of Nagao is floating above a body in the closed-off exercise area of a lion's cage and overhears the police drawing all the wrong conclusions. Nagao decides to haunt "that kid detective," which is easier said than done.



As a ghost, Nagao's ability to communicate with the living is very limited to almost being non-existent. Nagao tries to possess a shop girl helping Mizuhara and whispered "go to the zoo" in her ear while she slept. So she eventually drags Touma to the zoo where they're presented with a three-part problem. Firstly, what happened to the exotic murder weapon? The answer to this question reveals a nifty trick solving that age-old question of how to dispose of that pesky, incriminating instrument of death. Secondly, the problem of the narrow, five-minute window in which the body could have been placed in the lion's cage. A quasi-impossible problem that Touma solved with the assistance of a teddy bear. Thirdly, how the dead man in the lion's cage is linked to a suicide that happened around the same time.

So, yeah, this is a very gimmicky story, one of the most gimmicky in the series, which hinges more of the detectives unwittingly helping a ghost find peace that solving the puzzles, but Q.E.D. is the only series that can get away with it – showing why it's a one-of-a-kind in the genre. Even when you limit the scope to anime-and manga detective series.

Admittedly, there have been better stories and stronger volumes in the series, but these two stories still formed a good, rock solid volume that made me regret putting the series on hold in August. So expect a review of volume 12 before too long!


The Resurrection Fireplace (2011) by Hiroko Minagawa

Hiroko Minagawa is a Japanese writer of fantasy, horror and mystery fiction whose Hirakasete itadaki kōei desu (I'm Honored to Open It, 2011) was the recipient of the 2012 Honkaku Mystery Award and Bento Books released an English translation in 2019 – published under a new title, The Resurrection Fireplace. The book was initially announced under the title The Case of the Curious Cadaver in the Dissectorium of Dr. Daniel Burton, but It Was An Honor to Open You Up would have been a better title than The Resurrection Fireplace. It's much closer to the original Japanese title and would have fitted the overall story better. Particularly the ending.

Either way, The Resurrection Fireplace is not your typical shin honkaku mystery and is hard to pigeonhole. For all intents and purposes, it's a historical and cultural travelogue of 1770s London when body-snatchers scavenged the cemeteries and secret autopsies were performed by candlelight, but it's predominantly a character-driven, Dickensian crime novel that still manages to have an ambitious puzzle plot. There are even scraps of the bibliophile detective story, a dramatic courtroom conclusion and more. What's even more astonishing, is that this sprightly and surprisingly consistent hodgepodge mystery was penned by an 80-year-old! So let's begin the postmortem.

The first half of The Resurrection Fireplace tells two different, but intertwined, stories in alternating chapters with the main story centering on the pioneering physician, Dr. Daniel Barton, who recognized that the science of anatomy has barely progressed in England – because "most people took a dim view of dissection" in 1770. Dr. Barton receives only six cadavers annually from the state, which is barely enough and makes his research depended on body-snatchers. For a time, Dr. Barton and his five favored pupils, Nigel Hart, Edward Turner, Clarence Spooner, Benjamin Beamis and Albert Wood, were able to work in peace at the anatomy school during summer recess. When the heat made it impossible to do perform legal dissections. However, their work eventually placed them at odds with the Bow Street Runners and the magistrate for the City and Liberty of Westminster, Sir John Fielding.

Sir John is an actual historical figure who helped his older half-brother and previous magistrate, Henry Fielding, reform the policing of London by replacing the mercenary thief-takers with "trusted officers" who were paid a fixed salary and strictly forbidden to accept bribes. Sir John expanded and strengthened the force with district stations and "working with officers there to apprehend criminals." Since he lost his sight as a young man, Sir John became known as the Blind Beak of Bow Street. I suppose that makes him the first blind detective on record.

Normally, there's nobody to complain when corpses of indigents or beggars get snatched, but the last corpse they purchased turned out to be of a baronet's unmarried daughter, Miss Elaine Roughhead, who was six months pregnant – which is only the beginning of their troubles. Dr. Barton detects traces of arsenic in the body and another body turns up in the dissection room at the same moment Sir John's assistant is their to investigate the Roughhead case. The body is of a young, naked man whose arms were amputated at the elbow and both legs below the knee. An ink stain on his chest is interpreted as a dying message. The Resurrection Fireplace can have 18th century England as its setting all it wants, but the plot is at its heart unmistakably Japanese. More on that in a moment.

I think the chapters covering the tug-of-war between Sir John and Dr. Barton and his pupils will delight fans of Christianna Brand. There's a great deal of affection among the students for their teacher and each other, which is the fuel powering the plot. So they're constantly running interference, temper with evidence, give false or incomplete statements and placing a noose around their own neck to protect someone else. This applies to the second storyline as well.

The second story is woven around a 17-year-old boy, Nathan Cullen, who had "mastered the language and script of an earlier century" and came to London to get his poetry printed, but Nathan also carries old parchment on him with an ancient poem written on it – which he found collecting dust in an attic. During his stay, Nathan befriends two of Dr. Barton's pupils and meets Miss Elaine Roughhead. Who inspires him to write an archaic poem titled Elegy. However, the story of Nathan Cullen has a Dickensian flavor to it as it shows the poor living conditions and injustices suffered by the lower social classes. This comes to a head when Nathan is swept up in an anti-government riot, arrested and imprisoned in Newgate Prison, which was not exactly known at the time as a five-star resort. A notable scene is when Nathan speaks with another prisoner, a mere child, who found a coin in the street and was immediately accused of stealing. Thieves are usually hung and without the money to pay a lawyer, the child was doomed to die, but the court took pity and exiled him to the colonies with a mark "to show he was a criminal." Nathan's troubles continue after his release when he falls into the hands of a villain with designs on his ancient poem and mastery of "the emotive language" of medieval English.

So these are two very divergent storylines about mutilated bodies and ancient poetry, linked together by the characters, but did it work when these strands were pulled together. Technically, no. Yes, the puzzle is not without ambition, but the problem is that there were more red herrings and faked clues than actual clues. This makes the plot, technically speaking, unfair with all the covering, lying and manipulating evidence without any genuine clues. Nevertheless, you can still work out a large part of the plot and anticipate the surprise twist with nothing more than a basic understanding of the tropes of the Japanese detective story. There was something done to one of the bodies that immediately gave away a big piece of the puzzle. Like I said, it's unmistakably a Japanese detective novel, but not a very typical one.

This makes it difficult to sum up, or recommend, The Resurrection Fireplace to readers familiar with the translations of Takemaru Abiko, Yukito Ayatsuji, Soji Shimada and Seishi Yokomizo. Hiroko Minagawa is a little less orthodox here and the result is described as standing somewhere between Katsuhiko Takahashi's quasi-historical Sharaka satsujin jiken (The Case of the Sharaka Murders, 1983) with its ambitious, but imperfect, plotting and the stylings of NisiOisiN's Zaregoto series: kubikiri saikuru (Zaregoto: The Kubikiri Cycle, 2002). However, you can probably chalk the latter down to having seen the Japanese cover before reading the book and couldn't help seeing the characters as somewhat manga-like. A good example is the relationship between Dr. Barton and his pupils, which is not as strictly academic as it would have actually been in the 18th century. And there other aspects that bleed through the story betraying that it was written by a modern, non-English writer.

So, plotwise, The Resurrection Fireplace is not the best shin honkaku mystery currently available in English and therefore hard to recommend to the regular readers of this blog, but the rich, imaginative storytelling, the Japanese portrayal of 18th century London and characterization stray off the beaten track – making it a perfect read if you're looking for something a little different. Just don't expect to find another Shimada or Yokomizo. 

A note for the reader: Sir John Fielding, the blind magistrate, is the detective in a series of historical mystery novel by Bruce Alexander and Blind Justice (1994) is listed in Brian Skupin's Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019). Yes, it's on the big pile. So stay tuned!

A warning to the reader: The Resurrection Fireplace is referred to in several places as a locked room mystery, but the reported locked room and impossible situation were only teased as such. Such as the appearance of the limbless body in the dissection room or a later murder in a disreputable establishment, but there's always an unlocked door, an open window or a hiding spot. Oh, well, you have it all.