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

Christopher Bush's The Case of the Treble Twist (1958) is the 51st mystery novel in the Ludovic Travers series and the first title from the last consignment of Dean Street Press reprints, which began in 2017 with the extremely obscure, long out-of-print The Plumley Inheritance (1926) and concluded in 2022 with The Case of the Prodigal Daughter (1968) – counting sixty-three novels in total in addition to a standalone thriller (The Trail of the Three Lean Men, 1932). I haphazardly skipped through about half of the series and actually wanted to return to an earlier point in the series like The Case of the Three Strange Faces (1933) or The Case of the Leaning Man (1938). Something about The Case of the Treble Twist caught my attention.

This last baker's dozen of Bush reissues is introduced by our very own in-house genre historical, Curt Evans, who wrote how "the sun finally begin to set on that storied generation" of the genre's Golden Age as the 1960s began to dawn on the horizon. And the last remaining, half-dozen survivors of that generation tried to adjust or adept as the world around them "strayed farther from the whimsically escapist death as a game aesthetic of Golden Age of detective fiction."

John Dickson Carr retreated into the mists of time to set "his tales in bygone historical eras where he felt vastly more at home," while Agatha Christie "made a brave effort to stay abreast of the times" (e.g. The Third Girl, 1966) before "her strivings to understand what was going on around her collapsed into the utter incoherence" – e.g. Passenger to Frankfurt (1970) and Postern of Fate (1973). Christopher Bush turned out to be the most adaptable of his generation and he saw the writing on the wall as early as the 1940s. The Case of the Murdered Major (1941) shifted the series narrative style from third-person to first-person and Travers became the permanent narrator in the next book, The Case of the Kidnapped Colonel (1942). So began the transformation of Travers from a typical, British amateur detective to an Americanized licensed private eye, which was a process not without some growing pains as the elaborately baroque plotting, time-linked murders and unbreakable alibis were phased out or toned down to make way for leaner, slightly more realistic storytelling, characterization and plotting. However, Bush carried on "the Golden Age article of faith that the primary purpose of a crime writer is pleasingly to puzzle his/her readers" as novels like The Case of the Three Lost Letters (1954), The Case of the Flowery Corpse (1956) and The Case of the Russian Cross (1957) can attest.

So a 1950s Christopher Bush novel titled The Case of the Treble Twist, published in the US simply as The Case of the Triple Twist, caught my attention. When the introduction promised Bush's "most ingeniously contrived cases from the Fifties, full of charm, treacherous deception and, yes, plenty of twists, including one that is a real sockaroo," I decided to move it to the top of the pile.

Ludovic Travers, director of the Broad Street Detective Agency, opens the story with remarking, "there was something unique about the Case of the Treble Twist" as "it isn't often one gets a preview of a case or hovers round its fringes four years before it breaks." But that's what happened. Four years ago, "on a dirty night of October," Travers bumps into a very good friend, Chief-Inspector Jewle, who looked worried as he has a string of jewel robberies on his plate and the police barely has a clue how the culprits disposed of the loot – except a whisper or two about "a really high-class fence." On the other hand, Jewle has a potential suspect, Harry Tibball, who runs a restaurant and popular gym in Soho, which must have cost him a packet and his story of getting lucky on the race track smells fishy. Nothing either the police or Inland Revenue could disprove. So they decide to pay Tibball's establishments a visit and, years later, what happened there would flash across the mind's eye of Travers "as if a film of that evening had miraculously been run off," but the two-chapter prologue doesn't end there.

Several months later, Jewle calls Travers to tell him about a recent robbery, "one of those wages snatches," but the handkerchief obscuring one of the robber's faces slipped and was recognized as Tibball's general factotum, Frank Conward. Only problem is that has an alibi provided by his employers daughter, Gloria. But the case apparently came to an unexpected close the Elmhurst robbery. Louis Speer is an Italian-born, naturalized British jeweler who came to England following Mussolini's rise to power to continue his "modest but high-class manufacturing business," which often brought him to mainland Europe to buy stones. Tibball and Conward knew Speer had been in Antwerp and expected him to bring back a parcel of stones. So they broke into the house, coshed the elderly Speer and picked open the safe, but all they found was "a certain amount of cash and some oddments of jewellery worth about three hundred pounds." And, while trying to escape, their getaway car collides with a telegraph pole. Conward got out of the wreck unharmed, but he got caught that same day and eventually sentenced to four years in prison. Tibball didn't survive the crash. That effectively closes the case even though some questions remained unanswered. Who was the mysterious fence at the back of the diamond snatching business? What happened to the money and scant jewelry from the Elmhurst job?

Three years come and go, Travers is contacted by Speer's daughter and American son-in-law, Carlotta and Harvey Dawson. After the robbery, a very shaken Speer packed up and moved to the United States with Carlotta where she met her husband. Now her father has passed away and told on his deathbed there had been more to the robbery than he told, because he had a collection of antique jewelry in the house with a combined value somewhere in "the neighbourhood of forty thousand pounds." The collection belonged to a very well-known family and Speer had agreed to make paste duplicated, which is why he had to secretly pay the family out of his own pocket following the robbery. However, the loot was never recovered and Conward must have cached it somewhere, anywhere between Elmhurst and Liverpool, covering an area "well over a hundred miles" and "maybe with twists and turns" – like a needle in a haystack. Conward is to be released from prison in ten days' time. What they want is Travers to tail Conward when he gets out to see if he goes to the hidden cache.

This is the point in the story where The Case of the Treble Twist becomes a little unusual in both plot-structure and storytelling. Travers takes on the case, sort of, but uses the ten days before Conward is released to have a busman's holiday and takes that time to make leisure inquiries into the old robberies and the people involved. Only to make his final decision on whether to take case or defer it to someone else when Conward comes out of prison. So all he does to do is a little fact collecting and wool-gathering while he visiting the old crime scenes, interviewing people who were either involved or in the neighborhood and retracing steps as he constructs possible scenarios ("it's no use finding a theory and not working it out"). And without any new crimes, like more robberies or a murder, there's no immediate need to find all the answers. Travers later admitted to Jewle that he had been merely amusing himself "in a very shameless way," which blinded him to the serious proportions the case was morphing into as the zero hour of Conward's release drew closer. Not until someone goes missing and a gruesome murder is discovered is that Travers begins to pick at the double-crosses that developed into a treble twist over the years in earnest.

I suppose my summation can come across to some as a slow, meandering detective novel lacking any urgency or interesting crime until the final act, but The Case of the Treble Twist is a short, surprisingly fast-paced mystery with Bush taking pleasure in toying with his readers. I mean, Travers suggesting (ROT13) gur cbffvovyvgl bs n guveq zna evtug nsgre vagebqhpvat gur orneqrq Uneirl Qnjfba vzzrqvngryl znqr zr fhfcvpvbhf bs jub npghnyyl qvrq va gung pne penfu. Pbhyq vg or gur guveq, haxabja zna unq orra vqragvsvrq nf Gvoonyy naq gur Qnjfbaf jrer npghnyyl Gvoonyy naq uvf qnhtugre. Naq qvqa'g gur fgbel zragvba fbzrjurer gurl unq frcnengr orqebbzf. Ohg pbhyq fbzrbar punatr gung zhpu va whfg guerr lrnef? Fvpxarff pbhyq qb vg. But you can't completely discard the possibility as Bush pulled similar vzcrefbangvba fghagf before. Successfully putting me on the wrong track until the story reminded me of that small, but important, detail.

Even though the only flashy thing about the plot is the stolen jewelry, The Case of the Treble Twist has enough, old-school detective interest between Travers busman's holiday and the unraveling of the treble twist – all done in a very discreet, unassuming way. The kind of discreteness you can expect from an organization like the Broad Street Detective Agency!

So, on a whole, The Case of the Treble Twist stands as yet another one of Bush's first-class and classy detective novels from his 1950s periods, which naturally differ enormously from his 1930s or even '40s output. Bush tried to keep a flicker of the Golden Age going during a time when nearly all of his contemporaries had either retired or passed away. I think Bush proved he was the most successful of his generation at adapting the traditional detective story to the changes and upheavals of the post-war world without compromising, or demolishing, every single thing that makes good crime-and detective fiction. Trimmed down plots, more emphasis on characterization and a little more grounded in reality? Yes. But most of them turn out to be really good, classy and trim detective stories. The Case of the Treble Twist is a good, old-fashioned one at that!


Invisible Green (1977) by John Sladek

In my previous blog-post, I returned to an old favorite of mine, John Sladek's Black Aura (1974), which, barring one or two small blemishes, turned out to be as great as I remembered and still regard it as one of the finest locked room mysteries crafted during the second-half of the previous century – a classic worthy of the name. So with Black Aura still fresh in my mind, I wanted to see how well Sladek's second and final mystery novel, Invisible Green (1977), compares to its prodigious predecessor. 

I read Black Aura and Invisible Green back in the late 2000s and thought at the time Invisible Green to be a marked step down. Sure, it's an excellent detective novel with an even better locked room-puzzle at its core, but felt like a hollow shell coming after Sladek's grandiosely-staged and executed homage to the detective story's Golden Age. Although tinged and streaked with bouts of melancholic nostalgia and wishful daydreaming, it gave Black Aura the panache Invisible Green simply lacked. But not everyone shares that opinion.

In 1981, Edward D. Hoch asked a group of mystery writers and reviewers to list up to ten of their favorite locked room and impossible crime novels, which resulted in a top 14 and Invisible Green secured the last slot on the list. Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) called it "an even better impossible crime novel" than Black Aura and JJ, of The Invisible Event, declared Invisible Green to be "the last possible hurrah for the classically-style detective novel." And they're not alone. So was my initial read a bit of a letdown, because I expected an encore of Black Aura and got something entirely different? Or is everyone else wrong as usually? Time to find out!

Sladek's Invisible Green opens with a prologue set in autumn, 1939, introducing the reader to a murder-of-the-month club, the Seven Unravellers, to whom "murder meant a game with rules" and "suspects with false alibis, clues becoming red herrings, and courtroom revelations" – who have regular meetings "to chew over the latest murder fiction." Miss Dorothea Pharaoh is an armchair logician who has a "genius for playing word games and solving logic puzzles" as well as the club's only female member. Major Edgar Stokes is a retired army man and "a bit of a crypto-Nazi" complete with visions of a New Anglo-German Europe, but he's also very weary and paranoid of a Communist conspiracy. Gervase Hyde is an artistic, bohemian eccentric interested in the psychological angle and "real crimes seemed to interest him more than fictional ones." More than one meeting ended with Major Stokes and Hyde yelling Nazi and Communist at each other. Frank Danby, a London police constable, is "a big, violent, short-tempered young man" who "delighted in sensational news stories of shotgun murders" and “did not fit in with the Unravellers.” Leonard Latimer and Derek Portman were the hope for the club's future. Latimer studies chemistry at London University and preferred detective stories in which the "murderer is hanged by the evidence from a single speck of dust," while Portman is a young solicitor's clerk "honing his already sharp intellect on the legalistic turns of Perry Mason novels" and "cutting into the legal fabric of other murder mysteries." Finally, there's the old baronet, Sir Anthony Fitch, who everyone calls Sir Tony.

So the Seven Unraveller were not unlike "a lot of suspects in an old country house murder," but the club was dissolved in 1940 and they would not meet again until more than thirty years later. 

During the 1970s, Miss Pharaoh decides to hold a reunion for the six surviving Unravellers ("Sir Tony was gone these many years") and begins to send out invitation, but Major Stokes has sunken neck deep into paranoia. Major Stokes believes he's the target of an international conspiracy who sees "secret clues in the Times crossword" and hears "the old cough code" at the cinema. So he reads a secret message ("miss it") in the invitation and a potential ally in Miss Pharaoh, but becomes genuinely worried when she learns Major Stokes has been threatened by someone calling himself Green. Mr. Green has called on Major Stokes twice to either offer him money to go away on a long holiday or to explain "how an old person living on his own can slip and fall in the bath," which culminated with the murder of his cat. Miss Pharaoh used to exchange chess problems and logic puzzles with Thackeray Phin through the mail and asks him to investigate this Mr Green character. And that brings the story to the first locked room-puzzle of the story.

Major Stokes had turned his house into a small fortress. The front-and back doors were locked, chained and barred and "every single window was nailed shut with ten-penny spikes." The passages were strewn with talcum powder to show footprints and "there were threads strung across one or two steps on the stairway," which left "no chance of entry at all." On top of that all, Phin was watching the house when Major Stokes died in the hall toilet of his fortified home. Apparently, he died of a heart attack, but why were his fingers nails broken and bloody? And if he clawed at the dry, flaky paint on the walls, why was there no dried paint under his nails? Sladek really knew how to stage an impossible crime and deliver on its promise!

Firstly, I was surprised at how much I had forgotten about the plot, characters and story in general. Based on my shoddy, often Watson-like memory, I assumed my conclusion on why so many preferred Invisible Green over Black Aura was going to be that former has only one, really well-done and original locked room-trick – which made it a much tighter and focused story. Secondly, I had not only forgotten how brilliantly that locked room-trick is put together, but that there are two additional impossibilities. A second murder is committed roughly halfway through the story as one of the Seven Unravellers is stabbed "inside a house which was watched and guarded at every exit." The third murder has "a twist on the locked- or guarded-house theme" as nearly every suspect worthy of investigation "was locked up in another house, miles away at the time of the crime." Admittedly, the second locked room murder has nothing special, or innovative, but the third murder pretty much applies the locked room mystery to the problem of the unbreakable alibi. I think it would have carried the approval of both Christopher Bush and Tetsuya Ayukawa. Thirdly, the story and characters were not as drab or humorless as I remembered them being.

My first reading left me with the impression that Sladek had resigned to the reality he rebelled against in Black Aura with bouts of nostalgia, daydreaming, humor and baroque crimes. Just compare the magnificently-staged levitation murder of a pop-star in the house of spiritual commune to the death of a lonely, paranoid pensioner in a tiny toilet with dry, flaky walls. That's how the whole story must have impressed me at the time, coming right off Black Aura. It must have struck me at the time as a Thackeray Phin mystery drained of its color and spirit. I probably even thought the color-coded clues were an attempt to give the story some much needed color, but Phin is practically the same right down to his strange, outlandish garb ("...on your way to the set of a 1930s jungle film?") to the way he tackles a particular problem or piece of the puzzle. I liked how he got to see Portman without an appointment ("The tapes. You know?") or twisting the arm of a commercial laboratory to test the remains of the murdered cat he had dug up for poisons ("...otherwise, we might begin to believe you're doing animal experiments in your lab, eh? Vivisection?"). Just toned down a little. Or, perhaps, you can say Black Aura played to the crowd while Invisible Green simply told the story. So no daydream sequences. And very likely another reason why some prefer it over its predecessor.

More importantly, Sladek demonstrated he could do so much more than constructing locked room-tricks as Invisible Green is also an excellently plotted, old-fashioned whodunit. How the awful, highly elusive Mr. Green fits into the overall plot shined with that Golden Age brilliance, but with a decidedly modern twist. However, it showed that a changing world offered new possibilities to plot and tell a detective story. Not less. Just look back at the turn-of-the-century mystery writers who began to apply science and naturalism to a genre previous dominated by secret passageways, fictitious poisons and overwrought melodrama. But, as to be expected, Sladek also tipped his deerstalker to some of the greats of the past. The color-coded clues everyone receives like an orange tossed through a window, blue paint on a gravestone, ripped up Yellow Pages (etc.) is straight out of the playbook of Ellery Queen and the alice-door an obvious nod to John Dickson Carr. I liked the idea of an alice-door and how it was eventually used. Not as subtle as a Judas window, but, you know, it gets the job done.

So, yeah, Sladek's Invisible Green is light-years better than I remembered, but is it a better detective novel than Black Aura and has it any shot at becoming my favorite Sladek locked room mystery? Maybe and absolutely not! Judging purely based on their merits as plot-driven detective novels, they're about even-keeled and picking a favorite comes down to personal taste. I'm not blind to the convincing case that can be put forward in favor of Invisible Green as its the more subtle of the two, which is an important trait for a classic mystery novel to possess. However, if you stage a grand-style locked room mystery that feels like a genuine continuation of the 1930s detective story, you simply have my heart and soul by the balls!

That being said and having reread Black Aura and Invisible Green back-to-back, I can feel the blackhole Sladek left behind when abandoned the detective story. Not only because we very likely missed out on several top-tier locked room mysteries, but because he decided to bow out at a time when the traditional, fair play detective story needed someone like him the most. Sladek's regrettably small, but significant and relentlessly amusing, detective fiction gets reprinted in the hopefully not so distant future.


Black Aura (1974) by John Sladek

John Sladek was an American science-fiction writer who lived in London, England, from the mid-1960s to 1986 where he sold his first short stories to the British science-fiction magazine New Worlds and got his debut novel, The Reproductive System (1968), published – a novel about out-of-control, self-replicating machines. More importantly, Sladek loved detective stories and won the Times of London 1972 short story competition with a clever locked room mystery, "By an Unknown Hand" (1972). A part of the prize was the publication of the short story in The Times Anthology of Detective Stories (1973) and a contract to write a novel-length mystery about the detective Sladek introduced in "By an Unknown Hand," Thackeray Phin. 

Sladek ended up writing two, classically-styled and plotted homages to the Golden Age detective story, Black Aura (1974) and Invisible Green (1977), which became and stayed fan favorites despite being out-of-print since the seventies. 

Robert Adey wrote in Locked Room Murders (1991) that Black Aura is "very good in all respects and dealt, among other things, with an impossible disappearance and even more incredible levitation." Adey daringly called Invisible Green "an even better impossible crime novel" giving "high hopes of a major series," but Sladek bowed out of the detective story to return to science-fiction genre. But the situation at the time more or less dictated his early retirement as a mystery writer. Sladek told in 1982 interview "those two novels suffered mainly from being written about 50 years after the fashion for puzzles of detection" as he "enjoyed writing them, planning the absurd crimes and clues," but likened it "turning out a product the supermarket didn't need any more," like "stove polish or yellow cakes of laundry soap" – a writer "could starve very quickly writing locked-room mysteries like those." Regrettably, Sladek had arrived way too late on the scene as the traditional detective story had entered a dark age after the 1950s and the only notable names who stubbornly continued writing locked room mysteries regularly were Edward D. Hoch and Bill Pronzini. Or, perhaps, he arrived a decade too soon as there was brief revival during the 1980s courtesy of writers like Herbert Resnicow and William L. DeAndrea.

Either way, you can hardly blame him choosing the more profitable science-fiction genre over the locked room mystery, but I love Sladek's detective fiction that actually extends beyond those two Thackery Phin novels and two short stories. "The Locked Room" (1972) is a short-short parody with a story-within-a-story structure inexplicably buried in the SF collection Keep the Giraffe Burning (1978), while "Scenes from the Country of the Blind" (1977) can be found in Alien Accounts (1982) and concerns the disappearance of an entire village. Maps: The Uncollected John Sladek (2002) has in addition to the two short Phin stories eight inverted crime stories of which "You Have a Friend at Fengrove National" (1968) is a minor gem. Not a single real dud! The pickings have become slimmer over the years and hold out no hope that a manuscript of a third, unpublished Thackeray Phin novel (Scarlet Thief? Sky-blue Herrings? Violet Oracle? Gray Locks?) will turn up out of the blue one day. So decided to simply revisit Black Aura and Invisible Green. Beginning with one of my all-time favorite locked room mysteries. Can it stand up to rereading? Let's find out! 

Thackeray Phin is an American philosopher and aspiring detective, living London, whose "career as an amateur detective had begun promisingly a few months before" with "a locked room murder" known to the public as the Aaron Wallis Murder Case – which is the impossible crime he solved in "By an Unknown Hand." However, the murder of Aaron Wallis has been his only case, so far. Phin even runs a newspaper ad, "professional logician and amateur sleuth would like a challenge," but without much result. So he decides to practice on humbler mysteries like occultism, faith healers, mind readers and mediums. What he plans to do is ingratiate himself into Mrs. Viola Webb's Aetheric Mandala Society.

Mrs. Viola Webb is a very well-known, expensive spiritualist medium with a posh clientele comprising of true believers, skeptics and truth seekers who live in a commune. But there has been gossip about the society ever since one of its members, David Lauderdale, died from a heroine overdose in the house. Rumor has it, David wore "this sacred amulet from some Egyptian tomb" around his neck and there's "supposed to be some kind of curse on it." Recently, the death was mentioned again in the paper under the headline, "DRUG VICTIM'S GHOST WARNS POP STAR AT LONDON COMMUNE SEANCE." So the Aetheric Mandala Society promises enough parlor tricks to debunk and initially encounters nothing more than cold readings ("really a game of Twenty Questions"), ghosts playing around with trumpets during a séance and a spectral Indian chief who warns Phin "that there are some mysteries better left alone." Aaron Wallis also dropped in on the séance to thank Phin for solving his murder. So the usual, standard fare for a table-tapping session, but, pretty soon, the strangest of things begin to happen in-and around the house of the society.

Firstly, Dr. Andrew Lauderdale, father of David Lauderdale, who gave up science to become a member and use to the society as "a lifeline to what he imagines is the ghost of his son" goes missing under seemingly impossible circumstances. Dr. Lauderdale was seen entering a bathroom, locked it behind him, but never came out or responds to them hammering on the door. So they fetch a spare key to open the door, but they only find the tap running and an Egyptian scarab on the glass shelf above the sink. Otherwise, "the room was empty." Secondly, a little later on in the story, another member temporarily vanishes from a chapel at a funeral home with all the entrances and exits under observation. However, the centerpiece of the plot involves a truly staggering, impressively-staged miraculous murder while the victim was observed floating mid-air!

Steve Sonday, the pop singer who was warned by Dave's ghost, gives a demonstration of the "aetheric forces" generated during a trance state and is locks himself inside a small, triangular box-like room – called the Quiet Room. While the rest wait in the room, where the triangular box-like room stands, it appears as if Steve has astral projected his body outside the room. They see Steve Sonday outside the window, "floating in mid-air about ten foot straight out from the balcony" and "illuminating his face with a pocket torch." Just standing there in mid-air! But when they rush to open the window, the spell is broken and Steve plunges to his death onto the iron-spiked fence below. How did manage to levitate in front of a fourth-story window when he was supposed to be locked up in a small room?

There you have to setup to one hell of a locked room mystery and the temptation is there to draw a comparison with Hake Talbot's Rim of the Pit (1944), but Talbot employed the seances, apparently supernatural occurrences and the string of impossibilities to create a genuine horror of a house under siege by otherworldly entities. Sladek's Black Aura is much more lighthearted, kindred spirit of John Dickson Carr's The Three Coffins (1935) with a dash of the self-aware, nearly punching through the fourth wall humor of Leo Bruce and Edmund Crispin. Just like Carr, Sladek lived in England and both depicted London as Baghdad-on-the-Thames. A fantastical place where high adventure awaits all who dares to seek it and miraculous things could happen like people levitating in mid-air. However, the playful ("I usually just hope the killer blurts out his guilt in front of witnesses"), self-aware detective ("I can't think of a single brilliant, but confusing, thing to say") and comedy is streaked with a kind of melancholic nostalgia (anemoia?) and day dreams of wish fulfillment.

I remember from my first reading being very amused about Phin's day dreaming about being a Great Detective. 

For example, the fifth chapter ("Scorpio Descending") has Phin day dreaming he's sitting next to a warm fire in his Baker Street rooms explaining to Dr. Watson who was behind the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888 ("Surely... that is elementary, Watson"). Phin immediately sobers up when he comes out of it as he observes that, nowadays, "the police did not wait politely behind the arras while the amateur investigator produced his dazzling deductions" and how "the worlds of crime and crime detection alike were infected with business efficiency." Now "they had computers capable of piling up great heaps of punched cards at astonishing speed" and "indentikits capable of rendering any human face whatever with the realism of a Disney cartoon." So considering the state of the genre in 1974 and his comments in 1982, it seems like Sladek took the opportunity winning the Times of London competition handed him to give the classic detective story and locked room mystery the sendoff they deserve. What a sendoff!

Admittedly, there are one, or two, minor smudged. I mentioned in my review of Horatio Winslow and Leslie Quirk's Into Thin Air (1928/29) the trickiest thing with these miracle parades is delivering good, or acceptable enough, solutions to every single one of them and usually one or more tend to be of a lesser quality – even outright filler material. That's unfortunately true of Black Aura as the impossible disappearances from the bathroom and chapel had nothing new or different to offer to the locked room mystery, merely smaller cogs and wheels in the machine of the overall plot, but the overall plot is what makes it a modern classic.

Firstly, there's the marvelous levitation-trick. The presentation of the impossibility is as memorable as it's original and the solution along with its superb clueing, including one of those shimmering tell-tale clues, you either spot or miss entirely, earning Black Aura its status as a classic of the locked room and impossible crime genre. Secondly, there's the wonderfully dovetailing of all the plot-threads, the nostalgic mood swings in the storytelling and the Golden Age-style characterization that even today makes it standout as an authentic, post-1950s continuation of the Golden Age tradition of the '30s and '40s. It's sad Sladek thought the genre was on its last leg in the 1970s and had to write one of its closing chapters, perhaps even its eulogy. But wonder what he (a science-fiction) would have thought, if he knew the futuristic internet would end up paving the way to a glorious Renaissance Era of the classic reprints and traditionally-styled (locked room) mysteries in the 21st century? I don't think even Sladek could have foreseen that development or us talking about him online, but something tells me would have approved.

So, to cut this overlong, sloppy and rambling review short, Sladek's Black Aura very much stood up to rereading and remains one of my all-time favorite locked room mysteries that needs to return to print! I'm very curious now to see if Invisible Green is actually better than Black Aura. I remember thinking Invisible Green was a step down from Black Aura, but so many keep insisting it's the superior of the two. So that one is next on the chopping block!


The Corpse That Never Was (1963) by Brett Halliday

Davis Dresser was an American crime writer and creator of the well-known, Miami-based private eye, Mike Shayne, who enjoyed "a long, successful, multi-media career" covering nearly 80 novels, hundreds of short stories, movies, TV-and radio shows and comic books – all done under the name "Brett Halliday." There even was a crime digest, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, which ran from 1956 to 1985 and each issue featured "a novella about the eponymous detective." Dresser largely retired from writing in the late 1950s and heavily relayed on ghostwriters like Robert Arthur, Richard Deming, Dennis Lynds and Bill Pronzini

I called Brett Halliday a hardboiled counterpart to Ellery Queen and not merely on account of the multimedia franchise, employing ghostwriters and a long-running mystery magazine. Mike Shayne is not your average, dime rack detective who drinks, shoots and wisecracks his way through a case. While he's no stranger to fistfights, Shayne seldom uses a gun and prefers to rely on his brain to crack a tough nut. Sometimes, "Shayne solved classical locked room mysteries" as in Murder and the Married Virgin (1944) and This Is It, Michael Shayne (1950). That's how The Corpse That Never Was (1963) appeared on my radar as it's essentially a who-and howdunit without any of the hardboiled trappings and the promise of a locked room puzzle. But before delving into the story, the authorship of the book needs to be acknowledged. 

The Corpse That Never Was is listed in several places as having been ghostwritten by an unidentified house author, but, while reading, it struck me it might have been the work of Dennis Lynds – whose work as "William Arden" has been discussed on this blog in the past. So decided to play genre archaeologist and digging around the internet brought an archived post from May 4, 2005, to the surface in which Lynds was asked if he wrote The Corpse That Never Was. Lynds had an interesting answer, "when you ask if I wrote some of Dave's novels, you must remember that except for the last one, what I wrote was a 30,000 or 20,000 word novelette for MSMM for which I was paid 11/2 cent a word, which Dave then bought from me for about $500 and rewrote it into a 40,000-odd word novel in his own style." So "with that context, yes, I wrote The Corpse That Never Was" and "you can find it in MSMM probably under a different title." Lynds played the Frederic Dannay to Dresser's Manfred B. Lee. Now that's out of the way, let's take a closer look at the story itself. 

The Corpse That Never Was begins very homely with Mike Shayne, "completely and utterly relaxed as he had ever been in his life," enjoying a home cooked meal prepared by his devoted secretary, Lucy Hamilton. But the peaceful evening is shattered when they hear "the dull, muffled sound of an explosion" coming from inside the apartment house almost directly above them. Shayne rushes up the stairs where he finds residents of the building crowded around a locked front door halfway down "knocking on the door and rattling the knob and talking excitedly." So, as a man of action, Shayne drove his right shoulder with hundred and ninety pounds behind it against the door until it buckled. What he found inside the apartment were two bodies. The body of a once beautiful, expensively dressed woman lay in the middle of the sitting room with an overturned cocktail glass lying next to her on the rug. A few feet away, the body of a man was slumped in a deep, upholstered chair with a twelve gauge shotgun on the floor beside the chair and "the terrific force of exploding gases from the shotgun blast had literally blown the man's head from his shoulders."

Shayne discovered two suicide notes, signed Robert Lambert, which explains he and Elsa had decided to commit suicide, because his wife's religion makes it impossible for them to be together in life. So he has mixed two deadly drinks. 

The second note explains that the suicide pact had gone horribly wrong. Elsa had "tossed off boldly and happily" the poisoned drink, but Robert's drink fell to the floor and had to watch as Elsa died. This corresponds with a second cocktail glass and wet stain lying near the kitchen door. The second note ends with him telling that he has a shotgun in the closet and is going to finish the job without bungling it. Shayne remarked the next day, he had never seen "a more positively cut-and-dried double suicide set-up" than the one he crashed into last night. Only one problem. Elsa is the only daughter and sole heir of old Eli Armbruster, "one of the wealthiest men on the peninsula," who "wielded more behind-the-scenes influence on Dade County politics than any other single individual." Eli Armbruster refuses to buy the suicide pact theory and pays Shayne a ten thousand dollar retainer to find the truth with an additional fifty thousand dollars for evidence that will convict his son-in-law, Paul Nathan, of his daughter's murder.

Firstly, The Corpse That Never Was is not a locked room mystery. Yes, the front door to the apartment was locked and chain-bolted on the inside, but the bedroom window onto the fire escape was standing wide open. So no idea why some have called it a locked room mystery unless Lynds' original novelette can be counted as one. Even without the double murder having a locked room angle, it presents more than enough twists, turns and tricky questions to keep Shayne busy. Such as the mysterious identity of Robert Lambert, because nobody has any idea who he really was or how he could have "come out of nowhere" to "carry on a passionate liaison with one of the wealthiest women in Dade County" – nary a trace of who really was or where he came from. Or why Elsa had engaged the services of a shady private eye, named Max Wentworth, which eventually leads to the discovery of a third body. All throughout the story, Shayne acts as a cross between a private investigator and an official policeman as he pretty much gets a run of the place. Shayne even uses his client's money to pay the police department's forensic team to do a little overtime by going over the crime scene a second time. So he's pretty much occupied throughout the story with interviewing suspects or witnesses, gathering information and going over Max Wentworth's reports without any of the usual action or fights you come to expect from a hardboiled P.I. novel. Not even the obligatory blow to the back of the head, which these private eyes seem to take as regularly as a stiff drink. They really take more bumps than a professional wrestler. That's what really gave me the idea Lynds might have had a hand in it.

Some of you probably thought it was the vaguely promised locked room mystery and Lynds contributed a number of locked room mysteries to the genre (e.g. "The Bizarre Case Expert," 1970), but it could have just as easily been Richard Deming or someone else. The Corpse That Never Was discarded the usual hardboiled ingredients to present a much more conventional and cerebral detective problem, which also did in one of The Three Investigator novels he wrote as William Arden. The Mystery of the Headless Horse (1973) muted a lot of the usual adventurous and exciting elements normally obligatory in these juvenile mysteries as the three heroes have to dig through old archives, maps and yellowed letters to solve a 130-year-old family secret. Lynds obviously wanted to educate his young readers on the importance of proper research, critical reading and not to take everything on face value, but it brought the book to mind while reading The Corpse That Never Was. So it was nice surprise to discover my shot in the dark about the authorship hit home when I found that archived post.

But how well does The Corpse That Never Was stack up as a plot-driven detective story? I think most readers can probably make an educated guess about the main thrust of the plot as (ROT13) gur obbx-gvgyr naq n urnqyrff ivpgvz count as the least subtle nods and hints towards the solution in the book. The proper nods, hints and some genuine clues only confirm what you probably already suspect, but the plot, on a whole, is not bad. Admittedly, there are a few clever touches and details to the solution (ROT13/SPOILER: yvxr gur fubgtha oynfg boyvgrengvat obgu gur ivpgvz'f vqragvgl naq qrfgeblvat rivqrapr ur unq orra xabpxrq hapbafpvbhf). Just a little too much on the obvious side to be truly noteworthy. But it was fun to see an iconic gumshoe tackling a case as a normal detective who doesn't use his head to absorb blows and punches.


Time to Kill (1974) by Roger Ormerod

Last year, I delved a little deeper into the work of a reprehensively overlooked mystery novelist, Roger Ormerod, whose writing career stretched from 1974 to 1999 during which he tried to balance the classic, traditionally-plotted detective story with the contemporary, character-driven crime novel – culminating in the creation of what can only be described as retro Golden Age mysteries. You can traces of Ormerod's ties to the classical detective story running through his earliest novels (e.g. More Dead Than Alive, 1980), but the dark, gloomy grit of the police procedural and private eye fiction appeared to dominate those earlier works. I assumed from my limited reading it was a difficult, fifteen-year-long process to arrive at those perfectly balanced, finely-polished 1990s retro Golden Age mysteries like The Key to the Case (1992), A Shot at Nothing (1993) and And Hope to Die (1995). 

So the plan was to continue to root around that period, but then Isaac Stump, of Solving the Mystery of Murder, began praising Time to Kill (1974) as "it perfectly sets up Ormerod's thorough and educated understanding of Golden Age-style alibi trickery almost in the style of Christopher Bush." That caught my attention even more than Isaac labeling Time to Kill as an impossible alibi with one of his favorite explanation to that particular problem. Christopher Bush died less than a year before Time to Kill was published and, suddenly, the prospect of Ormerod's classically-styled alibi-smasher appeared like a passing of the torch moment. Ormerod taking over the torch from Bush as he bowed out of actively being alive. And so it got moved up the pile. 

Time to Kill marked Ormerod's debut and introduced his first series-character,st Sergeant David Mallin, who demonstrates here why he's destined to abandon his career with the police to become a private investigator.

Several years ago, a then still Detective Constable Mallin assisted his mentor and later friend, Inspector Geoffrey Forbes, to catch a particular nasty piece of work. Eldon Kyle is a vicious drug pusher who moonlights as a championship snooker player and spends all his time around billiard halls, which is where he meets and ensnares, "like wretched hooked fish," his clients – picking them clean to "the last ounce of suffering cash." And "if the odd suicide depleted his clientele," there was always "the next initiate waiting in the agony line." Forbes really wanted to take Kyle down and eventually succeeded when Mallin had a flash of inspiration where he had hidden two pounds of heroin. Kyle is not the sporting type and immediately started uttering threats upon his arrest, which he repeated right up until he was sentenced. Eldon Kyle has now served his sentence and it doesn't take very long for Mallin to cotton on to the fact that he's out of prison.

The first chapter opens with Mallin being thrown around like rag doll by a big, bulky goon with "a face like an angel carved out of granite" and "huge, solid hands that swung just above his knees." A surprisingly good-humored, intelligent goon who later on in the story politely introduces himself as Odin Breeze and tails Mallin throughout the story while his massive frame is magically folded into a bright, orange Mini. Odin Breeze left behind one of Kyle's visiting card ("with the compliments of...") which is followed by a telephone call to invite Mallin to play snooker. Mallin accepts the invitation and the evening becomes an intense game with a growing crowd of spectators gathering around the snooker table. Needless to say, Mallin didn't emerge from the game smelling like roses, but the evening becomes even stranger when the night porter brings him a message. Mallin had no idea the retired Forbes had an apartment above the billiard hall and he had asked the night porter to tell Mallin to come up and see him. But what he found was murder. Forbes had been stabbed in the guts with a long, thin blade and left to die.

A murder with "all the hallmarks of Kyle's personality, the viciousness of the wound, lethal but not immediately," but Mallin had unwittingly handed Kyle a gift-wrapped alibi. Mallin is determined "to bust his alibi wide open," but only succeeds "in tightening his alibi" and digging a hole for himself. Kyle might have an unimpeachable alibi, but Mallin has a gap in his and, as it turns out, a pretty sweet motive to boot as he has been in love with Elsa Forbes for years – which eventually places him in direct opposition with his own superior. Only way to dig himself out of that hole is smashing Kyle's alibi to pieces. 

Time to Kill is a very short, snappy detective story that immediately comes to the point and handily uses the trappings of the character-driven police procedural of the time to simultaneously setup the series and the plot. There are no unnecessary, extraneous plot-threads dangling around the background as everything's linked together and the result is a very trim, crisply told detective story with a cleverly contrived plot carefully balanced on a daring a alibi-trick. The trick really is something on par with a top-tier Christopher Bush novel! I had a pretty good idea how Kyle could have done it, but there was a huge, gaping hole in the theory that warranted second thoughts. But then the solution turned the entire situation around (ROT13:V jnfa’g gurer va beqre gb tvir uvz na nyvov”) to neatly plug that hole. A possibility I had not considered, while it seems rather obvious in hindsight. So you can say Ormerod delivered the kind of goods you expect (or hope) to find in a detective novel penned in that fine, time-honored tradition of the genre's golden period!

However, I've to disagree with Isaac's qualification of Time to Kill as an example of the impossible alibi. I know it's not a widely accepted definition of the impossible alibi, but I can only accept an alibi as an impossible crime when the murderer appears to have been physically impossible to have carried out the crime. So no tampering with clocks, manipulating witnesses or so-called paper trails. It must appear as a physical impossibility for the murderer to have done it, because of a physical limitation or under going surgery at the time of the murder. Time to Kill is an excellent alibi-smasher, but, alas, not an impossible one. But feel free to disagree. Everyone else does around here. :)

So, on a whole, Time to Kill is a short, but sweet, detective novel that played the inverted mystery as a dangerous cat-and-mouse game between Mallin and Kyle with an annoyingly sturdy alibi as the linchpin of the plot. And it worked marvelously! Ormerod understood what makes a plot tick and gave his readers a glimpse what could have been had the Golden Age detective story been allowed to evolve naturally pass the 1950s. Highly recommended as Ormerod deserves to be acknowledged for keeping the home fires burning during the final decades of the previous century. A period that was not exactly kind to the traditional detective story.


Pray for the Dawn (1946) by Eric Harding

Eric Harding's Pray for the Dawn (1946) could have been the poster child for obscure, out-of-print and virtually impossible to obtain mystery novels that might have been completely forgotten today had it not been for a single, minuscule plot-thread – securing a place in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991). Adey even highlighted Pray for the Dawn in the preface as "a thriller rather than a detective novel" with "a degree of novelty" that's "well worth seeking out." Another stroke of luck that would eventually wrest the book away from total obscurity is John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, who loves extremely scarce mysteries crammed with occult lore and voodoo rituals. 

John Norris reviewed it back in April, 2021, which promised something along the lines of Theodore Roscoe's Murder on the Way (1935) meets Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1939). A detective novel ("albeit a very unconventional one") disguised as an adventurous thriller with an atmosphere of slowly mounting terror on an isolated island. So it begged to be reprinted. Ramble House agreed with that sentiment and republished Harding's Pray for the Dawn for the first time since its original publication 75 years ago.

Before delving into the story and plot, I need to note that I decided against tagging this post as a "locked room mystery" and "impossible crime." The impossibility is described by Adey in Locked Room Murders as "an encoffined dwarf," dead for ten years, "is seen to breath and perspire," but it's such a minor piece of the puzzle that presenting it as a locked room would detract from it as an excellent mystery-thriller. So, now, on to the story itself!

Barry Vane, a ballet dancer and member of the Carl Velte International Ballet, who narrates the story as he travels to the remote home of his uncle, Nathan Claymole. A former explorer, crook and trader in native artifacts, but Barry recalled precious little of his uncle except, a little uneasily, "the hints and rumours whispered about him by other and more respectable members of the family" – having "done nothing to enhance the prestige of the white race" during his time in foreign parts. So quite the black sheep of the family. Barry had not seen his uncle since he was a child and was pleasantly surprised to receive an invitation that suggested "something in the nature of a reunion" with the premise that the visit would be to his advantage. Just at the time when an accident had shelved his dancing career.

The dark, lonely house, "quite a haunted sort of place," which is encircled by a stream, "more of a torrent than a stream," called the Boa ("like a great mad snake") that can only be reached by crossing "a damn' rickety plank" serving as a bridge. The house is covered on the inside with animal skins, spears, knives and shields with shrunken heads decorating the mantelpieces. So a perfect place to either have an old-fashioned detective story or a pulp-style thriller. Either will do. And when Barry finally arrives, the normally quiet, largely empty house has filled with relatives who haven't seen one another in decades. Firstly, there's Toby Judd, or Uncle Judd, who's technically an outsider as he accepted the invitation on behalf of his late wife, Jennie. A niece of the host. Caroline Claymole is "the most tyrannical zealot" of the family with narrow, religious convictions who disapproves of her brother Nathan and browbeat her young daughter, Betsy. Oscar Claymole is a cousin of Caroline and is already "a bundle of nerves" who "looked utterly miserable" when he was introduced to Barry. Bret Jenson is their American cousin whose calm, self-assurance "almost amounted to conceit" and Barry would come to detest him intensely before many hours were passed. Miss Sylvia Bream "is a more distant but nevertheless most charming member" of the family with whom Barry very quickly falls in love. Great-uncle Jonah Clay is the ancient relic of the group and gives meaning to the phrase, "death outliving the grave." Finally, there's the African servant, Kish, who's a somewhat sinister character who utters such pleasantries as "heads—men heads" and "dead sometimes come to life."

So the macabre, outright bizarre stage is set, but it takes a while for Nathan Claymole to appear as he has been standing guard over the body of a dead dwarf. However, the dwarf was no ordinary man!

N'olah was a witch-doctor of the Javiro tribe of South America, "died ten years ago tonight," but Nathan tells his relatives "a devil-man does not die like an ordinary person" and "wakes again in his own good time" – which he believes will happen that night. So he has been watching over the body since dawn, because he's dangerous and must not awake alone. Not even Nathan wants a sadistic, undead murderer "who takes human life for the joy of killing" walking around his house unsupervised. The family even gets to view the terrifying body in his oblong coffin, which is when they see the body breath and perspire. So, as to be expected, Nathan and Kish happened to be out of the bizarre room when N'olah apparently stirred from his "uneasy sleep" and disappeared. Nathan orders Kish to smash the support to the bridge to trap the N'olah on the island. And them with him! What could possibly go wrong? A family member is found strangled in his bedroom with the dwarf's strangling cord, "a plaited raffia loop," still around the victim's neck. There were "eight strangling loops on the dwarf's bandolier." Suggesting there's a noose for each of Nathan's visiting relative.

So it goes without saying the rapidly unfolding events places even more stress on the already strained group of people. While the "regression into savagery" never reaches the levels of Anthony Berkeley's Panic Party (1934) or Christie's And Then There Were None, you can feel that even the rational character have sunken ankle deep into madness with a few of them teetering on the edge as the horrific events begin to translate into outright hysteria. Since the story is presented as a adventurous thriller with supernatural overtones, you really have to read for yourself what goes down on that scary, isolated island in the middle of nowhere. It makes for an excellent read!

Regardless of all its sensational, pulp-style thriller trappings and mounting hysteria, Harding craftily hid a pure, Golden Age detective story underneath it all. John Norris wrote in his review (linked above) that's not unfair "to reveal that all of the supernatural events will turn out to be rationalized." I agree as it both reassures the readers of our blogs that there's payoff in the end and it enhances the fun of trying to work out the solution, because you have an actual shot at doing it. Once again, to quote the real expert, "scattered throughout the story are multidinous red herrings" alongside "several cleverly planted clues." A noteworthy clue that can be safely pointed out the Author's Note at the start of the story in which Harding apologizes for having written "a story of adventure to pass away a peaceful hour" instead of "an exercise in detection." He also points out "a deliberate and intentional gap in the continuity of the story," which "the astute arm-chair detective will readily assess the significance of this omission." A lesser mystery writer would never have dared such a bold move and should have made me more alert than I already was, because the misdirection and red herrings were as good as the fair play clueing. There's a red herring that likely was not intended as a red herring, but it worked as one in 2022. You see, the covered, western sandals of N'olah and Barry noticing his wrists ended in stumps left me very suspicious as I imagined something straight out of a Japanese, horror-tinged detective novel. A piece of body horror coming to life would not have been out of place in Pray for the Dawn, but Harding slipped something a little more sophisticated, oddly traditional pass me unnoticed. Something that has been done before and since the book was published, but seldom executed with the skill, cunning and careful construction as seen here. Just as impressive is how the solutions to the murders contrasted with its fantastic premise and storytelling. Harding ended up having his cake and eating it too! And he got away with it!

So, all in all, Pray for the Dawn is an excellent, unjustly overlooked and forgotten mystery-thriller not only deserving of being resurrected, but makes you mourn the fact Harding only passed through the genre. If he had stuck around, Harding could have been a fan favorite like John Dickson Carr, Theodore Roscoe and Hake Talbot. Recommended as a highly unconventional, but strangely successful detective/thriller novel. 

Just explain one thing to me: how is it possible Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning's The Invisible Host (1930) won the 2021 Reprint of the Year Award, while a novel like Pray for the Dawn was ignored? I need to understand how it happened.


Into Thin Air (1928/29) by Horatio Winslow and Leslie Quirk

Robert Adey spotlighted Horatio Winslow and Leslie Quirk's Into Thin Air (1928/29) in his preface to Locked Room Murders (1991), under "The Second Phase 1902-1929," as it concerns "numerous appearances and disappearances of people and things in graveyards and at séances" with "a magnificent detective" – while Pietro de Palma called it "mandatory for those who love the genre." Just one, tiny problem. Winslow and Quirk's Into Thin Air is largely known today for being among the most elusive, out-of-print and nearly impossible to find locked room mysteries. But the key word there is nearly. After all these years, it was practically shoved into my hands like an early Sinterklaas or Christmas present! 

Despite the recommendations, I expected to find little more than a curiosity from the genre's storied history. A pioneering, spirited attempt to present the detective story as an impossibilities galore with perhaps one, or two, good tricks to justify its reputation among locked room devotees like Adey and De Palma. At the very least, I hoped Into Thin Air would outperform Noël Vindry's A travers les murailles (Through the Walls, 1936) and Richard Ellington's Exit for a Dame (1951), which most of us can agree on are the poorest of these miracle parades. I can see now that the reason it clung to its reputation has nothing to do with the procession of seemingly supernatural and otherworldly situations, but that the story reads like it was written in the late 1930s or '40s. Into Thin Air is exactly the kind of impossible crime novel that began to appear in the wake of John Dickson Carr's The Three Coffins (1935). Such as Clayton Rawson's Death from a Top Hat (1938), Anthony Boucher's Nine Times Nine (1940) and Derek Smith's Whistle Up the Devil (1954). 

Into Thin Air even has its own meta-discussion on the detective story and its readers, "XII: I Learn How to Write a Detective Story," but more on that in a moment.

Winslow and Quirk's Into Thin Air opens with a series of clippings from Mid-Western American newspapers reporting the wild, unbelievable rise and crashing down to earth again of master thief, "The Salem Spook" – an arch-criminal with a penchant for the impossible. The articles recount the stories of victims and witnesses who saw the Salem Spook passing "through the cement wall" of a solid, brick building or simply disappearing into thin air. One of the victims, tied and gagged, had to look on helplessly as the Salem Spook "flapped his arms, flew about the room like a bird and then soared straight out the fifty-story window." Dr. Klotz, head of the Department of Criminology at an unnamed university, is responsible for the capture and conviction of the Salem Spook, but "visibly disappointed at the leniency of the sentence" and the thief walked out of the prison as quickly as he had entered it. The last clipping reports that the Salem Spook had died in a train wreck and made his last disappearance-act as he vanished "under six feet of clay in the local Potter's Field." This is only the two-page prologue that serves as a taste of things to come. 

Into Thin Air is narrated by a criminologist, Professor Alden T. Nollins, who's on his way to the home of Colonel Carrol to witness Ernest H. Fitkin's "exposé of fraudulent mediums." Colonel Carrol has fought bitterly with Judge Mather over the existence of the supernatural and the former has arranged the exposé of fakery to needle the Judge Mather with Fitkin being no less a person than the Great Galeoto. A retired magician who was the last of the giants from the dying days of the golden age of sleight-of-hand. Dr. Herman Klotz is a late arrival to the demonstration, but, when he finally makes his entrance, his personality monopolizes the entire room.

Nollins had worked under Klotz and knows him as an "unhallowed mixture of cosmopolitan and savant," omniscient, arrogant, curious and conquering, who had confounded, humiliated even, chemists, mathematicians, carpenters, doctors of English literature and cocksure engineers – carrying discussions "into the twilight realms of their own subject." A polymath with a malicious streak who simply couldn't "resist the opportunity of exposing the exposer." However, the demonstration comes to an end when a telephone call summons Dr. Klotz back to his home. The housekeeper, Sarah, had a terrifying experience as the Salem Spook returned from the grave, forced his way into the home and bleated at her like a goat before disappearing in a puff of smoke. Dr. Klotz discovers the Salem Spook took a cameo ring from his private collection and left a fingerprint on a hand mirror. So he convinces the others to go down to the cemetery, where the Salem Spook had been buried three days previously, to illegally exhume the body in order to compare the prints. Not only does the print on the hand mirror match with those of the dead thief, but the body they just dug up is wearing Dr. Klotz's stolen ring on his left hand! How did a ring that had been stolen that evening end up around the finger of dead man who had been buried three days of ago under already hardened clay?

This is still only just the beginning as the ghostly manifestations and impossible situations continue to pile on. The ghost of the Salem Spook, "a faintly incandescent mass hovering near a back window of the Klotz home," is seen by three witnesses in three separate locations as the "luminous figure" float from a window and "flutter around the rear corner of the house." Klotz fired three shots at the manifestation without any effect and a patrolling policeman chases the apparition until it simply vanishes into thin air. The "spectral visitant" also puts in a double appearance during a séance and the Salem Spook is chased a second time through a staircase to the roof, but without making any sound like "he floated right the stairway and out on the roof." Where he, once again, disappeared without a trace. That vanishing-act coincided with a murder discovered later in the same building.

I've glossed over many big plot points and minor details, but you get the idea. Into Thin Air is a very busy, eventful mystery novel with one or two unexpected twists and turns along the way. But how well do all those varied impossible situations stack up? Well, I'm afraid that's a question with two different answers.

On the one hand, the explanations to the various impossibilities are unlikely to excite the true devotees of the locked room mystery, because either you have seen that kind of trickery before and done better or you can make a pretty good guess how it was done – not exactly what you hope to find in a long-lost classic. On the other hand, the explanations were not necessarily bad or downright awful with various degrees in quality and, on a whole, there's an amazing consistency along the entire string of impossible situations. John Pugmire wrote in a 2005 article, "Paul Halter, A Master of Locked Rooms," even "the prolific M. Halter can't string a dozen together in one book" in reference to meager half a dozen impossible crimes in Le douze crime d'Hercule (The Twelve Crimes of Hercules, 2001). This is true for most of these miracle parades that usually have one or two core locked rooms/impossibilities with the remainder being either average or outright filler material. So I expected the glut of disappearances described in the prologue to be waved away as acts of mesmerism and hypnosis, but the authors came up with something a little better to explain how the Salem Spook could have walked through walls or sprouted invisible wings. I don't believe those tricks would have worked every single time, but prefer it over mesmerism and hypnosis. And liked how it defied my expectations. Even better were the incidents with the stolen ring recovered from a sealed grave and the visitations of the Salem Spook's ghost, which immediately recalled similar events from Hake Talbot's Rim of the Pit (1944). You can consider Into Thin Air to be a direct ancestor of Talbot's detective fiction and Rim of the Pit in particular. The impossibilities towards the end, like the chase up the staircase, were decent enough. But nothing outstanding.

So, while not anywhere near as good as Carr, Talbot or even Rawson, the avalanche of impossibilities remain consistent from the prologue to the very ending. Not one of them is truly mind-blowing when explained, but neither do they deliver a crushing blow of disappointment. I like to propose a theory how they managed to do that. Winslow and Quirk had collaborated before on a short story, "The All-Seeing Eye," which appeared in the December 5, 1915, publication of Detective Story Magazine. They both have contributed a lot of magazine fiction during the 1910s (here and here). So could they have taken all of their impossible crime ideas from their short stories and combined them into one big story? It's not uncommon for writers to rework their short stories into novel-length stories (see Bill Pronzini). And it would explain why Into Thin Air feels like an American detective story from the first decade of the previous century.

However, as noted above, Into Thin Air appears to have clung to its reputation not necessarily on its strengths as a locked room and impossible crime mystery, but as a really weird prototype of the post-1935 locked room mystery – exemplified by the quasi-meta discussion in Chapter XII. Just like "The Locked Room Lecture" in Carr's The Three Coffins, the chapter “I Learn How to Write a Detective Story” discusses the differences between magicians, mystery writers and readers. The Great Galeoto even slyly acknowledges the fourth wall ("to me these appearances and disappearances of the Salem Spook suggest only the foundation for a detective story") without breaking it like Dr. Gideon Fell ("...we're in a detective story and we don't fool the reader by pretending we're not"). I loved the tongue-in-cheek analyzes of the all different types of mystery readers. Not always very flattering, but have a sense of humor about it. I suppose you can file me under the "C" category: "...C is more sophisticated. He has read other books, seen other conjurors, investigated other crimes. The trained detective type. He sorts out the various suspicious characters, tickets each doubtful word or action, decides on the weight of the evidence” and “more often than not he is wrong." Not always, but often. :D

I could go on ballooning this review with irrelevant observations, but, needless to say, I found Into Thin Air to be an entertaining, absorbing and fascinating piece of genre fiction in spite of its shortcomings. Into Thin Air is basically unpolished pulp with shallow, barely existent characterization, but, as a 1930s styled impossible crime novel from the twenties, it will not fail to enrapture students of the genre. And on that count alone, it deserves to be reprinted. 

Hold on a minute: Just one more thing! While quickly going over the review, I noticed I forgot to include something. Mike Grost wrote on his website how the storytelling "suffers from unpleasant characters" that "seem malicious and are not much fun to read about." That's largely true and, while it didn't bother me, it made one character standout as very different, the original Salem Spook. There's a playful, almost childlike innocence to the crimes and tricks described in the prologue. Quite the opposite from the grimmer, present-day impossibilities the story focuses on. The Salem Spook would have made a great and fun regular for a 1920s magazine as he robs crooks of the ill-gotten gains and performs a disappearance-act to make them sound unhinge (officer, you don't understand, I'm not crazy! Salem Spook flew away on the antique rug he stole from me). I'll shut up now.