Exit Sir John (1947) by Brian Flynn

I closed my 2019 review of Brian Flynn's The Spiked Lion (1933) with the statement that Flynn simply wanted to write good and entertaining detective fiction, which suited his remarkable gift for versatility and produced a wild variety of detective novels – covering everything from Doylean pulp-thrillers to good, old-fashioned whodunits. So, unavailable, the quality can be as wild and varying as Flynn's diverse output, but the bad is usually outweighed by the good. Only found two of Flynn's novels to be truly bad and disappointing. There's the rather messily-plotted The Five Red Fingers (1929) and the recently reissued The Sharp Quillet (1947), which completely fell to pieces in the last chapter. 

Fortunately, those duds tend to be rare. While not every one of Flynn's experiments were howling successes (e.g. Cold Evil, 1938), he has earned enough credit over the years not to be deterred by coming across one, or two, rotten apples along the way.

Flynn's Exit Sir John (1947) is the 34th entry in the Anthony Bathurst series and turned out to be not only a vast improvement over The Sharp Quillet, but another worthwhile title to be added to the list of Christmas-themed mysteries. The story begins with Mr. Walter Medlicott, solicitor and sole surviving partner Medlicott, Stogdon and Medlicott, who has something preying on his mind. Something that involved a sealed envelope with the name of his old friend and client, Sir John Wynyard, scrawled across it. Medlicott opened the envelope, read its content and effectively "signed his own death-warrant." Not before going to High Fitchet to spend one last Christmas with Sir John and his family. Upon his arrival, Medlicott finds High Fitchet brimming with guests. I will forego the introductions of the characters as there over twenty family members, house guests and servants, which can make the opening chapters feel a little crowded. But nothing too confusing, once everyone is clearly introduced.

Christmas at High Fitchet "had really been the best Christmas" and Boxing Day was "a real cracker-jack of fun and games," but the fun and games would soon come to an end as the house would "engulfed in horror."

During the early hours of the 27th of December, Sir John Wynyard left his bed, walked downstairs to his writing room with a copy of the Bible and seated himself at the desk to write a letter – only to die of heart failure ("an absolutely natural death"). Dr. Beddington sees no reason for a postmortem and so a glorious Christmas appears to have ended on a tragic note. However, Medlicott goes missing during the day, when several members of the Christmas party went out for a long walk, which becomes three separate search parties to look for him. They find his body near the edge of a pond with a broken neck and an nasty laceration on his right-hand cheek. This time, it's unmistakably murder. The murderer wastes little time to dispose of the second victim as the strangled body of the chauffeur, John Gooch, is found the following morning in the garage. All three dead man had a note on them reading, "hand over the diamond—or else! Mr. Levi."

So the local authorities, once again, turn to Scotland Yard for help and Sir Austin Kemble, Commissioner of Police, does what he usually does when confronted with an extraordinary affair. He dispatches Chief-Detective-Inspector Andrew MacMorran to the scene of the crime and tells him to take Anthony Bathurst along, because if you have a brilliant amateur detective lounging about, you might as well put him to work. This case has more than enough to it to keep him occupied until the New Year!

Anthony Bathurst, in order to make sense out of two complicated, entangled murders, "must evolve some measure of order out of it" to "have any hope of achieving anything like a satisfactory result." Which is easier said than done with over twenty potential suspects on his hands. So he divides the suspects into two circles, Family and Guests, which is not a bad way to juggle a large cast of characters. It fitted both the "mostly conversation" procedure of Bathurst and MacMorran's investigation as well as the backdrop of those last, snowy days and mostly quiet days of December. Nor did it veer even once anywhere near "dragging-the-marshes" territory. But not only the suspects require a bit of ordering. There are also a ton of clues and "scarlet herrings" that need to be sorted out. Why was there a Bible lying open on the desk? What did Gooch try to tell Sir Nicholas, before he was silenced? Who stole Quentin Wynyard's camera and ransacked Elisabeth Grenville's suitcase? Who's the mysterious Mr. Levi? Where's the diamond he was wrote three dead man about? And why was the snow disturbed, "all kicked up," on the way to the pond-gate?

However, the clueing has been (not entirely undeserved) criticized by the very man who rediscovered Flynn and wrote the introductions to the new Dean Street Press editions, Steve Barge. Steve wrote in his 2017 review Exit Sir John is "not fairly clued, unless the reader is aware of a fairly obscure piece of literature" and "the motive needs a bit of a stab in the dark" – to which I both agree and disagree. I largely figured out the motive, effectively revealing the murderer's identity (nailed it!), but my solution was not based on any of the more prominently displayed clues or seeing through any of the red herrings. It based on what was implied between the lines (SPOILER/ROT13: yvxr Uryra Ercgba fhttrfgvat gb Onguhefg gur punhssrhe pbhyq unir orra zvfgnxra sbe Avpubynf Jlalneq be jul bcravat rairybcr frnyrq gur fbyvpvgbef sngr). So the real clues, or hints, can be a little ethereal in nature, but an imaginative reader can roughly work out the solution with only some of the finer details regarding motive needing filling in towards the end. What is poorly clued, however, is how Medlicott got his neck broken. It's a very unusual, very original method to commit murder, but putting the clues together demands a huge, imaginative leap of logic. I don't believe it helped that this facet of the case was largely ignored, until the end.

So, while not the long-lost classic of the seasonally-themed detective novel that was Flynn's first attempt at a Christmas mystery, The Murders Near Mapleton (1929), Exit Sir John is still a fine addition to that list of bingeworthy, Christmas-themed mysteries to read during that dark, but cozy, month of December. More importantly, Flynn's treatment of murder at an English manor house around Christmastime here felt fresh and somewhat off the beaten path. Not everything was executed flawlessly, but the end result is another one of Flynn's highly enjoyable, well-written and (mostly) competently plotted detective novel.


So Great a Distance: "The Riddle of the Whirling Lights" (1935) by Stuart Palmer

Last year, Crippen & Landru published a sequel to one of the best collections of "Lost Classics," Stuart Palmer's Hildegarde Withers: Uncollected Riddles (2002), which gathered ten, previously uncollected, short stories under a promising title, Hildegarde Withers: Final Riddles? (2021) – as there are still a dozen stories out there. Buried somewhere in obscure magazines and newspapers. 

Hildegarde Withers: Final Riddles? collected short stories from the 1950s and '60s period, which clearly showed Palmer tried to adept to the changing times as his short stories put more emphasis on characterization and storytelling. So very different in tone and structure from the shimmering, intricately-plotted 1930s short stories collected in Hildegarde Withers: Uncollected Riddles. There were some excellent stories in that last collection, "Where Angels Fear to Tread" (1951), "You Bet Your Life" (1957) and "Who is Sylvia?" (1961), but Palmer's thirties short stories stand among the finest pieces of American detective fiction written during the genre's golden years. Why do those 1930s stories persist in being so thoroughly forgotten or overlooked?

Mike Grost, of A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection, writes on his website how Palmer's earlier short stories "tend to draw on the technique of the impossible crime" or "use plot ideas reminiscent of the impossible crime to give an alibi to a single character," while others are "out and out impossible crime tales." More than one can rightly be called gems. Curiously, none of Palmer's 1930s impossible crime stories are listed in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991), Brian Skupin's Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019) nor even "The Updated List of My Favorite Tales of Locked Room Murders & Impossible Crimes." Yeah, I forgot about them too. So time for a refresher and decided to revisit one of my favorite stories from Hildegarde Withers: Uncollected Riddles.

Palmer's "The Riddle of the Whirling Lights," originally published in the January, 1935, issue of Mystery, takes place in the Windy City during a cold, blowy Chicago December – where the planetarium becomes the scene of a chance encounter. Tony Lassiter and Avis Le Glare are strangers who find themselves stranded between trains to New York on the icy steps of the Adler Planetarium and Astronomical Museum. So they decide to "be bored together" and plunk themselves down in the middle of the fourth row, of the big planetarium room, to watch the magic and mystery of the sky as the entire firmament of heaven sprang forth upon the domed ceiling. Tony noticed Avis was leaning against him and put his arm around her ("what else was darkness and starlight for?"), but her head "rolled limply and horribly on his shoulder." Something "warm and sticky ebbing from the back of her neck." She had been stabbed with one half of a pair of scissors, which was found beneath a row of seats in the front of the hall.

So the police arrest Tony on the spot as "nobody could have stabbed her without climbing over the feet of the nice old ladies in the row behind them" unless "the killer wore wings or had arms ten feet long." Why would he kill a woman he known for less than an hour or two?

Fortunately, Miss Hildegarde Withers happened to be in Chicago and receives a telegram from Inspector Oscar Piper, in New York City, to investigate the murder at the Chicago planetarium ("PARENTS AUTHORIZE ANY EXPENSE"). Miss Withers presents herself to the District Attorney with a silver badge ("purely honorary") and is allowed to provide some unofficial assistance, but D.A. sees very little hope as the case appears to be "open and shut." But what about the scattered clues? The murder weapon and victim's handbag were discovered in different places around the planetarium. What happened to the second scissor blade? Miss Withers is presented with four witnesses, or rather suspects, who were questioned and searched without result. It takes more work than usually in a short story, before Miss Withers can exclaim, "eureka," but evidence is lacking. Miss Withers sets a trap for the murderer with herself, "a meddling busybody," as bait. 

Palmer's "The Riddle of the Whirling Lights" is an excellent, multi-layered and fairly clued detective story with not only a neatly posed, and solved, impossible murder, but a "hidden object" (murder weapon) subplot – a type of side-puzzle often figuring in his detective fiction. Whereas the '50s and '60s Miss Withers' stories prioritized characterization and motivation, "The Riddle of the Whirling Lights" focuses on the how first, the who second and the why comes last. The answers to the first two were great and the solution to the impossible stabbing interesting as it's another variation on a method, or idea, Palmer apparently favored. Namely (SPOILER/ROT13) oevqtvat n tnc orgjrra zheqrere naq ivpgvz. Cnyzre cerfragrq fvzvyne ceboyrzf va “Gur Evqqyr bs gur Oenff Onaq,” Gur Chmmyr bs gur Crccre Gerr naq Gur Chmmyr bs gur Oyhr Onaqrevyyn, juvpu nyy unir qvssrerag fbyhgvbaf jbexvat ba fvzvyne vqrnf. Rira zber vagrerfgvat, Cnyzre nccrnef gb unir funerq gurfr vzcbffvoyr pevzr vqrnf jvgu Xryyrl Ebbf (p.s. Fnvybe, Gnxr Jneavat!). But what a finely-crafted how-was-it-done with a marvelous and original setting, which certainly helped enhanced the overall quality of story even further. Highly recommended! 

A note for the curious: a quick search showed I mentioned “The Riddle of the Whirling Lights” twice before in my reviews of Moray Dalton's The Art School Murders (1943) and John Russell Fearn's One Remained Seated (1946). So it's really embarrassing I blanked on it when compiling the updated list of favorite locked room mysteries. I'm still not going to update that monstrosity until at least 2026.


The Sharp Quillet (1947) by Brian Flynn

Last month, on October 3rd, Dean Street Press reissued five more vintage whodunits from Brian Flynn's once criminally forgotten Anthony Bathurst series, "some absolutely cracking cases," which were originally published during the mid-to late 1940s – all rarities republished for the first time in over 70 years. Two of those reprints stood out to me as potential future favorites. 

One of these candidate gems is The Sharp Quillet (1947), 33rd entry in the Anthony Bathurst series, which opens with a prologue detailing the end of the trial of Arthur Rotherham Pemberton for murder. This prologue is a fine example of Flynn's talent as a storyteller as the conclusion to the trial gets an unexpected addendum. Nothing to prevent young Arthur Pemberton from being "hanged by the neck until he was dead" on his twenty-fourth birthday. The Sharp Quillet then moves to the first of three acts and begins at the Bar Point-to-Point meeting at Quiddington St. Philip.

A point-to-point is an amateur horse race for professional associations and the Bar Point-to-Point is open to legal notabilities. Justice Nicholas Flagon, "one of the youngest 'silks' ever to be raised to a judgeship," has won the big event two years running and, on each occasion, "he's sailed home comfortably on a big raw-boned bay" – brilliantly named "Bloody Assize." Justice Flagon intends to become a record by doing "the hat-trick at Quiddington St. Philip." But about three hundred yards from the winning-post, "with the race absolutely in his pocket," Flagon "suddenly rolled from the saddle." Dead as mutton! But he didn't die from the fall or heart failure. The doctor determines Flagon had died from "some powerful vegetable alkaloid" and nearby a dart is discovered with "a gummy substance" on its point as well as a message attached to it, "a nice sharp quillet? Ay!" Inspector Catchpole tries to grapple with this strange, bizarre case, but is not used to murder and finds himself completely out of his depth. So the Chief Constable, "albeit somewhat reluctantly," called in the assistance of Scotland Yard.

Sir Austin Kemble, Commissioner of Police, asks Anthony Bathurst to accompany Chief Detective-Inspector Andrew MacMorran, but some startling news awaits their arrival. Justice Theo Madrigal was murdered that afternoon while attending Flagon's funeral. Justice Madrigal had been standing alone, "on the fringe of a knot of mourners," when a dart dipped in curare struck him in the back of the neck. This dart, too, had been wrapped in a scrap of paper with another cryptic message scrawled on it, "an even sharper quillet."

So the second act has Bathurst carefully sifting through all the suspects, witnesses, potential clues, possible red herrings, motives and half-motives to find the right combination of who, why and how. A combination that needs to apply to both Flagon and Madrigal. I appreciated Flynn had Bathurst and MacMorran argue early on in their investigation about the possibility Madrigal was killed as a blind "to put the police completely off the scent." Not that it mattered in the end, but more on that in a moment. The final act becomes a somewhat of subdued thriller as Bathurst plots to caught the killer in flagrante delicto, which would hand them overwhelming proof of guilt. So the Lord Chief Justice of England, Viscount Fifoot, becomes "the kid that's the bait for the tiger."

I glossed over a lot with less detail than usual, because most of what happened during that three-act tragedy really doesn't matter by the end. The story and plot collapses under a poorly thought out and executed solution.

First of all, there's the flimsy clueing with the only two interesting and even original clues (SPOILER/ROT13), gur Funxrfcrnerna nyyhfvbaf naq gur guerr-npg puncgre fgehpgher, being more nebulous than actually helpful or cleverly misleading – which makes them practically useless. Secondly, the (ROT13) cebybthr vzcynagf gur vqrn gur zheqrere vf n znyr eryngvir bs Neguhe Crzoregba, which is a good piece of misdirection, but there's nothing equally clever and well hidden that subtly pointed (ROT13) va ure qverpgvba nf gur zheqrere. Fb erirnyvat guvf crefba nf abg bayl n pybfr eryngvir bs gur unatrq zna, ohg uvf gjva fvfgre jnf yvxr n enoovg orvat chyyrq bhg bs n ung. Some would argue the prologue prepared the reader as the who and why, but, again, nothing to indicate that person and even making a point at the end (ROT13) fur “jnf gbhevat va gur Fgngrf ng gur gvzr bs ure gjva-oebgure’f neerfg, fragrapr naq fhofrdhrag rkrphgvba.” Flynn did more in the way of misdirection, which is important, but only a one part of a good, well-plotted detective story. Something the author of The Mystery of the Peacock's Eye (1928), The Orange Axe (1931) and The Padded Door (1932). Fourthly, the story makes it a point the murderer threw the poisoned darts with "amazing skill and dexterity," even noting "it almost borders on the impossible," which is unfortunately true. I can buy it with the second murder, but not the first. I don't care how good someone can play a round of pub darts. A dartboard is a stationary target nailed to a wall and not a racehorse galloping towards a finish line. I half-expected Flynn, a well documented Sherlock Holmes fanboy, would turn to a variation on a well-known short story to explain the first murder. It would have marginally improved the ending.

So that was enough, plotwise, to leave me disappointed, but the story behind the murderer's identity, motive and prologue also left a sour aftertaste. The prologue never mentioned (ROT13) Neguhe Crzoregba jnf fragraprq gb qrngu sbe gur zheqre bs n cebfgvghgr naq ur jnf nofbyhgryl thvygl, juvpu zrnaf ur qverpgyl naq vaqverpgyl pnhfrq gur qrngu svsgrra vaabprag crbcyr! Gurer'f uvf zheqre ivpgvz, gur gjryir whebef jub jrer xvyyrq va na nvefgevxr evtug nsgre gur gevny naq gur gjb whqtrf. Arvgure bs jubz unq zvfgerngrq Neguhe Crzoregba be bofgehpgrq uvf gevny va nal jnl. Neguhe Crzoregba tbg n snve gevny naq nccrny urnevat. Fb hairvyvat gur zheqrere nf uvf gjva fvfgre jnf abg fb zhpu n fhecevfr-rssrpg nf vg jnf gb ervasbepr gur zbgvir nf pnyyvat vg eriratr bire n gentvp zvfpneevntr bs whfgvpr vf qvfthfgvat. 

The Sharp Quillet began promising enough with its unusual prologue and progress from act to act, chapter to chapter, which once again spoke well of Flynn's talent as a storyteller who's not afraid to leave the often-trodden paths. This time, Flynn regrettably failed to deliver on any of the promises and the result stands along The Five Red Fingers (1929) as the poorest entry in the series. Hence the poorly written, cold and unenthusiastic review. Since this used to be one of Flynn's easiest to find novels on the secondhand book market, I can see now why he fell into obscurity. But rest assured, The Sharp Quillet is not at all representative of Flynn and recommend new readers to begin at earlier point in the series. Flynn is getting a rematch pretty soon as Exit Sir John (1947) is near the top of the pile.


The End of Andrew Harrison (1938) by Freeman Wills Crofts

Freeman Wills Crofts was the Golden Age detective story's first and foremost manufacturer of unbreakable, steel-lined alibis, but, during the 1930s, Crofts "contributed a couple of his plodding stories" to the locked room pantheon that remained stubbornly elusive and hard-to-find – despite some relatively recent reprints. House of Stratus reissued Sudden Death (1932) and The End of Andrew Harrison (1938) in 2001, which soon went out-of-print again as copies became scarce, expensive collector's items. There was a period not all that long ago when booksellers asked hundreds of dollars or euros for a secondhand copy without a blush of shame.

Fortunately, Collins Crime Club has been working diligently the past few years on reprinting the entire Inspector French series in chronological order. 

Sudden Death reappeared back in print in 2020 and it lived up to expectations as it was fascinating to watch Crofts, the original "Alibi King," turn his mind to a well wrought locked room mystery. The End of Andrew Harrison finally got its long-awaited infusion of fresh ink back in September and can now cross-out both titles on my locked room wishlist. But is it as good or even better than Sudden Death? Only one way to find out! 

The End of Andrew Harrison, published in the US as The Futile Alibi, begins with a young, anxious Markham Crewe preparing the brave "the biggest milestone he had yet reached in his one-and-twenty years of life" as his "whole future career" depended on it. Markham Crewe had an easy, care-free life until his father unexpectedly died, thrown from his horse when riding to hounds, and with him had gone "the vastly greater part of his money" – which left him with a yearly income of two-hundred pounds. A small fortune to some people, but Crewe sees it as "a pittance barely sufficient for pocket money." Let alone enough to indulge his expensive tastes and habits. Just as he began to despair, a friend of his father alerted him to a job opportunity with no less a figure than the well-known millionaire and financier, Andrew Harrison. Harrison is angling for a peerage and needs "a gentleman to run his social affairs," like a society secretary, so he can attend to his business.

However, Harrison has a thoroughly unpleasant reputation as both a businessman and human being. The law had never been able to touch any of his dirty business deals, but, as a human, the kindest things said about him "crooked as they make them" and "dirty lying swine." While those "remarks with real feeling behind them scarcely lent themselves to the printed page." Crewe pretty soon discovers this sentiment extend to his wife and children as his home life is not a happy one, but seething with barely repressed hatred. So there are more than enough motives for murder to go around and the possibility of foul play is considered when Harrison goes missing when he returned to England from a business trip to Paris. Somehow, the press is the first to get a clue Harrison has vanished and the newspaper headlines, "WELL-KNOWN FINANCIER MISSING," which began to wreak havoc on Harrison's stock. If he didn't turn up quickly, a complete collapse is unavailable.

Surprisingly, Harrison turned up to tell everything had been a huge mistake as he had been with a friend on a yacht and had not seen the newspapers, but "there had been, however, some terrible cases of loss" and "already three suicides had taken place" – except the financier who made a pretty packet out of the scarce. Just like in Mystery on the Channel (1930), you can occasionally catch a glimpse of Crofts' disapproval bleeding through the story. This does not prevent Harrison from throwing a holiday party on his specially designed, giant-sized and motorized houseboat, the Cygnet, where he dies under mysterious circumstances. On a July morning, Harrison does not respond to the steward knocking on his cabin door and the door is eventually broken open. Harrison is lying dead in his bed with "a livid, almost leaden shade" and the doctor determined the cause of death was carbon dioxide gas poisoning. Near the bed on a table was a bowl full of scraps of marble, which "gave clear traces of having been acted on by acid." Since the door had been dead-bolted from the inside and the port windows were closed, the inquest returned a verdict of suicide. Chief Constable is not satisfied and asks Scotland Yard to give the evidence a second look.

Chief Inspector Joseph French is put in charge of the case and, while he initially inclined to agree with the local inspector that "the details of the death precluded anything but suicide," he nonetheless methodically begins to sift through the evidence.

Firstly, there's the problem whether, or not, it could have been murder and presents a two-pronged problem: how did the murderer manage to leave a locked cabin and why had Harrison not reacted to the murderer pouring acid over the marble chips? That problem is easier posed than answered. French more than once becomes convinced over the course of his investigation "there had been no murder," because all the evidence insisted "no murderer had left the cabin" until discovering something in the cabin that makes suicide untenable. Secondly, having now established murder, French has to work out how the murderer got out of the locked cabin. And he goes to work on that problem with the same meticulous, painstaking eye for detail ("what another person could devise, he could discover"). French unlocked the solution to that problem about halfway through the story, but every new discovery reveals a new pesky puzzle to solve and every answer places a new complexion on the case or what happened in the first half dozen chapters. 

The End of Andrew Harrison won't convince Crofts detractors who find him slow, boring and a bit on the dry side of his genius, but it should be noted that French's customary plodding and thoroughness is not necessary due to it being a so-called "humdrum" detective novel. This time, it sort of serves a purpose as Crofts carefully builds towards an unexpected, genuinely surprising, turn of events as the case began to unravel very rapidly – not always in the way French had envisioned it. I was as surprise as French at the ending of the penultimate chapter, because I had completely accepted a previous assumption (ROT13: n tbbq, byq-snfuvbarq uhzqehz-fglyr pevzvany pbafcvenpl ghearq zheqrebhf) as fact. After all, it perfectly fitted the style of the story and what preceded it. So did Crofts understood his audience and decided to use their expectations to take them for a ride? And that curve ball he threw was not only clued, but even psychologically foreshadowed! I think the who-and why actually ended up being better than the how.

So an excellent, meticulously reconstructive detective novel, but, purely as a locked room mystery, is it as good as 1932 predecessor? I already gave away the answer to that question (nope), but that answer requires an explanation.

Robert Adey commented in Locked Room Murders (1991) that "Sudden Death is the more obvious locked room problem, but The End of Andrew Harrison is a rather better book on all counts." Having now read both, Adey's take is surprising. Whether you like Sudden Death better than The End of Andrew Harrison depends on how much of a locked room fanboy you happen to be. Sudden Death is a locked room proper with not one, but two, impossible crimes and uses a trick that has now become old hat, but Sudden Death appears to the first one to have employed it. On top of that, it has a proto-locked room lecture predating the famous Locked Room Lecture from John Dickson Carr's The Three Coffins (1935). So it has some historical weight besides being a very well crafted locked room mystery from an alibi specialist. The locked room-trick in The End of Andrew Harrison is good and acceptable enough, but not a classic of its kind and more along the lines of Miles Burton's Death in the Tunnel (1936). It's surprising to see the man who compiled Locked Room Murders preferred The End of Andrew Harrison over Sudden Death. Is this how I come across to Jim?

Nevertheless, the locked room is, as said, not bad at all nor did it needed to carry the whole plot. A first-class plot designed and put together with care and patience, which French pulled apart with the same amount of skills and time-consuming patience. French is not merely a calculator in human skin who coldly equates every possible combination, until he reaches the correct solution. French is an intelligent, levelheaded policeman, but he can get frustrated when he keeps smacking into brick walls or a short-cut to a fast conclusion is cut off. Neither is he an infallible detective. French can get it wrong (..."he shouldn't have allowed circumstances to mislead him") that forces him to take a few steps back again. I liked how French, logically and reasonably, reviewed his own handling of the case in the final chapter and "shivered when he thought how near he had been to making a terrible mistake." A mistake that could have wiped out a good deal of his prestige, but he had succeeded in closing a difficult case. So you also gets a glimpse of both his professional and personal pride (..."hadn't reckoned with Joseph French"). You don't need to know any sordid detail of character's private life to make them relatable or human. That's what makes Crofts' detective novels so alluring to some of us. They're a cool, shaded oasis of reason and normal, everyday common sense.


A Quick, Sloppy Blog Update: Papertrail (Follow by Email) is Back!

Yes, I know, I know. This should have been done last year, but was either busy or simply too lazy to replace the email subscription when blogger pulled the plug on its in-house service. But people kept bugging me about it. So decided to finally get off my ass and do something about it, which turned out to be easier than anticipated. I always expect a snag, somewhere, to turn up, but setting up follow.it only took a few minutes. And everything seems to work.

So, once again, you can receive an update in your email every time something new gets posted. You can expect a new review sometime tomorrow, but, until then, you can read my previous review of P. Dieudonné's Rechercheur De Klerck en een dodelijk pact (Inspector De Klerck and a Deadly Pact, 2022). The seventh entry in the series and decidedly pulpier take on the Dutch politieroman with bodies, solidly frozen, turning up all over the place and a Swiss-style chalet that impossibly vanishes during the night. This brief blog-update came at the expense of that review and Dutch-language detective fiction has it hard enough as it is.

Have a good weekend and hope to see you all back tomorrow.


Inspector De Klerck and a Deadly Pact (2022) by P. Dieudonné

P. Dieudonné's Rechercheur De Klerck en een dodelijk pact (Inspector De Klerck and a Deadly Pact, 2022) is the seventh case for those two Rotterdam police inspectors, Lucien de Klerck and Ruben Klaver, who find themselves this time slowly being edged towards pulp territory – culminating into one of their most bizarre cases to date. This is what makes the series so fun to read as Dieudonné tries to introduce something different or new to the formula of the Dutch politieroman (police novel) the late A.C. Baantjer created, which tends to be a little different and more straightforward than the Anglo detective story. So you rarely, if ever, get familiar tropes like isolated crime scenes, dying messages or locked room murders in a Dutch police novel. That certainly is not the case with this series.

For example, Rechercheur De Klerck en de ongrijpbare dood (Inspector De Klerck and the Elusive Death, 2020) strings together no less than three impossible crimes, while Rechercheur De Klerck en moord in scène (Inspector De Klerck and Murder on the Scene, 2021) imported a heavily leaded slice of Urban Americana as camouflage for a classical and theatrically-staged whodunit. The previous entry in the series, Rechercheur De Klerck en het duistere web (Inspector De Klerck and the Dark Web, 2022), tumbled down the rabbit hole of internet conspiracies and has a victim who left a dying message written in blood. So it was only a matter of time before the series would produce an authentic piece of, what I like to call, oranje pulp (orange pulp). 

Inspector De Klerck and a Deadly Pact begins normally enough as De Klerck's goes to work and overhears two people, a man and woman, talking on the metro. They're obviously colleagues on their way to work and De Klerck hears them speak disparagingly of two men from work, Lammert ("...hopping around like he owns the business") and Huub ("they can drink his blood") – described respectively as "een koele kikker" ("a cold frog") and "een opgeblazen kikker" ("a puffed frog"). Which translates to one being cold and calculating while the other believes he's the male equivalent of a winning lottery ticket. So nothing particular worrying as De Klerck merely overheard two people complaining about people they know from work, but the frogs come back into the picture when he arrives at the police station.

Several days ago, Paulien Captein reported her husband, Hubèrt Captein, missing and he still hasn't returned home to her and their two children over the weekend. It turns out Hubèrt Captein is Huub who owns and runs a sporting goods store, Capteins Passie voor Sport. De Klerck guesses correctly their marriage is not nearly as good as Paulien wants him to believe and learns from his employees he has "an insatiable, obsessive need for female flesh." Still a normal and pretty routine disappearance case, but then De Klerck and Klaver receive the news that a corpse is sitting on the bank of the Meidoornsingel.

The body of the man "sat on the bank with his back bent, arms wrapped around his body and chin resting on his chest" while "his legs hung over the stone facing in the gray water" and his eyes were closed. A small, bright blue frog with black dots was placed on the top of his head! Curiously, they were both frozen solid without any marks of violence or traces of drugs or poison. And the theatrical staging requires "the involvement of at least two perpetrators, possibly even three." Since a body, "frozen to the bone," is far too heavy to be handled by one person alone.

This is not the last time De Klerck and Klaver come across a corpse, frozen in sitting position, chilling on the bank of a canal with a bright, hellish blue frog on their heads – as their investigation takes on increasingly bizarre proportions. Why had every victim a number tattooed on their body? What is the significance of the nursery rhyme? Is there a link between the murders and the seven deadly sins or Dante's Divine Comedy? There's even an appropriately bizarre, but brilliantly executed, impossible situation taking place in the background of the story. A witness comes to De Klerck claiming to have seen one of the people concerned in his investigation entering a beautiful chalet with white, plaster shutters and lights burning behind the windows. However, when they go to the location, the Swiss-style chalet has mysteriously disappeared! You locked room and impossible crime maniacs know that the problem with impossibly vanishing rooms, houses and even whole streets is their limitations in the number of possible solutions, but Dieudonné came up with something a little different here. Something perfectly suited for the pulp-style plot and put to excellent use by De Klerck ("een kunstgreep") to ensnare the killers. It's easily my favorite part of the book and a reminder I really need to update the list of Dutch-language locked room mysteries one of these days.

I missed this until I began writing the review, but Inspector De Klerck and a Deadly Pact is not only Dieudonné's take on the good, old-fashioned pulps of yesteryear. It's also a nod and wink at Baantjer's own attempt at writing a thoroughly weird, pulp-style mystery novel, De Cock en de naakte juffer (DeKok and the Naked Lady, 1978). You only have to look at the cover to get an idea how weird that book turned out to be. The book was the twelfth DeKok novel (officially numbered 14 because the publisher added two in-universe novels to the series) and Baantjer celebrated the occasion with a dozen murders. Inspector De Klerck and a Deadly Pact, seventh entry in the series, has the number seven stamped all over its plot.

Regrettably, DeKok and the Naked Lady is not only Baantjer's weirdest mystery novel, but also one of his weakest and the cheat ending would likely anger me, if encountered today. Dieudonné fared a lot better than his illustrious predecessor in bringing together the Dutch politieroman and pulp fiction. Inspector De Klerck and a Deadly Pact is not, what you can call, classically clued as it omitted some of the plot-polish and kept one, or two, details deliberately vague (ROT13: jung, rknpgyl, unccrarq gb gur obql bs gur zvffvat zna?) to give it that authentic pulp feeling. So you can only make an educated guess as to who's behind the murders and motive with the how being the strongest element, detective storywise, of the plot, but there's a kind of a silly hint pointing into the direction of one of the culprits. You really have to read the book as a piece of pulp fiction with all its strong points (imaginative plots, bizarre murders and elaborate tricks) and weak spots (often faintly clued). I suppose not every reader will be as picky, in my country, when it comes to such things.

So, while not the strongest plotted title in the series, Inspector De Klerck and a Deadly Pact is yet another very well written, highly readable and enjoyable entry in the series. Dieudonné and De Klerck have truly emerged from the shadows of Baantjer and DeKok to stands on its own as something both almost nostalgically familiar and distinctly different. This series is an example of how you can build on the rich past to create something new for the future. I very much look forward what the direction eighth title will take.


The Author is Dead (2022) by A. Carver

The Author is Dead (2022) is an independently published locked room mystery novel by a pseudonymous author, "A. Carver," which is described as "a fair play mystery novel uniting the detective revivals of Robin Stevens and Anthony Horowitz with impossible crimes worthy of John Dickson Carr and Christianna Brand" – structured like a Japanese shin honkaku mystery. Carver's The Author is Dead is a Western take on shin honkaku novels like Yukito Ayatsuji's Jukkakukan no satsujin (The Decagon House Murders, 1987), Masahiro Imamura's Shijinso no satsujin (Death Among the Undead, 2017) and The Kindaichi Case Files series. The mysterious author undeniably succeeded in laying out an elaborately designed, maze-like plot that paid homage to the traditional detective story of the past and present. That playful, meta-like fun also makes the story tricky to discuss without spoiling any of the fun. So have to gloss over a lot of details, including most of the impossibilities. Let's dig in! 

Alex Corby is a teenage girl nearing her twenties and has been devoted fan of Adam Carver's Castles in the Sky series ever since she was a child. Castles in the Sky is "a quartet of young adult mystery thrillers set in Gothic times" and eerie castles where "baffling murders occurred with probability-defying frequency" in a "parade of ever more unfathomable locked-room mysteries." Alex has been active on a fansite, Besieging Heaven, since she was twelve under the username "RedRidingBlood."

The long-awaited, eagerly anticipated conclusion to the series has recently been published to the predictable complaints of hardcore fans that "the finale wasn't a patch on the preceding volumes," but nothing to put a dent into the astronomical sales. So the author decided to throw a private party at his house on the Scottish coast, Carver's Rest, to celebrate both his birthday and the smash of the Castles in the Sky tetralogy. Carver's Rest is not an ordinary house, but a self-designed dream house resembling a medieval castle complete with a drawbridge, "only way in or out," which turns the place into an island – a dream destination to any die-hard fan of the series. Alex won a members-only contest through the fansite and arrives horrendously late during a cold, snowy night when most of the party has already retired to their rooms.

This is the first part of the story that requires glossing over as Alex "felt a little like the heroine of Castles in the Sky on that fateful night" and stumbles across an "impossible crime that had vanished in the night." What, exactly, that impossibility comprises of is something for you to discover, but can reveal it's the first of four locked room mysteries in which the culprit turned the crime scene into a "taped-shut tomb." These locked room problems are an homage to Carter Dickson's He Wouldn't Kill Patience (1944) and Clayton Rawson's 1948 short story "From Another World" ("Carr and Rawson both wrote taped rooms; even challenged each other to do it, actually..."), which all have new and very different solutions to the tape-sealed rooms. Since the locked room vanished without a trace, Alex decided to keep it to herself the next morning when she meets the other attendees. The professionals and her fellow fans.

Firstly, there's Adam Carver's literary agent, Maria Bole, and his illustrator, Quinn Shillerdyce, who had "so richly furnished Castles in the Sky with his portrait-style art and characteristic oil-painting covers." Franny Smythe is the creator of the Humble Mom Reviews blog and "a high-profile supporter" of the series who's always first to get a review-copy. Secondly, there's the fan-section headed by the admin of the fansite, Vi Malik ("SiegeMasterV"), who created Besieging Heaven shortly after the publication of the first novel, Death in the Walls. Colin West ("DaVinciCorpse") is the fan community's "chief supplier of gothy fanart" and Yva Dysart ("BardOfDeathY") writes the fanfiction to his fanart as well as providing the story with plenty of false-solutions. "Corvus Crown" is the community's "theorist extraordinaire," of whom nothing is known, but "had solved the central mystery of Hand at the Threshold from only its synopsis" and "deduced the entire plot of A Coffin Nail Creaks from a pre-release preview chapter." Crown's vision of what the final, long-delayed volume might look like was realised by Colin and Yva "as the infamous fan-novel The Fourth Wall Crumbles." Lastly, there's the host's wife, Victoria Carver, who's neither in the publishing business nor a fan.

Some of you who follow this blog and share my fascination for the Japanese detective story can see the resemblance to the previously mentioned The Decagon House Murders and The Kindaichi Case Files. The internet fangroup recalls Seimaru Amagi's third Kindaichi light-novel, Dennō sansō satsujin jiken (Murder On-Line, 1996), which is possibly the first traditional whodunit to use the internet in a meaningful way and centers on an online chat group of mystery fans, the On-Line Lodge – who have a disastrous offline meeting at a sky resort. Just like this story, most of the (main) characters are either teenagers or barely out their teens. I noted in my review of Jim Noy's The Red Death Murders (2022) how much joy it does me to see how the Western and Eastern detective story have interacted over the course of a century. Edogawa Rampo introduced the Western-style to Japan over a century ago, which evolved into the honkaku mysteries of Seishi Yokomizo to eventually give rise to Soji Shimada and the shin honkaku movement in the 1980s. A movement that rejuvenated the genre with its young, college-age detectives, corpse-puzzles, customized architecture and unashamedly embracing all of the genre's tropes to simply have a bit of clever fun. Now those ideas and attitudes are beginning to journey back to the West to help ignite a Second Golden Age. The Author is Dead, The Red Death Murders and certain elements from the work of James Scott Byrnside are only the first sparks. Like you would expect from such a mystery novel, the murders and sealed rooms begin to stack up pretty quickly.

I can't discuss those sealed rooms and impossibilities in depth, because they're either incredibly tricky in presentation or tethered directly to the who-and why. I can lightly touch upon some of them without concentrating on the finer details.

Beginning with the second, no-footprints-in-the-snow impossibility that interestingly employs a tape-sealed door as an obstacle to the outdoors crime scene where the drawbridge and a broadsword is used to go medieval on the poor victim. This impossibility provides the story with very fun false-solution that would require a ball of yarn the size of your cat's wildest daydreams. I'm not saying anything about the third sealed room scenario, but the fourth and last one makes a spirited attempt to present "the fourth murder was a perfect locked-room murder." A room sealed airtight with one door taped shut, the second door locked and the balcony covered with unbroken snow. I really liked the logical paradox at the heart of this trick (you know what when you read it), but have a problem (SPOILER/ROT13) gung gur fbyhgvba nqzvggrq gung "orngvat gur fabj jnf whfg n obahf" naq gur zheqrere jbhyq unq "cebonoyl whfg unir fjrcg gur jubyr onypbal," vs gurer unq orra ab jnl gb trg npebff vg. Naq vg jnf irel pbairavrag ubj gur fgbel nyybjrq gur zheqrere gb pvephzirag guvf bofgnpyr. Vg jbhyq unir orra zber pbaivapvat unq gur zheqrere orra sbeprq gb erzbir gur fabj, juvpu pbhyq unir freirq nf n pyhr gung ng gur gvzr jbhyq abg qrfgeblrq gur ybpxrq ebbz vyyhfvba. N pyhr gung pbhyq unir orra pnzbhsyntrq jvgu n irel yvtug, dhvpx fubjre bs nsgre fabj gung jbhyq yrsg n irel guva fabj ba gur onypbal. Fb vg jbhyq nccrne ba svefg fvtug nf vs gur onypbal unq n pnecrg bs haoebxra fabj, hagvy fbzrbar abgvprf vg'f bayl n guva svyz naq gung cerivbhf fabj zhfg unir orra pyrnerq njnl.

Other than that tiny niggle, the locked room-tricks impressively tackled the seldom tried tape-sealed room scenario with four distinctly different setups and solutions, which not merely carries and gives weight to a routine whodunit plot – which is beautifully tied together with who-and why. Or, as Alex reflects, "the truth was something they had felt would be neither accepted nor understood without the support of a whydunnit and a howdunnit." A pet peeve of mine is how often the motive is treated like an afterthought in detective stories, which I still consider to be an important piece of the puzzle. So it was fun to see it get acknowledged ("you only ever find them out after the criminal's been caught, and it's usually something you couldn't possibly have anticipated") and getting properly treated.

So the story has a strong genre awareness and its playfulness is one of its absolute strong suits. For example, the introduction comes after the third chapter ("please excuse the late appearance") and several more interruptions follow culminating with an audacious Challenge to the Reader. While the other interruptions put Carr's "The Locked Room Lecture" from The Three Coffins (1935) and Ronald A. Knox's "Ten Commandments for Detective Fiction" to work as clues or red herrings. My only problem is that Knox's rules were a little modernized with the fifth rule being changed to "there must be no stereotypes among the cast," which The Author is Dead broke left and right. Half of the cast of characters are members of a fandom that's active online. And you can tell! Just look at what Jim and I did when we got slightly annoyed at a lazily cobbled-together anthology (the result). We didn't break any stereotypes that day. Before going over a few of the expected drawbacks in this self-published debut, I need to praise a phenomenal piece of misdirection. I spotted the murderer, figured out the first impossibility and had a pretty good idea how the second one could have been rigged as (ROT13) gur pnaqyrf va gur tngrubhfr jrer snveyl zragvbarq naq gura vtaberq hagvy vg jnf rkcynvarq, juvpu vf rabhtu gb znxr zr zvtugl fhfcvpvbhf. Only to have it apparently smashed to pieces in front of my eyes! And the best part is that was done (ROT13) jvgu n cresrpg rknzcyr bs jung V dhnyvsl nf na vzcbffvoyr nyvov.

So, while certainly an ambitiously written and plotted debut, not everything was done exactly perfect. Firstly, the characters like to stall and take their time to get their point across or go somewhere. I found it amusing when they were outside theorizing and someone remarked they're "still virtually outdoors in the icy cold" and says that "theory will be just as good inside." I remember that was my criticism of a short story by Paul Halter, but it happens throughout the story and becomes particular annoying when they take their time to get to the fourth sealed room. One of the characters casually mentions he might have found another tape-sealed room, which is lost in conversation until Alex remembers the startling announcement. It takes roughly two whole chapters to eventually get into that room. They have a pretty solid reason to get to that room as quickly as possible, because (ROT13) gur cerivbhf frnyrq ebbz fubhyq unir znqr gurz njner bs gur cbffvovyvgl gung gurer zvtug or fbzrbar va gur ebbz jub'f nyvir naq va arrq bs uryc. So their lack of urgency in getting to that room became a little vexing. I'm sure a good editor (Jim?) could trim down or iron that out. Secondly, the book has a three-story floor plan of Carver's Rest, but no floor plans or diagrams for the four locked room-puzzles. Not that diagrams or more floor plans are absolutely necessary, however, they always feel conspicuous by their absence when there's a whole parade of miracle crimes passing by. And there are readers who have trouble picturing such tricks in their mind's eye. My last piece of nitpicking is not so much a flaw as it a limitation.

Carver's The Author is Dead is a mystery reader's detective novel straddling the dividing line between a handful of different periods, styles and subcategories like the Golden Age detective fiction, locked room mysteries, young adult and the Japanese shin honkaku style – particularly resembling its anime-and manga incarnation. So not every single reader is going to fully appreciate, or get, the story as those (specialized) styles and periods don't always have a large, overlapping readership. Someone who decides to pick up the book for its Young Adult template (Enid Blyton gets name checked) would likely find the theorizing and lack of action heavy going, while a reader of Golden Age mysteries is usually not overly familiar with what has been going on in Japan. Such as its anime-and manga versions. When they do, they often find the combination of minors and gruesome murders jarring. So the only readers who'll fully appreciate The Author is Dead are that small collection of batshit basket cases who are so obsessed with locked rooms and impossible crimes, they scour every nook and cranny of the genre to find them. If you have been following this blog, you know what I mean. A sure fire way to lodge your work tightly in the hearts and minds of impossible crime fans, but not every mystery reader is drags a copy of Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) around like a Holy Book or has bookmarked John Pugmire's "A Locked Room Library" ever since it was posted back in 2007.

However, nitpicking aside, I think most will agree the only thing really lacking here is a little bit of trimming and some polish, which is quite an accomplishment for a self-published debuting mystery novelist to the point you can call it prodigious – comparable to Byrnside's Goodnight Irene (2018). There are naturally a couple of flaws and imperfections to be found, but to already have such a tight grasp on a multi-layered, complicated and entangled plot stuffed to the gills with locked room murders, quirky, recognizable characters and meta-clues was a joy to come across in a self-published mystery novel. Hopefully, The Author is Dead won't be the last we'll see from the mysterious "A. Carver."

Even more importantly, my theory of why and how a Second Golden Age is going to take shape is starting to come true. During the late 1990s and 2000s, the internet handed a new and open market place to independent publishers and secondhand book dealers as well as giving easy access to public domain work, which steadily increased the availability of normally hard-to-find or even completely forgotten Golden Age authors and novels. I predicted in the 2000s (wrote about it in 2014) that next would be Renaissance Age of reprints (I was right!) and how that period of rediscovery will come to be seen in the decades ahead as the herald of a Second Golden Age. What I didn't foresaw was the influence of the Japanese detective story, but I'm not complaining. Now we're not yet in the throes of a Second Golden Age. I think we're still in 1912 as the first writers and detective-characters began to emerge from the shadow of Sherlock Holmes, but we're slowly getting there. Mark my words!


Money for Old Rope: "The Other Hangman" (1935) by John Dickson Carr

Previously, I reviewed an anthology, Golden Age Locked Room Mysteries (2022), which sounded promising when it was announced over a year ago, but most of the stories had appeared in other, often well-known locked room-themed anthologies and there's a frustrating repetitiveness to the selection – compounded by an overall quality rarely peaking above average. Even more damning, some of the better stories were only minor locked room mysteries as the impossible crimes were either a small part of the plot (Mignon G. Eberhart's "The Calico Dog," 1934) or (Erle Stanley Gardner's "The Exact Opposite," 1941) pushed into the background. 

So my review ended up having a distinct, salty undertone and what I needed was a palette cleanser. Why not turn to one of John Dickson Carr's half dozen novels and a handful of short stories that somehow never left the big pile. 

"The Other Hangman" was originally published in A Century of Detective Stories (1935) and collected, as by "Carter Dickson," in The Department of Queer Complaints (1940), but later paperback editions scrapped several stories from the original line-up – like my copy of the Dell mapback edition. Strangely enough, "The Other Hangman" is one of the stories that was cut as Carr reportedly thought it's the best short story he wrote. I can understand why he was so proud of it. "The Other Hangman" together with "Blind Man's Hood" (1937), "Persons or Things Unknown" (1938) and the novel-length The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey (1936) foreshadowed his move towards historical mysteries in the 1950s and '60s. And it has a fiendish plot that does not hinge on a locked room or some other apparent impossibility. 

"The Other Hangman" is a non-series historical mystery set in Carr's native Pennsylvania during the early 1890s and the locality is a small, but "mighty proud," town of 3500 souls. They had good reason to be proud as they bragged about housing the best hotel in the county, their old county families, their legal batteries and at the time the story takes place they put the first telephone in the courthouse ("...you could talk as far as Pittsburgh except when the wires blew down"). So things were looking bright for the town as a new century crept nearer, but the town had two noticeable blemishes.

Fred Joliffe is "the worst and nastiest customer" the town ever had with "the possible exception of Randall Fraser." Joliffe is a slick, but nasty, gossip who didn't care what he said about people, because "he relied on the fact that he was too small to be thrashed." Not something that always worked and caused plenty of trouble in the small, tight-knit community. Fraser runs a harness-and-saddle store in Market Street and "buttery polite," while being "mean as sin" who thought "a dirty trick or a swindle was the funniest joke he ever heard." And he liked women. Joliffe and Fraser did a lot of drinking together, like cronies, but then murder turned the petty, small town problems into something far more serious.

It was an early October morning in '92 or '93, when the town constable found the door of Fraser's shop standing wide open and stumbled across his bloodied and battered body in the backroom. Joliffe was found "drunk and asleep in the flour mill" with "blood on his hands and an empty bottle of Randall Fraser's whisky in his pocket." The lawyer-narrator who defended Joliffe at the trial said earlier in the story, "now if it had been anybody else but Fred Joliffe who killed him, naturally we wouldn't have convicted," because you don't take your neighbor "out in the cold light of day and string him up by the neck until he's dead" – which is not-done in a little community. But with Fred Joliffe it was different. And he was sentenced to hang on the twelfth of November.

So the story begins to get the death house jitters as "there hadn't been a hanging since any of that crowd had been in office" and "nobody knew how to go about it exactly." The slow-moving, tipsy Ed Nabors was appointed hangman, the local carpenter "knocked together a big, shaky-looking contraption in the jail yard" and there was some fools talk about that fellow John Lee in England. When the morning of the execution dawned, it does not go as planned. What exactly happened and why, is something you have to find out for yourself.

Needless to say, the ending, while legally dubious, is perfectly executed as Carr masterfully gave the hangman's knot a final twist as the noose tightened even further. A small gem and one of Carr's best (non-impossible) short stories demonstrating the locked room mystery was not a gimmicky crutch he needed to lean on. More importantly, it's a case in point why the acknowledged maestro of miracles also deserves to be appreciated as a pioneer of the historical detective story, which was not nearly as popular in his time as it's today. "The Other Hangman" is a finely written and plotted, early historical detective short story from one of the genre's most gifted storytellers that comes highly recommended! 

A note for the curious: one of those unread short stories on my list is Carr's "The Diamond Pentacle" (1939; collected in Merrivale, March and Murder, 1991), which is virtually unknown and rarely gets mentioned, but apparently is quite good. Christian, of Mysteries, Short and Sweet, called "The Diamonds Pentacle" in his 2018 review "a fairly slight thing," but "the solution to the impossibility is actually pretty great, because Carr bamboozles us all with a twist that is superb in all its simplicity." Pietro, of Death Can Read, dedicated an entire, spoiler-filled blog-post to the short story, which I skipped except for the first line saying it's "among Carr's best short stories ever." So there's another suggestion for a future, locked room-themed anthology.


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

Back in 2018, Otto Penzler, of MysteriousPress and the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, founded Penzler Publishers and launched the company's first imprint, American Mystery Classics, dedicated "to reissuing classic American mystery fiction" personally selected by Penzler – which include Greats likes of Baynard Kendrick, Stuart Palmer, Craig Rice and Ellery Queen. Regrettably, I have either already read and own the books currently reissued or they're not prioritized on my wishlist. So never got around to reading one of their reissues or anthologies, until now. 

When the impossible crime-themed anthology Golden Age Locked Room Mysteries (2022) was announced as forthcoming, it was the first title that got me genuinely excited for American Mystery Classics. Some of that initial enthusiasm began to wane when the line-up of stories turned out to be mostly a best-of selection from previous locked room anthologies. Eight of the fourteen stories collected here can be found in the other, well-known locked room anthologies with three of them having appearing together in Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries (1982). So not the most original and inspired selection of stories, but, as the resident locked room fanboy, it simply was impossible to ignore this anthology for too long. This anthology has three stories I've not read yet, which is something, I suppose.

Just one more thing before diving into this collection: I'm going to skip over the following stories, MacKinlay Kantor's "The Light at Three O'Clock" (1930), Stuart Palmer's "The Riddle of the Yellow Canary" (1934), John Dickson Carr's "The Third Bullet" (1937) and Clayton Rawson's "Off the Face of the Earth" (1949), which have been discussed on this blog before. I'm also skipping Queen's novella "The House of Haunts" (1935), known better under the title "The Lamp of God," because want to reread and review it separately. And with that out of the way, let's take a closer look at this latest locked room anthology. 

Golden Age Locked Room Mysteries opens with an unusual story, Anthony Boucher's "Elsewhen," originally published in the December, 1946, issue of Street & Smith's Detective Story Magazine, which combined elements of the locked room mystery and the unbreakable alibi with pure science-fiction – centering on a homemade time machine. Harrison Partridge, or the Great Harrison Partridge, begins the story with announcing to his sister, Agatha, he has invented "an actual working model of a time-traveling machine." The world's first ever time machine, however, the first model has a number of limitations as it can only travel to the past and only a few minutes, which Partridge eventually stretched that period to "a trifle under two hours." While not suited to go adventuring through the distant past, Partridge decides to use his machine to remove a relative who stands in his way to a huge inheritance. A perfect murder in a library with the door and all the windows locked on the inside, basically an impossible crime, "that could never conceivably be proved on him or on any innocent." However, the victim's secretary was inside the library when the murder was committed and therefore seen by the police as the only one who could have done it. So his fiance hires Boucher's series-detective, Fergus O'Breen, whose presence has some interesting implications. Boucher, Palmer and Rice created a shared universe through cameos and crossovers in which time-travel is now possible!

I had forgotten how good "Elsewhen" really is! One of those finely-crafted, practically flawless gems of the science-fiction mystery hybrid, but it's as out-of-place here as it was in Death Locked In: An Anthology of Locked Room Stories (1987). The locked room-angle is only there to hand the police a ready-made suspect and give Fergus O'Breen a reason to get involved. And he focuses entirely on trying to break down an impeccably-timed alibi. "Elsewhen" is an imaginative exploration of the idea that an alibi is a locked room in time and a locked room an alibi in space, but still feels weirdly out-of-place among proper impossible crime stories. 

Fredric Brown's "Whistler's Murder,” originally published in the December, 1946, issue of Street & Smith's Detective Story Magazine, was new to me and the story began promising enough. Mr. Henry Smith, of the Phalanx Insurance Co, goes to the home of a client, Walter Perry, who has not paid the current premium on a $3000 policy. So he come to collect the premium or the policy expires, but, when Mr. Smith arrives at the house, he spots a wreath hanging on the front door and finds the police inside. Walter Perry is suspected of having murdered his uncle, Carlos Perry, as he admitted to having written the threatening letters that turned the house into a locked and guarded fortress. And the police is stuck as to how he could have entered the house with two detectives standing guard on the roof. Fortunately. Mr. Smith has a gift for observation and quickly deduces the truth, but the solution is even by pulp-standards utterly preposterous. You might pull such a trick on unsuspecting witnesses in the dark, but not with trained observers. I refuse to believe those two detectives would spot it and go, "that looks completely normal and natural." Not anywhere neas as good as some of Brown's other short locked room mysteries. 

Joseph Commings' "Fingerprint Ghost" was first published in the May, 1947, issue of 10-Story Detective Magazine and opens at the Sphinx Club where the well-known miracle smasher, Senator Brooks U. Banner, is told by magician Larry Drollen about the murder of Dr. Gabriel Garrett – who had been stabbed in his office with a silver-handled knife. The police had no clues and no leads. A week ago, a spirit medium, Ted Wesley, claimed that for "a large fee he'd return Garrett's spirit to earth and have him name his killer." Drollen challenged Wesley to forfeit the fee if, "under identical circumstances," he "couldn't produce bigger and better ghosts." And perhaps trap the killer himself. A séance is arranged under very tight, strictly controlled conditions as Drollen is tied to a chair, "trusted up like a hogtied steer," inside a curtained cabinet. The other participants sit around the table in straitjackets and touching feet with the only door locked and guarded on the outside. So how's it possible Drollen ended up with a knife in his chest? Why do "the fingerprints on the knife did not belong to anyone who had been in that room"?

This story has a better premise than execution with the tightly-controlled séance demonstrating how good Commings was at dreaming up impossible crime scenarios, but the solution is neither one of his best or most original. I suppose Penzler considered the remaining, uncollected Senator Banner stories from too late a date to be included in Golden Age Locked Room Mysteries (e.g. "The Invisible Clue," 1950), but why not pick a better story from Banner Deadlines (2004) like "Murder Under Glass" (1947). It has an impossible murder inside a bolted room made entirely of glass with a very fitting and original solution.

The next story is Mignon G. Eberhart's "The Calico Dog," originally published in the September, 1934, issue of Delineator and the second of three stories that were completely new to me, which fortunately turned out to be really good. Susan Dare is a mystery novelist who occasionally plays detective herself and she asked to help out a wealthy widow, Mrs. Idabelle Lasher. Twenty years ago, Mrs. Lasher's then 4-year-old, Derek, disappeared alongside with his nursemaid. So they always suspected she had stolen their son as there never was any attempt to demand ransom, but, recently, Derek has a returned. Rather, "two of him has returned." First came Dixon followed a short time later by Duane. Strangely enough, they both tell an identical story and share the same, early childhood memories like the green curtains in the nursery, a teddy bear and a calico dog – things "only Derek could remember." One is clearly lying, but who? This is a neat little play on the Tichborne Claimant, but, in order to force an answer, Susan Dare accidentally sets a murder into motion. Someone gets shot at a Charity Ball while the only other people in the room were together in a fortune teller's tent and the only, unlocked entrance was under observation. The locked room-puzzle is only a tiny cog in the overall plot that does not come into play until the final-act and quickly solved, but the simple, elegant solution perfectly fitted that final-act. But the fairly, well-clued conclusion to the claimants is where the story truly shines. I particular liked how Susan Dare tried to glean clues from a nursery school report card. 

Erle Stanley Gardner's "The Exact Opposite," originally published in the March 29, 1941, issue of Detective Fiction Weekly, which features Gardner's pulp hero and gentleman crook, Lester Leith – who "goes about hijacking robbers out of their ill-gotten spoils." So a cross between a detective and Robin Hood whose eternal rival is a police detective, Sergeant Arthur Ackley. He believes Leith is unaware that his personal valet, Beaver, is a plant, but Leith knows. And uses it to his advantage or play them against each other, which is very much the theme of this story.

Beaver tries to entice Leith to take an interest in the murder of an explorer, George Navin, who had been "mixed up with some kind of a gem robbery." Navin had thoroughly explored the Indian jungles where discovered a hidden sect and a huge temple complex guarding "a beautiful ruby, the size of a pigeon egg, set in a gold border which had Sanskrit letters carved in it." So he took the ruby, photographed it and published it in his book, which puts members of that "peculiar religious sects" on his trail. Yes, this pulp territory! So he took precautions by turning his house into a small fortress and spends the night in a room considered "virtually burglar-proof" with "a guard on duty outside of the door all night," but he's murdered one night and ruby vanishes from the safe. However, this neatly posed locked room murder disappears into the background as the story concentrates on the three-way tug-of-war between Ackley, Beaver and Leith. More importantly, the conning shenanigans of Leith and how they can possibly help him pulling the wool over everyone's eyes to get a hold of the ruby. So a great, tremendously fun story, but, judged purely on its merits as a locked room mystery, it's a pretty routine affair at best.

Gardner's "The Exact Opposite" is one of the three stories previously anthologized in Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries and think "The Clue of the Runaway Blonde" (1945; collected in Two Clues, 1947) would have been a better, more interesting choice. The story is rarely mentioned and not very well-known as an impossible crime story, but it's good and has a rural backdrop that would have been a nice change of scenery at this point in the collection. 

C. Daly King's "The Episode of the Nail and the Requiem," originally published The Curious Mr. Tarrant (1935) and later reprinted in The Complete Curious Mr. Tarrant (2003) and The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries (2006). Trevis Tarrant is on the death when the naked body of female model is discovered in the penthouse studio of an eccentric artist, Michael Salti. So the police puts out a dragnet, but Tarrant is left behind with the nagging question how Salti got out of the studio with every door and window locked or fastened on the inside. Tarrant calls it "the most perfect sealed room, or rather sealed house, problem ever reported" and the story has a reputation of being "one of the best locked room tales" in the series, but not one that's really deserved. While the clue of the moved easel is clever and inspired, the locked room-trick is as unimpressive in its simplicity as it's utterly disappointing. More importantly, why is this story not only included in the same anthology as MacKinlay Kantor's "The Light at Three O'Clock," but were stuck together in the middle? One review commented that this anthology is "really for newcomers to the genre," but fail to see how this selection will leave a good impression on those newcomers. Or explain why some of us fanatically obsess over these infernal locked room and impossible crimes. 

I think "The Episode of the Tangible Illusion" (1935) would have been a better story to include here as it's the better story of the two that does something genuinely different with the haunted house setting. 

Craig Rice's "His Heart Could Break" was first published in the March, 1943, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, collected in The Name is Malone (1953) and reprinted in The Locked Room Reader (1968). John J. Malone is easily my favorite shady American lawyer-detective who can boost he never lost a client, but that reputation nearly is shot to pieces when he defended Paul Palmer on a charge of murder. Palmer had supposedly shot his uncle, Carter Brown, but "everything had been against him" as the jury, "composed of hard-working, poverty-stricken men," liked "nothing better than to convict a rich young wastrel of murder" – worse still, "they'd all been too honest to be bribed." The trial had been Malone most notable failure, but he knew "some interesting facts about the judge's private life" that allowed new evidence to be turned up for a new trial. Of course, "the evidence would have to be manufactured before the trial," but that's the least of Malone's worries. Arthur Crook and Perry Mason have nothing on Malone! But when Malone goes to the prison to visit his client, the guards and him discover Palmer swinging from a rope in his cell. And with his dying breaths says, "it wouldn't break."

Malone swears he'll prove Palmer was murdered and make an awful stink about it, but he's faced with a double-edged impossibility. Although a two-sided improbability is probably a better description. On the one hand, why would an innocent man who has been told he's getting a new trial hang himself, but, on the other, how could he have been killed while imprisoned? Malone tackles that tricky problem in his own, unique way ("I'm not insane... I'm drunk. There's a distinction”) with an excellent use of the dying message and the half-remembered lyrics of a song haunting the lawyer throughout the story. One of the best stories in this collection and really need to return to Rice sometime soon. 

Manly Wade Wellman's "Murder Among Magicians" originally appeared in the December, 1939, issue of Popular Detective and reprinted in Sleight of Crime: Fifteen Classic Tales of Murder, Mayhem and Magic (1977). Another story that began promising enough with Secutoris, "foremost stage magician and escape artist of his day," playing host to four magicians and a newspaper reporter at his Magic Mansion. Secutoris shows them his latest apparatus and gives them a demonstration, but, when the door to the magician's closet is unlocked and opened, the body of Secutoris slumps to the floor. I liked the setting and cast of characters, but the plot turned out to be poor with an uninspired, third-rate locked room-trick. You should at least expect a cheap magic trick or some easy sleight-of-hand, but even Victorian spiritualists would turn up their nose at that kind of cheap trickery.

The anthology closes out with Cornell Woolrich's "Murder at the Automat," originally published in the August, 1937, issue of Dime Detective Magazine, which appeared alongside Gardner's "The Exact Opposite" and Kantor's "The Light at Three O'Clock" in Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries. Woolrich's name is inextricably linked to noir and suspense fiction, but, occasionally, "he also wrote detective stories that were meticulously plotted" and "even took on the great challenge of the locked room puzzle on three occasions" – like the classic "The Room with Something Wrong" (1938). And they tend to be a little darker in tone than your average, 1930s locked room mystery. Leo Avram is an unlikable, penny-pinching miser who leaves his wife and two hungry stepchildren every evening to go to the same automat to treat himself to a coffee and a bologna sandwich, but this time his sandwich was loaded with cyanide. The police quickly establishes that "there was clearly no slip-up or carelessness in the automat pantry," which means "cyanide got into that sandwich on the consumer's side of the apparatus." So either he committed suicide or one of the other customers poisoned his sandwich, but the sandwich was wrapped up and sealed in wax paper. So there's no way it could have been opened and closed again without attracting attentions or suspicion. A splendid setup and backdrop not often seen in Golden Age detective stories, which actually reminded me of those impossible poisoning stories set at eateries or barrooms in the Case Closed series. Such as the sushi bar murder from vol. 63 in which the victim is poisoned after taking a random plate of food from a conveyor belt, but, as said, Woolrich's take is much darker and grittier. But a pretty good story nonetheless with an excellent solution. A strong and solid short story to round out an otherwise standard and, on a whole, a pretty mediocre anthology.

So, as you probably noticed, this anthology has not elicited the kind of response you expect from a rambling, unapologetic locked room fanboy. The selection of stories is both disappointing and repetitive with eight of the stories having appeared in other locked room anthologies, which are well-known to the core audience who will be immediately drawn to a short story collection entitled Golden Age Locked Room Mysteries. Something that would have been acceptable enough had the absolute cream of the crop from those anthologies been selected to introduce newcomers to the locked room mystery, but the overall quality of the locked room-tricks is below average with the impossible crimes being only minor elements in some of the better stories (e.g. "Elsewhen," "The Calico Dog" and "The Riddle of the Yellow Canary"). Not to mention how some stories together makes the genre appear repetitive and two-dimensional ("The Light at Three O'Clock," "The Episode of the Nail and the Requiem" and "Murder Among Magicians"), which certainly helped cheapen Kantor's excellent suspense mystery. And that while there are so many great, unanthologized (American) locked room mysteries that could have been included. Such as Frederick I. Anderson's "Big Time" (1927), Stuart Palmer's "The Riddle of the Whirling Lights" (1935), Gerald Kersh's "Karmesin and the Meter" (1937), Theodore Roscoe's "I Was the Kid with the Drum" (1937), Fredric Brown's "Miracle on Vine Street" (1941), D.L. Champion's "The Day Nobody Died" (1941) and Helen McCloy's "The Singing Diamonds" (1949). Those stories would have given a much better, more varied impression of the genre to newcomers. But enough saltiness for one review. I'll try to pick something good for the next one.