Utter Death (1952) by John Hymers

I think every long-time mystery reader has one, or more, pet tropes and trappings that draw us in like moths to a flame. Some of you might have noticed my excessive interest in impossible crime fiction or World War II period mysteries compounded by an incurable curiosity for the obscure and arcane, but not every trope or trapping lends itself to indulgence – like the frustratingly rare archaeological detective story. Two of the most well-known examples of the archaeological mystery novel are R. Austin Freeman's The Eye of Osiris (1911) and Agatha Christie's Murder in Mesopotamia (1936). More recently, I found three short stories, Charles B. Child's "The Thumbless Man" (1955), MORI Hiroshi's "Sekitō no yane kazan" ("The Rooftop Ornaments of Stone Ratha," 1999) and Simon Clark's "The Climbing Man" (2015), but it remains a shallow pool to draw from. 

So, whenever I come across one, I take special notice and usually end up adding them to the towering, semi-sentient monstrosity that's my stack of unread detective novels. And that brings us to the subject of today's review.

John Hymers is even more obscure and little-known than his only, practically forgotten, contribution to the genre, Utter Death (1952), which brings the reader to the Cairo of the immediate post-war period where an utterly bizarre murder is committed among the members of a small, decaying British Colony – set against the skulduggery of an archaeological dig in the sand hills. So that was more than enough to get my attention, but who was John Hymers? Why has he has been so thoroughly forgotten today? Even lacking his own GADWiki entry.

None of the John Hymers found online seem to fit the timeline in which they could have written Utter Death, but there was a notable, 19th century English mathematician of the same name. So our Hymers could have been a relative carrying on the family name or a mathematician himself who simply picked the name as pseudonym. There might not be a link at all. I simply don't know. Not for sure, anyway, but I can make a tenuous guess as something struck me while reading Utter Death. A story with a little more than a passing resemblance to the early 1960s novels from a husband-and-wife team, Gordon and Vicky Philo, who wrote some magnificent mysteries together as "Charles Forsyte." Utter Death struck me as a very rough, unpolished attempt at the type of detective novels they would so expertly craft a decade later. You can even go as far as saying they pillaged Utter Death and refurbished the material as frameworks for their 1960s mysteries.

For example, the murders in Utter Death and Diplomatic Death (1961) share some resemblance in presentation and their reliance on stage-magic and misdirection. Diving Death (1962) shares its archaeological backdrop with Utter Death, but former takes place in the muted, two-color world of the seabed and the latter on the sun-scorched sands of Egypt. The setting of an isolated group of British characters in the Middle East is at the heart of both Diplomatic Death and Murder with Minarets (1968). Also note the similarity in choice of book titles.

I know I'm probably wrong here and the huge disparity in quality between Hymers' lightly plotted, second-string Utter Death and the Forsyte novels stands as a solid counter argument, but then again, that could have been the reason why they never acknowledged or claimed it – which has one point in its favor. Gordon and Vicky Philo began working on Diplomatic Death sometime during the 1950s, which had to be rewritten multiple times before finally being published in 1962. So, time-wise, it's not entirely out of the realm of possibilities Utter Death was an early, flawed attempt at the detective story that made it to print. But ended up being embarrassment when the Philos produced a better written, solidly plotted and more polished series of detective stories. This is nothing more than a guess, but there such a thing as a lucky guess. So who knows. Now let's get to the story at hand. 

Utter Death takes place some three miles to the south of Cairo in Mansiut, a so-called "garden city," where stucco villas, green lawns and avenues of poinsettias arose from "the mud which for centuries has been so generously left by the Nile" when a British Colony settled it. The result is not so much a garden as an exclusive, isolated island surrounded by deserts, rice fields and the river with no post office or shops. So you had to be "sufficiently affluent" to own a car to ride into Cairo, if you want to live in Mansiut. A small, dwindling remnant of the Colonial administration and it's social strata try to carry on there as old traditions have all but disappeared and the disillusioned diehards wonder why they ever handed the administration of the country back to the Egyptians. So a holdover from a previous era, but normally a pretty quiet, peaceful place that ends when the excavations begin.

Professor Maurice Selborne is a rising name in the world of Egyptology who's a notoriously difficult and unpleasant person to be around. A bit of an autocrat who's very protective of his excavation sites, which means practically nobody is allowed to come anywhere near. Somebody ignored his wishes! Professor Selborne has been excavating a hillside passageways close to an ancient temple where they have come across several chambers. However, the chambers were empty when they entered it, "not so much as a gold coin lying around," except for the paintings and carvings covering its walls. The odd thing is that they found the centuries old seal on the outer door intact, but the seal on the second door had been broken not so long ago. Yes, Hymers teased a locked room mysteries that unfortunately never materialized. But that's not all!

Someone has been sending Professor Selborne "Pharaonic messages" that can construed as death threats ("for the name of the god who ruleth here is Utter Death") and two workman have died violently on the job. But it neither frightened the archaeologists or put a stop to the excavation. Professor Selborne actually appears to be "playing a game of his own," as "if he had something up his sleeve," while being very keen on keeping the authorities out of his business. All they really know about Professor Selborne is that "he's unfaithful to his wife, is hated by his workmen and has been receiving anonymous warnings" which might be linked to "the present tomb he's excavating" – an explosive cocktail that ends in murder during a social gathering. Professor Selborne's body is found shot to death in his study, slumped over his desk, holding a half-crushed quill pen and a broken pieces of a vase scattered on the ground. The murderer also snatched something from the wall. Enter the Hercule Poirot of the Middle East, Inspector Zaky Bey of the Cairo Police.

Regrettably, there really is not much else that can be said about the story. Utter Death is a genuine enough detective novel, but has a plot as thin and fragile as finely-spun glass with a clumsy, amateurish grasp of clueing and misdirection. It kind of works as a detective story, but not a very good one. Only aspect of Utter Death that really stands out is its depiction of post-war Egypt and the social upheaval following Egyptian independence, which is more fairly put down than the old-world rumblings from the British quarters suggests. Another reason why the Philos could have written it, because they were British diplomats living and working in the Middle East at the time. It would explain why the scenery, social backdrop and some of the characters are so much much better realized than the plot. Even that was almost ruined towards the end with a very bad scene that could have been plucked from the yellowed pages of an opium-fueled, pot smoke filled pulp magazine story.

So, yeah, Hymers' Utter Death is more or less a repeat of my recent encounter with B.J. Kleymens' In de greep van de kreeft (In the Grip of the Lobster, 1965) with the question "who wrote this" proving to be more interesting than what they wrote. Not recommended unless you have a craving for the utterly obscure or intrigued by the potential mystery of Hymers' identity.

Sorry for the poor, sloppier than usual review, but it was a struggle to pad out this post into something resembling a proper review and will try to pick something less risky for the next time.


Lamb to the Slaughter (1995) by Jennifer Rowe

Jennifer Rowe is an Australian author and editor primarily known for her children's fantasy novels, published as by "Emily Rodda," which were adapted in Japan as a manga serial and 65-part anime TV series alongside a card game and a Nintendo DS video game – all appearing under the series banner title, Deltora Quest. Rowe also had a brief dalliance with the detective genre during the late 1980s and early '90s. 

Between 1987 and 1995, Rowe wrote five novels and a short story collection about an ABC-TV researcher and amateur detective, Verity "Birdie" Birdwood. The series is largely forgotten today, but, whenever the series is mentioned, it tends to come with a truckload of praise. And not without reason! If today's review is any indication of her other work, Rowe is an exception to the rule when it comes to the predicate "a modern Agatha Christie."  

Lamb to the Slaughter (1995) is the fifth, and final, entry in the Verity Birdwood series with a plot best described as a modern reinterpretation of the contemplative, murder-in-the-past style detective novels – like Christie's Five Little Pigs (1942) and Sparkling Cyanide (1945). I was particular reminded of Five Little Pigs in which the truth is locked away somewhere in the past with all the clues and hints dropped in conversations or hidden in descriptions and the psychological makeup of the characters. The result is startlingly good! A devilishly clever, classically-styled detective story camouflaged as a modern, character-driven crime novel.  

Five years ago, Rosalie Lamb found the body of her pregnant sister-in-law, Daphne, lying on the kitchen floor of her shack with her head "smashed to pulp." She stumbled to the pub to get help and found her brother, Trevor, slumped over the wheel of his wrecked car "covered in blood." Trevor Lamb was arrested, tried and convicted to life in prison. Which is where the case would have rested had it not been for a crusader of justice.  

Jude Gregorian didn't like Trevor Lamb "any more than the cops, or the judge and jury had done," but "he didn't think dislike was a good enough reason to gaol a man for life." Gregorian threw himself at the case and wrote a bestselling book, Lamb to the Slaughter, which suppressed no inconvenient facts or impression. It showed why the jury had convicted Trevor and then "carefully explained why it had been wrong." A long, drawn-out legal and PR battle ended with Trevor being pardoned and Gregorian accompanying him back to Hope's End to the bosom of his family. Verity Birdwood is there right with him as an ABC-TV researcher to help setup a documentary and interview. But his return is not a happy homecoming for everyone. 

Daphne's parents and brother still live in Hope's End and her father is enraged that the man who killed his daughter only did "five bloody years in gaol," but Trevor succeeds in riling up the entire town – including his own "wonderful family." At the pub, Trevor attacks everyone who screamed for his blood or talked to the police, while his relatives blew their mouths to the press and made everything ten times worse. But now he's back. And he knows who really killed Daphne. Trevor lets everyone know he's going to reveal the truth to the world, but leaves them hanging for the night. So you can probably make an educated guess what happens next.  

This build towards that second, inevitable murder gobbles up one-third of the story and hardly gives unsuspecting readers the impression they're reading a whodunit in the tradition of Queen of Crime. Nor could you mistake the book for a squeaky clean, modern cozy as nothing could be further removed from the world of nosy cats, knitting patterns and soft pastel covers than Hope's End. 

Kate, of Cross Examining Crime, whose reviews of the series served as a reminder to track down one of Rowe's mysteries mentioned in her 2018 review she nearly stranded in the third chapter. She found the social milieu of the town and its populace, especially the Lambs, a little too unpleasant as "they just exude sweat, alcohol and crassness." Kate has a point. Hope's End is a rural, lower-class town of people close to the bottom rang of society and the place is pretty much life's end station. The picture Rowe gives of Hope's End is not a happy one and the story is definitely a little overwritten or drawn out in parts (such as the beginning), but something I can easily forgive when it serves a purpose or has a payoff. Lamb to the Slaughter has both with the story picking up when Trevor is murdered under identical circumstances.  

Since this second murder is guaranteed to get national exposure, Birdie has to discreetly play detective as she talks to everyone involved trying to piece together a fragmented past to see where it fits the present. There's one constant resurfacing in every conversation she has, "everyone loved Daphne," but, if Trevor didn't kill her, who did? There's also an interesting plot-thread concerning the missing murder weapon, which the police were unable to find and forensic evidence reveals "whatever was used to kill Trevor Lamb was used to kill his wife as well" and must have been hidden somewhere in Hope's End all along – right under everyone's nose. Rowe artfully dovetails every strand of the plot with characters backstories, histories and the various scenes to come to a conclusion that's both surprising and as inevitable as Trevor Lamb's murder.  

Where Lamb to the Slaughter cemented its status as classic is the finely-tuned balance between fair play clueing and devious misdirection. You see, I very briefly considered the murderer, but was unable to see how this person fitted that role and abandoned it as a possibility. Only to be shown this person was the murderer with all the clues being right in front of me! This is antidote I sorely needed after my previous disaster.  

Rowe's Lamb to the Slaughter is bright light in the dimmed nineties and rank it alongside Roger Ormerod and Mary Monica Pulver's Original Sin (1991) as the best the pure detective story had to offer at the time. Highly recommended!


Voodoo (1930) by John Esteven

Samuel Shellabarger was an American educator, scholar and writer who had a passion for history and a linguistic talent, speaking nine different languages, which eventually lead him to the field of historical fiction and copies sold "so briskly" that Twentieth Century Fox bought the screen rights to several novels – amassing "1.5 million dollars for his late-in-life historical novels." So historical fiction is the genre which gave his name literary immortality, but he cut his teeth on "light literature." That's a very nice way of saying detective stories. 

Shellabarger adopted two pennames, "John Esteven" and "Peter Loring," to separate his
scholarly work from his light-headed romantic adventure novels and his somber, outlandishly weird detective fiction. 

The Door of Death (1928), published as by John Esteven, appears to have been his first foray into the genre and introduced one of his short-lived series-characters, Inspector Rae Norse, who made his second and last appearance in Voodoo (1930) – which is listed in Brian Skupin's Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019). While obscure and largely forgotten today, Shellabarger's detective novels were reissued as relatively cheap ebooks in 2013. Why not cross another impossible crime title off my locked room list. 

Voodoo starts off as a conventional, 1930s detective novel as Inspector Rae Norse, of the Metropolitan Police, is consulted by Judge Matthew Frole. A "zealot of the code" who never "swerved to left or right in the interpretation of any law" with a "let the chips fall where they will" kind of attitude, but age had also "hardened, narrowed, dehumanized" him. This hardly endeared him to the people around him. Now the judge being hunted by several thugs with several narrow escapes, but they keep entering his home and his watchdog has disappeared. And they leave behind withered oak leaves. So who's the subtle hand guiding those blunt, brutal men?

Judge Frole's household is crawling with potential candidates. There's his son, Essex, who was convicted and sentenced for liquor smuggling. Judge Frole declined to judge the case and refused his son any help, which earned him praise in the national press, but his wife and daughter where entirely on the side of Essex. Doris married a distant relative, James Ackerson, who used Judge Frole and the law as "unwitting instruments of a cowardly personal spite" to destroy an honorable man. Ackerson used the one-drop rule not only to destroy the career of a navy officer, Dryden Senart, but challenged the right of his 7-year-old daughter to attend a white school and the case was eventually brought to court, which was presided over by Judge Frole – who stripped the child of her privileges. When he later learned of the true background of the story, he washed his hands of Ackerson and kicked him out of the house. However, the damage had already been done.

Inspector Rae Norse recognizes there's potential danger and the judge hardly improved the situation when he announced the drafting of a new will, which would leave his relatives on "scanty rations" and counting pennies. Norse places his house under close guard and positions himself in the silent, pitch-black corridor to Frole's bedroom with a flashlight.

So far, so good. This is unquestionable the best written portion of the story and somewhat reminded me of Roger Scarlett's Gothic-style mystery novel, In the First Degree (1933), which both have the detective present at the bedside of the dying victim. Norse makes an unsettling discovery when he enters the locked bedroom. Judge Frole is sitting up in bed, breathing and conscious, but his entire body is paralyses and unable to speak. What follows is a nightmarish distortion as a doctor attempts to revive him while his loud, impatient family try to get access to the sickroom, which they know stresses the dying man. A scene as bizarre as it's dark that ended with the judge dying and his son on the run. Regrettably, this is also where the story slowly begins to disintegrate and fall apart. You can blame that on Shellabarger going off in every direction without arriving anywhere. 

Voodoo began as a relatively normal detective novel with a premise and bizarre, quasi-impossible murder promising something in the spirit of Virgil Markham, Theodore Roscoe and W. Shepard Pleasants' The Stingaree Murders (1934), but descended to the ranks of second-rate, badly cliched pulp thrillers during its second-half – complete with voodoo savages and a city cult. A pensive Norse has to cross paths with a West Indian voodoo cult in a modern American city and "the practice of cruel, superstitious rites." Practically everyone appears to have some kind of connection to the voodoo cult or the liquor ring, which brings Norse to the mountains of Cuba. This is where the story becomes a kind of hybrid mystery with a strong supernatural flavor as Norse gets the witness a blood sacrifice with the head priestess becoming the physical manifestation of an ancient serpent god. None of it is captivating or particular good. I wish voodooism was used an explanation for everything else, because, as bad as Voodoo is as a pulp-style thriller with magic, it's even worse as a detective story.

Firstly there's the locked room-trick, which is kind of original and novel, but a very bad, mindbogglingly stupid kind of original and novel. I even checked Skupin's Locked Room Murders: Supplement to be sure and was relieved to read the Robert Adey's baffled comment. I'll quote (using ROT13) the solution and Adey's comment, because you have to read it in order to believe it. But would feel guilty, if I tempted any of you in spending a few backs on the ebook. So, if the solution is to be believed, gur zheqrere unq na rkgen xrl sbe gur pbaarpgvat qbbe naq gur ybpx jnf fhpu gung ur jnf noyr gb hfr vg jvgubhg qvfybqtvat gur xrl ba gur vafvqr. Adey's sanely questioned, "jung xvaq bs ybpx nyybjf gur vafregvba bs n frpbaq xrl jvgubhg qvfgheovat gur svefg?" Neither is it much of a whodunit as the murderer's identity is painfully obvious, but there was a nice attempt to serve the reader a confusing red herring. A trick that required the hand of a skilled and practiced plotter, which is why it didn't work here. But appreciated the attempt.

So, yeah, Voodoo is a pretty poor specimen of the genre with an indecisive, directionless writer further weakening an already run-of-the-mill, pulp-style plot and resulted in a mess that's going to be hard to beat as worst mystery of 2021. The reader has been warned!


The Shanghai River Demon's Curse (1997) by Seimaru Amagi

During the 1990s and early 2000s, the co-creator of The Kindaichi Case Files, Seimaru Amagi, wrote nine "light novels" in the series and four were translated as part of either the Kodansha English Library or Kodansha Ruby Books, which were intended as an educational tool to help improve the English of Japanese readers – not to dazzle Western readers. Hence, each novel ends with a nearly thirty-page long English-Japanese vocabulary list. 

According to our resident expert, Ho-Ling Wong, the English editions enjoyed a long print-run in Japan and there must be "a fair number in circulation," but, in the West, copies have become as rare and elusive as a Kappa. Not quite rare or obscure enough to elude me forever!

Several years ago, I came across Dennō sansō satsujin jiken (Murder On-Line, 1996), which is possibly the first detective novel to use the internet meaningfully in a traditionally-styled mystery complete with an isolated, snowbound setting and ironclad alibis. You can borrow a digital copy from the Internet Archive. Next one that fell into my hands was Operazakan – aratanaru satsujin (Opera House, the New Murders, 1994), published in English simply as The New Kindaichi Files, but the plain, uninspired title hides a classic, first-rate theatrical locked room mystery – translating into my favorite Kindaichi title to date. Ikazuchi matsuri satsujin jiken (Deadly Thunder, 1998) is a very minor, short and somewhat flawed detective story, but you can cross-off some of its shortcomings against an imaginative piece of miniature world-building and an inventive impossible crime. So that left with me with one more title to track down. 

Shanhai gyojin densetsu satsujin jiken (The Shanghai River Demon's Curse, 1997) is the fifth novel in the series and the third to be translated, which turned out to be a bit of an odd duck. 

The Shanghai River Demon's Curse brings Hajime Kindaichi and Miyuki Nanase to Shanghai, China, where the famous Yang Variety Troupe performs a daily, two-hour variety show at the Mermaid Hall. An enormous ship moored along the bank of the Huangpu River. The main event of the show is an acrobatic underwater act, "The Legend of the River Demon," which is patterned after the tale of a creature that's half-fish, half-human that lives at the bottom of the river. A monster with the ability to curse, or even kill, human beings. In some places, it's considered "bad luck to mock such spirits on stage" like "in Japanese ghost stories."

Following a performance of "The Legend of the River Demon," the director of the troupe, Yang
Wang, is found in his office with a bullet in his head, but his body and the floor are unaccountably soaking – water has "
the unpleasant odor of freshwater fish." Even stranger is that the murderer scratched a huge Chinese character for “spring,” a meter wide, on the wall. The first word of the lullaby of the river demon's curse. However, the Shanghai police have a very human suspect in their sights.

Once the show begins, with "animals like the tiger and monkey roaming around," the door to the dressing room is locked from the inside and it's "impossible for anyone from the audience to get in," which was still locked from the inside when the show ended. Nearly everyone on that side of the door had an alibi except the victim's son, Yang Xiaolong. His young sister, Yang Lili, writes her Japanese penfriend, Miyuki, a distressed letter saying her brother is suspected to have murdered their father. Miyuki decides to go Shanghai to help by bringing her childhood friend, Hajime Kindaichi, who's "the grandson of the master detective Kosuke Kindaichi" and "solved several cases for the Metropolitan Police Department." But his grandfather's name or reputation is not as well-known in China, which is one of the challenges facing the young detective who became a little timid when landed in foreign country for the first time in his life.

When they finally arrive in Shanghai, there are two big surprises waiting in the wings. Firstly, they find Detective Li Boer, of the Shanghai Police, in the company of their friend in the MPD, Inspector Kenmochi. Recently, the body in a decade old murder case was identified and "a small clue" led the Tokyo police to the Japanese director/producer of the Yang Variety Troupe. But is there's a link to the new murder? Secondly, Kindaichi and Miyuki get to witness a second murder during a performance of "The Legend of the River Demon" when a body plunged down from above the stage into the swimming tank. Another bullet to the head and the Chinese character for "summer" was slashed in the victim's back with a knife. So the murderer was intended to follow the grim lullaby. 

In spring, the boat is flooded,

In summer, the river turns a murky mauve,

In autumn, the traveler must drink putrid water,

In winter, fish no longer swim but sleep.

These murders also have an element of the impossible as the victims were shot with a derringer, which apparently can vanish, or materialize, whenever it's convenient to the murderer. The part of the ship between Yang's office and the dressing room was locked at the time of murder, which meant that nobody went in, or out, before the police arrived. So nobody had an opportunity to dispose of the gun, but they went over the entire ship with dogs and metal detectors without finding anything. They simply assume the murderer found a way to throw it in the river until discovering the second murder was committed with the same weapon! I've seen two variations on this type of vanishing weapon trick before and hated both of them. This one is marginally better, because Amagi tried to make it somewhat convincing. But the trick is still Yozaburo Kanari. Yes, Kanari's name in this context is a euphemism for shit.

Well, so far, it seems like a fairly standard and typical Kindaichi story with exception of the setting and its effect on Kindaichi's normally cocky attitude, but the story moves away from the series formula in the second-half – turning into a chase story with a coming-of-age angle. Kindaichi helps Yang Xiaolong to escape from police custody and they're chased to Shanghai as they make a run to the Yang's home village. A dirt poor place where the children had to grow up faster in order to make money, which is why Xiaolong and his sister acts so much mature than Kindaichi. But, while their on the run, they both find something of themselves they had either lost or never had. This comes at the expensive of the usual plot structure with the alibis, impossibilities and the nursery rhyme theme of the murders being heavily underplayed during the second-half.

I also hated that during the first-half an intriguing, quickly discarded plot-thread was introduced when Kindaichi learned of a former troupe member, Wang Meiyu, who was a superb swimmer, but a bit strange. Meiyu not only swam really well and could stay underwater forever, but "she only ate aquatic plants and freshwater fish." And it was her talent that lead the troupe to adopt the "The Legend of the River Demon" as their signature act. But then strange rumors began to circulate. Members began to talk that every time she took a shower, the bathroom would "reek of fish" with "large fish scales on the floor." So they began to avoid Meiyu and culminated in her committing suicide by jumping into the river from the toilet window. She left four characters scrawled in blood on the wall and has now risen from "the depths of that murky river" to extract revenge. But the plot-thread was quickly brushed aside. And given an even quicker explanation towards the end. So the only reason why it was even brought up was to give the book a snappy title.

Thankfully, the solution was not all bad with a pretty good alibi-trick and an inspired piece of misdirection, which successfully hid the murderer for a good chunk of the story. I eventually figured it out, because if you how the gun can vanish and reappear, you know who pulled the trigger. Not so good is that other parts of the solution stretches things considerably with an unnecessary, rather cruel twist nearly ruining the whole thing. I mean, this murderer is very likely going to be executed. So why throw that revelation out there? Amagi is the Soji Shimada of the anime-and manga detective story who is nearly unmatched when it comes to erecting grand-scale plots with majestic locked room-and alibi-tricks, but when it comes to characters, sometimes he goes one twist too far. Deadly Thunder has a similar problem.

So, on a whole, The Shanghai River Demon's Curse is not entirely without interest and its break with the formula and foreign setting makes it a worthwhile read to long-time fans of the series, but don't expect anything more than an average detective story. Regrettably, the weakest of the four translated novels.

This more or less closes the chapter on The New Kindaichi Files light novels with such untranslated novels as Yūrei kyakusen satsujin jiken (The Ghost Passenger Ship Murder Case, 1995) and Onibijima satusjin jikes (The Ghost Fire Island Murder Case, 1997) remaining tantalizingly out of my reach. Well, the novels are out of my reach, but not the '90s anime adaptations. So I might make one of those my next stop in the series.


Owl & Raccoon: "WDYG" (2013) and "Not With a Bang" (2016) by Matt Ingwalson

Matt Ingwalson is a public speaker and independent writer who self-published three mystery novellas that are "part hardboiled police procedural and part classical locked room mystery," which features two ex-SWAT team members, Owl and Raccoon, who became detectives with the Missing Persons divisions – encountering more than one seemingly impossible disappearance. I read the first novella, "The Single Staircase" (2012), back in 2019 and stands as one of the most unconventional pieces of impossible crime fiction I've read to date. 

What makes this short-lived series standout is not merely the attempt to marry the modern crime novel with the traditional detective story, which has been done before. It's minimalists approach to the characterization, plotting and storytelling.

Ingwalson surgically removed everything from the police procedural and locked room mystery except the absolute bare essentials with short, unadorned sentences and several dozens of chapters running anywhere from a half-a-page to three or four pages – allowing to point a laser-focus on those bare essentials. Someway, somehow, this radical modernistic style actually worked with the author revealing himself to be somewhat of a master of the whydunit. More than the who-and how, Ingwalson is interested in explaining why such an artificial, time-worn trope as the locked room mystery turned up in a very modern, realistically presented setting. This is especially true for the last two novellas in the series. 

"WDYG" (2013) brings Owl and Raccoon to a mall where 17-year-old Amanda McDonald was last seen shopping with her three school friends, Sarah Neils, Haley Comet and Katrina Dempsey. When they arrived at the food court, Amanda told her friends she had to use the bathroom while they waited right near the entrance. They never moved from that spot. After 15 minutes, they began to wonder what happened to her or why she didn't respond to their text messages ("where did you go?"). Katrina walked into the bathroom to discover Amanda's shopping bags in the corner of a stall, "paper bags ripped up" and "the clothes she bought all over the floor." Amanda's purse is later found in a trashcan, but she's nowhere to be found. She had vanished as if by magic!

Owl and Raccoon have a tricky situation on their hands, because they have no idea how reliable their witnesses actually are. They were texting and "teenage girls, you know? They lie." But why? She apparently had no reason to run away from home, nor was there's a way she could have been kidnapped without it being seen. So what happened? A case complicated as their witnesses could also be bratty, eye-rolling suspects who keep their lips closely sealed. Not to mention the discovery of a body (not Amanda), which could get the case assigned to another division.

The solution has some great synergy between the inexplicable disappearance of Amanda and the more darker, sordid plot-elements, one being a consequence of the other, but particularly liked how the illogical side of a logical decision fueled the plot – hinged on a rarely-used motive to rig up a locked room. John Dickson Carr gave four motives in The Peacock Feather Murders (1937) to create a locked room scenario, but one that's rarely mentioned or used is (ROT13) perngvat na vzcbffvoyr fvghngvba vf gb trg bhg bs n qnatrebhf fvghngvba be qvirefvba. My only misgiving is that the vanishing-act has an obvious answer staring you in the face, which, yes, made the why even more perplexing. And there was more than enough reason why Owl and Raccoon were "chasing shadows" before finally getting to the truth. But the only reason why it took Owl so long to figure out the vanishing-act, is because the plot wouldn't allow an earlier disclosure.

So, besides that one very minor flaw, "WDYG" is a glimpse of what the crime and detective genre could have looked like had it continued to build on its rich history instead of discarding it. 

"Not With a Bang" (2016) is the third and, as of this writing, last entry in the series and poses a spectacular impossible disappearance during a hostage situation. A commuter stops in the middle of Five Points, a busy intersection, blocking traffic in all directions. A police man approaching the bus is greeted with gunfire and calls-up the SWAT. Fifteen minutes later, there were "twelve patrol unites all over the damn place" with snipers covering both sides of the bus and a drone directly overhead. A teenage boy opens a window and yells, "please don't shoot my dad."

The boy is quickly identified as 17-year-old Todd Gonzales who disappeared the previous day when "he was allegedly snatched at gunpoint by his absentee father," Cody Jacobi. What follow were more shots and "a stampede of hostages" being released from the bus, which left Cody with only his son as a hostage. But then Cody opened a window and yelled, "you tell that bitch goodbye for us, we'll see her in hell." So they stormed the bus after throwing a flash bang grenade and tear gas canisters through a window, but they found Cody alone. There was "no trace of the teenaged boy who'd cried desperately through the window just a few minutes before."

What a way to begin your story! But the premise is perhaps a little misleading and you shouldn't expect some kind of thriller with an impossible crime angle, because everything quickly calms down.

JJ, of The Invisible Event, who directed the fandom's attention to the series back in 2015 and described "Not With a Bang" perfectly as "a deliberately, almost obstinately, lo-fi undertaking." Owl and Raccoon have a free hand to investigate the disappearance of the boy as his father is safely in custody, but says he has no idea what happened to his son or where he could be. So they have to retrace the steps of father and son during those twenty-four hours and dig through their family history, but "the not knowing" part of working Missing Persons is beginning to take its toll on the two detectives. 

"Not With a Bang" closes the door on the series without locking it so tightly that a fourth novella, or perhaps a full-length novel, is out of the question. A potential sequel is actually alluded to in the penultimate chapter. Even if a new story never materializes, this short-lived series received a fitting and satisfying conclusion with Ingwalson's most ingenious and daring locked room-trick. A trick with a very precarious and flashy setup demanding a good deal of motivation to convince the reader, which here was quite a hurdle to clear, but a lot of thought was put into the motive – dovetailing it with the backstory, characterization and clues. Add a good, old-fashioned piece of locked room trickery, brazenly performed in front of "a dozen rifle scopes," you have somewhat of a minor gem on your hands.

Matt Ingwalson wrote three beautifully paced, well balanced and thoroughly unconventional locked room stories, which shines a spotlight on the why of the impossibilities and how they came about. So they succeeded as both traditional, plot-driven detective stories and very modern, hardboiled police procedurals. More importantly, the Owl and Raccoon series possibly could be one of those extremely rare cases where a modernist build on tradition to create something truly good and special. Even demonstrating the modernistic dictum that sometimes less can be more. This is why Owl & Raccoon: Locked (2016), collecting all three novellas, deserves a place on the shelves of every self respecting and fanatical locked room reader.


The Island of Coffins and Other Mysteries from the Casebook of Cabin B-13 (2021) by John Dickson Carr

John Dickson Carr was the undisputed master of the locked room murder and impossible crimes, but not as well-known, or appreciated, was his pioneering work as a historical mystery novelist and writing some of the most suspenseful radio-plays to ever hit the airwaves – even contributing to the war effort with propaganda plays. These were "so effective" that "they led the BBC, unsuccessfully, to urge the American authorities to allow Carr to remain in the United Kingdom for the duration of the war." Carr contributed to some of the popular and classic radio shows, like Suspense and Murder by Experts, but one radio program, Cabin B-13, appeared to have been lost to time. 

Well, all except two, or three, recordings have been lost, but, in the early 1990s, twenty-three scripts were discovered in the Library of Congress. Three decades later, Crippen & Landru gathered those manuscripts under the title The Island of Coffins and Other Mysteries from the Casebook of Cabin B-13 (2021). Tony Medawar wrote an insightful foreword, "Suspense at Sea," with "Notes for the Curious" at the end of each play. 

Medawar's foreword and notes are scattered with little gold nuggets of equally fascinating and frustrating pieces of background information. Such as Carr's plan to have Cabin B-13 series-character, Dr. John Fabian, identified as the Man in Black from Suspense or references to his uncompleted and abandoned novels. 

Cabin B-13 was broadcast as two series, or seasons, between July 5, 1948, and January 2, 1949, which originated as a 1943 episode of Suspense – also titled "Cabin B-13." Suspense episode takes place aboard a luxury cruise-liner, Maurevania, which connects all the stories in the series as the protagonist is its "ship's surgeon, world traveler, and teller of strange and incredible tales of mystery and murder," Dr. John Fabian. His role in the story differs from story to story. Sometimes he simply acts as a storyteller and other he plays a minor role in the story itself, but, every now and then, he acts as the detective. When he plays detective, it's usually because the story is a rewrite that requires Dr. Fabian to take over the role of one of Carr's well-known detectives.

So, now that we got the introduction to the collection out of the way, you have to excuse me for a moment as I fanboy all over these radio-plays. 

"The Man Who Couldn't Be Photographed" tells the story of "the greatest romantic film-star in the first decade of talking pictures," Bruce Ransome, who feels like he has outgrown the people he used to care about. This results in a confrontation with his "social secretary" and love interest, Miss Nita Ross. She puts a curse on him before committing suicide. A curse promising that the conceited actor never faces a camera again, which apparently comes true when Ransome is turned away from every photographer in Paris like a leper. A very neat play and a clever inversion on an old urban legend that originated in a now obscure, 1920s detective story. 

"Death Has Four Faces" is different from the play of the same title Carr wrote for BBC's Appointment with Fear. This is a psychological crime tale, of sorts, in which Superintendent Bellman meets a young Canadian on the train, named Steve West, who asks to be handcuffed and escorted to the hotel like a criminal – where a perfect crime is foiled. Not my favorite play in the collection, but it was decent enough. And thought the lingering presence of the Second World War was put to good use. 

"The Blind-Folded Knife Thrower" is one of the highlights of the collection with a minor role for Dr. John Fabian in a tragedy that has become "a grim and evil memory" of what befall Madeline Lane on a previous voyage to Portugal. Madeline is haunted by the ghost, or memories, of her spiteful mother who committed suicide ten years ago by drinking acid. She has begun to haunt her daughter with disembodied whispers and a promise to visit Madeline on her first night in Lisbon. So the people who care about her place her in a room with solid walls, floor and ceiling and two windows "so closely barred that you couldn't even get your hand through." There are two people sitting outside the door until morning, but a figure of a woman with acid-burns round her mouth appears in the room as miraculously as she disappears again! Colonel Da Silva, Chefe da Policia Secreta, discovers a very tricky explanation for the nighttime visitation and the result is a better, fairer and much more convincing take on a particular locked room-trick that would turn up in one of Carr's later novels. 

"No Useless Coffin" is another highlight of the collection, but this time, Carr reworked an earlier short story with Dr. Fabian acting as a stand-in for one of his famous series-detectives. Dr. Fabian is accompanying the recently engaged couple on a picnic to a cottage where many years ago a 12-year-old girl, Vicky Fraser, disappeared from with all the door and windows locked from the inside, which left her parents nearly frantic, but two nights later she reappeared "through the locks and bolts" – "tucked up in bed as usual." Vicky claims to possess an "occult power" giving her the ability to vanish when she likes, where she likes, which the now adult Vicky promises to repeat during the picnic. She disappears "like a soap-bubble under the eyes of witnesses," but, this time around, the fairy tale of the vanishing girl has a dark and gruesome ending. The solution to the impossible disappearance is one of the most original and startling Carr has ever dreamed up. Just as good as the original short story with the only real difference being the detective and motive. 

"The Nine Black Reasons" is, curiously enough, a whydunit and brings "well-known writer of detective-stories," Frank Bentley, to Marseilles, France, where he discovers the body of a murdered man in the Royal Turkish Baths of a hotel. A short while later he meets an old acquaintance, Helen Parker, who witnessed the inexplicable murder of her uncle at the same hotel. Inexplicable because there's no earthly reason why the respectable Mr. Herbert Johnson killed the respectable Mr. Fredric Parker. Two complete strangers! The motive, while good, sorely needed polishing and fine-tuning, which makes it all the more frustrating that Carr abandoned a 1961 novel of the same title despite having completed eight chapters. And, of course, "the typescript of the eight chapters has long been lost."

"The Count of Monte Carlo" has Dr. Fabian coming to the rescue of a young man, Bart Stevens, who's engaged to Janet Derwent, but foolishly has gotten himself involved in "a love-affair to end all love-affairs." Bart has been fooling around with another woman, "Dolores," who's engaged to the Count of Monte Carlo, Jean Ravelle. A messy, tangled square that ends with a murder and two people confessing to have done the dirty deed. A good, but relatively minor, story with an original murder method that Carr reused to much better effect in a later novel. 

"Below Suspicion" shares its title with the contentious Dr. Gideon Fell novel Below Suspicion (1949), but the story has nothing else in common except, perhaps, that Carr would rewrite it in the 1950s as a Dr. Fell short story. Dr. Fabian tells the story of a stage actress, Valerie Blake, who retired from the stage before her time to retreat with her new husband on the Italian coast. Regrettably, Ralph Garrett proved to be a poor husband and two of her old friends came to the rescue, but they were too late to prevent her murder and struggle to find an explanation, because "the murderer must have walked on air" to have left her body on the beach – since there were no footprints except Valerie's. This story is actually better than the later version with a better developed backstory to the murder and always liked the clue of the rifle shots, which helped strengthening a somewhat sketchy murder method. 

"The Power of Darkness" is indelibly "one of his most audacious impossibilities" with two people traveling "back three hundred years in time" and witnessed "a whole suburb disappear" to reveal a scene from centuries ago. Dr. Fabian keeps telling everyone he's "not a detective," but he certainly had a guiding hand in revealing the sordid truth beneath this time shattering miracle. Some of you probably know how fond I'm of these rare kind of time-tampering impossibilities and enjoyed this one as much as the other version Carr wrote. The episode was originally intended to be titled "Last Night in Ghost-Land." A much better title and a pity it was never used for another story. 

"The Footprint in the Sky" is a fairly conventional impossible crime story, but told in a very unconventional way. The luxury liner Maurevania is tossed around during a storm at sea and Dr. Fabian, the ship's surgeon from Cabin B-13, is asked to come down to C-24 where a passenger, Marcia Tate, has lost her mind – believing it's Christmas over a year ago and asking "why she hasn't been hanged for murder." What follows is a backstory recounting a broken engagement and a new one, which resulted in murder with two sets of footprints in the snow pointing an accusatory finger at Marcia. The police "solved that 'studio-mystery' over a year ago" and Dr. Fabian has to retreat their steps to help Marcia regain her memory. A good framing device for a detective story, but have always found the solution to this particular no-footprints scenario to be cheap, hack and unworthy of the maestro. 

"The Man with the Iron Chest" is the nickname given "the best jewel-thief in the trade" whose "only burglar's tools are his ten fingers" and "an iron chest weighing sixty pounds." Why does he drag around a big iron chest? That's something the police from seven cities across the European continent would like to know and he nearly got caught in Amsterdam, which forced him to leave behind his ornamental iron chest. So he remained elusive until a young married couple, Don and Joyce, caught a glimpse of his face during a burglary, which lead the Greek police straight to his doorstep. But he then pulled of a minor miracle by making "an iron chest and a hundred diamonds vanish" from a locked and guarded room "as though they had never existed." A great piece of impossible crime fiction showcasing the author's love for stage magic and illusions. 

"The Street of the Seven Daggers" is a rewrite of one of my favorite short stories by Carr, but he improved the plot with a backstory and setting that really speaks to the imagination of readers who tend to like Carr. Like yours truly. Dr. Fabian is asked by a passenger, Miss Betty Parrish, to prevent her father from going to a certain street in Cairo or he'll be murdered. Who is going to kill him? Absolutely nobody! Mr. Edmund Parrish is "a superstition-breaker" and his attention has now been drawn to a little, dead-end alley called the Street of the Seven Daggers, which used to be the street of the hired killers in ancient times. Three hundred years ago, a bigwig of the Ottoman Empire "got annoyed about hired assassins" and had them executed in front of their houses – burnt out the street. But then people began to die and the rumors began. The "street's full of invisible people" and anyone who walks through the alley, "after midnight and alone," you're supposed to die with a dagger in your back. Dr. Fabian stands at the mouth of dagger-alley when Parrish is knifed while walking down the dark passageway alone. Only someone who's invisible could have stabbed the man, but Dr. Fabian reasons a more earthly explanation from the clue of the two wallets. Great stuff and even better than the original! 

"The Dancer from Stamboul" takes place in Port Said, at the gateway to the Suez Canal, where Dr. Fabian bumps into a New York policeman, Detective Lieutenant Jim Canfield of the Homicide Squad, who came with extradition-papers to take back a dangerous man-eater. Lydia White is suspected of having poisoned three men and the police has received information that she's somewhere in Port Said. So he asks Dr. Fabian to assist him comb out the port town, which leads to the titular dancer and her two lovers. A French fencer and an Italian nobleman. This ends in a duel at a fencing saloon and another poisoning. I liked the fencing scene, but otherwise an unremarkable as a detective story. 

"Death in the Desert" is not a detective or crime story, not even a horror yarn, but a historical adventure with a detective/espionage hook and presented as "a story out of my parents' time," namely 1895, which is set in the Sudanese desert. The crux of the plot is the completion and testing of an improved machine gun. A good story, if you like this kind of historical romancing. 

"The Island of Coffins" is, as Medawar rightly noted, "the most extraordinary story" in the series and demonstrated Carr didn't need to lean on the fancies and phantasms of the impossible crime to be the greatest mystery writer who ever lived. Story begins when the Maurevania, passing the Abyssinian Coast, sees a distress signal coming from Hadar Island. A very small, uninviting island with a big house where someone had sustained a serious bullet-wound. Dr. Fabian is shocked when he finds an elderly lady, Mrs. Almack, who was shot in the arm. She has retreated to the island with her grandson and two children (now all adults) to keep him company. But, when they arrived on the island, she "turned back the calendar to the year 1900." Those were "the only years that were worth living" and the current date on the island is November 12, 1920. Mrs. Almack kept her three wards on the island for two decades and they've no idea about the outside world. But why? And are the coffins on the island really filled with people who tried to leave? Dr. Fabian has to doctor out where the insanity lies and proof "tyrants aren't always so powerful as they think." Nearly as good and unforgettable as Carr's best radio-play, "The Dead Sleep Lightly."

"The Most Respectable Murder" is another one of those complicated eternal triangle stories littering the series. This time, Dr. Fabian goes to the Paris Opera where the future of two friends depended entirely on him finding an explanation how a "murderer could leave behind him a room locked up on the inside," which is easier said than done as Dr. Fabian recognizes it was "done in a completely new way" – openly admires the murderer's intelligence. The locked room-trick is the selling point of the story as it's genuinely original, but Carr would use it to much better effect in one of his late-period novels. No wonder that novel struck me as his last hurrah as the master of all crimes impossible. He came up with the trick a decade earlier! 

"The Curse of the Bronze Lamp" is a condensed version of the Merrivale novel of the same title in which an ancient bronze lamp discovered in a cursed Egyptian tomb is held responsible for blowing its owner to dust "as though she never existed." Regrettably, the shorter version exposed just how weak and unfair the impossibility really is, which needed the novel-length treatment to prop it up more convincingly. Now it felt more like the plot of a season 4 episode of Jonathan Creek. Anyway, whether it's the novel-length version or a short radio-play, I agree with Nick. This should have been "a full-blown Egyptian curse story, set in the Valley of the Kings, with murders in the pyramids, cobras at camp-sites and trouble in the tombs."

"Lair of the Devil-Fish" was an unexpected surprise as it belongs to that rare category of so-called "submerged mysteries," which tend to be impossible crimes and recommend you read my reviews of Charles Forsyte's Diving Death (1962) and Micki Browning's Adrift (2017) to get more background on this type of story – including more links. Carr might have been the first to experiment with this type of setting as the earliest example I've come across previously was Joseph Commings' short story "Bones for Davy Jones" (1953), but, strangely enough, it's not truly an impossible crime. Unless you believe the deep, dark blue ocean is the natural habitat of Lovecraftian monsters. So the story takes place off the southeast coast of Cuba where a small expedition has gotten permission to dive to the wreck of a cabin-cruiser, which sank in a bay during the Spanish-American War of 1898 with a fortune in silver dollars. Legend has it the cabin-cruiser was "dragged under" by the giant, slimy tentacles of a monstrous octopus. What nearly killed their diver? A monster or something a little more human? A solid and entertaining addition to those rare underwater mysteries. 

"The Dead Man's Knock" is a weird crime story in which brash American secret service agent and a British crime writer have to figure out how to kill a closely guarded man in order to protect him. Not really a locked room mystery, but a fun how-can-it-be-done. 

"The Man with Two Heads" is a low-key great story in which Dr. Fabian meets Leonard Wade on the top deck of a bus. Wade is a well-known and celebrated thriller author who might have become the victim of a diabolical plot as he has become a wandering ghost. Or so it feels. And not without reason. Dr. Fabian reads his obituary in the newspaper and Wade tells him he saw his own body in his study. Somewhat reminiscent, in spirit, to Helen McCloy's famous doppelgänger novel Through a Glass, Darkly (1950), but with a slightly more convincing setup and solution. What a shame Carr never expended this idea into a novel-length mystery. 

"Till Death Do Us Part" is another one with an awfully familiar-sounding title, but the plot has no resemblance, whatsoever, to Till Death Do Us Part (1944). This is Carr venturing into the territory of domestic suspense with the backstory to an attempted murder-suicide in a remote house, which comes with a twist in the tail. Anthony Gilbert would have loved it!

So, on a whole, The Island of Coffins and Other Mysteries from the Casebook of Cabin B-13 is a stronger than your average collection of short detective stories with the quality ranging from very good to pretty decent, but not a single average or bad story – which says something how good Carr really was. Only drawback is the lack of truly new material as Carr used this series to try out new ideas or retool old tricks or stories. But who cares? Carr is always a treat to read and this volume finally gave us back Carr's obscure, long-lost series-detective. Highly recommended!


The Corpse with the Grimy Glove (1938) by R.A.J. Walling

R.A.J. Walling was a British journalist, magistrate and writer who, like his contemporary E.R. Punshon, "did not begin to write mysteries until he was nearly sixty" and spend the last two decades of his life writing detective fiction as a hobby – producing nearly thirty novels until his death in 1949. Walling enjoyed some popularity and critical acclaim during his lifetime and counted Ogden Nash, Alexander Woollcott and reportedly the Queen of Spain among his loyal readers. But, as so often is the case, his print-run and reputation fell into neglect following his passing. Most of his work remained out-of-print for decades. 

A situation that remained unaltered until last year when Black Heath Editions reissued the lion's share of Walling's detective novels as inexpensive ebooks. Since his work represents a huge gap in my Golden Age reading, it was about time I got around to giving Walling a shot.

Unfortunately, one of the titles Black Heath neglected to bring back into circulation is Walling's only known impossible crime novel, Murder at the Keyhole (1929), but "D for Doom," of Vintage Pop Fiction, is the only person who has been reading and reviewing Walling for many years now – which provided me with some good recommendations. My eye fell on The Corpse with the Grimy Glove (1938). 

The Corpse with Grimy Glove was published in the US as More Than One Serpent and is the thirteenth or twenty-two novels in Walling's Philip Tolefree series. An insurance agent who acts as a private investigator with his friend and ship-broker, James Farrar, narrating his exploits. It's an old acquaintance of Farrar who draws the two in a dark, murky case when he writes a letter asking about his friend with "some skill in puzzling out mysteries."

Arthur Treglohan is the parson of Bosenna Rectory, of Bosenna, which is a small, seaside town and "a corner of unspoiled beauty within a semi-feudal ring-fence" where Sir James Lanivet is the local "chief man." Sir James practically owned the entire village, the Rectory, selected the landlord of the inn and was "the patron of the living," but recently crossed paths with a city shark, Albert Tenterton, whose "crookedness has cost him a packet" and "mixed up his name in an unsavory transaction." So why did Sir James, having been robbed by this bandit, invite him and his retinue to his home in Bosenna. This is what worries his sister, Miss Victoria Lanivet. So the parson wrote to Farrar to invite him and Tolefree to find out what Tenterton doing there and "what he and James are cockering up between them."

Sir James has gathered a very curious house party at Lanivet Castle. There's the Lanivets brother-in-law, Colonel Mellows, who's "a devastating gun who annually did great havoc among the birds at Bosenna." The veritable Charles Michael, a freelance member of Parliament, who has a long list of pet dislikes headed by the financiers of Tenterton's ilk. Lionel Lawry is "the pianist of the day" and a victim of one of Tenterton's swindles. Alec Schuster is an American whose family Sir James encountered abroad and warmed to the personable and likable young man. Tenterton is accompanied to Bosenna by his secretary, Mr. Sherbery, his local lawyer, Mr. Peter Thuell, and his daughter-in-law and young widow to his late son, Mrs. Eva Tenterton – who lives "somewhat under his thumb." But, when they arrive in Bosenna, Tolefree's attention is immediately drawn to four persons who fall outside the closely-drawn circle at Lanivet Castle.

Firstly, there's the landlord of the Bosenna Arms, Mr. Murch, who Tolefree notices has "an observant eye." Secondly, the three-men crew of the yacht Guillemot, Martin Masterman, George Cray and Robert Melbourne, anchored in the middle of the land-locked creek under Mr. Murch's windows. They were very interested in the arrival of Tolefree and Farrar.

When they come to the party, Tolefree concludes that they're merely "onlookers at a private war" as "a stray shot from a gun during a partridge drive" hit a tree quite close to Sir James and someone "emptied a clip at the gallant young sailors," which forced them to abandon ship. A situation that ends dramatically during a firework fête when various members of the party go missing and frightened footman reports he saw the body of the financier inside the Tennis Court by the light of a rocket. But when they go there to look, the body has vanished and is not found until the police gets involved. The body is found lying between two shrubs with his arms tied behind his back, marks on his throat and "a bullet wound in the exact center of his forehead," but, most curiously, his right hand was covered with a white, stained dress glove.

On the surface, I can see why Walling invited comparisons with Freeman Wills Crofts and other craftsmen of the so-called Humdrum detective story, but he was a kindred spirit of Conan Doyle and Punshon.

The crime scene and circumstances of the body suggests everything you would expect from a detective novel of the Humdrum or adjacent Realist school, but physical evidence is not the primary focus of the investigation with the titular glove playing a significantly smaller role than the title suggests – which makes place for simple observations and deductions. Tolefree simply observes, deduces and soaks up the historic atmosphere of, what he called, "the Bosenna secrecy." That's where The Corpse with the Grimy Glove became somewhat reminiscent of Punshon's detective fiction. The setting is living with history from the moss-grown tombstones of long-gone Lanivets dotting the graveyard to a creek where Hereward the Wake "is supposed to have sailed up a thousand years ago." Even the disused Tennis Court is "an ancient arena" fitted "up as it might have been in the eighteenth century" with a spectators' gallery raised above the floor. Tolefree remarked that it was perhaps foolish to expect such an "ancient place to deliver up all its secrets in three or four days." You really get the idea this story is merely another chapter in its history.

It's interesting to note Walling was born in 1869 and Punshon in 1872, which means they up in the gaslight era with the age of (household) electricity still being a few decades in the future. So you have to wonder if that had any influence on how they portrait the world in the stories.

Another thing Walling has in common with Punshon is that neither were throwbacks to the 19th century and they applied some of that Golden Age ingenuity to their old-world detective stories. But, here at least, there was an important difference between the two. The plot of The Corpse with the Grimy Glove can be boiled down to a simple, Doylean crime story that took its cue from one of the short stories collected in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1894), but Walling managed to strike two very original notes. Firstly, he found a perfectly acceptable excuse to have the crime scene resemble a busy thoroughfare at the time of the murder. Secondly, Tolefree's positions becomes a very interesting one as he's sort of sucked into a conspiracy, but not because he either approved of the murder or throwing dust in the eyes of the police. But to lay his hands on Tenterton's murderer "before any of these people know a thing about it." I thought that made his position a very interesting one. And he even stages a mock inquest to show his fellow conspirators how much trouble a curious-minded coroner could present them. I don't remember having ever come across a better way to use the inquest scene than in The Corpse with the Grimy Glove.

Regrettably, the ending to this otherwise typical specimen of the British Golden Age mystery fell a little flat with a solution that has some serious fair play issues, which largely pertains to the motive. Not all. A complete "absence of alibis" and other hooks makes an educated, genre-savvy guess your only chance to identify the opportunistic murderer. So a mostly good, well written second-string mystery novel with some original touches, here and there, but a novel that can only be recommended to seasoned mystery readers.

I'm not giving up on "the ingenious Mr. R.A.J. Walling." Not yet anyway. The Corpse with the Floating Foot (1937) is currently on the big pile, which was highly praised by "D for Doom," Nick Fuller and Torquemada. So another story that will be continued sometime in the not so distant future.