10/4/22

Not As It Seems: Peter Anthony's "Before and After" (1953) & Peter Shaffer's "Suffer a Witch" (1954)

Back in 2020, the British Library Crime Classics reprinted The Woman in the Wardrobe (1951), originally published as by "Peter Anthony," which is the shared penname of two brothers, Anthony and Peter Shaffer – who garnered fame as playwrights, screenwriters and novelists. The Woman in the Wardrobe was together with How Doth the Little Crocodile? (1952) and Withered Murder (1955) three of their long out-of-print, nigh impossible to find (locked room) mysteries that attained near-mythical status among fans. So, when the British Library republished The Woman in the Wardrobe, I kept my fingers crossed for 2021 reprint of Withered Murder. As of this writing, no further reprints have materialized. I decided to take a look at two of their short stories instead, which were a lot easier to track down. 

Peter Anthony's "Before and After" originally appeared in The London Mystery Magazine (No. 16) in 1953 and is the only short story to feature their series-detective, Mr. Verity. This story has a reference to The Woman in the Wardrobe, "Oh lord! Not another locked room. My last locked-room case was a shattering business... all centering round some dreadful woman in a wardrobe." The impossible murder in "Before and After" concerns the mysterious death of a wheelchair-bound woman.

Mrs. Carmichael had been paralyzed from the waist down for the past fifteen years and "now a tiny hole, drilled neatly through her right temple, had made the top half of her body as immobile as the lower half." At the time of the murder, the whole family comprising of the victim's husband, daughter, brother and one of her nurses were having dinner and playing bridge at Colonel Longford's house – an hours drive away from the Carmichael home. So nobody could have taken "an unnoticed hour off" to drive back to commit a murder. Besides, "the excellent Nurse Wimple was on duty in the passage outside Mrs Carmichael's room the whole night" and nobody went in, or out, of the room until the murder was discovered.

Inspector Swallow is advised to take a certain Mr. Verity, who happened to be in the neighborhood, along to the crime scene. Mr. Verity is a Great Detective likely modeled on John Dickson Carr's Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, but as tactless as Leo Bruce's Sgt. Beef and as fallible as Anthony Berkeley's Roger Sheringham. So "really a remarkable man" whose services Inspector Swallow can't neglect to use, but Mr. Verity has "an infuriating habit of tendering them unasked" anyway. Mr. Verity constructs a pretty decent solution to the seemingly impossible murder around a burn mark on Mrs. Carmichael's right, nicotine stained finger and a photograph of her in the morning's copy of the Daily Grind ("Before and After Taking Toneup, the wonderful restorative for Invalids..."). Not as original a locked room-trick as the one that can be found in The Woman in the Wardrobe, but a very well done, classically-styled piece of locked room shenanigans. No problem with it, whatsoever, but The London Mystery Magazine published a short addendum to the story, "Part II: Mr Verity's Investigation," in the next issue credited to "J.M. Caffyn." This addendum takes a sledgehammer to the locked room, the solution and Mr. Verity's status as a Great Detective.

I was tempted to describe "Before and After" and "Part II: Mr Verity's Investigation" as a two-act variation on Bruce's Case for Three Detectives (1936), but the deconstruction in Part II is so thoroughly it can only be compared to Ulf Durling's Gammal ost (Hard Cheese, 1971). So definitely prefer Mr. Verity's solution.

Peter Shaffer's "Suffer a Witch" was published in The London Mystery Magazine (No. 20) in 1954 and had no idea what to expect as it could be everything from a modern, gritty crime story, a simple whodunit or a little-known locked room mystery – having escaped the roving eyes of Robert Adey and Brian Skupin. However, I didn't expect to find a delightful and curious mix of malice and mischief with a dash of witchcraft. Miss Annie Ames lives in "a little conical house on a hill" with "only a tomcat for company" and "a grandmother, at fifteen removes, who had been burned to cinders in a market place" as a witch. That makes Miss Ames a figure of fun in the nearby village. So, one day, Miss Ames takes her revenge and together with her cat, Jonah, begins to dabble in the black arts of her ancestor ("Jonah darling, shall we make them afraid?"). Miss Ames "feverishly began making little images of all the people in the village who had ever tormented or made fun of her." She even appeared in the village to buy a broomstick, but that broomstick provides the story with a curious, sadly premature, ending to the story.

The ending strongly suggests "Suffer a Witch" is a witches tale of the supernatural and unexplained, but, to me, it read like a fascinating prologue to a potentially great, never finished impossible crime novel. I mean, the ending poses a never-seen before impossible situation (ROT13: n sylvat jvgpu jub znxrf n sngny penfu ynaqvat ba ure oebbzfgvpx). It should be grist on the mills of locked room specialists like James Scott Byrnside and Paul Halter! So a pretty good, fun and entertaining story that could perhaps have been the premise of a fantastic, novel-length locked room and impossible crime mystery.

Speaking of locked rooms and impossible crimes, there's an extremely obscure one coming up next that has been out-of-print and sought after for nearly a century!

10/1/22

Fatality in Fleet Street (1933) by Christopher St. John Sprigg

Christopher St. John Sprigg's untimely death as a casualty of the Spanish Civil War hurled his modest, but often inspired, high-quality, contribution to the detective genre into obscurity with secondhand copies becoming scarce, expensive collectibles – until the 2010s rolled around. The British Library Crime Classics released a new edition of Death of an Airman (1935) in 2015, but it would take another three years before the floodgates were fully opened. Bruin Books followed suit with The Corpse with the Sunburned Face (1935), Valancourt republished The Six Queer Things (1937) and Black Heath brought back Crime in Kensington (1933) and Death of a Queen (1935) in 2018. Moonstone Press completed the reprints with their brand new edition of the long out-of-print The Perfect Alibi (1933) in 2019. A very fine, if scattered, collection of reprints that were among the highlights of 2018 and 2019

So that left only Sprigg's second detective novel, Fatality in Fleet Street (1933), on the big pile. A detective novel with all the appearance of a conventional, British mystery typical for the period, but the finer details of the story and setting makes it one of the oddest of the early thirties.

Nick Fuller, of the Grandest Game in the World, called it "technically science fiction" as Fatality in Fleet Street takes place in the future of 1938, but history has turned it into an alternate reality mystery akin to Theodore Roscoe's I'll Grind Their Bones (1939). Lord Carpenter, Governing Director of Affiliated Publications, the biggest newspaper group in the world, who "decided that Russia must be crushed." He reasoned, "Russia's first genuinely favourable trade balance with an unpegged exchange" made "her, for the first time, a real menace to the established order of things" determined "that this country, striking up through India, should be the executioner" – a clash that must come sooner or later. So why not strike "when we are strong and Russia militarily negligible."

Lord Carpenter has become aware of an incident known neither to the Foreign Office nor Fleet Street. An incident in the Soviet Union which he intends to use to "bring the Empire to the boil" in "such a way that war will be inevitable." So, as to be expected, there's some opposition to his plan from the Prime Minister and the main artery of his newspaper empire, the Daily Mercury. Lord Carpenter points to an ornate dagger on the wall and tells them, "if you gentlemen were to jump on me simultaneously and cut my throat with that, you would be able – perhaps – to upset my plans. Aside from that unlikely conjunction, War is as inevitable tomorrow as the dawn." Well, someone plunges that very dagger into the newspaper tycoon while he took a nap in his office. Charles Venables, the crime expert of the Mercury, investigates the case on behalf of the newspaper, which immediately places him in the cross hairs of Detective Inspector Manciple. Venables is not above suspicion himself and he does precious little to dissipate the cloud of suspicion around him as deliberately confuses the trail with a "fabulously mysterious air."

I seriously considered Venables as a viable suspect for a time and suspected he deliberately created a false trail of breadcrumbs to his doorstep, which he then could demolish during his trial and secure a "Not Guilty" verdict. A game of high-stake bluff poker that would not be entirely out-of-character for someone like Venables, but that hypothesis crumbled to dust halfway through and the ending went in a different direction than I first thought. But first, there are a few things from the investigation that stood out and deserve to be highlighted.

Firstly, Venables stumbles on a Communist group of agitators, which is not too surprising considering Sprigg was a Marxist, but Fatality in Fleet Street was published shortly before his political conversion and the portrayal of Communist group is surprisingly satirical – almost like a bunch of cartoon villains. Very different from The Corpse with the Sunburned Face published only two years later. Secondly, Venables is assisted in his dealings with the Communists by Lee Kum Tong, the Mercury's Oriental expert, who pleasantly reminded me of Katoh from C. Daly King's The Complete Curious Mr. Tarrant (2003). A massively underrated character and the type of characters outsiders would not expect to find in a American or British detective stories from the 1930s. Thirdly, I tried to spot any clues and hints about this alternate reality with the most blatant one being the line, "Stalin and his like had given place to rulers gentler in political methods." And that helped to tone down the hot war Lord Carpenter tried to start with Russia to a "bloodless war" of trade. Yes, you read that right. Sprigg predicated the Cold War in 1933! Well, sort of. I also found it interesting there were was no mention of Hitler or the Nazis goosestepping all over Europe. E.R. Punshon's Crossword Mystery (1934) and Darwin L. Teilhet's The Talking Sparrow Murders (1934) were very prescient in that regard, but it could suggest Hitler in this universe never rose to power, got assassinated successfully or simply didn't survive the First World War. It should be mentioned that with a huge, world consuming European war off the table and much more amiable Cold War, the 2022 of Venables reality would look radically different from our 2022.

Back to the story. Detective Inspector Manciple progresses enough to eventually make his arrest and the accused is put on trial with the last quarter of the story becoming somewhat of a courtroom farce. Particularly towards the end as Venables instructs the defense to throw out the rule book at the last minute to pull some Perry Mason-like courtroom shenanigans. You can't help but feel a little sorry for the inspector when you learn to what extend his investigation had been sabotaged. Unfortunately, I agree with Nick that the solution "lacks oomph." A good and interesting solution showcasing the promise Sprigg had as a plotter at the time, but it didn't land like it should have. And learning what was withheld until that dramatic courtroom scene, while necessary, helped rob the ending of its punch. Another contributing factor is the length of the story, which went on longer in parts than could be justified and a little trimming would have benefited the overall plot. I think one aspect of the solution should have been left up to the reader to decide. The judge at the trial said "this case is unique" and that would have justified a slightly ambiguous, open ending that nonetheless left nothing unexplained... except for that one detail.

Enough nitpicking for one review! As noted above, Fatality in Fleet Street is a finely-done showcase of Sprigg's potential as a writer and versatility as a plotter, but Fatality in Fleet Street is a clear case of concept over execution – something he would improve upon in his last handful of novels. So read it as a well written, fascinating curiosity from a writer who would go on to write minor gems like Death of a Queen and The Six Queer Things, before his life was cut short in battle.

9/27/22

A View of Things to Come: "Death in the Fourth Dimension" (1952) by Charles B. Child

 

 

Charles B. Child's "Death in the Fourth Dimension" was originally published in the September 27, 1952, issue of Collier's and collected half a century later in the Crippen & Landru “Lost Classic” volume The Sleuth of Baghdad (2002). This particular short story attracted my attention as it has a premise as intriguing-sounding as its title. And, no, it's not an impossible crime tale.

The story begins with the son of Inspector Chafik J. Chafik, of Baghdad's Criminal Investigation Department, bursting into their little house on the Street of the Scatterer of Blessings with a startling announcement, "father, my father, I have seen a murdered corpse," which is met with a healthy dose of skepticism – since Faisal is known to take "imaginary tales" of Chafik's exploits to school. Inspector Chafik never "subdued three armed men of alarming proportions" nor encountered "a society of assassins whose main activity was to gather at midnight and swear oaths on a bloody dagger," but Faisal's school friends now believe he did. Faisal swears he heard a woman's scream coming from behind the garden wall at the Bayt Kamil Hadi, which is why climbed a tree to see what was happening (see illustration). What he saw was the lady of the house, El Sitt Rejina, who was being held by one of her two brothers, Jamil. The other brother, Ibrahim, was holding a spade and was standing next to a corpse. Faisal assumes the dead man is El Sitt Rejina's prospective husband, Zaki Attala.

Inspector Chafik tells his wife that "the seat of our son's naughtiness is the mind" and "it would be unjust to apply the rod to his other seat, which is innocent." So he decides to take Faisal to Bayt Kamil Hadi in order to show how nebulous his evidence of murder really is. Faisal is shocked to see the man who he thought to be dead and buried was alive and well. Or, as Inspector Chafik put it, "the corpse walked, and furthermore, it mocked me."

So, on the following day, Inspector Chafik has an idea and climbs the same tree to get the same view of the garden as his son and, shockingly, spots "a long narrow mound" that hadn't been there the day before! The body the police digs up with a bullet between his eyes belongs to Zaki and the wetness of his clothes indicates the body had been buried the day before ("always I am haunted by yesterday"). Chafik tells his subordinate "murders have always been three-dimensional," but "this one appears to have been activated on a fourth plane." The personal link to the case makes this murder one of the inspector's most frustrating investigations as it puts a definite strain on his relationship with his wife and son.

Charles B. Child got his start in Collier's, a so-called "slick" magazine, which uses better quality, acid free paper than the pulps of the day, but the slicks and pulps appear to have one thing in common – emphasizing storytelling over rigorous plotting (c.f. Philip Wylie's Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments and Other Tales of Mystery, 2010). Child's "Death in the Fourth Dimension" is regrettably not the bulwark of the Golden Age virtues, you might hope to find based on the premise. So the lack of rigorous clueing and a sporting piece of misdirection can be frustrating, but the storytelling and how everything unfolds is excellent! There's a beautifully orchestrated, rhyming quality to what Faisal thought he witnessed and what Inspector Chafik discovered in the garden the next day. An ending punctuated with a morally ambiguous father-and-son moment in which they become co-conspirators to hush up part of the truth.

Yes, as a detective story, Child's "Death in the Fourth Dimension" lacked the part where the reader can play along as an armchair detective, but that shouldn't take away that it's a very well written, characterized and immensely enjoyable crime story. And it's hard not to like Inspector Chafik. Recommended with the few previously mentioned caveats. 

A note for the curious: I previously reviewed "All the Birds in the Sky" (1950) as part of the anthology The Realm of the Impossible (2017) and "The Thumbless Man" (1955) and "The Man Who Wasn't There" (1969) under "Locked and Loaded: A Selection of Short Impossible Crime and Locked Room Mystery Stories."

9/22/22

The Scarlet Circle (1943) by Jonathan Stagge

Hugh Wheeler, Richard Webb, Martha Kelly and Mary Aswell formed a team of writers who collaborated on a number of detectives series, standalone mysteries, crime novels and short fiction – published under the names "Patrick Quentin," "Q. Patrick" or "Jonathan Stagge." Over the years, I've sampled about ten of their novels covering everything from their Peter Duluth and Lt. Timothy Trant series-characters to their phenomenal crossover in Black Widow (1952) as well as a few standalone novels. 

I also read a Jonathan Stagge novel, Death's Old Sweet Song (1946), which once upon a time used to be easiest Dr. Hugh Westlake mystery to get your hands on. The book has a good reputation and expected much at the time from a story in which a serial killer goes ham on a small town with murders patterned after a nursery rhyme. So comparisons to S.S. van Dine's The Bishop Murder Case (1928), Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1939) and later Ellery Queen's Cat of Many Tails (1949) and Double, Double (1950) were inevitable. Sounds enticing, I know, but I'm still of the opinion Death's Old Sweet Song is the weakest of all nursery rhyme-themed mysteries. The use of the nursery rhyme motif is likely the sole reason why the book is remembered at all, because as a detective story it was weakly-plotted, obvious and disappointing.

So with secondhand copies and reprints in short supply back then, I quietly exited the Dr. Westlake series, but there's one title that kept cropping up. A novel that has been personally recommended to me over years several times. Now that the Mysterious Press has reissued the entire series, I decided to finally give Stagge and Dr. Westlake a second shot. 

The Scarlet Circle (1943), published in the UK as Light from a Lantern, is the sixth entry in the series and I can see why people thought I might like it. As Curt Evans wrote in his 2012 review, Stagge's The Scarlet Circle "should be guaranteed to please devotees of John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen and Hake Talbot," but not for the reasons some of you might assume, because this is not a locked room mystery or impossible crime novel – a bizarre, outre whodunit with a small, tightly-knit circle of suspects. The story has Dr. Westlake taking his 10-year-old daughter, Dawn, on a September holiday to Cape Talisman. One of those "spots against which the elements seem to have a perpetual grudge" as, inch by inch, "the waves were encroaching upon the crumbling dunes" and "the older section of the town, which was once a flourishing community, was now almost deserted." The old church has already been abandoned, a hurricane had "carried away all the tombstones on the seaward side of the churchyard" and the Talisman Inn "now had the beach for a front garden." Call me a Dutchman, if you want, but that had me hooked from page 1 and the story hadn't even touched upon the bizarre string of murders yet! On their way back to the Talisman Inn, Dawn notices a pink light moving around the old churchyard. Dr. Westlake goes out to investigate and comes across "a strange, shapeless figure" who scurried away at the sound of his voice and left behind a paper Chinese lantern next to an opened grave.

What a fantastic opening to a good, old-fashioned detective story, but someone creeping around the churchyard with a Chinese lantern to dig up graves is only the beginning. That becomes all too apparent once Dr. Westlake and Dawn return to the inn.

There were only a about a dozen people at the inn. Firstly, there's Mr. Mitchell, the owner-manager, whose "impeccable New York clothes and his impeccable New York manners" can't hide his desolate resort is slowly disintegrating around him. Mr. Mitchell takes pride in still employing a lifeguard, Buck Valentine, who's "a red-blooded young he-man with a very roving eye," but the only women he could turn an eye to were the two waitress-housemaids or Nellie Wood. The nursemaid of 5-year-old Bobby Fanshawe who's staying at the inn with his parents, Virgil and Marion Fanshawe. Virgil Fanshawe is a successful commercial-artist and with Dawn taking Bobby under her wing, Nellie Wood has her hands free to pose for her employer and that's usually more than enough to get rumors started in small places. Marion Fanshawe is a complete mystery to Dr. Westlake as she appears to exist in "a strange vacuum of personal silence." Benjamin G. Usher is an undertaker who's always carrying or reading the Bible, but "the sight of him leafing through Deuteronomy conjured up obscene images of sacrilege and Black Masses." Lastly, there's the tall, willowy painter, Miss Haywood, who kept herself to her ladylike self.

Dr. Westlake is not blind that "there's enough tension accumulating" around him to "blow up the inn." And only a few hours later, Dr. Gilchrist calls Dr. Westlake out of his bed to inform a body had been discovered down by the rock known locally as the Monk's Head ("some eerie piece of devil's sculpture"). The body of Nellie Wood was lying in a "grotesquely pious" pose, hands folded and eyes closed, lighted by the pink glow of a cheap, decorated Chinese lantern – a scarlet circle had been scrawled around a mole on her left cheek. Inspector Sweeney is very aware of Dr. Westlake's status as a successful amateur detective and is not only willing to accept his help, but offers to swear him in as a deputy sheriff as he knows an amateur like him is simply "itching to get in on this thing." And he's not wrong! But is the murder a result of the emotional powder keg back at the inn or the work of a serial killer stalking the beaches of Cape Talisman? And has it anything to do with what goes on in the churchyard? All the while, the bodies begin to pile up as sightings of "that strawberry-ice-cream pink" glow from the Chinese lanterns become a harbinger of death. 

The Scarlet Circle perfectly utilizes its setting to not only give the story a distinct flavor of its own, but also to give it a feeling of genuine isolation. Cape Talisman is not cut-off from the outside world, but the Talisman Inn feels like its located at the end of the world as the sea slowly encroaches on the place. Add the small cast of characters who are quickly being thinned out by "a murderer insanely obsessed with moles," you have a very intimate and suspenseful whodunit. The murders and mysterious situations Dr. Westlake has untangle also feel somewhat native to the Cape Talisman, which gives The Scarlet Circle a link to the works of regionalist writers like Todd Downing (e.g. Murder on the Tropic, 1935) and Arthur W. Upfield (e.g. Bony and the Mouse, 1959). Particularly towards the end when the ocean comes back to pick a fight with the Cape Talisman and gives the book another link to that rare subgenre known as the disaster detective (e.g. Tyline Perry's The Owner Lies Dead, 1930). But the plot is top-notch as well.

Dr. Westlake has his work cut out for him and a treat for everyone who dislikes inactive detectives who sit on their hands. Dr. Westlake has to pry away the long, closely-guarded secrets from all the suspects as well as clearing up certain misunderstandings and digging around in the distant past to get some answers. You have to take that digging both figuratively and literally, but, when the story has run its course, "there's only one person" who could have done it. That comes not as the result of a last-man-standing situation, but the evidence pointed to that person as the only one who ticked all the necessary boxes. An immaculate piece of fair play that completely eliminated my spare suspect who I actually favored as the murderer, but, by the end, Dr. Westlake was right. Only that person could have done it. There are, however, two very small smudges on the plot. I can see now why so many readers hate Dawn as a character. She's not an endearing character and creating child characters obviously was not the forte of the Quentin Collective. The second, very minor, smudge is a familiar element to the solution, but it was put to such good use in a busy, richly detailed and well characterized detective story, it borders on nitpicking to complain about it.

So, yeah, the people who recommended The Scarlet Circle figured correctly it would go a long way in redeeming the Dr. Westlake series after the underwhelming Death's Old Sweet Song. A truly rock solid, engagingly written and suspenseful detective novel that earned other Stagge titles like The Dogs Do Bark (1936), The Stars Spell Death (1939), Turn of the Table (1940) and The Yellow Taxi (1942) a top spot on my wishlist.

9/18/22

Death and the Conjuror (2022) by Tom Mead

Earlier this month, I reviewed two of Tom Mead's short-form locked room mysteries, "Invisible Death" (2018) and "The Walnut Creek Vampire" (2020), while eagerly awaiting the delivery of my copy of his debut novel, Death and the Conjuror: A Joseph Spector Locked Room Mystery (2022) – which promised to be a magician's prop box of miraculous crimes. I thought the two short stories were ambitious in concept and a trifle weak in execution as the clueing left a lot to be desired. Clues and red herrings are vital ingredients of the traditional, fair play detective and indispensable to the plot-driven kind like the locked room mystery. However, I suspected Mead might be a mystery writer who needs a novel-length canvas to work his magic on to full effect. I was right. 

Tom Mead's Death and the Conjuror is set in 1936 and has two different, overlapping casts of characters whom together present a whole array of puzzling issues to the ageless magician, Joseph Spector.

Dr. Anselm Rees is a well-known psychologist who had lived and worked his entire life in Vienna, Austria, but he had reasons to emigrate and arrived in England with his personally trained daughter, Dr. Lidia Rees. Dr. Anselm Rees told upon his arrival in England to the assembled press "he had no intention of taking on any new patients," but, less than a month later, he has taken on three patients in secret. Their identities were kept in strict confidence and "in his notebooks he referred to them only as Patients A, B, and C." Patient A is a musician, Floyd Stenhouse, who's "one of the finest violinists the Philharmonic had ever known." Patient B is "one of the greatest actresses of the age," Della Cookson, who's also a kleptomaniac. Patient C is a typical, reclusive writer type, Claude Weaver, who writes mystery novels. The second cast of characters is flocked around an impresario, Benjamin Teasel, who's producing and directing a "little Grand Guignol" at the Pomegranate Theatre, Miss Death, in which Della Cookson and Lucy Levy respectively play first and second female lead. Joseph Spector is there as the stage-play is built on the back of his tricks and illusions.

One evening, Dr. Rees tells his housekeeper, Olive Turner, that he expects a visitor and instructs her to direct him to his study. A visitor announces himself without giving a name, a hat pulled over his forehead and a thick scarf obscuring his face. Ah, the seasoned locked room reader shouts out, but, half an hour later, the mysterious visitor leaves the house. Olive Turner goes to check on Dr. Anselm and talks to him through a locked door. She even hears him answering the telephone to talk to a patient and the scratching of his pen on a notepad. But when another visitor turns up unannounced, Dr. Anselm no longer responds to Olive's knocking. When they finally manage to get the door open, they discover the doctor's body with "his throat cleaved by a hideous crimson gash" that nearly decapitated him, but the door and french windows are locked from the inside – keys still in the keyholes. There's a stretch of flowerbed outside the french windows, which "an assailant would have to trample to get out that way," but "none of the footprints led anywhere near the house." So how did the murderer vanish from a locked room with a witness standing outside the door?

Inspector George Flint represents the official side of the investigation and he knows, like every experienced policeman, "most murders are sordid back-street affairs" with "no mystery or magic to them." But lately, Inspector Flint has become aware of "a burgeoning subgenre of crime" known as impossible crimes. There's been an alarming uptick of these impossible crimes as "men in locked rooms were killed under impractical circumstances" or bodies "found strangled in a snowy field with only a single set of footprints trailing backward from the corpse." I like it! This is Mead assuring the reader that his criminals and murderers have style, take pride in their handy work and put a little effort in their thefts and murders. Mead's murderers don't lower themselves to something as vulgar as revolver shots through an open car window or a blackjack in a pitch-black alleyway. Just full-blown locked room murders. And the question how "Anselm Rees had his throat slit in a perfectly sealed room" is not the only impossibility on Inspector Flint's plate.

During a party at Benjamin Teasel's home, a valuable painting goes missing without a trace. Teasel had locked the painting away in a large, wooden box underneath his bed and kept the keys on a cord around his neck, while every room in the house was locked up tight as he's not "very particular about people wandering around his upstairs." Only the front door was unlocked. There were two maids stationed there to welcome latecomers and they swear nobody walked out with a large canvas.

Inspector Flint admits he doesn't have the kind of brain to pick apart these murders staged as puzzles and turns to a specialist, Joseph Spector. A former music hall conjuror who looks like he belongs to a bygone era and could be aged "anywhere from fifty to eighty." Flint called it one of Spector's most fascinating tricks as he seen him grow older or younger depending on the situation, which is an illusion the magician carefully maintains. Jokingly referring to how the Spanish Armada ruined his tenth birthday and keeping his real name a secret. So you can't help but catch a glimpse of Edward D. Hoch's Simon Ark in Joseph Spector. Although with him it's unquestionable all smoke and mirrors ("we cheat"), but exactly the kind of mind the police needs with cases like these.

The historical, 1936 period setting is no obstacle to discuss the then recently published The Hollow Man (1935), also known as The Three Coffins, in which Joseph Spector's "mutual friend Mr. John Dickson Carr has written a fairly comprehensive study of the locked-room problem" providing several categories of solution – which they crosscheck against their own locked room murder. Not a bad way to go over and use the famous "Locked Room Lecture" as it eliminates variations on the most well-known solutions and drives home just how impossible the murder under investigation really appears to be. These are the kind of treats locked room fans love! But the impossible crimes are not the only plot-strands requiring the attention of Flint and Spector. There's basically a whole tangle of complicated, possibly interconnected relationships, closely-guarded secrets and potential motives that need to be picked apart. So basically who did what, why and how, which at times tried to mimic the psychological whodunits of Helen McCloy. One of the mystery writers Mead names in “Acknowledgments” as writers who "enthuse and inspire" him, which also include Carr, Hoch, Hake Talbot and Clayton Rawson. They all appear on his "Top 10 Impossible Crimes" and, yes, Rawson's Death from a Top Hat (1938) is on there. Just like Rawson in Death from a Top Hat, Mead fanboyed a little too hard and tried to cram too much into a single novel. That began to result in some diminishing returns. Regrettably, that's especially true of the three impossible crimes with the third one happening when a body miraculously materialized inside "an apparently hermetically sealed elevator" under observation.

The impossible murder of Dr. Anselm Rees has an acceptable enough explanation, but not one that will blow most readers away and the strength is not in the locked room-trick. But everything packed around that trick that makes Death and the Conjuror more successful as an old-fashioned, neo-Golden Age whodunit than a classic locked room mystery. For example, the way in which Mead builds up towards the murder recalls Carr's The Hollow Man and La maison interdite (The Forbidden House, 1932) by M. Herbert and E. Wyl, which likely was done on purpose to the misdirect the experiences, keen-eyed locked room fanboys. Going in a completely different direction once the bundled-up figure disappeared through the front door. Add the intricate, web-like circle of suspects and you have a modern rendition of the classic, 1930s mystery novel. Only weakness is that the motive linking the murderer and victim is rag-thin.

So the primary impossible situation is not perfect, but well-wrought as a pure, old-school detective story with the locked rooms as a little extra. And while the locked room-trick is not blistering original, it's actually a locked room mystery. Something that can't be said about the problem of the stolen painting. The only reason why it appeared to be an impossible theft is that the story conveniently ignored (ROT13) gung gur cnvagvat pbhyq unir orra gnxra bhg bs vgf senzr, gur senzr oebxra vagb cvrprf naq guebja bhg bs n jvaqbj until it was time to explain how it was done, but it was the first possibility that occurred to me. However, where the thief stowed away the painting was clever and very well done. The problem of the sealed elevator felt a little out of place here and the incredibly pulpy, somewhat hacky method would have been better served in a short homage to the pulp fiction of yesteryear like the Don Diavolo mysteries by one "Stuart Towne." That being said, the presentation of this problem was not without interest. Recently, I reviewed one of Hoch's short story collections, Funeral in the Fog (2020), which has a story, "The Way Up to Hades" (1988), about a rock star who vanishes from moving and watched elevator. Normally, a sealed elevator is the scene of a murder, but Hoch and Mead used it to make their victim disappears or appear out of thin air. I thought it was interesting to see how Hoch and Mead approaches the same problem from opposite directions and came away with completely different solutions. 

You might assume from my review that the conclusion soured me on the whole story, but that's not the case. Yes, as a classically-styled locked room mystery, Death and the Conjuror leaves something to be desired. It's simply not in the same class as Carr, Hoch or Talbot. But as a detective story, Death and the Conjuror gives the reader a sound continuation of the 1930s mystery novel. I want to echo Isaac Stump, of Solving the Mystery of Murder, who summed up the book as follow, "a fantastic crime novel… which has a locked-room mystery, and not, unfortunately, a fantastic locked-room mystery." I agree. There's another, very good reason why I loved the book. For close to fifty years, people who enjoy Golden Age detective fiction didn't have to wait for the new Agatha Christie or Ellery Queen to be published with the only real hurdle posed by obscure, long out-of-print writers and novels that were hard to come by – which the internet has since smoothed out and lead to a Renaissance Era. Now we can see the first flickers of the sparks that will light the fires of the Second Golden Age with M.P.O. Books, James Scott Byrnside, P. Dieudonné, Robert Innes, D.L. Marshall and Tom Mead giving us the authentic Golden Age experience of getting to watch them building a series from the ground up as they hone their skills and improve as they go on. So as far as I'm concerned, Death and the Conjuror is Mead's It Walks by Night (1930) that will eventually lead to a modern-day The Hollow Man in 2027. No pressure, though. :)

9/14/22

Hildegarde Withers: Final Riddles? (2021) by Stuart Palmer

Stuart Palmer was a Hollywood screenwriter, mystery novelist and former president of the Mystery Writers of America who created one of the best, most convincing spinster sleuths in the game, Miss Hildegarde Withers – a New York schoolteacher and "self-appointed gadfly to the homicide division." Miss Withers appeared in fourteen novel-length mysteries and around fifty short stories. A portion of the short stories were collected over the decades in The Riddles of Hildegarde Withers (1947), The Monkey Murders (1950) and a collection of crossover stories, People vs. Withers and Malone (1963), co-created with Craig Rice. That left about half of the stories unaccounted for and it would take nearly forty years, before Crippen & Landru published Hildegarde Withers: Uncollected Riddles (2002). One of the best collection of short stories from their "Lost Classic" series!

Two decades later, Crippen & Landru published a sequel to that classic collection, entitled Hildegarde Withers: Final Riddles? (2021), which comes with an introduction by historical mystery writer, Steven Saylor.

Saylor writes Douglas Greene, Jeffrey Marks and Tony Medawar tracked down ten more, previously uncollected, Miss Withers stories in addition to a Howie Rook story, two Sherlock Holmes pastiches and a tale of the supernatural. More importantly, the introduction tells Palmer claimed in 1952 "he had written about 50 Withers stories at that point" and, if his math is correct, that leaves over a dozen stories "buried and waiting to be discovered in miscellaneous American (or Australian?) newspapers of the 1930s and 1940s." So another collection is not off the table, which is why this volume should have been titled Hildegarde Withers: Uncovered Riddles and that hypothetical, last collection should be Hildegarde Withers: Concluding Riddles. And with that out of the way, let's dive into these stories. 

"The Riddle of the Black Spade" was originally published in the October, 1934, issue of Mystery and begins with Miss Withers, "uninvited and unannounced," barging in on Inspector Oscar Piper at the New York Homicide Bureau with a newspaper in hand – carrying a report of a freak accident on a golf course. A former state senator and attorney, David E. Farling, had been discovered lying face down near one of the water hazards of the course. Apparently, Farling had been accidentally struck by a golf ball, killing him instantly, but Miss Withers correctly smells a murder as such accidents never end with a body. She has gets a good reason to stick her nose in the case when the victim's son, Ronald, is arrested on suspicion of murder. Ronald not only had a blazing row with his father, but a skilled golfer who can take "what they call a mashie and chipping balls twenty feet into a tin pail." Miss Withers has her own ideas about the case.

This is a somewhat uneven story that leaves me undecided whether it's too short or too long. Firstly, the story mentioned that whatever killed Farling "would have to be traveling with the speed of a bullet to make such a wound," which makes Miss Withers' solution sound wholly unconvincing. There's no way that was done with the force of a speeding bullet to a skull of "normal thickness." Secondly, there's a very cleverly contrived attempted murder towards the end linked to an early incident in the story and would have made for an excellent short story or an additional plot-thread in a novel-length mystery. So a pretty decent detective story that could have been better had it been either whittled down a little or fully expanded upon. 

"To Die in the Dark" was culled from the pages of the November 18, 1944, issue of The Australian Women's Weekly and brings Inspector Piper to "a run-down, respectable street of brownstones" where he expects to investigate a conventional kind of murder. But what he finds is "another of those locked room things." Charles Portland, a rare book dealer, had been shot to death in his bedroom, but the door was locked on the inside and "the only known key was found in the pocket of the victim's dressing-gown." There's no trace of the gun to be found in the locked room except for a shell case on the floor and the slug that had flattened itself against a wall. What truly astonishes Piper is finding Miss Withers in the house on an assignment and now she has to explain the impossible to exonerate two innocent people. Palmer hardly breaks any new ground here and, normally, I detest this sort of detective story and solution to a locked room puzzle (ROT13: fhvpvqr qvfthvfrq nf zheqre), but it was cast in a somewhat acceptable form. The problem of the absentee gun, in particular, punched up the overall quality of the story. A middling effort from a writer who can do so much better. 

"Where Angels Fear to Tread" was originally published in the February, 1951, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and stands out as the story has Miss Withers "acting like a mother-hen instead of a bloodhound." Miss Withers travels to San Diego, California, to visit a recently married niece and her husband, Joanie and Neil Samson, but finds their honeymoon cottage locked up and abandoned. A neighbor tells Miss Withers "the folks who lived here broke up a week ago" and Joanie appears to have "walked out in what she had on her back," but the bedraggled living room, smashed radio and stained carpet makes her suspect the worst – hitting closer to home than her "impersonal kibitzing on police homicide investigations in the past." This involved her own Joanie! Detective-lieutenant Villalobos is not as accustomed to the schoolteacher's meddling and Inspector Piper has to intervene over the telephone to keep her out of prison ("that New York inspector says you're just a meddlesome old battleaxe of an amateur detective..."). The story then shifts to a shady radio host, Dr. Doan, who has a marriage counseling show complete with dramatic reenactments and a pay-to-play scheme ("...just enclose a five-dollar bill to insure a number-one priority"). Dr. Doan ceremoniously dismisses his small, but loyal, staff to trade his radio career for a television show.

When these two plot-threads begin to come together, Miss Withers has to deduce who out of a handful of people killed Dr. Doan. I strongly suspected the murderer and spotted the big clue, but struggled to explain what the clue actually meant or how it interpret it. And the answers to that question was as surprising and logical as it was satisfying. I don't feel especially bright right now for not catching on to the meaning of that (ROT13) nofheq ubccvat qnapr naq zbnaf bs, “Bu-bu-bu.” Abg gb zragvba gur pyhr bs gur bcra-gbrq fubrf. Well played, Palmer. Well played. The first great story of the collection. 

"The Jinx Man" was first published in the December, 1952, issue of EQMM and concerns "Fortune's fair-haired boy," Roscoe Brock, whose luck has began to run a little thin. A stray bullet pierced his hat while horse riding. A spoiled bottle of cognac turned out to have been poisoned. And when Brock went down to the subway to shelter from a thunderstorm, he was pushed off the platform in front of a train. The train stopped mere inches from where Brock was sprawled. Inspector Piper tells Miss Withers "real murderers don't fool around with fake accidents that misfire," but tend to come right to the point and usually it's "the point of a knife or pistol." So gives Miss Withers his consent to play sleuth, but the near death escapes continue. Miss Withers is even present when Brock opens a package containing a coral snake. Inevitably, one of the attempts results in a victim, but probably not the intended victim. Or was it?

Miss Withers remarks that the case is like "skim milk masquerades as cream" and "murder is a two-edged sword, not to be fooled with." She was right. I think most seasoned armchair detectives can anticipate most of the plot developments, but the ending springs a genuine surprise with a bitter twist on the reader. A minor, but very well done short story that ended stronger than expected. 

"Hildegarde and the Spanish Cavalier" was first published in December, 1955, issue of EQMM and is the reason why this review is tagged with the "Courtroom Drama" label, because the story earned it on every front! This story has everything. Courtroom drama, courtroom shenanigans and courtroom wizardry to the point where Perry Mason probably considered suing Miss Withers for gimmick infringement. Juan del Puerto, also known as the Spanish cavalier, has been under suspicion of having killed his wife and "somehow disposed of the body on the honeymoon cruise," but the only thing the police could pin on him was a bigamy charge. Having served a five-year sentence, Del Puerto is about to be released and he has retained lawyer to claim his wife's life saving. A sum of thirty thousand dollars which he was wearing in a money-belt when arrested as Del Puerto claims it was a gift to him from before they got married.

Miss Withers plans to detonate a bombshell during the court hearing in order to crack the case, but a newspaper headline and a gunshot in court throws the whole case in disarray. And places an entirely different complexion on the case. This story has better storytelling than plotting as it's not difficult to see which the direction the solution is headed towards, but a thoroughly entertaining story nonetheless. And poor Piper! After reading the headlines berating the police for their failure, he laments that has "spent thirty-five years as a cop, and nothing to show for it but a couple of months' pay in the bank and a stake in the retirement fund. I've personally helped send over a hundred murderers to the Chair, and stayed up all night drinking black coffee and hating myself the eve of their executions. I've been beaten up by thugs, I've had gangster lead pried out of my carcass twice, I've worked twenty-four hours a day for days on end when a big case came up, and all the thanks I now get for it is a tabloid's editorial."

"You Bet Your Life" originally appeared in the May, 1957, issue of EQMM and is the unexpected highlight of the collection as it's more of a suspense thriller than detective story. The story opens with Miss Withers making her television debut on Groucho Marx's real-life 1950s TV show, You Bet Your Life. Miss Withers tells Groucho her avocation is criminology ("face cream or dairy cream?") and she's currently working on a solution to the Walter McWalters case. A socialite and conman who "walked off some months ago with a suitcase full of somebody else's money," $200,000 in total, but McWalters pulled "a disappearing act more famous than anything since Judge Crater's" and Miss Withers claims to have succeeded where "the biggest police manhunt in recent history has failed" – even knowing his approximate whereabouts. This is, of course, all part of a ruse to draw McWalters out of hiding, but Inspector Piper was horrified at the broadcast. Miss Withers assumed McWalters is nothing more than an ordinary, non-violent conman, but Pipers knows he's a regular Bluebeard who's "wanted in several states on suspicion of murder." So now her prying has gotten her in the cross hairs of a very real and dangerous lady killer. You can almost read it like a siege story with the question not so much being as how and who McWalters is going to be revealed, but how Miss Withers is going to survive this ordeal. Since her only protection is "a silly French poodle who loves everybody in the world" and "a squirt gun." A surprisingly great story considering it's a suspense thriller rather than a proper whodunit. 

"Who is Sylvia?" was first published in the July, 1961, issue of EQMM and, as you gathered from the previous few stories, Palmer began to put more emphasis on character and storytelling during the mid-1950s. This story is a fine example of Palmer playing around with characters and identity to tell an entertaining yarn. Miss Withers is asked by a former pupil who has fallen in love with a young, aspiring actress, Sally Burris, who headed to the city in a stagestruck daze and simply vanished. Now both Miss Withers and her ex-pupil worry something dreadful has happened. So she asks Inspector Piper for help and has some unexpected news. A wealthy socialite, Mrs. Lola Mills, who's convinced her son has married "a reasonably accurate facsimile" of Miss Lizzie Borden. The woman in question is an oddball who lapses into a British or Australian accent and has "a big leather bag that she keeps locked in a closet and guards with her life" named Sylvia Burris! Mrs. Mills want her "daughter-in-law arrested and deported so that the wedding can be quietly annulled," which puts tension on the family. And pretty soon evidence emerges that someone is thinking about murder.

Miss Withers is "a firm believer in preventive detection" and has to figure out what, exactly, is going on and why, before someone decides to pull the trigger. Yet another unexpectedly great tale as it's not your typical detective story. 

"The Return of Hildegarde Withers" (1964) is the next story in the collection, but I'm going to skip it as the story is a very light rewrite of "The Riddle of the Forty Costumes," which had also been collected in Hildegarde Withers: Uncollected Riddles. While reading, I began to experience a mild case of déjà vu and a quick search turned up the title "The Riddle of the Forty Costumes" and a comparison of the two confirmed my suspicion. All you need to know it's the dullest story in the collection in which Miss Withers investigates the disappearance of a dance teacher. 

"Hildegarde Withers is Back" was originally published in the April, 1968, issue of EQMM and is a return to form for both Palmer and Miss Withers. Miss Withers has retired and settled down in California, but returned to New York City to come to the aid of her old friend, Inspector Piper, on the Barth case. Cecily Barth was "one of Hollywood's most famous stars in her day," known as the Love Goddess of the Silver Screen, who has life story told as TV special. The producer, Boris Abbas, brought a Hollywood scriptwriter, Gary Twill, to New York and they picked a "young sexpot actresses to play," Lilith Lawrence, "the leading role." However, the producer disliked the script, fired the writer and Twill proceeded to do, as Piper described it, "the Dutch Act out of his hotel window" ("I do wish, Oscar, you would stop insulting the people of Holland"). The police believes it was a simple case of suicide, but Miss Withers is willing the wager a pretty penny the scriptwriter was cleverly murdered. Throughout the story, you can't help but cast a suspicious eye in the direction of the murderer, but the crux of the plot is how it could have been done. Oh, boy, did I sink my teeth into a red herring and stubbornly refused to let it go.

A very peculiar item that figured in a previous story is casually mentioned here and this peculiar item can do something that could have explained how it was done, because the impact of the fall would have obliterated evidence of its use on the body – especially if it was a head-on collision with the pavement. It was simple, elegant and completely wrong. Palmer came up with a better, much more satisfying explanation. A great throwback to the puzzle-driven stories from the 1930s and '40s. 

"Hildegarde Plays It Calm" was first published in the April, 1969, issue of EQMM and gives Miss Withers a new experience as an amateur detective. Many years ago, Miss Withers solved "the famous toe-print case" that placed Eileen Travis in the death house on two counts of Homicide One, but her sentence was commuted and served only ten years. Now she's on the outside, Eileen turns to Miss Withers to ask advice on behalf of a friend who's still on the inside. A friend, named Bunny, whose husband has stopped coming up to see her or even write anymore. Since this is the first time Miss Withers has "a chance at firsthand to see what they're like when and if they get back into the world," she decides to help Eileen and take her to see what Bunny's husband is up to. But the evening doesn't exactly go as planned. How or what is something you have to read for yourself, but the story is a fitting capstone to Miss Withers' short story run. A fitting, final case for a schoolteacher who keeps sticking her nose in murder cases! 

The last four stories will be discussed in bulk in order to not bloat this review even further and because the stories were not particularly interesting to me. Firstly, there the only known short story in existence featuring Palmer's secondary series-detective, "The Stripteaser and the Private Eye" (1968), in which Howie Rook comes to the aid of a well-known stripper who may have witnessed a gang killing. So not my type of detective story. "How Lost Was My Father" (1953) is a very well written ghost story that became a rural legend and comes with an introduction to give some cultural and historical context to the story. I really liked it. Just one questions. Why has the premise of a man who "one moment he had walked in the middle of the forty-acre pasture, and the next moment he had vanished," while being watched, never been used for an impossible crime novel? Someone tell Paul Halter to get to work! I expected much more from the Sherlockian pastiche "The Adventure of the Marked Man" (1944), in which Holmes and Dr. Watson try to save a man being pestered by a would-be-assassin, but not one of the Great Detective's most remarkable or memorable cases. On the other hand, I really enjoyed "The Adventure of the Remarkable Worm" (1944), a Holmesian pastiche, which is modeled on an allusion to one of those many untold cases. While a parody, it manages to come with a surprisingly logical and coherent story based on this brief description from "The Problem of Thor Bridge" (1922): "A third case worthy of note is that of Isadora Persano, the well-known journalist and duellist, who was found stark staring mad with a match box in front of him which contained a remarkable worm said to be unknown to science." The collections ends with essay/fan letter titled "The I-O-U of Hildegarde Withers" (1948) explaining why there would be no Miss Withers without Sherlock Holmes. A nice touch to round out the collection.

So, as usually is the case with collections of short stories single author, Hildegarde Withers: Final Riddles? is a mixed bag of treats with only one real dud, some decent stories and a few welcome surprises, but, on a whole, not the classic collection that its predecessor was. However, I think the stories collected here suffered from Palmer trying to move along with the times and began to emphasize character-driven storytelling over intricate plotting. Whereas Hildegarde Withers: Uncollected Riddles comprised of short stories from the thirties and forties. Although I don't think a slight reduction in the plotting department will diminish any of the fun these stories will bring to long-time fans of Stuart Palmer, Miss Hildegarde Withers, Inspector Oscar Piper and that kindhearted poodle "who would gladly have held the dark-lantern for Jack the Ripper."

9/10/22

Bats in the Belfry (1937) by E.C.R. Lorac

Edith Rivett was a prolific mystery novelist who penned seventy-some detective novels and a handful of short stories, published under the pseudonyms "E.C.R. Lorac" and "Carol Carnac," which the British Library Crime Classics expanded with a long-lost novel, Two-Way Murder (2021) – originally intended to be published as by "Mary Le Bourne." Martin Edwards and the British Library have not only did a bang-up job in resurrecting Lorac from near-total obscurity, but they also helped rehabilitate her once tarnished reputation. Lorac used to be considered a dull, clunky and largely forgettable humdrum writer like a cross between the worst of John Rhode and Ngaio Marsh. She has a number of novels to her names, such as Death Came Softly (1943) and Murder by Matchlight (1945), which do nothing to dispel that notion. But the recent run of reprints revealed Lorac was an uneven mystery writer. Not a bad one. 

These Names Make Clues (1937) and Checkmate to Murder (1944) changed my views on Lorac as they turned out to be intelligently written, smartly plotted and well-characterized mysteries. And everything but dull or humdrum. Both novels are good examples of Lorac's tendency to plot her own route through a conventional detective story. I think Jim nailed it in his 2018 review of today's subject when he said Lorac didn't reinvent the wheel, but put "a different tread on the tyres." Since it was Jim who was ahead of the current Lorac Revival, why not take a gamble on one of his recommendations. So let's examine, what Martin Edwards called, "a hidden gem from the Golden Age of Murder."

The British Library edition of Lorac's Bats in the Belfry (1937) is subtitled "A London Mystery" and the theme of the story is "odd things do happen in London." A story that begins with a gathering at the home of "that distinguished ornament of the Authors' Club," Bruce Attleton, following the funeral of Anthony Fell – a "cousin of sorts" of Bruce who died in a car wreck. This gathering comprises of Bruce's glamorous wife and well-known actress, Sybilla. Bruce's 19-year-old ward, Elizabeth Leigh. A young, brash journalist, Robert Grenville, who wishes to marry Elizabeth, but Bruce refuses to give his guardian's consent as he believes it would be "a mistake for her to get tied up before she's seen enough of the world." A heavily-built, well-tailored and wealthy stockbroker, Thomas Burroughs. And another close friend of the Attletons, Neil Rockingham. So the conversation turns to murder or rather that age-old problem of how to get rid of a pesky corpse or "what method could you dispose of it so as to avoid any future liabilities." Once phrase from this discussion lingers throughout a large part of the story, "concrete him up into the permanent fabric of the establishment." But then another problem presents itself.

Bruce Attleton is informed by his butler that a gentleman named Debrette phoned while he was out and snaps to the butler, "if he rings up again, tell him I'll bash his bloody head in." Rockingham has noticed Attleton has something on his mind and suspects his friend might be blackmailed or even threatened by this mysterious Debrette. So he decides to form an alliance with Robert Grenville to draw on his journalistic expertise to get a line on Debrette, which leads him to a dark, rundown belfry studio known around the neighborhood by its cheery nickname, the Morgue – scheduled to be demolished. I suspect the scenes with Grenville trying to play the amateur sleuth was Lorac gently poking fun at the mystery thrillers of the 1920s with their young, smart alecky and love-struck heroes. What happens to him throughout the story and how the incidents began to escalate bordered sometimes on darkly comedic slapstick. And that tended to strike a false-note with the serious, even gruesome nature of the case. Bats in the Belfry is not a black, comedic spoof of the detective story, but one of the scenes with Grenville forced me to tag this review with the "locked room mysteries" toe-tag. That requires a brief explanation before getting to the meat of the story.

While on the hunt, Grenville rented the belfry studio and rigged the place with booby traps to give the alarm if anybody gets in, but Grenville is attacked by an intruder "who got in and got out through locked and bolted doors" without disturbing "Grenville's strategic arrangement of pails and tin trays." A very minor, utterly simplistic locked room mystery, which is not given much attention and easily explained away on the last page, but still qualifies as a locked room mystery. I didn't intend to add yet another locked room review to the blog, but those damned, infernal things haunt me like an Edgar Allan Poe creation.

Rockingham turns to Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald, of Scotland Yard, when Bruce Attleton and Debrette simultaneously go missing. It doesn't take very long for Macdonald to uncover an otherwise craftily hidden, headless and handless corpse posing a tricky conundrum to the Scotsman. Whose body? Did the author dispose of a blackmailer or did Debrette have a motive to get rid of Attleton? Or is there another possibility? After all, Attleton apparently gave a sign of life and Debrette was spotted in Trafalgar Square. A case as murky as it's muddled and demonstrates Lorac's tendency to approach a fairly standard, straight forward problem in a roundabout way. So the plot can feel a little muddled in places and the ending revealed certain elements that were alluded to held less weight in the end and were kind of glossed over (HUGE SPOILER/ROT13: "abguvat zber pna or cebirq nobhg gur qrnguf bs Nggyrgba'f oebgure naq Nagubal Sryy" or gur ohgyre'f nppvqrag). Nonetheless, the story and plot is not without merit or some truly inspired touches.

Firstly, I thought the method Macdonald employed to identify the headless, handless corpse was quite clever. Back in those days, the police needed a head with an undamaged face and teeth, hands to take fingerprints or some distinctive mark on the body – like a scar or birthmark. And without any of those identifying factors, it would be next to impossible to identify a headless, handless body without any scars or birthmarks in the 1930s. So it was an inspired piece of thinking on Macdonald's part and very fortunate the victim used such a service. Secondly, while the murderer's "whole plan shows an effrontery which simply passes belief," the complicated scheme has an element I've never seen before. The murderer's (SPOILERS/ROT13) bevtvany cyna jnf gb yrnir qbhog nf gb jub xvyyrq jub (nf gur obql jbhyq unir orra orlbaq vqragvsvpngvba) naq hfr gur ynj gung “n zheqrere pnaabg cebsvg ol uvf pevzr” ntnvafg gur ivpgvzf gb frpher gur sbeghar, but the premature discovery of the body demolished that plan. To quote Jim again, Lorac is "not as rigorous as Christie, not as refined as Sayers, not as dull as Marsh," but she had undoubtedly something different to contribute to the British detective. Just like her ambiguously, pen-named contemporary, “Anthony Gilbert,” she did it in her own, slightly unusual way. What's not to be overlooked is Lorac's keen awareness and observations of the world around her, which gives a work today an odd historical flavor. For example, Lorac briefly described the loungers who were always to be found in Trafalgar Square, "wrecks of men, unemployed and unemployables, who spent wretched days and nights in streets and doss-houses, scavenging in the very gutters, living on the uncertain charity of passers-by." Not a passage you're likely to come across in most British mysteries of the 1930s.

Add to this the fact that Bats in the Belfry is Lorac's best clued mystery I've read to date, you can easily overlooked some of the muddling and smudges on this otherwise excellent and most of all fascinating Golden Age mystery. A much merited reprint!

I'll try to return to Lorac before too and think of doing three back-to-back. It would be a good way to get Carol Carnac's Crossed Skis (1952), the posthumous Two-Way Murder and another Chief Inspector Macdonald reprint off the pile.