Rim of the Pit (1944) by Hake Talbot

Back in April, I revisited The Hangman's Handyman (1942) by "Hake Talbot," a penname of Henning Nelms, who was an American amateur magician and wrote three, novel-length locked room mysteries and a pair of short stories starring his regrettably short-lived nomadic detective-character, Rogan Kincaid – a kind of anti-hero who "travels around the world and makes his money by gambling." A small body of work rarely bodes well for the longevity of a mystery writer's legacy and Talbot only had 3/5 of his known detective novels and short stories publishing during his lifetime. "The Other Side" was posthumously published in Jack Adrian and Robert Adey's Murder Impossible (1990), but his third, novel-length Rogan Kincaid mystery (The Affair of the Half-Witness) remains unpublished and the manuscript is likely lost to history. 

So it says something about Hake Talbot that not only is he remembered as an important contributor to the locked room mystery, but generally considered to be on equal footing with John Dickson Carr. And he did that on the strength of just two novels! 

Anthony Boucher heralded Talbot as "a thorough craftsman of the detective story" and praised his second novel, Rim of the Pit (1944), which piled "impossibility upon impossibility" until "one feels all but convinced that this is no detective story," but "a genuine post-Gothic tale of terror" – told "in the tradition of Algernon Blackwood or H.P. Lovecraft." Adey cited Rim of the Pit as the only mystery novel to "successfully emulate" the master himself. So after rereading The Hangman's Handyman, I decided to return to Rim of the Pit while the former was still relatively fresh in my memory. I was honestly surprised at how little I remembered from my first read, but did Rim of the Pit stand up to rereading? Let's find out!

I suppose I'm obliged to start with quoting the opening line, "I came up here to make a dead man change his mind," which should give readers unfamiliar with Talbot a clue why he's always compared to Carr. The dead man in question, Grimaud Désanat, died over a decade ago when he got lost in the "winter-struck wilderness" of New England. Grimaud Désanat left behind a daughter, Seré "Sherry" Désanat, whose widowed stepmother, Irene, remarried Frank Ogden two years later. They officially adopted Sherry and she now calls herself Sherry Ogden. So all's well that ends well, or so it appeared, until the dead man's will proved to be stumbling block in a lucrative business deal nearly fifteen years later. Désanat left Irene and Sherry as the sole owners of large, wooded area to be timbered, but not for another twenty years, because it was all second growth that needed time to develop. Frank Ogden has a patent that changed the equation ("small logs are worth as much per board foot as big ones") and now he and a pulp-mill owner, Luke Latham, want to raise his ghost to get permission to log the timber.

So, on the anniversary of his death, a small group of people gathered at Désanat's house, Cabrioun, tucked in the away in the remote, unpopulated and snow-covered wilds of New England to conduct a séance. This party comprises, beside the previously mentioned characters, Luke Latham's nephew, Jeff, who brought along his uncle's soon to be niece-in-law, Barbara. Professor Peyton Ambler, an anthropologist, who came to ask the spirits about an invention a friend spoke of right before his death. Svetozar Vok is a Czech refugee, magician and debunker who "looks like the oldest inhabitant of a graveyard" or "a mummy that’s still smiling over one of the embalmer's jokes." Rogan Kincaid was in Quebec, headed south, when he ran across Luke and got offered a ride. And, intrigued by the prospect of a business meeting with a ghost, decided to stick around. The party is rounded out by the native caretaker of the estate, Madore Troudeau, who "mixed Christian and Indian talismans with complete impartiality." Oh, and there's a Great Dane named Thor. Thor's a good boy. When he arrives, Kincaid learns Grimaud Désanat has already stirred from his slumber and crawled from underneath the veil of the Great Beyond.

Sherry went skiing that day and, when she in the middle of the frozen lake, she heard her father's voice singing the tune to a chillingly familiar song ("Pierre! Death comes for you; the toad digs your grave; the crows sound your knell..."), but there "wasn't a soul within a quarter of a mile" – after which the voice called out her name. A long-dead, disembodied voice coming out of nowhere is small stuff compared to what's in store for them later that evening and the days ahead.

Irene Ogden is not only a woman of material wealth, but claims to be a spiritual medium who can talk to the dead and acts as the medium at their séance. She runs through a number of the usual "miracles" you expect to be treated to at a classy séance. Such as "a rattle of knocks" and the table quivering "like a living thing" to phantom fingers touching faces, but Kincaid is puzzled how she could have read their questions for the spirits that had been sealed away in envelopes. But then something appeared that made even Irene shriek in terror. The ghost of Grimaud Désanat materialized above their heads with "an almost overpowering quality of death about it" and denounced his wife as a swindler, "you dabble in mysteries you are not able to comprehend, like a child playing on the rim of a volcano," who lied about the timber ban. For that, "no punishment is adequate" and promises she soon will learn about his plan "that will make the Master Himself laugh in the depths of Hell." Désanat turned around and "seemed to drift through the railing as though it were not there" as he floated ("almost a foot off the floor!") into the hallway.

Not quite convinced by the authentic looking ghost, Kincaid ran after the ghost, but, when he reached the top of the stairs to peer down the passage, Désanat had already reached the end of the cul-de-sac hallway. Where he simply blotted out of existence. The empty room at the end of the hall offered no way out as the connecting door was bolted on both sides and "three inches of untouched snow" heaped on the windowsill.

This alone would have been enough to cement Rim of the Pit as a classic of the locked room mystery, particularly how the floating apparition is eventually explained, but, barely a quarter into the story, the plot continues to fire on all cylinders – every answer of exposed inch of the truth exposes new problem and questions. The impossibilities come in thick and fast right up until the ending and they come in all varieties. An old, rusted and dusty flintlock, hanging high on the chimney, which could only have been easily taken down without a sound by someone who can levitate. Like someone who's possessed by an evil spirit. Another person is tomahawked to death in a locked room as the murderer escaped through the bathroom window, leaving a line of footprints in the snow on the flat roof below, but the trail eventually ended. That's the only trail in the story ending as abruptly and inexplicably as they have begun, but even Kincaid has to admit "nothing that did not fly could have crossed the belt of unbroken snow that surrounded Cabrioun." And then there's the windigo haunting, or hunting, the local forests. More than once, the dark shape of a huge animal, like a great horned owl the size of a man, chasing people through the dark, wintry landscape. And it goes on, and on, like this right up until the ending.

The unrelenting artillery fire of locked room murders, impossible situations, apparently supernatural phenomena and superb pacing that keeps the story moving (even when the characters just talk) is the strongest feature of Rim of the Pit. However, if you pack your plot with a wild variety of impossible crimes, you create a dangerous pitfall in the process. And while Talbot didn't tumble into it, he nearly tripped over it as he tried to avoid it.

Noel Vindry's A travers les murailles (Through the Walls, 1936), Richard Ellington's Exit for a Dame (1951), John Vance's The Fox Valley Murders (1966), Paul Halter's Le sept merveilles du crime (The Seven Wonders of Crime, 1997) and Taku Ashibe's Koromu no satsujin (Murder in the Red Chamber, 2004) all tried to offer a wild variety of impossible crimes with varying degrees of success. The problem is that it's very difficult, if not impossible, to deliver a satisfying explanation to every single one of them. No matter how ambitious or well intended, the multiple impossible crime story is bound to have some filler material as the number of impossibilities increases. Rim of the Pit has individual parts that are of a lesser quality, which is where Talbot nearly tripped, but (sort of) got away with it in the way how they were integrated into the overall plot. Talbot didn't go all out with locked room slayings and miraculous incidents to camouflage a weakly plotted or routine detective story, but almost like sleight-of-hand applied to the plotting of a detective story ("...when the whole pack is used, the idea that but ten cards are significant is disguised"). More importantly, the impossibilities create the effect of genuine horror and a house under siege by otherworldly entities or creatures that should not exist in our world. It's not difficult to see why it's a favorite among locked room fans.

All that being said, I've to acknowledge a comment that was left on my review of Talbot's The Hangman's Handyman. Isaac Stump, of Solving the Mystery of Murder, commented, "I just feel like this particular school of writers tend to prioritize effect" and "resolution is kind of secondary." I agreed that's definitely true of Clayton Rawson and to some extend applies to Talbot, but Rim of the Pit shows he had a better understanding than Rawson how to use that effect in bulk to punch up the ending. Just compare Rim of the Pit to Rawson's locked room extravaganza, Death from a Top Hat (1938), which didn't fit together as satisfactory as Rim of the Pit. And the latter also has that typically Carrian, morally dodgy as hell resolution to the whole devil of a problem. Not to mention a strong hint of that Merrivalean cussedness of all things general. So is it a masterpiece of the locked room mystery? Yes. Kind of. But it earned that distinction solely on its masterly showmanship rather than craftsmanship or some dazzling new and original trick. 

Notes for the [curious] publishers: there a number of these intriguingly-sounding, multiple locked room and impossible crime novels still out there, but they have not been reprinted in decades. Gaston Leroux has a little-known, impossible crime novel to his name, L'homme qui revient de loin (The Man Who Came Back from the Dead, 1912), which was translated and published in the October, 1916, issue of The Blue Book Magazine – never been reprinted since. Apparently, The Man Who Came Back from the Dead is "a collection of bizarre crimes and impossible murders involving ghosts and seances." Similarly, Horatio Winslow and Leslie Quirk's Into Thin Air (1928) is perhaps the most well-known of all obscure, long out-of-print mysteries crammed with locked rooms, impossible crimes, dodgy séances and magic. William F. Temple's The Dangerous Edge (1951) is another galore of daring impossibilities in the spirit of Norman Berrow's The Three Tiers of Fantasy (1947) and Hilary St. George Saunders' The Sleeping Bacchus (1951), which briefly appeared back in print in 2003, but has since gone out-of-print again. I'm still pretty curious to see if Paul Halter improved on The Seven Wonders of Crime with Le douze crime d'Hercule (The Twelve Crimes of Hercules, 2001).


The Manuscript Murder (1933) by Lewis George Robinson

The Manuscript Murder (1933), originally published as by "George Limnelius," is the third of only four novels written by medical officer and World War I veteran, Lewis G. Robinson, who drew on his military career to put together four semi-inverted, character-driven and usually soundly plotted detective novels – nearly all sporting some sort of locked room mystery or impossible crime. I previously reviewed Robinson's first and final detective novels, The Medbury Fort Murder (1929) and The General Goes Too Far (1936), which are both fine examples of vintage crime and detective fiction, but The Manuscript Murder is his masterpiece. 

Robinson's The Manuscript Murder starts out fairly conventional with four men seated round the dinner table of a comfortable Plymouth residence, "The Chestnuts," which is the home of Sir Oscar Horton. A typical retired British colonel who's entertaining three of his old Service friends on the day of his wedding, Torquil Swayne, Kit Vaspell and Joseph Marks, but the conversation turns from their host's honeymoon plans to detective stories and murder in general.

Joseph Marks is the detective novelist "Mark Jessup" and author of the long-running Inspector Flam series, which "already exceeded fifty full-length novels." Marks tells his companions that "the difficulty with murder plots is to provide a motive of sufficient intensity," because "people rarely murder lightly" in real-life. And he gives an interesting reason why he excepts poisoners from the extremely rare malice aforethought category (lacking "the toughness of fibre essential to the neat execution of a murder of violence"). Swayne counters that he and Vaspell have half a dozen "adequate reasons" between them to either kill the famous mystery writer or Sir Oscar. Swayne jokes he will run through a perfect murder plot with Vaspell later that night, but that very same evening Sir Oscar is murdered like a character in a fancifully-plotted detective story.

At nine-five, the butler served Sir Oscar coffee in the sitting room ("minor variant from the library"), while the newly-minted Lady Horton is in the drawing room and the butler retreats to the kitchen until returning to the sitting room at nine-thirty – where he discovers the murder. Sir Oscar had been shot, stabbed and strangled! What the police surgeon finds only deepens the problems for the Chief Constable, Major Weston Pryme. The murderer shot Sir Oscar in the back of the head, but not at point-blank range as there are "no marks of burning" around the wound, which turns the murder into a quasi-impossible crime. The angle at which "the bullet entered the head precludes the possibility of the shot coming from outside the window." And then there's the clue of Sir Oscar's cigar that "did not go out until eight minutes after it was lit." This gave the murderer a window of 8-10 minutes to silently commit a murder without being heard and get away unseen.

So there you have a great, deceivingly simplistic opening to a good, old-fashioned detective novel recalling Anthony Berkeley (The Second Shot, 1930) or Agatha Christie (Cards on the Table, 1935), but then The Manuscript Murder goes off script.

Joseph Marks is working on a new novel, The Quality of Murder, in which he casts Swayne and Vaspell as Sir Oscar's murderer and hands over the manuscript to Major Pryme. The next eight chapters come from Marks' manuscript covering the long, sometimes difficult relationship between the four men beginning during the old days at the military barracks right before the outbreak of the war and picks up again after the war with excursions to pre-war Paris and post-war South America. And, as time marches on, it becomes apparent they have murder in their heart. Sir Oscar is depicted as not the most sympathetic of characters and stands between Swayne and Vaspell and the two women they desire. But how reliable is Marks' fictitious murder mystery come to life? Marks tells Major Pryme he simply used his creative license to twist "every factor in order" to "demonstrate how those two might desire and contrive Horton's death." And filled in the gaps with "deductions, inferences, guesses." So he's asked to write a conclusion to his story and meet to compare notes with his two friends. 

The Manuscript Murder is another good example why Robinson's novels are called semi-inverted mysteries, as the reader gets to know who's plotting murder, why and sometimes how, but there's always more than one person with murder on their mind (The Medbury Fort Murder) or blood on their hands (The General Goes Too Far) – leaving it unclear who pulled the proverbial trigger. The Manuscript Murder marvelously muddled the waters and marched on with the second-half of The Quality of Murder, written addendum's by one of the suspects and a superbly done, psychological grounded false-solution that preceded a much more gritty, inevitable one. But it worked like a charm! Robinson's unvarnished, honest approach to characterization, especially where their private life is concerned, coupled with an original bend for plot-construction makes him one those rarities who can be enjoyed by both rabid traditionalists and apologists of the modern crime novel.

If there's anything to nitpick at, it's the uninspired, mundane book title. Why not the muddy the waters ever so slightly more by simply calling the book The Quality of Murder? I thought it was a missed opportunity to not turn Sir Oscar's murder into a full-blown impossible murder. Robinson only needed to be a little mysterious about the nature of the main murder weapon to turn into one of those "magic bullet" puzzles, but, as this is a semi-inverted mystery, Robinson gives that part away almost immediately. A missed opportunity as an impossible angle would have been the finishing touch to a murder "so chuck full of the stock devices of the detective mystery novel." Other than that stylistic smudge and plot oversight, The Manuscript Murder is as fairly clued as it original with all vivid characterization and authentic military background as The Medbury Fort Murder and The General Goes Too Far, but towers above those two novels in overall quality. One of the better reprints from Black Heath and comes highly recommend. 

A note for the curious: I wanted to shoehorn this into the review, but forgot all about until I was finished. There is a very brief, but fascinating, discussion in the manuscript about fictitious vs. real-life murders between Swayne and Vaspell. One stating that there's always "a subtle and acute detective to unravel the tangled threads" of "the complicated mysterious murder of fiction," but "these super sleuths don't exist in real-life." So the ordinary, everyday policeman can actually be beaten by silenced pistols, cast-iron alibis and unknown motives. This is, of course, not true, because experience is the whetstone of intelligence. Something even the most average of policeman will always have over the clever amateur criminal. But it made me feel a little better about my own track record in solving these mysterious crimes of fiction. I like to imagine myself to be some sort of armchair detective, like Mycroft Holmes, but usually turn out to be closer to Ludovic Travers with one out of three or four theories turning out to be (somewhat) correct. So maybe closer to Roger Sheringham than Travers. But I try. I try.


The House with the Dolls (1955) by Martin Mons

"Martin Mons" was the shared pseudonym of two Dutch sisters, Hilde Paauwe-Monsma and Marga Wierdels-Monsma, who began their collaboration when their claim that everyone, possessing a lick of common sense, could produce a detective novel was challenged – their answer to the challenge was De carnavalsmoord (The Carnival Murder, 1951). But the story didn't end there. Over the next ten years, the Monsma sisters continued to work prodigiously on more than thirty detective novels. Hilde Monsma provided the bare-boned, skeleton structure of the plots and Marga Monsma turned her plot outlines into fully fledged mystery novels. 

They wrote thirty-two detective novels from 1951 to 1961 and a posthumously published novel, De weegschaal (The Scales, 1964), which was originally commissioned to be part of the unfinished "Zodiac Mysteries" project.

Reportedly, the Monsma sisters were commissioned to write a Libra-themed detective story for the Zodiac series, but, when Ab Visser received the manuscript, the story turned out to be about an actual weighing scale without an atom of astrology to be found. So the manuscript was rejected and shelved until Hilde and Marga passed away within a month of each other in 1964. If you want to know more about the now obscure, hazy history of the "Zodiac Mysteries," I recommend you read my reviews of Dick A. van Ruler's Moord op een negatief (Murder of a Negative, 1963) and B.J. Kleymens' In de greep van de kreeft (In the Grip of the Lobster, 1965). I attempted a piece of genre archaeology by trying to find and putting together the missing pieces of the series, but didn't learn about Martin Mons as a contributor until recently. So the story around this abandoned series got muddled because Visser had approached more than the twelve writers he needed. Probably as a backup. But I'll return to that little genre puzzle another time.

There were thirty-two detective novels published under the "Martin Mons" name of which twenty-five were helmed by their series-detective, Chief Inspector Pieter Auguste Perquin of the Amsterdam Police. Perquin peppers his speech with French phrases, but he's more Jules Maigret than Hercule Poirot. A typical, continental police inspector largely cut from the same cloth as the leading policemen from the novels and short stories of Augusto de Angelis, A.C. Baantjer, P. Dieudonné, W.H. van Eemlandt, Josef Skvorecky, Ton Vervoort and Mika Waltari – an archetype usually more popular and successful over here than the hobbyhorse sleuth. I don't exactly know why or how it came about, but it really appears as if an official status, like a policeman or private investigator, is needed to give a traditionally-plotted detective story a fighting chance to succeed. That's not to say their official status precludes them from acting in the capacity of amateur detective. Such as the subject of today's review.

Martin Mons' Het huis met de poppen (The House with the Dolls, 1955) is the seventh title in the Pieter Perquin series and brings the Amsterdam inspector to the southern region of the country. A friend and apparently recurring character, Joost Alland, asked Perquin to come to House ter Weem. But he didn't tell him why.

House ter Weem is an "ordinary type of the moated castle" stuck on a tiny island "like an angry, chained dog on a barn yard" where the horse-faced members of the Hangst family has ruled over the village of Wemeroyen for centuries. A family who all have "long, meloncholy horse-faces" entirely obsessed and consumed with horse breeding, racing and hunting parties. Their family history and myths is littered with horses. Like the legend that the first Hangst van ter Weem was a centaur, but there's a more recent piece of family history, or myth, which exerts a dark influence over House ter Weem.

During the 17th century, the then head of the family brought home an Italian bride, Chiara Hangs, who had a new wing added to the house with statues of goddesses crowning the balustrade and earned the place its local nickname, "The House with the Dolls" – because the stonemason at the time did a terrible job. The statues do not depict goddesses, but "a bunch of sour, wicked-looking matrons without any grace" and when one of those statues falls it means disaster for the family. The second family concerns “Het Spookpaard” (the phantom horse) who appears as an enormous, shadowy beast to every Hangst whose days are numbered. Well, the family's harbinger of death is not supposed to be visible to outsiders, but Perquin gets to see it when he's barely arrived. A shrill, drawn-out screams brings the entire household to the bedroom of the baroness, Claire Hangst, who's found unconscious. While lightening strikes, Perquin sees a silhouette of "a colossal horse" with a neck like a snake's body. This is where the review nearly came to an end.

Not much else happens except one of the so-called "Dolls" toppling from the balustrade during the night and Perquin learning something might not be right with the baroness. A beloved hunting dog had been viciously ripped to pieces, a horse had gone limp and the villagers believe she dabbles in witchcraft. But very little happens until well towards the end. Perquin has a few interesting conversations with the village doctor, the priest and the acid-tongued mother of the inn keeper, which provides the story with some local and now historical color. Somewhere around the halfway mark, Perquin began to drop hints he wanted to prevent a murder instead of solving one. A morally sound position and a potentially interesting commentary on the role of the detective, but here it didn't lend itself for a riveting and lively detective story.

Fortunately, the last third of the story kicks off with a hunting party of red-clad horseman, wriggling dogs and spectators gathering in the courtyard of House ter Weem. This hunting party is used as a cover, or camouflage, to disguise a murder as an accident. While there's a clever idea at the heart of the murder, it's clumsily played out with predictable results and probably would have been more effective had the novel been cut down to the length of a short story. Another reason why the ending might not have been as effective as it perhaps could have been is that there are less than 80 pages between the start of the hunting party and the end. Those pages comprised of the hunting party, the search for the missing horseman, the discovery of the body, Perquin having a disagreement with the local policeman and finally trapping the murderer. There was more than enough room to improve and fine-tune to make the plot work, but that space was ignored in favor of padding out a short story plot to novel-length. 

The House with the Dolls is a clear case of a detective novel that's better written than plotted, which makes it hard to rate it or gauge what the Monsma sisters were capable of as mystery writers. There were a few ideas here with potential, but need to read one of their more plot-oriented mysteries to see if I have found my substitute for Ton Vervoort. En toen gilde de fluitketel (And Then the Kettle Screamed, 1955) en Maar niemand gelooft mij (But Nobody Believes Me, 1960) sound kind of promising. Wordt vervolgd!


Worlds Apart: Joseph Commings' "The Scarecrow Murders" (1948) and Jack McDevitt's "In the Tower" (1987)

There were two short stories on the big pile that I wanted to get to sooner rather than later, but the stories differ vastly in nature, one being a classic locked room mystery and the other an archaeological science-fiction tale, which gave me the idea to discuss them together – under the flimsy umbrella-theme of "worlds apart." One concerning a stumbling, shotgun-wielding scarecrow and the secrets of an archaeological dig site on an alien world. So my apologies in advance, if it devolves into some overlong, vaguely coherent rambling. 

Joseph Commings' "The Scarecrow Murders" was originally published in the April, 1948, issue of 10-Story Detective Magazine and brings Senator Brooks U. Banner to a small, rural town in the upper reaches of New York State. Banner is a detective who simply can't help himself and when he heard Cow Crossing had been the scene of an unusually coldblooded, unexplained murder he was "like a kid is tempted with custard."

The victim in question, Beverly Jelke, had been swimming in the creek when she had "half her head had been blown away by the charge of a double-barrelled shotgun" and her murderer likely "fired from the heavy brake that overhung the banks at that point." But who? Beverly Jelke had been bitterly quarreling with her brother, Hudson, to the point of nearly coming to blows. She had wanted to sell the failing family farm, but Hudson flat out refused. And that gives her brother a potential motive. So the elephantine Senator Banner, bombastic as ever, decides to invade the family farm to invite himself and Judge James Z. Skinner to stay the night ("I'll raid your ice chest" as "he patted his punchbowl tummy").

Beside the Hudson siblings, the other people who live, or work, on the farm include Hudson's beautiful wife, Celeste. His ugly, scarecrow-looking eccentric uncle, Magnus Fawlkes. A young, hired farmhand, Wayne Markes, whose mind is entirely occupied by a girl student over at Foxchase Hall. During the night, the sound of a shotgun blast awakens the whole farm and the sprawled body of Hudson, "part of his scalp and his face blown away by buckshot," is discovered on the porch step – which gains an otherworldly quality by the first lights of dawn. The murderer's "heavy, ungainly shoes" left a clear track of prints out towards the open fields. However, the single line of footprints led straight to a gaunt scarecrow that "idly flapping its empty arms at them." A pair of battered, heavy soled shoes were standing under the scarecrow and they "fitted the tracks." A nicely done reversal of the usual single track of footprints normally found these type of impossible crime stories, but the scarecrow is not done yet.

So, on the following night, Banner quarantines everyone by locking them in their bedrooms with a chair placed under the doorknob as an added security, but that night he hears the clumping sound as if the heavy shoes "were hanging loose on feet that were mere bones—or sticks!" This is followed by a scream and the roar of another shotgun blast. Somehow, the scarecrow had materialized in a locked bedrooms and nearly took a third victim before, shotgun in hand, vanished without a trace. There's more than enough here to satisfy the rabid locked room fan with the problem of the scarecrow's footprints being the better of the two, which is original in presentation with a perfectly serviceable solution. Regrettably, the second locked room-trick is nothing special, but not to the overall detriment of the plot because here it couldn't have worked any other way. Just like his previously reviewed short story, "The Grand Guignol Caper" (1984), "The Scarecrow Murders" is arguably a better detective story than a locked room mystery. A richly clued, tapestry-like plotted detective story that works, as a whole, without depending on a single trick, twist or surprise. I didn't catch on to the murderer's identity until the attempted murder in the locked bedroom. Commings added another winner to his name and shows he could have been a credible threat to Edward D. Hoch's title as the King of Short Stories had he been a little more prolific.

On a side note, I previously reviewed Paul Halter's Le masque du vampire (The Mask of the Vampire, 2014) in which I pointed out Halter's greatest weakness is the lack of historical color or characters who act out-of-time – only to encounter a murderer here who could have come creeping out of Halter novel. Maybe his characters didn't always act entirely out of their period. So, if you like Halter, Commings' "The Scarecrow Murder" comes highly recommended.

Last year, I began to dig into Jack McDevitt's science-fiction series featuring two space-faring antique dealers, Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath, who track down and sell ancient artifacts a hundred centuries in the future. There's always a historical mystery attached to their potential merchandise that has waited for centuries, or even millennia, to be solved. So the series has been compared to a space-age Ellery Queen, but McDevitt named G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories as the source of his inspiration. McDevitt focuses on answering the question "what happened?" instead of whodunit, why and how. You can call the series a very distant cousin of our beloved detective story.

Recently, I reviewed the fifth title in the series, Echo (2010), which has the two antique dealers getting involved with the star-crossed legacy of an alien hunter, Sunset Tuttle, who spent a lifetime scouring McDevitt's sparsely populated, largely unexplored galaxy for other intelligent species – only finding a few so-called "living worlds" teeming with animals and plant life. Or did he? Echo began promising enough, but ended up being the weakest title encountered thus far. And one that left me with a few questions. One of the questions being why the story only referenced the Ashiyyur, only intelligent species and technological civilization humanity has encountered, but ignored the ruins of an alien civilization on Belarius that was briefly mentioned in A Talent for War (1989). If you have read my previous reviews, you probably noticed the ruins on Belarius has become somewhat of an obsession. I find it incredible such a wonderful and fascinating setting was only mentioned in passing in a series centering on archaeological and historical mysteries of the far-flung future. It seems like such a waste, right? Well, it turns out there's a sort of short prequel story set in the Alex Benedict universe that answers some of my questions.

Jack McDevitt's "In the Tower" was first published in Terry Carr's Universe 17 (1987), an anthology series of original science-fiction short stories, which was relatively recent reprinted in Cryptic: The Best Short Fiction of Jack McDevitt (2009). 

"In the Tower" sets up one of the locations from A Talent for War, a settled water world called the Fishbowl, which shares its binary star system with Belarius. There are two very different kind of secrets at the heart of the plot that get terrifyingly twisted together in the final pages. One of the mysteries concerns the melancholy and untimely death of a painter, Durrell Coll, whose work went from "the exuberance of his early period to the bleak unquiet masterpieces of maturity" without "an evolutionary stage" – a series of works "progressively more introspective, technically more accomplished." So his grieving lover, Tiel Chadwick, is determined to get to the bottom of what drove Durrell to his death. A search that brings her to the Fishbowl where she eventually hears the story of an ill-fated attempt to excavate the ruined cities on Belarius.

Firstly, the plot-thread concerning Durrell's depression can be boiled down to a character-driven whydunit of the modern school with a neatly done science-fiction hook. However, the solution and how it tied (cruelly) to the archaeological excavation on Belarius betrayed Chesterton's influence. Secondly, the story about that excavation answered some of my questions. I now get why the Belarians were only mentioned in passing and ignored altogether in Echo. They were a feudal civilization that "never got past a medieval stage" and funding to continue excavations were cut because, whatever they left behind, "could make no conceivable contribution to Confederate technology." And then there's a wide variety of exotic, highly evolved predators who snatched people away or devoured their prey "in full view of a work crew." Not exactly what Tuttle had in mind when searching the stars for another civilization.

I'm still of the opinion Belarius is wasted as a setting and should be used for a cross between Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1939) and Aliens. Just let a billionaire/amateur archaeologist finance a new expedition to Belarius accompanied by armed mercenaries who have to clear out the site and erect a fence around it. A killer can then pretend they missed one of these clever predators, hiding somewhere in the ruins, as a camouflage for a series of murders. Add to this the archaeological/historical mysteries of the Belarian civilization (e.g. how was it possible for creatures with "pale, bloated, gas-filled bodies" to construct massive buildings without an archaeological trace of "heavy equipment of some kind"). Such a novel has all the potential to be a science-fiction mystery classic rivaling Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel (1953).

So, all in all, I really enjoyed these two vastly different short stories for vastly different reasons. One is an excellently plotted, Golden Age detective story with a locked room/impossible crime angle and the other a science-fiction story that provided some context to the series it inspired. But enough rambling for one day. The next review is going to be of that obscure, long out-of-print Dutch detective novel I alluded to in my review of Echo.


The Mask of the Vampire (2014) by Paul Halter

Paul Halter is an unapologetic, traditionalist detective novelist, specialized in locked room mysteries and impossible crimes, who nonetheless has a bleak, cynical and modernist streak running through his novels and short stories – which are scattered across the good-bad spectrum. Halter can go from penning La montre en or (The Gold Watch, 2019), one of the best impossible crime novels of the 2010s, to churning out the amusing, but decidedly second-rate Le mystére de la Dame Blanche (The White Lady, 2020). So opinions among locked room fans also tend to be all over the place. Where we all can agree is that Halter has a lively imagination allowing him to cram his stories with entire parades of apparently supernatural occurrences and impossible murders. What he does with those miraculous crimes and how they're explained away is usually where his stories succeed or fall. And there are some in the middle, grayish area of the spectrum dividing opinions like the criminally underrated Le cercle invisible (The Invisible Circle, 1996).

The latest Paul Halter translation from the hands of John Pugmire, of Locked Room International, is one of those novels brimming with unearthly incidents and locked room murders. Halter delivers on practically all of them! 

Le masque du vampire (The Mask of the Vampire, 2014), set in 1901, begins with two different stories that are slowly intertwined and twisted together. Firstly, Owen Burns tells his chronicler, Achilles Stock, he has been preoccupied by a remarkable case that was brought to his attention by Inspector Wedekind of Scotland Yard. An old, working class man, named John McCarthy, asked on his deathbed for a priest and Father Donovan answered the call. Whatever had weight on McCarthy's conscience, Father Donovan took that secret to the grave as he was run over by a carriage on his way home. McCarthy died several hours later. So there was nothing too extraordinary about "an old man dying on the one hand" and "a simple traffic accident on the other," except an unfortunate coincidence, but a piece of paper found on the priest reveals a potential link to a 5-year-old, unsolved murder – eulogized by Burns as "a locked room crime of the very first order." An elderly, reclusive woman, Violet Starling, who dabbled in spiritualism was found strangled in her first-floor flat in "a hermetically sealed room" with the door and windows locked and bolted on the inside. It was the victim's name that was written on the piece of paper.

The second storyline centers on the village of Cleverley where strange thing happen among the forest of tombstones, ruined abbey and a cursed pond that form the cemetery. A small boy walking home witnessed a man, clad in "a voluminous cloak with the collar raised," appear out of a cloud of smoke to fumble with "a thin cord, knotted in several places." Nearly a month later, a little girl "follows a strange cloud of smoke as far as the cemetery" where she is attacked. This prompted some of the villagers to take action.

Cleverley blames Dorian Radovic, a Russian Count and antique dealer, whose crime was not merely being a stranger, but having had "the temerity to marry the heiress of the village," Rosa Eversleigh, upon his arrival and the tragedies that followed in its wake that left two people dead – a child from the village and the countess. Rosa drowned herself in the haunting pond which "exerted a dangerous fascination over those weak-willed." A year later, Radovic remarries Marjorie Walker, but she died of a heart attack and villagers swear to have seen her ghost taking nocturnal walks. And there were implications her ghost was restless because her husband had killed her. So, when the girl was attacked, the vicar, blacksmith and a salesman decide to investigate the Eversleigh family vault where they make a startling discovery. The burial vault has been desecrated, stakes had been driven through the hearts of the Count's dead wives and one of the corpses "had not deteriorated in the course of eighteen months." This is still only the beginning as evidence and public opinion turn heavy against the Count. Most astonishingly, of all, the count walked pass a mirror several times without his reflection being seen in it!

So, in the face of all these inexplicable incidents, Radovic's third wife, Elena, asks a friend, Ann Sheridan, to come down for support. This is where the pace slows down a little as the middle portion of the story follows Ann and Elena as the situation worsens. And, to be fair, it exposes Halter's biggest flaw. Uneven as he may be as a plotter, what has always hampered his (technically) historical mysteries is that they often lack a sense of time and place with characters acting out-of-time. I think a stronger presence of the historical settings would have elevated both his very best and very worst novels. Paul Doherty can get away with a minor or even a weak locked room mystery, like The Herald of Hell (2015) and The Great Revolt (2016), because he fully deploys their historical settings. Same can be said for the historical locked room mysteries by John Dickson Carr (e.g. Captain Cut-Throat, 1955) and Robert van Gulik (e.g. The Chinese Gold Murders, 1959), but it's something I have come to accept from Halter. And, as someone once observed, Halter strove for "an entertaining story, not authenticity." It's just that novels like The Mask of the Vampire remind me how much better they could have been with a dab of historical color.

Anyway, Owen Burns, Achilles Stock and Wedekind eventually come to the Cleverley when one of the villagers got strangled to death inside a locked room, which mirrors the 1896 murder of Violet Starling, but there were three witnesses to the murder – who were standing outside the door and windows of the house. What the two witnesses at the window saw was the murderer "disappear up the chimney as a cloud of smoke." Halter may be hopeless with his historical settings, but never let it be said the man doesn't know how to stage a locked room mystery. The uproar continue right up till the end, but, by that time, Burns begins to see the pattern in all the incidents. And he points out "the three essential links," or clues, between the cases: "two silver bullets, the spinning wheel and the spiritualist séances." Achilles Stock is a most useful as the Dr. Watson to Burns' Sherlock Holmes. Producing "a succinct recapitulation of everything that has happened," chronologically ordered and meticulously dated, as well as unwittingly giving Burns an idea how one of the locked room-tricks works. A scene that reminded me of coffee scene from the Jonathan Creek special Satan's Chimney (2001).

If you pack your plot with locked room murders and apparently supernatural occurrences, the denouement is going to eat up pages. But rest assured, the explanation to every impossibility is different and more than justify the lengthy conclusion.

The locked room-trick used in the murder of Violet Starling is a clever elaboration on an old dodge while the second locked room murder has a more complicated and involved solution, but nicely done with the added effect of the fleeing cloud of smoke. Suggesting the presence of a real vampire who can turn into fog or smoke "to traverse small openings such as chimneys, keyholes, or a minuscule gap in his coffin if it is closed." The problem of the incorruptible body is, by itself, not too spectacular, but dovetailed nicely with the overarching plot and the absence of Radovic's reflection is a small triumph. One of Halter's most original and inspired ideas which really should have been put to use in a separate short story or novel. Something along the lines of Carr's radio-play "The Man without a Body" (1943). I really enjoyed that one and the diagram was very much appreciated.

What I appreciated even more than all the impossibilities and the "avalanche of mysteries from the start," is the overarching plot and how everything tied together while toying with the expectations of the genre-savvy reader (ROT13/SPOILERS: n gjvfgl, zhygv-ynlrerq gnxr ba gur crefrphgvba cybg jvgu ivpgvzf naq crecrgengbef cerlvat ba rnpu bgure). You shouldn't expect anything close to realism and even by detective story standards, or Halter's own track record, the plot is extraordinarily rich. But that's what The Mask of the Vampire one of the better, more entertaining of Halter's locked room mysteries. Not in the same league as his very best efforts, but The Mask of the Vampire could very well end up in my bottom five of top ten favorite Halter novels. A locked room reader's locked room mystery!


Death in the Clouds (1935) by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie is, to this day, considered to be the uncontested Queen of Crime as she understood better than most mystery writers, past or present, what makes a plot tick like a Swiss timepiece and turned the surprise twist into an art form – paradoxically transforming the least-likely-suspect into the least-likely-suspect. Christie is commonly associated with the closed-circle of suspects, iron-clad alibis and the surprise ending, but not the locked room mystery and impossible crime. Surprisingly, she wrote more of them than most realize. 

Mike Grost calls Christie "a major contributor to the form," in "quality and quantity," which discusses and breaks down most of those contributions on his website's Agatha Christie page under "Impossible Crimes." When you go over them, you begin to understand why Christie's name is not inextricably-linked to the locked room and impossible crime fiction. She was very covert about it. Brad, of Ah, Sweet Mystery, observed in 2018 blog-post, "Pondering the Impossible, Christie-style," that "most of the examples we find in Christie are not labeled impossible crimes," because "she does not wish to call attention to these situations." Usually done to obscure the murderer's identity without drawing undue attention to her carefully planted clues and red herrings with a glaring impossible situation. That's how some of her mysteries have largely gone unacknowledged, or unrecognized, as impossible crimes. Sometimes, the locked room is only a minor element (Hercule Poirot's Christmas, 1938) or simply a mere afterthought to the plot (Curtain, 1975). Every now and then, Christie declared her colors. You can find most of clearly defined impossible crimes in her short stories, like "The Blue Geranium" (1929) and "The Dream" (1937), but there's one novel in which she drew full attention to the locked room and impossible crime elements of the plot. 

Death in the Clouds (1935), alternatively published Death in the Air, marked the twelfth novel-length appearance of Hercule Poirot and the first time I read it in English. I originally read a Dutch translation with a cover that spoiled the solution by putting two clues together. So my second reading was much more rewarding than my first as I realized Death in the Clouds is very John Dickson Carr-like, but not in the way you might think. More on that in a minute.

So the book opens on a hot, sun-drenched September afternoon at Le Bourget aerodrome as Hercule Poirot climbs aboard the Prometheus, to fly from Paris to Croydon, in the company of ten other passengers – who occupy the plane's rear compartment. Miss Jane Gray, a hairdresser's assistant, who won a hundred pounds in the Irish Sweep and took a holiday abroad where she met a handsome-looking man, Norman Gale. A dentist who also aboard to fly back to England. Armand and Jean Dupont are a French father-and-son archaeological team and board the plane discussing the dating of prehistoric pottery. There's the beautiful, but haughty, Countess of Horbury and her friend, the Hon. Venetia Kerr. Daniel Clancy is a writer Edgar Wallace-style thrillers and boards the plane "absorbed in the perfectioning of his cross-Europe alibi" for his next novel. James Ryder is the managing director of a cement company returning home and a specialist on diseases of the ear and throat, Dr. Roger Bryant. The last passenger is "one of the best-known moneylenders in Paris," Madame Giselle. Everyone was handling something or moving around, which all seems innocently enough on a normal flight. But, as they near Croydon, a steward discovers Madame Giselle is no longer alive!

Madame Giselle apparently died of an heart attack or had an adverse reaction to a wasp sting, which buzzed around the cabin before it got squashed. Hercule Poirot makes a startling discovery. On the floor there's "a little knot of teased fluffy silk, orange and black, attached to a long, peculiar-looking thorn with a discoloured tip." A poisonous torn, shot from a blowpipe, which had recently been dipped in the venom of the boomslang (tree snake). So how could someone have shot "a poisoned dart out of a blowpipe in a car full of people" without being spotted by either the other passengers or one of the stewards. Inspector Japp, of Scotland Yard, enters the case muttering "blowpipes and poisoned darts in an aeroplane" insults one's intelligence ("it's an insult—that's what this murder is—an insult"). And he's not the only one professing their disbelieve that a dime thriller has come to life in front of their eyes. That reminded me even more of Carr than the impossible crime element.

Carr often exaggerated to clarify by whittling something utterly fantastic or otherworldly back down to human proportions. You can get a picture of what I mean by comparing The Unicorn Murders (1935; as by "Carter Dickson") with John Rhode's Invisible Weapons (1938). The impossibilities are somewhat related, but Carr's a thrill-filled extravaganza, while Rhode took a more low key approach. Normally, Christie leans more towards how Rhode's handled his locked room mysteries, but here she pulled a John Dickson Carr. Only notable difference is that, instead of invoking the supernatural, Christie presented her impossible crime as the pulpiest of pulp murders. Something so extraordinary that it even left the thriller writer lost for words.

So the little grey cells get to work to try and make sense out of something of "unparalleled audacity" flying in the face of everything logical and sensible. Christie is at the top of her game here when it comes to planting clues and dropping red herrings. A particular highlight is Poirot going over a list cataloging the content of the baggage of all the suspects ("down to the minutest detail") and boldly declare that "it seems to point very plainly to one person as having committed the crime," but can't "see why, or even how." Remembering parts of the solution, I once again couldn't help but admire how Christie could simultaneously spell out the truth to reader and pool the wool over their eyes. She hammers this down in the final quarter of the story as Poirot points out and names the three central clues, which are all excellent and brilliant when dovetailed together – revealing a solution as practical as its presentation was maddening. A solution showing once more just how big of an influence G.K. Chesterton had on the plotting technique of the Golden Age generation. Only imperfection that keeps Death in the Clouds from a place among Christie's best detective novels is the contrived, gracelessly planted motive. It really felt like Christie placed a crowbar between the murderer and victim to create as much distance between them as possible, which made it harder to justify committing the murder under such fantastical and risky conditions.

Nonetheless, a second-tier Christie is still top-tier detective novel and would be considered a top-tier novel had another name been on the cover. If Stuart Palmer had written Death in the Clouds instead of The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (1933), it would have been a permanent resident on most specialized locked room lists. So, even while the motive lacked strength, I have very little to complain about as the story was better than I remembered. It was simply fun to see Christie enjoying herself with the characters and plot. One of my favorite scenes is Poirot visiting the messy home of Clancy and is told he's going to write "the whole thing exactly as it happened" with "perfect pen portraits of all the passengers," which carries the title The Air Mail Mystery. And to dodge any libel charges, Clancy dreamed up "an entirely unexpected solution" normally found in only the murkiest of pulp magazines. What a shame Clancy never got to meet Ariadne Oliver. He could have easily replaced Superintendent Battle or Colonel Race in Cards on the Table (1936). 

Death in the Clouds is a strangely overlooked impossible crime novel written by nobody less than the Queen of Crime herself and deserves to be acknowledged as a mostly very well done locked room mystery. More importantly, it's a tremendously fun and entertaining detective story that gently pokes fun at its exotic, pulpier cousins, the thriller. A showcase why the 1930s were the Golden Decade of the Golden Age. 

Notes for the curious: Hercule Poirot has been accused of having been in a position to have prevented the second murder discovered in the first-class carriage of a boat train, but I can't see how. Even if he told Japp about his suspicions, he could not have acted upon it without something more substantial to go on. Poirot admitted he had no idea how this person could have done it or why. I don't think Japp would have wanted to make the murderer aware of their suspicions. Poirot was as surprised as anyone else when this person entered the picture ("why did no one mention this before?"). Only the reader was really aware. By the time Poirot begins to catch on, the wheels of the second murder was already set in motion. So you can't really pin that second murder on his conscious. There is, however, some hilarious, unintended foreshadowing to Curtain (ROT13:zba nzv... jura V pbzzvg n zheqre vg jvyy abg or jvgu gur neebj cbvfba bs gur Fbhgu Nzrevpna Vaqvnaf”). Another interesting footnote is that a character appears in the story named Jules Perrot. I thought it was interesting as Frank Howel Evans short stories about a retired French detective, Jules Poiret, is often cited as an inspiration for Hercule Poirot.


Echo (2010) by Jack McDevitt

Jack McDevitt is an American science-fiction writer specialized in xenoarcheaology, history of the future and the countless mysteries hidden in the unfathomable depths of deep-time, which formed the foundation of the ongoing series starring two antique dealers, Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath – who run their business more than 9000 years in our future. The series has been compared to a Space Opera Ellery Queen, but McDevitt cited G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown as his inspiration. McDevitt is more interested in answering the question "what on Earth happened" than who, why or how. So their cases concern valuable, often long-lost artifacts and the historical mysteries attached to their potential merchandise. 

A Talent for War (1989) has Alex Benedict hunting down a legendary warship that got lost among the stars centuries ago. Polaris (2004) is the Mary Celeste of the far-flung future as Benedict and Kolpath try to figure out what happened to a scientific expedition that vanished as by magic while observing an ancient star counting down its final hours. Seeker (2005) took even a step further with a hunt across space-and time for an entire colony that went missing during the pioneering days of space colonization, which is pure science-fiction with a historical mystery as engrossing as James P. Hogan's Inherit the Stars (1977). And an ending to match its premise!

So the steady increase in scope and quality lead me to skip the fourth, thriller-ish sounding novel, The Devil's Eye (2008), in favor of the fifth entry in the series. 

Echo (2010) opens with Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath, of Rainbow Enterprises, coming across a strange object, "a pale white stone tablet," on an auction website and attracting heir attention are the even stranger, indecipherable symbols engraved on the front – an unknown language that can't be identified. Apparently, the tablet was used as a lawn ornament in front of the house that once belonged to the late Sunset Tuttle. A somewhat tragic figure in his day.

Sunset Tuttle had dedicated practically his entire life to searching the stars for alien civilizations and sailed his starship, Callisto, around "the Orion Arm in his fruitless quest." Not entirely fruitless. Tuttle discovered hundreds of so-called biozone worlds of which "only a handful had actually been home to living things." These rare, living worlds "possessed forests and creatures that scampered through them" and "seas teeming with life," but never had he come across a civilization or traces of past intelligence. McDevitt's universe is vast and largely empty as life, particularly intelligent life, is extraordinary rare. The only other intelligence humanity has come across are the Ashiyyur, or the Mutes, but, over the centuries, humanity has began to see them more as annoying neighbors they have to get along with than aliens.

As an aside, A Talent for War briefly mentioned the ancient ruins of a third, intelligent species on a now sun-scorched, dangerous planet, called Belarius, which had been humanity's only evidence anything else had ever gazed at the stars – before their disastrous encounter with the Mutes. Somehow, this is never mentioned in the series again and is noticeably absent in Echo. You would expect it would be a site of prime interest to an exploring hunting for clues of an alien civilization.

So the stone tablet and symbols makes Benedict extremely interested, but the tablet proves to be an elusive Macguffin as Benedict and Kolpath can't seem to get their hands on it. This forces them to take the long-way round by delving into the past of the explorer, track down the people he knew (including a hermit and his wife who have an entire planet to themselves) and rummage the archives and records. This time, the archives and records have precious little to offer coming on top of several assassination attempts and constant stonewalling to the point where there are people who prefer death over divulging their closely-guarded secrets. Consequently, the middle portion of the novel presents the best and worst of the story.

On the one hand, the constant stonewalling without uncovering anything to propel the plot forward comes at the cost of the pace, which really slows down the story. This is padded out with a temporary rift between Benedict and Kolpath who wanted to get away from all the desk work and being called "a glorified grave robber" to her face. Not all that unreasonable. But it really slowed down the story. On the other hand, the stonewalling in combination with the premise hammered down Benedict and Kolpath had a paradox on their hand of Chesteronian proportions. Sunset Tuttle had devoted his entire life to finding someone else out there to the point that his name became a verb, "to tuttle," which meant "to persist in an endeavor with no hope of success." There was a general agreement that, if he had found aliens, he would have organized a parade and "ridden down Market Street with an alien mayor." So, if he was successful, why did he keep quiet?

That brings us to the second problem of Echo. A Talent for War and Polaris had nicely balanced openings and conclusions, while Seeker stands out as the star of the series by under promising and over delivering. 

Echo promised a little too much and wisely began to temper my expectations as the ending came in sight, which I found acceptable enough as it was initially presented. Although it retreaded the ending from a previous novel and McDevitt appeared to have been in two minds about the nature of the disturbing secret (ROT13/SPOILERS) svefg fhttrfgvat gur cbffvovyvgl bs n cynargnel trabpvqr, orsber frggyvat ba n qvfnfgre gung pbhyq unir orra ceriragrq). I honestly think the first option would have been more in line with the middle portion of the story, but liked the Twilight Zone atmosphere towards the ending as they began to close in on the truth. I hoped the epilogue would neatly tie everything up by addressing the unanswered questions, but it turned out to be a case of wanting to have it both ways and that rarely works – which kind of ruined everything that came before it. The short epilogue (ROT13/MORE SPOILERS) erirnyrq gung gur pvivyvmngvba Orarqvpg naq Xbycngu qvfpbirerq ba Rpub VVV nera'g gur erzanagf bs n uhzna pbybal gung jnf ybfg gb uvfgbel, ohg uhzna-ybbxvat nyvraf jub bayl unir sbegl-gjb puebzbfbzrf n fbzrjung fybjre chyfr engr naq urnegorng. This was casually thrown out in the last two pages as if it shouldn't have been a major plot point of the story itself.

It also left me with a nagging question. How is it possible that (ROT13/MORE SPOILERS) gung gjb, vqragvpny-ybbxvat uhzna pvivyvmngvbaf pbhyq nevfr vaqrcraqragyl ba qvssrerag cynargf znal yvtug lrnef ncneg? V fhccbfr gurer'f fbzr vagreany ybtvp va gur frevrf gb rkcynva vg nf gur yvivat jbeyqf unir ryx-yvxr znzznyf, qvabfnhe-fvmrq ercgvyrf naq frnf svyyrq jvgu bprnavp yvsr. Fb lbh pbhyq fhttrfg gung gurer'f bayl jnl gb qb yvsr, vagryyvtrag be abg, va ZpQrivgg'f havirefr, ohg jurer qbrf gung yrnir gur gryrcnguvp, zvaq-ernqvat Zhgrf? Vg jbhyq znxr gurz n pbzcyrgr naq hggre nabznyl va gur xabja havirefr. Naq vs gurer'f nal xvaq bs pbaarpgvba orgjrra gur uhznaf jub bevtvangrq ba Rnegu naq gur uhznaf sbhaq ba Rpub VVV, gurl'er abg ernyyl nyvraf, ner gurl? Zber yvxr irel qvfgnag pbhfvaf. Which ever interpretation you pick, you're either left with an unexplained anomaly or something invalidating the epilogue. And somewhat undermines the world-building of the previous novels. Just to tack on an “ah, gotcha” moment at the end.

Regrettably, Echo is the weakest entry in the series so far, but not for a lack of ideas or ambition. But how those ideas were executed. And an ending that wanted it both way. The epilogue really didn't help.

I intended to tackle one of those obscure, long out-of-print Dutch detective novels next, but I might return to Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr before taking that gamble. So stay tuned!


Casual Slaughters (1935) by James Quince

"James Quince" was the pseudonym of James Reginald Spittal, a British clergyman, who wrote three detective novels during the 1930s, The Tin Tree (1930), Notice to Quit (1932) and Casual Slaughters (1935), but all three have been out-of-print for nearly a century – secondhand copies became expensively scarce over the decades. So the only glimpses we got of Quince's detective fiction were the equally rare reviews from the doyens of the fandom (here and here). That was how things stood until Black Heath reissued The Tin Tree and Casual Slaughters as ebooks back in February. 

The Tin Tree is essentially a war novel that tells the story of a 1914 murder in one of those quintessential, English villages against the background of those long, drawn out years of the Great War. So the story offers contrasting snap shots of the Belgian front and the English countryside untouched by war. And while Quince was obviously more of a storyteller than plotter, I remained intrigued by his third and final detective novel. A mystery with an intriguing-sounding premise and some of the early reviews seemed to hint at a tighter plot. Well, I was not wholly disappointed!

Just like The Tin Tree is partially a Great War novel, Casual Slaughters can be classified as a story of English village life. And how the peaceful community of Bishop's Pecheford responds to the discovery of a murder. 

Casual Slaughters opens with the members of the Parochial Church Council meeting to discuss the condition of the churchyard, "a wilderness of nettles varied by cheap marble monuments," which under new legislation has come under the responsibility of the council – whose members don't mind minding their own graves "but won't pay for other people's." They eventual settle on keeping new graves level and begin removing old mounds where there were no relatives to object. So, the next morning, the Sexton begins to remove the mound on the grave of Sarah Mant's ("single old lady, she were, not related to none of us"), but the first shovel full of dirt reveals a man's hand. When all the earth is removed, they're shocked to find an earth-grimed, decomposed body without a head ("a little late for artificial respiration, I'm afraid")! A gruesome discovery that turns Bishop's Pecheford into a buzzing beehive.

The police has a presence in the story and there's even a representative of Scotland Yard, but Detective-Inspector Lawless is almost apologetic about his presence. Lawless says new regulations made England "a paradise for criminals who have the sense not to talk" as he's not even allowed to ask "who are you?" and half the time all they can do is "to sit round with our hands out hoping for clues to fall into them." So the detective work defers almost from the beginning to the villagers and in particular to two persons, the Vicar and Blundell, who's "an axed Lieutenant-Commander who lives precariously upon Rhode Island Reds" and narrator.

Early on in the story, they have to intervene when the villagers decided Mrs. Hemyock might have been responsible for the body in the churchyard. She only came to the village a few years ago and said she was a widow, but the villagers hypothesis she might have had a husband who unexpectedly turned up again ("...gives him a drop of weedkiller in his tea and buries him"). So they have to divert their attention to saver possibility to wildly speculate about, which unexpectedly turned up a possible lead to the identity of the body. But there's also the yearly Flower Show. An annual event Quince described as "one glorious afternoon and evening," in a humdrum year, when everyone in Bishop's Pecheford gives themselves up "to sheer enjoyment of a crashing band and hot tents" not to mention "the spectacle of naked hatred" – given free "by those exhibitors who have not won a prize." Such an incident leads to an accusation of murder, but much more interesting how they appropriated the Palmist Tent when their clairvoyant canceled her appearance. So they staged a memory game to pump the villagers without arousing suspicion and feeding the rumor mill.

When a second, much fresher corpse is discovered on Sarah Mant's grave, the case comes officially to an end and Lawless has to bow out. And that's when the Parochial Church Council takes the investigation into their own hands (Chapter XII: "The P.C.C. as Sleuth"). Quince interestingly contrasted with how the villagers reacted to the possibility of the murderer being a so-called outsider in the first-half with the possibility of the murderer being one of them in the second-half. All of sudden, they don't want to meddle in the private affairs of their neighbors. But this honest depiction of human nature never sours the story as the storytelling remains lively and lighthearted. Casual Slaughters is, stylistically, a kindred spirit of Ronald Knox's The Three Taps (1927), Anthony Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) and Leo Bruce's Case for Three Detectives (1936). Where Casual Slaughters differs (a lot) is the quality of the overall plot.

As already said, Quince was a storyteller with a good eye for character and setting, but either lacked the skill or simply was not interested in putting together a somewhat fair play plot. Not that the plot lacked the material to do so. The link between the corpses in the cemetery is clever and how the second murder came about was as unexpected as it was original, but you have no change in figuring it out for yourself and that's a shame. A stronger plot would have turned this already lively and buzzing village mystery into a classic of its kind. Now it's a novel of village life with a light detective plot. Not that Casual Slaughters is a chore to read, but, if you value plot, you end up wishing it was a little more than it ended up being. 

Note for the curious: Notice to Quit appears to be most elusive of Quince's trio of detective novels and has, as of this writing, not been reprinted by Black Heath, but I did come across a 1932 review of the book. The review revealed how Quince wrote his detective stories as all three novels begin with a question of identity. The Tin Tree begins with Gunner Arthur Rachelson admitting he's really the fugitive John Montauban. Casual Slaughters has a badly decomposed, headless body buried in a churchyard. Notice to Quit has a father and son trading identities. Was this playing around with identities, like the bumbling Scotland Yard detective, a lingering inheritance of the Doylean era?