The Ebony Stag (1938) by Brian Flynn

Earlier this month, I returned to Brian Flynn with the first novel from the third set of Dean Street Press reprints, Cold Evil (1938), which began promising enough until it all fell apart in the last two chapters – translating into a lukewarm review. Flynn has an excellent win/loss record in my book with only four misses to his name. So the odds were in my favor the next time around, but were they good odds? Time to find out! 

The Ebony Stag (1938) is the twenty-second title in the Anthony Bathurst series and begins three weeks after a gruesome and still unsolved murder in the village of Upchalke. One of those small bungalow retirement communities on the west coast of England.

Robert Forsyth was a 73-year-old rate collector and was brutally attacked on an early October evening in his bungalow, The Antlers, which left quite a mess. A terrific blow to face cut his lip and loosened his front teeth, but the cause of death was "a great gash just above the breast-bone" inflicted by strange, unidentified weapon and every article of furniture near the dead man was spattered with his blood. There are two more peculiar features to the case placing it well above your common, garden-variety murder. A small, carved figure of an imitation ebony stag that used to stand on Forsyth's mantelpiece was "smashed to smithereens" without apparent reason and there's an impossible angle to the murder – which nobody saw fit to mention or point out to me. I would have started this third round of reprints with The Ebony Stag instead of Cold Evil!

The front door of the bungalow was bolted and the backdoor locked and bolted, but the key to that door was missing. However, it hardly explains how the door was bolted. Only possible in the bungalow was a small, partly open scullery-window that big enough for a small child to worm through, which is how they were able to open the front door without breaking it down or smashing a window. Admittedly, the locked room-trick is not all that spectacular, poorly motivated ("...to mystify the police") and only a tiny piece of the puzzle that's not given too much attention. But it counts as an impossible crime. And needs to be included in that inevitable, fourth supplement edition of Locked Room Murders.

So the local police get nowhere Major Marriner, Chief Constable of Remenham, turned to Sir Austin Kemble, Commissioner of Police, but New Scotland Yard is overstretched. Sir Austin has to turn to his friend, Anthony Lotherington Bathurst, who has garnered a reputation as a "well-known crime-expert." And he's pretty much given a freehand to investigate the murder on his own. An amateur detective's daydream come to life!

All three agreed he would have a much better chance of picking up valuable information incognito. So he goes to the village as Mr. Lotherington, "an artist hoping to execute two or three picture commissions during his stay by the waters of the Chal," to poke around Forsyth's circle of acquaintances and cronies. Forsyth had three so-called intimates, Randolph Skipwith, Leonard Burns and Andrew McCracken, who used to spend a lot of time together playing cards or sharing a drink or two at the local inn, The Tracy Arms – earning them the nickname of "old chinas." Among his less frequent visitors and acquaintances were such notables as Reverend Charles A. Sellon, the Vicar of St. Veronica's, and the village physician, Dr. Innes. Mrs. Margaret Swan is an old friend who used to visit Forsyth about once a month. Lastly, there's a young journalist, Cyril Mulrenan, who enjoys a private income and shared Forsyth's liking for amateur-dramatic work. Bathurst gets his most valuable leads from several people outside of "Forsyth's chosen friends and his mere acquaintances."

Bathust has a change encounter with Wilfred Hatherley, chief Audit Clerk to the County Borough of Easthampton, who's a former colleague of the victim and what he reveals puts an entirely different complexion on the case. A complexion allowing Flynn to indulge in his pet trope, namely the false-identity, because the Forsyth he knew "had his teeth extracted two or three years before he retired." So who had been murdered in the bungalow and what happened to the real Forsyth? Don't worry. This is all revealed early on in the story. A second outsider is Captain Falk Stromm, late of the Swedish Navy, who came to England aboard a Swedish timber ship, the Vaar, to enjoy a holiday. But he and Captain Vass helped Bathurst out of tight corner or two over the course of the story. I should perhaps also mention the second victim, who counted as an outsider, because that murder proved to be one of the vital puzzle pieces that ultimately betrayed the murderer.

Needless to say, The Ebony Stag is Flynn's return to his pleasantly busy, knotted whodunits and not only concerns an impossible murder with a strange weapon and false-identities, but also has a very well hidden, cast-iron alibi and eight-decades-old coded message – which Bathurst refers to as the "stag" cryptogram. A cryptogram linked to a long-ago, nearly forgotten maritime disaster and a treasure of lost gold. Flynn practically threw every well-known trope at the story with various degrees of success as he eventually had to pick what aspect of the plot to concentrate on. And his attention mostly went to the triple-W: who was the victim, who killed him and what happened to the real retiree? The locked room is merely side dressing and the cryptogram only comes into play during the final stages of the story. Flynn put too much on his plate. But, just as a whodunit, it was very well done and an entertaining detective novel from start to finish.

There is, however, a very small flaw in the plot that needs to be mentioned, because how Flynn handled it was so endearing. ROT13: Sylaa ortna jevgvat zlfgrevrf “cevznevyl ng gur cebzcgvat bs uvf jvsr Rqvgu jub unq tebja gverq bs urnevat uvz fnl ubj ur pbhyq jevgr n orggre zlfgrel abiry guna gur barf ur unq orra ernqvat,” juvpu nyfb znqr uvz n cebsrffvbany Fureybpx Ubyzrf snaobl. Gurer ner znal, fbzrgvzrf irel fylyl cynprq, ersreraprf gb gur Onxre Fgerrg qrgrpgvir. Frireny bs uvf abiryf jrer boivbhfyl zbqryrq nsgre Fureybpx Ubyzrf fgbevrf be unq cybg-ryrzragf nyyhqvat gb fbzr bs uvf snzbhf pnfrf. Gur Robal Fgnt vf bar bs gubfr Fureybpxvna zlfgrevrf nf vg jnf boivbhfyl vafcverq ol “Gur Nqiragher bs gur Zhftenir Evghny” naq (zber vzcbegnagyl) “Gur Nqiragher bs Oynpx Crgre” (1904). Vs lbh abgvpr guvf, lbh pna'g uryc ohg fhfcrpg n pregnva punenpgre. Na bgurejvfr pyrireyl pnzbhsyntrq punenpgre. Fb ur znqr abg fvatyr ersrerapr gb Fureybpx Ubyzrf be Pbana Qblyr va guvf irel Fureybpxvna zlfgrel, juvpu zhfg unir orra gbegher sbe n snaobl yvxr Sylaa. I found it very endearing. Even if it undid the work of some of his carefully placed red herrings.

Steve Barge, of In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, who rediscovered Flynn and wrote the introductions to the reprint editions, reviewed The Ebony Stag in 2020 deeming it to be a "very entertaining and a gripping read" – but "not his strongest work." I agree. But don't let our technical nitpicking get in the way of a good, solid and fascinating read. Highly recommended to everyone who's already familiar with Anthony Bathurst and Brian Flynn! 

A note for the curious: The Ebony Stag has a locked room, false-identities and alibis, but the smashed figure of the titular stag, sort of, works as a dying message. Although done by the murderer and unintentionally provided Bathurst with the first of many clues. So detective story tropes were very much on my mind when another, rarely used trope seemed the materialize. Namely the rival detective. Wilfred Hatherley brings Bathurst into contact with his boss, Frederick Gulliver Sharpe-Lodge, who's the Borough Treasurer of Easthampton. Bathurst "had never met a man like this before," but the most astonishing thing is that he tells Bathurst Hatherley had solved "the mystery of a secret Trust Fund" and cleared up "the St. Angela's kidnapping case in less than a month." This not only smacked of rival detectives, but of a crossover! Flynn wrote a second, short-lived series about a character named Sebastian Stole under a pseudonym, "Charles Wogan." I wondered if he might have written a third series under another name. Maybe even a series of short stories. Curiously, Flynn is one of the few mystery writers (especially from his time) who apparently never wrote any short stories. So I poked around the web to see if I could find any obscure detective novels or short stories with characters named Wilfred Hatherley and Frederick Gulliver Sharpe-Lodge. Nothing so far. I advise to keep those names in mind in case you ever come across a story with an audit clerk and treasurer as the detectives.


Murder of a Negative (1963) by Dick A. van Ruler

Last month, I reviewed In de greep van de kreeft (In the Grip of the Lobster, 1965) by "B.J. Kleymens," a shared penname of J. Kleijn and B. Mensen, whose only detective novel was their contribution to the "Zodiac Mysteries" – a collaborative project of twelve writers and an editor. Ab Visser gathered twelve writers each tasked with writing a detective novel in which one of the astrological signs plays a central or even decisive role. But the project was abandoned and left unfinished after eight novels. So what happened? 

I used my review of In the Grip of the Lobster to burrow deeper into the mystery of the missing "Zodiac Mysteries." I was unable to discover why the series was abandoned or canceled, but Robert van Gulik's novella "De nacht van de tijger" ("The Night of the Tiger," 1963) from The Monkey and the Tiger (1965) was originally intended to be his contribution to the series. There's a possibility, as noted in my review, Jacques Presser's Moord in de Poort (Murder in the Poort, 1965) is another lost Zodiac mystery that made it to print. Maybe. So this left only two contributors unaccounted for.

One of them, Leon Derksen, has to my knowledge never written or published a single detective story, but the subject of today's review did put one to his name. I was more than a little intrigued by his sole detective novel on record.

Dick A. van Ruler studied theology at the Rijksuniversiteit of Utrecht in the 1950s and began to work as a journalist for the Utrechts Nieuwsblad in 1961, but gained national fame as the presenter of popular NCRV TV programs such as Hoe bestaat het – which translates to How It Exists or How Does It Work. A pop-science show from the 1960s and the second picture in this review comes from a newspaper teaser about that program. Yes, Van Ruler is pulling "the weight of eight train wagons" or "five and a half thousand times the weight of Dick van Ruler." You had to tune in that evening to learn the trick behind his incredible feat of strength. Regrettably, I've been unable to find even a few seconds of footage online.

More importantly, Van Ruler penned a detective novel around the same time, Moord op een negatief (Murder of a Negative, 1963), which the back cover tells showcases his interest in pastoral matters. Van Ruler is not so much interested in the crime solving techniques of the police as he's in those who come into contact with the police. Murder of a Negative is not about the who and/or how, but the why and the far-reaching, sometimes unforeseeable consequences of murder. So the result is a quasi-social crime novel similar to K. Abma's De hond was executeur (The Dog Was Executor, 1973) with the difference being Van Ruler tried to write something resembling a Dutch politieroman.

Before going over the story, I need to briefly return to the "Zodiac Mysteries" and Van Ruler's contribution that never materialized or remained unpublished. I didn't expect Murder of a Negative to be a lost Zodiac title, but postulated in my review of In the Grip of the Lobster it might have caught the eye of Visser and earned him a seat at the table – a guess which could be closer to the truth than I imagined. Murder of a Negative more or less, likely without intending it, low key setup a sequel in the background that could tie-in to and be part of the Zodiac series. The wife and confident of the police detective, Mary, "hung her believes and soul" on astrology (well, sort of) and knew her way around the field. She could advise her husband in a murder case involving one of the Zodiac signs. This raises a question: did Van Ruler penned a sequel that was part of the "Zodiac Mysteries" and, if he did, what happened to the unpublished manuscript? Did it survive or did it get lost or even destroyed as there was little chance of it ever getting published? Questions that will probably never get answered and this elusive, hypothetical second novel is so intangible that it can't even be entered into the Phantom Library of Lost Detective Stories. But let's get to the story. 

Murder of a Negative dogs the footsteps of Chief Inspector Leendert M. van Dop, of the judicial police in Utrecht (cheap pop!), who gets "de Kruit-affaire" dropped on his desk.

Johan Kruit was a valued, highly respected and pious financial manager of an import-and export company in Utrecht, De Giec, who was the first to clock in and the last to leave – never taking any vacations. When he finally took a holiday and boarded a ship with his wife to the United States, he discovered too late that his sleeping powders contained a cyanide. And he died on the floor of his cabin. Suicide is quickly dismissed by both the authorities aboard and the Americans, which made them decide to return the body and accompanying problem back to the Netherlands.

Van Dop can begin his investigation quietly and unhurried, but is getting nowhere as he's confronted with a broken, disunited family. Mrs. Kruit is silent, submissive woman who "intoxicated herself with the past" and refused to acknowledge her husband's flaws "so as not to get from the others." Namely their two children. There's a 13-year-old girl, Bertje, but she barely appears. She has a much older brother, Hans, who Van Dop finds to be an "odd boy" suffering from his "learned indifference." And he was not on the best of terms with his father. There's the problem of the two-sided, negative image of the victim.

Johan Kruit had a squeaky clean, public image of an honest, hardworking man who sat on several church and school boards, but back home he acted like "an Old Testament patriarch" who was quick to judge and hated compromises. An image that is completely shattered in the wake of his death when it's discovered he stole tens of thousands of guldens from his employer. And they're not the only victims of Kruit's financial shenanigans. Van Dop even comes across a secret mistress. So there are more than enough motives to go around.

I already said the who-and how take a backseat to the reasons behind the murder and its consequences. The murderer is not difficult to spot (ur'f ba gur pbire) and there's nothing really clever hiding behind the poisoning, which is limited to going pharmacists to ask if anyone bought some cyanide. Murder of a Negative is almost entirely focused on the why and showing how easily a situation can spin out of control. Even when someone does something horrible with the best of intentions. Some detective stories can best be compared to complicated riddles or intricate, maze-like crossword puzzles while others are character studies, but Murder of a Negative is simply watching dominoes falling down – as one bad deed leads to another ending a second murder. A death as inevitable as it's dark and tragic. So not particular satisfying as a fan of the plot-driven detective story, but readers who prefer the social and realist approach will find something of interest between its pages.

Van Ruler's Murder of a Negative is another demonstration that the Dutch detective story is all over the place, which refuses to be defined by a single school of thought or time-period. This makes finding your way not unlike groping around a pitch-black labyrinth. You take what you can get hold off and what you get is not always what you like or were looking for. Sometimes you get lucky and find a Cor Docter or Ton Vervoort. Other times you get a Bob van Oyen. Van Ruler falls into the category of interesting, but not to my liking. That being said, I did enjoy following a typical Dutch police character down all those familiar streets under the watchful eye of the Dom Tower. I just wish it had been more of a proper detective novel.


Penelope's Web (2001) by Paul Halter

I remember reading Xavier Lechard's review of Paul Halter's La toile de Pénélope (Penelope's Web, 2001) back in the late 2000s, on his old blogspot, describing the story as "one of Halter's most orthodox detective novel" born from a challenge posed by a Belgian scholar, Vincent Bourgeois – challenging him to devise "a strange manner" to seal the scene of a crime. Xavier praised Penelope's Web as an "elegantly and soundly devised" locked room mystery that ended up looking "more like Christie than Carr."

That old review never stopped to intrigue me and cemented Penelope's Web on my impossible crime wishlist. But, at the time, the only English translations of Halter's work consisted of a smattering of short stories with the first novel-length translation finally being published in 2010. Over the next ten years, John Pugmire of Locked Room International would go on to publish sixteen of Halter's novels and compiled two short story collections. Penelope's Web remained untranslated and tantalizingly inaccessible until recently. So let's cut through the tangled web of this long, eagerly anticipated translation.

Professor Frederick Foster was an entomologist who went to South America, "to study some rare species of spider," three years ago, but he went missing in Brazil and his body was eventually found on the bank of a river – murdered by a band of savages. Back home, the Foster household continued and his widow, Ruth Foster, became engaged to the local physician, Dr. Paul Hughes, who has been treating her for an illness of retina that made her practically blind. Ruth and Paul receive a nasty shock when they receive news that the body in Brazil was misidentified and Professor Foster is not only alive, but on his way back home to the village of Royston.

Professor Foster brought back more than just stories and anecdotes about his "incredible tribulations in the Amazonian jungle." What he brought back are some very rare, even hitherto unknown species of spiders and "practically tamed" one of them, which he named after his goddaughter, Penelope Ellis. Penelope is one of those unknown species with very well-developed silk-spinning organs and can spin a web faster than her sisters. Professor Foster placed Penelope in an open window of his study where she spun an fine, intricate silk web stretched across the oak window frame. Something that becomes important later on in the story.

So the situation is an uneasy one and begins to deteriorate when questions arise about his identity. A photograph of the professor turns up, but the name scribbled on the back, Peter Thompson, is that of his traveling partner. The man whose body was found on a Brazilian riverbank. Or was it? There's no denying Thompson is, or was, the spitting image of Professor Foster, but are they dealing with an impostor? A question that's not as easily answered as it should be.

Ruth is half-blind and Dr. Hughes always tried to avoid Professor Foster, because he had eyes only for his wife. Ruth's 12-year-old orphaned nephew, James, remembered him only as the uncle who read him Thousand and One Nights and Gulliver's Travels as an 8-year-old (he recently turned 12), while the professor brother-in-law, Major Edwin Brough, confessed he can't be sure either way – only Penelope believes Professor Foster is her godfather. Even if he aged, lost a lot of weight and grew a beard. So the police has to get involved and they tracked down a set of fingerprints from registry office to settle the matter. Shades of John Dickson Carr's The Crooked Hinge (1938)! But, of course, the fingerprints gets stolen during a frantic search for two escaped spiders.

The situation becomes an impossible one when Professor Foster apparently shot himself in his study with "the only door bolted from the inside" and two, of the three, windows "more or less rusted in place." The third window is open, but covered entirely by Penelope's intricately-woven, unbroken silky web. The dark hole in his temple was still "oozing blood" when they broke down the door and there was "a strong smell of gunpowder in the room." However, the police quickly eliminate the possibility of suicide, but how could it have been murder? Dr. Alan Twist and Inspector Archibald Hurst happen to be on hand to help out the local policeman in charge, Inspector Mike Waddell. 

Penelope's Web is one of Halter's shortest novels to date with the murder taking place close to halfway mark, which makes it tricky to discuss further details. Suffice to say, Halter delivered on his promise of not only finding a new way to lock and seal a room, but came up with an original, tailor-made solution to fit a very novel impossible crime. Interestingly, the how doesn't immediately reveal the murderer's identity, which was almost ruined by the annoying use of unidentifiable pronouns. Even when they made no sense to use in certain sentences. However, this hardly detracted from an overall enjoyable, clever and original locked room mystery. One that strongly reminded me of Halter's Le cercle invisible (The Invisible Circle, 1996) as it shared some of its strength and weaknesses.

While both Penelope's Web and The Invisible Circle both sport original impossible crimes with equally original solutions, but they're not exactly flawless and you can pick holes in them. For example (no spoilers), Dr. Hughes points out to Dr. Twist that there are "traces of gunpowder on the temple" indicating "the shot was fired from point-blank range," but, according to the solution, the shot was fired "through a piece of cloth." There are some other details about the locked room-trick that can be a little sketchy or make you scratch your head.

Penelope's Web is not merely the sum of its locked room-trick and Xavier said in his old review the story ended up being more Christie than Carr. I sort of agree. Penelope's Web is arguably better as who-and whydunit than as an impossible crime story as Halter expertly dangled the smartly clued solution in front of the reader's eye while simultaneously planting red herrings as a distraction. Judging the story purely as a whodunit, Penelope's Web stands as one of his stronger and more solid efforts. The locked room-trick is merely the cherry on top. You can say the same about the second murder, which gave the story a dark and tragic tinge, but a good use of a second murder that's not merely there as padding. Still a pity, because the second victim would have made an interesting detective character. Even if it was just for a one-shot.

So, yeah, I personally enjoyed and recommend Penelope's Web, but mystery readers who are still struggling with Halter might find themselves in another frustrating catch-as-catch-can wrestling match with his own unique brand of plotting and mystery writing.

Now that Penelope's Web can be crossed off my Halter/LRI wishlist, I hope Le crime de Dédale (The Crime of Daedalus, 1997), Le géant de pierre (The Stone Giant, 1998), Le douze crimes d'Hercule (The Twelve Crimes of Hercules, 2001), Le voyageur du passé (The Traveler from the Past, 2012) and Le tigre borgne (The One-Eyed Tiger, 2004) will follow soon!


Mystery at Friar's Pardon (1931) by Martin Porlock

Philip MacDonald was a British novelist and screen writer who was better known as a writer of thrillers as, even in his more formal detective stories, "thriller elements keep breaking in and taking over from the puzzle plot," but he produced a few genuine mystery novels – like the synthetic The Maze (1932). A detective novel, or "An Exercise in Deduction," calculated and designed to fool the genre-savvy mystery reader. 

There's another obscure, long out-of-print pure mystery novel by MacDonald that has fascinated me for the longest time now. 

Mystery at Friar's Pardon (1931), published as by "Martin Porlock," is not only logged as an impossible crime in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991), but seen as one of the few genuine John Dickson Carr analogs. A detective novel that apparently can be mentioned in the same breath as Theodore Roscoe's Murder on the Way! (1935), Hake Talbot's Rim of the Pit (1944) and Derek Smith's Whistle Up the Devil (1954). John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, noted in his 2011 review that Mystery at Friar's Pardon reads like a homage to Carr and "seems as if it were right out of the Dr. Fell series," but the book predates practically all of Carr's celebrated novels – suggesting that "perhaps this work of MacDonald's inspired Carr." Adey added more intrigue by acknowledging MacDonald "hit upon something new" by staging a drowning in "a locked, waterless room."

The book is regrettably obscure and in desperate need of fresh ink and paper, but imagine my surprise when I discovered Mystery at Friar's Pardon was uploaded to the Internet Archive as part of The Fourth Crime Club Omnibus (1937). Why, yes, I'll take one! So let's see whether or not this elusive locked room mystery lives up to its reputation.

Friar's Pardon dates back to the 17th century with the last stone being laid in 1699, "stern and yet graceful," but the man who had the house built, Sir Roger Westmacott, died two years later "under mysterious circumstances in his bedroom." So the place became the property of his eldest son, Sir Derryck, who was a soldier and didn't return until 1706. But when he returned, history repeated itself and he died in the same room as his father under mysterious, inexplicable circumstances. Understandably, his younger brother and his descendants wanted nothing to do with Friar's Pardon and tried to sell the place for generations, but they were unable to rid themselves of it until 1800.

Bertram Deaves purchased Friar's Pardon and began to renovate and expand the house, while "pooh-poohing all local stories and warnings," but he died six months after moving into the house when he was in the prime of his health and his son suffered the same fate – all in the same room. There was a doctor who swore the body of the last victim showed evidence of drowning, but his room was upstairs and there was no water in the room or any "signs of water upon his clothes or person." This only deepened the mystery. So the family sealed up the wing with the room-that-kills and installed caretakers until Mrs. Enid Lester-Greene finally bought the place.

Mrs. Enid Lester-Greene is a famous novelist and playwright, known for such charming stories as Sir Galahad Comes Home and Oasis Love, who found the house of her dreams in Friar's Pardon. She not only refused to be scared away by "a lot of old wives' tales," but "in no way subscribe to belief in any supernatural influence over the house" and ordered the removal of the wall that sealed the haunted wing. Mrs. Lester-Green even decides to live in the haunted wing herself. She's not the only one who lives or stays there as a guest.

There's Mrs. Lester-Greene's daughter, Gladys, who has less personality or strength of character than her well-known, domineering mother. Major Claude Lester is Mrs. Lester-Greene's obstinate brother who sponges off his sister despite not liking her very much. Lesley Destrier is "sort of half guest and half family" who spends about seven months out of the twelve with the old lioness. Norman Sandys is Mrs. Lester-Green's well-dressed, competent secretary who's ever ready with a notebook to take down any ideas that can occur to his employer at a second's notice. There are also two notable house guests, Lady Maud Vassar and the eighth Baron Pursell of Mitcham. Lastly, there's the amateur detective of the story, Mr. Charles Fox-Browne, who needed work and accepted the post of estate manager of Friar's Pardon. Charles Fox-Browne had a varied army career as an intelligence officer and was for a time Chief Intelligence Officer to Brigadier-General Mallison's Brigade on the Somme. Something he has to rely on as the domestic strain and apparently supernatural phenomena become a prelude to murder.

Mrs. Lester-Greene is not the easiest person to be around, somewhat of a benevolent dictator, who appears to be generous with allowances, but prefers to be considered a Lady Bountiful and "see her see her protégés unhappy" than "finish being Lady Bountiful" – which would make everyone a lot happier. A situation not improved by rampant paranormal activity. Keys "plucked out from the keyhole" by invisible hands and doors locking, or unlocking, as by magic. A pair of pajamas disappear and reappear in a locked bedroom. A vase is smashed to pieces in another locked bedroom and disembodied hand with crooked fingers knocking on a bedroom window. And plenty of poltergeist activity. 

The situation culminates when Mrs. Lester-Greene's calls on the house telephone from her room in the haunted wing, screaming "help... help... for God's sake help," but her bedroom window is locked from the inside. Charles Fox-Browne has to break a window in order to get in and open the door. But they're too late. Mrs. Lester-Greene's body is laid out on a couch, not a mark on her body, but the doctor determines she drowned. There's not a drop of water or damp patch in the room. Surprisingly, the local police is more than a little willing to settle for a supernatural explanation.

So the whole setup, while a little long, is full of promise and there's a worthy payoff in the end, but the scheme as a whole turned out to be the proverbial mixed bag of tricks. I think having just reread Carter Dickson's brilliantly plotted The Reader is Warned (1939) made all the more obvious MacDonald lacked the divine touch of the master. Let's get the bad out of the way first.

Firstly, MacDonald gave away the identity of the murderer during the first-half of the story, but not due to clumsiness, sloppy writing or plotting. Some might even completely miss it, but, to me, it made this person stand out like a wolf among sheep. I can't tell what, exactly, betrayed the murderer to me without giving away the solution, but it's something very specific and not used until decades later in a somewhat contentious detective story – namely (ROT13) Vfnnp Nfvzbi'f fubeg fgbel, "Gur Boivbhf Snpgbe"). Secondly, the locked room-trick at the heart of the crime is routine. Not as bad as a secret passage or a pair of pliers to turn the key, but not good or original enough to warrant a reputation as an elusive impossible crime classic. Thirdly, the ghostly activity never gives you the impression that's anything else but cheap trickery, because the reader is never told what's suppose to be behind all those "queer deaths." MacDonald briefly goes over the history of the house and it's unfortunate occupants, but not why the owners started to drown in a bone-dry room in a new house with no history to speak of. Did they recycle building material from an already haunted house, paved the basement floor with headstones or simply a curse? The reader is never told and so the hauntings come across as nothing more than trickery, which robbed the story of most of its creepy atmosphere. And is not very Carr-like. 

On the other hand, the method of drowning in a locked, bone-dry room and how the murderer left it behind was an inspired piece of plotting. The kind of thing you would expect from a Japanese shin honkaku mystery writer with the clue of the spilled nail police being a clever touch to the drowning and locked room setup. There's another, more technical aspect to the murder, which demonstrated Golden Age mystery writers were very up-to-date on anything that could aid them in a juicy murder. Although it's a little weird to see a modern associated word like (ROT13) rnecubarf used in a 1931 mystery novel. I entirely agree with John Norris' 2011 review that the staged séance counts as "one of the best confession by entrapment scenes in a Golden Age novel." A great and very well handled ending to a regrettably uneven, but overall enjoyable, detective novel.

So all of this makes it troublesome to recommend Mystery at Friar's Pardon as a companion to Carr, Roscoe, Smith and Talbot, which is what most (locked room) readers aware of the book hope to find. I don't expect my review will do anything to fine-tune everyone's expectations, but advise you to expect something more in line with Herbert Brean, George Limnelius or one of Paul Halter's second-tier mysteries. You'll enjoy and appreciate it more that way.


The Reader is Warned (1939) by Carter Dickson

Several months ago, I reread and reviewed John Dickson Carr's The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939), whose reputation received a much deserved boost during the internet age as the story magnificently showcases Carr's ability to construct and navigate intricate, maze-like plots – planting clues along the way that double as red herrings. The Problem of the Green Capsule demonstrated he wasn't depended on murders in hermetically sealed rooms and fields of virgin snow to write a baffling detective story. And it made me want to revisit another one of his 1939 mysteries. 

The Reader is Warned (1939) is the ninth novel in the Sir Henry Merrivale series, published as by "Carter Dickson," which has always been somewhat of a low-key masterpiece of the series. A novel generally admired and highly rated when discussed, but rarely referenced or under exposed when discussing Carr's work or impossible crime fiction in general. You can probably put that down to the whole story trying to be as low-key and inconspicuous as possible in spite of it being constructed around some very ambitious and even sensational ideas.

Carr restricted the story to a few locations, centering on half-a-dozen characters, while the sensational, headline-grabbing implications and potentially "an international situation" is played out in the background – ultimately just played for laughs. It all worked out beautifully in the end. Although it likely made the book a little inconspicuous and easy to overlook. Particularly among Carr's impressive body of work, but not something that can't be fixed. 

The Reader is Warned is narrated by a consultant to the Home Office pathologist, Dr. John Sanders, who's invited by a friend and young barrister-about-town, Lawrence Chase to spend the weekend at Fourways. Fourways is the gloomy, Victorian-Gothic home of two great friends of Chase, the Constables. Mina Constable is better known to the general public as the romantic novelist, Mina Shields, who even tried her hands at "a straight detective story" that was "most unmercifully slated." Sam Constable is a retired textile manufacturer and "the complete British clubman" as well as being a bit of a domestic tyrant ("will you stop twitching and jittering with that glass, like an old hag soaking up gin in a pub"). And they'll be entertaining two more guests beside Chase and Sanders. Miss Hilary Keen is the lovely, keen-witted friend of Chase and Herman Pennik is a self-professed mind-reader. Pennik's presence is the reason why Chase asked Sanders "to bring Sir Henry Merrivale as well," but he's away on official business and can't come until Sunday. Too late to prevent the murder.

Herman Pennik regards Sam Constable as "an ill-mannered imbecile, brutal to his wife, insulting to his guests, an obstruction to all mental or moral progress" and confrontation over cocktail gives him an opportunity to demonstrate the full power of his Teleforce – prophesying he would not be alive by the time dinner is served. Just as the clock struck eight, Sam Constable walked down a hallway to the staircase landing when Mina saw him "dancing or staggering" from her bedroom door before he fell across the handrail. Less than a minute later, Sanders caught "a faint flutter of pulse" which stopped the second he found it. This where things not only get really weird, but outright impossible.

Sam Constable died without a mark, external or internal, on his body and there was not a single trace of any kind of poison. Solid, liquid or gaseous. Neither was he anywhere near of an electric fitting. He simply had a fit in the middle of the landing and died a minute later. Things go from bad to worse when Pennik presents himself to Chief Inspector Humphrey Masters as the murderer who can't be arrested or held as a material witness. Pennik is more than willing to talk with the press about his Teleforce.

So the presence of the old man is more than just a little welcome, but Sir Henry Merrivale arrives not in the best of moods as "there's some low, evil-minded talk" about sticking him in the House of Lords. So he expected a quiet Sunday to end the weekend and now he finds himself in the middle of another impossible murder case, which could spell the kind of trouble that could send him away to the House of Lords. H.M. naturally begins to meddle in the case and comes across a parade of seemingly ordinary clues that always become a little bizarre or even sinister in a John Dickson Carr story. Such as the white chef's cap, the burned candles and blobs of grease to a missing scrapbook labeled "New Ways of Committing Murder," which provides the plot with a missing-object mini-puzzle. More complications arise when a second, equally impossible, death occurs. This time, Pennik not only possesses a unimpeachable alibi, but now he can also do astral projection!?!

Some of my fellow reviewers (linked above) have rightly pointed out that Herman Pennik is one of Carr's best characters and villains, but what really made it work is that he's a character in a detective story. Pennik could not have succeeded in any other genre or format except the extremely fair play detective story. If Pennik had been a cartoon or comic book character, he would have been a badly written character with ill-defined powers that change when it suits the story. Pennik goes from being a humble mind-reader and being able to predict the future "to crack a man's bones and skull with thought" and astral projection. But here it served a purpose. For example, Carr used some uncharacteristically cheap, dime-store trickery usually reserved for second-and third tier mystery writers to explain the mind-reading act, predictions and astral projection – which were handily used to further both the plot and Pennik's characterization. There are the scraps and snippets showing the effect of the two mysterious murders have on the outside world ("TELEFORCE: NEW MENACE TO MANKIND?") and how it influenced the jury at the inquest. Just as pure entertainment, The Reader is Warned is as good as any of the better-known H.M. novels.

All of that's merely dressing and the true strength of the story is found in the answers to those three all important questions in any murder investigation. Who, why and how. Yes, the answer to those three questions were very clever indeed and mostly hidden in plain sight!

I've mentioned in my previous reviews Carr was practically unrivaled when it came to parading the naked truth in front of your eyes while simultaneously distracting your attention. You have to be a quick-witted, sharp-eyed reader to catch all of his sleight-of-hands on a first read, but The Reader is Warned might very well have his most daring and inspired pieces of misdirection. So clever and sneakily done, you can only really appreciate it on a second read, because even with all the fairly distributed clues and hints it's almost impossible to anticipate. Carr was very fair with his clues and hints. So fair, he practically spelled out the truth punctuated with several footnotes assuring there were no accomplices or mechanical devices lurking in dark corners. One of the footnotes reminded the reader that there has to be a motive, "though fully indicated in the text, is not obvious on the surface," advising “anyone interested in solving the problem" to "look carefully below the surface." Every footnote ended with the title of the book, The Reader is Warned. Carr was the embodiment of Cavalier sportsmanship!

The only flaw I was able to find, if you can call it a flaw, is that the story is very much a detective reader's detective story and new readers, to Carr and the genre, might want to start somewhere else first. But that hardly takes anything away from this brilliant, expertly cut gem of a detective story.

So what else can I possibly say? You're simply incomplete as a human being without having read and experienced Carr.


Cold Evil (1938) by Brian Flynn

I didn't intend to cram two reviews into as many days, but Dean Street Press released their third set of ten Brian Flynn reprints earlier this week. Since my previous read proved to be a little disappointing, I decided to tack on a review of one of these new editions. 

These reprints all come with an introduction by fellow mystery blogger, Steve Barge, who rediscovered Flynn back in 2017 and championed him getting back in print, which happened less than two years later – unearthing a long-lost gem from the 1920s in the process. Steve rightly pointed out in his introduction that one of the joys and strengths of Flynn's writing is "the variety of stories that he was willing to tell." Flynn wrote detective stories, the traditional kind of detective story, but he produced them in all kinds of different shapes and forms. Covering everything from Doylean thrillers to the old-fashioned whodunit. Steve gives as an example The League of Matthias (1934) and The Horn (1934), consecutive releases, which were so different in style you could believe they were from "the pen of different writers."

Flynn's variety of plots, divergence in narrative styles and willingness to experiment resulted in a handful pulp-style mystery novels of the kind commonly associated (on this blog) with John Russell Fearn and Gerald Verner. 

Somewhat anomalous for a pure, Golden Age writer to indulge in those type of thrilling pulp mysteries, but Flynn was a huge Sherlock Holmes fanboy who wore his fandom on his sleeve. Flynn's pulp-style outings were obvious attempts at reimagining Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot" (1910) and "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane" (1926) as modern, fair play detective stories or neo-Victorian thrillers – which happen to be not unlike the pulp mysteries by Fearn and Verner. The big difference is, of course, quality as Flynn was a better writer and plotter who created some weird, but magnificent, creatures by crossing the detective story with the pulp-style thriller. A strange, fluttering of sound is the harbinger of an Invisible Death (1929) in a house under siege. The Triple Bite (1931) is a Doylean thriller in which a ghastly, whirring kind of noise and puffy pink marks on the body the only signs death left behind. The Spiked Lion (1933) concerns a murderer who leaves his victim's bodies a mass of bruised and broken bones with slash marks. I tremendously enjoyed these pulpier outings stuffed with bizarre characters, strange deaths and the occasional impossible crime.

So my attention was drawn to the new reprint of twenty-first entry in the Anthony Bathurst series, Cold Evil (1938), which tackles the possibility of "murder by projection of evil" on a dark, gloomy moor during the winter months. 

Cold Evil is narrated by Anthony Bathurst's cousin, Jack Clyst, who the opening chapter finds having dinner at the vicarage of St. Crayle with Martin Burke, Christopher Chinnery, Dick Copeland and Edward Verschoyle. During the after-dinner conversation, someone "drags in the occult and the weird" and when that happens "no other topic will get a show." Martin Burke tells a chilling story about the time he witnessed the chimaera, "a fabled fire-breathing monster," coming to life in a Chinese village and "rush madly down the quaint Eastern street" – crying like a stuck pig. The creature left behind three bodies on the street with "a dull red mark," like a burn, behind each ear. Burke believes they were killed by a projection of evil, because they had offended a local holy man who willed them to die.

When the party breaks up to go home, Chinnery vanishes along the moor and his body is not found until a week later by an old quarry. Chinnery is frozen stiff with "reddish marks" behind his ears, but otherwise not a shred of evidence to suggest he was murdered. Nonetheless, Clyst asks his cousin to come down to St. Crayle to see if he can shed some light on Chinnery's mysterious passing. This is where it becomes apparent that Flynn was playing the waiting game with the story. 

Cold Evil takes place between early December and the first two weeks of January during which more people disappear on the moor, while they were on their way home. So there's a lot of waiting with bated breath for the bodies to turn up and discussing everything that has happened or can be expected to happen, which often turns to those cold, dark moors. A place where the bones of ancient Britons have rested for centuries and smiles at you in the summer, but lies in wait to kill unsuspected people in its "cold and callous cruelty" during the winter. Flynn even included a quasi-impossible situation with ghostly footsteps on the moor and a cornered shadow vanishing into nothingness. This added to the atmosphere of a silent, suppressed evil lurking somewhere on those dark, wintry moors in the dead of night.

Regrettably, Cold Evil is a textbook example of past results not guaranteeing future results. Invisible Death, The Triple Bite, The Spiked Lion and The Horn were detective stories masquerading as Victorian-era throwbacks or pulp-style mysteries, but Cold Evil is pure pulp trying to pass itself off as a detective story posing as a Victorian-era pulp. Flynn succeeded in keeping up the pretense until the last two chapters when the story makes a sudden left-turn into Shilling Shocker territory.

You should be able to make an educated guess as to whose hand is behind this "sinister, frightening, eerie business," but the motive, linking the victims together, came out of nowhere and neither can you anticipate the murder method – which definitely belongs on the pages of a dime thriller. So don't expect anything along the lines of Carter Dickson's The Reader is Warned (1939) or even J.J. Connington's Jack-in-the-Box (1944). However, I actually didn't mind this ending as much as you might expect. Flynn always tried to do something different and sometimes that meant he edged away from the traditional elements of the detective story (e.g. The Edge of Terror, 1932). What I did mind is how the ending brushed away all the intriguing clues as insignificant trifles. Those reddish marks? Red herrings. The promising clue of the three light-green hairs? The reader is only told afterwards why it pointed to the murderer without being given an opportunity to spot it yourself. So why even include them? 

Cold Evil is an interesting take on the Doylean thriller as the story gives the impression of holding its breath in silent anticipation until everything burst loose in the final chapters. Whether you end up liking it depends on your personal taste or your level of tolerance for pulp fiction, which is not to everyone's liking. Either way, if you're new to the series, I recommend you begin somewhere else first.

Sorry for two lukewarm (DSP) reviews in a row, but I've something excellent lined up for my next review and will return to Flynn sometime later this month. So don't you even dare think about touching that dial!


The Case of the Seven Bells (1949) by Christopher Bush

The Case of the Seven Bells (1949) is Christopher Bush's 35th novel starring his two series-detectives, Ludovic Travers and Superintendent George Wharton, which begins with giving the reader "a first-class and essential clue" to help them figure out why the murderer was caught. A murderer who was "clever enough for anything and the planning was perfect," but the whole scheme collapsed and the reason why it failed is that the weather was "remarkably fine" on the day the case began – while "the next few days were much cooler" and "generally wet." I love it when Bush hands out these so-called "starter clues" and one of the things that endeared him to me. 

The Case of the Seven Bells opens with Ludovic Travers hanging around the office of Bill Ellice's Detective Agency, in Broad Street, when his receptionist/secretary announced a possibly client. A nervous woman, named Maudie Brown, who has a peculiar story to tell.

Maudie Brown is employed as a barmaid at one of those typically English public houses, the Seven Bells, but, every now and then, she would slip into Porelli's Café before the bar opened – to enjoy "a quick coffee and what she called a change of air." Last time she enjoyed coffee with biscuits, Maudie overheard two men "planning some sort of robbery" at "some place or other called The Grange." She described them as "a couple of flash boys or spivs," but, whoever they were, they noticed Maudie. And they followed her back to the Seven Bells. One of them tells her politely what happened to another woman who blabbed to the police "about something she'd heard," while playing menacingly with a razor blade. Ellice promises to see if he could do anything to help her, but he has a lot to discuss with Travers the moment the door closes.

There are "plenty of smart boys" in the Seven Bells area, but, when Travers goes to take a look himself, it seemed incredible that there could be such things "as razor-slashings, and spivs who laid plains in eating-houses, and frightened barmaids." Why was Maudie Brown all dolled up on her day off? Why did she use an accommodation address and where did she sleep? Not much else can be done until Travers receives an early morning phone call from Superintendent George Wharton. Summoning him to the scene of a murder in Carr's Hill.

Mrs. Wyster was a celebrated and famous film actress, "only real woman genius the English screen has produced," who was known to the world as Aubrey Grange and she was taking a rest at a small bungalow, The Croft. Practically nobody knew she was staying there. Now she lay dead, "shot at close range and no gun," in the hallway passage of the bungalow with the telephone line cut and the place ransacked. Travers sees an obvious link between the eating-house plot and the murder whereas Wharton is very dismissive of the idea, which brings us to the highlight of the story.

I mentioned in previous reviews that nobody from Bush's time nailed the dynamic between the amateur detective and official policeman quite like he did.

Travers mentioned in earlier novels he has the crossword kind of mind that easily lends itself to grand theorizing according to the Socratic method, "put up questions and suggest answers," which prove to be correct once in three times – that's not a bad average. But the much more theatrical and maneuverable Wharton habitually pooh-poohs him and his fanciful theories. So if one of his theories turns out to be wrong, Wharton has one more failure to bring up in future arguments, but it suddenly becomes "our theory" when it turns out well or simply calls it his idea if it's an absolute winner. But don't think Wharton is simply another carbon copy of Lestrade. More than once, Wharton has upstaged Travers by solving the case before he does.

I think it makes them possibly unique as Golden Age detective-characters and them butting heads over a particular tricky problem, in their own characteristic way, is usually one of the highlights of any Christopher Bush mystery. The Case of the Seven Bells is no exception.

Wharton believe it more likely Maudie overheard a gang of house-breakers, not spivs, because "black market stuff's their specialty." Spivs don't do this sort of job or shoot to intentionally kill, but a gang of house-breakers is not very likely either. They must have known Grange was living there and when she would be home. So why shoot instead of tying and gagging her? A burglar shooting his way out of tight corner is "rare enough." Not to mention a hanging matter. So why did it happen here? There are other strange complications. Such as a neighbor hearing the whimper of a baby on the night of the murder and their prized witness, Maudie Brown, has vanished from the face of the earth. 

The Case of the Seven Bells had all the ingredients to make a densely-plotted, first-class Ludovic Travers and George Wharton mystery, but the plot regrettably is one of the most transparent, see-through in the entire series. Bush badly showed his hand here as he littered the opening chapters with alarm bells and red flags. You're unlikely to immediately catch on what, exactly, is happening, but enough to make you suspicious of certain things and be on your guard, which then goes on to spell out the solution in succeeding chapters – effectively turning the "starter clue" into a red herring of sorts. Something that could have worked had all those other clues, hints and tell-tale signs not been so blatantly obvious.

Technically, The Case of the Seven Bells is sound enough with an ambitious idea as the foundation stone of its plot and story. I half-suspect Bush intended the book to be the torchbearer of the (ROT13) snyfr vqragvgvrf trope as he shoved the question of alibis to the background, which the easily spotted solution and paper-thin characterization prevented. So only recommendable to fans of the series.


Death Among the Undead (2017) by Masahiro Imamura

Back in late 2018, Ho-Ling Wong posted an intriguing review of Masahiro Imamura's debut novel, Shijinso no satsujin (The Murders in the Villa of the Dead, 2017), which "made enormous waves in the world of Japanese mystery fiction" as it swooped the number one spots in the Kono Mystery ga Sugoi, Weekly Bunshun Mystery Best 10 and Honkaku Mystery Best 10 rankings – marking "the first time anyone had managed to grab the grand spot of these three annual mystery fiction rankings." There's a good reason why the book was a smashing success in Japan spawning "a multimedia franchise" with manga and live-action adaptations. 

Masahiro Imamura accomplished something in his debut that many have attempted, but only few have succeeded in doing. The Murders in the Villa of the Dead blurs the lines between two different genre, namely the detective and horror story, without corrupting or tainting the integrity of either. The book impressively juggles the traditional locked room mystery with an actual zombie outbreak, which isolated the characters to the titular villa and created one of the most original closed-circle situations on record!

So, naturally, I've been banging on about the book getting translated ever since and half-expected Pushkin Vertigo would eventually pick it up, but it was John Pugmire, of Locked Room International, who scooped up the publishing rights – getting out an English translation quicker than I could have asked for. Ho-Ling Wong translated The Murders in the Villa of the Dead, retitled Death Among the Undead, which has a must-read introduction by the "God of Mystery," Soji Shimada. A jealousy-inducing introduction as Shimada goes over the history of the Japanese detective story and particular how "the youngsters belonging to the university mystery clubs" rebelled against the domineering social school of crime fiction. This is now known as the beginning of the shin honkaku boom in Japan. A movement that completely rejuvenated the traditional, plot-oriented detective story and mystery fans everywhere owe a debt of gratitude to them.

However, while the West only recently have gotten a taste of the great shin honkaku school, the movement has been dominant in Japan for decades and readers "yearned for the kind of impetus" that Yukito Ayatsuji's Jukkakukan no satsujin (The Decagon House Murders, 1987) had created. Death Among the Undead gave expression to that yearning and might very well be the signal of "a revolutionary change for the mystery genre" in which authors look to fantastical elements, like "country house murder mysteries which utilize artificial elements" or zombies, to add something new and original to the core-puzzles of their novels. This is both amazing and slightly depressing. I'm poking here through the remains of the brief flareups of the Dutch detective story, while Japan is about to enter their Third Golden Age. 

Death Among the Undead forced that first step towards new grounds, like the shin honkaku movement did in the past, but the story begins as a typical, shin honkaku-style detective story with a university student as the narrator, Yuzuru Hamura – who's loves traditional detective fiction. So he tried to join the Shinkō University's Mystery Club, but its members were more interested in Young Adult fiction and used to club as an excuse to socialize. However, there's a second, unofficial and one-man mystery club on campus run by a third-year student. Kyōsuke Akechi is the president of the Mystery Society and aspires to be Great Detective, known as "The Holmes of Shinkō," who recruits Hamura as his Watson. Akechi and Hamura go around campus solving cases (like "The Case of the Leaked Theology Tests") or looking for lost cats as a part-time job for the Tanuma Detective Agency. Akechi always hoped something truly interesting and worthy would occur around him, but he was not content to wait until something turned up and had the habit to jump in on his own. This is why he has set his eyes on the Film Club's summer trip.

The Film Club has planned a trip to the Villa Violet, a private boarding house, situated near Lake Sabea in S Prefecture where they want to shoot a short, POV-style horror movie, but the trip is also "what some might call a group dating party" – which is why there not too keen on outsiders trying to horn in. A group of students gathering at a boarding house in the summer strikes Akechi as "the perfect place for some incident to occur," but he gets turned down several times. No outsiders! This changes when a note is found in club room asking "who will be the sacrifice this year?" A reference to a female club member committing suicide after their previous summer trip. Like I said, the story starts out like a fairly typical, neo-orthodox detective story. This could easily have been the premise of a story from The Kindaichi Case Files (The Legendary Vampire Murders comes to mind).

So there are a few cancellations and the persistent Akechi is approached by a second-year student, Hiruko Kenzaki, who offers Akechi and Hamura to join them after all. Otherwise, the trip might be canceled all together. What makes her deal so curious, is that they learn she's a detective "who has taken on many difficult and downright inexplicable cases that even the police couldn't handle." Kenzaki solved those cases with her "matchless powers of reasoning," but she comes from an illustrious family and her involvement is covered up with "strict restraints" on the media. So could there anything behind her arranging a place for them on the trip?

Akechi and Hamura become the outsiders in a group comprising of Film and Drama Club members, university alumni's and the manager of the Villa Violet, but, despite the alumni's turning out to be unpleasant characters, there's nothing to suggest all hell is about to break loose. Well, they discover that their smartphones have no signal and can't connect to the internet. There's the sound of ambulance sirens in the distance, helicopters in formation flying over and a brilliant, glowing aura behind the mountains. But everyone assumed that the Sabea Rock Festival was getting wild. Until they ventured out to explore an abandoned hotel in couples on "a Trial of Courage dare." This is where the story becomes unapologetically awesome!

While out in the dark, they can make out several figures descending the mountainside, swaying from side to side, dragging their feet and moaning until they were close enough for the lamp posts to illuminate "about a dozen swaying figures" coming their way – exposing their dark, bloodstained faces and torn clothing. And "the pungent, rotten smell of blood, grease and more." Obviously, these torn creatures are no extras hired to scare them and no-sold a rock thrown at its face. So they left cartoon smoke as they run back to the Villa Violet, but not everyone makes it back as what remains of the group barricade themselves inside. That one line, "things don't always go right," shows why the best storytellers today can be found in Japan.

They hear on the news that there was a possible bio-terror attack at the Rock Festival and the police has sealed off the entire area, but the news is evidently censored and communication cut-off to prevent mass panic. So now they have to survive until (hopefully) rescue comes, but one of them sees "a sign from heaven" in "the appearance of the walking dead" and a change to exact revenge. And the next day, one of the survivors is found dead under gruesome, hard to explain circumstances.

President of the Film Club, Ayumu Shindō, is found dead in his locked room and his death had not been a pleasant one. There were parts of his body that had been bitten off and his face had been gnawed all over, but nobody else had been in the gory, blood-drenched room and the balcony looked down on "the hordes of zombies swarming the grounds below." But they also find a folded piece of paper with "let's eat" scrawled on it. So there you have, what the story calls, "an unprecedented locked room mystery," because only a human could have possibly entered the room, but nobody "showed signs of having bitten Shindō to death." On the other hand, a zombie could have killed him, but "the possibility of a zombie penetrating the double-layered locked room, by accident or coincidence, is zero." Possibilities are explored through a locked room lecture, discussing fictional zombies and analyzing their own homegrown zombie hoard.

Their "brain only seems capable of sending simple orders" and "the coordination of their limbs is so bad they can't even run," easily losing their balance and struggling with obstacles, but they have "unlimited stamina" and feel no pain – which reduce the barricades to temporary obstacles. More importantly, they don't attack human, or each other, to eat, but to infect the living and reproduce. Anyone who's bitten gets infected, dies and rises again as a fully fleshed out zombie. Imamura brilliantly and logically integrated what the zombies can, and can't do, with the plot and story's setting, but how and where the zombies come into play is one of the key-pieces of the puzzle. Not just with the first murder. There's a second, equally gruesome murder in the elevator, where someone has been bitten to death and got his head smashed to a pulp, which is more of a how-was-it-done than an impossible crime. But the solution is ingenious! The third, very late murder is somewhat glossed over, as the body is impossible to reach, but the presence of zombies opened the door to an original twist on an old dodge.

Purely as a traditional, plot-driven detective novel, Death Among the Undead can stand with the best of its kind, past and present, but the story makes a point not to ignore the whydunit angle. Not merely the murderer's motive, but why the murderer employed such dangerous and high-risk methods. The trickery behind the murders can eventually be explained, but here it raises the question why such methods were employed. I really liked the dark duality the solution exposed between the intellectual and emotional facets of both the murders and murderer, which I thought was nicely complemented by an interesting and grim piece of commentary on the murder-magnet trope. I could go on, and on, praising the book, but there's one small detail that bugged me and it would be unfair to ignore or gloss over it.

Masahiro Imamura's succeeded in injecting zombies in a traditional detective story without killing it, but it came with a noticeable side effect. The characters took a more proactive approach to the murders than to the more pressing situation of hundreds of zombies, breaking down the barricades, slowly taking over the villa – floor by floor. They're rather passive when it comes to the zombies with a wait and hope for the best attitude and while coming up with all kinds of false-solutions to the murders, nobody is trying to figure out a way to escape from the villa to their van. Sure, they complain about the rope-ladder or a rope made out of bed sheets, but you're in the epicenter of a small, localized zombie apocalypse. What did they expect? A rooftop slip-and-slide? The zombies standing outside the villa can, theoretically, be bypassed. Just imagine the limited number of zombies as being water and Villa Violet a giant sluice. Eventually, they'll begin flooding the house, but you have control and slowdown the flood by using everything in the house to create either obstacles or a pathway. When one side of the villa has (mostly) cleared of zombies, they can slide down from a balcony, window or even the rooftop from the rope-ladder or bed sheets. And run to the van like the devil is on their heels. I was also slightly annoyed that nobody stumbled to the idea to sharpen the blunted, decorative swords and spears. This would have spared a little muscle power fighting an undead creature whose only advantage is unlimited stamina.

Nonetheless, this minor complaint is nothing to the detriment of the threat these terrifying creatures pose to the people trapped inside the villa. I do not fear Dracula, Freddy Krueger or Godzilla, but zombies never fail to unnerve me in how they can turn friends and family "into enemies in the blink of an eye." Imamura's zombies drive that point home very effectively. This is why an actual zombie apocalypse wouldn't kill us as a society or civilization. It would be the psychological aftermath that would neck us. Particularly if a zombie virus is permanent and turns everyone who dies into a zombie. Just imagine what that would do to people! I think I prefer to deal with malevolent ghosts or demonic children.

So, to draw this overlong and rambling review to a close, Death Among the Undead is close to perfect as a hybrid-mystery novel and has a plot bubbling with exciting new ideas and the spirit of exploration, which earned it a place alongside Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel (1954) as a rare classic of its kind. Simply put, the blast I had with Death Among the Undead could have wiped out the dinosaurs a second time. My best and favorite read of 2021! I sincerely hope we can look forward to an English translation of the sequel, Magan no hako no satsujin (The Murders in the Box of the Devil Eye, 2019), in 2022.

On a last, somewhat related note: I didn't want to wait too long with posting my review of this modern masterpiece and crammed as early as possible in my posting schedule. This came at the expense of yesterday's review of three short stories by Joseph Commings. So, if you have missed it, give it a look.