Murder After Christmas (1944) by Rupert Latimer

"Rupert Latimer" was the pseudonym Algernon Victor Mills who came from a well to do, titled British family, "undoubtedly born with a silver spoon in his mouth," but during his childhood he ate wild, contaminated strawberries that killed his elder sister and their nurse – which left him lame and a lifelong epileptic. Mills died very young, aged 47 or 48, after doctors found a brain tumor. During his lifetime, Mills produced two obscure, long out-of-print detective novels, Death in Real Life (1943) and Murder After Christmas (1944), published under the name "Rupert Latimer."

Last year, the British Library reissued Latimer's Murder After Christmas and this "witty and entertaining story" seemed like a good, lighthearted and appropriately-titled mystery to close out the year. What I didn't expect to find was a gem-encrusted clump of golden age detective fiction! 

Murder After Christmas begins as a fairly typical, seasonal mystery in the fine old tradition of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot's Christmas (1938) and Georgette Heyer's Envious Casca (1941). Frank and Rhoda Redpath discuss whether, or not, they should invite her "nearly ninety years of age" stepfather to stay with them over Christmas. Sir Willoughby Keene-Cotton, or simply Uncle Willie, never earned a penny in his life, but amassed several fortunes through inheritance and numerous profitable marriages. Quite a character and someone who's "difficult to manage."

Uncle Willie normally spends his Christmas holiday in Italy, but the present war and Mussolini taking sides made it impossible for him to cross the Channel to occupy his villa in San Remo. It should be noted that Murder After Christmas is also a World War II mystery in which European unpleasantness drifts over the story like wisps of dark clouds. There are the usual references to the blackouts, London refugees, petrol rationing and food wastage ("...almost as serious as murder nowadays"), but they also play a 1938 board game called Invasion – devised by thriller novelist Dennis Wheatley in anticipation of the next Great War in Europe. Martin Edwards writes in the introduction of the reprint that copies of Invasion "change hands on the second-hand market for high prices." Just one of those historical details that add so much to a vintage mystery. So much to Frans dismay, Uncle Willie accepted a previously extended invitation ("Didn't see that there could be any harm in asking. As an empty gesture of goodwill at Christmas. But there was one chance in a million that he would accept"), but Rhoda points out it may be his last Christmas. And if they give him a very special, lovely Christmas, he might remember them in his will ("Bread Upon the Waters").

Before he has even arrived, the Redpaths flippantly discuss the murder of Uncle Willie ("...could have been murdered in the best of taste") and how "he really did seem to be the easiest person in the world to murder." These ideas, jokingly as they are, do not subside with the arrival of the always difficult, obstinate Uncle Willie. Although they agree that the murder, any murder, should wait until after Christmas. That's exactly what happened.

On the wintry morning of Boxing Day, the body of Uncle Willie, "still in his Father Christmas make-up," is discovered lying a few feet away from a capsized snowman on the lawn clutching a piece of cardboard – a clue from the previous night's treasure hunt. A medical examination reveals he had died from an overdose of laudanum, which begs the question whether the old, absentmindedly man accidentally swallowed an overdose or was cleverly poisoned? He was in a habit of taking patent medicines, but murder comes into question when the Redpaths' son tries his hands at playing detective. There was a case of robbery at his office and John Redpath solved the mystery, which "rather interfering of him, because if he had left things alone probably no one would have guessed that there had been a robbery at all." Now he noticed that there had to be a second track of footprints leading to the body and snowman, because there simply had to be if the victim had made two trips to the snowman.

The problem of the tracks in the snow is one of three links Murder After Christmas has to the impossible crime tradition without going all in on them, which also include the problem of how the poison had been administrated. A third borderline impossibility is hidden in the tail of the plot, but can't comment on that without giving anything away. It's something I enjoyed very much.

Superintendent Culley has a pretty puzzle to sort out and piece together, complete with dodgy motives and clues as slippery as red herrings, which comes with cast of characters that makes him wonder, "are they all on the border-line" or "or is it me that's going balmy?" However, the gentle, humorous banter and eccentric characterization is not used as an excuse to go light on the plot. Murder After Christmas has an intricately designed, delightfully twisted plot under all the "damn silly nonsense" with some of best and most fascinating piece of clueing I've come across in a while. Not entirely on the same level of a John Dickson Carr or Agatha Christie, but the parcel of clues (i.e. the clue of the Christmas parcels) were wonderful and somewhat reminiscent to the Christmas presents from Ellery Queen's The Finishing Stroke (1958). But here they actually have meaning. You can correctly interpret some of the bizarre clues and follow them to the logical conclusion. Such as the parcel of mince-pies that was found sewn up in the upholstery of an armchair. It's the kind of seemingly incomprehensible clue that would have immediately elicited an enigmatic remark from Dr. Gideon Fell making Superintendent Hadley wish he was an American cop, so he had an excuse to lead some lead fly. Not necessarily at Dr. Fell. Just firing a couple of rounds in a wall or ceiling to let off a little bit of steam. What a fun and unexpectedly great Golden Age mystery novel!

So, all in all, Latimer's Murder After Christmas stands alongside Christie's Hercule Poirot's Christmas, Nicholas Blake's Thou Shell of Death (1936) and James Yaffe's Mom Meets Her Makes (1990) as the best, strongest and above all most entertaining examples of the snowy, seasonal detective novel – distinguished by its fresh take on old themes and truly inspired plotting. A small, glittering gem from the genre's trail of obscurity that makes me hope Latimer's Death in Real Life will follow Murder After Christmas back to print in the not so distant future. Until then, I wish you all a happy and nuclear fallout free 2023!


Hymn to Murder (2020) by Paul Doherty

Paul Doherty's Hymn to Murder (2020) is the twenty-first medieval detective novel starring Sir Hugh Corbett, Keeper of the Secret Seal and Edward II's personal envoy, which has an intricate, many-stranded plot woven around the "strange journey" of the Lacrima Christi – a magnificent, lustrous ruby considered to be "the most beautiful jewel the world had ever seen." A royal gift from the Caliph of Egypt to Prince Edward of England that came with a gold, bejeweled casket and were locked away in the great crypt at Westminster Abbey.

A decade before the events in Hymn to Murder, the crypt was burglarized and looted of its treasures. A real-life heist that was the subject of Doherty's non-fiction book The Great Crown Jewels Robbery of 1303: The Extraordinary Story of the First Big Bank Raid in History (2005) and the historical figure behind the crime, Richard Puddlicot, previously appeared in Murder Wears a Cowl (1992). Richard Puddlicot forged an alliance with a corrupted order of Benedictine monks, the Blackrobes of Westminster, who were "firmly under the rule of a false shepherd, the powerful and resolute Adam Warfeld." The chief sacristan of the abbey directly responsible for its security. So the robbery was a howling success and the mob reveled as they openly ridiculed and taunted the King.

Sir Hugh Corbett, Ranulf-atte-Newgate and a retinue of mailed clerks were dispatched and "swept Westminster like God's own storm." Some thieves were beheaded, while others were hanged or turned king's evidence. Richard Puddlicot was captured, tried and sentenced to hang as close as possible "to where he had committed his outrageous crimes." Adam Warfeld and his monks pleaded benefit of clergy, under the protection of Holy Mother Church, which got them banished to the desolate, derelict priory of St Benet – hidden away "deep in the wilds of Dartmoor." However, the Lacrima Christi was not recovered and eventually turned in Rome as the coveted possession of Pope Boniface VIII. This was only short-lived as the ruby vanished again during the coronation of Pope Clement V. Lord Simon Malmaison was assigned to find and return the ruby, but it would take until 1312 before Lord Simon and the Secret Chancery received anonymous letters that "the casket and possibly the jewel could be acquired by the English Crown."

This is only the prologue! When Sir Hugh and Ranulf arrive at Malmaison Manor, high on Doone Moor, they find a nest of thievery, treason and wholesale murder.

Lord Simon and another former mailed clerk, John Wodeford, served with Sir Hugh in the Secret Chancery and they were tasked with finding the stolen pieces of jewelry that were never recovered. So when the anonymous letters arrived, Wodeford visited Sir Simon and retreated into a private chamber, which they securely locked and double-bolted. But neither came out. When the door is broken down, it opens onto the scene of a gruesome, double crossbow murder. Lord Simon's body is sprawled in a chair and "the stark black feathers of a crossbow quarrel made it look as if a small, angry bird had smashed into his temple." Wodeford was lying on the floor with a crossbow bolt embedded deep in his chest. So where did the murderer go? This is not the only, apparently impossible, murder committed within the walls of Malmaison Manor. Sir Ralph Hengham, principal tax collector in the shires of Devon and Cornwall, who had the right to investigate the murders as a servant of the Crown. He was given the murder room and also ended up with a crossbow bolt in his chest behind the locked, recently refurbished, door with the key still sticking in the lock on the inside. The murderer took the money the victims had on them in both cases.

Still this is only the beginning of Sir Hugh and Ranulf problems. On the night of the double murder, Lord Simon's two pet leopards were freed from their underground pens to roam the dark, misty moors. A place dangerous enough without "great cats roaming, roaring and seeking prey" as a band of outlaws, the Sagittarius and his Scarecrows, stalk those same moors and locals believe them responsible for the recent wrecking of ships along the coast – as well as the deaths of Lord Simon, Sir Ralph and Wodeford. And numerous people have disappeared on the moors. You could "hide a legion of corpses in the deep quagmires and marshes" where "the dead sink like stones." What about the mass disappearance of the twelve members of the Guild of Fleshers and Tanners who simply vanished into thin air on their way home from an evening of drinking and feasting. And, yet again, this is only the beginning as they merely constitute the problems confronting Sir Hugh upon his arrival in the region.

The murders and blood shedding go on unmercifully, of which two more occur inside a locked and bolted rooms. However, the more interesting of these crimes is the regrettably gruesome death of Grease-hair, spit-boy at the manor, who spotted something amiss when he peered into the first locked room without being able to put his finger on it and "he must have voiced his concerns, repeating them time and again, so he had to be silenced." Grease-hair was turned into "a living torch," but left behind a sort of dying message ("...drew a crude diagram of parallel lines"). The ship wrecking also continue unabated and has brief, but interesting, passage on 13th and 14th century English law (the First Statute of Westminster) that "tried to define what is a legitimate wreck as opposed to what could be defined as deliberate destruction and murder." The wording of the law basically handed any ethically challenged person a motive to dispose of any "hapless survivor" who crawls from the sea near a wreck. A pity Doherty didn't elaborate on that in his Author's Note at the end of the book.

So, as you can probably tell, Hymn to Murder has an extremely busy, complicated plot that keeps twisting and turning with every passing chapter, which can be tricky to pull-off. Doherty can pull it off. And he did, to a certain extend, in Hymn to Murder. This story is more about Sir Hugh "imposing order on the mysterious events swirling around them" and, as one review mentioned, exposing who-did-what-to-whom rather than creating a genuine who-and howdunit pull. Firstly, the culprits eventually stand out and not because only a few characters remain standing come the end of the story. Secondly, two of the locked rooms have extremely disappointing solutions (ROT13: svqqyvat jvgu snyfr xrlf), while the third murder in the locked larder showed a little more imagination in how it handled an otherwise routine trick. The double murder of Lord Simon and Wodeford is the center piece of the locked room elements, but the trick is, once again, nothing particularly worthy of note. Admittedly, I failed to spot how it was done because a bloodstained crossbow bolt had been driven into the inside of the locked door (the insignia of the Sagittariu). Simply assumed that very conveniently placed crossbow bolt was used to pull a string around to help drive home the bolts and turning the key. But how the double murder of the lord of the manor and his special guest relates to the other murders at the mansion was nicely tied together. Same can be said about the other, numerous plot-strands drawn across "the treacherous bogs, quagmires, morasses and marshes" of Dartmoor. 

Hymn to Murder reads like a historical suspense-thriller in the spirit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) and Seishi Yokomizo's Yatsuhakamura (The Village of Eight Graves, 1949/50) rather than a traditional, fair play locked room mystery. While the who-did-what-to-whom style plot might lack that genuine whodunit pull, the whole complicated tapestry is tightly woven together in a clear, logical and recognizable pattern enhanced by Doherty's haunting depiction of those lonely, isolated moors and an unforgiving sense of time-and place. Doherty never shielded his readers from the darker, grimier parts of history, but found the depiction of how power was wielded at a time when weak leadership was not respected and a recipe for disaster. So even just rulers and administrators had to govern with a strong arm. Sir Hugh has always been presented as typical agent of order who honestly cares about his fellow human beings and the suffering of the innocent. This is exemplified towards the end when he tells the Lord Sheriff not to weep for the culprits, who were about to receive justice, but weep for "the likes of my dear comrade and his crew on The Angel of the Dawn," their widows, children and their other poor victims. Not a single tear for those whose hands have been stained with the blood of good, innocent people. Sir Hugh takes no personal pleasure in handing out the often horrific, terrifying punishments that were the norm in his days, but, in order to prevent chaos and lawlessness, he does what he does best – "hunting murderers, trapping them and sending them to God." What he does at the end is not so much restoring law and order as it's cleansing the region of its festering evil and old, buried sins.

So, a long story short, Hymn to Murder is another great and engrossing read from the dark historian, Paul Doherty. And a reminder to return to his work more often in the future.


Murder in Retrospect: The Best and Worst of 2022


So far, it appears we almost made it through another year and barring any minor disasters, like World War III, next year might be marginally better on a whole. There's already some translations, reprints and even brand new detective novels from Seishi Yokomizo, Yukito Ayatsuji, James Scott Byrnside and Anne van Doorn to look forward to, but first there's unfinished business to be sorted out. Yes, the yearly roundup of best and worst mysteries novels and short stories encountered in 2022.

This year, the best-of lists is evenly mixed bag of tricks with a strong representation of the 1930s and '40s. Christopher Bush and Josef Skvorecky respectively represent the '50s and '60s. There are handful of 1970s titles and a scattering of (short) stories from '80s and '90s, but, surprisingly, there are more titles included from the past few years than usually is the case – a lot of them published in the last two, three years. Not as evenly mixed is the always domineering presence of the locked room mystery, but some of the best read this year were rereads. While the number of rereads has gone up, there are not as many translated, or untranslated, non-English mysteries that made the list as in previous years. Nor was it a particular bountiful year for short stories, but, on a whole, it was not a bad year for detective fiction with some of best work coming from debuting, self-published authors. I also finally managed to complete "The Updated Mammoth List of My Favorite Tales of Locked Room Murders & Impossible Crimes" and cobbled together "Curiosity is Killing the Cat: Detective Novels That Need to Be Reprinted."

So, with that out of the way, I wish you all a Merry Christmas and hope to see all back, happy and in good health, next year. Now let's dive into this overlong, rambling list.



In diepe rust (In Deep Peace, 2022) by M.P.O. Books (untranslated)

The first in a sequel to the District Heuvelrug series, starring Gisella Markus, who made her first appearance in Cruise Control (2014) and belongs to the category of troubled cop whose personal troubles tend to mess with her work – which might be a bit too contemporary for most classically-minded readers of this blog. However, Books is one of the few Dutch mystery writers who's not only aware of the genre storied history, but builds on that history as well. Whether he's writing a modern police thrillers, traditional detective stories or historical mysteries. The Dutch crime-and detective genre would have been a poorer place without him! 

Two and Two Make Twenty-Two (1932) by Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning 

A case of saving the best for last with a banger of a surprise-ending and had the authors played things a little bit fairer, while punching up the mid-portion of the story, I would have unhesitatingly placed it among the best Golden Age mysteries. Still an excellent vintage that's miles ahead of Bristow and Manning's abysmal The Invisible Host (1930). So it earned a spot on the list. 

The Case of the Green Felt Hat (1939) by Christopher Bush 

This is a first-rate Christopher Bush detective novel and a shining specimen of the British Golden Age mystery. Ludovic and Bernice Travers spend a part of their honeymoon in an otherwise quiet, agricultural town, Edensthorpse, but a recently released swindler ruffled some local feathers – unsurprisingly leading to his murder before too long. There are plenty of alibis to demolish, as to be expected from 1930s Bush, but The Case of the Green Felt Hat is first and foremost a vintage whodunit. 

The Case of the Three Lost Letters (1954) by Christopher Bush 

By the mid-1950s, Bush had transformed Travers from an amateur detective to an American inspired private investigator, who runs the Broad Street Detective Agency, but The Case of the Three Lost Letters is a pure, old-fashioned detective story. Travers has to figure out who of the three visitors killed a client he didn't like in the first place. One of my favorites from this period in the series. 

The Case of the Russian Cross (1957) by Christopher Bush 

A fine example of late-period Bush and how he adapted to the changes of the post-war era, which here comes in the guise of three, apparently unconnected, routine cases coming together – culminating in murder. Very much recommended to long-time fans of the series. 

The Case of the Treble Twist (1958) by Christopher Bush 

A short, classy and fast-paced private eye novel and another fine example of late-period Bush with their grounded, trimmed down plots and more emphasis on characterization. 

The 5 False Suicides (2021) by James Scott Byrnside 

After three historical locked room mysteries featuring his two 1920s detectives, Rowan Manory and Walter Williams, Byrnside decided to try his hands at "some stand-alone, crazy-ass piece of pulp." That's no false advertising. Byrnside's pulp-style mystery has everything from a family curse and a Hungarian mystic to a series of impossible murders among a group of detective fans on Blood Island. Read it! 

Magic Makes Murder (1943) by Harriette R. Campbell 

A weirdly structured, but very well characterized and plotted mystery novel which begins as something straight out of John Dickson Carr or Paul Halter. A man is attempting to train his 5-year-old son in the black arts, which unsurprisingly leads to murder. The investigation itself is more procedural, but the clues and red herrings are golden. A commendable novel from one of those long-forgotten and overlooked mystery writers. 

The Crooked Hinge (1938) by John Dickson Carr (a reread)

The pulpiest of pulp murders presented and resolved as a proper, fair play detective story involving a possible strain of witchcraft, an impossible throat cutting and a damaged, time-worn automaton, The Golden Hag – which one comment accurately described as nightmare fuel. Not one of Carr's classic takes on the impossible crime story, but you have to admire how he made an outlandish, pulp-style mystery work as a straight detective story. There have been few men and women, then or now, who gets what makes a detective story tick like Carr. 

The Author is Dead (2022) by A. Carver 

An impressive, self-published debut with an ambitious, multi-layered and entangled plot with a galore of impossible disappearances and murders in locked room. The story lacks some polish and fine-tuning, but an impressive and ambitious debut nonetheless. Something comparable to James Scott Byrnside. I look forward to discover what Carver has in store for us next year. 

Death in the Clouds (1935) by Agatha Christie (a reread)

A strangely overlooked, openly declared impossible crime novel from no less a figure than the Queen of Crime herself. Christie gently pokes fun at the detective story's exotic, pulpier cousins, the thriller, but, as to be expected, she provided a satisfying solution to the problem how someone could have shot a poison-smeared dart out of blowpipe inside small, fully occupied airplane. A fantastic Hercule Poirol mystery! 

Hercule Poirot's Christmas (1938) by Agatha Christie (a reread) 

I mistakenly stated in the past that the Christmas country house mystery never produced a genuine classic, but I had forgotten how good Christie's definitive take on it really is. A mystery novel that should be regarded as our genre's A Christmas Carol. 

Rechercheur De Klerck en een dodelijk pact (Inspector De Klerck and a Deadly Pact, 2022) by P. Dieudonné (untranslated)

A fun, pulp-style take on the normally down-to-earth, Dutch politieroman as frozen bodies turn up all over the country with a dead, brightly colored frogs on their head. The number seven is all the over the plot, a nursery rhyme plays an important part and there's an additional mystery of a Swiss-style chalet that disappeared over night. 

The Sussex Cuckoo (1935) by Brian Flynn 

A thoroughly British takes on the American detective of S.S. van Dine and Ellery Queen concerning cryptically-worded ads and threats, a Jacobite collection and a practically perfect murder with six collectors as the primary suspects. One of my ten, or so, favorite Flynn mysteries. 

Le masque du vampire (The Mask of the Vampire, 2014) by Paul Halter 

A candidate for the bottom five of my top 10 favorite Halter mysteries, which twists, and turns, two storylines and several plot-threads together and contains numerous impossible situations, locked room murders and ghostly manifestations – like a murderer who's seen disappearing up a chimney as a cloud of smoke. Another imaginative, dark flight of fancy from Halter. 

Pray for the Dawn (1946) by Eric Harding 

An unconventional detective story disguised as an adventurous, pulp-style thriller set on an isolated island where a group of people find themselves trapped in a dark, lonely house with a murderer among them. A murderer who may be an undead witch doctor who had stirred from his glass coffin in the house. If you loved Theodore Roscoe's Murder on the Way! (1935), you'll enjoy Pray for the Dawn. 

Ripples (2017) by Robert Innes 

I felt conflicted whether, or not, to include Ripples, because it's a short story with romance padding and you need to endure one in order to enjoy the other. The plot involving a hooded murderer who apparently walked across water to get to his victim in the middle of a lake is too good to be left out. 

The Julius Caesar Murder Case (1935) by Wallace Irwin 

A completely tongue-in-cheek, self-aware parody of the pulp-style detective story and an early example of the now popular historical mystery novel in which Publius Manlius "Mannie" Scribo, of the Evening Tiber, investigates the murder of Julius Caesar – who's stabbed to the dead under apparently impossible circumstances. This is really a second-string mystery ("papyrus pulp") pretending to be a first-rate historical detective novel and getting away with it on charm alone. 

These Names Make Clues (1937) by E.C.R. Lorac 

Martin Edwards and the British Library Crime Classics continue to rehabilitate Lorac's reputation by cherry picking some of her best, but regrettably obscure and long out-of-print detective novels. Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald is called to Caroline House where a treasure hunt, on April Fools' Day, provided an opportunity for murder. Very much worth of being resurrected. 

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

While having some of Lorac's usual flaws, Bats in the Belfry is one of her best detective novels turning on that age-old problem of how to get rid of a body. Lorac had her own ideas about the detective story and how to tell it, which had varying degrees of success, but this one definitely can be chalked up as one of her success stories. 

Anthrax Island (2021) by D.L. Marshall 

An impressive hybrid of the classic detective story, contemporary thriller and claustrophobic spy tale set on an island where experiments were carried out during the Second World War, which rendered the place dangerous and inhabitable – teeming with mutant spores. The only pockets of habitability comprises of a small cluster of orange cabins forming a research base, but someone gets murdered under inexplicable circumstances and a body disappears. You can call me bias, if you want, but this is how you write a thriller! I really liked the post-apocalyptic aesthetics of the story. 

Ikeru shikabane no shi (Death of the Living Dead, 1989) by Yamaguchi Masaya 

A fascinating and imaginative hybrid mystery populating the traditional, fair play detective story with the living dead who normally can be found stumbling through the horror genre. These are not your typical, mindlessly wandering zombies who want to snack on your brains, but simply dead people with the same mental capabilities, personality and memories as when they were alive. So that's a real game changer as Masaya brilliantly ties together the motives of the living and dead together with "a Punk Ellery Queen living in an otherworldly Wrightsville" caught in the middle. I'm dismayed and disappointed at how little attention Death of the Living Dead has received since it's release. 

Seeker (2005) by Jack McDevitt 

The Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath series is pure science-fiction and deals with two antique dealers from the far-flung future tracking down long-lost, space-age artifacts often requiring them to solve a historical mystery. Technically, the series is a distant cousin of the detective story and can be read as a kind of hybrid mystery. Seeker is not only brilliant where the central puzzle is concerned, but it's almost as good as James P. Hogan's Inherit the Stars (1977). 

The Mummy Case Mystery (1933) by Dermot Morrah 

An amateur detective story, in the truest sense of the word, driven by pure academic curiosity involving a deadly fire, a dead Egyptologist and a long-dead mummy that went missing. Not a perfectly plotted detective story, but a thoroughly enjoyable and amusing academic mystery from the 1930s. 

The Red Death Murders (2022) by Jim Noy 

Our very own Jim Noy, of The Invisible Event, penned a historical detective novel that re-imagined Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" (1842) as the bastard child of John Dickson Carr and Paul Doherty, which is set in the middle of a deadly epidemic – crammed with ingeniously-contrived, seemingly impossible murders. The Red Death Murders is a love letter to the genre from a fan who's obviously a better writer than critic. ;) 

Time to Kill (1974) by Roger Ormerod 

A short and sweet debut from a writer who would go on to carry the Golden Age detective story into the second-half of the previous century, but gave the whole thing a modern touch. Ormerod's first stab at the genre is a semi-inverted mystery in which the murderer's identity is crystal clear, but the only problem is that David Mallin handed him an unshakable alibi. A solid debut full with promise! 

The Manuscript Murder (1933) by Lewis George Robinson 

A detective novels with all the familiar ingredients from Robinson's previous and later mysteries, The Medbury Fort Murder (1929) and The General Goes Too Far (1936), but The Manuscript Murder is Robinson's best treatment of quasi-inverted mystery with an army background. 

Z is for Zombie (1937) by Theodore Roscoe 

Roscoe returns to the locality of Murder on the Way!, Haiti, where the living, once more, have to contend with the dead apparently rising from their graves, but there's a big difference between the two. Murder on the Way! is a roller coaster of insanity, while Z is for Zombie is more like a haunted house ride. Nonetheless, it's an excellent and imaginative piece of pulp fiction. Theodore Roscoe really was the John Dickson Carr of the pulps. 

Pekin yūyūkan (Murder in a Peking Studio, 1976) by Chin Shunshin 

A historical mystery that takes place on the eve of the Russo-Japanese War and the first-half is heavy on historical content, which is a necessary bit of world-building to lay the foundation for the second-half. The second-half features a murder in a locked studio with a poison-smeared dagger and the impossible disappearance of a big sum of money. A strangely forgotten, long out-of-print translation that's more interesting today than it was first published, because it also makes for interesting comparison material with Seishi Yokomizo and Soji Shimada. 

Black Aura (1974) by John Sladek (a reread)

One of only two locked room mysteries written by a well-known science-fiction author, John Sladek, which both became classics of the form and impossible crime fans have been bickering ever since which one is the superior locked room mystery. My vote goes to Black Aura. A brilliantly written and plotted mystery, in which Sladek's detective, Thackeray Phin, ingratiates himself into Mrs. Viola Webb's Aetheric Mandala Society – who all live together in a commune. Strange things happen in the house Mrs. Webb like people miraculously vanishing from locked rooms or getting themselves murdered while levitating in mid-air. A classic of its kind! 

Invisible Green (1977) by John Sladek (a reread)

A fan favorite and better, much, much better than I remembered from my first read. Thackeray Phin becomes involved with the six surviving members of a 1930s murder-of-the-month club, the Seven Unravellers, when a reunion is planned and one of the members believes he's being targeted. This naturally leads to a baffling, seemingly impossible murder. I prefer the elaborate, grandiosely staged Black Aura, but I can admit Invisible Green has subtlety and simply told the story instead of playing to the crowd. But their both classic locked room mysteries. 

The Scarlet Circle (1943) by Jonathan Stagge 

Cape Talisman is a small, seaside town that's slowly being reclaimed by the sea where graves are being opened under the light of paper lanterns, which become harbingers of death when a serial killer begins to prowl the cape. A top-notch mystery that went a long way in redeeming this series. 

The Hangman's Handyman (1942) by Hake Talbot (a reread)

A dark, desolate and tiny island where the dead rotted away at supernatural speed and people get attacked in locked rooms by something smooth, slimy and impalpable. This is remarkable debut of a mystery writer who combined, to quote Robert Adey, "Carr's flair for atmosphere and the bizarre with Rawson's magic tricks." But not to be overlooked is the brilliant way in which he introduced his short-lived detective, Rogan Kincaid. A character who shows Talbot ever so slightly leaned towards the pulps. 

Rim of the Pit (1944) by Hake Talbot (a reread)

One of the best-known, illustrious impossible crime novels ever written and often compared to the best locked room mysteries by John Dickson Carr, which is why it towers over its predecessor. Talbot created genuine terror of a house under siege from apparently other worldly entities and strung together a whole pack of seemingly impossible situations, but I think it earned its reputation solely on its masterly showmanship rather than the quality of the impossible crimes. But what a show! 

No Friendly Drop (1931) by Henry Wade 

A classical, 1930s whodunit presented as a typical, almost idyllic, country house mystery, but there's so much more to this strongly characterized, subtly plotted detective story that turned into a human tragedy during its closing stages – driving home an ending befitting a genuine classic. A sign that the fire that had been lit in the twenties was beginning to roar. 

Emergency Exit (1941) by Anthony Wynne 

The outbreak of World War II had a sobering effect on Wynne, because the out-of-date, Victorian-era melodrama, terse writing and flat characterization of The Silver Scale Mystery (1931) and The Green Knife (1932) are conspicuously absent in Emergency Exit – which makes way for a soberly told, characterized and capably plotted detective story. A solid, intriguing and mature WWII mystery showing a different side of Wynne. 

Gokumontou (Death on Gokumon Island, 1947/48) by Seishi Yokomizo 

A first-rate detective tale that has been called "the most respected Japanese mystery novel" and had been a resident of my wishlist ever since reading Inugamike no ichizoku (The Inugami Clan, 1951), which made this eagerly anticipated a real treat. The story drips with local color, culture and history intricately threaded into a plot crammed with bizarre, strange murders and clues. I need more of this.




I felt a pang of guilt for not including Tom Mead's locked room mystery, Death and the Conjuror (2022), which is another debut stringing together impossible crimes, but not as good as the previously listed debuts by A. Carver and Jim Noy. However, I consider it to be Mead's It Walks by Night (1930) and I'm more than willing to give him the time to craft a modern-day equivalent of The Three Coffins (1935). Another honorable mention goes to Horatio Winslow and Leslie Quirk's Into Thin Air (1928/29), which is one of the earliest mystery novels presenting the reader with a parade of miracle crimes. Not a classic, but an interesting title nonetheless. Lastly, I want to direct your attention to my frequent reviews of manga mysteries like Case Closed, The Kindaichi Case Files and Q.E.D. I normally leave them out of these yearly best-of lists, because they're bloated enough as it's.


The Sharp Quillet (1947) by Brian Flynn 

This one began promising enough with a very unusual, tantalizing prologue and even weirder murders, but Flynn made a mess of the plot and not at all representative of this talented, unjustly forgotten writer. Unfortunately, The Sharp Quillet used to be one of the easiest to find on the secondhand book market. So you can probably blame it for Flynn's dramatic tumble into obscurity. 

The King's Club Murder (1930) by Ian Greig 

An absolute obscurity that began as promising, second-string detective novel, before turning into a badly dated, third-rate pursuit thriller. A very slow, lethargic pursuit thriller. A piece of documentary evidence why some writers have not stood the test of time. 

Death of a Tall Man (1946) by Frances and Richard Lockridge 

A detective story riddled with botched and missed opportunity or good ideas that were poorly executed. And the whole story is extremely forgettable. I came across the review when cobbling together this list and had no recollection of reading the story or writing the review! 

Echo (2010) by Jack McDevitt 

Back in 2021, I began making excursions into science-fiction with McDevitt's series of futuristic-historical and archaeological space mysteries peaking with the previously mentioned Seekers. Echo occupies the opposite end of that spectrum that undermines the world-building of the preceding novels, an ending that wanted it both ways and an epilogue that really didn't help matters. 

Golden Age Locked Room Mysteries (2022) edited by Otto Penzler 

Shockingly, coming from the most annoying locked room fanboy around, but this anthology has a selection of stories that's both disappointing and repetitive with eight of fourteen stories having appeared in previous locked room anthologies. And the overall quality of the series leaves a lot to be desired.


The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka (1966) by Josef Skvorecky

"Death on Needlepoint"

"The Case of the Horizontal Trajectory"

"Falling Light"

"His Easiest Case"


My Mother, the Detective (1997/2016) by James Yaffe (enlarged edition)

"Mom Makes a Bet"

"Mom Makes a Wish"

"Mom and the Haunted Mink"


Karmesin: The World's Greatest Criminal—Or Most Outrageous Liar (2003) by Gerald Kersh

"Karmesin and the Meter"


"Inscrutable Providence"

"Karmesin and the Gorgeous Robes"

"The Thief Who Played Thiel"


Seven Stories (2016) by MORI Hiroshi

"Kotori no ongaeshi" ("The Girl Who Was the Little Bird")

"Sekitō no yane kazan" ("The Rooftop Ornaments of Stone Ratha")

"Dochiraka ga majo" ("Which is the Witch?") 


The Further Misadventures of Ellery Queen (2020)

Edward D. Hoch's "The Circle of Ink"

Mă Tiān's "The Japanese Armor Mystery"

Arthur Porges' "The Indian Diamond Mystery"


Funeral in the Fog (2020) by Edward D. Hoch

"Funeral in the Fog"

"The Avenger from Outer Space"

"The Way Up to Hades"

"Master of Miracles"


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

"Where Angels Fear to Tread"

"You Bet Your Life"

"Who is Sylvia?"

"Hildegarde Withers is Back"

"Hildegarde Plays It Calm"



John Dickson Carr's "The Other Hangman" (1935)

Joseph Commings' "The Scarecrow Murders" (1948)

Barry Ergang's "The Audiophile Murder Case" (1982)

Stuart Palmer's "The Riddle of the Whirling Lights" (1935)


Murder in Blue (1937) by Clifford Witting

Clifford Witting was a British mystery writers, "a noteworthy figure from the Golden Age of English detection," who published a total of sixteen, "genuinely engrossing," detective novels from 1937 through 1964, but after he died his work tumbled into obscurity – where he languished until recently. Back in 2020, Galileo Publishers reissued Witting's slightly unconventional Christmas mystery, Catt Out of the Bag (1939), which proved to be first of many more. Galileo is right on track in bringing all of Witting's detective novels back in print. Midsummer Murder (1937), Measure for Murder (1941) and Dead on Time (1948) have already returned to print, while new editions of Subject—Murder (1945) and Let X Be the Murderer (1947) are scheduled to be published next year. The same year Catt Out of the Bag returned to print, they also reissued Witting's inaugural mystery novel.

This new reprint edition of Murder in Blue (1937) opens with a brief note from his now nearly 90-year-old daughter, Diana Cummings, who shares that her father wrote the book "while he was still commuting to London for his day job and he worked on it every evening." And how her crying in the next room probably distracted him more than once from "the very complicated business of writing a detective story." I appreciated this short, personal note and hope Witting really would have been thrilled knowing "that some 84 years later it would be reprinted amid a renewed interest in the Golden Age of Detection." I've always been curious and worried what those Golden Age writers would have thought of us basket cases obsessing over their detective stories in a space they would have viewed as pure science-fiction. Anyway, on to the story! 

Murder in Blue reads like an introduction to the series. A series that takes place in a small, fictitious town named Paulsfield, behind the South Downs, which Witting closely modeled on Petersfield in Hampshire – included "many references to the real town as it was in the mid-1930s." The opening chapter, or rather pages, introduces the reader to the narrator, John Rutherford, who runs a bookstore on Paulsfield Square and stumbles across a body while out on an evening stroll. On the Hazeloak road, Rutherford discovered the body of Police Constable Johnson, of the Downshire County Constabulary, lying on the grass. His head had been "terribly battered" by "a blunt implement" and the bicycle was lying on the opposite side of the road to the body.

A rainy, melancholic beginning that had moments early on in the story suggesting something more in line with Henry Wade's Constable, Guard Thyself (1934) than the lighthearted mystery that was promised in several reviews. Both concern the murder of a policeman and Wade has the haunting memories of the Great War hanging over his novel. That same specter briefly appears in Murder in Blue as Constable Johnson's injuries bring back those memories ("I went through four years of it... and tonight brings it all back again. The rain and darkness and death—and the mud"). On the following day, while going over the crime scene, they hear a distant explosion and take off their hats to observe the two minutes' silence the Armistice Day ceremony. But that specter quickly dissipates. Second and third chapter really set the tone for the rest of the story.

John Rutherford is in at the death with the murder being discovered on page one, but the second and third chapter take a detour to formally introduce the narrator, "the story of an ordinary chap who became involved in a murder case," which resulted in two of the most amusing and entertaining chapters in the whole book – beginning with how his bookshop came into existence. Rutherford bought an old candy story, dating back to the 1600s, on the south-eastern corner of the town square and turned it into a successful, subscription based bookstore that operated like a library. How did he manage to do that? Simply by banking on small town snobbery and charged "an exorbitant rate of subscription," because "the average provincial lady will willingly pay "through the nose" provided that she is certain that other people notice her doing it." Somehow, it worked. The third chapter introduces Rutherford's 19-year-old shop assistant, George Stubbings, who's "an expert on detective fiction" and managed somehow to keep pace with the stock of detective-and thriller novels. So he can discuss the books with his boss and customers ("This'll go well, sir. The man knows his job. He doesn't try to thrill you with mechanical devices"). A great character and couldn't agree more with John Norris that "whenever George sets foot on the scene the book gets a welcome humorous lift."

So, of course, George is as excited to be so close to a local murder mystery as he's that Rutherford, sort of, aids Witting's series-detective, Inspector Harry Charlton. The problem they face can be summed as follow: was Johnson murdered because he was a policeman or a Lothario who played with fire? A problem further complicated by swapped bicycles ("bicycles seem to be playing quite a big part in this case"), a police constables uniform and Johnson's mysterious companion who was seen dressed in a constable's cape and cap.

Regrettably, the solution betrays the unpracticed hand of the first-time detective novelist. It feels like Witting arbitrarily selected the murderer from the cast of characters, tacked on a motive and produced a vital clue out of thin air that destroyed the murderer's alibi. There's has been no ghost of a hint in the book to either the motive or vital clue, which soured what otherwise would have been a first-rate detective novel. However, I suspect Witting had two alternate solutions in mind that got ditched because he had grown fond of the character. You see there were some clues and hints pointing at George. Firstly, Witting never explained why the dog who saved Rutherford backed away from George with "his ears down and a let's-get-out-of-here look about him." Secondly, Rutherford spotted Charlton pocketing "a scrap of pink-coloured paper" at the crime scene and under certain lighting, or conditions, orange can appear (in a split second) to be pink or pink-ish in color. The books in Rutherford's store all have striking, orange-colored in-store dust-jackets on which the name of the store is printed in big, bold letters ("VOSLIVRES"). It could have been intended as a torn piece from a dust-jacket that appeared to be pink as it disappeared in a flash into the inspector's pocket. And, if it was, it suggests the murderer is linked to the story as either a customer or employee. Thirdly, Charlton half-mockingly calls the murderer a craftsman who simply couldn't quietly fade away, "that was far too primitive," but had to leave "a selection of clearly marked trails" calculated to lead them in "a dozen wrong directions" – even sending a "confounded bit of doggerel" ("Murder in blue, Murder in blue. Once there was one, soon there'll be two'). This is more in line with George than the person who eventually revealed as the murderer.

So it would not surprise me George was originally intended as the murderer and him getting married by the end could have provided him with a motive, but Witting couldn't bring himself to hand George over to the hangman or have him killed off. The second death strongly hints at another possible solution (ROT13: Gur Oveyfgbar Tnzovg), which would have been a little on the obvious side, but the method is absolutely ingenious! Witting should have used that method to write a case-of-the-constant-suicides type of detective novel in which perfectly happy, non-suicidal people keep walking head-first into oncoming trains. 

Murder in Blue is an entertainingly written, but clumsily-plotted, debut from a mystery writer who (to quote Barzun & Taylor) "started feebly, improved to a point of high competence and has since shown a marked capacity for character and situation" as shown in Catt Out of the Bag. I can only recommend Murder in Blue as a well-written, wittily characterized introduction to a short-lived series with a dash romance, dangerous situations and plenty of humor. Just a shame the plot didn't held up in the end, but you have to make some allowances for a mystery writer's first stab at the genre. Witting already demonstrated he would go on the improve tremendously on his plots. I'm definitely going to dip into Midsummer Murder or Dead on Time as I eagerly await the republication of Witting's reputed masterpiece, Subject—Murder.


The Real Gone Goose (1959) by George Bagby

Aaron Marc Stein was a prolific American writer of some 100 detective novels, mysteries and the occasional crime-thriller, published over a period of half a century, beginning with Murder at the Piano (1935) and ending with The Garbage Collector (1984) – half of which appeared under two different pseudonyms. I reviewed the sixth novel in his Jeremiah X. Gibbon series, The Corpse Who Had Too Many Friends (1953; as by "Hampton Stone"), back in 2020. Hardly a groundbreaking detective novel, but a good, second-stringer from one of those human fiction factories who "once were the backbone of publishing and public libraries." So decided to go over Stein's large bibliography to see if there's anything worth cherry picking.

There are three locked room mysteries, Ring Around a Murder (1936), The Girl with the Hole in Her Head (1949) and Lock and Key (1973), which have been jotted down for future reference. Stein also penned a series featuring two archaeologists, Tim Mulligan and Elsie Mae Hunt, who stumble across murder and mystery in faraway locations or dig sites. I like a good archaeological mystery, but they tend to be damnable rare. So knowing there's an entire series out there sounds like a treat. And then there's the long-running "Schmitty" series.

Inspector Schmidt, New York's Chief of Homicide on Manhattan Island, debuted along with his creator in the previously-mentioned 1935 novel, Murder at the Piano, whose casebook comprises the lion's share of Stein's output – over fifty novels in nearly as many years. The series appeared under the first of Stein's two pennames, "George Bagby," doubling as "the homicide-books man" who "writes up those Inspector Schmidt cases." A common trope among New York-based mystery writers at the time and imagine Stein modeled the series after Anthony Abbot's Thatcher Colt mysteries. However, it does not appear as if Schmitty and Bagby were frozen in the 1930s and '40s with later novels carrying such titles as The Tough Get Going (1977), Mugger's Day (1979) and The Most Wanted (1983). So poked around the early, pre-1950s novels, but, of course, a copy of Ring Around a Murder has yet to come my way. I ended up picking a more accessible title from the middle-period of the series that turned out to be a procedural parody of the conventional "closed circle" whodunit teeming with beatniks who care very little about conventions. 

The Real Gone Goose (1959), alternatively published as A Real Gone Goose, is the twentieth entry in the Inspector Schmidt series, but it's George Bagby who takes center stage.

George Bagby lives in an apartment house in Greenwich Village and has seen many neighbors come and go over the years. And hardly ever got to know any of them. That changes when "this new breed" moved into the apartment building. A group of young beatniks who "seemed to have no sense of privacy" like "locking your door is a crime or something" and never closed or locked their front doors. And when one of them walked into a closed and locked door, they resorted to "the celluloid strip or hairpin routine" to unlock it. It makes you "somebody who thinks property is important" and "there's nothing worse than that." These are the so-called exiles who only use given or assumed names like Sabra, Blair, Sam, Carrie and Dudley, because "surnames suggested parents and they had no need of parents" ("they had already been born"). What they did was one of three things: noise-making, drinking and sponging off Sabra. Bothering other people in the building came as natural to them as breathing.

So kind of the neighbors from hell, if you value privacy, but surprisingly, Bagby finds himself courting their approval. Even was shamed into not double-locking his door ("like a frightened old maid"), because the celluloid strips and hairpins proved no match to the special lock. And being laughed at by Sabra made Bagby feel "stodgy and middle-aged." This situation persisted an entire week, until it came to abrupt end when Sabra was shot and killed in her apartment. Fortunately, Inspector Schmidt is placed in charge of the investigation, but even then Bagby's problems have only just begun.

Admittedly, the story is drained of its loud, colorful and exuberant atmosphere after the third chapter as the investigation begins and becomes more routine, but the ever worsening position Bagby finds himself in added interest to the middle portion – as he's no longer the impartial observer he had always been in these things. There are all those little things that would have looked merely embarrassing or silly, if there hadn't been a murder. 

Such as Bagby removing Sabra from his apartment after their first meeting, which immediately fueled talks "Battling Bagby, the Babe Beater" and rumors he has "been sleeping with the babe." Bagby knew the story of him supposedly beating "dames into submission" would be all over headquarters as "cops are heavy-handed and persistent humorists." So his involvement with the exiles has caused him nothing but trouble and it gets worse when it turns out his missing gun could have been the murder weapon. That makes the episode of the glazier and the gun look a whole lot less innocent than it really was.

I don't know if it was a good decision to let the reader know how innocent these damning scenes really were, but Bagby's precarious position as an innocent man who looks damn suspicious at times helped to enliven an otherwise dull, routine middle portion. Things pick up again towards the end when a second murder is committed behind the double-locked door of Bagby's apartment. Not exactly a locked room mystery, relaying on a duplicate key and celluloid strip, but could have been retooled into a legitimate impossible crime. But the problem instead becomes one of alibis ("alibis all around and I'm left without a suspect"). This final-act has a good use for the normally cliched stopped clock and how Inspector Schmidt used it demonstrate only one of the alibis had been manufactured. I think it would have been an overall improvement had this part occurred earlier in the story with the middle-portion cut down and threaded into the second murder. The remarkable transformation of Blair Nolan would have made a perfectly serviceable Strange Person subplot. However, I don't think anything could have been done to make the murderer less obvious. Not even withholding the finer details regarding the practical side of the motive

So, in the end, The Real Gone Goose came up a little short as a pure, plot-driven and fair play detective story, but tremendously fun as a parody that placed the conventionally-minded, 1930s detective stories among a younger generation contemptuous of conventions. Add the unfortunate situation of the narrator, you can see why Stein was one of those reliable, mid-list writers who were so popular with public libraries and paperback publishers. It should be noted that The Corpse Who Had Too Many Friends and The Real Gone Goose both had all the ingredients to be better detective stories than they ended up being, which probably was due to time constraints and looming deadlines. More time to work out his plots would like have reduced his bibliography, but they would have been better detective novels that would have stood the test of time a lot better. My impression now is that he wrote entertainingly written, serviceable plotted detective fiction that always had a potential glimmer of something greater and never being able to deliver on them. I'm gladly proven wrong and welcome any recommendation.