Deadly Thunder (1998) by Seimaru Amagi

Earlier this year, I tracked down and reviewed an obscure, hard-to-get Japanese light novel in The New Kindaichi Files series, Operazakan – aratanaru satsujin (Opera House, the New Murders, 1994), written by the Soji Shimada of the anime-and manga detective genre, Seimaru Amagi – who crafted a beautiful, perfectly executed theatrical (locked room) mystery. One of the better entries in the Kindaichi franchise demonstrating Amagi is a mystery writer who's firmly entrenched in the traditions of the shin honkaku school. 

A fact he already proved with another light novel, Dennō sansō satsujin jiken (Murder On-Line, 1996), which is perhaps the first whodunit to use the internet in a meaningful way. Not to mention his original manga stories/anime adaptation of The Prison Prep School Murder Case, The Rosenkrauz Mansion Murders and The Legendary Vampire Murders. So I was eager to get my hands on the other two translations in the series, but those editions were intended for Japanese readers learning to read and speak English. Consequently, the well of secondhand copies in the West is practically empty and bone-dry.

Nevertheless, I managed to get hold of a copy of the sixth title in the series, Ikazuchi matsuri satsujin jiken (Deadly Thunder, 1998), which is the fourth and last novel to be translated and is a relatively minor story compared to the bigger, previously mentioned cases – centering on "a spontaneous crime" with an improvised trick. A trick turning an otherwise simple, straightforward murder into an impossible crime! It's not the no-footprints trick that makes Deadly Thunder somewhat standout, but how the plot combined everything from elements of cultural anthropology and entomology to geology and meteorology. All of these different aspects come together in the remote, unique setting of the story with the result reminding me of the regional mysteries by Todd Downing and Arthur W. Upfield. Two names not often associated with the Japanese shin honkaku detective story. 

Deadly Thunder has a standard enough opening with Hajime Kindaichi and Miyuki Nanase traveling to a tiny, remote village to visit a former classmate, Akie Asaki.

The land around Kumoba Village is "shaped like a valley or a basin," which makes it very hot during the summer with clouds forming above the surrounding mountains to produce heavy thunder and rain storms. In the past, the locals thought these thunderstorms were an act of the gods and appeased them with the three-day Thunder Festival. A long-standing, unbroken traditional of 300 years that has preserved to the present-day, but the rain and thunderstorms also gifted the village something special and unique. A kind of clay that's only found in Kumoba Village, which is washed down from the mountains.

Akie comes from a long line of potters whose "curious, translucent white" pots were presented to the Shogun during the Edo period and the ground their family home stands on has the best pottery clay, which is why it's surrounded by a large, foreboding wall with spikes on top – erected by previous generations "to protect the clay from robbers." She has to share the home with her stepmother and stepsister, Hazuki and Shigure Asaki, who Akie and her aunt, Haruko, consider intruders ("those two"). They also have a quasi-residential house guest staying at the annex, Kyoichi Muto, who's an entomologist. Apparently, the village is also rather unique in its "variety and number of cicadas."

So the setting is very well piece of miniature world-building as Amagi created a small, unique geographical area and populated it with a unique, somewhat isolated culture. A culture with its own history, religious practices and even architecture. Such as all the houses being low built, single-storied "to avoid being struck by lightening" with a tall tree in every garden to "serve as a lightening conductor." Another interesting aspect is how rich Deadly Thunder is in sound. Deadly Thunder is filled with the sound of falling rain, claps of thunder, chanting, beating of drums and "the incessant drone of cicadas," which all helped elevate a mostly routine detective story.

This kind of world-building is unfortunately a rarity in the detective genre, but Amagi has done it before, on a much larger scale, for Detective Academy Q with The Kamikakushi Village Murder Case. I co-reviewed the anime adaptation with Jim here.

Anyway, as the story moves towards the halfway mark, everyone begins to prepare for the first day of the annual Thunder Festival, but the celebration, or rather spectacle, ends with Hazuki discovering Muto's body in annex – bludgeoned to death. The body was covered in "hundreds, no thousands, of cicada shells," but even more inexplicable where the two sets of footprints going from the back of the house to the annex. A set of fresh, recently made prints belong to Hazuki, while the older, rain washed tracks were made by the well-worn, easy to identify sandals of the victim. So with the question of time and rain taking into consideration, the tracks turned the murder into a locked room mystery! 

Deadly Thunder has only one body and three suspects, which has been done before in the series (e.g. The Blood Pool Hall Murder), but not very often and the plot really needed a good locked room-trick to give the plot some weight. Thankfully, the locked room-trick delivered as it did something new with the no-footprints scenario, but with all the clues in place necessary to arrive at (nearly) the same conclusion as Kindaichi. Why the body was covered in cicada shells was an inspired piece of plotting functioning as both a clue and a red herring.

The reader has an easier time putting all the pieces together than Kindaichi as he has to deal with a local policeman, Detective Akai, who's more annoyed than impressed by the grandson of "the master detective Kosuke Kindaichi." Even if he "solved several murder cases and mysteries that the police couldn't solve." Detective Akai only sees an ordinary high school student who speaks to adults like they were taking classes together. Kindaichi has to learn and show a little humility before getting an opportunity to prove himself to Detective Akai. One of those many small touches that made the story shine.

There is, however, a minor problem with the solution. Amagi added a last-minute twist that gave the story an ending as black as the ink with which it was printed, but not a fair surprise as it's impossible to anticipate the motivation behind the act. A smudge on an otherwise very well written, competently plotted detective story.

That being said, the good definitely outweighed the bad with a simple, but good, locked room-trick and a splendid, vividly realized setting, which told its story in less than a 130 pages with full-length illustrations. The short length proved to be an asset as it enlarged all its strong points and prevented the story from overstaying its welcome by dwelling on its weaknesses. So, yeah, a perfect detective story to nip at during a lazy summer afternoon.


Who Murdered Mrs. Kroll? (1939) by Mika Waltari

Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) has a little-known, often overlooked section tucked away in the end papers, "Foreign-Language Books," which lists a small selection of French, German and Swedish titles alongside a lonesome Finish novel – penned by mainstream novelist and translator, Mika Waltari. Kuka murhasi rouva Skrofin? (Who Murdered Mrs. Kroll?, 1939) introduced Waltari's series-detective, Brigadier Frans J. Palmu, who appeared in three detective novels that have never been translated into English. 

There is, however, an obscure, 1960s Dutch translation of Who Murdered Mrs. Kroll? and a copy of Wie vermoordde mevrouw Kroll? finally came my way. Today's post is going to be a poorly written, pan-European review of the Dutch translation of the Swedish edition of a Finnish detective novel in English. So please be patient, my Anglo-American friends. 

Who Murdered Mrs. Kroll? opens at a shabby, rundown apartment building owned by a strictly religious and wealthy, but stingy, widow, Mrs. Alma Kroll – who lived on the top floor. One morning, the tenants notices "an unpleasant smell of gas" on the staircase and the postman is greeted by a strong, gassy smell when he lifted the flap of Mrs. Kroll's mail-slot. Everything remained deadly quiet inside. So they call in the police to break open the door and discover the bodies of "the old miser" and her dog, which appears to have been an accidental gas-poisoning. A kind of accident that was only too common in those days.

Brigadier Frans J. Palmu is a rough edged, old-school policeman with a much younger, university educated assistant, Toivo Virta, who's completely up-to-date with the scientific literature on criminology and criminal psychology. Virta also doubles as the story's narrator and they beautifully play off each other.

While Virta is the more scientifically grounded of the two, he wishes his superior had "a little bit of imagination," but Palmu tells him if he had any imagination he would have it "surgically removed or resign." Palmu more than once has to reprimand him not to indulge in romanticism, but respects his intelligence with the tendency to take credit for his ideas. So you can compare their partnership to Christopher Bush's Ludovic Travers and Superintendent George Wharton.

Palmu concludes that the death of Mrs. Kroll was not an accidental gas-poisoning, but a calculated, carefully-staged murder. A very "special murder" that's "committed once every ten years." However, the murderer made a few costly mistakes. Firstly, the dog had its neck savagely broken and the murderer had tried to put the body in a natural position on its pillow. Secondly, two-hundred thousand Finnish marks in cash is missing and someone may have tampered with Mrs. Kroll's sleeping pills, but Palmu's inspection also revealed that the murder is an impossible crime in appearance only – which is why I didn't use the "locked room mystery" tag. I can see how it ended up in Adey's Locked Room Murders, but you'll be a little disappointed, if you expect to find one. What can I say? Goddamn Scandinavians!

So the plot becomes primarily concerned with the who-and why with a closed-circle of suspects and motives that were thrown in disarray by a last-minute testament. Mrs. Kroll was a member of the Congregation of Bethlehem, a Protestant sect, who were set to inherit a sizable chunk of her fortune to build a church. But she found out something unsavory about their leader, Pastor Mustapäa. So she immediately changed her testament, which now completely favored her stepdaughter and nephew. Mrs. Kroll hoped to unite them in marriage, but Kirsti Kroll and Karl Lankela had incompatible personalities who don't really like each other. There's also Mrs. Kroll's underpaid, downtrodden lawyer, Mr. Lanne, to consider and Lankela's close friend and surrealistic painter, Kurt Kuurna, to scrutinize.

Palmu and Vitra have to do lot of talking and scraping to get a clear story and gather all of the "tangible clues" they can find, which comprises of a matchstick, shoe prints, drops of blood and a defective lock on a courtyard gate. I know this sounds like Waltari was dragging-the-marshes with a pinch of humdrum detection, but Who Murdered Mrs. Kroll? is a pleasantly told, leisurely paced detective story, which somehow worked really well here. There was some nicely done scenes like an enthusiastic, 15-year-old boy showing Palmu how school boys entered the courtyard by manipulating the defective lock. A discovery that eliminated another obstacle for both the murderer and the detectives.

So you gentle drift towards the solution with perhaps the biggest surprise being tucked away at the end of the penultimate chapter, which ends with a full-blown, Ellery Queen-style "Challenge to the Reader" – announcing that "all the facts are now in the hands of the reader." Why not add a pinch of Americanism? This review is already an international affair. I wasn't able to answer every single question, but did, sort of, figured out the murderer's identity and motive. 

Who Murdered Mrs. Kroll strongly reminded me of C. Buddingh's Vrijwel op slag (Almost Instantly, 1953), a Dutch detective novel, which both attempted to create homegrown strain of the Anglo-American detective story. At the time, they locally were a big fish in a small pond, but, compared to those Anglo-American counterparts, they're nothing more than good, well-intended, second-tier detective novels. So nice to have and read, if they happen to come your way, but nothing to lose sleep over if they never do. 

A note for the curious: John Pugmire and Brian Skupin's mega locked room and impossible crime anthology, The Realm of the Impossible (2017), has a two-page extract from a Finnish novel, Aleksis Kivi's Seitsemän veljestä (Seven Brothers, 1870), discussing and solving a fascinating and original no-footprints mystery.


Murder and the Married Virgin (1944) by Brett Halliday

Last time, I reviewed a juvenile detective novel by Enid Blyton, The Mystery of the Disappearing Cat (1944), that confronted the Find-Outers with the apparently impossible theft of the titular, prize-winning Siamese cat and gave me the idea to pick the subject of today's review as my next read – as it's an interesting contrast to Blyton's children's detective fiction. A hardboiled, tough-guy 1944 locked room mystery obviously not intended to be read by 8-12 year old's. 

"Brett Halliday" was the pseudonym of an American writer, Davis Dresser, who was married to the well-known mystery novelist Helen McCloy and together they ran a literary agency called Halliday and McCloy. They also founded the Torquil Publishing Company, but Halliday is best-known as the creator and first writer of the Michael "Mike" Shayne series. A hardboiled counterpart to Ellery Queen complete with different series-periods (Miami and New Orleans), ghost writers and a short fiction magazine (Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine).

Mike Shayne is seen by knowledgeable, better informed readers as "one of the most popular private detectives ever," whose cases are "generally very well plotted and pleasantly complex," but the earlier books have been called "surprisingly traditional" in nature – something that doesn't really surprise me anymore. The tough-guy private eye school is supposed to be the antithesis to my beloved, plot-driven detective stories of ratiocination, which is not entirely untrue. But my experience is that a lot of them were excellent plotters and either tried their hands at the locked room mystery or even made it a specialty. Just look under the "Private Eyes" tag. 

Murder and the Married Virgin (1944) is the tenth novel in the Mike Shayne and Kate, of Cross Examining Crime, picked it as one of her recommendations to locked room enthusiasts based on the reviews in The Anthony Boucher Chronicles: Reviews and Commentary, 1942-47 (2001-09). Anthony Boucher praised the "clever locked-room murder method" and "typical Halliday hard-paced action." So let's see what this series is all about. 

Murder and the Married Virgin takes place shortly after Shayne moved from Miami to New Orleans and setup shop in two-room suite, on the fourth floor of the International Building, with a brand new secretary, Lucy Hamilton – who apparently played a role in a previous novel. From what I gathered, Lucy is the Nikki Porter of the series, but with more character consistency. Anyway, Shayne gets two different cases on his desk that conveniently took place under the roof of the same household.

Firstly, a Mr. Teton, of Mutual Indemnity, hires Shayne to recover an emerald necklace that had been insured for $125000, but, in the present gem-market, "the necklace would easily bring two hundred thousand." The necklace, belonging to a Mrs. Lomax, was presumed stolen during a burglary and was supposed to be in the bedroom safe, which the burglar didn't touch. That's why nobody missed the necklace until the day their maid committed suicide in her locked, third-floor bedroom. Katrin Moe was a Norwegian immigrant engaged to be married to a young army lieutenant, Ted Drinkley, who, dazed and broken down, turns to Shayne. He wants to know why she committed suicide the day before their marriage. Or was she perhaps murdered? And how?

Shayne remarks that "Philo Vance might be able to sort out the truth from the lies, but I'll be damned if I can." However, he does a decent job in tangling with the locked room problem with no less than two false-solutions. Shayne spots the possibility of an old-dodge and pieces together a technical, but not uninspired, false-solution which accounts for both the locked door and why Katrin appeared to welcome death with "outflung arms and a smile." The actual locked room-trick achieves the same effect, but is a bit cruder in execution and not as fairly clued. Regardless, these locked room bits and pieces were, too me, the highlight of the story.

But in every other regard, Murder and the Married Virgin is a seedy, hardboiled private-eye novel and Shayne has to through the whole shebang to tie the stolen necklace to an impossible murder. There's the dysfunctional Lomax family made up of "an old man married to a wife with young ideas" with a stone-cold, perpetual bored daughter, a wannabee playboy son and a chauffeur with movie-star looks – not to mention a dead maid. He also has to tangle with a troublesome dame, a shady club owner and armed torpedoes, which comes with the customary whack to the back of the head and "a murder frame" around his neck.

Shayne has to do a lot of talking, thinking and downright dirty work to get himself out of a very tight spot. Such paying for "witnesses" to place a certain someone at the scene of a murder, which disgusts Lucy to the point where she's ready to walk out on Shayne ("...I thought you were decent"). Funnily enough, I picked Murder and the Married Virgin as a simple contrast to a children's (locked room) mystery novel from the same year, but both stories have their detectives seriously tampering with evidence. One of them was done out of mischievous, child-like innocence, while the other was the result of adult cynicism in a dog-eat-dog world ("scruples are something the boys write about in detective novels"). So incredibly different, and yet, I can't help but see a family resemblance.

My sole complaint is that the ending felt a little like fiddling with a combination lock, trying different combinations with the known numbers, but other than that, it's a solid, fast-paced private eye novel and a notable example of the hardboiled locked room mystery. So the other three Halliday novels on my big pile will be moved up a few places.


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

So far, I've grossly neglected the juvenile detective story in 2021 with my review of Bruce Campbell's The Mystery of the Vanishing Mystery (1956) dating back to October, 2020, but a certain someone acted as a constant reminder to return to this largely unexplored nook of the genre – particularly to the surprisingly plot-conscious Enid Blyton. The Rat-a-Tat Mystery (1956) was my previous exposure to Blyton and it was disappointing, but it didn't erase the rigorous plotting, clueing and clever use of red herrings in The Mystery of the Invisible Thief (1950). The Rilloby Fair Mystery (1950) added a new angle to an age-old locked room-trick. Why not return to Blyton with another one of her locked room mysteries that has received some praise from her resident fanboy. 

The Mystery of the Disappearing Cat (1944) is the second novel in The Five Find-Outers and Dog series and takes place at the beginning of a long, nine-week summer holiday. A holiday reuniting Fatty, Larry, Daisy, Pip, Bets and Fatty's free spirited dog, Buster, who solved The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage (1943) over the Easter holiday. So they wish there will be another mystery for them to solve during the summer, but everything appears to be quiet and peaceful in the Peterswood.

Only thing of interest that has lately happened is Lady Candling moving into the house next door to Pit and Bets. While their new neighbor doesn't have any children their age, Lady Candling has brought along her prize-winning collection of Siamese cats, who have a cat-house in garden, where they strike up a friendship with the gardener's boy, Luke – a 15-year-old lad who can hardly read or write. Luke is "terribly clever with his hands," carving wooden animals and making twig-whistles, as well as knowing everything about the birds in the countryside. And that's more than enough for the Five Find-Outers! All they have to do is watch out for the head-gardener, "horrid Mr. Tupping," who's one of the vilest creatures to ever wander onto the pages of a children's story. More on that in a moment.

The Five Find-Outers finally get "a real, proper mystery" when the cream of Lady Candling's prize-winning cats, named Dark Queen, disappears from her cage in the cat-house, but the Monkey's Paw is at work as their wish comes at a prize. Dark Queen was stolen between four and five o'clock, which means that only Luke could have stolen the cat. At the time, Luke was working around the cat-house and swore nobody else had been anywhere near it.

Constable Goon is more than willing to go along with Mr. Tuppering to apprehend Luke as the cat-napper, as nobody else could have possibly done it, but The Five Find-Outers believe their new friend "would never, never do a thing like that." So they recklessly plunge themselves headfirst into another rabbit hole with Buster leading the charge.

A notable highlight of their detective efforts is when they investigates the cat-house, ahead of Goon, where they find an incriminating clue and conclude it must have been planted to cast suspicion on Luke. So they nick the evidence, empty their pockets and litter the cage with false-clues like peppermint drops, a shoe lace, a ribbon, a button and cigar stubs – which "surprised and puzzled" Goon to no end. An act so legally questionable that it would make Perry Mason beam with pride at the next generation of detectives. Another thing I thought was really well done is that the disappearance act is repeated a second time, like a script, under practically identical circumstances. Once again, the only person present at the time was Luke. Even the Find-Outers begin to wish "everything wasn't so dreadfully puzzling."

Blyton showed her credentials as a mystery writers by playing a fair hand, although not quite as brilliantly as in The Mystery of the Invisible Thief, but the given clues should give the story's intended audience a shot at putting all the pieces together themselves. However, it won't fool an adult reader for even a minute and a jaded mystery reader can figure out the locked room-trick before it happens. But there was still much to admire about the plot. 

Blyton used the locked room trope like an expert as it served two very specific purposes (ROT13): gb tvir gur png-anccre na hafunxnoyr nyvov and unaqvat gur cbyvpr n ernql-znqr fhfcrpg, which Blyton handily jenccrq hc naq cerfragrq nf n ybpxrq ebbz zlfgrel. Something I can appreciate as a snobbery prone connoisseur of puzzle plots and locked room mysteries. While the whole thing is as clear as day to adult readers, it was amusing to see how Blyton misdirected her young readers using adult authority (gur haoernxnoyr nyvov) and the general inexperience of the Find-Outers. Such as not immediately understanding the clue they smelled in the cat-house, but never in a condescending or superior way. Blyton respected both her characters and readers. A fact perhaps better reflected in the dark, realistic undertone of the series.

Firstly, in this story, there's that "rude, bad-tempered old man," Tupping, who regularly abuses Luke verbally and boxes his ears, but he also tore apart Bets strawberry garden in a rage. Bets had been given a few strawberry runners from his garden ("he really thought it was his garden, and not Lady Candling's") and had to get even with an 8-year-old girl. Luke also lives in constant fear that his abusive stepfather will belt him "black and blue," if he finds out he's suspect or loses his job. Something else that's always hovering in the background is the parental neglect of Frederick "Fatty" Trotteville as Larry remarks in passing to him "Your mother and father don't bother about you much, do they?" as "you seem to go home or go out just whenever you like," which is very different from the household of the brother and sister of the group, Pip and Bets – whose parents have a bed-time bell to let them know its time to brush their teeth. So these moments drift over the blue, sunny skies of this series like dark, wispy clouds that occasionally intrude on the lull of the lazy, endless summer holiday as brief reminders of their impending adolescence and coming adulthood. However, it's still something far away on the horizon and there's nothing that will impede on the summer-time mystery adventure!

So, yeah, The Mystery of the Disappearing Cat is another top-notch (locked room) detective story and stands closer, quality-wise, to what made The Mystery of the Invisible Thief such a pleasant and welcome surprise. So, hopefully, there's more where those two came from.


Murder Under the Mantle of Love (1964) by Ton Vervoort

Three months ago, I reviewed Moord onder astrologen (Murder Among Astrologists, 1963) by "Ton Vervoort," a penname of Peter Verstegen, who's (or was?) a Dutch author, editor and translator partial to astrology, chess and detective fiction – penning six detective novels himself during the 1960s. Murder Among Astrologists displayed the influence of S.S. van Dine and Ellery Queen on Vervoort's work complete with weird architecture and a dying message. 

Aligning your work with the Van Dine-Queen School is a high bar to clear, especially for a Dutch mystery writer in the '60s, but Vervoort cunningly pulled it off by under promising and over delivering on the plot. An all too rare quality in the Dutch-language detective story and an invitation to return sooner rather than later. So moved another one of his novels to the top of the big pile. 

Moord onder de mantel der liefde (Murder Under the Mantle of Love, 1964) is the fourth title in the Inspector Floris Jansen series and gives the reader a modern take on the Golden Age serial killer story. A very odd one at that, but a genuine whodunit pull a la Agatha Christie. But despite the Anglo-American touches, it's also one of the most stereotypical Dutch detective novels I've ever come across. 

Murder Under the Mantle of Love begins as a regular detective story with the narrator, Ton Vervoort, perusing the newspaper and reading about the brutal murder of "the well-known doctor, botanist and sinologist," Dr. Ed Hinke – who had his neck broken in his private study. Dr. Hinke had fallen victim to a "terrible disease," polio, which left him partial paralyzed and forced him to retire. Not merely from his medical practice and public life, but from his family as well. Only one with constant, unfettered access to the doctor is his live-in nurse, Anjo Collet. Vervoort reads that the investigation has been placed in the capable hands of Inspector Floris Jansen, of the Amsterdam police, who's an old friend of his. So it takes one phone call to secure a front row seat as his "secretary."

A practice that's not particularly popular with his colleagues and the story notes that there was "a strong animosity" against Jansen's "way of life and methods." But he can get away with it due to his "independent position" at headquarters.

Vervoort follows Jansen to Dr. Hinke's seventeenth century grachtenpand (canal house), on the Keizersgracht, where he lived with all of his immediately relatives, but they're not an ordinary family. Dr. Hinke's oldest son, Hans, is an interior decorator and a pedantic snob with an inferiority complex and posses "a stiff dose of jealousy" towards his younger brother, Maarten. A sensual, womanizing student of medicine with all the wrong friends and an abrasively liberal attitude towards euthanasia ("Hitler discredited the killing of the terminally ill and insane"), which all infuriated their sister, Daphne. She's a geologist and secular puritan who believed that "the morals of the Dutch were in a pitiful state" and passionately disapproved of her brother's openly flaunting his frivolous love life. Something else she hated is having to share the third-floor with her father's secret, long-lost Dutch-Indonesian wife, Topsy, who thought Dr. Hinke had died in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp – until she came to the Netherlands. Topsy came to the house a month before the murder and she brought along the 21-year-old son Dr. Hinke had never seen, Tjallie. Lastly, there's Tanny Hinke, Hans' wife, who has a very expensive and luxurious taste and it was costing her husband a pretty penny. This really angered his father. Dr. Hinke believed "a woman should be grateful for every penny awarded to her" and getting into debt to finance her lavish lifestyle was ridiculous. And even offered to pay for the divorce.

So they're practically a happy, tightly-knit and stable household, but the biggest discovery Jansen makes is that Dr. Hinke was addicted to smoking opium. Not only was Dr. Hinke smoking three, or more, pipes a day, he was growing poppies right next to the orchids in his locked attic. We have a victim who made drugs in his attic and suspects who are the flesh-and-blood incarnation of Dutch bluntness. Yes, a prostitute briefly appears as a witness during second-half of the story. I told you this was an unmistakably, bordering on stereotypical, post-war Dutch detective novel.

The murder of Dr. Hinke can be summed up as a traditional whodunit with a new coat of paint to reflect the changing times, but, around the halfway mark, the whole case is turned upside down and inside out.

Nurse Anjo confides in Jansen that she often has "predictive dreams" and had a dream-like prophecy about Dr. Hinke's murder. Before the murder, she dreamed that her employer was killed with a hammer, which is not exactly what happened, but pretty close and she continues to have strange, predictive dreams throughout the second-half of the story – revealing an active serial killer in Amsterdam! A killer preying on invalids who had become embittered with "nothing more to expect from life." These serial murders take the police out of the original crime scene and scatter them across the city which, especially to non-Dutch readers, can come across as a sight-seeing tour of Amsterdam.

A gallery attendant at the Rijksmuseum, who lost all his fingers in an accident with a cutting machine, unexpectedly drops dead among the museum visitors. An invalid with a cigarette-and-candy cart on the boisterous, rowdy Zeedijk is found dead by a window prostitute and a third dream has the police scouring all the cafes in the city for a man with a seeing-eye dog. All of them are poisoned with an uncommon, difficult to trace substance.

So the story moves away from a modern whodunit with a closed-circle of suspects to parapsychological manhunt for not only a serial killer, but the prospective victims with the last murder being somewhat of a tragedy. Just like with Murder Among Astrologists, I began to wonder how Vervoort was going to tie everything together satisfactory as his loose storytelling and small page-count didn't quite promise a neo-Golden Age detective story. What seemed to make the most sense was that Dr. Hinke had, somehow, distributed the poison and someone killed him to put a stop to it, which turned out to be wrong, but it did put me on the right track. Vervoort ended up doing something completely different with the motive, how the murders were carried out and kind of liked how he spun a complications out of inconvenient alibis, accidental clues and vanishing red herrings – some being better and clearer than others. But, on a whole, it made for a good and unusual Dutch detective story.

Only thing that can be said against Murder Under the Mantle of Love is the same as about Murder Among Astrologists. Vervoort had some good and clever ideas, some were even inspired, but he had too light a style, or touch, to utilize them to their full potential. So it doesn't fully measure up to its Anglo-American counterparts.

Nonetheless, it was quite impressive that Vervoort managed to tell two different types of detective stories in his light style with a small page-count, but still managed to link them together with a logical, inevitable solution that didn't feel like a letdown. Vervoort evidently knew what makes a plot tick and wish he had continued writing detective novels, because half a dozen is hardly enough to keep me satisfied. I need more Dutch detective writers like Vervoort!

So his remaining detective novels, Moord onder toneelspelers (Murder Among Stage Actors, 1963), Moord onder maagden (Murder Among Virgins, 1965) and Moord op toernee (Murder on Tour, 1965), have been bumped to the top of my wishlist. I'm also looking into the few short stories he wrote. Such as "Burleske aan de galg" ("Burlesque on the Gallows," 1965) and "Het alibi" ("The Alibi," 1968). Wordt vervolgd!


Murder at Government House (1937) by Elspeth Huxley

Elspeth Huxley was a British conservationist and renowned author of biographies, memories and fiction about Africa, whose most well-known work is the semi-autobiographical The Flame Trees of Tikha (1959), but among her forty-some books are a handful of detective novels – three starring her series-detective, Superintendent Vachell. Murder on Safari (1938) is perhaps Huxley's best remembered mystery and prompted one critic to declare her "a dangerous rival to Agatha Christie." Regrettably, Huxley's modest contribution to the detective story, as the Arthur W. Upfield of Africa, has been largely forgotten today. 

Huxley wrote the three Vachell mysteries during a five-year world tour to avoid playing shuffleboard on the ocean voyages and returned to the genre two decades later with two standalone novels, The Merry Hippo (1963) and A Man from Nowhere (1964). But it was her trio of exotic, 1930s mysteries that cinched Huxley's place in the annals of crime fiction. 

Murder at Government House (1937) marked Huxley's debut as a mystery novelist and takes place in the British colony of Chania, Africa, where Sir Malcolm McLeod acted as the King's representative.

Sir Malcolm came into the colonial service from the outside and the Colonial Office took "a rare gamble" by offering him the Governorship of British Somaliland, but he had introduced "more reforms and innovations" there than during its entire existence as part of the Colonial Empire, which had earned him the appointment to Chania – a senior Governorship. And he took a hands-on approach to governing the colony. One of his first actions was reviving a long, vaguely discussed idea of federating Chania with a neighboring Protectorate to the north, Totseland. Something that is seen as a first step towards "welding into one confederacy the territories under British rule lying between the Zambesi and the headwaters of the Nile." A plan not entirely without obstacles or opposition.

The story opens with a Government House dinner-party in honor of Sir Bertrand Flower, the Governor of Totseland, which preceded their discussion merging the two countries into one territory. A huge stumbling block is the amalgamation of the two railways as both territories believe the neighbors railway is "nothing but a collection of scrap-iron." However, the meeting is prevented when murder rears its ugly head.

Sir Malcolm is found strangled to death in his private office and his murder poses something of a locked room problem. Both windows were closed and locked with catches that can only be worked from the inside. The door to the Governor's office was guarded "day and night" by a sentry and the other two exits were under observation. This is just one of the many problems facing the Canadian-born Superintendent Vachell.

First and foremost, there's a whole slew of potential suspects hovering around Goverment House. Maisie is "the girl-wife" of the Director of Education, Mr. Watson, who's "principal source of scandal" and the mistress of Sir Malcolm – everyone held their breath to see what action the injured husband was going to take. Victor Moon is the Secretary for Native Affairs and he's not a great admirer of his immediate senior, Mr. Pallett, who's the Colonial Secretary and now Acting Governor. But despite his long, successful career, Vachell discovers Pallett is unable to stand up to open opposition or bullying. Donovan Popple is a settler, farmer and trader with a twenty-five year history in Chania and has called Sir Malcolm a "damn fool, pocket Mussolini," which makes him a primary suspect when his thumbprint is found at the crime scene. Mr. Jeudwine is the slippery private secretary of Government House who gives "the impression of dwelling apart with thoughts profounder than those of ordinary men." That's not all as "too many darned people in this murder," but there are also outside forces Vachell has to take into consideration.

Vachell is told about "one of these strange secret societies that periodically crop up among natives," the League of the Plaindwellers, who have an ax to grind with the British government over the Wabenda witchcraft case. Someone else tells him there's a Somalian organization, Black Aisa, who have personal motive dating back to Sir Malcolm's governorship of British Somaliland. So, luckily, Vachell finds an old friend and anthropologist, Olivia Brandeis, staying at Government House to help him sort out the whole mess. One reviewer noted on the GADwiki that Brandeis comes across as a young incarnation of Gladys Mitchell's Mrs. Bradley. I kind of can see that comparison, especially during the opening chapter.

Their joined-investigation presents a faded, but fascinating, snapshot of a time and place now long-gone, which were nearly all tightly-woven into the fabric of the story and not merely confined to the realm of colonial politics of Goverment House – touching everything from settlers to the natives. Such as the Timbergrowers' Association wanting to know why the blazes they didn't use local hardwood for the governor's coffin or the less pleasant sideline in the way local natives deal with curses, witchcraft and witches in general, which leads to a gruesome, unavenged murder of a 10-year-old girl. A lot less darker is that magical, almost surrealistic scene when Olivia hits upon a secret meeting of the Plaindweller League and "felt as if she were another Alice translated into an African wonderland."

So here you have why Huxley was to Africa what Upfield was to the Australian outback as she wrote a detective story that could not have taken place anywhere else except in 1930s colonial Africa. Murder at Government House had everything to turn it into a minor classic of the so-called regional mystery, but the plot is frustratingly uneven and not entirely fair.

Huxley held back a lot from the reader and, in particular, the motive is something you can only guess at while an important clue, or hint, regarding the how was obliterated by the passage of time. However, if you've done your homework (i.e. read detective stories), you should be able to put one and together to figure out the murderer's identity. There were two aspects about the murder that made this character suspiciously standout, but you can't figure out how, exactly, it was done as those clues were not available. Don't expect too much from the locked room-angle. The whole locked room setup was used for something completely different, which could have worked beautifully with more clues as the trick was quite clever.

So, purely as a detective story, Murder at Goverment House was pretty much the same as my recent experience with Nat Lombard's Murder's a Swine (1943). A detective story that was better written than plotted with a ton of historical interest that could not have taken place anywhere else except in that specific time and place. This makes it difficult to recommend. 

Murder at Government House was not a bad read at all that actually made good use of the story's setting and enjoyed my time with it. The problem is that it's, plot-wise, a sloppy, poorly worked-out detective story that could have used an editor to smooth over the plot. Normally, a poor and sloppy plot is enough to sink a detective story for me, but here, the good ever-so slightly outweighed the bad.


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

Somewhat recently, I reread two of John Dickson Carr's reputable locked room mysteries, The Three Coffins (1935) and Till Death Do Us Part (1944), but the latter has only gained its reputation as one of his all-time greats over the past two decades – elevated by the internet from a mid-tier title to top 10 material. At the same time, his monumental, landmark locked room novel received a downgrade. I ended up agreeing about Till Death Do Us Part, but The Three Coffins remained to me an otherworldly performance more than deserving of its once colossal status. 

So decided to reread another one and was torn between The Plague Court Murders (1934) and The Crooked Hinge (1938) with The Reader is Warned (1939) as a dark horse, but ended up with The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939). There are two reason why I picked that one over the other three. 

The Problem of the Green Capsule is another title who received a reputational boost during the internet age of the genre and one that has been at the back of my mind ever since discovering Christopher Bush. Bush was to the unbreakable alibi what Carr was to the locked room, but he tried his hands at a Carr-style impossible crime novel with The Case of the Chinese Gong (1935) and has "a situation worthy of Dr. Fell." In my memory, The Problem of the Green Capsule retroactively became a Bush-style detective novel with an alibi problem that would have delighted Ludovic Travers and wanted to reread it to test my recollection of the plot – which actually fitted the theme of the book like glove. I'm doing it on hard mode as my first read was a Dutch translation titled Blinde ooggetuigen (Blind Eyewitnesses). So let's see how Watson-like my memory really is! 

The Problem of the Green Capsule, originally published as The Black Spectacles and subtitled "being the psychologist's murder case," opened in the Street of Tombs, Pompeii, where Marcus Chesney is holidaying with his family and cronies. A party comprising of his brother, Dr. Joe Chesney, whose professional skills leave something to be desired, but generally well liked and "lots of people swear by him." Marjorie Wills is the sweet, innocent looking niece and ward of Marcus, but she has a temper and "sometimes uses language that would startle a sergeant-major." Professor Ingram is a psychologist and an old crony of Marcus with whom he had "eternal, non-stop arguments" about crime and psychology. Wilbur Emmet is Marcus' tall, wooden and "spectacularly ugly" business manager. Finally, there's a young research chemist, George Harding, who Majorie met on their holiday and they quickly fell in love with each other.

Marcus tells George that, in spite of his wealth, neither he or his inner circle is accustomed to take three-month holidays, but circumstances back home forced them to take a break.

Several months previously, the village of Sodbury Cross became the playground of "a criminal lunatic who enjoys poisoning people wholesale" as three children and an 18-year-old girl were poisoned (one fatal) with strychnine laced chocolates, which came from Mrs. Terry's respectable tobacco-and sweet shop in High Street – who does not sell poisoned chocolates as "a regular thing." So the police believes poisoned sweets were left in the shop when Mrs. Terry's attention was distracted. But there's another possibility suggesting Marjorie had planted the poisoned chocolates. Now she can't even walk down the street without the danger of having mud thrown in her face by the village children, which is why they decided to go on a long holiday. However, the situation had barely improved upon their return. And things got much worse!

Marcus is a peace grower who fancies himself a scholar and his pet theory is that "ninety-nine people out of a hundred, as witnesses, are just plain impossible." To prove his point, Marcus stages a psychological experiment at his home with Marjorie, George and Professor Ingram as audience and eyewitnesses. George is filming the experiment with a small ciné-camera. So nothing what happened on the stage was unobserved.

What they see is Marcus sitting at a table with a box of chocolates and writing instruments when a curious figure enters the room in a long coat, collar turned up, hat pulled down, dark glasses and face wrapped in a muffler – all bundled up like the Invisible Man. The thing in the top-hat carried a black bag with R.H. Nemo, M.D. crudely painted on it. Next thing he does is push "a fat green capsule" down Marcus' throat, took the bag and left through the French windows. A few minutes later, Marcus is dead of cyanide poisoning!

A clever murder serving Chief Constable Major Crow and Detective Inspector Andrew Elliot with a peach of problem, because there are three witnesses who saw the murder happen under their eyes. But they can't agree on what they saw. On top of the blind eyewitnesses, they represent "a triple alibi which all the weight of Scotland Yard cannot break." Carr assured the reader in a footnote "that there was no conspiracy of any kind among the three witnesses." So an exasperated Elliot turns to Dr. Gideon Fell to help him make sense of everything.

Dr. Fell is at the top of his game here and states upon appearing that if he "cannot do the thing handsomely," he's "not going to do it at all," which was a reference to his drinking habits, but can also applied to his detective work. Slowly, but surely, Dr. Fell brings clarity to an incredibly muddled problem by examining the questions Marcus had prepared, which were laced with psychological traps. Why all the answers were different. There's also a brilliant plot-thread with a clock that could be tampered with and how it ruined a fourth unshakable alibi. It's almost a shame Carr used the trick here as a side issue as it could have carried a whole plot by itself. Something as ingenious and inspired as the alibi-trick from Bush's Cut Throat (1932).

More than the galore of alibis, false-solutions and Dr. Fell's booming presence, I enjoyed and marveled at Carr's ability to rub the truth in your face with one hand and pull the wool over your eyes with the other. I remembered the murderer's identity from my first read, but not much else and was amazed to discover how subtly blatant he was here. Carr planted psychological clues in the mind of the reader that doubled as blind spots to hide the murderer without keeping back any clues. Carr was at his best when he was really cavalier with his clues and red herrings.

Another thing that came as a kind of surprise is how spot on my comparison with Bush turned out to be. I discovered Bush long after my first reading of The Problem of the Green Capsule, but it really reads like Carr's take on a Bush-style detective novel with its multiple alibi-puzzle and two different crimes closely-linked in time or place – a staple of Bush's 1930s detective novels (e.g. Dead Man Twice, 1930). I don't think Carr wrote it with Bush in mind and, as the ending demonstrated, Carr was a better showman than Bush. An ending with two things that deserve to be highlighted.

Dr. Fell explains why has an unfair advantage over the police as he started out as a schoolmaster and "every minute of the day the lads were attempting to tell me some weird story or other, smoothly, plausibly, and with a dexterity I have not since heard matched at the Old Bailey." So he has valuable experience with habitual liars and that comes handy in this particular case. Secondly, Dr. Fell precedes his explanation with a lecture on poisoners reminiscent of his locked room lecture from The Three Coffins, in which he famously broke the fourth wall ("because... we're in a detective story, and we don't fool the reader by pretending we're not"). The lecture on poisoners also breaks the fourth wall, but in a much more subtle way as Dr. Fell tells his audience he will be discussing a particular type of poisoner by looking at "a dozen well-known examples from real life." More importantly, the psychological profile of the poisoners under discussion fits only one of their suspects. All he has to do after the lecture is explain the nuts and bolts of the case. And those aren't any less ingeniously played out as all the psychological trickery. Carr must have had a blast putting the plot of this one together. 

The Problem of the Green Capsule is a double triumph as Carr demonstrated didn't need to lean on his hermetically sealed rooms, seemingly impossible murders and suggestions of the supernatural to write an elaborate, maze-like and scrupulously fair and logical detective story. The locked room murders and impossible crime are simply there to make everything more challenging and fun. So this triumph is a shining example of the purely plotted, 1930s whodunit and deserves to be reprinted. I suggest that potential reprint edition to be titled either The Case of the Green Capsule or The Case of the Black Spectacles.


Murder's a Swine (1943) by Nap Lombard

Earlier this year, British Library Crime Classics reissued an obscure, long out-of-print and intriguing-sounding mystery, Murder's a Swine (1943), written by the husband-and-wife team of Gordon Neil Stewart and Pamela Hansford Johnson – who produced two detective novels under the name "Nap Lombard." Martin Edwards wrote an insightful introduction with the most surprising bit being that Pamela Johnson's second husband was C.P. Snow. 

Murder's a Swine was published in the United States as The Grinning Pig and belongs to that British dominated sub-category of the genre dealing with the Second World War. A period in history that gave the British home front detective story a new and distinctively unique flavor that can never be replicated again. 

Murder's a Swine is set during the so-called "Phoney War," an eight-month period of restless inactivity on the battlefield, which began with the blitzkrieg on Poland and ended with May 1940 invasion of the Low Countries – proverbial calm before the storm. Someone remarks in the story that another character must think it's "a rum show to the last war," but the Phoney War completely upheaved British society. There were enforced blackouts, sandbag barricades, gas masks, children being evacuated to the countryside and the general effects of mobilization.

This is the backdrop of Murder's a Swine. A story that begins with a young ARP Warden, Clem Poplett, accidentally stumbling across a decomposing body behind the sandbags of an air-raid shelter. The body is that of a man dressed in ARP overall and Wellington boots with a bullet hole in his back. Poplett was not alone when he made the gruesome discovery in the shelter. A resident of a nearby block of flats, Agnes Kinghof, had accompanied him into the shelter and she has together with her husband tangled with murder before. Agnes and Andrew Kinghof solved their first case in Tidy Death (1940). Much to the annoyance of Captain Kinghof's cousin, Lord Whitestone, who's "someone of considerable importance at Scotland Yard."

Lord Whitestone prefers the Kinghofs go to "one of those dreary, disgusting leg-shows" or the Yellow Chicken before they're "compelled to raid it" instead of getting involved with police business again. But in their defense, the murderer doesn't leave them much choice.

Firstly, the victim is identified as a long-lost relative of one of their neighbors and the residents become the target of a series of sick pranks. A stick with a pig's head is fixed to the service lift and frightened a woman into hysterics when it appeared at her bedroom window, "all shining and blue," snout pressed against the pane – before disappearing again. This is followed by more pranks and a mocking letter, "greasy fellow aren't i," signed "the pig-sticker."

So they have to take a closer look at their own neighbors to see if any of them might be the murderer, which is easy as half of the flats stand empty, but still enjoys enough occupancy to fill out a decent-sized pool of suspects. Mrs. Rowse is known to the public as the author of popular stories for growing girls, "Phyllada Rounders," who shares a flat with her friend, Mrs. Adelaide Sibley. Mrs. Sibley who was frightened by the pig's head at the window. Madame Charnet is a doddering, deaf old French woman who came to England right before Germany stopped caring about borders. Felix Lang is a medical student with an unclear background and no means of identification, while George Warrender worked late nights at a government office and was seldom seen by the tenants. A potentially significant fact as another suspect is the unknown, long-lost prodigal son of the victim and he might be in England under a new name. There's also the presence of the Free British Mussolites whose goal is to tear "filthy veil" of Democracy from "the fair face of England." Apparently, the FBM hate the Scotsmen ("who wear women's skirts in the streets of their Babylonic cities") more than communists, socialists, unionists, bureaucrats, atheists, the Freemasons and even the Jews. Yes, the FBM are played as a joke. Like a comedically inept counterpart of Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts who bristle when learning nobody locally has heard of their "influential organization."

There you have all the ingredients for an engrossing, first-class World War II detective story, but, regrettably, the quality became split between the writing and plotting. And it's a notable split.

Let's get the good out of the way first. Gordon Stewart and Pamela Johnson knew how to write and set a scene, which is the strength of Murder's a Swine. There are several very well written, memorable set pieces strewn throughout the story. Such as a second pig head, "a red Punch's cap set between the ears," appearing during an illegally-staged street show of Punch and Judy or the murderer with pig mask terrorizing and trying to add another body to score – like some demented Scooby Doo villain. There are the snippets of life under wartime conditions like the fire-precautions committee meetings, the big ARP casualty exercise and the secret FBM meeting with the hayloft scene. What elevated the story is that the dark, depressing wartime atmosphere and thriller-like bits were brightened with flashes of humor and lighthearted banter from the Kinghofs that can stand comparison with Delano Ames and Kelley Roos.

But, purely judged as a detective story, Murder's a Swine turned out to be a poor showing as the murderer stood out like a scarecrow. I thought it was so thickly laid on and obvious that I half-suspected it was a red herring and began to cast suspicious glances in another direction. There's another character who would have fitted the role of murderer much better (Pyrz Cbcyrgg). That being said, the unmasking of the murderer was very well handled and how this person was compelled to confess was unusual, to say the least!

So here we have a classic example of a detective novel that was better written than plotted and therefore, as someone to whom plot is the foundation of any detective story, I can only recommend it to fans of bantering, mystery solving couples or WWII era crime fiction. Sorry, Kate, but my vote is certainly not going to Murder's a Swine for 2021 Reprint of the Year Award. My purist streak doesn't allow it.

Nevertheless, while the plot of Murder's a Swine failed to win me over, Martin Edwards noted in his introduction that he was sure it "helped its original readers to forget, for an hour or two at least, the miseries of wartime," because "to lose oneself in an enjoyable, unserious book is an under-estimated pleasure" – especially during an ungoing pandemic and lockdowns. I agree as it was an enjoyable read with some very memorable scenes. So, in that regard, it comes recommended without hesitation.