The Girl with the Hole in Her Head (1949) by Hampton Stone

Last month, I reviewed The Real Gone Goose (1959) by Aaron Marc Stein, a prolific American crime-and detective writer, who produced over a hundred novels under his own name as well as two pseudonyms, "George Bagby" and "Hampton Stone" – all published between 1935 to 1984. I concluded the review with the observation that Stein consistently churned out entertainingly written, serviceable plotted detective stories possessing an ever-present glimmer of greater things. Judging from what I gleaned of Stein's writing and career, he rarely, if ever, delivered greater things. You can likely put that down on his productivity and having to meet deadlines, but The Corpse Who Had Too Many Friends (1953) and The Real Gone Goose were enough to push him back into my peripheral. However, I'm always open to suggestions that could prove me wrong (e.g. The Kindaichi Case Files), but the subject of today's review kind of lucked its way into my hands. 

The Girl with the Hole in Her Head (1949), published as by "Hampton Stone," is the second entry in the series about New York's Assistant District Attorney, Jeremiah X. "Gibby" Gibson. This is only title in the series that had been jotted down on my wishlist, because Robert Adey listed it in Locked Room Murders (1991). So can a full-blown locked room puzzle deliver greater things and turn The Girl with the Hole in Her Head into something more than an entertainingly written, serviceable plotted detective story? Yeah, kind of, but not on account of "bolted rooms and gimmicks like that."

Ellen Bannock is the titular girl with the hole in her head, "a sweet child but quite mad," who nearly died in car crash and would have died had it not been for the miracle of modern surgery – patching the hole in her head with a metal plate. She lives under somewhat curious circumstances with her dysfunctional siblings and assorted live-in friends in a slick, modern three-story house on East End Avenue. Ellen Bannock has a half-brother and step-brother, David and Gordon Cameron ("Gordon was his. I was hers. David was theirs"). David Cameron is an alcoholic wreck and a friend from Alcoholic Anonymous, "some character name of Edwards," is living in their guestroom. Gordon Cameron is the head of the rich, successful head of the family, but without any real friends beside a special secretary and companion. Paul Morrison, "man-of-all-work," is there to take care of all the little, day-to-day annoyances and playing sports with Gordon ("...Gordon is a special person and Paul's job is made to order to fit Gordon"). Austin is another resident guest and somewhat successful sculptor who crafted the wire and glass rod arrangements on the hall walls. But he also made a sculpture of Ellen's head with a great jagged hole, which stands on a pedestal in a most prominent position ("...another touch of madness in a completely mad household").

So while the household can be described as unusual, even slightly dysfunctional, it's not a completely loveless household. When anonymous threats begin to arrive at the house, Ellen tries to intervene.

All the threats were addressed to Gordon, but he refuses to take them seriously and can't even be bothered to open them anymore. So now he tears them to pieces unopened, and unread, but, when he found out Ellen was putting them back together, he simply burned them. Ellen turned to the District Attorney, The Old Man, who in turn puts his two assistants on the case. But can she be trusted? Jeremiah X. Gibson and Malcolm T. Macauley, simply Gibby and Mac, receive instructions to humor her, but not to believe a word she says. Gibby and Mac begin a discreet investigation behind Gordon's back as they try to get their hands on the ashes of a burned letter. And then there's the curious incident of the birdcage. But things had gone "too far for them to have boiled out to anything but murder." More on that locked room murder in a minute.

Mike Grost notes on his website, A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection, that Stein's detective novels "are vaguely Van Dine-ish in approach" and that's certainly true for The Girl with the Hole in Her Head. Firstly, the series and this book is narrated by Mac, but he merely records what happens and is barely acknowledged. Mac is only mentioned by name a handful of times through out the story. So very much a Van Dinean narrator. Secondly, there's the slightly cracked family living together and Gordon's private, soundproof study doubling as a private museum so often found in Van Dine and his followers. Gordon's study houses a very peculiar and personal collection, but it takes a while before Gibby and the reader get to meet Gordon. And experience the bizarre collection ("one was assaulted by their total effect"), which is the most striking scene in the whole book. A mad touch of Ellery-in-Wonderland! There is also an unmistakable influence of the hardboiled detective story mixed into the narrative. Grost points out that "their District Attorney boss is called the Old Man like the boss of the detective agency in Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op tales," but I only noticed lines like "he [Gibby] just can't get it through his head that they [influential people] aren't people like anyone else, subject to the same laws." Gibby has a tendency to forget about "the limitations the law puts upon the powers of the public prosecutor's office" and can be "dynamite with influential people," which includes bending the rules a little as shown in The Corpse Who Had Too Many Friends – making him the legal counterpart to Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason. Mac's primary job in the series is curbing Gibby's unfortunate tendencies and stop him from stepping on too many toes. It feels like a very pulpy setup.

Gordon Cameron is eventually found dead, shot in the chest, in his study, but the door is bolted from the inside and all the windows latched. There were two hired guards posted at the front and rear doors. However, there's not much more to say about the locked room problem, because a solution is immediately proposed and accepted. Fortunately, the locked room-trick has a small twist in its tail and Gibby amusingly tries to find out who in the house has read the detective novel entitled Murder Behind the Bolted Door ("complete explanation of the... trick in the last chapter"). A copy of which was found somewhere in the house. So more interesting in how the murderer employs the concept of a locked room mystery than any kind of ingenious trickery or sleight-of-hand as the trick is fairly routine. Not something you can say of either the who-and why. 

The Girl with the Hole in Her Head is a second-string (or mid-list) detective tale, but the identity of the murderer is not half as obvious as it would have been in the hands of a less talented second-stringer. The murderer's identity is strengthened with a good and convincing motive, which is not a run-of-the-mill reason and one that arose from a very specific set of circumstances. All of it's relatively fairly clued. My only (very minor) misgivings is that a Dying Message puzzle would probably have served the plot better than a locked room and fitted the Van Dine-Queen furnishings of the plot and characters. Other than that, The Girl with the Hole in Her Head proved to be a better, more consistently plotted, detective story than either The Corpse Who Had Too Many Friends or The Real Gone Goose. So glad my initial impressions from them do not entirely hold up and rekindled my intention to track down his archaeological mystery series or continue poking around this series. The Murder That Wouldn't Stay Solved (1951), The Corpse That Refused to Stay Dead (1951) and The Strangler Who Couldn't Let Go (1957) all sound promising enough.


Close Quarters (1947) by Michael Gilbert

Michael Gilbert was a British solicitor, author, schoolteacher and veteran who, beginning in the 1930s, served with the Royal Horse Artillery and joined a reserve regiment, the Honourable Artillery Company, during the Second World War – effectively putting his writing ambitions on hold for nearly a decade. Gilbert began working on his first detective novel in 1938, while working as a teacher, but the wacky shenanigans of the Axis Powers delayed the publication of Close Quarters (1947) by nine years.

So, while the war postponed his entry into the genre, Gilbert made up for lost time over the next five decades with twenty-five novels and several short story collections published between 1947 and 2002. There were also a number of posthumously published collections of short stories and radio-plays with The Man Who Couldn't Sleep and Other Mysteries (2011) being the most recent one. Gilbert's output covered everything from traditional detective stories and courtroom dramas to police procedurals and spy-thrillers. A highlight from his work and my personal favorite is Death in Captivity (1952), alternatively published as The Danger Within, which is based on Gilbert's experiences in an Italian POW camp. One of the best World War II mysteries ever written, but Smallbone Deceased (1950), Death Has Deep Roots (1951), The Night of the Twelfth (1976) and The Killing of Katie Steelstock (1980) are generally regarded to be among his best detective novels.

Despite a nine-year delay, Gilbert ended up being one of the longest-lived and published Golden Age mystery writers when he died, aged 93, on February 8, 2006.

Michael Gilbert's apprentice effort, Close Quarters, has been stuck on the big pile for an ice age and I've always been a little hesitant about it, because I remember opinions of the book being a bit dismissive in the late 2000s – comparing it to a glacially slow, overly elaborate Freeman Wills Crofts-style novel. So very talky and too much timetabling. At the time, I only knew of Crofts' tarnished, undeserved reputation as the mystery writer who cured insomnia, but a lot has changed since then and we know better now. What I perceived as criticism at the time was actually a glowing endorsement for a careful, meticulously-plotted detective story with a croft of alibis. It was about time I heeded those old recommendations! 

Close Quarters entirely takes place inside the confides of a cathedral close, Melchester Close, which has recently been plagued by a series of thoroughly unpleasant incidents. Firstly, Canon Whyte had fallen from the gallery on the roof of the cathedral, "a hundred and three measured feet," on to the flagstones below. There was "nothing mysterious or really sensational" about the death of Canon Whyte, besides it being upsetting for all concerned. Secondly, the extraordinary persecution of the head verger, Daniel Appledown. For over a week, the members of the Close community have been receiving anonymous letters, "typewritten and uniformly abusive," decrying the head verger as inefficient and immoral. More of such messages were left all over the Close. The Dean of Manchester is convinced the wolf is within the fold, but finds the thought of getting the police officially involved unpleasant. So he turns to his young nephew, Bobby, who's a member of the Metropolitan Police Force and the right hand man of Gilbert's series-detective, Chief Inspector Hazlerigg.

Sergeant Bobby Pollock comes to Melchester Close to conduct an "extremely unofficial" inquiry under the guise of a short holiday to visit his uncle, but he has been there barely a day when Appledown's body is discovered. Someone bashed his brains in near the shed housing the electric motor which supplied the power for the famous Melchester organ. There are an abundance of potential clues, possible red herrings and plenty of suspects to found within the cathedral close. Pollock described the scene of the crime and the case ahead, "an assassin who walked across the grass backwards, clothes which were too wet, and a bowler hat which was much too dry" and "sixteen little holes in the ground" – "a case after his own heart." Not to forget about the ghost who appeared prematurely! The cast of suspects, witnesses and other characters is very large and thankfully the story comes with a dramatis personae of all the principal clues, which comes with mini-biographies. Something that should be included in every detective story with a sprawling cast of characters, but what Gilbert accomplished with all these characters in regards to their alibis is fascinating. Nearly everyone appears to possess "carefully, interlocking alibis" and only one person was not vouched for the whole time by one or more independent witnesses. Chief Inspector Hazlerigg is not prepared to go as far as to believe in "a complete canonical conspiracy," but finding an alternative explanation requires some good, old-fashioned alibi-busting.

I should mention here Close Quarters is erroneously listed in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991), "murder in a guarded area where those present are generally alibied," which is probably due to the setting. The Dean points out to Pollock the reason why he believes the anonymous letter writer is closely connected to the cathedral is that "after seven o'clock it is impossible to get in or out of the Close unobserved," because of the twelve-foot high walls and the guard posted at the main gate. A textbook example of the closed-circle of suspects situation and the alibis do not qualify as an impossibility. Not according to my definition of what constitutes an impossible alibi, which also happens to be correct one. Nonetheless, the problem of the alibis is well handled and perhaps, as a whole, closer to the alibi-crackers of Christopher Bush than Freeman Wills Crofts. I can easily imagine Ludovic Travers and Superintendent Wharton marching into Melchester Close to go to work on the parade of clues and alibis (The Case of the Cathedral Close?).

Gilbert reportedly complain in later years that Close Quarters ended up being somewhat cluttered and wonder if he meant the last quarter of the story, which became a bit messy towards the end. It felt like the clear, straightforward narrivate went a little wobbly all of the sudden. A hidden crossword puzzle is discovered with an entire chapter dedicated to solving it. A late and tragic second murder throws the solution Hazlerigg had pieced together out of the window and had to resort to some scheming plotting to trap the murderer, but how much of that slightly wobbly ending can be blamed on a then inexperienced author or what can be blamed on later alterations. For example, the murderer turning out to have been too clever by half, who "started to elaborate on two or three of the points," which is an admittance more in line with the post-war period than the 1937. Just like the murderer refusing to obey the rules of fiction and politely coming clean, before committing suicide.

Either way, Close Quarters is a promising and prodigious first stab at the detective story from an author who would go on to deliver on this promising debut with novels like the all-time classic WWII mystery, Death in Captivity. Particularly recommended to fans of Christopher Bush, Freeman Wills Crofts and Rupert Penny.


The Hanging Captain (1932) by Henry Wade

So it must be admitted that January has been pretty average so far, quality-wise, having discussed two of Paul Doherty's e-novellas of differing grades, a trio of so-called transitional mysteries from the late 1950s and a compilation of six uncollected short impossible crime stories – of which only two were of good quality. Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed vol. 84 mainly occupied itself with setting up the payoff to several character-arcs in the ongoing storyline in vol. 85. I decided to return to the genre's Golden Age with one of its great, early luminaries.

Major Sir Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher, English baronet and writer, served in two World

Wars and held the positions of High Sheriff and Lord Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire during peacetime. The 6th baronet made his greatest contribution to his country when he began writing detective novels and short stories under the name "Henry Wade." Between 1926 and 1957, Wade penned twenty-three novels and short story collection with half of them featuring his series-character, Inspector John Poole. Wade's work is generally highly regarded, "varied in plot and situation" with "a wide, first-hand knowledge of police procedure," which No Friendly Drop (1931), Constable, Guard Thyself! (1934) and Heir Presumptive (1935) can attest to. So why not pick up this month's slack with a novel that was recommended to me as a superb example of Wade's detective fiction? Sure enough, Wade delivered the best detective story (so far) of the month.

The Hanging Captain (1932) is Wade's sixth detective novel and largely takes place at the ancestral home of Captain Herbert Sterron, Ferris Court, which "had been in the family for no fewer than four hundred years." Captain Sterron inherited the estate when he was a young, dashing and rich Dragoon captain whose successful military career allowed him to capture "beautiful Griselda Hewth in the height of her first, victorious London season" – "sweeping her away from under the guns of rival dukes and diamond merchants." So the future was looking bright for the Sterrons, but then he suddenly resigned his commission and buried himself with his wife at his remote country home. There were plenty of rumors ranging from ill-health, money problem and domestic quarrels. Whatever the reason, Griselda stayed put, "on principle rather than by inclination," even throughout the war when Captain Sterron was deemed unfit for active service and spent the war at remount depot on the French coast.

Gerald Sterron, a retired Shanghai merchant, returned to the England, he found his older brother "utterly changed from the care-free, high-spirited dragoon" and "the Tudor home of twelve generations of Sterrons" in a neglected state. Captain Sterron has made "a complete mess of things financially" with everything tied-up in mortgages and "there's no money to keep things up."

The lingering memory of the First World War (Constable, Guard Thyself!) and the decline of the British upper classes (No Friendly Drop) appear to be recurring themes in Wade's detective fiction. Both are present in the The Hanging Captain, but the war is only a background murmur here with the emphasis being on the decline of estates like Ferris Court ("...what with death duties and the cost of keeping the place up"). Not exactly in a nostalgic way that you might expect from a baronet in the 1930s. To quote Martin Edwards from his 2013 review of The Hanging Captain, Wade was "an aristocrat himself, but although his writing often had a touch of nostalgia, plus a strong respect for tradition, he had no time for people who squandered the advantages life gave them" at "a time when things were tough for millions." So the subject is handled in an unvarnished, matter-of-factually way and provides a double-edged motive when Captain Sterron is found hanging from a curtain rod in his study. Suicide looks obvious, but Superintendent Dawle, of the Hylam Police, keeps an open mind as he observes plenty of possible clues and potential motives suggesting he might have a murder on his hands. Firstly, their next door neighbor and High Sheriff of the county, Sir Carle Venning, has been very intimate with Griselda and that angered her husband – swearing to his brother he'll "break him without touching him." Secondly, Gerald Sterron inherits the family estate, which even in 1932 still counted as a pretty solid motive. However, it's another house guest, Sir James Hamsted, who definitively proves his host had been cleverly murdered during a very well written inquest scene. That discovery poses a problem to the local authorities.

The Chief Constable, Major Threngood, does not relish the thought of having to interrogate the High Sheriff and prefers a hush-hush policy, before deciding to call in Scotland Yard to crack that hard, politically sensitive nut. So the story suddenly begins to indulge in a surprisingly rare, baffling under utilized trope, rivaling detectives, but it's not Inspector John Poole who arrives in Hylam. It's his slightly older rival, Detective-Inspector Lott, who previously appeared in The Dying Alderman (1930) and is expected to one day run neck-to-neck with Poole to the post of a Chief-Inspectorship. And the city detective proved to be a perfect foil for the provincial superintendent.

Detective-Inspector Lott "sedulously cultivated the appearance both of youth and clerkliness" and "with his well-cared-for clothes and the golden chain to his pince-nez would have passed anywhere for the holder of some well-paid clerical post in a Government office." Lott has an exceptional record at the Yard as one successfully closed case followed another. A striking contrast to the plodding and methodical Superintendent Dawle who embodies all the qualities of good, efficient British policing ("there was no brainwork in it, only care, thoroughness and method"). I really liked how they played off each other! Lott comes to Hylam with some preconceived notions as his "experience with county constabularies had led him to expect a fair amount of stupidity," but eventually has to admit to himself that Dawle is "an unselfish old cuss" and "not half such a fool as he looked." Wade deserves praise for giving them only two, equally likely suspects, namely Gerald Sterron and Sir Carle Venning, to investigate and they present a very similar problem – a pair of seemingly unbreakable, cast-iron alibis. Gerald Sterron was playing chess with Sir James Hamsted in the library and Sir Carle was in Birmingham attending a theatrical play, which made it impossible for him "to have been at Ferris at the time that the murder had been committed." So while Dawle goes to work on the chess alibi, Lott tackles the theatrical alibi.

And having only two suspects works better than some might assume. I instinctively jumped on one of them, which immediately made me pause to consider the second option and that's where the story got me. For some time, anyway, but eventually pieced most of it together except for some of the finer details. But what a fun, clever little detective story! Not an Agatha Christie-style rug-pull, of course, but a good how-was-it-done puzzle The only thing that could have made the story and plot even better is if Sir James Hamsted had played armchair detective by proposing a false-solution implicating a third, previously unsuspected person. It would have made for a much more engaging and interesting way to tackle the sub-plot concerning Father Speyd's secret as well as preventing the slackening of the story's pacing during its second-half.

But beside that minor point, The Hanging Captain is a good, solid piece of Golden Age detective fiction, plot-wise, ranking only slightly below Wade's excellent No Friendly Drop and Constable, Guard Thyself. The story earned some bonus points in my book as a superb example of what can be done with two very different, but equally skilled, rivaling detectives. Highly recommended!


More Than Zero: Case Closed, vol. 84 by Gosho Aoyama

Gosho Aoyama's 84th volume of Case Closed (Detective Conan) traditionally begins with the concluding chapters to the case that closed out the previous volume, a prequel story, which takes place before Jimmy Kudo became Conan Edogawa during a trip to the aquarium – where someone predictably got killed. A man is stabbed to death in the aquarium tunnel and some detective work, amateur and professional, whittles down the crowd of potential suspects down to three: the victim's current girlfriend, his ex-girlfriend and her current boyfriend. There's just one problem. All three suspects possess waterproof alibis as all three were shooting a video on their smartphones. 

Case Closed began serialization in 1994 and tried to keep pace with the changing times. Just think how much the world changed between 1994, 2004 and 2014, which is when this volume was originally published in Japan. So the series deserve applause for always trying to come up with ways to apply modern technology to the classically-styled detective stories and a really fine example is the elevator case from vol. 79. A story that uses modern-day technology to straight up warp people's perception of reality with the only drawback being that the execution of the trick was a little rough around the edges. Some can be said of this prequel story. The smartphone alibi is perfectly fine in theory, but strains credulity in practice as it requires very specific, even contrived circumstances to work. A second problem is that the presence of 2014 smartphones look really weird in a prequel story from a series that began in 1994. I know only about a year has passed, in-universe, but this story clashes with earlier stories featuring '90s fax machines and '00s flip phones.

This observation comes with the benefit of hindsight, but it might have been better had Aoyama frozen the series, culturally and technological, somewhere between '94 and '04. It would have come at the cost of most of these innovative, tech-based detective stories. However, placing the series in a clearly defined period of time would have improved continuity and the reader's perception of time passed, because it feels like nearly two decades past instead of merely a year. And, as the next few stories demonstrate, continuity is the foundation of Case Closed.

The second story has Conan and the Junior Detective League participating in a kite-flying competition, which becomes the scene of a nearly fatal accident when one of the kite-fliers nearly drowned in the river. Ryota Renno was holding his kite, while taking walking backwards, but the guard rope behind him was broken and tumbled backwards – suggesting nothing more than a simple accident. Conan astutely observes that the guard rope only looks like it had snapped a long time ago. Somebody lured him into the river and there are three potential suspects, but none of them was anywhere near him. So how could they have impelled him to walk into the river? The trick has all "the cleverness of a child" and the comic book format helped make the clueing a whole fairer than it would have been otherwise, but resolving the problem can also be filed away under "contrived circumstances." A fairly minor and average story.

Unfortunately, the third and weakest story of the collection can, plot-wise, also be described as contrived, but the plot plays second fiddle to the main, ongoing storyline that begins to take precedent as the build towards vol. 85 begins. More about that in a minute. Conan, Rachel and Richard Moore visit Eva Kaden, who had her appendix removed, in the hospital when someone gets poisoned under quasi-impossible circumstances. Three women were cheering up a hospitalized friend with an impromptu tea party, but one cup of tea contained poison and the obvious answer is that the murderer, in an unguarded moment, swapped the victim's teacup with a poisoned one. However, they were all drinking differently flavored and colored teas ("one's brown, one's blue and one's yellow") with the victim's "was drinking a red blend" with a slice of lemon in it. Normally, this series is quite good at poisonous puzzles, but this case is not one of them. However, Conan has something else on his mind as Toru Amuro turns up at the hospital to ask questions about events from the novel-length vol. 58.

The fourth and final case follows the pattern of the previous story, but with even more familiar faces turning up. A schoolteacher is viciously attacked and left for dead in a public park, clumsily disguised as an accident, but the victim had a direct connection to the two FBI agents, Jodie Sterling and Andre Camel – who had engaged Amuro as a private investigator "because she was being victimized by a stalker." So, while they try to figure out whether the culprit is a stalking colleague or a disgruntled parent, Conan also attempts to probe Amuro's true intentions. Sometimes even the best detectives can be surprised at the answers they get ("I think you're a bit mistaken about me"). The case of whom attacked the teacher is descent enough, but all of the interest here went to the ongoing storyline and setting up the next volume. Another long, volume spanning story tidying up several story-arcs that have fueled the series ever since vol. 58. I very much look forward to the pay-off!

Admittedly, I expected a little more from this volume with the individual cases turning out to be mostly average and without the red-threads, of the main story-arcs, it would have been a pretty poor volume overall. So all its strength is in building towards that big story and getting a taste of things to come. I eagerly look forward to the pay-off!


Death by Marriage (1959) by E.G. Cousins

There's not much to be found online about Edmund George Cousins except that he was born in Tientsin, China, but "moved to England at an early age" and likely had a brief stint as a scriptwriter as a "E.G. Cousins" is credited with writing the script for a TV movie, I Done a Murder (1951) – a comedy mystery in which a murderer tries to confess and nobody wants to hear it. A second and last writing credit is for a 1956 episode of the drama anthology series Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Presents, entitled "Welcome My Wife," but the biggest online footprint came from his two-decade career as a novelist. 

Between 1950 and 1967, E.G. Cousins wrote eleven, standalone war novels and six mysteries starring his series-detective, Colonel Richard Barne of the War Office. The series was published from 1959 to 1967. Cousins appears to have ended his writing career and disappeared from the public eye following the publication of the last Col. Barne novel, Death in a Quiet Place (1967). The last known fact about his life, or rather death, is that he passed away in 1996 at the venerable age of 103.

Cousins is practically forgotten today, as a mystery writer, even lacking his own author's page on websites like GADWiki and Fantastic Fiction. Nobody discusses or references his work, but, surprisingly, most of his novels are neither exceedingly rare or particularly expensive to acquire. Just completely forgotten and overlooked today. So how did I get wind of Cousins and the Col. Richard Barne series? Robert Adey listed one of his novels, Death by Marriage (1959), in Locked Room Murder (1991) and described a potential fascinating impossibility – death by drowning in a locked bathroom. It got added to the wishlist and recently came across a cheap copy. 

Death by Marriage was published at the tail-end of the Golden Age's twilight years and described in the synopsis as "not so much a who-dun-it (that is clear from the beginning) but a how-did-he-do-it." It's also the first of six novels featuring Col. Barne and Cousins introduces him under somewhat unusual circumstances, which recalled the unorthodox ways in which Gladys Mitchell (Speedy Death, 1929), Jonathan Latimer (Murder in the Madhouse, 1935) and Patrick Quentin (Puzzle for Fools, 1936) debuted their series-characters. Col. Barne is a soldier and "soldiers are supposed to be inured" to violent deaths, which is alright in wartime, but the colonel preferred people "to die tidily in their beds." So he was not entirely unaffected when reading in the newspaper that his ex-wife, Brenda, unexpectedly died at her home in, what appears to have been, a tragic accident. They had been married for six years when, one day, he returned from Malta to find "she'd hopped it with Jeremy Lammert." An "extraordinary good-looking chap" and proverbial lady killer.

Col. Barne and the Lammerts have two mutual friends, Dr. Horace "Horrors" Aveley ("specialized in D.T.s and alcoholism generally") and his wife Mollie ("indisputably one of the World's Sweetest"), who were at Great Monk when Brenda died. When they arrived, the Aveleys found Jeremy restlessly walking pacing up and down in agony. Brenda is in the bathroom and he had knocked, and called, but received no answer. They rattled the door the doorknob, but the door was obviously bolted on the inside and Horrors suggesting breaking a panel, which Jeremy turns down – offering instead to get a ladder to go through the bathroom window ("they always left the bathroom window a little open"). Jeremy climbed up the ladder first, found the window latched on the inside and put his elbow through it. Horrors followed behind and they found Brenda's body. She appeared to have slipped, bumped her head and drowned. Col. Barne decides to attend the inquest and Jeremy's performance on the witness stand convinces him there's more to Brenda's death than a mere accident.

These are the thoughts that run through his head and wanted to shout to the coroner, "your witness is a phoney and these whole proceedings are bogus. If that son-of-a-bitch wanted to stove the door in, why wouldn't he have done it with a few well-directed kicked at a lower panel" instead of leaving her to drown? And what about the so-called dizzy spells "even her doctor knew nothing about." Not to mention her lifelong habit of leaving the bathroom door unlocked. But he holds his tongue. A second, more detailed talk with Horrors shows just how impossible it would have been for Jeremy to have killed Brenda. The obvious and simplest solution suggesting itself is that Jeremy had simply walked into the bathroom, bolted the door behind and drowned a stunned Brenda. Jeremy then left through the bathroom window by climbing down a ladder placed there beforehand and later simply pretended the window was fastened on the inside, before smashing a pane and feigning to unfasten it. However, the situation is not as simple or straightforward as that. Jeremy suffered a shoulder wound during the war and could neither have gotten a hold nor carried the heavy ladder, which had been stowed away along the rafters of the garage. They had to stand on soapboxes to reach it and it brought "down a cloud of dust." So it hadn't been used in a very long time and took two people to "manhandle it round to the back." Jeremy was physically incapable of getting the heavy, dusty ladder and that left only a solidly bolted door ("a locked door is subject to skillful manipulation; a bolted one is not").

So the locked room-puzzle is build up perfectly, but Death by Marriage is not only about the how-did-he-do-it and not at all a continuation of similar, John Rhode-style howdunits. Just like the previously discussed Nigel FitzGerald, Cousins was a mystery writer caught in the middle of a transitional period as the genre (not completely natural) began to abandon the plot-driven detective stories in favor of character-driven crime, thriller and suspense novels. Death by Marriage gives the impression Cousins approach, to bridge that ever widening gap, was to take the bare essentials of both and tightly weave them together into a very lean, readable novel-length story. So you get a central puzzle (the locked room) with character-driven storytelling as the story takes place over a period of roughly a year. Col. Barne has serious doubts about Brenda's "death by misadventure," but without any strong evidence, he has plenty of other things requiring his attention. Such as going to Rome on a special assignment in connection with the distribution of NATO supplies, but, along the way, the reader gets more background details about Col. Barne, Brenda and Jeremy Lammert. Jeremy is slowly turning into a regular Bluebeard and his brides-in-the-bath routine.

What about the ending? Did it succeed in bridging the gap between the established, traditional detective story and the emerging, darker and character-driven crime fiction? Yes... and no. Firstly, the plot hinges entirely on the locked room murder and Cousins was smart enough to avoid the kind of sleight-of-hand trickery suggested in the story's opening stages, because how he build up the impossibility demanded an imaginative or original answer – which Cousins absolutely delivered on. Something straight out of Arthur Porges or John Russell Fearn, but good luck anticipating it as there's not a ghost of clue to the method employed. You can't really do that when billing your story as "a how-did-he-do-it." Secondly, the lack of fair play makes the misdirection after the halfway point baffling and pointless. Col. Barne is told by Horrors and Mollie that Jeremy's hobby is tinkering and repairing clocks. This immediately conjured up images of a mechanical, wind-up clock device shooting the bolt with a looped wire and then pulling itself into a small trash bin standing next to the washstand or something. The real solution is a little bit more sophisticated, but, once again, good luck figuring it out.

I'm left in two minds about Death by Marriage. If it had been a little fairer, Death by Marriage would have been an early, neo-GAD mystery trailing not all that far behind a Roger Ormerod (Time to Kill, 1974) or Douglas Clark (Golden Rain, 1980). But it was also his first stab at the detective story. I'm always very forgiving of debuts as some of our favorite mystery writers have shown what a little time to develop, hone their skills and build an audience can do. I'm curious to see if improved in novels like Death by Treble Chance (1959), Murder in the Top Drawer (1964) and Body Behind the Curtain (1966), but Death by Marriage can only be recommended to locked room completists or genre scholars interested in transition from the classic to modern style.


Locked and Loaded, Part 3: A Selection of Short Impossible Crime and Locked Room Mystery Stories

A while ago, I cobbled together a pair of compilation posts, "Locked and Loaded, Part 1 and 2," which discussed a devil's dozen short locked room and impossible crime stories. All enticing sounding detective stories from my favorite subgenre, but somehow eluded being absorbed into the many, well-known locked room-themed anthologies published between Hans Santesson's The Locked Room Reader (1968) and Otto Penzler's Golden Age Locked Room Mysteries (2022). So, after nearly two years, it was time to do a third. 

Yeah, I'm well aware that after a nice period of some kind of variety, the locked rooms and impossible crimes have begun to dominate again, but the accumulated pile of locked room novels and short stories desperately needed trimming. So please be patient and you can at least look forward to a few reviews of some obscure items from Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991).


Table of Content:

Charles G. Booth's "One Shot" (1925)

Margery Allingham's "The Unseen Door" (1945)

Margery Allingham's "Tall Story" (1954)

Morton Wolson's "The Glass Room" (1957)

Joseph Commings' "Nobody Loves a Fat Man" (1980)

L.A. Taylor's "Silly Putty" (1986)


Charles G. Booth's "One Shot" originally appeared in the June, 1925, issue of The Black Mask and reprinted in Otto Penzler's The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories (2010). Peter Stoddard, "something of an authority on antiques," who received an offer from Nat Hammond to buy the Parsee Sunrise, "a jeweled symbol of the Parsee fire worshipers," which came with a twenty thousand dollar prize-tag. Curiously, the typewritten note had a pen-written postscript on the back reading, "don't buy the Parsee Sunrise—please." So, as a man of action, Stoddard is determined to keep the appointment, but, when he arrives at the house, he discovers Nat Hammond shot and killed inside his library – door and windows securely bolted from the inside. In fact, the whole house had been shuttered for the night. However, the solution is like a knife that cuts on both sides. It's a tremendous improvement on a very well-known, incredibly overrated, short story (ROT13: Zryivyyr Qnivffba Cbfg'f “Gur Qbbzqbes Zlfgrel”), but the solution also makes the story entirely irrelevant. You know what I mean when you read it. A curiosity instead of a genuine antique. 

Margery Allingham's short-short "The Unseen Door" was originally published in the August 5, 1945, edition of Sunday Empire News and recently reprinted in Martin Edward's anthology Capital Crimes: London Mysteries (2015). Superintendent Stanislaus Oates and Albert Campion are summoned to the Prinny's Club, Pall Mall, where the body of "the man who exposed William Merton," Robert Fenderson, was lying in the billiard room. Merton had ruined a thousand small speculators and had shouted threats, which made him an obvious suspect when he broke jail the previous night. Bowser, the doorkeeper, enjoys a perfect view from his box of the street door and swears "the only other living soul to cross the threshold was Chetty," the lame billiard marker. So how could the murderer have entered a club that had been largely closed and locked for cleaning with the only entrance under observation? The answer is as short and sweet as the story itself, befitting a detective story comprising of no more than three pages.  

In the next short story, Margery Allingham's "Tall Story," published in the April, 1954, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Divisional Detective Chief Inspector Charley Luke tells Albert Campion about the time he solved an impossible crime – which raised him from a humble constable to a member of the C.I.D. Many years ago, the police received information that 'Slacks' Washington had run out of money again and had been seen "taking sights round a little bookmaker's office in Ebury Court." So the police sets a trap that should corner Washington inside a cul-de-sac with "the stuff on him" to make "a nice clean open-and-shut case." But even the best-laid plans can go awry. A gunshot echoes from inside the trap and a dying man, who's not Washington, comes staggering out. Washington is found sitting on a packing case, casually smoking a cigarette, but not a penny of stolen money nor a smoking gun was found. Luke makes a staggering simple observation that solves the entire case and earned himself a promotion in the process. A good, simple and perfectly logical answer that fitted the circumstances. Allingham was a much better mystery writer in a short story form.  

Morton Wolson's "The Glass Room," originally appearing in the September, 1957, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, is a small and sparkling gem of the detective story parody! Deputy Inspector Anthony J. Quinn is sitting at his desk ranting and raving to a mystery writer ("cop haters") about all the nonsense he reads in detective stories. He has some choice words for our favorite mysteries. Such as his take on Ellery Queen, "as if I'd let my own son stick even the end joint of his pinky into a homicide without I'd chop it off" not "to mention it is absolutely impossible to beat trained cops." Quinn also dislikes locked room mysteries and sketches a scenario that actually sounds very enticing. A room that has been "empty and sealed for a hundred years, its windows warped shut, the bolted on the door rusted solid," but, when the room is broken open, they find "a freshly knifed corpse" – minus the knife and killer. Later they locate the knife with "traces of that guy's blood on its blade" inside "a locked museum case in a city a thousand miles away" where it had been laying "untouched for ten years." Quinn provides an answer to both locked room puzzles with the sealed museum case being actually pretty descent. A trick that would work even better today than in the 1950s. So, while venting his bile over detective stories, Quinn simultaneously directing a murder investigation from behind his desk. The victim had been shot and killed while all alone in a glass phone booth with the door shut. Quinn ends up doing exactly what he accuses all those fictitious sleuths of doing, sitting back on his ass and chessing out the case. A thoroughly entertaining parody that should be considered for future anthologies!  

Joseph Comming's short-short "Nobody Loves a Fat Man," originally published in the June, 1980, issue of Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine and has U.S. Senator Brooks U. Banner searching the home of a State Department official. Cicero Hill has a charge of espionage hanging over his head, but without tangible evidence to back up the accusations the case collapses. The evidence in question is "a strip of microfilm concealed inside a small plastic capsule about the size of a sleeping pill." However, the plastic pellet is nowhere to be found. Not anywhere in the house nor on (or inside) Cicero Hill. So where is it? A really short-short story and not the greatest or most challenging impossible problem Banner has been called on to explain, but the hiding place is admittedly very clever. Although one that's nigh impossible to anticipate.  

L.A. Taylor's "Silly Putty," first published in the May, 1986, issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, attempts to modernize "the classic locked room of the mystery pulps." Inspector Percival Kalabash is investigating a burglary and theft of silverware from a house, but "every single door and window had been locked on the inside." Curiously, two days before the burglary, a kid had broken a window pane with a baseball and the owner called the Criminal Rehabilitation Center for a reformed handyman. But the handyman has an ironclad alibi. So how could he have done it? A well intended attempt at modernizing a classic, but the result is a very minor, half-decent and forgettable story.  

As to be expected from half a dozen, randomly picked short stories, the overall quality is a uneven, but not a truly bad one. Booth's "One Shot" is a curio, Taylor's "Silly Putty" is minor stuff and Allingham's "The Unseen Door" and Commings' "Nobody Loves a Fat Man" too short to stick with the reader, but Allingham's "Tall Story" and Worton's "The Glass Room" carried the day. A pair of excellent short stories with their own distinctly different takes on the locked room mystery. Now that I think about it, Worton's Inspector Quinn would probably like "Tall Story."


The Student Body (1958) by Nigel FitzGerald

In the previous blog-post, I looked at Nigel FitzGerald's second of only two impossible crime and locked room mystery novels, Suffer a Witch (1958), which confirmed my suspicion that his last novel, Affairs of Death (1967), constitutes the scraps left at the bottom of the barrel – ending his run as a mystery writer on a whimper. However, in spite of the book's shortcomings, it couldn't disguise FitzGerald was a polished writer with a verve for characterization and local color. Not to mention trace evidence suggesting FitzGerald might have been a pretty decent plotter during the earlier stages of his career. While the plot would have worked better as a short story or novella, Suffer a Witch confirmed all my suspicions. 

So wanted to take a closer look at FitzGerald's second locked room mystery, The Student Body (1958). The description of the impossibility in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) sounded absolutely intriguing and comments promising "an extremely lively" tale of murder and intrigue. Sure enough, The Student Body is an explosive mixture of the Cold War spy-thriller, college-set detective story and a quasi-inverted mystery with hints of the police procedural and comedy of errors. A very weird, but very well-done and strangely effective concoction. 

The Student Body largely takes place at Christchurch College, Dublin, which was founded in 1557 and "there is no record of murder having been committed within its precincts until the fourth centenary year of its existence." There are two students, Jer Milne and Don Carton, who had a hand in bringing murder to the respectable college.

Jer and Don go to a local restaurant to celebrate passing an exam with a few drinks and two young repertory actresses, Rona and Peggy. Some ten days previously, Rona and Peggy had been in London where they visited a famous church, but they arrived at the moment a Hungarian Baroness, "a political exile in Britain," was murdered right as the service was beginning – a knife-handle protruding from her back. Rona and Peggy witnessed a small, swarthy blue-eyed man hurrying from the church as he stripped dark gloves from his hands as he went. They now spotted that very same man sitting at the corner of the bar "placidly completing the crossword puzzle in the Irish Times and taking occasional sips from a glass of dry sherry." Don proposes to ask advice from Aidan "Radish" Roberts, literary editor of the Dublin Observer, who also happens to be at the bar. The long and short of the opening chapters is that they take the only logical and rational course of action anyone would take in their situation. They kidnap the man and take them to their college rooms to be questioned. 

The Student Body is a mystery-thriller of hot, young and alcohol fueled Irish blood operating under Murphy's Law. So everything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

Firstly, their room is entered by a small group of party crashers lead by the lecturer in English language and literature, Dermot Gray, who's accompanied by his sister, Mrs. Nuala Norden. George Kerry, inter-varsity heavyweight champion, who brought a keg of beer. Secondly, this distraction caused a cat-and-mouse game between the mysterious, possibly red assassin and the heroes in which they constantly turn the tables on each other. Thirdly, the scrap ends with the man being tied and is locked behind two doors with a bicycle padlock on it for good measure. As an extra precaution talcum powder is scattered thickly over the approaches to the door on the landing. When returning from having a good meal and drinks, they find the locks and talcum powder undisturbed, but their captive has the handle of knife sticking out of his back. So what to do, except cover everything up and dump the body. Something that proves easier said than done.

The trickiness with some locked room murders and impossible crimes is that the method can expose a murderer too soon, which is kind of the case here. The locked room-trick itself is sound enough, but everyone who has read a decent amount of detective fiction will figure it out in no time. Even if you happen to suck at figuring out these locked room puzzles, FitzGerald hammers down all the clues and hints to ensure the solution is impossible to miss. I suspect FitzGerald intended to have the locked room puzzle crystal clear and practically all tidied up when he returned to it in the last chapters, because the second-act shifts gears as it becomes somewhat of an inverted mystery. Nevertheless, easy to solve as the trick may be, the locked room functions as a fun little side distraction to the overall plot and interesting FitzGerald developed a sudden, short-lived fascination for impossible crime fiction in 1958. Going by these lines, "the impossible situation: murder in a locked room which no one could have entered or left" and "a weapon which for obvious reasons could neither have been fired through the keyhole nor thrown through a window," he probably read some locked room mysteries at the time – which found expression in Suffer a Witch and The Student Body. And looking at the first-act of The Student Body, I wouldn't be surprised if Carter Dickson's The Unicorn Murders (1935) and The Punch and Judy Murders (1936) were on his big book pile.

The second and final-act is a different story as Superintendent Patrick Duffy, of the Detective Branch of the Garda Siochana, enters the picture and the story becomes an undeclared inverted police procedural. The body had been dumped and fished out of a bay, which is why Superintendent Duffy is unaware he has an impossible murder on his hands and simply hopes to find the murderer by identifying and retracing the victim's steps. How very Freeman Wills Crofts of him! So, of course, Duffy pretty quickly uncovers a trail leading straight to Christchurch College and discovering the victim crossed paths with Radish and the college party numerous times. All the while, the reader is in the fortunate and rare position of knowing more than the detective and thus the second, last-minute murder is not very effective as a red herring. So, knowing more than Duffy, regrettably reinforces a dry, anti-climatic ending ("I can say now that there will almost certainly be further charges") to what's otherwise a lively and entertaining story. You have to tolerate the poor decisions making skills of the characters in order to enjoy it. 

The Student Body and Suffer a Witch show FitzGerald was a writer stuck between two distinctly different periods of the genre, a transitional period from the cerebral Golden Age detective stories to the darker, character-driven crime novels that came to dominate post-1950s, which tried to merge by picking and merging the best of both. So the murders, motives and subject material tend to be a little darker, grittier and uneasier than your average, 1930s detective novel, but there's always one or more puzzling components to the case. Such as the second murder from Affairs of Death, the impossible disappearance in Suffer a Witch and the locked room mystery here. FitzGerald can be clumsy, plot-wise, when it comes to ending a story, but he deserves to be acknowledged for an early writer who tried to adept the traditional detective story to the changing times. Not a perfect mystery writer or mystery series, but a valiant and much appreciated attempt to keep the detective story alive and relevant.


Suffer a Witch (1958) by Nigel FitzGerald

Last year, I reviewed Nigel FitzGerald's last mystery novel, Affairs of Death (1967), which struck me at the time as a cross between a character-driven drama and a modernized whodunit with a dash of comedy – mashing them together made for an unevenly-plotted, unsatisfying story and conclusion. Nick Fuller popped up in the comments to condemn it as "a second-rate Nicholas Blake imitation." So not exactly a glowing endorsement or particularly encouraging, but I didn't want to write off his earlier work solely based on a less than stellar final outing. There are two of those early detective novels that have been camping out on my wishlist for over a decade now. 

Robert Adey listed FitzGerald's The Student Body (1958) and Suffer a Witch (1958) in Locked Room Murders (1991) with intriguing descriptions of their impossible crimes. The Student Body concerns a stabbing in a locked room and the talcum powder, which had been sprinkled outside as an extra precaution, lay undisturbed. Suffer a Witch deals with a schoolgirl miraculously vanishing from a post office under constant observation. Curt Evans, of The Passing Tramp, praised the impossible disappearance in his 2014 review as "a genuine Carrian/Queenian miracle problem" and "impressive ratiocination concerning the identity of the murderer." So let's take a look at that one.

FitzGerald's Suffer a Witch takes place in Dun Moher, Ireland, which is a small, coastal town with wind-scarred hills or bogs as an inland backdrop and not much arable land. So for ages, the locals had to live off the Atlantic, which brought life and death to the inhabitants of Dun Moher as "in the last century three liners were driven up on the rocks" and "smashed to pieces" – bodies "washed up on their own doorsteps." So "almost every rock and cliff and inlet" is "named after a disaster." Recently, Dun Moher became a summer holiday resort, but reverts back to being a desolate outpost during the winter months. Dun Moher is also one of the few places that has a history with witchcraft. A novelist by the name of Benedict Carey came to Dun Moher to reconstruct and write about something terrible that had happened there years ago, "a suicide, so called, that was probably murder with a background of treachery and witchcraft," known as the Castlebawn Case.

Upon arriving in Dun Moher, Carey gets lost in the mist along the treacherous, serrated cliff above a rock formation locally referred to as the "Devil's Teeth" when overhearing scraps of a disembodied conversation, "you can't get rid of a man just by pushing him over a cliff." Another, distinctly different voice answered, "what you mean is, you can't get rid of the Devil." When the voices go quiet, Carey sees "a strange, vivid picture" that "he would not forget." A schoolgirl of about fifteen sitting in her school uniform on a stone bench next to her Great Dane, Hamlet. Her name is Vanessa Gale and alludes to Carey to probably being a witch. She even calls Hamlet her familiar. You can sum up the opening of Suffer a Witch as a bundle of allusions and innuendos. Everything raised in the opening chapters, from the Castlebawn Case and Vanessa muttering being a witch to the smutty photograph that "had been dropped either by a priest or by a schoolgirl," has to wait to take a tour of the setting. And meet some of the inhabitants and visitors. 

Suffer a Witch is a leisurely paced, unhurried and thrill-free detective story. Curt Evans wrote in his review Suffer a Witch is somewhat of a transitional novel "between the more anodyne detective fiction associated with the Golden Age" and "the more gloomy (i.e. realistic) stuff of P.D. James," which is true, but, based on this novel, FitzGerald can also be qualified as a regionalist mystery writer. Just like the works of S.H. Courtier, Elspeth Huxley and Arthur W. Upfield, Suffer a Witch is strong on local color and the dark crimes at the heart of the plot feel indigenous to the locality. A hallmark of the regional mystery novel. Some urgency returns to the story when Vanessa simply vanishes from the Post Office where there's no way out other than the main door or the gate, which were both under observation. And her dog had been standing guard at the main door. Vanessa impossibly could have slipped away without being spotted by someone, "unless she flew away on a broomstick." A short time later, Vanessa's body is discover under bizarre circumstances at the local haunted house Carey was planning to write about. Vanessa's body was found naked, on her knees and head bowed to the ground like "one prostrating herself to a deity" – a wire had been tightly fastened around her throat. FitzGerald's series-detective, Superintendent Duffy, is summoned to Dun Moher to hunt down a particular conniving, opportunistic killer.

This is where a small, but not unimportant smudge, on the overall story has to be pointed out. Suffer a Witch is a short story expanded to novel-length as only the impossible disappearance and murder of Vanessa Gale is relevant and everything else turns out to be irrelevant to the plot or simply glossed over. Such as the voices in the mist and the old Castlebawn Case. So credit to FitzGerald that the story barely feels padded. Well, not until you learn how much was actually padding once you reach the ending. That being said, the impossible disappearance and murder were both handled very well.

Firstly, the impossible disappearance has been likened to similar stories by John Dickson Carr and even Ellery Queen, but I found it to be more reminiscent of the vanishing tales by Edward D. Hoch. It's the kind baffling, but ultimately simplistic, disappearance-act that features in such Hoch short stories like "The Problem of the Bootlegger's Car" (1982), "The Problem of the Blue Bicycle" (1991) and "The Problem of the Vanishing Salesman' (1992). FitzGerald placed a very slippery, perhaps unintended red herring right on the doorstep of the Post Office that briefly put me on the wrong track. You see, (ROT13) gur punenpgre jub vzcbffvoyl inavfu bsgra pbyynobengr va gurve bja qvfnccrnenapr naq, evtug orsber Pnerl ragref gur Cbfg Bssvpr, gur qbbe vf “bcrarq sbe uvz naq fuhg oruvaq uvz ol n gryrtencu zrffratre.” V sbhaq vg rkgerzryl fhfcvpvbhf SvgmTrenyq hfrq “gryrtencu zrffratre” vafgrnq bs gur zber pbzzbayl hfrq gryrtencu obl be gryrtenz qryvirel obl. Pnerl unq abgrq ba gurve svefg zrrgvat Inarffn'f guva naq senvy obql. Fb pbhyq n guva, senvyyl ohvyq 15-lrne-byq fpubbytvey cnff nf n lbhat gryrtencu obl ba n cnffvat tynapr? Jryy, jul abg? V svtherq Inarffn unq hfrq bar bs gur gryrcubar obkrf gb punapr sebz bar havsbez vagb nabgure naq gur ernfba jul fur jnf sbhaq anxrq, orpnhfr vg jbhyq unir orra rnfvre gb erzbir gryrtencu havsbez guna gb erqerff ure. It made sense except for one small detail (Unzyrg jnvgvat bhgfvqr gur Cbfg Bssvpr) and the possibility was never even considered. But trying to piece together a coherent solution that fits the given information is half the fun, even if you have to eventually give up on it or gets proven wrong by the end. Secondly, the who-and why were superbly handled and agree with Curt that "there is impressive ratiocinating concerning the identity of the murderer" by Superintendent Duffy. It's another piece recalling some of Hoch's best and pure detective stories.

If you put the impossible disappearance and subsequent, closely-linked murder together, you would have an excellent short story, but some of that uneasy excellence got lost in a novel that needed to be trimmed down to have been truly effective. Nonetheless, Suffer a Witch is a marked improvement over Affairs of Death in every way imaginable and the ending still packs a punch as most readers will sympathize with Duffy "when he heard sentence of death being passed" and "realised that for the first time in his life he was listening to it without revulsion of feeling." A murderer who not only took a life, but tried to destroy a soul and deserved the kind of justice only a rope can deliver. So you can expect a review of The Student Body one of these days!


Judicium Dei: Paul Doherty's "The Peacock's Cry" (2016) and "The King's Writ" (2017)

After returning to Paul Doherty's dark, brooding historical mysteries with Hymn to Murder (2020), I turned my eye to a pair of exclusive e-novellas, "The Peacock's Cry" (2016) and "The King's Writ" (2017), published to mark the comeback Sir Hugh Corbett – who "has been absent from royal service for over six years." The Mysterium (2010) ended with Sir Hugh resigning as Keeper of the Secret Seal to spend time with his family and tend to his bees. Things have changed while he was away from the Secret Chancery. 

Edward I, "of blessed memory," died six months before the opening of "The Peacock's Cry" and "his beloved son Edward of Caernarvon succeeding to the throne," but Edward II has thrown the kingdom in turmoil over his "beloved brother," Piers Gaveston. The king loved him so much, he had created him Earl of Cornwall and "told the great earls of the kingdom, led by Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, the king's own cousin, to go hang themselves, as he would never give up his Gascon favourite." This is the kind of court politics Sir Hugh tried to escape.

Six years after he resigned, Edward II, Gaveston and the entire royal entourage come to the home of Sir Hugh "to kiss hands and accept the seals of high office." And he's given good reason to return to his old position.

Sir Hugh's former protégé, Ranulf-atta-Newgate, is now a Senior Clerk in the Chancery and had been dispatched to a nunnery in Godstow, Oxfordshire, to investigate the disappearance of novice nun and royal ward, Margaret Beaumont – vanished along with all her belongings ("everything gone, from psalter to slipper"). A disappearance followed by a particularly nasty and brutal murder of Margaret Beaumont's only friend at the convent. Elizabeth Buchan was found "foully raped and barbarously slain" with a crossbow bolt through her forehead at the center of dark, dangerous hedge maze. It was one of Ranulf's crossbow quarrels that had smashed into her forehead.

So the situation is not enviable one for Ranulf. Or, as Sir Hugh sums it up, "in a word, you could become the scapegoat, an ideal one, a royal clerk who has failed his masters." "The Peacock's Cry" really is a character piece to reignite the series as the plot has less substance than the ghost who supposedly haunt the ancient hedge maze. You have to go out of your way to miss the murderer and reason behind both the disappearance and murder. Nothing special is done with the maze. The murder is presented as a quasi-impossible crime as the maze has to have its treacherous paths threaded, before anyone can enter or you could die there. That begs the question how Elizabeth could have found her way to the center of the maze in the dead of night ("a herculean task during the light of day, surely an impossible one when darkness had fallen"). A potentially good solution how the maze could be navigated suggested itself when a character explains to Sir Hugh that the hedge walls started out as hornbeams, but “other species were included” like whitehorn, privet, holly, sycamore and yew "to thicken and repair the walls." So my idea was that a specific species was planted only along "the correct path" from the one and only entrance to the center. Like camouflaged road signs that can only been seen when you know "the secret of the maze." But the solution to the maze-puzzle turned out to be (ROT13) n frperg, haqretebhaq cnffntrjnl.

As mentioned before, "The Peacock's Cry" is a character-piece to restart the series, but, as a historical detective story, it's one of Doherty's weakest stories. Honestly, if "The King's Writ" had not been a return to form, I probably would not have bothered with a review. 

"The King's Writ" is the second exclusive e-novella published as an appetizer to the Devil's Wolf (2017) and take place in the summer 1311 at the Tower of London during a jousting tournament. Sir Hugh Corbett had been sent to the Tower to supervise the tournament between the champions of two powerful Marcher lords, Roger Mortimer of Chirk and Hugh Despenser, who both came forward with identical writs from the late Edward I promising them the rights to the same, much desired, Welsh estate. The writs were "executed in the king's own hand" and "sealed with his personal signet ring," now destroyed, which could result in "a private war being waged along the Welsh March." There's the additional problem of a third, identical writ and claimant, Matthew Aldridge, who "has been placed under house arrest for his own safety in the Tower.'

Edward II persuaded Despenser and Mortimer to submit their quarrel to the judicium Dei, the judgment of God, which took the form of a jousting tournament between their handpicked champions, Robert Ufford and Edmund Pastonal – whoever wins "will have his claim to the valley of Eden upheld." Sir Hugh has to supervise the tournament, but, upon his arrival, Despenser and Mortimer dismissed him as "a mere clerk." So the amusing opening has Sir Hugh prove himself worthy by having a passage of arms with his good friend, Constable Giles Middleton. A grinning Ranulf stands at his side and assures his master he has not bet against him ("I am sure you have placed a wager that I will end up on my arse in the dust").

A jousting tournament under the summer sun is a fantastic setting for a historical mystery and deserves a novel-length treatment as more can be done with it. The tournament eventually takes a backseat when one of the champions is pulled from the bottom of a well, which appears to be an accident, but Sir Hugh is convinced he was foully murdered. Matthew Aldridge vanishes impossibly from his holding room that was "securely locked, the key held by a guard" and "no window, no secret passageway, no tunnel." The solution to this impossibility is period redressing of a trick locked room fanatics have seen before, but it fitted the story perfectly and the result is an interesting addition to that short list of impossible crime stories involving disappearing prisoners mentioned in my review of Edward D. Hoch's "Prisoner of Zerfall' (1985; collected in Funeral in the Fog, 2020). But the who-and why were also a vast improvement over the first novella. You can nitpick about the clueing consisting of hints and nods in the right direction, but Doherty played it fair enough and nothing to spoil my enjoyment. Quite the opposite. "The King's Writ" neutralized the sourness that "The Peacock's Cry" left behind. Very much recommended to fans of historical (locked room) mysteries! 

A note for the curious: Steve, of In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, wrote in his review of 'The Peacock's Cry" that the story is set between The Poison Maiden (2007) and The Darkening Glass (2009) from the Mathilde of Westminster series and wonders if Mathilde will appear in one of the upcoming new Sir Hugh Corbett mysteries. That crossover has yet to happen (I think), but there's evidence Doherty's detective novels take place in different periods of the same continuity or timeline. The Herald of Hell (2015), a Brother Athelstan mystery, refers to Satan in St. Mary (1986), Sir Hugh Corbett's debut, as something that happened a hundred years ago. The fictitious ruby from Hymn to Murder, the Lacrima Christi, previously appeared in A Maze of Murder (2002) from the Kathryn Swinbrooke series. So all of his characters apparently inhabit the same timeline with some close enough to do a crossover, of sorts. A very young Athelstan could have met Ranulf as an old man and told him stories about Sir Hugh Corbett.