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

Several months ago, I returned to the detective fiction of an American husband-and-wife writing tandem, Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning, who collaborated on four detective novels during the early 1930s of which The Invisible Host (1930) is the most famous – as some consider it to be an ancestor of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1939). I read a Dutch translation of The Invisible Host in the 2000s and thought the book unworthy of being compared to the Queen of Crime's celebrated mystery novel. So, when Dean Street Press reissued their novels, I was astonished to see The Invisible Host garner glowing, multi-star reviews. The damn thing even defeated John Dickson Carr's Till Death Do Us Part (1944) to win the 2021 Reprint of the Year Award

I needed to understand what happened and how, but, before taking a second look at The Invisible Host, I wanted to read one or two of their other mysteries as they promised to be a somewhat more conventional. The Gutenberg Murders (1931) certainly is an improvement over The Invisible Host and intended to do The Mardi Grass Murders (1932) next, but after my previous read, The Seiren Island Murder Case, I wanted another one of those isolated, storm tossed island mysteries. Bristow and Manning happened to have penned such a mystery novels with comments and reviews promising an ending that can actually be compared to Christie. 

Two and Two Make Twenty-Two (1932) is Bristow and Manning's fourth and final mystery novel. A standalone novel that takes place on "one of the many dots that speckle the Gulf off the Louisiana-Mississippi coastline," Paradise Island, which had been turned into "a glittering resort" by the current owner, Brett Allison – who had bought the island for next to nothing. Allison cleared the "matted tangle" of jungles and swamps to make way for "stables, wharfs, cottages, a golf course, tennis courts, shooting ranges, gaming rooms and the hotel," the Peacock Club. So he became "one of the most famous hosts in America," but authorities have good reason to believe cocaine, heroine and opium are being smuggled into the mainland US from Paradise Island.

The US Federal Government appointed "an untouchable committee" to trace the source of the drugs, but, three years of investigation, only revealed "the lesser men in the organization" and never the leaders or the mysterious woman – who acted as the middleman between the top and bottom men of the gang. Every time they got close to the source, the trail abruptly ended. Until a new trail lead them to Paradise Island ("an ideal landing-place for contraband drugs") and a young woman, Miss Eva Shale. She has a lot money to burn without any visible source of income and is very reticence to talk about herself or her past. Something that was bound to draw the attention of the authorities.

So three Federal investigators, Major Jack Raymond, Andrew Dillingham and Linton Barclay, travel to Paradise Island as a tropical storm is about to sweep the island. Nearly everyone has gone to mainland to weather out the storm and with the island virtually deserted, it's "a pretty good time to make a search and an arrest." But complication soon arise. Firstly, Andrew Dillingham has fallen for Eva Shale and now has some qualms about trapping "a young girl into admitting that she was the mysterious woman of the government reports." Secondly, Linton Barclay is stabbed to death at his cottage around the time the storm arrives. A storm cutting a dozen people off from the mainland who now have to secure the crime scene and try to find the murderer.

When you read the first half dozen chapters, until the murder is discovered, you get the idea Two and Two Make Twenty-Two is only posing as a traditional mystery, but in actuality a crime novel with a remarkable contemporary feeling to it. Those six chapters recalled Basil Thomson's The Milliner's Hat Mystery (1937) as these drug running plot-threads usually hover discreetly in the background of 1930s detective novels. But when the murder is discovered, the story goes a decade back in time as it shifted from drug running to a 1920s style drawing room mystery with an island setting and crime scene resembling a busy thoroughfare. One of the characters even remarks, "that cottage would make a swell place for a cigar store" since "everybody goes by there." A remarkable feat considering Paradise Island was practically deserted at the time.

There were two prospective buyers of the island, "a fellow named Foster" and Tracy Cupping. Cupping has brought along his much younger wife, Imogen Cupping, who really tests her husband's "gentleman's dislike of messy publicity." Judith Garon is a guest who has stayed behind on the island, because she has been quite "resentful of Barclay's attentions to Eva." A number of employees of the Peacock Club like the club manager, chauffeur, telephone and radio operators, but the best character of all is a late arrival on the island, Mrs. Daisy Dillingham, who's Andrew's influential grandmother and does, and says, what she wants – like landing in a private plane on the golf course of the club. Mrs. Dillingham could have been developed into an interesting series-detective going by how she solved the murder and dealt with the murderer.

So there you have enough characters to pad out a good, old-fashioned whodunit and that brings us to the story's biggest strength and major weakness. The middle portion of Two and Two Make Twenty-Two is a paint-by-numbers, 1920s style, detective story with the characters tramping around the crime scene and have to be pried open to get their explanation. Everyone's movement is tracked to establish or breakdown alibis and two shady characters turn up to add a hint of the pulp thriller to what's already going on. And had it not been for the ending, Two and Two Make Twenty-Two would have nothing to make it standout. Not even with the prominent drug plot-thread and the wonderful character of Daisy Dillingham. But what an ending! What a twist!

When you're wading waist-deep in detective fiction, you get those jolts of genuine surprise less often and eventually become a bit rare. Two and Two Make Twenty-Two can join Joan Sanger's The Case of the Missing Corpse (1936) and Anne van Doorn's De man die zijn geweten ontlastte (The Man Who Relieved His Conscience, 2019) as detective novels that gave this fan, who has seen it all, the kind of jolt I remember from my first reading of Christie's Murder on the Orient Express (1934). If Bristow and Manning had dealt the reader a slightly fairer hand of clues and red herrings, I would have unhesitatingly placed the book among the top-tier Golden Age mysteries as better clueing and misdirection would have improved the middle portion considerably. Now it falls just short of the mark, but a wonderfully done, vintage mystery novel saving the best for last.

I'm going to return to Bristow and Manning before the end of the year, but I'm going to save The Mardi Grass Murders for last and reread The Invisible Host next. I really, really need to understand how it could have beaten Carr's Till Death Do Us Part. My negative opinion better be due to a shoddy translation or else I'm going to angrily shake a gibbet cage again.


The Kindaichi Case Files: The Seiren Island Murder Case

The Seiren Island Murder Case, alternatively known as The Sacred Love Island Murder Case, was originally serialized in Kodansha's Weekly Shōnen Magazine from December 7, 2016 to April 12, 2017 – collected in volumes 12 and 13 of The File of Young Kindaichi Returns. In many ways, The Seiren Island Murder Case can be called the quintessential Kindaichi murder case. 

The story takes place on a remote, practically uninhabited, island with a haunted history where a group are marooned in the company of a murderer who can strike in a seemingly impossible fashion. No less than three impossible crimes and two of them provide the story with more alibis than even Inspector French could handle. Where the Seiren Island Murder Case differentiates itself from the average, formulaic Kindaichi story (that's you, Doll Island Murder Case) is how well it utilized the visual format of manga (comic book) to simply show what would have been difficult to illustrate in prose. So what otherwise would have been hard to follow, visualize and swallow, becomes easier to accept as you can see what actually happened. This is one of the clearest examples in the series of making a tricky and complicated plot appear more convincing than it would have done in text with one or two diagrams. But let's begin at the beginning.

Hajime Kindaichi and Miyuki Nanase accompany Inspector Kenmochi, of the Metropolitan Police Department, to Seiren Island to compete in a two million yen fishing competition. Apparently, the inspector used to be quite a pro in fishing.

So the competition provides the story with a relatively large cast of characters. There's a team of doctors comprising of Ushio Kojirou, Kanno Mika and Professor Kageo Kazehiko. A team consisting of two employees of medical manufacturing companies, Izumaru Ken and Wanise Takashi. There's a writer, Uryuu Akane, who's present to gather material together with her editor and photographer, Okunogi Musashi. A producer and cameraman of South Island Cable TV, Nagita Kuuya and Umihoshi Shuugo, are there to "record every action" the competitors make. Kijima Takahiko is an employee of Otowa Island Commercial Company who's in charge of the fishing competition. Lastly, there's the only, 87-year-old inhabitant of the island, Kirigoe Hiruko, whose only companion is the sad, ghostly wailing of "The Siren" like "an island that cries in grief." Why did she welcome them to Gravestone Island? A portent of things to come! 

The Seiren Island Murder Case has another trademark of the series: bizarre architecture and layout. The competitors sleep in stilted cottages, above the sea, which are connected through a series of bridges to each other and a bigger cottage in the middle – which gives access to dockyard with two cottages. The big cottage and the two smaller cottages are linked together three bridges running in an almost triangular circle (see image below). During the first, early morning of the competition, the teams try to reach the dockyard, but the door to the small cottage is found locked. When they look through the window, they see the body of Professor Kageo Kazehiko lying face down in the small cottage with "a spear through his back." They hear a sound coming from the inside and witness a weird light streaking above the sea, as if someone is trying to escape through the other side, which is why rush to the other cottage to cut the murderer off. And, when they arrive and open the door, there's the body of the professor on the floor again! Everyone was accounted for at the time. So they all have pristine alibis, but the presence of a third party on the island is equally unlikely.

As noted above, the comic book format of manga gives the opportunity to show instead of telling and you can get away with a lot more as you don't need an illustrated, chapter-length explanation of the trick. This is a really good example of how a complicated trick can be simplified without dumbing it down to the point where you can roughly work out what happened. Only the Japanese appear to realize the still largely untapped potential the visual medium gives a good plotter and writer. While this double conundrum of a locked room mystery and alibi factory would have been sufficient as the central puzzle of the plot, The Seiren Island Murder Case tosses two more, distinctly different impossible crimes at the reader. I loved the second impossibility.


After the murder, the island is rocked by a storm, the engines of the boats malfunctioned and all the food has disappeared or rendered inedible. So they have to fish in order to eat. Kindaichi and Kenmochi are part of the second fishing expedition, but the third person with them is dragged down into the sea and drowned in front of their eyes. And when the body resurfaces, "no wound like a shark bite was found." So, if it wasn't shark who pulled the victim into the sea, what else is capable of dragging an adult with almost supernatural strength to his death? Admittedly, the solution to the trick borders on the pulp, but it was very well done. A kind of trick that can only be compared to the third impossibility in W. Shepard Pleasants' The Stingaree Murders (1932). A third and last murder is staged that technically qualifies as an impossible crime, but the impossibility is used to give the remaining people on the island another round of unimpeachable alibis. So more of a borderline impossibility than anything else. However, the trick behind had more to it than initially expected. 

The Seiren Island Murder Case has more than enough to offer to mystery fans who love picking apart locked room mysteries and demolishing alibis, but don't overlook how craftily these tricks interact with their surroundings. Or how the surrounding interacts with the human-made structures on the island. There's some nice and even beautiful synergy in the story between the natural, artificial and even a strange hybrid of the two pertaining to the subplot of the old woman, the unsettling wartime history of the island and the legacy it left behind – given shape in the form of the ghostly wailing. The shrieking of the Siren turned out to contain a code only the original islanders can decipher. Sounds completely nuts, I know, but the answer was surprisingly convincing. Convincing in a detective story, that is. But, on a whole, The Seiren Island Murder Case is a richly told, intricately-plotted and thoroughly enjoyable entry in the series.

Only smudge on the plot is the identity of the killer and accompanying motive, which offered less inspired takes on the series formula, but not enough to demote it as a first-class contribution to the series. Particularly as an excellently conceived and executed howdunit stuffed to the gills with alibis and impossibilities. I enjoyed it so much, I might take a look at The Demon God Ruins Murder Case before too long. So stay tuned!


Murder in the Zoo (1932) by Babette Hughes

Babette Hughes was an American playwright and writer who published more than twenty one-act plays, semi-autobiographical novels, non-fiction books about her work in public relations and two largely forgotten detective novels, Murder in the Zoo (1932) and Murder in Church (1934) – out-of-print since their initial publication in the 1930s. That was until last March, when Coachwhip Publications reissued them together in a twofer volume. So let's find out if Murder in the Zoo has been criminally overlooked or justifiably forgotten for the past nine decades. 

Murder in the Zoo and Murder in Church form a short-lived, two-book series featuring Ian Craig, a professor of Oriental philosophy at Earl College, who's introduced in the prologue. A friend of him, Scott, wonders why Craig buried himself in Oriental philosophy without making a contribution to the field and putting up with a college professor wages, because he was neither lazy or someone who used the college as a refuge. Craig's personality is somewhat of an unacknowledged character-arc running through the story, but he soon diverts the attention to the time he solved the murder of a cynical colleague. Courtney Brown was a psychologist and behaviorist whose "enthusiasm for art, philosophy, literature and science" was "eaten away by sheer cynicism." The kind of cynicism that "aims at your appetites and capacities." Craig believes in the Confucian theory "that life can be reduced to a series of patterns" and incorporated this philosophy in a process of deductions that eventually exposed the murderer. Craig gives Scott a journal in which he wrote down his involvement in the Courtney Brown case.

The journal opens with the discovery of Brown's body in the animal laboratory maintained by the psychology department on the third-floor of Science Hall at Earl College. Yes, the title of the book is a little misleading. The animal room, or "zoo," is stacked with cages filled rats, guinea pigs and pigeons, wooden packing cases containing ants and devices all over the floor for testing animal intelligence – like mazes, problem boxes and ladders. Brown's body was found sprawled beside the largest animal maze with a bloody hammer next to him. At the time of the murder, there a little more than half a dozen in Science Hall or visited it.

There are two students, Grace Mullin and Jack Tobey, who were carrying out an experiment in another laboratory. Craig was working in the philosophy library and the animal-loving janitor, Axel Hulse, who found the body was cleaning the various rooms and mopping the stairway. But there were also a few visitors. Such as the victim's widow, Jennifer Brown, which is always a suspicious role to play in a murder mystery. Particularly when she doesn't appear to be grieve stricken and takes delight in shocking people. She accuses a colleague of her husband of murder. Professor Charles Frampton was seen at Science Hall around the time of the murder as was a newspaper reporter, Dick Sterling. Finally, the janitor saw an unindentified man who they simply refer to as "the unknown dago." So the two interchangeable homicide detectives, Thompson and Andrews, have more than enough suspects to pick on.

So a fairly standard premise premise in which a body, a weapon and a small, closed-circle of suspects with possible motives, but Murder in the Zoo has a few creative touches to the storytelling, characterization and detection.

Firstly, Craig is not welcomes with open arms by Thompson and Andrews as the brilliant amateur detective who's going to crack a tough nut for them. On the contrary, he has to con his way into the position claiming he has been asked by the Sun to be their on the scene special reporter. Even then they insist on his credentials. So he has to strike a deal with Sterling to get a press card and hold on to his front row seat to the investigation. Funnily enough, Thompson and Andrew's insisting on credentials contrasts nicely with then sharing a drink with Craig a year before Prohibition was repealed. Craig has bottles of liquor (like Spanish brandy) all over his room and bootlegging actually plays a minor part in the story, which was alluded to in the prologue. Secondly, while the story contains a timetable and the solution partially hinges on demolishing a Christopher Bush-style alibi, Hughes largely eschews physical evidence in favor of psychological detection. Murder in the Zoo leans towards the detective fiction of Helen McCloy. Only difference is that the psychological detection here is soaked in Buddhism and Eastern philosophy. However, Craig dabbles a little in Freudian psychology as one of the suspects has a mother complex.

That really helped to cover up the fact that neither the bare-bones plot nor the solution can be called ingenious or inspired, as a puzzle-driven detective story, which could have been fixed had a little more attention been directed towards (ROT13) gur zheqrere'f zbgvir naq nyvov – both were underplayed or ignored to be carted out as a last-minute surprise. A pity as they represented the most interesting aspects of the solution. Sure, there were some psychological hints, here and there, but hardly anything that can be called rigorous fair play. And that's hard to miss once you reached the ending.

So were Babette Hughes and Murder in the Zoo criminally overlooked or justifiably forgotten? Neither. Murder in the Zoo is serviceable enough, second-string mystery novel and have come across much worse of such obscurities (e.g. Ian Greig's The King's Club Murder, 1930), but there's an enormous gap between Hughes' Murder in the Zoo and the works of the more well-known American mystery writers of the early 1930s. Yeah, another example of a detective story that was better written than plotted.

I've not been lucky lately when it comes to picking titles from Coachwhip, but I keep hoping to find another Kirke Mechem, Clifford Orr, Roger Scarlett and Tyline Perry somewhere in their catalog.


The Sussex Cuckoo (1935) by Brian Flynn

I've noted in past reviews that one of the most attractive features of Brian Flynn's detective fiction is the shift from style to style in each novel, while remaining true to the traditions of the Golden Age detective story. So one book can be a courtroom drama or a locked room mystery and the next a pulp-style throwback to the Gothic turn-of-the-century thrillers. Just look at the tags from the last handful of Flynn reviews, "Crossover" (The Case of the Painted Lady, 1940), "Dying Message" (The Case of the Faithful Heart, 1939), "Espionage" (Black Edged, 1939) and "Locked Room Mysteries" (The Ebony Stag, 1938). The subject of today's review is simply a good, "beautifully mysterious and thrilling" whodunit. 

The Sussex Cuckoo (1935) is Flynn's seventeenth title about his series-detective, Anthony Bathurst, which begins with our detective reading a cryptically-worded notice in the Times Agony Column, "ITCHUL. The wedges are fixed for the Sussex Cuckoo. Hurry if you would be in time. Even then I fear that you may be too late. Terms as arranged" – signed "NEHEMIAH." Anthony Bathurst, always attracted to the bizarre, reads a "hint of tragic happenings to come" in the cryptic message and perhaps even "the genesis of a crime." A prophetic foreboding when a telegram arrives from Inspector Andrew MacMorran, of New Scotland Yard, to go to a house named 'Redmaynes' in Little Oseney. The homeowner is a botanist, James Wynyard Frith, who has appealed directly to Yard for protection from "a serious danger" as he evidently "has no faith in the local police." Since he's in the neighborhood of Little Oseney, MacMorran asks Bathurst to check out the problem and report back.

It turns out James Frith has been receiving flowery-worded, but undeniably, threatening letters to stop persisting in his "infamous conduct." The sixth and last letter ended with "in spite of the five warnings, you have persisted! To what end? Your own! For you will die on Saturday," but Frith tells Bathurst he hasn't the slightest idea to what the letters refer. Bathurst is a keen student of history and can read the Jacobine theme running through the messages, which immediately reveals what might be behind it. Frith is selling an antique chest that belonged to his grandmother and the content is a treasure trove to Jacobite collectors, which already attracted six potential buyers from all over the world. So he advises him to let the five disappointed collectors know and see the one who bought the chest. If the threatening letters pertain to the chest, the change of owners should place Frith "outside the danger zone."

Three days later, Bathurst reads in the newspaper Frith had unexpectedly died under mysterious and somewhat unusual circumstances. Hilda Frith had awakened early in the morning to find his bed empty and the butler eventually discovers Frith's body on the lawn, dressed in his pajamas, but no signs of foul. Frith suffered from an inflamed big toe, caused by the wearing of new shoes, which is likely how he contracted the tetanus germ that killed him. So his passing is recorded as a natural death, but Bathurst believes his death is "anything but cool and calculated murder." There's ample reason to carry on an unofficial investigation as Hilda tells him the Jacobite collection is no longer in the house nor can she trace any payment, cash or cheque, to her husband, but a little bit of money is found in a very unusual place – two silver coins hidden in the heels of Frith's bedroom slippers. And then there's the potential suspects to consider. Such as the six collectors from the four corners of the world, M. Paul Dormoy, Herr Otto Bauer, the Hon. Terence Lonergan, Alan Lochiel, Frank Q. Allison and Adam Strong, who visited Frith two days before his death to get possession of the historical relics. They're not the only potential suspects he has to consider. Add the cryptically-worded notice in the Times and Bathurst has more than enough work to do before he can unravel this cunningly-woven plot.

So, as you can see, The Sussex Cuckoo is a whodunit, pure and simple, but one that took its cue from its American, not British, counterparts. Nick Fuller, of The Grandest Game in the World, wrote in his 2020 review The Sussex Cuckoo "reads like an English counterpart" of S.S. van Dine and Ellery Queen. I agree. Flynn even references Philo Vance and Ellery Queen, but the whole plot smacks of all things Elleryana. Everything from the nationalities of the six collectors to unearthing the hidden meaning in cryptically-worded messages, while Bathurst's ready-knowledge of etymology and linguistics (a convenient skill set) mirrors the many talents of Philo Vance. Nick also called The Sussex Cuckoo an "object lesson in misdirection" and the odorless red herrings Flynn serves his reader here is another strong hint he had been reading Ellery Queen at the time. However, while the story has distinctly American flavor, Vance and Queen are not the only detectives Flynn alludes to throughout the story.

Flynn was a Sherlock Holmes fanboy and The Sussex Cuckoo is covered in the obligatory Holmesian touches. The most obvious one being the allusions to "The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual" (1893) and James Frith appears to have been modeled on Dr. Leon Sterndale from "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot" (1910), but Flynn also references some of the Great Detectives lesser-known, pulpier contemporaries – like Sexton Blake and Hawkshaw the Detective. Bathurst quotes Baron le Sage from The Mystery of the Skeleton Key (1919) by Bernard Capes ("the really clever murder is the murder which looks like "accident" or "natural death.") So while The Sussex Cuckoo is a straight, American flavored whodunit, it still showed his association with the (British) pulps and his alliance to the Doylean era. One of those little details that never fails to fascinate me.

So with two categories of suspects (collectors and non-collectors), a nigh-perfect murder, coded messages, strange clues and bizarre coincidences, Bathurst is unable to remember "a case that demanded so much patience and perseverance." It would not be until a second, undeniable murder is committed that a ray of light begins to break through. A murder callously describes as "extremely illuminating." Slowly, but surely, Flynn begins to work towards the solution while simultaneously suggesting a false-solution. I thought that demonstrated his well-balanced skill set as both a storyteller and plotter, which was only marred by the rushed and abrupt ending. Something should have been cut in order to give explanation a few extra pages of breathing room, but, otherwise, The Sussex Cuckoo can be counted among my ten, or so, favorite Flynn novels. I really enjoyed it!

The detective story tends to be a three-way tug-of-war between storytelling, characterization and plotting. Everyone has his own preferences and alliances. But when it comes to the tradition detective story, the writers who found a balance between the three tend to be best and most fondly remembered. Flynn proved to be an exception to that rule and perhaps he was a victim of his own creativity, but it's still astonishing how thoroughly he had been forgotten until Steve began fanboying about him back in 2017. I don't even remember him being mentioned on the old GAD Yahoo group or the JDCarr messageboard. So his resurrection in 2019 was long overdue and more than deserved!


The Grouse Moor Murder (1934) by John Ferguson

John Ferguson was a Scottish clergyman, playwright and novelist who wrote ten detective and thriller novels between 1918 and 1942 with half of them starring his newspaper reporter, amateur criminologist and police consultant, Francis MacNab – debuting in The Man in the Dark (1928) and bowing out in Death of Mr. Dodsley (1937). Ferguson has been called "one of the most delightful stylists in this genre" and "a very collectible author." Not merely because Ferguson's novels have been out-of-print for decades with copies becoming both scarce and expensive, but also for the often beautiful jacket illustrations of the original hardcover editions. 

In 2017 and 2018, Coachwhip Publications reissued three of Ferguson's novels, Death Comes to Perigord (1931), Night in Glengyle (1933) and The Grouse Moor Murder (1934), two of which feature his series-detective, Francis MacNab. I don't exactly remember how The Grouse Moor Murder ended up on the big pile or who may have recommended it me, but it was about time it got picked off. 

The Grouse Moor Murder, originally published as The Grouse Moor Mystery, has a premise as simple as it's complicated and the Arrochmore affair came close to being failure on the resume of several detectives ("...the sting of defeat was sharp enough to keep him awake half the night"). It also tells two very different type of detective stories with the book being split in two parts and the story swapping detectives halfway through. But let's begin at the beginning.

A group of five young man, Eric Brent, James Toplis, Gerald Harwood, Philip Cresswell and Ronald Joliffe, foolish decide to go shooting on the moor when "the mist lay down there like a snowdrift" and a dangerous situation is bound to happen – which happens when one of them gets shot. Apparently, Brent stumbled in the mist and accidentally shot himself. A careless, nearly fatal shooting accident until the local policeman, Sergeant Cameron, begins to notice things that turns an accident into an attempted murder. Most importantly, the two unspent cartridges in the breech of the victim's gun, indicating "it was another gun that knocked him over," but whose gun was it? Sergeant Cameron needs very little time to narrow down his list of suspect to just one person, but alas, things never turn out to be that easy in a detective story, do they?

Sergeant Cameron is not a bumbling Lestrade, but a competent, intelligent and observative policeman whose superior, Superintendent Rintoul, is the perfect whetstone to his character. Superintendent Rintoul likes to play devil's advocate whenever one of his underlings brings him a case by acting "exactly as he anticipated any counsel for the defense would subsequently act if proceedings were instituted," which meant he "never sent up a case which was not safe to secure a conviction." That's exactly the kind of dynamic you want in a detective story constructed out of building up cases, before they're demolished. Such is the case with Sergeant Cameron's first suspect and case against this person, because the evidence as he found it turned out to tell a different story. So he has to go on as a gang of local poachers enter the picture with the possibility Brent had been mistaken for his host, Mr. Willoughby, who had a hand in a local man getting a sentence of six months for poaching. That made for some bad blood. After all, poaching "was hardly considered a crime in that countryside."

The first-half of The Grouse Moor Murder immediately invites comparison with Freeman Wills Crofts and John Rhode, but Ferguson reminded me of two other members of those unfairly maligned "humdrum" writers, J.J. Connington and especially Henry Wade. The ghost of the Great War lingers on and even has a physical representation in "three little strips of particolored silk ribbon" on the left breast of Sergeant Cameron's tunic, which he earned fighting in France. Those three bits of ribbon moved young Constable Munro "to a hopeless envy," but the local, pro-poacher opinion is that "quite a lot of us here have done a bit of shooting in our time, though we don't plaster three ribbons on our chest to make a boast of it." One of those little historical details that give the story a sense of time and place.

So while Cameron, Rintou and Munro try their best to find the person who attempted to kill Brent and camouflage the crime as a hunting accident, they're eventually forced to call upon an outside specialist when Brent is murdered – disguised as a suicide. Brent apparently shot himself in the library of the house where he was recuperating with the door locked, the windows closed and the key to the door in the victim's coat pocket. Ah, yes, now I remember how The Grouse Moor Murder ended up on the big pile. The book is listed in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991), but don't expect anything remotely clever or worthwhile. The locked room is only a small piece of the puzzle with a very plain, unimaginative explanation (ROT13: n qhcyvpngr xrl). However, the moment Francis MacNab arrives on the scene, you can feel the story shifting gears from a 1930s police procedural to a 1920s style drawing room mystery.

MacNab enters the picture as a dour Scotsman and reluctant detective who got lured away from his fishing holiday, but recognizes he would see the case through to the end. If only to prevent to free the innocent "upon whom suspicion might fall" and "might cling for years to come." He begins his investigation by entering a three-day incubation to mull over all the known facts, before he becomes more talkative and probing, but he has about as much success as the local police with every lead and possibility becoming dead-end tracks. For every clue or smashed alibi, something new turns up to discredit them. Even the traps MacNab sets out for the murderer either remain empty or lead him down another wrong track, which continues until close to the end when MacNab finally begins to grasp the truth and even then he has railroad a witness to fill out some of the blanks.

However, the solution is like all the detective work in the story: good, competent and unshowy. There are some clever touches to the solution pertaining to the guns, cartridges and those pesky alibis, but don't expect any fireworks a la Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr. Just some good, old-fashioned police and amateur detective work that turned up a clever killer who tried to be a little too clever and cute. And nearly got away with it! So the most striking about The Grouse Moor Murder is not its plot, but everything around it. From the cast of fallible detectives and the local color of the Scottish moors to the local and historical color. I should also note that the book include a detailed, artistically-done sketch of the crime scene from Sergeant Cameron's notebook and the original cover illustration is a small work of art, which really should have been reused for the Coachwhip edition. If your taste runs in the directions of writers like Connington, Crofts, Rhode and Wade, you'll find a competent and solid contemporary in Ferguson's The Grouse Moor Murder. 

A note for the curious: as you can imagine, the locked room angle left me a little disappointed and, as usually is the case, I began to imagine how the trick could have been improved without changing the story too much – only one possibility occurred to me. What has to be done is lock the library door and have the key turn up in the victim's coat pocket, which can be done in two other ways. An easy one and a difficult one. The key at first appeared to be absent until they went through Brent's coat pockets and whoever found the key could have put it there, but that would have made Superintendent Rintou the murderer. So that's no good. On to the difficult solution. Somewhere, the story mentions the doors in the house have fanlights above the doors. Firstly, the murderer carefully removes a glass pane out of the fanlight. Secondly, a strong piece of thread or fishing line has to be threaded with a needle through the coat pocket with both ends going through the now open panel in the fanlight. Thirdly, the murderer locks the library door from the outside, pulls one end of the thread through the head of the key and carefully slides the key down the thread until it's inside the pocket. Lastly, the murderer pulls the thread back through the opening and puts the glass pane back in place. This method leaves two clues behind for the detectives to discover: a needle mark in the fabric and fresh putty. Just one problem. The murderer needs a little more time than Ferguson allowed to make this trick work, but the best I could make with what the story gave me.

Anyway, I hope some of you liked this bonus solution to the locked room and I'll try to pick a non-impossible crime next. Perhaps it's time to return to Brian Flynn!


Emergency Exit (1941) by Anthony Wynne

Last week, I reviewed a short story by Anthony Wynne, entitled "Footsteps" (1926), which is one of thirty-some magazine stories he wrote during the 1920s and one of dozen to be selected for inclusion in Wynne's only collection of short stories, Sinners Go Secretly (1927) – exclusively turning to novel-length mysteries with his fifth novel, The Dagger (1928). A good, fun enough short story, but a story that demonstrated Wynne belonged to a previous era of the genre. The tragedy of Wynne is that he would have been remembered today as Father of the Locked Room Mystery Novel had he written novels like The Silver Scale Mystery (1931) and The Green Knife (1932) around the turn of the century. I think a lot of readers today would have been more forgiving of his dry writing, flat characterization and penchant for Victorian-era melodrama, while being more appreciative of his imaginative plots and locked room-tricks. 

Just remember that Israel Zangwill's The Big Bow Mystery (1892) and Gaston Leroux's Le mystère de la chambre jaune (The Mystery of the Yellow Room, 1907) have pretty much the same shortcomings as Wynne, but they came early in the game and considered today as trailblazers. Moving the impossible crime away from secret passages, deadly animals and bizarre contraptions. Wynne's locked room mysteries and impossible crimes would have left an indelible mark on the genre had his first detective novel, The Mystery of the Evil Eye (1925), been published a quarter of a century earlier.

So imagine my surprise when discovering Emergency Exit (1941) completely demolished Wynne's image as an out-of-time writer that had emerged from the small sampling of his 1920s and early '30s detective fiction. Anthony Boucher called it "studious and static," which is not wholly untrue, but Wynne had largely dispensed with the dowdy melodramatics in favor of sober storytelling, better characterization than usual and very well realized backdrop – blacked-out Britain during the bombing campaign known as the Blitz. That gave Emergency Exit a very different feeling from the old-world atmosphere that permeated The Silver Scale Mystery and The Green Knife, but just as good as an grand-old locked room mystery!

The reader who dislikes a long preamble to the murder can rejoice, because Emergency Exit begins with Wynne's series-detective, Dr. Eustace Hailey, getting deposited on the doorstep of the recently murdered Sir Andrew Miles.

Sir Andrew was "a financier of international repute" whose "business interests embraced a large part of the world," but, as can be case with self-made millionaires, he "hated the idea that the world would go on after he had left it." So he found the idea of getting smashed by a bomb "outrageous, monstrous, intolerable" and the bombing worried him enough to erect an air-raid shelter outside of his house. A large, comfortably furnished shelter with two bunk beds, an electric fire, a wireless set and a thick rug covering the parquet floor. Every time the warning sounded, Sir Andrew would go at once to his shelter and not reappear until the All Clear was given. That's what happened on a Monday, two days before Dr. Hailey was called upon, but a bomb dropped nearby less than a minute after Sir Andrew had entered the shelter and the entrance was "sealed up by rubble." There were only two set of footprints in the snow leading to the shelter and the emergency exit, "the usual opening filled with loose bricks," remained untouched without any footprints in the snow. But when the rubble is removed, the body of Sir Andrew is discovered with a smashed skull and a knife sticking out of his back. And that spells trouble for the person who had been with Sir Andrew in the shelter.

Pilot Officer Thomas Brooke, a hero of the Battle of Britain, had followed Sir Andrew to the shelter to tell him he intended to marry his daughter, Veronica, but Sir Andrew wanted his daughter to marry a peer and had went as far as arranging a marriage with an impoverished peer, Lord Whitehouse – even willing to pay a dowry of £30,000 once Veronica becomes Lady Whitehouse. One of many things his son, Rex, couldn't stand about his father. There's always the business side to consider. Sir Andrew's solicitor, Basil Scragge, tells Dr. Hailey "everything was frozen, unsalable" due to the war and "the man didn't know whether he was a millionaire or a beggar."

So there you have intimate little murder mystery with a very small cast of characters largely confined to single location, but, throughout the story, there's the sound of air-raid sirens, the far-off "wow-wow" of bombers and anti-aircraft fire. Heavy gunfire that made the clouds tremble, red stars zigzagging across the sky and "blazing pieces" of an enemy plane streaming down to earth with "long ribbons of sparks" that slowly disappeared in the rain. Not to mention the bomb that interacted with our little locked room puzzle. A very well done piece of background scenery enhancing an otherwise routine setting and loved how a stiff upper lip was the response to these regular, hellish spectacles right above them. Dr. Hailey even remarks, "one gets bored with it" as "the performance is repeated too often." Only the British can have their cities regularly bombed, yawn and sleepily mutter “bloody krauts” before going back to sleep to the sound of anti-aircraft gunfire and exploding bombs. Now imagine how Americans would have responded, if New York had gotten bombed just once.

Anyway, Dr. Hailey is not convinced of Tom Brooke's apparent guilt, but there are two complicating factors. Firstly, Brooke "was injured in the head during the air battle for which he got the D.F.C." and the head injury might have lead to the murder. So he's more afraid of getting locked up in Broadmoor as insane than he's of the hangman. Secondly, it's "simply incredible that anyone could have entered or left the shelter without leaving footprints in the snow." So, if Brooke didn't kill Sir Andrew, who did and how did that person manage to get away and leave the snow unruffled? As to be expected, Wynne included false-solutions to the locked room problem, but not as many as usual or as many as I remember from my previous reads. There are only two here. One is suggested by Dr. Hailey in Chapter XIII and very convincing in it's utter simplicity, while the second false-solution is the subject of several experiments. Interestingly, a second attempt does not discredit the false-solution and it's even suggested that the murderer, while performing the clumsy trick, could have been blow away by the blast of the bomb and flung into the firs and larches – which "would act as a spring mattress." And it would leave no footprints in the snow. Say what you want about Wynne's ability as a writer, but, as a plotter, he sure knew his way around a locked room mystery!

There are, however, a few minor smudges. The actual locked room-trick, while not bad, is workmanlike and missed the ingenuity of The Silver Scale Mystery or even the creative angle he found in The Green Knife. The murderer is not too difficult to spot, but the who has an extra dimension to it and the motive is not without interest. And the explanation of the book title is something worthy of Wynne's more celebrated contemporaries! A last, very minor quibble is that it would probably have improved the story, if Colonel Wickham, of Scotland Yard, had either been the sole investigator or did all the legwork and brought his findings to Dr. Hailey in the last couple of chapters. Now he was too much like a wandering non-entity waiting for his cue to resume his role as detective. I think Colonel Wickham as the lead investigator and Dr. Hailey as a last-minute armchair oracle would have fitted the so-called humdrum style of Freeman Wills Crofts and John Rhode.

So, on a whole, Wynne's Emergency Exit is a competently plotted and capably handled detective novel with some genuine clever touches (e.g. the book title), but where the story surprised is the characterization and storytelling. The outbreak of the Second World War seems to have sobered Wynne's style and characterization, which made the story all the more readable. Although there was a pinch of melodramatics in how Wynne dealt with the murderer, but then again, the finale is probably the best place to have some dramatics. That probably makes Emergency Exit the best candidate to be reprinted next. If a publisher like British Library decides to reissue Emergency Exit next, I hope they keep fanatical locked room fanboys, like myself, in mind and make a twofer with The Case of the Gold Coins (1933).


Murder in a Peking Studio (1976) by Chin Shunshin

Chin Shunshin was a Taiwanese-Japanese novelist and translator who achieved fame as a writer of historical novels, "concerning China, Chinese history and Chinese people living in Japan," which often tended to be presented as detective stories – counting "those interested in historical novels as well as mystery aficionados" among his readership. Chin's historical mystery novels have been compared in Japan to Robert van Gulik's Judge Dee series. While "there are rarely more than one or two killings in his novels," Chin and Van Gulik knew how to integrate a detective story plot into their historical and geographical settings. A number of prestigious awards came his way including the Naoki Prize, the Japanese Mystery Writers Association Award and the Edogawa Rampo Prize. Chin apparently was the first writer to be awarded all three prizes known collectively as Japan's Triple Crown (san ōkan). 

An English translation of Chin's Pekin yūyūkan (Murder in a Peking Studio, 1976), translated and introduced by Joshua A. Fogel, was published in 1986 by the Center for Asian Studies of the Arizona State University. Fogel wrote in his introduction that Murder in a Peking Studio remains one of Chin's most popular novels to date and the first to be translated into English, but not much else appeared in English except a 2001 translation of a historical novel, Taihei tengoku (The Taiping Rebellion, 1982). Not that many secondhand copies of Murder in a Peking Studio are currently in circulation, but available copies tend to be cheap. 

So when Aidan, of Mysteries Ahoy, posted an interesting review of the book in 2020, "exploration of a moment in history which felt pleasantly neutral and felt that the solutions to the puzzles were handled and explained well," I decided to finally track down a copy. I'm really glad I did! Murder in a Peking Studio turned out to be a first-class historical mystery with a locked room puzzle, which has since become a historical bridge between the honkaku and shin honkaku periods of the Japanese detective genre. A bridge constructed over the drab, murky waters of social realism that dominated the Japanese crime fiction at the time. More about that in a moment. 

Murder in a Peking Studio takes place on the eve of the Russo-Japanese War, in late 1903, when "Russo-Japanese relations were extremely strained" in the wake of the Boxer Uprising as Russia refused to withdraw its troops from Manchuria, which had invaded the region to restore order and now attempts were underway to legitimize their occupation – trying to sign "secret treaties" with the Chinese. A second Sino-Russian treaty would have given Russia "military control, administrative powers and other rights and privileges in Manchuria," but the treaty had been revoked under international pressure. Meanwhile, the anti-Russian atmosphere in Japan grew, because they believed Korea and their own country were going to be invaded next. Japan began to "feverishly preparing for war" with Russia's refusal to withdraw as justification, but they "can only strike against an unprepared enemy" and Russia still had not "attained sufficient strength to declare war." But reinforcements were slowly dripping into the territory via the Siberian railway. So while Japan was preparing to go to war, the Russians "were probably contemplating how to avoid war." Or, to be more precise, delay it. China understandably has a problem with "foreigners arbitrarily starting a war on Chinese territory" and shares its longest border with Russia. Naturally, the Chinese have ample reason to prevent a Russo-Japanese conflict and that can be accomplished simply by taking away the Japan's motive to go to war with another Sino-Russian treaty. A perfect time and place for political intrigue, bribery, foreign spies and bloody murder.

Doi Sakutarō is about to end his apprenticeship, as an antique dealer, at the Kawara Firm when an old acquaintance working for the Foreign Office asks him to go to Peking to work on "an extremely important case." Doi has to go to Peking to meet with another Japanese national, Nasu Keigo, who instructs him to reestablish contact with the well-known Wen Pao-t'ai. A celebrated Chinese artist known for "his techniques of inscription rubbing," but Wen also acted as a pipeline for high-level bureaucrats and politicians to receive their bribes. The pipeline through which the bribery money is pumped has a physical representation in Wen's private studio, the Residence of Comfort. A small, Western-style workshop detached from his house with a single door and tiny, barred windows. Wen uses the studio to peacefully work on his inscription rubbings and meet with people through his role as a pipeline.

The fanatical locked room fans among you can already see a third use for the Residence of Comfort, but the locked room murder, impossible theft and subsequent investigation do not occur until a little before the halfway mark. Until then, Chin has to do some world-building, or reconstructing the past, in order to setup the detective story part of the novel. So you get a ton of historical and cultural background information of the situation at the time and, yes, there's a sidetrack into the art of inscription rubbing. So the first-half of Murder in a Peking Studio is not unlike the first-half of Akimitsu Takagi's Shisei satsujin jiken (The Tattoo Murder Case, 1948), which also has a plot rooted in the culture and period of the time. Although one is a historical mystery set in pre-war Peking and the other in a contemporary detective novel that takes place in post-war Tokyo. Needless to say, Chin followed through on his obligation to do something meaningful with his historical setting, but what about the plot? More importantly, the promised locked room murder!

So, around that halfway mark, Doi and Nasu delivered 250,000 yen in bribery money to Wen, but, once outside, they realized Wen had forgotten to write them a lyrical receipt ("a spectacular view of Peking is worth one million") and his personal maid, Fang Lang, hurries back to studio to get him to write a receipt – only problem is that he doesn't open the door. They heard Wen bolt the door behind when they left him, merely three minutes ago, but during that time he had been stabbed to death with peculiar-looking, poison-smeared dagger while alone in a locked studio. And the bribery money they had left behind in the studio had "disappeared like smoke."

A great locked room setup and betrays the influence of Van Gulik on Chin as the whole locked room situation is closely-modeled on the impossible crime from Van Gulik's Labyrint in Lan-fang (The Chinese Maze Murders, 1956). An ex-general who's writing poetry is stabbed to death with a poisoned blade while alone in his private and secure library, bolted on the inside, but Chin came up with a better, more fairly clued solution to the problem. And added a second, decent enough impossibility to boot! I found the discussion of possible solutions to the locked room puzzle equally fascinating as it would become a link between the locked room stories of the early honkaku and shin honkaku periods. One of the possibilities considered is the murderer having dropped the knife from the studio's skylight, which is a locked room-trick introduced to Japan by a Western detective novel that was of enormous influence on a young Seishi Yokomizo (namely SPOILER/ROT13: Ebtre Fpneyrgg'f Zheqre Nzbat gur Natryyf, 1932). Yokomizo even mentioned that novel in his debut locked room mystery, Honjin satsujin jiken (The Honjin Murders, 1946), which also has an impossible double murder in an annex building with a blade playing a key-part. Five years after Murder in a Peking Studio, Soji Shimada published his seminal detective novel, Senseijutsu satsujin jiken (The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, 1981). Arguably, the most iconic of all (Japanese) corpse-puzzle mysteries, but also features a locked room murder in a Western-style studio with a bolted door, barred windows and skylight that becomes the centerpiece of a false-solution somewhat similar to the one here.

So, as an armchair genre historian and hobby plot-technician, I found it fascinating to discover how snugly Murder in a Peking Studio into the history and development of the Japanese detective genre. I wonder if Chin had to disguise his detective stories as historical fiction to indulge in a locked room mystery, because social realism still dominated the genre in 1960s and '70s until Shimada inspired a bunch of upstart students in the 1980s to revive the traditional detective story in all its glory! Chin was just a little early to the game.

One more thing that needs to be mentioned is that it's not Doi and Nasu who solve the case, but a quasi-official adviser to the police, named Chang Shao-kuang, who "studied detective methods in Japan and England" – which under normal circumstances would have been useless. At the time, the country was "administrated through the arbitrary decisions of the court, the military power of local warlords and corruption," but Chang was able to market his study of foreign detective techniques. Chang even won the favor of Prince Chen who introduced him to the chiefs of the Peking police and told them "if any case prove to be too much for you, do call on Mr. Chang." A good detective-character who seems wasted as a one-and-done character.

I think some readers will find the first-half of Murder in a Peking Studio slow-moving and tough on historical content as Chin describes the political and cultural woes of the time and region, but absolutely necessary as a solid foundation for the plot. Chin beautifully dovetailed the story's historical setting, political shenanigans and international espionage with a good, old-fashioned locked room mystery. The only real flaw to be found (a very minor one) is that the story began to drag its feet to draw out the ending a bit. There's even a last twist to the solution given fifteen years later. But not without reason. So, on a whole, Murder in a Peking Studio is exactly what a historical detective is supposed to be and merits reprinting. A reprint will find a much larger, more appreciative audience today than in 1986 and perhaps a new edition can open the door to new translations. Fogel briefly goes over several of Chin's untranslated detective novels in his introduction and Sanshoku no ie (Tricolor Family, 1962) sounds like a prime candidate to translate next as the plot deals with "a bizarre murder that occurs in a wholesale marine produce shop." Highly recommended!


Dr. Eustace Hailey, Ghostbuster: "Footsteps" (1926) by Anthony Wynne

Robert McNair Wilson was a Scottish-born physician, medical correspondent of The Times and a one-time aspiring politician who's best remembered today as the author of twenty-seven mostly rare, often costly detective novels – published between 1925 and 1950 under the name "Anthony Wynne." All but six of his novels fall under the category of locked room mysteries and impossible crimes. So he was, in fact, "one of the leading exponents of the locked room mystery" in his day. Wynne also wrote a slew of short stories during the twenties that appeared in such publications as Hutchinson's Magazine, Flynn's Weekly and The Illustrated Detective Magazine. Two of his short stories are listed in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991). 

"Footsteps" original appearance came in the January 9, 1926, edition of Flynn's and reprinted

a year later in the extremely scarce collection of Wynne's short stories, Sinners Go Secretly (1927). Recently, the story reappeared in Martin Edwards' latest anthology The Edinburgh Mystery and Other Tales of Scottish Crime (2022).

The story takes place in a dark, old seaside castle in the West Highlands that has recently become haunted by ghostly footsteps. A very peculiar ghost with "a very mysterious and ghostly history" going back only seven years. The previous laird of the castle, Colonel McCallien, supposedly committed suicide on the eve of his wife's funeral, who unexpectedly died in her sleep, but his body was never found – only his hat was found on the rocks below the cliff. The constant footfalls being heard supposedly belong to the ghost of Colonel McCallien trying to find his wife. Understandably, the ghostly footsteps began to work on the nerves of Lord Tarbet and asked Dr. Eustace Hailey to come down to lay the ghost as he can't stand much more of the ghost.

Dr. Eustace Hailey, "Giant of Harley Street," is a celebrated nerve specialist, professional snuff-taker and an amateur criminologist who gets to experience the phenomenon first hand in the story's opening pages.

Lord Tarbet and Dr. Hailey hear the sound of footsteps in the dim corridors of the old castle, slowly approaching the door of the room, before coming to a stop, but, when they open the door, nobody is there. It's "utterly impossible that any human being, no matter how swift-footed, could have escaped from it in so short a space of time." Even when the door is left open, the footsteps are heard again, "growing louder and louder," but the corridor remains deserted. Dr. Hailey finds a rational explanation to the footsteps only a few pages later, but this uncovers another mystery. What, exactly, happened to Colonel McCallien seven years ago, while his wife lay in a coffin in the room that since attracted those phantom footfalls?

So really not all that bad of a detective story, but "Footsteps," like so many of his other detective stories and novels, painfully reveals the Great Tragedy of Wynne's career as a mystery novelist.

Wynne possessed the imagination needed to come up with original locked room-tricks (e.g. The Silver Scale Mystery, 1931) or pepper his plots with false-solutions (e.g. The Green Knife, 1932), which should have given him a towering reputation among locked room fans. Regrettably, Wynne was a writer who belonged to the Doylean era of the genre with his period-style writing, flat characterization and a tendency towards Victorian melodrama, which becomes even more apparent in his short stories – like the Sherlockian homage "The Cyprian Bees" (1926). "Footsteps" feels like it belonged to the period of L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace's Master of Mysteries (1898). This makes it so tragic Wynne arrived on the scene a good twenty-five years too late, because Wynne would have been remembered today as The Father of the 20th Century Locked Room Novel had he belonged to the previous generation of mystery writers. Isreal Zangwill's The Big Bow Mystery (1892) and Gaston Leroux's Le mystère de la chambre jaune (The Mystery of the Yellow Room, 1907) have exactly the same flaws as Wynne, but fondly remembered as trailblazers that moved the locked room mystery away from the secret passages, hidden panels and poisonous animals from the 1800s. The Silver Scale Mystery and The Green Knife would have been game changers in 1911 and 1912.

So, if you want to fully enjoy and appreciate Wynne's work, you have to knock two decades from each publication date and pretend in your head the story was published sometime during the first twenty years of the previous century. It helps you look pass his shortcomings to see the criminally underrated locked room specialist underneath the faded, Victorian exterior. "Footsteps" is yet another reminder most of Wynne's locked room treasures, like The Case of the Gold Coins (1933), Door Nails Never Die (1939), Emergency Exit (1941) and Murder in a Church (1942), remain out-of-print and elusive as ever. And that needs to change!


The Crooked Hinge (1938) by John Dickson Carr

Last month can be nicely summed up as "weak tea" as the quality, plot-wise, as most of the plot were diluted either by the changing times, blending genres and an early parody of the detective story – only D.L. Marshall's went all out with his plot in Anthrax Island (2021). But when even Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed series failed to end the month on a somewhat upbeat note, the time had come to pull another old favorite from the bookshelf. 

I wanted to return to John Dickson Carr's The Crooked Hinge (1938) ever since rereading Agatha Christie's Death in the Clouds (1935) back in June, because they are generally considered to be among their better mystery novels that never quite reached the classic status as a Murder on the Orient Express (1934) or The Three Coffins (1935). They are more like fan favorites. Another reason why I decided to finally give The Crooked Hinge a second look is that, like Death in the Clouds, is it unusual link to the pulps of the period. Christie presented the murder aboard the Prometheus as the pulpiest of pulp murders, but told and resolved like a proper, fair play detective story. Carr took a slightly difference approach, but more on that in a minute.

So, while The Crooked Hinge is not as lionized as some of Carr's better-known locked room mysteries, it has Carr at the top of his game as a plotter and storyteller. I had forgotten how brazen, in-your-face he was here when it came to dropping clues and red herrings. For example, Carr began the first chapter with the following quote from Professor Hoffman's Modern Magic (1876): "the first rule to be borne in mind by the aspirant is this: never tell your audience beforehand what you are going to do. If you do so, you at once give their vigilance the direction which it is most necessary to avoid, and increase tenfold the chances of detection! We will give an illustration." This is only the signal for curtain up! What follows is a play on the famous Victorian-era case of the Tichborne Claimant that's as brilliantly told as it's totally baffling.

The present-day Sir John Farnleigh used to be the younger, troublesome son of the late Sir Dudley and Lady Farnleigh, "a dark, quiet, wild sort of boy," who had "a fully-grown-up affair with a barmaid" aged fifteen – which is when he was packed off to the United States. However, John sailed on the unsinkable Titanic, but he survived that famous 1912 disaster and continued to live in America for nearly twenty-five years until his brother died. So he inherited the family title and returned to England to take possession of the thirty thousand pounds a year estate, Farnleigh Close. Newly minted Sir John settled down to live the life of a country squire and married a girl he knew from his childhood, Molly Bishop, but, a little over a year, a claimant to his estate turns up. A man named Patrick Gore says he has "absolute proof" that he's the real Sir John Farnleigh.

A meeting is arranged between Sir John, Gore and their respective lawyers, Nathaniel Burrows and Harold Welkyn, which hardly brings any clarity to Gore's claim. Burrows requested a lawyer friend, Brian Page, to be present during the confrontation, but he has no idea who's telling the truth. Page observes that, if Gore is an impostor, "he was one of the coolest and most smooth-faced crooks who ever walked into another man's house," but, if Sir John is an impostor, "he was not only a slippery criminal behind that naive straightforward mask." He was a would-be murderer as well. There is, however, a way to tell who's speaking the truth. The real Sir John had a tutor, Kenneth Murray, whose hobby has always been scientific criminology. Murray had taken the real Sir John's fingerprints with a Thumbograph, "a popular game or toy at the time," in 1910. This makes the old tutor a prime candidate to be murdered while he's comparing the prints in the library... in an ordinary detective novel. The Crooked Hinge is not your ordinary detective novel.

So, while Murray is alone in the library and everyone is wandering around the place, someone has his throat brutally savaged at the edge of the pool in the garden, but the victim had been seen standing, all alone, in that circular open space all round the pool with a five-foot border of packed sand between the water and nearest hedge – bare of any tell-tale footprints. One of those pesky impossible crimes! Enter Dr. Gideon Fell, snorting and wheezing, who proclaims that "all rules have been violated because the wrong man had been chosen for a victim" The death blow should have fallen on the old tutor as he held the vital evidence to costly conundrum. There you have the setup to a problem as intriguing as it's maddening, but also comes with the first of only two caveats. Sometimes less is really more and there's something appealing to the simplistically complicated problem of two rival claimants, but some of that initial appeal is lost once the body is discovered and Carr goes all out on the plot. Fortunately, it's the master himself who serves the reader an extra thick slice of plot, but couldn't help but wonder what could have been had The Crooked Hinge taken a similar, more sober approach as Death Turns the Tables (1941).

Anyway, the plot, as mention, becomes quite tricky once the murder has been committed and is complicated by a murder that has been committed in the village a year prior. A spinster had been strangled to death and the murderer appeared to be a passing tramp who had died while trying to escape from the police, but then witchcraft begins to rear its ugly head. This strain of witchcraft can be traced back to the locked book-closet in the attic of Farnleigh Close, which stores an antiquarian treasure trove of old books on magic and witchcraft. The locked book-closet also houses a damaged, time-worn automaton, The Golden Hag, which is a "nearly life-sized figure" sitting "on a kind of small couch" and had been exhibited at the court of Charles II in the late 1670s. One of the characters affectionately refers to the automaton as "my good old clock-guts," but, whatever made the automaton work in the seventeenth century, is now lost to time. Or could such a thing spring to live despite its old, time-worn wheels and whatnot's? That's merely one of the reminders the classic ghost and horror genres lost one of their greatest writers to the detective story.

Just take this passage from Chapter II following the discovery of the terrified, unconscious maid who had inexplicably gone missing from the house: "terrors should not be domestic terrors. It was like being told that in your own home you may completely disappear for four hours. It was like being told that in your own home you may open a familiar door, and enter not your own room, but a room you have never seen before, where something is waiting." I swear, Carr can transform a bright, peaceful looking sun-room snoozing in a lazy summer afternoon into chamber of horrors or the gates of hell. So top-notch storytelling and the plotting is even better!

I fanboyed in my reviews of The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939) and The Reader is Warned (1939) all over Carr's almost unrivaled talent to simultaneously spell out the truth and throw sand in the eyes of the reader, but nowhere else was he as brazen and cavalier as in The Crooked Hinge. If you remember the solution from your first read, you begin to notice certain choices of words and phrases or questions being asked that become amusing when you know the solution, but he becomes really bold as the story progresses. One line, in particular, stands out as it comes long before the ending and practically tells you how the trick was done, which he casually tossed into the story – either to be overlooked or ignored as mere story-dressing. It's not only the clueing and misdirection that made The Crooked Hinge a delightful detective story to revisit as the plot never ceases to form new complications and surprises. Such as the dreaded inquest scene throwing an entirely new complexion on the problem and one of the characters or Dr. Fell's excellent and convincing false-solution towards the end.

So, as you can probably guess, The Crooked Hinge stood up to rereading. However, I did mention there were two caveats and the second one concerns the solution, which is probably where the book looses some readers. The whole trick, hinging on the imagery of the titular hinge, has both feet firmly planted in pulp territory and remember that detracted from my first read. Not enough to bar it from my 2015 list of favorite Carr novels, but thought at the time it was more like a Chestertonian nightmare played as a straight detective story than a proper impossible crime novel. Over the past few years, I have gotten more acclimatized to the pulp-style mystery and admired to see how Carr succeeded in making an outlandish, pulp-style mystery work as a straight detective story. Even more so, if you consider the solution had to subvert the impossible crime with even the murderer admitting "that there never was an impossible crime." Quite a tricky thing to do! I can also understand those who would hate it or prefer the false-solution, which is probably why it never acquired a similar reputation as The Three Coffins, The Judas Window (1938), She Died a Lady (1943), Till Death Do Us Part (1944) and He Who Whispers (1946). It has its fans. Just not enough to push it all the way to the top.

All of that being said, The Crooked Hinge comes highly recommended. Not as an example of Carr's mastery over the locked room mystery and impossible crime story, but as a craftsman of the detective story as a whole. Showing why Carr should be mandatory reading for everyone who wants to write detective fiction as he understood what makes a detective story tick like few others did or do. 

Notes for the curious: back on the now long-gone JDCarr forum, a member whose name I don't remember posted a brief summary of the solution set to the tune of Pinocchio's "I've Got No Strings." If I remember the comment correctly, The Crooked Hinge version of the tune originated with the mystery reading portion of Disney employees during the 1940s or '50s. Since that comment and poster has been lost due to the old internet decaying away, why not post it here for prosperity. But it has to be ROT13 as it spoils everything: 


V'ir tbg ab yrtf

fb V pna xvyy

Naq V pna punatr

zl urvtug ng jvyy

V arrq ab yrtf

gurl'er fhpu n ober

Pnyy zr Cngevpx Tber.


Lastly, why has The Golden Hag never turned up in any other locked room mystery or impossible crime story? Not necessary by Carr. I would like to see one of our modern locked room specialist, like James Scott Byrnside or Paul Halter, write a locked room story in which that creepy automaton turns up after its adventure in The Crooked Hinge. Or maybe a historical mystery by Paul Doherty that tells the forgotten story about the impossible murders that occurred during its unveiling at the court of Charles II. The Golden Hag is a tailor-made object to cart around the genre, even if it's used only as background decoration. Just have it turn up every now and then in a locked room mystery as a running gag.