After School Activities: Q.E.D. vol. 14 by Motohiro Katou

The 14th volume of Motohiro Katou's Q.E.D. begins strongly with "Summer Vacation Case," which is presented as relatively minor, uncomplicated slice-of-life mystery, but don't be fooled, the story poses a tricky puzzle with an impossible situation, alibi charts and a 3D floor plan – situated among the members of various college clubs. These after-school clubs are an important part of Japanese school-and university college and often feature in shin honkaku detective stories. You might remember the mystery club members who populated Yukito Ayatsuji's Jukkakukan no satsujin (The Decagon House Murders, 1987) and Alice Arisugawa's Koto pazuru (The Moai Island Puzzle, 1989). Not to mention a staple of the anime-and manga detective story. 

"Summer Vacation Case" takes place at Sou Touma and Kana Mizuhara's high school during the summer holiday when "only the sound of club activities" echoed through the buildings. But everything is far from normal or peaceful on the quiet school ground and empty classrooms.

A hooligan is active on the premise and has been committing weird acts of vandalism in-and around the various school clubs. A big "X" was drawn with ink on the floor of the newspaper club's classroom. A pail with the ashes of burned newspapers was left in front of the calligraphy clubroom and the third incident happened in the corridor of the third-year classrooms, which is where a spray painted graffiti was discovered alluding to the fourth incident – providing the plot with a fresh and original impossible crime. A basketball crashes through the window of the dojo of the kendo club, but there was no one outside and the classrooms opposite the dojo are too far away to assume "someone threw the ball with that much strength." So it's almost "as if the ball appeared out of thin air."

Mizuhara is a member of the kendo club and injured her wrist in the incident, which immediately brought Touma to the scene. This is where the story became so much more than its premise suggested. What makes "Summer Vacation Case" such a great detective story is simply synergy.

Firstly, there's the division of work between the two detectives. Mizuhara often played the Archie Goodwin to Touma's Nero Wolfe, but it worked better here than usual and complimented the plot. She talks to the various club members and uncovers the contours of the motive, but it's Touma who figures out the "curious connection between these events." I particular appreciated the trick that was hidden behind the graffiti. But than all of the plot-strands were pulled together to show how they worked in conjunction, which demolished a cleverly-staged alibi and the basketball illusion. It's detective stories like this one why I doff my deerstalker to the shin honkaku writers.

The second story, "Irregular Bound," is a quasi-inverted mystery in which a city council member of T City, in Tokyo, is found next to his private plane at F Prefecture's airport with a stab wound in his upper arm – who quickly lost consciousness from the lost of blood. An envelope with "a political contribution of one million yen" has "completely disappeared." The reader is more than aware that one of the characters has fabricated an alibi with a radio broadcast of a baseball game, but the story is essentially a multi-varied whydunit with a twist. What is the real reason behind the fake alibi? Why did the wounded victim fly from Tokyo to F Prefecture? And why does Touma believe "this case will automatically reach a dead end" if the victim wakes up.

This is one of those typical-atypical Q.E.D. character-driven detective stories that you can only find in this manga series and "Irregular Bound" managed to weave several, character-focused plot-threads around a very simple and sordid crime. The key to the problem are the victim and suspects themselves. So you can say it succeeded in what it was trying to do, but without doing anything to make it standout and the whole story felt very inconsequential compared to the after-school shenanigans of the previous story. A decent, but forgettable, story.

I would have flipped "Summer Vacation Case" and "Irregular Bound" around to end the volume on a high note, but either way, "Summer Vacation Case" carried this volume and a candidate for my top 10 favorite Q.E.D. stories from vol. 1-20. Six more to go!


The Key to the Case (1992) by Roger Ormerod

I reviewed two of Roger Ormerod's late-career novels in January, A Shot at Nothing (1993) and And Hope to Die (1995), which he wrote during his twilight years, but the writing and plotting were as clear and ingenious as ever – crafting some of his strongest, modern GAD-style novels. My ramblings tempted John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, to try one and raved about The Hanging Doll Murder (1983) as "an excellent example of the modern mystery that honors the traditions of the Golden Age" with "several amazing twists." Something that appears to have been a hallmark of Ormerod's detective fiction. 

From my limited reading and playing internet detective, Ormerod seems to have experimented a lot with ways to frame the traditional, plot-oriented detective story as a modern crime novel. An ambition to link the past with the present to create a new kind of detective story for the future. Some of Ormerod's earlier novels are less than perfect in this regard (e.g. The Weight of Evidence, 1978), but drastically improved during the '80s and became amazingly good at in the '90s. Ormerod could very well have been the best mystery writer of the nineties and today's subject did nothing to persuade me away from that premature conclusion. 

The Key to the Case (1992) is erroneous listed online as a standalone novel, but it's the ninth title in the Richard and Amelia Patton series. More importantly, The Key to the Case is a textbook example of how to consolidate the traditionalist and modernist approach to the detective story.

Richard Patton is an ex-Detective Inspector who continues to get involved in murder cases and "the recent affair of the clocks," presumably a reference to When the Old Man Died (1991), had received too much media coverage for his liking, which had given people the idea Patton sorted out personal problems – having already been approached about boundary disputes and lost dogs. The Key to the Case has a treble of much more serious and confrontational problems for Richard and Amelia to deal with.

Firstly, Richard is approached by a small-time, but expert, burglar, Ronnie Cope, who's out on bail and facing an aggravated burglary charge. Ronnie is not known to be violent and claims to have "an unprovable alibi," but Richard initially has no interest in getting involved. Secondly, a former crook and current owner of a gaming club, Milo Dettinger, asks Richard to prove that his son, Bryan, was murdered. A death that had been filed as a suicide on account of the whole house being a locked and bolted from the inside. Milo had to smash the front door and the bathroom door to find his son hanging by a length of rope, but Richard has to do a little detective work to find out why the place was "well-nigh impregnable to an outsider."

Every day, before going to his club, Milo ensured Bryan locked and bolted all the doors and windows behind him. Milo would also make a midnight call to ensure everything was alright and they agreed on a coded message with the doorbell. Milo fixed this "complicated system of security" to protect his son from an outraged community. Bryan had served two years of six-year prison sentence for raping three young women and he wasn't exactly welcomed back with open arms by the community, but a month after he got out, a woman was raped and murdered. So plenty of abuse and death threats started pouring in. Richard reluctantly gets pulled in, but, once he gets started, he can't stop and this places him at odds with his former colleague and friend, Chief Inspector Ken, who's in charge of a troublesome inspector, Les Durrell – who's "is not simply anti-rapist, but violently so." Meanwhile, Amelia has to face her own demons to help her husband and she's the one who talks with Bryan's victims.

So not exactly the frame you expect to find around a classically-staged locked room mystery, but the touches of the modern crime novel were expertly used here to further a very tricky, complicated and puzzle-oriented plot.

Richard's investigation revealed that the house was not only "completely sealed" with keys, bolts and double-glazed windows, but closely-tightened by a narrow, two-or three minute window of time. That's simply not enough time to have done the murder and vanish from a sealed house. Richard also considers two false-solutions based on the smashed front door with a dash of morbid psychology, which required either a particular hardhearted or cruel murderer. I can't say much about the actual solution and, purely as locked room mystery, the trick is not one for the ages. So don't expect anything in the grand manner of John Dickson Carr or Paul Halter, but it's quite clever and novel in its own unique way. A cheeky play on the cussedness of all things general with a dark undertone and severe consequences.

Where the plot really excels is the clever clueing, red herrings and the double-twisted ending. Ormerod played his cards brilliantly as it was not until the penultimate chapter that everything began to click inside my head, but was still unprepared for the shining radiance of the central, double-edged clue. A clue that was in plain sight, but ingeniously rendered invisible and the explanation how that was accomplished is worthy to be compared with the best from the Golden Age! Simply marvelous! 

The Key to the Case is, plot-wise, Ormerod's best detective novel to date with a great and trickily-done solution, which also succeeded in balancing the old-fashioned, puzzle-oriented locked room mystery with the darker elements of the modern character-driven crime novel – adding a new dimension to both styles. Not to mention an impressive feat of dovetailing making it a highlight of the 1990s (locked room) mystery novel. 

A note for the curious: the writing, characterization, dovetailing and balancing between the classic and modern style in The Key to the Case strongly reminded me of the detective novels by M.P.O. Books, a.k.a. "Anne van Doorn," who took a very similar direction as Ormerod in his stories. The Key to the Case especially reminded me of De laatste kans (The Last Chance, 2011; the dovetailing), Een afgesloten huis (A Sealed House, 2013; an impossible crime) and De man die zijn geweten ontlastte (The Man Who Relieved His Conscience, 2019; the surprise).


She Had to Have Gas (1939) by Rupert Penny

Rupert Penny's She Had to Have Gas (1939) is the sixth novel in the Chief Inspector Edward Beale series and has a premise as enticing and provocatively bizarre as its title, which kind of delivered on its promise, but Martin Edwards warned that its elaborate plot came "close to sinking under the weight of its own cleverness” – even JJ's four-star review came with a few caveats. Admitting that She Had to Have Gas presented Penny as a first-rate second-stringer and placed it last on his Chief Inspector Beale best-of list. So imagine my surprise when I turned over the last page and concluded I had read the most enjoyable Penny to date. 

I wouldn't rank She Had to Have Gas quite as highly as Policeman in Armour (1937) or Policeman's Evidence (1938), but found it to be much better than The Lucky Policeman (1938) and played in a completely different league than Sealed Room Murder (1941). Sorry, Jim. But you can take solace in knowing you helped rehabilitate Penny's reputation as a purveyor of puzzles in my eyes. I was wrong to write him off so quickly. 

She Had to Have Gas tells the story of two women, Alice Carter and Philippa Saunderson, whose stories become intertwined and provide the story with one of the most baffling and grisly crime scenes of the 1930s detective stories. This is likely the reason why Edwards picked it to tell The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (2017).

Alice Carter is fair-haired, blue-eyed girl of about twenty-four, but her landlady, Mrs. Agatha Topley, had summed her up almost immediately "as no lady" and had "never seen cause to take back her judgement," but money was tight – as dreary Craybourne was not a popular seaside tourist attraction. Mrs. Topley accepted the silent, secretive girl and the first two weeks passed satisfactory until her cousin, Ellis, turned up. A gruff, suspicious-looking character habitually dressed in a long, tightly buttoned trench coat, check cap and spectacles with colored glasses. Alice and Ellis bottled themselves up in her room for hours on end, but where the situation becomes truly bothersome is that she owes more than three pounds in rent money.

One evening, Mrs. Topley returns from a family visiting to discover Alice had taken her late husband's battery wireless set and loudly blaring music in her room, but there's no response to the hammering on her locked door. So she takes a chair to peek through a glass partition covered with decaying, half peeled away frosted paper and sees the blanketed body of Alice in front of the gas fire. An "evil-looking curve of red rubber tubing" disappeared into the blanket by the head, which all pointed towards suicide. But when the police breaks down the door, nine minutes later, the body has "impossibly vanished." Sadly, no, it's not a locked room mystery. There are two situation in this story that were presented as impossible crimes, but you have to read the book to learn why they really aren't.

The second plot-strand concerns the niece of Charles Harrington, "a writer of murder mysteries," whose "productively imaginative pen" has produced more than twenty intricately-plotted detective novels, but now he finds himself in the middle of homegrown mystery problem – one that concerns his niece, Philippa Saunderson. Philippa had been deeply involved with the dandy, but disreputable, actor Robert Oakes, who now demands £5000 in return for a stack of embarrassing letters, compromising photographs and a nude painting. An astronomical sum that even her generous uncle can't or wants to cough up. So she has to bargain to get everything back or her new, much more respectable boyfriend, Colin Dennison, will find everything. But why did she disappear?

What gets the ball rolling, following fifty pages of setup, is the grisly discovery of a mutilated body in Oakes' bungalow. The body of a young woman, clad only in underclothes, whose head, hands and feet were cut off. Perplexingly, the stumps of the neck and wrists were "encased grotesquely in yellow oilskin tennis-racket covers." A situation you would expect to find in a Japanese (shin) honkaku mystery, but Penny gave the corpse-puzzle the good old college try in 1939! Obviously inspired by early period Ellery Queen.

At first glance, Penny's acrostic, diagram-and timetable riddled detective novels with their occasional excursions into locked room territory and policeman protagonist invites comparison with Freeman Wills Crofts and Christopher Bush. Penny has always openly aligned himself with the American writers of the Van Dine-Queen School and included an EQ-style "Challenge to the Reader" in each of his Chief Inspector Beale novels. Nowhere else is the influence of early period Queen as noticeable as in She Had to Have Gas, which really tried to imitate the elaborate, surrealistic flair of such EQ novels as The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934) and The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932). Just like those novels, the bizarre circumstances in which the body was found and what happened at the crime scene being the key to the plot. Also note that one of the missing woman, fueling the plot, is named Alice. There's no way that's a coincidence with a mystery writer whose literary role model was Ellery Queen.

Penny managed to lit a fire and set my mind ablaze with all the questions and possibilities that arose from Chief Inspector Beale's investigation. Whose body was found in the bungalow, Alice or Philippa? What happened to Alice's body at the lodging house and, if the body belongs to her, how and why did she end in the bungalow? What happened to Philippa and, if it's her body, where was she originally murdered since the bungalow is not connected to gas, which comes with a mini-lecture on cheaply produced, household gas – why it's attractive to people considering suicide. Why did the murderer put tennis-racket covers on the neck and arms, but not the legs? What's the link between the two women and who really is Ellis? Where's he now? What part did the stolen delivery van and blackmail plot play a part in the murder and disappearances? This is just a small sampling of what to expect from this richly flavored, maze-like detective story that even slightly disoriented the author a few times.

Even though the story and plot tick and move with slow, mechanical precision, everything becomes somewhat mired and muddled at times, which required flipping back a few times to keep track of all the intricate details and moving parts. So it's not as smoothly written, or clearly plotted, as some of the others I've read. I suspect there will be many reader who'll find it all a little too mighty, too rich and too artificial for their taste, which here is underscored by the presence of a challenge to the reader and a clue-finder. There is, however, no denying it required some genuine craftsmanship and ingenuity to erect such a staggering, breathtaking edifice to the simon-pure jigsaw detective story. It's just that it did so very ungracefully.

For example, Beale points out in his explanation that they had "a strong lead to the solution" under their noses and they "did everything but recognize it." Due to a specialty of mine, I actually spotted the lead very early on, but what Penny did with it turned out to be much more contrived than I imagined. You see (ROT13), gur qvfnccrnenapr bs Nyvpr jnf cerfragrq nf n ybpxrq ebbz zlfgrel naq gung znqr zr fhfcrpg jung gur ynaqynql fnj jnf n cubgbtencu (bs Cuvyvccn?), juvpu vf jul Zef. Gbcyrl abgrq “gur pbzcyrgr nofrapr bs nal zbgvba fhpu n oernguvat.” N cubgbtencu, be crrc-obk, vf rnfvre gb erzbir va avar zvahgrf guna n obql. However, Penny had a much more contrived explanation as to what happened there.

So, yeah, I really appreciated what She Had to Have Gas tried to do and not entirely unsuccessfully, but it also represents the traditional, plot-oriented detective story at its most artificial with a cluttered plot, muddled direction and a sometime unsteady grip on the various plot-strands – preventing it from fully delivering on its promise. But, what it tried to do, made it Penny's most enjoyable endeavor to date. Not even the few loose nuts and bolts rattling around inside could spoil my enjoyment. One of the most delightfully bizarre, ambitiously plotted and convoluted curiosities of the genre's Golden Age. I think fans of early period Ellery Queen will probably get the most out of it.

Having now read four of Penny's Chief Inspector Beale novels since that first, disastrous encounter with Sealed Room Murders, I'm now ready to take on his Croftian dreadnought, The Talkative Policeman (1936).


Beware of Snakes: Case Closed, vol. 77 by Gosho Aoyama

This year, Viz Media will be publishing a translation of vol. 80 in Gosho Aoyama's long-running, immensely popular detective-series, Case Closed a.k.a. Detective Conan, which is amazing considering the first English release dates back to September, 2004 – roughly a decade and fifty volumes behind the original Japanese releases. So that backlog will be reduced to about twenty volumes by the end of 2021! 

Unless there's a drastic change in their schedule, Viz should catch-up with the Japanese releases sometime this decade and hand me the excuse needed to finally reread the series. While complaining about having to subsist on one or two new releases a year. But that's a post-2025 problem.

So, for now, let's tackle vol. 77, which begins with the conclusion to the kidnapping case that ended the previous volume on a cliffhanger. Detective Takagi, of the Metropolitan Police, disappears without a word and the next day a package is delivered to police with a stripped and modified tablet showing a live camera feed of the missing policeman – gag and tied to a plank on a high-rise construction with a noose around his neck. Conan helped track down the kidnapper, but this person slipped through their fingers and now it has become a race against the clock to find the ever weakening and fatigued Takagi. Satisfyingly, the ending revealed the story was a little more than merely thriller-filler.

I'm not overly fond of kidnap stories as they tend to be an author's excuse for lazy plotting, but Aoyama regularly proves himself to be the exception to the rule and knocks out a good one every now and then (e.g. vol. 72). This story is another one of his demonstrations that some ingenuity can be applied to a kidnapping plot, but here it also helped that one of the character-centered plot-threads ran through the story. So not a bad start to a new volume.

The second story is fairly simple and straightforward with a who-of-the-three situation, which is typical for the series, but the plot has a great take on the alibi problem.

Conan, Anita and Takagi happen to be nearby when a sleazy tabloid publisher, Daisuka Katsumoto, dropped to his dead from a top-floor of a condo building with a phone in his shirt pocket, which has a recent message he texted to multi people – cleverly used to isolate the three suspects from the crowd of onlookers. Conan resents the message and three phones in the crowd began to buzz. All three suspects live in the same building as the victim and even worked under him, which turns out to give them a motive as he used them to concoct a dirty smear story. A story that resulted in a suicide. Only problem is that they all possess a very unusual alibi.

The three suspects lived on the third floor of the condo complex and the victim resided on the 26th floor, but "they claimed they could prove they'd been in their condos" and could not have made the seven-minute trip to the victim's condo. And reappear seconds later on the sidewalk. What they give as evidence is "a beer with fresh foam... steam from a coffee cup... and smoke from a cigarette." So no tinkering with clocks or people's perception of time, but foam, steam and smoke that gave the suspects a solid, ten-minute alibi!

I can think of one other detective story that played with a similar idea, Arthur Porges' "Black Coffee" (1964), in which a burning cigarette and a cup of hot coffee in a locked room were the ingredients of a clever alibi-trick. The trick here is a little simpler in idea and execution, but, what propped it up, is (ROT13) gung gur zheqrere unq vzcebivfr ba gur fcbg. This made an otherwise simple trick a little bit more impressive. So, yeah, I liked it.

Unfortunately, the next story began very promising, but deteriorated and crumbled into one of the worst stories in the entire series!

Ten years ago, a nursery school principal stumbled on an uneven stone pavement with a fish bowl in his arms and was stabbed in the chest by a glass shard, but "the kanji for death was written in blood beside the corpse" – suggesting the hand of a murderer or even a serial killer. Conan/Jimmy's father dismissed and abandoned the case, unresolved, assuring everyone that they'll "never again see this bloody kanji." A decade later, a body is discovered in an alleyway with the kanji of death written in blood. However, the police defers the case to the division investigating thefts and robberies. So why do the homicide detectives refuse to touch the kanji deaths? Regrettably, the solution is preposterous and stretches credulity beyond what's reasonable to expect a reader to accept. You can blame that on the second death. I can accept that happening once, but not twice. This aspect of the story should have been solely focused on that past, unresolved case.

Only thing that somewhat saves this story is the ongoing, character-oriented story-arcs running in the background and the development in this story is very significant. Subaru Okiya observes Conan doing his Jimmy voice over the phone!

The closing story is mostly filler in order to setup vol. 78 and furthering those ongoing story lines, which begins with Anita giving Conan a Mystery Train Pass Ring to the Bell Tree Express. A steam locomotive, "made up to look like the Orient Express," which the Junior Detective League will be riding next week and Anita tells Conan she hopes "that's the only resemblance to an Agatha Christie novel" – a story that will be centerpiece of the next volume. I really look forward to its publication, but now they're on their way to a campsite in the woods. Naturally, they caught someone red handed trying to bury a body near a "Beware of Snakes" sign and this lands them in a heap of trouble. But the focus of the story is on how Anita is going to get them out of it (predictable) with ending showing that her identity, too, is compromised. 

A note for the curious: Anita packed the (temporary) antidote to APTX 4869, but refuses to share it with Conan, because he would use it "to play out your little romantic comedy." I've been saying for years that the only logical flaw in the series is Conan/Jimmy continue to keep his secret from Rachel. The third story here showed why it's cruel to keep her out of the loop ("Don't creep me out like that! You're already the spitting image of him") and the ending why it would be valuable to have her in on it. It's not like she would be any more or less danger than usual.

So, on a whole, this was a very uneven volume, but liked the conclusion to the kidnap story and the alibi-trick of the second story with the two weaker stories benefiting greatly from all the character-development and story progression being played out in the background. Not too badly. I really look forward now to reading the next volume!


Too Many Bones (1943) by Ruth Sawtell Wallis

Ruth Sawtell Wallis was an American physical anthropologist who co-discovered the Azilian skeleton remains in Montardit, in the French Pyrenees, but her academic career was cut short, in 1935, during the Depression years – believing "envy over the dual income" of her household was the cause of her termination. Wallis found employment in the U.S. federal government and, more importantly, she wrote a handful of anthropological-themed mysteries during the 1940s. 

Wallis took her first, tentative steps in the genre with Too Many Bones (1943) and, as Curt Evans pointed out in his introduction to the new Stark House edition, it made "a decided splash in detective fiction's bloody pond."

Too Many Bones won Dodd, Mead's annual $1000 Red Badge Mystery Prize and received praise from Anthony Boucher for its "literate writing and some authentic shivers," which many of today's mystery critics and readers seem to agree with. Generally considering it to be one of the best debuts in the genre. It was Kate, of Cross Examining Crime, whose review convinced me to toss Wallis on the big pile.

I was very tempted to start with Wallis' archaeological mystery novel, Blood from a Stone (1945), but decided to dabble in a little chronology and go with Too Many Bones, which is more of a character-oriented crime-and suspense novel than a proper detective story – yet very well done with a carefully build and executed ending. The anthropological setting and background added considerably to the bare bones of the plot-structure, which elevated what would otherwise have been a pretty run-of-the-mill crime novel. So even an inveterate plot purist, like myself, can see why people nearly 80 years later still heap praise on it. Why it's considered by some as one the best firsts in the genre. Too Many Bones has the kind of plot and ending that requires a skilled and practiced hand to pull off, but Wallis did it on her first attempt.

The protagonist of Too Many Bones is a 21-year-old anthropology student, Kay Ellis, who accepted a position as Dr. John Gordon's assistant to help him catalog and study the "six hundred skeletons in the Holtzerman Collection."

A practically unique collection in the anthropological world and "the most important material for the study of inbreeding ever gathered together," which came from an abandoned graveyard in "a remote pocket of the Carpathians" that was excavated in 1900 by Professor Holtzerman. Three hundred years ago, four families of "grimly religious dissenters" retreated to that remote, hostile place where they intermarried for generations until they died out. The collection was smuggled out of Germany and eventually bought for a huge sum by the William Henry Proutman Museum of Hinchdale. A small, obscure village in the Middle West near the Great Lakes.

So being able to work on the fifty-thousand-dollar Holtzerman Collection as her first job is a
lucky break, but upon her arrival, Kay discovers that a big shadow looms over the museum. Zaydee Proutman is the 50-year-old widow of the late founder and "she pretty nearly owns the whole Museum," controlling all funds throughout her lifetime, but she's not a particularly pleasant person and loves wielding power in a small place that had scorned her – lording over everyone. Kay realizes "she has us all, hasn't she." Alpheus Harvey, the museum director. Alice Barton, the museum librarian, who added some more Americana to the story welcoming Kay to the Amanda Adams Barton Chapter of D.A.R. Jensen is the big, blunt-faced engineer and is the only one who's neither impressed or intimidated by Zaydee. And likes to annoy her. Esquire Williams is the black caretaker of the museum and Zaydee has "a special reason" for wanting to dismiss him, but Williams is well-liked in the town and church. Finally, there's Kay supervisor, previously mentioned Dr. Gordon, who Zaydee hired at "at a Hollywood salary" to the study the collection. She also sees in him a second husband.

Kay has landed an important job under less than ideal and progressively worsening circumstances. First she gets humiliated by Zaydee ("I suppose your education was narrow") and then Harvey slashes her small salary, because it was considered "somewhat out of proportion" to her needs in Hinchdale. I imagine such a gag would result in a seven-figure lawsuit in today's America. All the while, the laboratory with its boxes of bones and skulls become the scene of blossoming romance between Kay and Dr. Gordon, which is why Zaydee is prepared to give her a check for five month's wages to leave town.

John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, referred in his 2013 review to these bare bones of the plot and story as soap operaish elements, which improve considerably as murder comes into play and the anthropological setting can be used to full effect.

One of Zaydee's discarded lovers, Randy Bill, gets himself killed in fiery car wreck near Lovers' Point and Zaydee has gone missing, but there's every reason to believe Randy murdered her and threw the body over the cliff into the Great Lake – which "never gives up its dead." So a close-and-shut case, as far as the authorities are concerned, but being the heroine in a crime-and suspense novel, Kay can't let sleeping dogs lie and begins make a few unnerving discoveries. What she discoveries throws a whole new light on the museum, the people who work there and her situation.

Not much else can be said about the story, plot-wise, because it takes half the book to get to this point, but second half showcased just how much of a deft hand Wallis was with characterization, storytelling and setting the scene. Such as the local D.A.R. chapter doing a spot of disaster tourism at Lovers' Point or Kay unearthing a terrible secret in the museum when everyone else was away, which is further strengthened by the excellent and sharp characterization. Most notably, the two black characters, Esquire and Isabelle, who have their own backstory and sub-plot and are treated no differently than any of the other characters. They're just part of the story and everything that happened at the museum. So readers of modern crime fiction don't have any excuse to not refine their palette with this piece of vintage crime fiction.

In the second half, the subtle, carefully build tension became palpable and became aware everything stands or falls depending on how the resolution, not solution, is handled. Wallis pulls out a surprising, not particularly well-clued murderer, but she did prepare and foreshadow its resolution, which allowed the story to end on a somewhat open and ambitious note – perfectly punctuation a confident and well written debut. Too Many Bones is not exactly a puzzle adept's dream novel, but it's a quietly gripping, character-driven suspense novel with a perfectly utilized backdrop that elevated everything from the characters and the plot to the storytelling. An example of what this type of crime fiction should strife to be. So, yes, expect a review of Blood from a Stone before too long.

Note for the curious: I read the Stark House Press edition, but liked the Dell mapback front-and back covers more. So I used them instead.


City of Libraries: "The Climbing Man" (2015) by Simon Clark

Simon Clark's novella "The Climbing Man" is a pastiche of Conan Doyle's immortal detective specifically written for an all-original anthology of new Sherlock Holmes stories, entitled The Mammoth Book of Sherlock Holmes Abroad (2015), which Brian Skupin listed in Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019) – describing a honey of an impossibility. This time, it was not the promise of an original-sounding locked room murder that attracted my attention, but the archaeology-theme and backdrop. I love archaeological mysteries and there are not enough of them. The impossible crime here is merely a bonus. 

"The Climbing Man" takes Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson to the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia, tasked with stamping out "a vipers' nest" of plunderers determined "to loot Mesopotamia of its ancient riches." A criminal gang who employed Arab riflemen, clad in gray, who passed themselves of as legitimate protection for travelers and archaeologists.

When the story opens, Holmes and Watson have made off with a dhow (sail boat) crammed with stolen artifacts, but the gray-shirts on the riverbank pepper the boat with bullets and they're pretty much sitting ducks – even succeeding in wounding the Great Detective. Only the hand of providence guided the boat away from the gray-shirts, down the Euphrates, "towards one of the most baffling mysteries" they encountered. Holmes and Watson end up at an dig site of two archaeologists, Edward Priestly and Professor Hendrik, where two generations have been working on excavating the subterranean tunnels, basement and vaults of the buried city of Tirrash. A once legendary city referred to as Bibliopolis or the City of Libraries.

Three thousand years ago, the city was attacked and destroyed, but, before the barbarians destroyed and plundered the city, the people emptied the libraries of the clay tablets. These clay tablets were "carefully stored in the basements beneath the houses and sealed shut," which remained intact and undisturbed under the desert sands for most of recorded history. But a perplexing, modern-day mystery is discovered in one of its sealed chambers.

A few years ago, Edward Priestly's brother, Benjamin, vanished without a trace from the excavation site and a week ago, they discovered his naturally mummified body in a place that begs for a rational explanation.

During an exploration of an underground passageway, they discovered one of the many hidden vaults, doorway sealed with stone blocks, which "has not been disturbed in three thousand years" and began their meticulous, scientific examination – cutting a small aperture in the wall to look inside. What looked back at them was Benjamin's dry, shriveled face! A second aperture gave them a better view of the body, but it deepened the mystery only further with a second impossibility. The mummified body clung to the wall, facing the stonework, arms outstretched above his head as if he's climbing or "trying to escape from his grave." So the problem is twofold: how did the body end up in a 3000-year-old sealed and undisturbed chamber with four feet of dust covering the floor and how "the devil was he glued so high up on the wall" like "a gigantic spider?" And to give the problem some urgency, the guards hired by the two archaeologists turn out to be gray-shirts. The game's afoot!

The problem of the body in the underground sealed chamber has, as to be expected from its premise, a two-pronged solution. Firstly, the explanation as to how the chamber was entered is not something that will excite many locked room readers, but how the body ended up stuck to the wall was kind of marvelous. A trick that perfectly fitted, time-wise, with the type of impossible, or weird, detective fiction that being written during the Doylean era of the genre. It's the kind of trick/solution you would expect to find in L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace's A Master of Mysteries (1898). Unfortunately, "The Climbing Man" also shares the clunky, uneven clueing of the detective stories from that period. Such as when Holmes was collecting evidence and slipping it into an envelope, but Watson only caught a glimpse of "a glittering item." You have to wait until the solution to find out what, exactly, he found. So you only have some room to do some educated guesswork.

Nevertheless, neither the uneven clueing nor the anti-climatic confrontation with the gray-shirts could spoil this thoroughly entertaining and absorbing story that made excellent use of its archaeological setting. I also appreciate it when a pastiche treats someone's else creation with respect and not unduly temper with the original, which can be simply achieved with Sherlock Holmes by giving him a complicated, knotty problem to occupy "that remarkable brain of his." And that's exactly what Clark did here. 

A note for the curious: "The Climbing Man" was not Clark's first foray into the realm of impossible crimes and locked room mysteries. Mike Ashley's The Mammoth Book of New Sherlock Holmes Adventures (1997) contains Clark's "The Adventure of the Falling Star," which is not listed in Skupin, in which Holmes is asked to investigate the disappearance of a meteorite from a collection in a locked laboratory. So, yeah, that story has now been added to my special locked room wishlist. Something else that's now on my wishlist is an anthology of Sherlock Holmes locked room/impossible crime pastiches (Sherlocked!).


Death in the Grand Manor (1970) by Anne Morice

I've mentioned in the past how the sheer size and scope of detective fiction, published between 1920 and 1960, never ceases to astonish me as every time I think I've got a pretty good idea what's out there a never-heard of writer, novel or series gets unearthed – which has been the only constant in my genre excavations. This has been increasingly spilling over into other periods, regions and sub-genres of the detective story proper. 

Over the past few years, I discovered a lost generation of traditional, 1960s mystery writers in Kip Chase, Charles Forsyte and Jack Vance. I tumbled down the fathomless rabbit hole of the old-school, juvenile detective story and there's a growing tide of translations of originally non-English mysteries.

Recently, Dean Street Press reprinted the first ten mystery novels by Felicity Shaw, published as by "Anne Morice," who was completely unknown to me, but she made a splash upon her debut in 1970. Morice's maiden novel garnered praise from such luminaries as Anthony Berkeley ("a modern version of the classical type of detective story") and Edmund Crispin ("a charming whodunit"), which was encouraging and profitable enough to continue writing mysteries until her death in 1989. During those two decades, Morice wrote twenty-five mystery novels with most of them starring her actress and amateur detective, Tessa Crichton, but the series faded into obscurity upon her death – remained out-of-print for the better part of three decades. So it was a welcome surprise when DSP announced they were planning to reprint this forgotten series and their new editions come with an informative introduction by genre-historian and professional fanboy, Curt Evans. Let's take a look at her first mystery novel. 

Death in the Grand Manor (1970) introduces Tessa "Tess" Crichton as she's traveling down to an unspoiled, out-of-the-way hamlet, Roakes Common, where her eccentric playwright cousin lives with his teenage daughter, Emma, and second wife, Matilda. Toby Crichton had invited Tessa to spend a few weeks at his house, but a two-week long invitation "boded something more than normal cousinly give and take." She doesn't have to wait very long to find out what's behind the generous invitation.

There's a snake in every Eden and in Roakes Common "the snake took the form of a whole family," the Cornford, who lived in the large Manor House. Douglas Cornford had recently bought it as a home for himself, his wife Bronwen and their two boys, but their "surly manners and urban attitudes" began to grate on everyone. General opinion is that Douglas Cornford is quite harmless when left to his own devices, but they hold the foul, anti-social Bronwen responsible for all the trouble – usually perpetrated by her "wretched boys." Interestingly, the Conford boys appear only two, or three, times, but when they do it's as "humpty-dumpty figures" peeking over a wall to make "obscene and cheeky gestures" or bolting from a garden with a frightened kitty in it. Like they were two pestering demons tormenting the villagers.

I thought the Cornford boys were an effective and lively background detail, but Morice had to fade them out of this sparkling, lighthearted mystery because they likely had a hand in killing Emma's dog with a barbed-wire trap.

So an anti-Cornford League had began to form and one of Toby's neighbors want him to join, but he, always willing to be contrarian, always defended them "like a brave little Lord Fauntleroy whenever they were attacked." He finally accepted a dinner invitation to hear them out under the condition that he could bring his cousin along. Tess is there on a peace keeping mission of sorts.

While in Roakes Common, Tess gets to experience firsthand Bronwen's personal brand of rudeness and the family's little ways of pestering their neighbors with pungent bonfires or planning to ruin their garden view with the building of some hideous monstrosity. She's also one of the half-a-dozen witnesses of Douglas viciously assaulting his wife and "would have murdered her if he hadn't been prevented in the nick of time." All of this nicely sets the stage for a classically-styled village mystery with a few modern touches, but, as the story progresses, a problem began to emerge. Death in the Grand Manor is undeniably a bright, lively and polished story or, as Crispin described it,"a remedy for existentialist gloom," but Morice used it primarily to introduce her characters to the reader – relegating the plot to a secondary role. Such as Tess meeting the love of her life, Detective Inspector Robin Price, who she marries in the second novel.

So, in detective story terms, the book is mostly padding to couch and stretch out a relatively simplistic plot. Yes, it was quality padding, but padding nonetheless. The plot doesn't really begin to stir until roughly the halfway mark.

When a body finally turns up, face down in a ditch, Tess doesn't begin to act as detective until the last quarter of the story and then only halfheartedly. She tabulates the motives, opportunity and the psychological probability of the suspects, but decided to redo the list with different value when the first result revealed her cousin had "the best opportunity and the flimsiest alibi." She didn't really shine as a detective here and the fact that the story acknowledged it didn't miraculous improve a rather simple and routine plot. Now, I did think the murderer's identity, alibi-trick and motive were a nicely done nod to a very well-known mystery writer, but nothing too complicated and wouldn't recommend it as a continuation of the pure, Golden Age detective story. Just a spirited imitation of one.

However, Death in the Grand Manor was Morice's first novel and she obviously wanted to establish her cast of characters, which came at the expense of the plot, but, hopefully, Murder in Married Life (1971) will have a meatier plot. That one is already on the big pile and the premise sounds promising. So stay tuned!


Inspector De Klerck and the Corpse in Transit (2021) by P. Dieudonné

Last year, I reviewed P. Dieudonné's third novel, Rechercheur De Klerck en de ongrijpbare dood (Inspector De Klerck and the Elusive Death, 2020), which spectacularly broke away from the Amsterdam School of Dutch politieromans (police novels) to present a classically-styled detective novel coated with a modern varnish – centering on no less than three fantastically done, dare devil impossible crimes. Not something you would expect from A.C. Baantjer or his followers. 

So I wondered what, exactly, Dieudonné had in store with his fourth novel, Rechercheur De Klerck en het lijk in transito (Inspector De Klerck and the Corpse in Transit, 2021). An unbreakable alibi? A dying message? Another impossible crime or locked room mystery? The story turned out to be a straightforward, Baantjer-style police novel, like Rechercheur De Klerck en het doodvonnis (Inspector De Klerck and the Death Sentence, 2019), but with more plot-threads, solid piece of misdirection and a genuine whodunit pull.

Alexander van Oldenborgh is the fourth-generation director of Van Oldenborgh International Movers, specialized in removals on a global scale, who came to Inspectors Lucien de Klerck and Ruben Klaver, of the Rotterdam police, to file a report – as he has been receiving telephone calls and letters with "a threatening, insinuating undertone." The threats come from an ex-employee, Jos van Trijffel, who raped a female co-worker thirty years ago and "simply disappeared from the face of the earth." Shortly after Van Oldenborch's departure, De Klerck and Klaver are dispatched to a brothel where a man has been shot and killed before he could get back in his car.

The victim happens to be a long-time employee of Van Oldenborch's company, Wilbert de Zeeuw, who caught Van Trijffel in the act thirty years ago before he escaped and disappeared. But is there a connection or merely a coincidence? De Zeeuw was talking with a man at the club, named Eddy, who was overheard saying to the victim "don't think I'm going to save your ass." He also had more money than can be accounted by his salary. So was De Zeeuw a casualty of "a heated conflict among criminals" or the victim of a revenge killing? De Klerck and Klaver have more on their plate than just this one murder. 

Inspector De Klerck and the Corpse in Transit opened with Klaver telling De Klerck that the half-decomposed, unidentified remains of a man was discovered that morning on the Maasvlakte inside a shipping container from New Jersey. He was shot to death with the crime scene likely being on the other side of the world, which is a nightmare for both the American and Dutch police. So they're glad the case is a problem for the harbor police, but, as you probably guessed, there's a link with their investigation. However, the solution to this plot-thread is not as obvious as it appeared to be on first sight. On a somewhat lighter note is the friendly competition playing out in the background between the police of Rotterdam and Utrecht to catch a slippery lingerie thief.

Somehow, one way or another, everything is linked with the elusive, ever-present Van Trijffel in the background who might actually be responsible for thinning out the ranks of suspects as all of the murders carry the same M.O. – two gunshots to the chest. Dieudonné played a marvelous, but risky, hand in tying everything together while trying to distract the reader away from the murderer. I had my suspicions about the murderer, but this character was such a strange, oddly-behaving piece of the puzzle that I didn't know where, or how, it exactly fitted into the plot. So when that was explained, I felt a little cheated at first, but it really wasn't a cheat at all. Just a clever bit of misdirection that walked a fine, slippery tightrope with the stone cold motive being hardest part to swallow. Something that initially didn't ring entirely true, but, on second thought, it made sense and was (kind of) hinted at. Let's just say Dieudonné and De Klerck got the better of me here. 

Inspector De Klerck and the Corpse in Transit can be summed as an old school whodunit, masquerading as a contemporary police novel, which gratefully exploited the modern world to create a knottier, more intricate plot than usually found in these type of police novels of the Amsterdam School. More importantly, Dieudonné figured out how to write a Baantjer-style novel without becoming a pale, watered-down imitation. So many have tried over the decades. For example, they gave the 2000s TV adaptation of Janwillem van de Wetering's Grijpstra & De Gier a diluted, Baantjer-like formula. Even the man himself, Appie Baantjer, tried to catch lightening in a bottle twice when he co-created the Bureau Raampoort series with Simon de Waal in 2009, but they never got it down quite right. Most of them were more concerned with the recreating the superficial features that sold close to ten million copies and kept millions of viewers glued to the TV for more than a decade.

So most of his imitators and following have little more to offer than a nostalgic placebo, but Dieudonné created with Lucien de Klerck and Ruben Klaver that can breath on its own without being weighed down by the comparison, because he did two things radically different. Dieudonné smartly moved away from Amsterdam as a setting, which has been done to death, but also the attention given to the plots makes the series standout. Very few Dutch writers who tried their hands at one of these police novels gives this much care and attention to the plot, clueing and misdirection or continually showed improvement.

Needless to say, this series comes highly recommended to all my Dutch readers and look forward to the next installment.


Lost in Space-Time: "Scenes from the Country of the Blind" (1977) by John Sladek

Back in 2017, I reviewed John Sladek's often overlooked short detective stories, collected in Maps: The Uncollected John Sladek (2002), but there are a few stray stories that, somehow, ended up in his science-and weird fiction themed collections – such as the short-short parody "The Locked Room" (collected in Keep the Giraffe Burning, 1978). Someone at the the time pointed out he wrote another, virtually unknown, impossible crime story about a town vanishing into thin air. 

"Scenes from the Country of the Blind" was originally published in the anthology A Book of Contemporary Nightmares (1977), reprinted in the August, 1983, issue of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine and collected in Sladek's Alien Accounts (1982). So you know where to find it.

The story concerns three scientists, Latham, Corcoran and Smith, who run the Paranormal Experience Research Group and hope to "pry open a few eyelids" with their experiments. What they try to do is "test for ESP in animals" with a maze experiment involving two groups of rats, which have yielded promising results, but they have to deal with "a creature who swam in a private sea of skepticism," Dr. Harry Beddoes – who's always willing to test their theories to destruction. Dr. Beddoes wields Occam's Razor with "relentless skepticism," which began to annoy Latham. But he has something that might blunt his razor.

In their personal Library of Paranormal Experiences, they have thousands of letters on file from ordinary, reasonable intelligent people who "had some puzzling, even inexplicable experience." One letter told a story both "uncanny and evidential."

Mr. Durkell wrote the scientists to tell how he glimpsed a village, through a small copse, on his daily commute, where he knew there shouldn't be a village. There it was, complete with half-timbered houses and smoking chimneys, only to wink out of existence a few seconds later. Leaving behind nothing but empty fields! The village reappeared a week later, on the same day, which was seen by two witnesses and a road map showed the place, Mons, actually exists. But not for very long! The whole village disappeared a second time and another look at the road map showed nothing remotely close to a place named Mons!

This puzzling phenomena of a village that doesn't exist, except on Tuesdays, coincided with the disappearance of a farmer's wife in the same vicinity. So what's going on?

Dr. Beddoes naturally doesn't believe in a "rupture in the space-time fabric" or "some other universe running parallel to ours" and delivers to Latham a completely logical and rational explanation for the vanishing village and disappearing name on the road map – pointing out all the clues in Mr. Durkell's letter. I've seen variations on that map-trick before, but Sladek came up with something entirely new to make a whole village vanish like a popped soap bubble. Every locked room reader knows how restrictive this kind of impossibility really is, because a moving train, a room or even a house doesn't allow for much wiggle room or trickery. So it was impressive to see him do it with a populated village. My only gripe is that it probably wouldn't work a second time with the same witness. I can believe an unsuspecting person can be fooled by it, but, someone on the lookout, is likely to notice something.

Other than that little niggle, "Scenes from the Country of the Blind" is another weirdly overlooked, practically unknown, but excellent, short detective story by that unsung master of the post-war locked room mystery – effortlessly combining an original impossible crime with a multi-layered, story-within-a-story plot. Just like in "The Locked Room," Sladek told multiple, overlapping stories on a little more than a dozen pages. So more than deserving of your attention and to be considered for a future locked room-themed anthology.


The Chinese Doll (1946) by Wilson Tucker

Wilson Tucker was an American movie projectionist, theater technician and science-fiction writer who made his start in the science-fiction fandom as a fanzine publisher, notably The Planetoid and Le Zombie, which he did intermittently from 1932 to 2001 – coining the term "space opera" and invented "tuckerization." Tucker is considered to be one of the earliest and most influential figure in the fandom, but he put his name to something far more important. He wrote detective novels! 

Tucker's series-character is a small town private investigator, Charles Horne, who helmed a handful of novels beginning with the subject of today's review, The Chinese Doll (1946).

The series is written in the hardboiled tradition with treacherous dames, dangerous gangsters and crooked politicians or bend coppers, but The Chinese Doll has a plot praised by Anthony Boucher in The San Francisco Chronicle. Boucher applauded the sound writing, exciting plot and "the surprise ending" with "a trick which Agatha Christie might well envy." So that earned it a top spot on my wishlist and recently stumbled across a cheap, battered copy of the Dell mapback edition. Why not? And the story definitely lived up to its promise. But you won't realize it until the penultimate chapter! The hallmark of a good detective story, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Charles "Chuck" Horne is the only private investigator in the small town of Boone, Illinois, who was abandoned by the woman he loved, Louise, three years ago. Louise is a political reporter and her work brought her to the capitol, but promised to return in five years under one, nonnegotiable condition – he had to write her everyday. So every chapter is a letter to "my dearest Louise" in which Horne recounts what happened to him that day. And from these letters emerges a bizarre, complicated case that appears to be all over the place. But looks can be deceiving. 

The Chinese Doll opens in Horne's office where's killing time, trying to keep warm and working on his book, Lost Atlantis, when "the goddamnedest thing" happened. A powerful, barrel-chested, but apprehensive, man entered the office and tossed "a lovely heap" of green bills on his desk. Harry W. Evans tells Horne that tomorrow, or the next day, he'll be in jail, but has no idea why. It could be for carrying a gun, spitting on the sidewalk or ignoring a stoplight. Evans simply doesn't know, but he wants Horne to be there to bail him out or contact his lawyer. So what he expects is to be framed, but nothing like goes on in Boone and the local publications "certainly wouldn't stand for monkey business in the police department." But a job's a job. Except that this one doesn't pan out quite as he expected.

Horne watches from his office window his departing, but Evans had taken five or six steps from the curb when a sedan smacked him down and "killing him deader than hell."

So starts a typical, hardboiled roller coaster ride taking Horne from Boone to Chicago, but the plot needed, or two, coincidences to keep everything moving with one of them being a little hard to swallow – which happened when Horne met a beautiful Chinese woman in a sedan. She mistakenly picks him up and drops him off at a remote barn. A place where things happen that aren't, strictly speaking, legal and turns out to be closely-linked with his dead client. Otherwise, the story moved along nicely as it began piling on the incidents and complications. Such as a body pulled from a frozen lake with a burned matchstick stuck in its throat, a Chinese symbol connecting various characters and incidents, Horne's expired detective license which somehow cannot be renewed and Evans membership to an amateur press association. Boucher remarked in his review that the press association plot-thread was fascinating, but "badly integrated" into the story. Tucker definitely indulged himself a little, but it didn't detract from the overall story and gave it a memorable scene.

Horne travels to Chicago to meet with an amateur publisher, Joquel Kennedy, who he coincidentally meet before their scheduled appointment in front of a store window. In the window, "stomping mechanically," is "zombilike something in striped trousers and frock coat" billed as "Roboto – The Electric Man! Is He Human or is He Monster?" There was a thick electric cable snaking from an outlet to an opening in the trousers, but Horne and Kennedy are the only ones who are skeptical. After all, they argue, "a real robot wouldn't be wasted in a drugstore window selling hair oil." Horn even subtly, and very politely, hackles the robot. I liked it.

There's not much else what happens between the opening and closing chapters, but turned out to be practically identical as my recent experience with Roger East's Twenty-Five Sanitary Inspectors (1935). 

Twenty-Five Sanitory Inspectors, too, began as a well written, amusing enough mystery, but halfway through, you begin to wonder if its going anywhere and whether there's enough to make the ending payoff. Surprisingly, it managed to do just that! The Chinese Doll played the same game. It gives the reader the impression that they're reading a loosely plotted, coincidence laden dime novel that belongs on a drugstore pulp rack only to pull the rug from underneath the reader's feet in the end – revealing some of sliest clueing and misdirection I've come across in a long time. Now, not everyone's going to buy that audacious ending, but it was fairly done and a marvelously tricky tightrope walking act across a slippery wire. Tucker reached traversed it without losing his balance and breaking his neck. Most satisfying of all is how it was all done in the open!

So, all in all, The Chinese Doll might look like a run-of-the-mill, pulp-style dime novel, but with a great surprise waiting for the reader at the end of the ride and marred only by the many coincidences needed to link every thing together. Beside that one caveat, The Chinese Doll deserves to be better known just on the strength and originality of its solution and clueing. Even if it may raise an eyebrow or two.


Homicide with Homework: Leonard Thompson's "Squeeze Play" (1946) and "Close Shave" (1946)

Leonard Thompson was a 16-year-old teenager when he wrote "Squeeze Play," a homage to John Dickson Carr, which he submitted to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine without disclosing his age, but the editor deduced his age from the corrections in "a decidedly youthful handwriting" – ensuing correspondence confirmed their suspicion. And came with an offer to buy the story. 

Thompson's "Squeeze Play" was eventually published in the January, 1946, issue of EQMM and introduced as "an absolutely remarkable piece of work" by a 16-year-old with a wholly original locked room-trick "completely worthy of comparison with John Dickson Carr's." But even without the introduction, it's not difficult to see on whose work the story was patterned. Thompson's short-lived series-character is William S. Gray, a drunk, rude and washed-up lawyer, who was obviously modeled on Carr's one-shot detective from The Bowstring Murders (1933), John Gaunt. The central premise and locked room situation were taken from The Judas Window (1938), but Thompson discovered a new angle to that eerie, phantom-like Judas window that only murderers can see through.

William S. Gray unexpectedly gets an opportunity to get back in the game and the prospect of a large fee when Louise Marlowe asks him to defend her husband, Nigel Marlowe, who's a mystery novelist accused of murdering a psychiatrist, Dr. Lane – who treated Louise for a neurotic condition. A jealous Marlowe suspected an affair and made an appointment to confront him, but it ended with Marlowe standing over Lane's corpse with a revolver in his hand. There are enough witnesses and evidence to prove Marlowe was alone with Dr. Lane in his office and the open window was blocked by a door standing ajar. So, if someone did shoot from the window into the office, "the bullet would have to pass through the door," but "there were no holes in the door."

A tight, complicated problem and, to make things even more difficult, Gray only has a week to prepare the case. And tells his client to write a big check to pay fines, because he's "liable to be fined for contempt of court more than once." Courtroom shenanigans and wizardry inbound!

Gray puts on a good show and Judge Thompson (very cheeky, Leo) fines him several hundred dollars for his foolishness and even has to report to his chamber, but Judge Thompson returns to gravely inform everyone that the defense counsel is, mentally and physically, "a sick man" – asking the witness to apology for calling him foolish and refrain from inciting him further. However, it's not all immature tomfoolery as Gray demonstrates how someone else could have fired the fatal show while doing decent job at obscuring the murderer's identity.

You can eventually piece most of it together, but the only thing detracting from this truly inspired piece of impossible crime fiction is that it sorely needed a floorplan. In every other regard, Thompson perfectly captured the essence of a John Dickson Carr-style locked room mystery penned with all the youthful, unpolished enthusiasm of Carr's own 1920s short stories and early 1930s novels, which he wrote when he wasn't that much older than Thompson. A very impressive diamond-in-the-rough that comes highly recommended to fanatical locked room readers and rabid Carr fans.

Thompson wrote one more short story, "Close Shave," which appeared in the May, 1946, issue of EQMM and follows the same formula as the previous story. Gray is asked by Julie Sparrow to defend her father, Edward Sparrow, "the most successful criminal lawyer in the country" who has to stand trial for the murder of an artist, Anthony Wills. A difficult case as nobody else appears to have been able to commit the crime.

Edward Sparrow wanted a portrait of himself done and turned to his friend, Wills, who decided to do the painting at his country cottage and they were accompanied by a fun, lively family party – laughing and joking as they drove to the countryside. Wills had grown a shaggy, three-day growth of beard and a target for most of the jokes. So he promised to "shave the damn thing off" as soon as they arrived at the cottage, but, when they were in the washroom together, Wills was shot while saving. Nobody else was in the room beside them. The door was shut with Sparrow standing in front of it and the window "locked, rusted into place." Gray faces a Herculean task of proving the impossible did happen and defending his client on a plea of innocence, which seems like madness.

Luckily, Gray is slightly cracked and, since attack is the best defense, charges into battle with all the grace and tact of a snorting warhorse. He tells the District Attorney that he's fat and lazy, called one of the witnesses a "loose-lipped bum" in court and the bit with his surprise witness would not have been out of place in one of Carter Dickson's Sir Henry Merrivale novels. However, the whole plot and, in particular, the locked room-trick were better than anticipated.

I suspected from the jovial, lighthearted mood of the party that the locked room-trick was a variation on that old dodge of two people staging a practical joke, like a fake murder, but the accomplice turns on the "victim" and makes it real murder – right after everyone thinks the murder had already taken place. A classic locked room technique favored by writers of the Carr-Chesterton school of impossible fiction, but Thompson came up with an entirely different kind of explanation. A trick that's a little less typical of Carr, but convincingly presented and one of Carr's contemporaries would have been proud of it. There's also an interesting sidetrack on ballistics and modified bullets.

Thompson showed much potential in his freshman detective stories and the ending of "Close Shaved" included excerpts "from your Editor's letters to Master Thompson" with constructive criticism and tips. The editor at the time was, of course, Frederic Dannay, who prophesied that the reader was "witnessing the development of a young writer" who "should, some day, be one day one of our most shining lights." A third story never materialized and, to my knowledge, never returned to the detective story as a writer. I've been unable to find out what happened to him or why he stopped writing, but, going by his age in 1946, the obituaries I came across could mean he had long and hopefully good, fulfilling and healthy life. And that's one of the very few things more important detective stories.