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

Edith Rivett was a British mystery writer who prolifically produced detective novels and short stories under two different pseudonyms, "E.C.R. Lorac" and "Carol Carnac," but she was a second-stringer with her seventy some novels being very uneven in quality – contributing to their decent into obscurity following her death in 1958. If you asked about Lorac, you usually got a mixed response.

A few years ago, I reviewed Death Came Softly (1943) and Nick Fuller commented Lorac is like "a cross between John Rhode and Ngiao Marsh" with "the worst aspects of both," while JJ countered that he remained "curious about Lorac purely on account of the uncommon ways she approaches what should be fairly standard problems." Lately, I have noticed a shift and you can likely put it down to the recent run of British Library Crime Classic reprints. Martin Edwards and the British Library have slowly been rehabilitating Lorac's reputation by cherry picking her best detective novels to reprint. Checkmate to Murder (1944) was good enough, in spite of some of its obvious flaws, to reintroduce Lorac to my to-be-read pile. Bats in the Bellfry (1937), Murder in the Mill-Race (1952) and the once lost, now posthumously published, Two-Way Murder (2021) currently reside on the big pile, but one of the more recent reprints sounded too intriguing to ignore or put off for too long.

Martin Edwards described These Names Make Clues (1937) in his introduction as "an intriguing detective novel" closely "in tune with the mood of traditional detective fiction of the kind we associate with 'the Golden Age of Murder’ between the two world wars," but had been practically forgotten until British Library reprinted it. There were no secondhand copies for sale on the internet nor any critical commentary in the reference books. Only a very short review from 2008 on the GADetection Wiki. Going into the book, I half-expected something along the lines of Agatha Christie's Cards on the Table (1936), but These Names Make Clues struck me as a conscious imitation of Christopher Bush's detective novels from the same period – like Dead Man's Twice (1930), The Case of the April Fools (1933) and The Case of the Bonfire Body (1936). It's not just because of how the plot was structured with two closely-timed murders, but there were several references to the characters having "the cross-word mind." A variation on a phrase I have only come across in Bush's novels to describe his series-detective, Ludovic Travers. But let's get to the story! 

These Names Make Clues begins with Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald going through his correspondence and finding an invitation from Graham Coombe and his sister, Miss Susan Coombe, to a Treasure Hunt at Caroline House on April's Fools Day.

Graham Coombe is a celebrated publisher whose firm had produced the bestseller Murder by Mesmerism, which Macdonald had sharply criticized during a diner with Coombe without being aware he had published the book. So the invitation challenges Macdonald to pit his "wits against those of the thriller writers, and others, who are competing" in a Treasure Hunt with "clues of a Literary, Historical and Practical nature" provided to the contestants. Coombe gathered eight writers to participate in the game. Nadia Delareign, Andrew Gardien, Ronile Rees and Denzil Strafford represent the so-called "thriller merchants" and Valerie Woodstock (history), Louise Etherton (romance), Digby Bourne (travel) and Ashton Vale (economics) the straight writers. All of the contestants, who have never met before, is given a pseudonym and "a clue to unravel," which has to be deciphered to get to the next stage in the game. The library and telephone-room with guides and timetables is at their disposal. The hunt ends with a final test during which each guest will be allowed to ask six questions in an attempt to deduce, or guess, the identities of their fellow guests.

Macdonald finds himself in the hospitality of a publisher "who turned the other cheek to the smiter" and "who at the same time challenged the critic to use his wits in practical combat against those whom he had derided," which makes him feel like he was hoist with his own petard, but set to work – working his way through a variety of clues and running ahead in the Treasure Hunt. The whole evening begins to acquire "a Mad Hatter quality" when the main fuse blows and the house is plunged into darkness. When the lights are finally restored, the body of Andrew Gardien is discovered in the telephone-room. Apparently, Gardien died of heart failure following a shock, but marks on his hands and a minute fraying of copper wire makes Macdonald suspect the thriller writer had been cleverly electrocuted. And the murderer had removed the gadget that did the trick. Interestingly, Gardien earned the nickname "Master Mechanic" due "to his ingenuity in inventing methods of killing based on simple mechanical contraptions" involving "bits of cord and wire and counterpoises."

Now the "Lights Out, Murder!" trope tends to be one of the genuine hacky and trite cliches of the genre, which actually would be more of obstacle to the murderer than a cover, but These Names Make Clues is an exception to the rule. Lorac had a very simple, but good, explanation why the house went dark. Particularly liked how the blown fuse ended up affecting the murderer's plan. One of Lorac's more ingenious and inspired pieces of plotting. So with a good reason for the blackout in place, the movement of everyone involved becomes much more interesting with several of the guests swearing they saw an uninvited person in the house leading up to the murder. A gray-haired, flat-footed gentleman who's nowhere to be found when the lights come back on, but this mysterious interloper is not the only complication Macdonald has to contend with.

Macdonald has a potential murder on his hands with a victim who had completely obscures his identity and past life, which becomes even more mysterious when Gardien's literary agent is shot in his private office. Gardien's name was accusingly written on the blotting paper and a gun is discovered entangled in the mechanisms of a grandfather clock, but the timing between the two deaths simply don't add up for them to have killed one another. So what really happened to those two mysterious men that lead to their equally mysterious deaths? 

These Names Make Clues is a tremendously enjoyable mystery novel in which Lorac tried to rise above her status as a second-stringer with a tricky plot attuned "attuned to the cross-word method, anagrams and reversals" with several cleverly contrived death traps. There are, however, some of Lorac's usual flaws show up like her roundabout way (like JJ said) in which she approached what should have been a fairly straightforward problem. I think the second death needlessly complicated the case and it would perhaps have better if that death had been immediately explained, which would have then added another layer of mystification to Gardien's murder. Like a lot of second-stringers, Lorac's strength was not in creating misleading, double-edged clues or even more treacherous red herrings and reasoning your way to the solution requires a bit of inspired guesswork – which is normally a serious flaw in any detective story. But the story and characters were so enjoyable, I found myself in an extremely forgiving mood. Martin Edwards noted in his introduction Lorac was elected to membership to "the world's first social network for detective novelists," the Detection Club, in 1937 (same year as Bush) and she likely "drew inspiration from her experiences and encounters on becoming a member of the Detection Club" for These Names Make Clues. For example, Miss Romile Rees, who writes as R. Rees, is "accepted by the critics as a man" on account of her dry, mordant style. Something that has happened to Lorac herself as there were not many female mystery writers who toyed around with mechanical death traps. A toy commonly associated with the technical-minded writers of the humdrum school. Speaking of the humdrums, I think Lorac subtly namedropped a few of John Rhode's pavement-themed names (like "Major Road ahead" and "just off John Street").

Something else I always admired about Lorac's novels, which is very much present in These Names Make Clues, is her awareness of what was happening in Britain and Europe before, during and after the Second World War. Checkmate to Murder and Murder by Matchlight (1945) depicted the squalor of blackouted London during the Blitz, while Fire in the Thatch (1946) takes place among the bombed-out houses of a scarred, post-war London. These Names Make Clues was written several years before the outbreak of the war, but the possibility of war is already present here with several characters being convinced pacifists and members of the Peace in our Time campaign. You can fill entire bookshelves with detective novels and short story taking place during or after the Second World War, but very few mystery writers were prescient enough to tackle a potential war during the 1930s. Only names that come to mind are E.R. Punshon (Crossword Mystery, 1934) and Darwin L. Teilhet (The Talking Sparrow Murders, 1934). This gives Lorac's novels a kind of unintended historical flavor that I can always appreciate. 

These Names Make Clues has some of the flaws you come to expect from Lorac, but the overall package of characters, plot and storytelling made it something very much worth resurrecting from the depths of biblioblivion. And, if these British Library reprints are representative of her best novels, Lorac could very well secure a place among my favorite second-stringers of the genre.


Dead Men's Guns: "The Cold Winds of Adesta" (1952) by Thomas Flanagan

Thomas Flanagan was an American university Professor of English Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, who specialized in Irish literature and wrote an award-winning historical novel, The Year of the French (1979) – which was turned into a TV-series in 1982. Flanagan also made a modest contribution to the detective genre with eight short stories that were published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. The most well-known of his short stories is perhaps is "The Fine Italian Hand" (1949), collected in The Locked Room Reader (1968), but four of the eight stories form a short-lived, almost entirely forgotten series of detective stories with an intriguing and original premise. 

Between 1952 and 1956, Flanagan wrote four stories about a military policeman, Major Tennente, who lives and works in an unnamed country ruled over by a dictator, the General. Mike Grost suggests that the unnamed country "seems to be Franco's Spain." The unifying theme of the stories is Major Tennente trying to be a decent, upstanding policeman who nonetheless serves a corrupt and totalitarian regime. A tricky balancing act of morals and personal convictions that foreshadow Josef Skvorecky's Lieutenant Josef Boruvka series from the 1960s (e.g. The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka, 1966), which takes place in Communist Czechoslovakia. The series kicked off with a prize-winner! 

"The Cold Winds of Adesta," originally published in the April, 1952, issue of EQMM, won the magazine's annual short story contest and eventually ended up with the other First Prize winners in Ellery Queen's The Golden 13 (1970). More importantly, the story is listed and described as a very good impossible smuggling problem by Brian Skupin in Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019).

Major Tennente is dispatched to a border post located in the lonely, mountain pass near the town of Adesta, five minutes from the border with a neighboring, unnamed Republic. Lieutenant Bonares suspects a wine merchant, Gomar, is smuggling weapons into the country through the deserted, rarely used pass of Adesta. A peculiar merchant who drives his own truck, loaded with caskets of wine, every night to a country that produces more than enough wine on its own, which had been going on for two weeks – attracting the suspicion of the authorities. However, the border patrol of two countries were unable to find as much as a single shell casing inside the truck or casks.

Gomar is "first searched by the border guards of the Republic" and then, while "his truck visible at all times to Bonares," moves down the mountain road to the next checkpoint where "he is searched a second time." So without finding a hidden cache of firearms, they have to let him go through every night and watch on as Gomar drives down "the twisting, dangerous road toward the lights of the town of Adesta." There's a historical mystery, of sorts, adding another layer to the impossibility.

During the Revolution, or "the war of liberation," the last remaining Government army that remained intact tried to cross the border to the Republic, but they were turned back and returned to surrender themselves to the General. But they returned without their arms. Presumably, they buried their guns and rifles somewhere along the border and mountains of Adesta. When the war ended, the General sent a commission to the region to comb the area. They erected a hut and moved outward, inch by inch, but they came up empty handed. So the impossibility is that either the border guards would have discovered the guns in Gomar's truck or the military commission would have found them fifteen years ago. Major Tennente has reasons to believe the smuggled weapons came from this long-lost arms cache with enough guns for an entire regiment, but where were they stashed away and how were they sneaked pass the border?

The solution is impressive in how it tied every aspect of the story together and satisfyingly dovetailed the smuggling operation with the political background and history of the country to the duality of the detective. Major Tennente is an interesting detective character whose situation allows him to act a little differently from detectives from more democratic countries. Such as shooting one of the casks of wine or cultivating a short temper, but someone "noticed that Tennente's infamous temper was his servant" and "it exploded only when he chose." A necessary facade for someone who fought in one of the armies opposing the General and without any friends in high places.

But, purely as an impossible crime story, the solution to how the guns are smuggled into the country was not all that impressive with exception how the historical plot-thread tied into it all. So, on a whole, "The Cold Winds of Adesta" is a very well written detective story with an at the time fresh and original premise, but, in the end, more impressive for its storytelling than plotting. 

A note for the curious: a completely different solution occurred to me while writing this review. The story is careful to point out "the pass of Adesta is almost never used," where rumors tell of a hidden cache of arms from the days of the Revolution ("an old wives' tale fifteen years old"), but what if Gomar used the pass and its history as a smokescreen? What if he wanted the border guards to think he was smuggling guns and rifles? So he begins making the trips without anything on him until enough suspicion has been aroused. Once they begin to search his truck and casks for guns and rifles, Gomar begins to smuggle something a little smaller and easier to hide. That could be everything from money, gold or precious stones to documents or simply drugs. All things that are a lot easier to hide when the guards are only interested in finding weapons.


The Village of Eight Graves (1949/50) by Seishi Yokomizo

Two years ago, Pushkin Vertigo published an eagerly anticipated, second translated novel by one of the giants of the classical, Japanese detective story, Seishi Yokomizo, whose Honjin satsujin jiken (The Honjin Murders, 1946) introduced his famous series-detective, Kosuke Kindaichi, as well as creating an authentic Japanese locked room mystery – ushering in the original, Golden Age-style honkaku era. Pushkin Vertigo reprinted Inugamike no ichizoku (The Inugami Clan, 1951) next under a slightly different title, The Inugami Curse, which was first published in English in the early 2000s. And, as of this writing, the well-known, promising-sounding Gokumontō (Gokumon Island, 1947/48) is scheduled to be released in March or June. 

Late last year, Pushkin Vertigo released another, brand new translation of an iconic Yokomizo's novel, Yatsuhakamura (The Village of Eight Graves, 1949/50). My review is going to be a little more upbeat than some of the rather disappointing reviews I've read and that needs an explanation. 

The Village of Eight Graves was originally serialized in Shinseinen (March 1949 to March 1950) and Hôseki (1950 to 1951), but the story would not be published in book form until 1971. A period known today as "The Yokomizo Boom" that ended with 40 million copies of the series sold by the end of the decade and presaged what was to come in the 1980s. Ho-Ling Wong described The Village of Eight Graves as the Japanese counterpart to Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express (1934) as it's "the one that is parodied most often" and thus "best known to the general public." For example, I reviewed The Headless Samurai from The Kindaichi Case Files series in 2018 that borrowed the historical backstory of The Village of Eight Graves.

So I have probed the Japanese detective genre a little deeper than most people who follow this blog, which helped manage my expectations of this third Yokomizo translation. What you should not expect is another The Honjin Murders or The Inugami Clan. Ho-Ling likened the book to The Murder on the Orient Express, but Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) is probably a better comparison as The Village of Eight Graves feels like a throwback to those turn-of-the-century crime-and suspense mysteries – both of which pushed their famous detectives to the background. Kosuke Kindaichi is largely a background character in the story that, sort of, unravels itself and he admits at the end that "the criminal would have been exposed even in my absence." I can see why readers unprepared of what to expect end up somewhat underwhelmed or even disappointed. So my advise is to read it on autopilot and enjoy it for what it is. Let's dig in!

The village of Eight Graves is "perched amid the desolate mountains on the border of Tottori and Okayama prefecture," which has a long, tragic and eerie history that drenched its soil in blood.

In 1566, the great daimyo Yoshihisa Amago surrendered Tsukiyama Castle to his enemies, but one samurai refused to give up and fled the castle with seven faithful retainers and rumoredly packed three horses with 3000 tael of stolen gold. They hoped to continue their fight another day and "after enduring many hardships, fording rivers and crossing mountains" arrived at the village. The villagers received the eight warriors "hospitably enough," but the efforts to find the fugitives, the glittering reward and the reputed gold made the village rethink their hospitality. So they not only betrayed the warriors, but outright hacked them to death and beheaded the corpses. The leader of the samurais cursed the whole village with his dying breath, "vowing to visit his vengeance upon it for seven generations to come," which apparently came true when the villagers were "plunged into an abyss of terror." A terror that began with several deadly accidents and exploded when the ringleader of the attack on the warriors lost his mind, picked up a sword and went on a murderous rampage. Cutting down several members of his household and felling every villager who crossed his path in the streets.

So the villagers dug up the dead warriors, "whom they had buried like dogs," to reinter them with all due ceremony, erecting eight graves, "where they were venerated as divinities." But how long can you appease homemade Gods you have wronged? Eight Graves only managed to do it for a few centuries.

There two important families in Eight Graves: the Tajime family ("The House of the East") and the Nomura family ("The House of the West"). During the 1920s, the head of the House of the East was 36-year-old Yozo who, despite having a wife and two children, became obsessed with the young daughter of a local cattle-trader named Tsuruko. Yozo was "a man of violent inclinations" who, one day, simply abducted the 19-year-old girl, imprisoned her in a storehouse and subjected her to "the unremitting torments of his crazed desires" – until she and her family consented to Tsuruko becoming Yozo's mistress. Tsuruko eventually gave birth to a son, Tatsuya, but Yozo's abuse continued. Yozo went as far as branded Tatsuya's thighs, back and buttocks with fire tongs in a fit of rage. Tsuruko fled with Tatsuya to hide with relatives in Himeji and she refused to return. Yozo's "madness finally exploded" and went on a midnight killing spree with a rifle and sword that left thirty-two dead, before disappearing into the mountains never to be seen or heard of ever again. Tsuruko never returned to Eight Graves and moved to Kobe where she married and raised a son completely unaware of his family or tragic origin in that remote mountain village.

After the end of the Second World War, the now 28-year-old, demobbed Tatsuya is contacted by a lawyer on behalf of his long-lost family. His estranged family wants him to return to his ancestral village to accept his inheritance as the rightful head of the family, but the first of many tragedies strikes when he meets with his grandfather for the first time Kobe. When they have been introduced to each other by the lawyer, Tatsuya's grandfather begins to cough blood and dies mere moments later. This is not the last time is too close for comfort when someone is poisoned or strangled, which brings him not only in trouble with the police, but also places him on the wrong side of the community. The villagers are "terrified that another tragedy is about to occur" and were naturally less than thrilled he had come back to Eight Graves. And the murders continue as soon as Tatsuya entered the village.

The murders is not the only problem this voluminous novel has to offer. Firstly, there's the historical mystery of the stolen gold, which was never located and the secrets Tatsuya's mother carried with her to the grave. Some of which was rather predictable, but (ROT13) gur vqragvgl bs Gngfhln'f erny sngure was something I completely missed. There's also the peculiar behavior of some of his relatives, like his elderly, twin aunts, but there was also two very slight, quasi-impossible problems. Tatsuya gets a room, or annex, in the house where items were moved around when it had been securely locked up. So a local who was fond of a drink was asked to spend a few nights in the room in exchange for some sake, but he fled the room in the middle of the night claiming a figure depicted on the folding screen had come to life. Apparently, this figure was "so startled that he turned away and vanished in an instant." Tatsuya gets to witness this ghostly apparition himself. Secondly, there's a discovery of a very old, almost miraculously well preserved corpse clad in the decaying armor of a samurai. However, these were so marginal as a locked room mystery/impossible problem, I decided not to tag this review as one. But they added to the atmosphere of the story.

Admittedly, there are some very hoary, even by 1949, timeworn genre clichés at the heart of the plot replete with secret passages, coded treasure maps and a hunt for the gold with lovers meetings (past and present), murders and life-or-death chases through labyrinth of dark caverns and passages – which stretch out beneath the village. However, they were all put to good use as it made the second-half the most memorable and striking part of the whole story. Not exactly groundbreaking or particular original, but effectively utilized to tell a brooding story fraught with danger and dripping with history. This story comes to a rapid conclusion when everything around Tatsuya seems to come crashing down, but, as said previously, this is the point where the story kind of sorts itself out. Kosuke Kindaichi spend most of the time on the sideline, scratching his head and warning Tatsuya to be honest with the authorities or he will find himself in a difficult position. And at the end, he comes around to explain and tidy up all the loose ends.

So, yeah, The Village of Eight Graves is not another The Honjin Murders or The Inugami Clam. Fortunately, I didn't expect it to be and that allowed me to enjoy it as a well-down, moody throwback to the time of Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles. I'm just glad to finally have gotten an opportunity to read this famous novel that left such an indelible mark on the Japanese detective genre. However, it's undeniably the weakest of the three Yokomizo novels currently available in English and one of the weaker Japanese detective novels that made it across the language barrier. So try to manage your expectations.

That being said, I can't wait for the publication of Gokumon Island, which has been described as "the most respected Japanese mystery novel."


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

I enjoyed Christopher Bush's The Case of the Green Felt Hat (1939) so much, I decided to take down another title in the series, The Case of the Three Lost Letters (1954), which Bush wrote during a time when "fashions in mystery fiction were decidedly afoot" as "authors increasingly turned to sensationalistic tales" – like international espionage, psychological suspense and hardboiled action. Bush adapted to the changing winds by transforming his series-character, Ludovic Travers, from an unofficial associate of Scotland Yard in the 1930s to a genteel private inquiry agent in the 1940s. And, by the time the fifties rolled around, Travers owned a controlling interest in the Broad Street Agency. 

Travers began to resemble "an American private investigator rather than the gentleman amateur detective," but elements of the conventional British mystery remained. Although the baroque-style, elaborate plots and tricky, minutely-timed alibis had either been toned down considerably or scrapped altogether. Travers had become a working class, licensed detective who now had to contend with the "implied superiority and the faint suggestion" from polite society his daytime job "is just a bit beyond the pale." But, even with the plots becoming less complicated, the series produced soundly-structured detective novels like The Case of the Counterfeit Colonel (1952) and The Case of the Flowery Corpse (1956). 

The Case of the Three Lost Letters was recommended to me at one point or another as a perfect fusion of the old-fashioned, 1930s British whodunit and the post-war private eye novel. I have to agree as it turned out to be one of the better Bush novels from this period in the series.

Ludovic Travers is summoned to the house of Henry Baldlow, The Croft in Seahurst, who wrote to the Broad Street Detective Agency to send down a responsible member of the firm. Travers went down himself and finds a man suffering from emphysema, which is why he's ready to move to South Africa in about a fortnight's time, but needs a live-in bodyguard until then. Baldlow had found God through the Oxford Movement, or Moral Re-armament, which made him regard money as the root of all evil and the disposal of his personal fortune "a sacred trust" – certain possible heirs had already been subjected to "guarded enquiries." But he expects to do certain unpleasant things that might provoke an equally unpleasant reaction. So asks Travers to provide him with a bodyguard to act as a companion during those two weeks. Travers had "rarely been so distrustful of a client," disliking Baldlow's "almost nauseating smugness" and "parade of religion," but drew up a pretty stiff contract that put no onus, whatsoever, on the agency. This is how Patrick Nordon came to The Croft as a companion/bodyguard and his written reports fills half of the second chapter. But trouble was already brewing.

One of Travers' freelance operatives, Luke Layman, whose car pitched over a cliff about eight miles west of Seahurst and drowned in the submerged car. There was an empty, quarter bottle of Scotch in the car with his prints on it and "he died with some of it in his belly," but was it really open and shut case of accidental death? What happened with Layman's diary book that he used to keep a record of his jobs? Travers soon has something else on his mind as Grainger, the Seahurst Chief Constable, asks Travers what he would do if had the idea a client was about to commit felony. Suspecting the Chief Constable was referring to Baldlow, Travers decided to pay his client a visit and bumps into Nordon who had been sent out by Baldlow to buy a Last Will and Testament form. Nordon suspects it has something to do with three visitors expected to drop by that day, but, when they arrive at The Croft, the housekeeper finds Baldlow's body in the upstairs snuggery. Smothered to death with a pillow! And that's when the visitors begin to arrive.

First one to arrive is Baldlow's niece, Mrs. Jane Howell, followed by her brother, Charles Tinley. The last visitor is the dead man's stepbrother, Francis Lorde. They all received a letter from Baldlow, asking them to come see him "most urgently," but none of the three knew the other two received a similar letter nor can they produce the letters in question, which they threw away or destroyed as unimportant – even when it's quite obvious the letters had disturbed them. And who's Maurice, or Morris, who Baldlow told over the telephone (overheard by Nordon) not to come to the house? Travers has to root around the cupboards of the three visitors and the people around them to find out what skeletons Baldlow had gotten a hold of, which has sidetracks into the jewelry business, the theater world and the previously mentioned Moral Re-armament Movement.

Travers' investigation shows a lot had changed since his days as a bright-eyed, crossword puzzle obsessed amateur detective in the '20s and '30s with his work sometimes getting very seedy. For example, Chapter IX ("Temptation Flat") has Travers reluctantly getting snug and messy ("with lipstick and the stickiness of the Benedictine") with a femme fatale. Travers has something to explain back home (“blonde hairs, probably, that had been on my overcoat”) to his wife, Bernice. Another modern tendency found in these later novels is showing a bit more of the person behind the detective. Travers gives his religious views to Baldlow in the opening chapter (believing in God "to the extent that I can't credit the Universe as being self-made") and reflects later on in the story about the skeleton stuffed away in his own cupboard ("an affair that makes me go hot and cold at a distance of almost thirty years and about which I've never breathed a word to Bernice"). You're unlikely to find these candid snapshots in any of the pre-war Travers novels. And then there's the dark, devastating, but oh so effective ending, that was very much in tune with the changing times.

Regardless of the modern, post-war tune, The Case of the Three Lost Letters is a pure, undiluted whodunit with all the clues and red herrings in place, but, more importantly, the plot is structured around an idea that feels as fresh as it's original – even in 2022! A good enough idea that it didn't need the extra complication of cast-iron alibis or fooling around with identities. There is, however, a small caveat: The Case of the Three Lost Letters could have been superb instead of merely excellent had Bush not made one mistake. Bush should have (ROT13) vagebqhprq gur zheqrere nf abguvat zber guna n anzr/cbfvgvba jvgu uvf onpxtebhaq orvat svyyrq va nsgre gur zheqre vf qvfpbirerq. Vs jbhyq zber yvxryl unir chyyrq gur zheqrere va gur ernqre'f cflpubybtvpny oyvaq fcbg. Abj gur ernqre vf tvira gbb zhpu vasbezngvba sebz gur fgneg naq gung znqr na bgurejvfr irel jryy uvqqra zheqrere ybbx irel fhfcvpvbhf. I learned these dirty tricks from Uncle John and Aunt Agatha. :)

So, if you pay close enough attention, you can put all the pieces together and reach the correct solution long before Travers figures it out. Normally, I can take satisfaction in solving a detective story that played completely fair with the reader, but the ending and how the case was resolved made me wish Bush had succeeded in fooling me. The ending is so much better when it can take you by surprise. Something that would have been possible had it not been for that one mistake. Nevertheless, The Case of the Three Lost Letters has a very real shot of making it to my top 10 favorite Bush novels. It's definitely one of my favorites from this period in the series.


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

Last year, I was distracted away from Christopher Bush by the unending avalanche of reprints and translations, digging around the remnants of the Dutch detective genre and hunting for obscure, long out-of-print (locked room) mystery novels – as well as revisiting some old favorites. This left very little room for two of my favorite detectives, Ludovic Travers and George Wharton, who still got to shine in The Case of the Unfortunate Village (1932) and The Case of the Curious Client (1947). But my other two reads, The Case of the Climbing Rat (1940) and The Case of the Seven Bells (1949), were somewhat poor compared to the best the series has to offer. Fortunately, I had a promising, highly praised title tucked away for just such an occasion. 

The Case of the Green Felt Hat (1939) is the twentieth entry in the Ludovic Travers series, "a classic village mystery," which used to be one of the scarcer titles until Dean Street Press reissued it in 2018. John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, got hold of copy back in 2012 and thought it was one of Bush's "more engrossing efforts" with Travers talent to bust faked alibis wide open "put to impressive use." There's an entire village teeming with alibis, faked and real, which he has to separate to find expose "a very cunning murderer."

The Case of the Green Felt Hat brings a honeymooning Ludovic and Bernice Travers, who met and fell in love in The Case of the Leaning Man (1938), to the quiet, agricultural town of Edensthorpe where a friend of Bernice had lent them a house – maid and gardener included. There they planned to spend the first-half of their honeymoon in anonymity without getting recognized as the well-known amateur detective and the retired classical dancer. But, when they drive through the nearby village of Pettistone, Travers recognizes the newly arrived owner of Gables as a recently released swindler, Hanley Brewse. Travers gave evidence at his trial and helped convict both him and his accomplish, Merrick Clarke, who died six months before his two years were up. Brewse served his time and Travers is of the opinion that even "a slippery rascal," like Brewse, has to live somewhere. But he does inform the Chief Constable, Colonel Brian Feen, who knows "no end of Pettistone people came a cropper when Brewse went smash."

Norman Quench, the Pettistone vicar, lost practically everything and his son, Bob Quench, had to come home from Oxford and loaf round till he got a job at the local garage. Charles Ammony, owner of the village garage and general stores, had thrust himself into the financial shenanigans and got "badly bitten for his pains," which made him "like a man demented" as he shrieked and raved about his lost money. Mr. Strongman got out in time, but his wife lost all her own money and she now has to go cap in hand to her husband "every time she wants a fiver," which made her very embittered about it all. Anthony Guff-Wimble, one of the local pillars and acting secretary of the Pettistone golf club, had has prestige damaged as many the disastrous investments were made on his recommendation as a sleeping partner in a firm of stockbrokers. Guff-Wimble is very indigent when he learns Brewse has settled down in Pettistone and calls together a counsel of war with the people who lost money and other villagers. Such as Pernaby, whose niece, Molly Pernaby, is practically engaged to Bob Quench and the son of the Strongmans, Gordon, who's home on leave from the Sudan. Tarring and feathering was casually mentioned during this meeting, which probably would have been the best solution considering what happens next.

There's a wooden, flimsy shed on a back road to the village, where manure is stored, is blazing and the body of Brewse was dragged from underneath the heap of manure. Brewse had been shot and the manure had protected the body from the licking flames, but why bury a body in a protective layer of dung and then set it on fire? That same day, they discover Brewse house had been vandalized. The whole end of the house that faced the road had been painted with a mock advertisement: "THE GABLES CINEMA (Hanley Brewse, proprietor) NOW SHOWING CONVICT 99." Some of the villagers definitely took measures against Brewse's presence, but who did what and when takes a bit of detective work to figure out.

Travers naturally feels guilty about having to play detective on his honeymoon, but Bernice wants him to help Colonel Feen find the murderer and even does some off-page detective work as talks and plays golf with the women of the village – which gives her access to a wealth of village gossip. A holidaying Superintendent George Wharton joins them halfway through the story, posing as Mr. Higgins, whose "ripe and fruity personality" always lights up a story when coming into contact with Travers. So while Travers pretends to be "an ordinary citizen and a golfer on holiday," Wharton accompanies Colonel Feen on the official side of the investigation. This is why I loved that brief moment in which Sergeant Reeper asks Travers "who's this Mr. Higgins?" and gets the answer "one of those old fogies who fancies himself as a detective." Travers and Wharton are the best!

Their investigation naturally focuses on alibis and Travers, "one of the best alibi breakers," has his work cutout as nearly everyone appears to have an alibi, some more looking more convincing than others, but appearances can be deceiving. And there are other factors complicating the question of alibis even further. Firstly, Travers has to pick at a pair of alibis for each individual suspect. An afternoon alibi for the shooting and an evening alibi for moving the body. Secondly, a witness claimed to have seen the bearded Brewse with his green felt hat walking down the road to Edensthorpe when, according to the medical evidence, he was a dead as a door nail. The time of death was very thoroughly established through "rigor mortis, state of wound, and stomach content."

So that gives this "a nice, quiet, gentleman's murder" a clearly defined window of time to toy around in with alibis. A scope Bush fully exploited to not only test the numerous alibis, but also explore the human element behind those alibis as being guilty of murder is not the only reason to fabricate one. This also gives room to a few false-solutions, or suggestions, of which one really stood out. Travers, "always ready with a theory," suggests a trick how a broken down car on the side of the road can be used to make it appear as if the murderer had been anchored to that location at the time of the murder. Bush should have put that idea to use in another novel. A great alibi-trick that could have carried an entire plot by itself. Only (very minor) disappointment is that the tenth chapter, entitled "Travers on Alibis," didn't include an alibi-lecture. I keep expecting one to turn up in this series ever since it was teased in The Case of the Missing Minutes (1936).

But, while there are alibis aplenty, The Case of the Green Felt Hat is, first and foremost, a pure Golden Age whodunit. A whodunit with enough twist, turns and complications to keep the most seasoned armchair detective on their toes, but never in a forced, or unnatural, way. Like John Norris said in his review, "nothing is superfluous here, everything has a purpose." This is all the more impressive considering the leisurely, almost holiday-like atmosphere. A detective-on-holiday, or honeymoon in this case, is too often used as an excuse to slacken the reigns over the plot. Bush kept things unhurried and focused without feeling the need to spice up the story with an additional body. Bush was a craftsman and The Case of the Green Felt Hat a marvelous display of his craftsmanship that can stand with the best the series has to offer like the previously mentioned The Case of the Missing Minutes or the WWII home front trilogy. Warmly recommended! 

A note for the curious: Bush reworked The Case of the Green Felt Hat into a short story, "Murder at Christmas" (1951), which you can find Crimson Snow: Winter Mysteries (2016).


The 5 False Suicides (2021) by James Scott Byrnside

Two years ago, James Scott Byrnside completed his Rowan Manory and Walter Williams trilogy, Goodnight Irene (2018), The Opening Night Murders (2019) and The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire (2020), which in turn performed an amazing hat trick – back-to-back gems of traditionally-plotted, slightly noir-ish, detective novels. Stories brimming with bizarre and sometimes gruesome murders, locked room mysteries, dying messages and false-solutions that can only be compared to the works of Byrnside's Japanese counterparts of the shin honkaku school or Paul Halter at the top of his game. Regrettably, Byrnside is currently the only writer in the Western world who's crafting these kind of ambitious, tightly-plotted and fairly clued detective novels commonly associated today with the East. So it was a joy when his fourth novel was finally published late last year! 

The 5 False Suicides (2021) has a title and premise that immediately invites the reader to draw comparisons with John Dickson Carr's The Four False Weapons (1937) and The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941), Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1939) and Peter Lovesey's Bloodhounds (1996). This is not that kind of (locked room) mystery novel. The 5 False Suicides is "some stand-alone, crazy-ass piece of pulp" dedicated to Fredric Brown, which should give you an idea what to expect. Or so you would think! 

The 5 False Suicides takes place in 1947 New Sweden, Maine, where librarian Gretta Grahame formed a book club, the Murder-mystery Appreciation Society of New Sweden (MASONS), on the recommendation of her therapist to combat her shyness. Gretta becomes "incredibly communicative" whenever she gets to talk about the intricacies of the detective story. So why not use it to her advantage. The first two members to join the MASONS were Gretta's only real friends, Faye Withers and Georgie Danvers, but an advert on Gretta's library's whisper wall drew five more members into the group – two couples and a single. Olive Tennant is the daughter of a local toothpick mogul and joined up with her husband, Harry, in addition to an elderly couple of retirees, Tom and Alice Mower. The single is a strongly opinionated hotel porter, Oscar Strom. One of their weekly meetings fills out the first chapter as they kindly bicker and banter about what to read next and picking apart Oscar's homespun impossible crime method, which pleasantly reminded me of the after-dinner discussions from Isaac Asimov's Black Widower series. A chapter ending with the ominous promise that "most of the membership would be dead in a fortnight" and "one of the members would be a murderer."

A long string of tragic deaths that began with Gretta's estranged uncle, Scotty Grahame, calling his niece to inform that her Aunt Suzie died from an overdose of barbiturates and the police ruled it a suicide. A similar fate befell Gretta's mother and she recently tried to take her own life, which apparently runs in the family. But not without a reason.

Scotty tells Gretta that her grandfather, Andrew Grahame, put "a curse on his own flesh and blood," back in 1907, which "has been murdering the Grahame family for the last thirty years" and they're the last two remaining Grahames – very likely next to fall victim of the curse. Andrew Grahame had help with his curse from a Hungarian mystic, or male-witch, named Boroqe Rieszak and he wants to help them lift the deadly curse. So he asks Gretta to come to his hotel room and drive together to the meet the Hungarian witch, but, when she calls back the next day, a policeman answers the phone. Scotty had committed suicide in his hotel room!

Nonetheless, Gretta decides to go through with meeting Rieszak, accompanied by Faye and Olive, who reveals their family and curse is tied to Blood Island. An island on the south coast of Maine connected to the mainland by a natural, limestone bridge and had been cleared in 1825 of its native population to make way for "a heavenly getaway for the wealthy," but one remained behind and hid in the island forest to plot his revenge. And massacred "the best of society" on their first night on the island. So the Indian was hunted down and he cursed his hunters, "may your loved ones suffer the same fate as I," before slitting his own throat. Gretta's grandfather was a Satanist and used to island curse to ensure that a special place in hell reserved for "those who curse their own flesh and blood," but, "when only one descendent of a Soctomah-cursed family remains," that "descendent can be freed of suicide by a ceremony." All Gretta has to do is gather a surrogate family to temporarily replace what she has lost and go to Blood Island, now called Heaven's Gate, to perform the ceremony. This is where the story moves from Carr-Christie territory to the borderlands of Hake Talbot and Theodore Roscoe.

Normally, it's "darn-near impossible to get a reservation on Heaven's Gate" at that time of year, but a wildfire is slowly consuming the south of Maine and a serial killer, "The Burlington Butcher," is likely hiding out in the dense forests of Heaven's Gate – who left a bizarre murder scene on the southernmost beach. A young woman had been butchered with a hunting knife, but "no footprints except those of the victim were found on the beach." So the island was not a particular popular holiday destination that seasons. Gretta goes to the island with Rieszak and some of the MASONS as her surrogate family, but they have hardly arrived before one of them apparently shoots and kills themselves in a cabin with the windows and door locked from the inside. Through the window, they saw the handle of the key sticking out of the keyhole. At the same time, someone else is found hanging from a noose with a mutilated hand. And then, as you can expect from the title, the story really begins to pick up pace.

Before getting to the plot crammed with impossible crimes, red herrings and false-solutions, the wonderfully executed, sometimes dark duality and meta-consciousness of the storytelling has to be highlighted with the MASONS almost being aware they're characters inside a detective story. They disapprove of the case possibly having more than one, independently, moving parts ("I don't like a mystery with too many moving parts") or having the sneaking suspicion they have “already come across the big clue” without having noticed it. So, under normal circumstances, people who prefer the "civilized murder" of fiction to the messy banality of real-life crimes, but, as Detective Brodsky put it so eloquently, "it ain't like those books by Dick Johnson Carter." This resulted in awkward, but very well handled, scene in which the MASONS tell Jack Munt, Ranger of Heaven's Gate, how intrigued and excited they were about his impossible murder on the beach. Munt responds with telling them the girl didn't die right away and how held her hand as she died. So, no, he wouldn't exactly describe the murder as exciting or funny. Even though the characters run around the island, simultaneously playing detective and getting culled, the story becomes quite grim as it nears its conclusion. Sometimes bordering on outright horror ("Gur fxva unq ohooyrq hc naq jnf abj orersg bs nal qrsvavat sbez pnhfrq ol nqurfvba gb gur obar"). Just like the second, gory murder from Goodnight Irene or the severed hands featured in The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire, there's a logical reason for everything in Byrnside's mysteries. This time, it has all the mad logic of dream.

Firstly, there's the locked room-tricks, real and false, which are contracted around principles that have been around for a while, but how they were presented and executed put a new spin on them – which is the next best thing to discovering an original and brand new locked room-trick. I liked how one of the tricks suggested was an updated version of a trick from a fictitious short story, "Five Deaths and One Lock," which surprised readers in 1889 as "they had no idea what [REDACTED] meant." But where The 5 False Suicides stands out is not as a locked room mystery with multiple impossibilities. But how all the moving parts and red herrings came together. And how they were pulled apart again. Planting "the big clue" in plain sight. Blurring the lines between the real and false-solutions culminating in that daring, uncertain, but ambitious ending. Something not every mystery reader is going to appreciate, but you have to keep in mind that this is supposed to be a pulp-style mystery in the spirit of Gerald Verner's The Royal Flush Murders (1948) and John Russell Fearn's The Man Who Was Not (2005) with a distinct touch of madness. I'm very fond of those two second-string pulp mongers. So add in a first-rate plot stuffed with fairly planted clues, treacherous red herring and false-solutions, you leave me with precious little to complain or nitpick about. 

Sure, The 5 False Suicides is perhaps too short a novel with characterization taking a backseat to the plot and storytelling. I can see how readers who like characterization would have appreciated a little more elaboration about certain character revelations. But speaking as an uncouth, plot obsessed detective fanboy with a taste for the pulps, the lack of characterization didn't bother me too much. To quote the great Dr. Gideon Fell, "I like some vividness of colour and imagination flashing out of my plot, since I cannot find a story enthralling solely on the grounds that it sounds as though it might really have happened." I do not care to hear the hum of everyday life and neither does the author of this crazy-ass piece of pulp. 

Byrnside only began to seriously read Golden Age detective fiction in early 2017, published his first detective novel in 2018 and continued to demonstrate the kind of genre awareness and understanding in his next two novels that I always assumed took years to develop and fine-tune. More importantly, Byrnside's four novels demonstrate how you can enrich your stories and plots by building on the rich history of your genre instead of discarding it as out-of-date and obsolete. A genuine prodigy of the genre and The 5 False Suicides carried on the streak of delivering quality, first-class detective fiction that fans and genre scholars of the future might look back upon as the dawn of a Second Golden Age (once again, no pressure). So you future detective fans and scholars better be grateful for having all of his novels at your immediate disposal. We had to wait years for The Jolly Roger Murders, Time Seals All Rooms and Goodmorning Irene to come out.


Through the Walls (1936) by Noël Vindry

Noël Vindry was a French World War I veteran, deputy juge d'instruction (examining magistrate) and a celebrated mystery novelist who wrote a dozen locked room mysteries in the 1930s of "a quality and quantity to rival his contemporary," John Dickson Carr – which is why he was hailed at the time as the master of the roman probleme (puzzle novel). Vindry is "largely forgotten by the French-speaking world and almost completely unknown in the English-speaking" until John Pugmire's Locked Room International published the first English edition of La maison qui tu (The House That Kills, 1932) in 2015. That release was followed by translations of the absolutely fantastical La bête hurlante (The Howling Beast, 1934) and Le double alibi (The Double Alibi, 1934) over the next three years. But nothing new until 2021. 

Last December, Pugmire finally returned to Vindry with the publication of A travers les murailles (Through the Walls, 1936) with no less than half-a-dozen seemingly impossible situations and locked room murders. 

Through the Walls has M. Allou, "considered the best examining magistrate in Marseille," bogged down in boring office and paperwork. Several months had gone by without being "called upon to tackle an important case" to test his famed deductive skills, which he based on La Science et l'Hypothèse, "consists of finding a theory which fits all the facts" and "then investigating anew" – until "the theory is proved or disproved." Only case of apparent interest is "the man who walks through walls" and left the police powerless as "the massacre continues." M. Allou has heard of the case everywhere and glimpsed the newspaper headlines, but the murders took place outside of his jurisdiction and therefore didn't tempt himself by reading the papers. There was nothing he could do. Luckily, the powers governing the universe has him covered.

One evening, Allou is visited by Commissaire Maubritane, of the Police Mobile, who confesses to Allou he had abandoned his post as a defeated man. Maubritane had inserted himself in, what appeared to have been a simple and straightforward affair, but had quickly devolved into an incomprehensible, bloody murder case that had dominated the headlines. Even half-suspecting he had gone crazy and committed the (attempted) murders. Allou sits him down to tell him the whole story from beginning to end. It should be noted here Allou appears only in the opening and closing chapters, which is a similar approach Vindry employed in The Howling Beast and perhaps influenced by G.K. Chesterton (c.f. "The Dagger with Wings," 1924).

Four days before he appealed to Allou, Commissaire Maubritane received a plea for help himself. Pierre Sertat, a retired Customs official, who remembered Maubritane from a case he handled in the region to come to aid of him and his family. Saying they are "faced with a terrible menace" putting all of their lives in grave danger and asks Maubritane to meet him, at ten o'clock at night, in rue Van Gogh. Because the house is under observation. Sertat tells Maubritane someone has been coming into the house at night, where he lives with his wife, daughter and two servants, but the nightly intruder only moves objects around and makes noise when goes up, or down, the creaky staircase – only question is how he entered and exited the house. All of the windows shutters "were firmly locked on the inside" and the bolts on the front door were shot in place. But even to Maubritane, Sertat remains cautious and secretive with what, exactly, is behind this mysterious threat to his family.

Maubritane has to do some unorthodox detective work to discover Sertat's past is not entirely spotless and has a good reason to keep his lips sealed, but my favorite part of the first-half is Maubritane's initial chain of reasoning about the nightly intrusions. I really liked how he tried to bring a bit of sanity to an utterly insane situations with a series of reasonable and logical possibilities, which mostly hinged on an accomplish inside the house. But also appreciated the answer how you can go up, or down, a creaky staircase without a sound. They eventually setup a trap, or sorts, but, when the intruder threatens to escape, Maubritane fires a warning shot. The intruder returns fire, seriously wounding Sertat, before disappearing from the tightly locked house. This is when things really begin to take off.

One of the household members is stabbed in a locked bedroom with the key in Maubritane's pocket, while another is shot and wounded in a dark, empty street surrounded by high walls. The victim swears nobody else was in the street. A third person was killed when "a man suddenly appeared" between the victim and an eyewitness, plunged a dagger in the victim and vanished within a blink of an eye. Finally, a fourth victim is stabbed and wounded in a hospital room with Maubritane sitting in front of the door. This is the point where the plagued policeman throws up his hands in despair and abandoned the scene of the crime "to ask M. Allou's advice."

Unfortunately, this happens to be very close to the point where a lot of readers will throw the book across the room in disgust. While the story is saturated with impossible crime material, the solutions are without exception a let down. Some will even consider the solutions to be outright cheats, but, in Vindry's defense, he didn't intend Through the Walls to be a detective novel of tricks and ideas. The last chapter makes it clear it was supposed to be a demonstration of Allou's "system of philosophy" as he effortlessly, and logically, explains the whole series of utterly baffling, seemingly impossible crimes that baffled Maubritane for the better part of a week – all within a single chapter. But you, the reader, only learns about this in the last chapter. And that's too late to prevent most readers from closing the book disappointed. An impressive piece of armchair detection, to be sure, but, purely as a locked room mystery, Through the Walls is the weakest title to come out of LRI. That includes Ulf Durling's Gammel ost (Hard Cheese, 1971) and Paul Halter's L'arbe aux doigts tordus (The Vampire Tree, 1996).

However, I can easily forgive a dub coming hot on the heels of several absolute bangers of translated locked room mysteries: Michel Herbert and Eugène Wyl's La maison interdite (The Forbidden House, 1932), Paul Halter's La toile de Pénélope (Penelope's Web, 2001), Tokuya Higashigawa's Misshitsu no kagi kashimasu (Lending the Key to the Locked Room, 2002) and Masahiro Imamura's Shijinso no satsujin (Death Among the Undead, 2017). The overall solution made me crack a smile when I flipped back to read the introduction, "Noël Vindry and the Puzzle Novel," which mentioned the rumblings of French critics and writers about the plot-oriented, puzzle-driven detective novel. I wonder what Vindry's critics thought of Allou's deconstructionists solution to the fantastical series of events that were described to him. Something I imagine critics of the simon-pure, jigsaw-puzzle detective story would be able to appreciate more than when the impossibilities were accomplished with diabolical, minutely-timed tricks. No matter how clever or original they might have been. So, to cut this rambling post short, I can only recommend Through the Walls to fanatical locked room fans who have been given up by society or to readers with a special interest in armchair detective fiction.


The Asteroid Murder Case (1970/2011) by Ross Rocklynne and Arthur Jean Cox

Several years ago, I came across a well-known science-fiction novella by Ross Rocklynne, "Time Wants a Skeleton" (1941), in which a human, space suited skeleton is discovered on an asteroid dating back to a time before the human race had come into existence – similar to the premise of James P. Hogan's stellar Inherit the Stars (1977). A science-fiction mystery so good, we had to appropriate it. But don't tell the nerds. We convinced them aliens stole it. 

"Time Wants a Skeleton" is a time travel yarn with a detective hook and more science-fiction than a detective story, but Rocklynne tried his hands at an actual hybrid that's part science-fiction and part whodunit in 1970. Rocklynne was "very much at home in the Asteroid Belt" and his original short story, "The Asteroid Murder Case," is "set against that shifting, fragmented landscape." Rocklynne believed the story was worthy of publication, but the editor of Analog, John W. Campbell, turned it down saying "science-fiction and mystery fiction are incompatible." A claim Isaac Asimov obliterated with The Caves of Steel (1951), The Naked Sun (1957) and the Dr. Wendell Urth stories from Asimov's Mysteries (1986). But when the story was also turned down by Galaxy, the story disappeared in a drawer until he showed it to Arthur Jean Cox.

Cox advised Rocklynne to expand the short story into a novel to do justice to both genres and they had "an eye to collaborating on the larger version," but Rocklynne unexpectedly passed away in 1988. So the story was put back in a drawer, but, over the years, Cox remained convinced a finished, posthumous publication of "The Asteroid Murder Case" could be a fitting capstone to his friends career – a Quintessential Ross Rocklynne Asteroid Story. More than twenty years later, Cox got an opportunity to revise and enlarge Rocklynne's short story. All of the original characters, setting and plot were retained, but Cox "embroidered freely and without hesitation" with several new story elements and "a new character who looms rather large in the last few chapters." A novel-length treatment of The Asteroid Murder Case (2011) finally made it to print as a Wildside Double ("flip one book over the read the second title") together with Cox's A Collector of Ambroses and Other Rare Items (2011). The novel was later reprinted in The Second Science Fiction Novel MEGAPACK (2016) and eventually published as a standalone mystery in 2019.

So the story had a long, difficult road from conception to completion and finally publication, but (as some of you know) I'm not a big fan of writers tinkering with somebody else his characters and stories. However, Cox's argument that the short story barely left any room to explore the science-fiction setting or do any justice to the detective plot echoed my own comments on Kendell Foster Crossen's "The Closed Door" (1953). A really great short science-fiction detective story possessing all the material and potential needed in a novel-length treatment to craft a classic. So why not give it a shot? 

The Asteroid Murder Case opens with the arrival of Thomas Dooley, Chief of Security for the American Sector of the Belt, on a dark, lonely asteroid "which bore the rather romantic name of Albion." A rock in the middle of the Big Nowhere with a pressurized tent, or so-called "igloo," on it with the body of UN observer Carl Neal lying inside on a cot. Apparently, a stray meteor had punched a double hole through the igloo, which is one of "the natural hazards" of life in the Asteroid Belt. Dooley notices a spacesuit hanging on the wall without a helmet and he couldn't have walked the ten yards from his anchored clodhopper to the igloo without a helmet. And that means murder. This opens the question what a "fairly rich, fairly young, rather ambitious and very gregarious" man took "starvation wages" to work a lonely and thankless job as UN Observer in the Belt. Could there be a link between the murder and the tension between America and Russia with the possibility of industrial espionage? Russia have been making a marginal profit out of mining the asteroid belt, while it has been a losing proposition for the US and there have been talks about abandoning the Belt entirely. Something that would effectively hand over the mineral market to the Russians.

It also dates and betrays the Cold War origins of the short story version and some clues places the story sometime in the relatively close future. One of the characters mentions "our written history goes back only five thousand year," which is roughly the same as it's today, but, earlier on in the story, Dooley called a .45 caliber pistol "a relic from our glorious past" – consigned in his time to museums. The Asteroid Murder Case likely takes place sometime during the first three, or four, hundred years of the current millennium with the character rounding down the years of recorded history. You can't blame Rocklynne for not knowing in 1970 that the Cold War would be ended before the new millennium rolled around, but Cox could have made it feel a little less dated by swapping the Russians for another competitor to the American Section. Like the EU and the European Space Agency who could have made a pact with the Russians to explore and mine the stars, which would be of great concerns to the Americans. 

However, The Asteroid Murder Case is not a Cold War spy thriller in space. Just that the ghost of one bleeds through the story from time to time, but the story tries it best to align itself with the traditional detective story with numerous references to the classics. Every spaceship arriving, or departing, from the Asteroid Belt has the name of a celebrated mystery writer. You have the S.S. Doyle, S.S. Van Dine, S.S. Christie, S.S. Raskolnikov (Fyodor Dostoevsky) and even a small, elegant flyer named the Rendell. Ralph Phelps, of the Asteroid Regulatory Commission, has been planning for years to write down Dooley's cases in a book and takes the ancient Chinese style, "like the famous Judge Dee stories," as his model with three separate, unconnected storylines running neck-to-neck. Phelps plans to combine the current case, "The Asteroid Murder Case," with accounts of two of Dooley's unrecorded cases ("The Rain of Terror" and "The Russ Rockland Express") under the title The Big Nowhere.

Regrettably, all of this is merely lip service to the detective story as it's really a crime tale that unravels itself with the science-fiction elements only marginally more fleshed out than the detective plot. There's the initial investigation of the crime scene and briefly going over the discovery of intelligent creatures with a primitive culture on Jupiter largest moon, Ganymede, but it's mostly scenery until the end. So rather disappointing as both a detective and science-fiction novel, but, while the science-fiction elements began to dominate the mystery towards the end, it provided the ending with a much needed payoff – namely a strong and memorable motive to string everything together. A truly original and convincing motive which is on the one hand very human and on the other one unmistakably alien. Something a lot people would value as highly, or higher, as the all the gold and platinum in the asteroids. It's these last few chapters that made up the best and most memorable part of the whole story. 

The Asteroid Murder Case had a promising first chapter and a good ending, but there simply was not enough of either the detective or science-fiction genre to give anything more than a faint glimmer of what can be done with a well-balanced hybrid of the two. And that only towards the end. So a quick, enjoyable enough read, but, on a whole, a little thin to be particularly satisfying to fans of both genres.