The Darkest Fathoms: "Caribbean Crisis" (1962) by Desmond Reid

The Derek Smith Omnibus (2014) is one of the most important publications to have come out of John Pugmire's Locked Room International as it collected the classic locked room novel Whistle Up the Devil (1954), the exceedingly rare Come to Paddington Fair (1997) and the previously unpublished Model for Murder (1952) – a long-lost contribution to the massive Sexton Blake Library. Pugmire speculated Smith's Model for Murder was probably "too cerebral for the audience" and thought it very unlikely I would ever read another Sexton Blake novel or short story. 

Less than a year later, I came across an anonymously published short Sexton Blake story, "The Grosvenor Square Mystery" (1909), which turned out to be a surprisingly decent locked room mystery for the period. Suddenly, I began to notice how many Sexton Blake novels and short stories were listed in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991). One title in particular beckoned my attention. 

Caribbean Crisis (1962) is a novella, a chapbook really, representing the first published work by noted science-fiction and fantasy author Michael Moorcock, which he co-wrote with Jim Cawthorne and published under a house name, "Desmond Reid" – a name that was shared between at least thirty authors for SBL. Adey's Locked Room Murders described a fascinating impossibility concerning a murder and disappearance from a submerged bathysphere (diving bell)! I also found it interesting Caribbean Crisis was published in the same year as Charles Forsyte's Diving Death (1962).

I naturally tempered my expectations, as it would be unfair to expect something along the lines of Joseph Commings' "Bones for Davy Jones" (collected in The Locked Room Reader, 1968), but the presentation and explanation to the impossible murder and disappearance were unexpectedly good. Something that deserved to have been in a better (detective) story. 

Caribbean Crisis opens on the research ship of the famous "boy-professor" and marine biologist, Hoddard Curtis, who perfected a new kind of bathysphere and is ready to explore "the deepest marine valley known to man." Curtis hopes to find evidence at the bottom of the Tanangas Deep of "a prehistoric fish," or creature, because stranger things have been found in the lower ocean ("fragments of bone and scales the size of dinner plates"). So he spent years and thousands of dollars to find out what "lurks down there unknown," but, the moment his dreams began to be realized, tragedy struck in the most unexpected way.

During his time away from the research ship, two of his assistants, Jules Harben and Jim Linwood, took the bathysphere for "a joy-ride in the deep," but, when they reached a depth of seven hundred feet, the radiophone began to crackle with frantic calls to pull them back up – in between screams of "it's awful" and "it's going to kill us." Shortly followed by unearthly sound, like "the bellow of some enormous sea-beast erupted from the ocean," and the bathysphere being torn from the fine, woven cords of steel. The bathysphere began to sink to the bottom of the Tanangas Deep! But it gets better.

Curtis puts on a large, heavy and untested deep-sea diving suit in an attempt to find his brainchild and this diving scene is the best one of the story. Miraculously, the damaged bathysphere is resting on a rocky ledge and can be salvaged, but, when Curtis shines his torch through the porthole, he discovers "one of its two occupants had disappeared." The body of the other man was floating in the sphere with a knife in his back! The hatch could not have been opened, or closed again, at that depth and the pressure would have killed anyone who tried to escape the sphere. And the newspaper called it "a mystery worthy of a Holmes or a Blake."

What a marvelous and original setup for a double barreled impossible crime story with a diving bell serving as a claustrophobic sealed room slowly descending into a silent, alien-like world of slime-green, swirling darkness where only God knows what may be lurking – ready to strike at anyone, or anything, disturbing its peace. I truly wish the name on the cover had either been Theodore Roscoe or Hake Talbot. The premise and locked room-trick would have turned into gold in their hands!

Unfortunately, Caribbean Crisis is not that kind of detective story. Sexton Blake reads about the bathysphere mystery in the newspaper and makes a personal inquiry, but what brings him to the island Republic of Maliba (where the ship is anchored) is a rich client. Sir Gordon Sellingham is a sugar millionaire who owns "a great deal of the Maliban sugar industry," but the current, potentially explosive political situation in the Caribbean is threatening both his business and his idealistic son. Peter Sellingham is using his mother's inheritance to bankroll a rebel group who want to overthrow the government and there might be a communist element to the impending rebellion.

Blake is not only a private detective, but also a Special Service Operative of the British government and it falls on him to prevent "a repetition of the Castro business in Cuba" and stop Maliba from becoming another Russian satellite. So the poor man's Sherlock Holmes becomes some kind of Poundland James Bond as he goes undercover as an insurance investigator and gets caught in a three-way dance between the government of Present Nonales, the rebel outlaws in the hill and communist infiltrators – tangling along the way with double agents and dodgy allies. I can't say these chapters were a chore to read, but the Cold War spy thriller is not my kind of crime fiction. I love pure, undiluted detective stories crammed with double-edged clues, treacherous red herrings, dying messages and locked rooms solved by either competent policemen or a clever amateur.

For me, the only time Caribbean Crisis came close to matching its opening chapters was Blake's explanation of the miraculous murder and disappearance, "when the impossible has been eliminated, what remains must be the truth," which turned out to be so much better than expected. A good, fairly original idea that was wasted on this otherwise run-of-the-mill, Cold War-style pulp thriller.

So, on a whole, the first chapters and locked room-trick had all the ingredients and potential necessary to craft a classic, timeless detective novel, but Caribbean Crisis allowed all of that to go to waste and therefore can only recommend it to the fantastical locked room reader as an interesting curiosity.


Stratagems in the Snow: "The Spy and the Snowman" (1980) by Edward D. Hoch

Edward D. Hoch's "The Spy and the Snowman" originally appeared in the November, 1980, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and is the 41st short story in his long-running, espionage-centered mystery series about the head of the British Concealed Communications department, Jeffrey Rand – a code-breaker who appeared in nearly 85 stories published between 1965 and 2008. So the hook of the series is breaking and deciphering coded messages, but, like so many of Hoch's series-characters, every now and then Rand came up against an impossible crime. 

Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) tantalizingly described the problem in "The Spy and the Snowman" as a murder in one of the smallest, most crammed locked rooms on record. You know me. That's more than enough to catch my full attention. 

"The Spy and the Snowman" opens with Jeffrey Rand, now retired, meeting with Hilda Nelson, who's the daughter of an old nemesis, in the lobby of a London hotel during "the snowiest January in many years." Hilda has a particular strange story to tell to the former spy master that could be "a national-security problem." She lives comfortably in a gardener's house, in Swindon, bordering on a secured estate that will host a NATO foreign ministers' conference later in the week. Two nights ago, Hilda noticed from her bedroom window that someone had built a snowman a hundred yards from the main house, but the next morning, the snowman had disappeared without a trace and there was no thaw – so it couldn't have melted away during the night. Hilda asks Rand to come out of retirement to investigate the peripatetic snowman.

So is there "a snowman spying on the NATO conference" or is Hilda trying to lure Rand into "a trap of some sort" with a wild story she knew would intrigue him?

Rand contacts an old friend to arrange a covert stakeout of the estate and, lo and behold, they see someone, dressed in white to blend with the snow, crawl inside the obviously hollow snowman and began to inch towards the house. When they pounced on the snowman, they discover a dead man inside with a bloody neck wound and a blood-covered knife next to him! The equipment discovered on the body confirms they're dealing with a dead spy, but it's "either suicide or a damned strange murder" because he was stabbed inside the snowman and there were no footprints to account for the presence of a murderer. 

"The Spy and the Snowman" is a fine example of Hoch's mastery of the short detective and impossible crime story who dealt a more than fair hand when it came to clueing, which strengthened and reinforced the sealed snowman-trick – as the trick is at its core a bit of a throwback. Some of the clues, and one in particular, turned it into a minor gem and loved how disposing the obvious, John Dickson Carr-like solution didn't remove the story from Carr territory. How the murder came to be viewed as an impossible crime was a thing of beauty!

Needless to say, I very much enjoyed reading this unusual, but very well done, blending of the locked room mystery with the Cold War spy tale and is another Hoch short story, like "The Case of the Modern Medusa" (1973) and "Circus in the Sky" (2000), anthologists should keep in mind for any future impossible crime anthologies.


Premedicated Murder (1975) by Douglas Clark

Last year, I reviewed Douglas Clark's The Longest Pleasure (1981), an odd duck of a detective novel, which blended elements of the medical thriller, scientific mystery and serial killer story and presented as a modern police procedural – centered on a manufactured outbreak of botulism. Amazingly, for a modern police procedural, the botulism bacteria emerged as the best fleshed out character of the story. 

An anonymous comment left on my review pointed out The Longest Pleasure is a story where "a scientific idea is the center of idea" and "closer to being a science fiction novel than some readers might like." I was reminded of that comment when reading the subject of today's review. 

Premedicated Murder (1975) is the sixth novel in Clark's series of pharmaceutical mysteries about Superintendent George Masters and Inspector Bill Green. At this early point in the series, Masters and Green can't stand the sight of one another with a "long overdue, flaming row" hanging in the air, but until the storm breaks, they have to find a nasty poisoner in "one of the most lovely villages in the commuter belt," Lowther Close. Roger Harte was a war hero who was severely injured in France, which left him crippled and a promising engineering career in ruins, but he still managed to make a living as a consultant and electric expert. And even had his own workshop where he labored on a prototype of "a mechanical heart."

Roger Harte was "the little tin god" of the village, "albeit a pleasant, benevolent sort of god," who went out of his way to help his neighbors. Such as the unpopular newcomer, Milton Rencory, who has an almost natural gift to offend the villagers. If the beloved Harte had not asked everyone to be decent to Milton and Maisie Rencory, they would have been shunned by the whole community.

On the day of his death, Harte visited the Rencorys when he began to show symptoms of poisoning, dying in their house about three hours later, which puts Rencory in a tight, prejudiced spot – reason why the local authorities called upon Scotland Yard. So who poisoned "an apparently good-hearted, popular man" and why use such a rare, slow-working poison like ricin? A toxic agent extracted from castor oil seeds and there's a chapter explaining why it's difficult to produce and hard to obtain. Very unusual to come across a case of ricin poisoning in murder cases.

The bits and pieces with the man-made heart and the poison reminded me of that anonymous comment, but the quickly recede in the background to make place for a much more straightforward detective story.

Masters and Green begin dragging-the-marsh and interview everyone involved about the universally beloved Harte and the cordially disliked Rencordy, which revealed a delightful array of bizarre clues. Such as the snowy reception on a brand new TV set, a sealed hedge gate, a garden trash fire, a rubbery smell and a very subtle, low-key kind of kindness. Some of these clues a very nasty, double-edged clues that cleverly utilized to hide the murderer from the reader and the nicely done twist at the end didn't over strain credulity, which can be put down to the clueing – demonstrating Clark was the genuine article. A man out-of-time who would have been more at home in the 1930s than '70s or '80s and slipped through the filter by disguising his traditionally-plotted, Golden Age-style detective novels as police procedurals with a pharmaceutical gimmick tacked on. And it worked!

There are, however, two minor imperfections that makes Premedicated Murder not quite as good as Death After Evensong (1969) or even the very late Plain Sailing (1987). Premedicated Murder is closer to a novella than a novel with only seven relatively short chapters, which prevented the story and plot to develop to its full potential. Not every single clue is handled with the same skill, or attention, as others and kept my attention on another possibility suggested by the clues that were given more consideration. Yes, I completely failed to spot the murderer. Secondly, there was a four-year gap between Premedicated Murder and its predecessor, Sick to Death (1971), which would explain why the story was so rough, unpolished and so much shorter in length than his other novels.

Nevertheless, if Clark wrote Premedicated Murder as a warmup exercise to knock off the rust of a four-year hiatus, it's an impressive flexing-while-stretching tune-up act and can understand why it was recommended to me several times. A small, flawed gem of the British village mystery novel and comes recommended unless you're new to the series. In that case, I advise you to begin with Death After Evensong.


The Frightened Stiff (1942) by Kelley Roos

William and Audrey Roos were the husband-and-wife writing tandem, known as "Kelley Roos," who published a lamentably short series of lighthearted, fast-paced detective novels, novellas and short stories during the 1940s – starring their irresistible amateur sleuths, Jeff and Haila Troy. Kelley Roos and the Troys were largely forgotten, until the mid-2000s, when the Rue Morgue Press resurrected the series and became the gems of their catalog. 

Why the Rooses and the Troys were so completely forgotten is somewhat of a mystery, because, as Tom and Enid Schantz wrote in their introduction, they were perhaps "a good deal better" than their more famous contemporaries.

The Troys were "funnier than the Norths, livelier than the Abbotts, often more involved in doing the actual detection than the Justuses" and "a more convincing couple than the Duluths." They were so entertaining, genuinely funny and easy to read, you almost overlook the well-crafted, structured and often fairly clued plots. There are two titles in the Rooses oeuvre that standout, The Frightened Stiff (1942) and Sailor, Take Warning! (1944), of which the former is an all-time personal favorite of mine. I rammed the book through a lot of throats a decade ago, but how well does it stand up to rereading? So after a few good to middling detective novels and one that left a lingering bad taste, I decided to finally take a second look at The Frightened Stiff. 

The Frightened Stiff is the third novel in the series and the first one in which Jeff and Haila appear as a newlyweds, who moved to a garden level apartment of an old Greenwich Village brownstone on Thirty-Nine Gay Street, but nothing goes as planned and Haila's first lines of the story sets the tone of what's to come – "jumping from a window would bring no release" in a basement apartment. Charley, the little janitor, forgot to clean up the apartment and the thick, heavy cobwebs and dust mice could "grace a Class A haunted house." A telegram arrived to tell the Troys the moving van broke down and the delivery of their furniture is delayed, but the worst is yet to come.

Jeff and Haila Troy decided to grab a bite to eat at a local restaurant where Haila overhears a shady character talking, in a threatening tone, to someone in one of the phone booths. And to her shock, she hears the man tell the person on the other end of the line to meet him in the basement apartment of Thirty-Nine Gay Street! The incident triggers Jeff memory and remembers, to Haila's horror, that their apartment used to be a speakeasy where he wasted many happy hours of his boyhood. So he assumes the man is drunk and wants somebody to meet him at his old speakeasy, but when Jeff confronts the man with a good piece of advice, he gets hold of "the most frightened human being" he has ever seen.

Next morning, Haila is drummed out of bed by the police, because the body of a naked man had been spotted in their fenced-in garden and recognizes the body as the frightened man of the previous evening. The man is identified by the Troys' new neighbors as one of the motley tenants of the apartment building, Mike Kaufman, who tended to keep to himself. But things can always get worse. And they do.

Firstly, it turns out Kaufman had been drowned in Jeff and Haila's bathtub right before they returned home. Secondly, Lieutenant Hankins has his doubts about the Troys and suspects they might be up their necks in murder (technically correct). Jeff observes Hankins strikes him as "the type of cop that is wrong, but proves he's right." So they decide to once again don the proverbial deerstalker and poke around the private affairs of their new neighbors in an attempt to find the murderer.

The tenants of Thirty-Nine Gay Street include an old friend of Haila, Anne Carstairs, whose husband, Scott, is a struggling commercial artist with a secret. Why wasn't Anne glad to see Haila? Charlotte Griffin is a middle-aged lady who has to care for her invalid, bedridden sister, Lucy, who might have been out of bed and, "pressed snub-nosed against the glass," sized up the Troys when they arrived – her overprotective sister makes it difficult to get to speak with Lucy. Polly Franklin owns the restaurant where Haila overheard the telephone call and Henry Lingle is a retired art dealer. Lastly, there's the rabbity little landlord, Mr. Turner, and the previously mentioned janitor, Charley.

A pretty good pool of potential suspects to fish a murderer from, but The Frightened Stiff is not exactly a pure, straightforward whodunit and some of my fellow mystery fans have criticized the book for the apparent randomness of the murderer's identity. Patrick, of the dormant At the Scene of the Crime, said in his 2011 review that "there is literally nothing that points in X's direction as the culprit," which was echoed more recently by The Green Capsule and The Bedford Bookshelf. So I kept this mind when rereading The Frightened Stiff and kind of have to disagree with them.

Yes, the clueing here is a little unconventional, devious, but unconventional with only one clue, or hint, pointing directly towards the murderer. However, you can still identify the murderer as Jeff and Haila begin to find answers to who Kaufman really was and start tying up all the plot-threads concerning the other tenants. Once you arrived at the final couple of chapters, there's only one character left standing who fits the role of murderer. So, yes, it's more a process of elimination rather than deduction, but you can still identify [REDACTED] before the name is revealed in the last line of the penultimate chapter and it didn't feel like it had been drawn from a hat or could have been substituted by any of the other characters – which wouldn't have made a lick of sense. If there's anything to complain about, it's that the Rooses played it very safe with their choice of murderer.

Anyway, I didn't think the murderer was randomly picked or unfairly hidden from the reader, but the who's not the only bone of contention some readers have with The Frightened Stiff.

There's a quasi-impossible, almost locked room-like aspect to the murder that nobody can't quite agree on whether, or not, it qualifies as an impossible situation. When the police go to inspect Kaufman's apartment, they're make the startling discovery that there was "not a stick of furniture" or "a scrap of paper" in the apartment. The place had been furnished the day before and Kaufman was heard turning on the radio, but how could the apartment been cleaned out without any of tenants seeing it or hearing it? The bedroom door of Jeff and Haila was practically at the foot of the main staircase. So how could the content of a whole apartment vanish without trace or sound? I can only describe quasi-impossible problem as Schrödinger's locked room. Technically, it's a locked room when you don't look to closely at it or don't notice that it actually qualifies (somewhat) as a locked room, but (sort of) stops being one the moment you take notice of it. You can put this down to the setting and circumstances of the vanishing furniture leaving room for only one logical explanation, which is why I didn't identify it as a (quasi) impossible crime on my first read, but the clueing of the furniture plot-thread was original and first-class – dovetailing beautifully with the rest of the plot and story. I also found impressive that with only one possible explanation, Hankins came up with another solution that would have been plausible enough had it not made the Troys his prime suspects.

Tom and Enid Schantz ended their introduction to their reprint editions stating that you won't find the name Kelley Roos "among the giants of genre," but their spirited contributions to, what John Dickson Carr called, the Grandest Game "deserve not to be overlooked" as they showed "what it was like to be young and in love in the New York of the 1940s" – more importantly that "mysteries were meant to be fun." A perfect summation of The Frightened Stiff. A genuinely funny, solidly plotted detective novel full with humorous, good-natured banter and a devious criminal scheme at the heart of the story, which ensured the many twists and turns that had to be smoothed out along the way. While not everything was perfectly executed, The Frightened Stiff towers over its screwball contemporaries of the murder-can-be-fun school and more than stood up to rereading. Highly recommended!


Adrift (2017) by Micki Browning

Micki Browning is an FBI National Academy graduate who learned that police work is as much about documenting crime as it's about fighting it and now draws on her first-hand experience as "wonderful fodder for her current career as a full-time writer," which began with her award-winning debut novel, Adrift (2017) – a modern thriller that normally falls outside of my scope. Brian Skupin listed Adrift in Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019) with two intriguingly described impossibilities during a diving expedition and Charles Forsyte's Diving Death (1962) intrigued me enough to search out more of these submerged locked room mysteries

So here we are and, while I was a little skeptical beforehand, Adrift defied expectations by not being an ultra-modern, character heavy thriller with some mild impossible crime elements.

There are still some notable modern touches to the characterization and storytelling, but the end result can best be summed up as Scooby Doo for grownups! It certainly is an interesting addition to Forsyte's Diving Death, Joseph Commings' 1953 short story "Bones for Davy Jones" (collected in The Locked Room Reader, 1968) and the Detective Academy Q 2003 episode The Case of the Locked Room Mystery at the Bottom of the Sea as an example of that rare impossible crime story set among divers. 

Adrift introduces Browning's series-detective and marine biologist, Dr. Meredith "Mer" Cavallo, who recently returned from a research project in the Arctic, but new research opportunities remained elusive and she took a job in the Florida Keys – teaching scuba diving and acting as first-mate to Captain Leroy. Story begins with the first of three (not two!) impossible situations. Mer saves a diver who's frightened out of his wits and claims to have seen a ghost, "green and kind of see-through" shaped "like a man," but the truly inexplicable part is that he was exploring the shipwreck of the USS Spiegel Grove and was fished out of the Molasses Reef. Five miles away with "the current's going in the wrong direction" and they were radioed that a diver had gone missing off the Spiegel. So how could the distressed diver travel five miles from the Spiegel Grove to Molasses Reef without "the use of teleportation, a TARDIS, or a wormhole."

The rescue and the diver's rambling is filmed, uploaded to social media and goes viral, which brings "a boatload of ghost hunters" to the Florida Keys to investigate the now most haunted spot in America.

Ishmael Styx, of Spirited Divers Paranormal Scuba Team, arrive shortly after the incident to film a documentary about the ghost of the Spiegel Grove for the Expedition Channel and they want to charter a boat for multiple, nighttime trips to the wreck – asking Mer to serve as a safety diver on the trips. The diving scenes is what makes the book stand out and excellently used the USS Spiegel Grove, purposely sunk in 2002 to make an artificial reef, as a setting for two ghostly impossibilities. Firstly, when they're inside the wreck, the underwater camera malfunctions and continues to strobe during which Styx vanishes. A subsequent rescue search of Spiegel Grove recovered his mask and a member of the paranormal diving team saw him looking at "the opening in the side of the ship," like "something scared him," before "something pulled him into the hole." Secondly, Mer returned to the wreck later in the story and witnesses the ghost with her own eyes, "green and hazy," lifting an arm and pointing at her, which is a blow to her rational, naturalistic and scientific understanding of the world. Someone who firmly believes "paranormal activity falls into the realm of pseudoscience" and "only one step above nonsense." Now the whole sordid case tied her good name to ghosts, mermaids and other supernatural phenomena.

Mer is practically dragged into the case to act as an amateur detective. She agrees to continue working on the documentary to spare her friends and colleagues a wrongful death-suit. When she nearly gets killed, the case became her business (and she has a point there), but that places her at odds with the police.

The scenes that take place on the surface, which is most of the story, show those previously mentioned modern touches to the characterization and storytelling. Such as an old summer fling of Mer, who has a secretive backstory, reentering her life and a traumatic, near-death experience as a child that convinced her there's nothing beyond the grave ("I've been to the other side. There's nothing there") or learning that Mel has a CD collection of movie soundtracks – which I understand is a trope of the contemporary crime novel. However, I liked Mer's clashes with a snooty news reporter or learning how to take fingerprints by watching YouTube videos.

Fortunately, these scenes never turn into overwritten, angst-ridden mini-biographies of the characters that push the plot aside. The primary focus of Adrift is always the ghostly activities at the shipwreck and the characters directly involved with it.

So how well does the plot stack up? You shouldn't expect a neo-orthodox detective story with sharp, multi-faceted clues and treacherous red herrings. The clueing is pretty crude and the leads to some of the most pertinent questions are not treated, or discovered, until very late into the story. Nevertheless, the seasoned armchair detective has no need for in-depth clueing to figure out what exactly is happening, because the biggest accomplish of Adrift is finding a modern, updated garb for an age-old trick. A trick that needed a more experienced hand to have pulled it off more convincingly.

I know all of this sounds like Adrift was a bit of a letdown, but quite enjoyed this diamond-in-the-rough with some interesting and promising aspects. I also found it very promising Browning leaned much more towards the traditional detective story than the modern crime novel. A good example are the fuzzy details surrounding the body Mer discovers at a seedy motel, which is not as important to the plot as the ghostly activities and impossibilities surrounding the shipwreck. 

Adrift is a spirited first attempt to find a balance between characterization and plot and the classic and modern style of the genre. So readers of my blog are advised not to expect a modern incarnation of the Golden Age detective novel, but it's a fast, enjoyable and promising read with some excellently written diving scenes – reminiscent of Allan R. Bosworth's Full Crash Dive (1942) and Forsyte's Diving Death. Browning is very much a writer to keep an eye on because she might turn out to one of us (we accept her, we accept her, one of us, one of us). Interestingly, the last chapter of Adrift sets up its sequel, Beached (2018), which takes a plunge into the watery world of nautical archaeology. You can expect a review of that one sometime in the not so distant future and, hopefully, it will confirm that we have another James Scott Byrnside, P. Dieudonné or Robert Innes on our hands.


The Two Hundred Ghost (1956) by Henrietta Hamilton

Hester Denne Shepherd was a British book dealer who used her first-hand experience of antiquarian bookselling as a foundation stone for five detective novels, published as by "Henrietta Hamilton," which center on "bookshop murders, stolen and forged books" and "protagonists who meet in antiquated bookshops" – making her "a master of the bibliomystery." Last year, Agora Books reprinted two of her novels, The Two Hundred Ghost (1956) and Answer in the Negative (1959), as part of their (relatively) recently launched Uncrowned Queen of Crime series

A few months ago, Laurie, of the Bedford Bookshelf, reviewed Hamilton's The Two Hundred Ghost and the title sounded mighty familiar to me. So I looked in the most obvious place, what do you know, the book is listed in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991). 

The Two Hundred Ghost is the first title in the Johnny and Sally Heldar series, but in their first novel they aren't even engaged yet. Miss Sally Merton is happily employed with Heldar Brothers, Booksellers, 200 Charing Cross Road, which is commonly referred to as Two Hundred. The bookstore has been in Johnny's family since the days of his grandfather, Grand Old Man, but Two Hundred has a dark, bloody history stretching back to the early years of the 19th century when it was a pub with "a bad name" – where people where disappeared for money. Legend has it the victims were "quietly stabbed" in their bed, always in the same room, before they were disposed of. During the early 1800s, an intended victim, George Swan, woke up in time and tried to flee, but only got to the corner of the passage before "the hired bully caught up with him and stabbed him in the back."

So the ghost of George Swan began to walk from the bedroom to the passage and was allowed to walk until one of the owners, in the 1850s, had "the thing exorcised."

The Two Hundred Ghost remained dormant for a century, but, when a copy of English Ghosts turns with an account of the old ghost story, the entity begins to walk again and badly frightened the typist, Liza. She witnessed "a sort of white figure" at the corner where the passage goes round to an office, which used to be the murder room more than a hundred years ago. But when they search the place, nobody is found hiding anywhere!

Adey's Locked Room Murders described the ghostly manifestation promisingly as an "appearance and disappearance of the Two Hundred ghost in an area of an old building from which disappearance seemed impossible," but locked room readers are strongly advised not to expect too much, because the locked room-trick was hardly original 1956 – let alone in 2021. However, it didn't feel out of place in this story and the renewed activity raises the question whether someone is playing the ghost or was it stirred from its slumber by "new thoughts of murder in someone's mind."

The old murder room, where the ghost was seen, is now the office of a bookstore clerk, Victor Butcher, who's neither a very pleasant person or particular popular. Butcher tried to put his hands on Sally and got into a biting argument with Fred Malling, of the Packing Department, when he came to her rescue, but there's also a poorly done attempt at blackmail and some shady book dealing in the background. So there are suspect aplenty when his body is found slumped over his desk, handle of commando knife sticking out of his back, which came on the heels of another ghostly visitation. When the youngest member of the Heldar family, Tim, gets himself in the cross-hairs of Chief Inspector Prescott, Johnny and Sally decide to turn amateur detective.

I don't know how well read Hamilton was in everyone's favorite genre, but The Two Hundred Ghost suggests to me Hamilton took inspiration from other writers with mystery solving couples as their series-detectives. Such as Delano Ames and Kelley Roos. The Two Hundred Ghost is very similar structured as their first novels, Made Up to Kill (1940) and She Shall Have Murder (1948), in which the detectives haven't yet committed until a work related homicide brings them closer together, but Hamilton had a much lighter touch when it came to plotting. She reminded me much more in that regard of Margaret Scherf and her Manhattan-decorator sleuths, Henry and Emily Bryce (like Glass on the Stairs, 1954).

So, plot-wise, The Two Hundred Ghost is not a terribly complicated affair, even with thinly-spread, none-physical clues, but it all stuck nicely together with the relationship between the victim and murderer, together with the motive, the most interesting and creative aspect of the solution. Not really a contender to anyone's crown, but a good, solid and well written second-string mystery novel that made me curious enough to toss Answer in the Negative on the big pile. To be continued...

If someone from Agora Books, or any other publishing, is reading this, I would like to suggest a series of reprint 'Till Death Did Them Part. A series reprints of unfairly forgotten, long out-of-print mystery writing couples. I already mentioned Kelley Roos, a pseudonym of William and Aubrey Roos, who were the greatest rediscovery to come out of the defunct Rue Morgue Press, but their untimely closure also put an end to their revival – which has been a great lost to us. The Frightened Stiff (1942) was their masterpiece. Last year, I discovered Gordon and Vicky Philo who wrote a handful of first-rate, classically-styled detective novels, like Diplomatic Death (1962) and Diving Death (1962), as "Charles Forsyte," but undeservedly out-of-print for decades. There are rabid locked room fans, like JJ, who would give someone's arm and leg for a reprint of Rosa and Dudley Lambert's Death Goes to Brussels (also published as Monsieur Faux-Pas, 1928 or 1937). What about Darwin and Hildegarde Teilhet's tantalizingly obscure Death Flies High (1931) and Murder in the Air (1931)? I think it would make for a terrific series of reprints and suggest it here purely for the benefit of my fellow mystery fans.


The Phantom Circus: "The Bad Samaritan" (1981) by Edward D. Hoch

Back in 2016, I put together "A Selection of Lost Detective Stories," briefly going over the lost or unpublished manuscripts by Anthony Boucher, Joseph Commings and Hake Talbot, but the post included a grainy, black-and-white photocopied cover of an unknown detective novel – entitled The Problem of the Black Road by Philip Jacoby. The cover appeared in a 1980s fanzine, Collecting Paperbacks, as a recently unearthed, long-lost locked room mystery by John Dickson Carr

Unfortunately, the unknown, long-lost novel turned out to be a hoax, perpetrated by Bill Pronzini, to see if he could fool collectors into believing he found a remnant of an obscure, short-lived wartime paperback outfit. One man saw through the deception, Edward D. Hoch, who decided to use the premise of Pronzini's imaginary novel for a short story with G.K. Chesterton playing the role of Great Detective. 

"The Bad Samaritan" originally appeared in the December, 1981, issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and came as a separate pamphlet with each of the 230 numbered, signed and cloth-bound copies of Hoch's More Things Impossible: The Second Casebook of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (2006).

The story is narrated by Jack Foxx, which some of you might recognize as one of Pronzini's pennames, but this Jack Foxx is a small-time booking agent who arranges lecture tours for evangelists, authors and political figures. When the noted British author G.K. Chesterton came to America, in 1921, he was asked to handle the southern and western ends of his lecture tour. So the man who gave the detective story a soul arrived in Nashville, Tennessee, closely followed by "a phantom circus with a killer clown."

Chesterton is with Foxx when the latter is greeted by an old friend, Sergeant Troy, who asks Foxx to come with him to the hospital. There's been an accident out on Jericho Road, which left Mike Osher dead and Tom O'Neill in bad shape. However, it wasn't an accident and Tom told the police "the damnedest, most bizarre thing" they ever heard. According to Tom, their car was forced into a ditch, tipped over and rolled down the embankment, but, when he regained consciousness, he heard circus music, wagons and elephants trumpeting – a circus parade was coming down the road. So he yelled for help and "a sad-faced clown," in a baggy suit and "big drawn-on red lips," who shoots them both before "scurrying back up the hill to the road." A circus recently arrived in town, but they didn't travel over Jericho Road.

Naturally, the problem of the black road intrigues Chesterton. What fascinates him the most is not the clown, "merely men with painted faces," but "the curious behavior of the elephants in the nighttime" and it leads him to a paradoxical conclusion. Since "the railroad and the circus people are telling the truth" about the circus not being on the road that night "proves O'Neill told the truth" about the clown and circus parade. A statement followed by a perfectly logical and acceptable explanation with the only caveat being that it can only be considered an impossible crime story within its early 1920s setting. I don't think you can use such a trick with a modern setting and still present it as an impossible crime.

Hoch wrote "The Bad Samaritan" as a pastiche-by-stealth of Carr and I don't know if this was done by accident or design, but plot is of the type Carr used for the radio-plays he wrote in the early 1940s for CBS's Suspense. I can easily imagine "The Bad Samaritan" as a radio-play and it would work beautifully. So a good detective story with a fascinating backstory and exactly what I needed after my previous read.

A note for the curious: Jon L. Breen satirized Hoch in "The Problem of the Vanishing Town" (1979) and referenced a fantastical, unrecorded locked room murder in which a clown was torn to shreds by an invisible lion in a high rise building, but it took Hoch more than twenty years to come up with a solution to the problem – which he wrote down as "Circus in the Sky" (2000). That's two great stories Hoch penned based on a joke. What a shame he never did anything with Carr's fabled The Bronze Devil. Coming up with a rational explanation for a ghostly circus parade is peanuts. A murderous, non-corporeal circus animal vanishing from a high building is a tougher nut to crack, but it can be done. How do you explain a man who was drowned and decapitated in a locked tower room and lived to tell Dr. Gideon Fell about it?


Afterwards, Murder (1953) by Bob van Oyen

"Bob van Oyen" was the pseudonym of Jan van Beek, a Dutch novelist, who submitted his first detective novel, Na afloop moord (Afterwards, Murder, 1953), to a detective story competition, organized by A.W. Bruna & Zoon, in 1952 – winning the third-place prize and a publishing deal. Afterwards, Murder was published a year later and he wrote four more detective novels during the 1950s with cover illustrations by Dick Bruna. Van Oyen wrote two more novels in the 1960s and a handful of short stories over the following two decades. 

Afterwards, Murder introduces Van Oyen's series-detective, Captain Anton Victor IJsvogel of the Koninklijke Marechaussee (Royal Military Police), who investigates cases within the army or have a link to it. A Van Wyck Mason who's actually Dutch? Let's go on a reconnaissance mission and find out! 

Afterwards, Murder takes place a few years after World War II, in late 1947, and is set among the engineering officers of the Genie-bureau with the primary focus on their latest recruit, Reserve First Lieutenant Joop Boerda. He concludes on his first day that there are quite some "characters" attached to the bureau, but the dramatis personae lists more than twenty names. So I'll only highlight the two characters most relevant to Boerda's involvement in the case. Reserve First Lieutenant Hajo Baerends "an intellectual and amiable man," as well as an old acquaintance of Boerda, but "any understanding of army discipline was completely foreign to him" and he has a troublesome penchant for blunders – which will place his old friend in a difficult position with personal consequences. Secondly, you have Lieutenant Kees van Straaten, "een zonderlinge snijboon" ("an eccentric string bean"), whose promising career went into a tailspin when he tragically lost his wife. But on the day he was to get the boot, Germany surprised my country with an unexpected visit and Van Straaten became a decorated war hero as he fought in the first line of defense like a madman. Van Straaten remained an eccentric character who lately seemed depressed and downcast.

Story begins to take shape, or so it seems, when several people return to the Genie-bureau following a party and not everyone returned there with angelic intentions, which leads to a shocking discovery the following morning.

Van Straaten is found slumped over a desk with "one hand clutching the heavy stone paperweight," a statuette of a donkey, while "the other hanging limply along the chair." A 9mm pistol lay beside him on the floor. Captain Anton Victor IJsvogel is placed in charge of the case, but, as he noted himself, he had no experience whatsoever with murder cases and all his knowledge came from "the Penal Code and Edgar Wallace." So now he had to decide whether the death of a Genie-officer was due to suicide or murder. And, in case of the latter, he also has to find a killer. There are enough "pesterige kleinigheidjes" ("damning trifles") to make suicide less likely than it appears on the surface.

Regrettably, there's not much else to say about the story, or plot, because it all goes downhill from here and that became only apparent after the facts! You can put that down to Van Oyen not fully grasping the concept of clueing and plotting. Only thing that can be construed as a legitimate clue is the prologue, which pretty much gives the murderer's motive away, but everything are nothing more than allusions and hints to clues that don't exist! Captain IJsvogel has two reasons to believe Van Straaten was murdered: the lights were off when the body was found and one hand clutching the stone press. So you would think you're dealing with a good, old-fashioned dying message and one that actually makes sense when you take the prologue into consideration, which added an artistic element to the story and ezel is the Dutch word for both donkey and easel – except that no explanation was given why he held it. I flipped back and forth to see if something hadn't registered, while reading, but nothing. No explanation.

Another example is when Captain IJsvogel went to French to get a name, but all that the people there could tell him that the name sounded German and it's pointed out that a lot of Dutch names sound German to non-Dutch speakers. If you look at the list of characters, there are some candidates that could be mistaken by non-Dutch speakers as German. However, if it was meant as a clue, there's one not so obvious name (Buurman) that non-Dutch speakers could hear, or be remembered, as Bormann. Once again, this made sense as it would have given Van Oyen a reason to have set the story in 1947. And again... nothing. Not a name-based clue at all.

I had worked out an ingenious theory with Buurman as the least-likely murderer, because the prologue required a soldier and Buurman is a civilian employer of the Genie-bureau, but Buurman is also a well-known, black market purveyor of alcohol, cigarettes and silk stockings – who knows what business he was involved with during the war. So my explanation is that the murder was not a revenge killing, but Buurman getting rid of a blackmailer, which would also give another perspective to the note Buurman pocketed (witnessed by Boerda). Even the massive coincidence of (ROT13) Ina Fgenngra vagraqvat gb pbzzvg fhvpvqr jura ur jnf fubg works a lot better, storywise, with my explanation. I was already preparing to congratulate Van Oyen on an enthusiastic, first stab at the detective story, but failed to fool the Mycroft Holmes of the Low Countries. Only to discover my theory was based on clues that didn't exist!

I can mention more examples that will give you the idea Afterwards, Murder is a writing exercise done by someone who wants to create a writing rhythm/schedule rather than a polished and finished detective novel. Why did that copy of Ngaio Marsh's Death in Ecstasy (1937) keep turning up? Just so Boersma would finally pick it up, read it and gets an idea that will help solve the murder? Nope. He read it and the book never gets mentioned again. Why all the fanfare to rush to the murderer and give this person an opportunity to commit suicide? Why not call in your findings and have [redacted] detained? Because that would have prevented some emotional twaddle. I don't ever want to hear another bad word about either Freeman Wills Crofts or John Rhode ever again.

Last year, I was on a hot streak with A.R. Brent's Voorzichtig behandelen (Handle with Care, 1948), C. Buddingh's Vrijwel op slag (Almost Instantly, 1953), W.H. van Eemlandt's Kogels bij het dessert (Dessert with Bullets, 1954) and P. Dieudonné's Rechercheur De Klerck en de ongrijpbare dood (Inspector De Klerck and the Elusive Death, 2020), but Afterwards, Murder was as a big a letdown as K. Abma's De hond was executeur (The Dog Was Executor, 1973). But as explained in my previous reviews and comments, finding these obscure, but good, Dutch detective novels is like groping around a maze blindfolded. There's no practical information online to help narrow down your search to certain writers, or titles, which makes picking them pure guesswork.

So, all in all, Afterwards, Murder began promising and then completely dissolved as a detective story, which makes it all the more surprising it earned third place in a detective story competition with 169 other entries. I find it very hard to believe there 166 manuscripts submitted that were worst than Afterwards, Murder. Anyway, sorry for the depressing review, but will pick something good for the next one. So keep refreshing that page! 


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

Christopher Bush's The Case of the Curious Client (1947) is the 32nd Ludovic Travers novel and it is, as it says on the tin, a curious case with an interesting take on the WWII-themed mysteries and can be grouped with the British postwar WWII detective novels – a period of austerity, social malaise and a crumbling empire. However, the plot is rooted in the rise of Oswald Mosley's "Blackshirts" in the 1930s when the South Coast of England was "a hotbed of Fascism." So it was fascinating to read a detective novel built around the periods bookending the Second World War. 

The Case of the Curious Client opens on Guy Fawkes Day, 1945, which is the first one to be celebrated with bonfires and fireworks since the war started and the papers were full with "the old pre-war kind of gossip about the Bonfire Boys of Lewes and the South Coast." A fact that will function as one of the hinges of the plot.

At the time, Ludovic Travers is still learning the ropes of the private eye business from Bill Ellice, of the Broad Street Detective Agency, and is holding the fort when the agency receives an urgent telephone call from a prospective client. Herbert Dorvan wants the detective agency to track down his nephew, Robert Dorvan, who had recently returned to England as a "prisoner of war in Japanese hands," but never got in touch with his uncle and he needs him "as a sort of bodyguard" – because he believes his life is in danger. There already had been attempt made on his life. So they schedule an appointment at the Southern Hotel that afternoon, but, when Travers arrives, Dorvan has already returned home. He left behind a note asking Travers to meet him in two days time at the village of Midgley.

Midgley is situated very near the southern English coast, but Travers, once again, never gets to see his client. Not alive anyway. Travers finds the house locked up with a note pinned on the door, "away till Wednesday," but naturally, he doesn't trust the situation and eventually has the local police break open one of the doors. What they find inside is Dorvan, lying in the living room, with a bullet in his head! Dorvan had been dead for some days and it seems his murderer had used the "squibs and fireworks" of Guy Fawkes Night to hide the sound of the gunshot.

I've to mention here that The Case of the Curious Client is, perhaps, the tidiest and clearest of Bush's late 1940s novels with a relatively simple and straightforward that would have been better fitted for a short story, or novella, but Bush managed to get a whole novel out of the plot – which he accomplished without any needless padding or stretching. For example, there are only three suspects to consider (a who-of-the-three type of detective story I've come to associate with Gosho Aoyama). All three are nephews of the victim. There's the previously mentioned Robert Dorvan and his half-brother, Sidney Dorvan, who's the owner of a London nightclub, the Ginger Cat. Gerry Bruff is a radio-impressionist with his own shown on the BBC.

However, Robert, Sidney and Gerry all have alibis, some better than others, but what they lack is a strong motive, because there was very little money coming their way. So could the motive for Dorvan's murder be hidden somewhere in his questionable, pre-war activities?

During the 1930s, Dorvan blamed the ruination of his furniture business on "Jewish undercutting” and "declared war, as it were, on Jews in general." Dorvan had a sign on his door, "NO YIDS NEED APPLY," but also contributed funds to the British Fascist Movement, spoke at meetings and "recognised as one of the big men by those in the know." When France fell to the Germans, Dorvan was interned under Defense Regulation 18B, his business was closed down and his nephews, who were close associates, were out of a job too. 

So, yeah, this is really neat and tidy whodunit and you can put together the whole puzzle before the explanation is given, certainly after the second murder and a £200 clue, but it's not too obvious at the start of the story. You need to do some puzzling to reveal this person, which is not bad when you only have three suspects to work with. The Case of the Curious Client has other bits and pieces that added interest to the story.

In his 1950s novels, like The Case of the Counterfeit Colonel (1952) and The Case of the Flowery Corpse (1956), Bush began to show an interest in forensics and technology as tools of the law, but he already played with it here. Travers takes part in a "bugging" operation of the Ginger Cat and the floor over the nightclub is secretly taken over, "requisitioned by a Government Department as an overflow for old documents and correspondence," where a microphone has been placed under the floorboards and them listening to the fragments of conversation coming through the earphones is hands down the best scene in the book – even if it's not exactly ethical. And at the scene of the second murder, the police has "a temporary telephone" installed to better coordinate the investigation. I don't remember ever having come across one of these temporary telephones in detective fiction, but it makes sense to do so and wonder if these were ever actually used or something Bush imagined would be a good idea.

However, the absolute highlight of the story is the return of the Old General of the Yard, Superintendent George Wharton, who had lost of him luster in the 1950s titles (looking old and tired), but he was his old self again here. Wharton is a showman and a master of his craft who "disguises his height with a stoop" and dons antiquated spectacles for his own "obscure and deceptive purposes." A pure showman whose "sleeves are crammed with innumerable tricks" and "his personality alert with innumerable disguises to be assumed on each apt occasion," which makes him a perfect contrast to his more introspective and theoretical friend. Travers has "the crossword kind of brain" that "loves problems and is quick to find solutions," but his "fluent theorising" is not always correct (one out of three theories) and this can count on some good-natured mockery on Wharton's part. Although he's already too willing to assimilate such theories when they're proven right. They play off each other so well when they're both at the top of the game and, more than once, Wharton beat Travers to the solution, which adds a whole different layer to this series.

I've said this in my review of The Case of the Platinum Blonde (1944), but I'll say it again: nobody else, past or present, nailed the relationship between the (quasi) amateur detective and the professional policeman as perfectly as Bush did with Travers and Wharton. I think it's not too late for modern mystery writers to learn a thing or two from Bush.

So, all in all, The Case of the Curious Client is not one of the most complex novels in the series, but it's a tidily written, competently plotted detective novel with Bush getting more out of the story than what was put into it. Something that only very rarely happens with detective stories, but this is one of those rarities. A must-read for dedicated fans of the series or readers with a special interest in WWII-themed mysteries.