It's a Numbers Game: Q.E.D. vol. 23-24 by Motohiro Katou

The first of two stories from Motohiro Katou's Q.E.D. vol. 23, "The Liar," begins with Sou Touma arriving in Taiwan to meet his parents and sister, Yuu, who secretly invited his friend, Kana Mizuhara, to come along – because their parents "wanted to meet the girl who's close to Sou." Kana really wanted to meet Sou's mysterious, somewhat eccentric parents. Only problem is that they're not at the airport to meet Sou and Yuu. When they call their parents, Yuu is told they traveled to Okinawa and want them to go there as well. But there are no planes going to Okinawa for another day or two. And every ship has been booked full.

Fortunately, they bump into Ryan Garrett, director of an IT firm, who was at MIT together with Sou and planned on going to Okinawa himself. So he offers them a ride on his luxury cruiser. Sou is not too thrilled to accept the favor as Ryan Garrett was known as "Ryan the Liar" at MIT ("...the type who sweet talks to achieve his goal") and there's always a catch to being indebted to him.

When they board the luxury cruiser, Sou, Yuu and Kana find that they're not the only passengers. Ryan invited along a handful of people. John Harris, a business partner of sorts, whose runs an IT company that's a subdivision of Ryan's firm. Al and Martha Moss are teachers from Arizona whose son was a classmate of Ryan. Lastly, there is Ryan's alcoholic ex-girlfriend, Beth Bloom, who still holds a grudge and her current boyfriend, Barry Force. Something is obviously brooding as Ryan promises Sou "there is a surprising result waiting for us tomorrow," but what awaits him the next morning is Ryan's body bathing "in a sea of blood." Sou uncovers that all five suspects possess both motives strong enough to kill and alibis accounting for their movement on the night of the murder. Sou posits that "among the five of them, there is a liar, and that lie was what brought about this whole situation," which is an incredibly good and clever solution – a twisted inversion of a very well-known detective novel. Just as impressive is Sou's Ellery Queen-like chain of deductions and reasoning demonstrating why none of the other suspects could have done it ("thus, ends my demonstration"). A detective story in the purest sense of the word and the most conventional one from these two volumes.

The next story, "Another World,' brings Sou and Kana to New Jersey. Two years previously, a mathematician working on proving the Riemann Hypothesis, Professor Kenneth Refla, invited to Sou to return in two years to witnessing him unveiling the solution. And making history in the process. Those two years have come and gone, Sou returned to New Jersey to witness this great event. Sou tries to explain explain this "famous conjecture which no one has been able to prove for 150 years" to Kana ("Ha, I didn't under a single word"), but it boils down to "if the Riemann Hypothesis can be proven, a connection between the real and abstract world of prime numbers can be established." But, when they arrive, they're told that the presentation has been canceled months ago. Professor Kenneth Refla has simply disappeared from the face of Earth. So what happened? But left behind a number of clues.

Firstly, a quatrain, a poem with four lines, is found stuck to the window of his home office. Secondly, he distributed four paintings depicting lines from the quatrain. Thirdly, a coded tombstone. However, "Another World" is not, strictly speaking, a traditional mystery, but one of those really strange, character-driven and surprisingly humanistic mathematical puzzles you can only find in this series – reminiscent of "The Frozen Hammer" (vol. 9) and "Dedekind Cut" (vol. 15). Just not nearly as effective or poignant as previous attempts at such stories. Although I liked that brief moment towards the end between Sou and Kana ("don't worry, I won't go over to that side"). So a nice little bit of storytelling, but, on a whole, not the best or most memorable entry in the series.

I really should have planned out these reviews, because vol. 24 opens with a seasonal-themed mystery, "Christmas Eve Eve," which is appropriately a very minor mystery with an even slighter plot. Sou and Kana take a part-time job together at a karaoke bar to earn some extra pocket money to buy presents. What they end up doing is playing Santa's Little Helpers by clearing up some minor crimes and misunderstandings among the other employees of the karaoke bar ranging from a possibly stolen wallet to a potentially cheating boyfriend. A nicely-done, but really threadbare, detective story that I've nothing to say about at the moment. I might return to it in December and review it separately as it probably works slightly better when you're in the Christmas spirit. Only time will tell.

The second and last story, "Crime and Punishment," is a quasi-inverted mystery with a ultimately simplistic, but delicious, twist ending.

Kunihiko Sendagawa, a post-grad student, is struggling to make ends meet and "a mountain of debt bills" on his doormat keeps growing. That eats at his mind. After all, why does someone as smart as him needs to struggle for money? But he gets an idea when he learns a serial burglar is active in neighborhood. So he decides to start burglarizing houses beginning with his own place in order to divert suspicion ("the police wouldn't suspect a previous victim like me"), but, on his second job, Sendagawa finds the body of an elderly man – brutally beaten to death with a golf club. Unfortunately, for him, the policeman on the case is Kana Mizuhara's father and Inspector Mizuhara is no Lestrade. While he initially thinks "the serial burglary case has finally escalated to burglary and murder," Inspector Mizuhara begins to notice inconsistencies in Sendagawa's statements and takes note of his outright suspicious behavior. So decides to start playing Columbo with the post-grad student ("it's so annoying to be followed like that"). Sendagawa turns in desperation to Sou and Kana to help him out of his current predicament, but Sou tells him Inspector Mizuhara wouldn't suspect a person without a reason and advises him to simply confess whatever he has one his conscience.

Sendagawa naturally ignores Sou's advise and digs an even deeper hole for himself, which eventually brings him back into the case to go over "the distorted hints" that explain who killed the old man and stole the money. I should have seen it coming, but, somehow, completely missed and wanted to kick myself for not immediately figuring out a very basic, tell-all clue (SPOILER/ROT13:V qvqa'g xvyy gung Fnagn Pynhf-yvxr byq zna!”). A low-key great story and fun to see Inspector Mizuhara getting to enjoy the spotlight for a few fun scenes!

So, all in all, two very solid, highly enjoyable volumes as vol. 23 opened strongly with a cleverly plotted, simon-pure jigsaw-puzzle detective and vol. 24 ended on a high note with an excellent treatment of the inverted mystery. The two stories sandwiched in between are of middling at best, but nothing to the detriment of the overall quality readers have come to expect from this series. More importantly, they demonstrate why Q.E.D. has become a personal favorite of mine. The series will never beat Case Closed as my favorite manga mystery series, but Q.E.D. will be equally hard to wrench from its second place spot. As always, to be continued!


The Killing of Katie Steelstock (1980) by Michael Gilbert

Back in January, I returned to the work of Michael Gilbert and looked at his first mystery novel, Close Quarters (1947), which introduced his series-detectives, Chief Inspector Hazlerigg and Sergeant Pollock, in a commendable debut full of promise – marred only by a somewhat wobbly ending. Close Quarters is nonetheless a praiseworthy first stab at the detective genre with a skillfully handled plot in which all the suspects have seemingly interlocking alibis. So decided to move a few more of his novels up the big pile. 

The Killing of Katie Steelstock (1980), originally published in the UK as Death of a Favourite Girl, is a standalone and reputedly is one of his finest pieces of detective fiction. A classically-styled and structured detective novel subversively presented as a fairly typical, modern police procedural that "pulled off quite a few gasp inducing twists in the final chapters." While I've been aware of The Killing of Katie Steelstock ever since reading The Danger Within (1952), I'm glad I held off with reading it until now. I would not have appreciated it half as much without having sampled the work of other traditionalists in contemporary garb, like Douglas Clark and Roger Ormerod.

Katie Steelstock is a young, good looking village girl from West Hannington whose modeling career in London began landing her small, well paid parts in commercials and eventually became the face of The Seven O'Clock Show. An all-family quiz show that "combined general knowledge, popular music and a touch of sex" that turned Katie into "the two-dimensional friend of a million three-dimensional families" and "pin-up for a million adolescents." Katie's "bubbling, self-confident, friendly extrovert personality" transformed her into a nationwide TV celebrity, but she had a darker side to her character as "she liked to have people on the end of a string" that "she could give it a twitch from time to time and watch them dance." A pastime that can be very dangerous when done to the wrong people.

Although she works in London, Katie mostly resided in West Hannington with her mother Olivia and her two younger brothers, Walter and Peter, where she converted a former coachman's cottage into a private living quarters – giving her "that bit of privacy that all real artists need.” The Killing of Katie Steelstock begins on the day of the Boat and Tennis Club dance, which gave the story a hint of that old-world atmosphere of the Golden Age village mystery, introducing most of the important players in the tragedy discovered later that evening. The body of Katie is found lying near the boathouse with her head bashed in and it immediately becomes clear the local Chief Inspector Dandridge is completely out of his depth. An outraged Olivia Steelstock, sister of the Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions, pulls some strings and only takes a few phone calls for Detective Chief Superintendent Charlie Knott to be dispatched to West Hannington.

Superintendent Charlie Knott, "one of the self-appointed stars of the Murder Squad," appears on first glance to have a passing resemblance to the Great Detectives of yesteryear ("squat white-haired figure" with "an orchestration of grunts which could mean anything"). But appearances can be deceiving. Knott is one of those fallible police detectives ("...not an intellectual man"), like Inspector Morse, but "he could grasp the shape and outline of any crime he was called on to investigate." Was the criminal of professional or amateur or the nature of the motive, which is an instinct which had very rarely let him down. Knott's instinct points towards a local journalist, Jonathan Limbery, who uses the weekly Gazette as a pulpit for his outspoken views on authority ("he dislikes everybody who's older than he is, or better off"). Something that made him very popular with the schoolboys of the village whom he taught at Coverdales, before getting sacked. He was also involved with Katie and his alibi is not exactly fireproof. Knott is not the only the policeman investigating the case. Detective Sergeant Ian McCourt, "a cocky type who would be inclined to strike out a line on his own," which he does as he begins to investigate a big name in the village, George Mariner, while Sergeant Esdaile attempts to track down a typewriter – used to type the note that lured Katie to the boathouse. There's always the London end of the case and the scumbag photographer, Rodney "Rod the Sod" Ruoff, who helped Katie get her big break in show business. Not to mention two additional bodies drifting along in the background that (needlessly) muddy the waters even further. 

The Killing of Katie Steelstock is unmistakably told in that dark, gritty tone of the modern crime novel and presented as an up-to-date police procedural with the detectives taking fingerprints, making plaster casts of tire tracks and throwing out now quaint little references to 1980s computer technology. Novels from this period involving computers (e.g. Ellen Godfrey's Murder Behind Locked Doors, 1988) have acquired this historical quaintness over the past few decades, but meshes well with the traditional, Golden Age-style plot hidden underneath its modern-day trappings and characters. A plot that eventually culminating in a very brief, but intense, roller coaster of a courtroom drama with some unexpected, truly tragic turn of events. Gilbert invested in his characters to get this payoff, before telling the reader who really killed Katie Steelstock in the last chapter. A very well hidden murderer and somewhat of an old dodge, but you can work out the murderer's identity and motive from the clues and information dropped throughout the story. Admirably, Gilbert made the reader sympathize with the murderer, as a person, without condoning or minimizing the murders. Katie was hardly an angel, but even her worse actions hardly justified bashing in her skull. On the other hand, I didn't think Limbery deserved any sympathy as he's the only character who really deserved a caning by the end. Gilbert not only knew his way around a tricky plot, but a maze of human emotions as well. It gives a glimpse of what the Golden Age detective story could have turned into had it been allowed to evolve naturally pass the 1950s.

There are, however, one or two technical imperfections that need to be mentioned as they kept the book from a place in the first rank. One such problem is the mysterious murder weapon linking two of the murders, "a hole in his head which had been made by the same weapon which killed Katie," but the weapon in question is never even identified! I suspect the second body with an identical head wound was included to even the playing field for the defense later on in the story. That was a mistake. Just having Katie's murder would have stacked the odds in favor of the prosecution and added more tension to the courtroom scenes, but no matter how strong their case looks, the prosecution's case would have collapsed no matter what. So why not take advantage of it by making it look like the defense has no chance whatsoever? And it would have given that tragic twist even more of an impact. I also frowned a little at the fingerprint business towards the end, but liked how Gilbert foreshadowed it (SPOILER/ROT13:Lbh bhtug gb xrrc hc gb qngr va gur grpuavdhrf bs lbhe cebsrffvba”). I think it would have helped, if the reader was shown part of the ending instead of being told about it afterwards.

But regardless of those minor, plot-technical imperfections, The Killing of Katie Steelstock is an excellent, updated take on the good, old British village mysteries of the past (c.f. Nicholas Brady's Ebenezer Investigates, 1934) told as a then contemporary police procedural – one that did not shy away from being uneasy or downright unpleasant. It's sole drawback is that it could have been an even tighter story with a bigger impact had the two other murders been cut out of the plot, but, as it stands, it can match the best works from the previously mentioned Douglas Clark and Roger Ormerod.


The Hit List: Top 10 Favorite Reprints from Dean Street Press

If you're a casual mystery reader who looked at our little niche corner on the internet, you might get the impression that the prevailing belief is that locked room mysteries and impossible crime fiction is the pinnacle of the genre – a final form if you will. That's not true. It's only a small faction of the fandom riding their favorite hobby horse into the ground. I'm perhaps more guilty of riding that hobby horse to pieces than most, but I love a good, old-fashioned or classically-styled detective story and a body in a hermetically sealed room is not a necessity. Even though you don't always get impression from this blog. So let's put the spot light on some classic, non-impossible Golden Age mysteries.

In 2015, Dean Street Press began what seemed, at the time, to be the Herculean task of filling the immense, gaping hole that the still sorely missed Rue Morgue Press left behind. But they have tackled that task head on in an almost industrial way. Not content with simply reprinting one or two titles from a specific writer, DSP turned them out in badges of five or ten at a time. Sometimes even more than that. So in less than a decade, DSP has republished nearly five-hundred Golden Age mystery novels that include the complete works of once obscure or long out-of-print writers like Christopher Bush, E.R. Punshon and Patricia Wentworth. They're currently working on the doing the same for Brian Flynn with Glyn Carr possibly being next in line to go through a round of reprints. But what are some of the best titles DSP brought back from obscurity?

I wanted to do one of these publisher-themed five-to-tries or top 10 lists and initially planned doing a top 10 favorite translations from Locked Room International, but the intention of this post is to take a break from those damned locked room puzzles. So that left me only with Dean Street Press as enough of their reprints have been discussed on this blog to compile a top 10 best favorite reprints. That was easier said than done and had to give my favorite writers a handicap by limiting the list to one entry per author. So no desperate attempts to convince you Christopher Bush's Cut Throat (1932) is not shit, if only you tried to make it through to the end without getting despondent. It appears to have worked. 


Top 10 Favorite Reprints from Dean Street Press (in chronological order):


The Mystery of the Peacock's Eye (1928) by Brian Flynn 

The ongoing run of Brian Flynn reprints has left me spoiled for choice, but decided to go with the obvious suspect and the 2019 Reprint of the Year Award winner. A case with Flynn's typical Doylean touches as Bathurst investigates a murder involving Royal blackmail and a magnificent, blue-shaded titular emerald. While that might sound like a typical, dated 1920s mystery novel, Flynn provided a solution shining with all the brilliance of the coming decade that makes The Mystery of the Peacock's Eye a classic of the '20s. 


The Night of Fear (1931) by Moray Dalton 

This pick is perhaps a little out of season to bring up now, on the tail-end of March, but The Night of Fear is one of the earliest and best country house mysteries at Christmas from this era – in addition to being Dalton's most accomplished detective novel. A well-spun drama that begins during a Christmas party concluding with a game of hide-and-seek in the dark and the discovery of a body, which the police try to pin on the blind Hugh Darrow. But how to prove his innocence? A must read for the December holidays.


Murder at Monk's Barn (1931) by Cecil Waye 

“Cecil Waye” was the third, previously unsuspected penname of John Street, better known as “John Rhode” and “Miles Burton,” who wrote four once extremely obscure novels under that name. Three of the four are so-called metropolitan thrillers, but Murder at Monk's Barn is, plot-wise, in the traditional style of his Rhode and Burton mysteries. Where the book differs is the tone and characters. The detectives are a brother-and-sister team, Christopher and Vivienne Perrin, who were a hold over of the 1920s Young Adventures like Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. So while the mysterious shooting of an electrical engineer comes with all plot-technical expertise and ingenuity expected from Street, Murder at Monk's Barn is no humdrum affair as the two Bright Young Things livened up the whole story. 


The Case of Naomi Clynes (1934) by Basil Thomson 

A predecessor of the contemporary police procedural and ultimately a very simple, uncomplicated and straightforwardly told story of a crime, which nonetheless succeeded in creating complex and intricate plot-patterns. A plot that excelled with simplistic beauty. More importantly, I remember The Case of Naomi Clynes as a surprisingly warm, human crime story with some decidedly original touches to the ending.


The Case of the Missing Minutes (1937) by Christopher Bush 

It has been observed that Christopher Bush was to the unbreakable alibi what John Dickson Carr was to the impossible crime, which makes The Case of the Missing Minutes his version of The Three Coffins (1935). Regardless of what the book title suggests, The Case of the Missing Minutes is not some dry time table or math puzzle. It can actually be counted among Bush's best written, most well-rounded and certainly bleakest of his earlier detective novels with a meticulously put together plot that runs like a Swiss timepiece. 


Murder on Paradise Island (1937) by Robin Forsythe 

Some of you probably expected a title from Forsythe's short-lived Algernon Vereker series, like The Pleasure Cruise Mystery (1933) or The Spirit Murder Mystery (1936), which took an interesting approach to plotting a detective story – spinning a great deal of complexity out the circumstances in which the bodies were found. Murder on Paradise Island is a standalone mystery and has a much lighter touch to the plot, but the backdrop and circumstances the characters find themselves makes it his most memorable contribution to the genre. A cross between Anthony Berkeley's Mr. Pidgeon's Island (1934) and a Robinsonade as a group of survivors of a ship disaster get washed up on the pearly beaches of a desert island in the middle of the Pacific. 


Bleeding Hooks (1940) by Harriet Rutland 

Arguably, the best and most deserving title to have been reprinted by DSP as well as my personal favorite of the lot. A pure, Golden Age whodunit set in a Welsh fishing village with an inn catering to fly fishing holidaymakers, but the Fisherman's Rest becomes the scene of murder when the vulgar Mrs. Mumby is found dead with a salmon fly deeply embedded in her hand. The doctor concludes she died of combination of poor health and shock from the wound, but the detective-on-holiday, Mr. Winkley, suspects foul play. There's a neat little twist in the tail. John Norris called the book “something of a little masterpiece.” I agree! 


There's a Reason for Everything (1945) by E.R. Punshon 

The return of E.R. Punshon's Bobby Owen series to print also posed a difficulty in picking a favorite, because Punshon allowed his Bobby Owen to age and evolve as a character. And tended to try something different every now and then. So there are differing periods in the series that feel distinct from one another, but decided to go with strongest, most intricately-plotted detective novels. A complex detective story concerning a murdered paranormal investigator in a haunted house, vanishing bloodstains and a long-lost masterpiece by Vermeer. A great demonstration of Punshon's ability to erect and navigate labyrinthine-like plot without getting tied-up in all the numerous, intertwined plot-threads. 


The Threefold Cord (1947) by Francis Vivian 

So far, The Threefold Cord still stands as the best written, most ingeniously plotted of Francis Vivian's detective novels I've read to date. Inspector Knollis is dispatched to the village of Bowland to investigate wholesale pet murder at the home of a local and unpopular furniture magnate, Fred Manchester. Someone twisted the necks of the two family pets, a budgerigar and cat, before placing a silken cord loosely around their broken necks – which proved to be a prelude to a gruesome ax murder. Vivian expertly tied the present-day murder to the story of a public hangman who died under mysterious circumstances before the war. Every piece of the puzzle fitted beautifully together to form an inevitable conclusion.


The Heel of Achilles (1950) by E. and M.A. Radford 

Edwin and Mona Radford, a mystery writing husband-and-wife team, who specialized in forensic detective stories in the tradition of R. Austin Freeman's Dr. John Thorndyke series occasionally peppered with challenges to the reader (e.g. Murder Isn't Cricket, 1946). Their often tightly-plotted detective stories somehow were all but forgotten until DSP reprinted half a dozen of them in 2019 and 2020. The Heel of Achilles is an inverted mystery with the first-half following the murderer as he executes, what he thinks, is the perfect crime. The second-half brings their detective, Dr. Manson, to the scene who begins to laboriously poke holes into the killer's supposedly watertight plot. A cold, impersonal examination of a crime that meshed very well with the intimate and personal opening half depicting the murderer and his crime. A genuine classic of the inverted mystery.


Window of Opportunity: "The Riddle of the Brass Band" (1934) by Stuart Palmer

Back in November, I reread Stuart Palmer's "The Riddle of the Whirling Lights" (1935), collected in Hildegarde Withers: Uncollected Riddles (2002), which is part of the early period of his short stories that "tend to draw on the technique of the impossible crime" – some being out and out impossible crime and locked room stories. "The Riddle of the Whirling Lights" is a shining example of Palmer's earlier, plot-oriented short stories with an impossible stabbing at the Chicago Planetarium.

Strangely enough, these earlier short stories are not listed in either Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) or Brian Skupin's Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019). I even shamefully forgot all about them when cobbling together "The Updated List of My Favorite Tales of Locked Room Murders & Impossible Crimes." So, prompted by a recent reviews, I decided to take another look at one of these overlooked short stories that I remember liking the first time around.

Palmer's "The Riddle of the Brass Band," originally published in the March, 1934, issue of Mystery, which has a great double premise. Before the story's opens, Inspector Oscar Piper attended a Gridiron Club dinner and had listened to a talk from some amateur criminologist, Leverer, who asserted "that the perfect crime is a murder wherein the murderer is never suspected" and "where the police never bother to investigate" – as "the whole thing passes off as an accident." Leverer went on to state that, if he wanted to kill anybody, "he'd wait until he was alone with them, call their attention to something in the street below, and then up with their ankles." Inspector Piper went home that night "boiling in sulphurous silence." Miss Hildegarde Withers promises to help Piper show him up by investigating the next so-called accident of the kind that comes across his desk.

Well, the story opened on St. Patrick's Day with the police parade passing Thirty-first Street, on Fifth Avenue, the figure of a man came "hurtling down out of the sky" and struck the sidewalk. The victim turns out to be the founder of a new, struggling publishing house, Thomas E. Wright, who had apparently gone to the window of his top floor office to listen to the band, got dizzy and fell out. Wright was alone in the office with the door locked on the inside and his secretary with several disgruntled authors waiting outside in the reception room.

Miss Hildegarde Withers is the first to worm her way to the top floor office of The Lehigh Press before the news reaches them that Wright has plunged to his death. She poses as Wright's aunt from Boston and continues the act to poke around for clues and motives, which she uncovers in spades when attending a literary tea to introduce the Lehigh Press authors to the critics and the press. Miss Withers suggests to the various persons who were present at the office if they want to contribute to a memorial edition of Wright's poetry. She quickly learns Wright was not exactly an honest publisher ("...after he got the money he went ahead and ordered them bound in cheap linoleum"), boss ("...borrowed my salary checks back from me as soon as I got them...") and friend ("...smacked a judgment against my bank account"). So more than enough motives to go around, but the key here is method and opportunity.

The method is, of course, the locked room-trick. A nicely-done and clever variation on the defenestration from a sealed room or inaccessible and watched high spot like a rooftop or balcony. Yes, my recent rereading of Baynard Kendrick's The Whistling Hangman (1937) is what prompted this second read of Palmer's "The Riddle of the Brass Band" as both appeared to have been intrigued by the possibilities this particular impossible crime technique has to offer (see ROT13 comments on my review of "The Riddle of the Whirling Lights"). Palmer returned to that well more than once and, as a result, you can link most of his impossible crime fiction together with all the variations on this method and there certainly is a resemblance to the tricks employed in other stories – which is where opportunity comes into play. Palmer created a neat little situation maddening enough "to make anyone kill." And that situation happened to present one of the characters with an opportunity to pull off the perfect murder. Not an unconvincing window of opportunity either. Only smudge on this otherwise excellent detective story is the perfunctory clueing.

Palmer played the game fair enough as he casually dropped three, hard to miss, clues with the first two clearly identifying the murderer and the third spelling out how it was done. So you can work out what happened to arrive at exactly the same conclusion as Miss Withers, but it feels too easy and somewhat carelessly done. Striking a false-note with the story's fresh premise, a well executed impossible crime idea and Miss Withers being a credit to her fellow amateur sleuths. "The Riddle of the Brass Band" had the potential to be another overlooked gem from Palmer's catalog of short stories, but, in the end, it did not entirely measure up to Palmer's best short stories like "The Riddle of the Whirling Lights." Hardly damaging enough to ruin the whole story. "The Riddle of the Brass Band" is still mostly a very well written, plotted and entertaining Golden Age detective story that might possibly have been even better had some of the story's creativity been redirected towards the clueing. So don't skip it on account of my nitpicking at small details like a petulant fanboy.

Yes, don't worry, there's a two or three non-impossible crime posts coming down the pipeline.


Prague Fatale (2011) by Philip Kerr

Philip Kerr was a British author who garnered wide success with his World War II thriller series about Bernhard "Bernie" Gunther, Kriminal Commissar, which began as a trilogy and appeared to have been completed by 1991, but Kerr resurrected the series in 2006 – continued until his death in 2018. There were a total of 14 novels in the Bernie "Berlin Noir" series and the eighth title, Prague Fatale (2011), has been hovering in my peripheral ever since its publication. 

Prague Fatale is presented as a historical locked room thriller. Admittedly, the premise and backdrop is not without interest, or intrigue, but the book was published in 2011 and experience taught me not to expect too much from the more mainstream crime novels claiming to be homages to the classical locked room mystery ("worthy of Agatha Christie"). Particularly those written in the 2000s and early 2010s (e.g. Gilbert Adair's The Act of Roger Murgatroyd, 2006). So never really bothered getting a copy, but recently, Prague Fatale somehow kept coming to my attention. It culminated with JJ listing the book among the greats of the genre, "A Locked Room Library – One Hundred Recommended Books," saying "the historical novel and the puzzle plot have rarely meshed so effectively." We'll see about that! 

Prague Fatale is the eighth title to feature Bernie Gunther, a patriotic German policeman, who Kerr described as "a gumshoe in the grand and seamy tradition of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade" with "the toughest beat in detective fiction" – a Germany under the complete control of the National Socialists. Only he's not one of them. Just like "most people who supported the old Republic," Bernie is neither a Nazi or a Communist, which is why he left his position with the Berlin police. When the Nazis took over, General Reinhard Heydrich ordered him back as Bernie "wasn't about to chalk someone up for a crime just because they were Jewish" and that was useful to Heydrich ("...from time to time I'm useful to him in the same way a toothpick might be useful to a cannibal"). So he often finds himself in precarious situations, getting kicked around or forced to dirty his hands. Such as commanding the firing squad that executed dozens of Russian POWs and delivering "the coup de grâce to at least ten of them as they lay groaning on the ground." He also lost his wife in the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918 and never had any lasting luck in relationships since.

You can add Bernie to the long list of troubled cops that dominate the modern crime and thriller genre, but, as you probably gathered from this brief summation, he actually has a legitimate reason to be more than a little jaded. Bernie finds the thought of suicide “a real comfort” not because he's trapped in a deteriorating marriage with rebelling, teenage children and a fondness for the bottle, but because he's continuously forced to compromise everything he once believed by the very people he despises the most. Bernie's struggle and the situations he finds himself trapped in appear to be the main selling point of this non-linearly series as each novel takes place in different periods covering Hitler's rise to power, the war itself and the beginning of the Cold War. For example, the last posthumously published entry in the series, Metropolis (2019), is a prequel set in 1928. So with all that baggage out of the way, let's jump into this dark, gritty historical locked room mystery. 

Prague Fatale takes place in September and October, 1941, and the first-half gives readers new to the series a pretty good idea why it has been called "Berlin Noir" or "Nazi Noir." Bernie Gunther has returned from Ukraine, where he witnessed the horrors of the executions pits, to pick up his post as Kriminal Commissar and pretend to be a proper detective, but discovers upon his return he's not the only one who has chanced – as the was has also left its traces on Berlin. There was a shortage of everything from food and beer ("...only powdered milk and powdered eggs" which "tasted like the masonry dust shaken from our ceilings by RAF bombs") to clothing ("...coupons paid for an emperor's new clothes and not much else") and cigarettes. While everything around them was neglected, breaking down or kaput and the new law obliging Jews in Germany to wear a yellow star only added to the dystopian ambiance. Berliners were still killing each other with new motives for murder that "stemmed from the quaint new realities of Berlin life," while the blackouts provide a cover for some real violent crimes. These are the mean streets of World War II-era Berlin.

So during the first-half, Bernie investigates the brutal murder of a Dutch volunteer railway worker, Geert Vranken, whose mangled, torn asunder remains were found along the train track with his pockets turned inside out. When the coroner finds about half a dozen stab wounds on what remained of the torso, Bernie knows he has a murder on his hands, but not one his superiors are keen to give any attention at the moment ("...you think the Ministry is going to be happy to learn that there's another killer at work on the S-Bahn?"). But that's not all. One evening, Bernie saves a woman, named Arianne Tauber, who was assaulted in the streets and he chased off the assailant. But the next day, he's confronted with that assailant once again when his body turns up in the Heinrich von Kleist Park. Is there a connection between all these cases and incidents?

I don't think many of the regular readers of this blog will find much to enjoy about the bleak, sordid affairs making up the first-half of the story and Kerr does not shy away from describing the nauseating, gorier parts in graphic detail – like a hardboiled Paul Doherty. The story shifts gear during the second-half when Bernie receives an invitation he's simply not allowed to ignore.

General Reinhard Heydrich is promoted to Reichsprotector of Bohemia and Moravia (Czechoslovakia) and planned a quiet weekend with friends to celebrate his appointment at the new place in Prague. The Lower Castle, "canary-yellow with a red roof, a square-tower portico painted white," is filled with "damned cauliflower." A reference to "the oak-leaf collar patches that distinguished SS generals, brigadiers, and colonels from lesser mortals." All of them important party members and close to the general. Bernie is informed he has been invited to the weekend party, because an attempt had been made to poison Heydrich and he wants Bernie to act as a detective and bodyguard. But then a murder is committed under seemingly impossible circumstances.

Hauptsturmführer Albert Kuttner, fourth adjutant to General Heydrich, is discovered dead in his first-floor bedroom with two bullet holes in his chest, but the door was locked from the inside with the key still in the lock and the windows securely bolted. There's no murder weapon inside the bedroom and a spent nine-millimeter Parabellum round is found on the floor down the corridor. Nobody heard a thing. So unless he was "shot by a man who could pass through solid walls," how could Kuttner have been killed inside a locked room? Heydrich tasks Bernie with investigating the murder and demands a solution, "before it can reach the ears of the Leader." No matter what impertinent questions he asked or whom he offended. And he expects his guests to fully cooperate with his investigation.

Even with the general's blessings, Bernie knows questioning some of the top brass of the Nazi party is not going to be as easy as in the books in which "a detective could turn up at a country house, question everyone, find some recognizable clues, and then arrest the butler over chilled cocktails in the library." However, the novella-length chapter covering the investigation and questioning most of the important suspects is the stuff of classics. The basic structure of this chapter is a good, old-fashioned whodunit with a locked room murder as its central puzzle, but considering the characters involved and the period, it required a flavor and atmosphere all of its own. Some of the suspects definitely find the questions to be impertinent and result in complaints, but Bernie deftly handles and turn the tables on all of them like a practiced snake charmer. While another much more talkative, easy-going suspect manages to surprise Bernie with a false-solution to the locked room puzzle of his own ("Why didn't I think of that?"). All in all, the best part of the book that makes me wish Kerr had written the whole series in a more conventional mold.

It has been remarked in other reviews that the locked room-trick is hardly original, which is absolutely true, but combined with the murderer's identity and a very good, original motive, elevated it to an outstanding historical mystery – comparable only to John Dickson Carr's underrated Captain Cut-Throat (1955). I'm just glad the key wasn't turned from the outside with a pair pliers, which is the modern-day equivalent of the secret passage. Anyway, Prague Fatale takes place in Nazi Germany and occupied Czechoslovakia, during the Second World War, which the ending rams home once the murder has been solved, but far from resolved. And any lingering illusions of the drawing room mystery is dissolved in the wink of an eye in the last couple of chapters. Brutally so.

So mystery readers of a more traditional bend will find the first-half of Prague Fatale rough going, but the second-half delivers a small, dark and memorable gem of the Golden Age-style country house mystery with a decidedly un-British backdrop and cast of characters. Prague Fatale might have been even better, bordering on a locked room classic, had the second-half been condensed into a novella, but that's mostly my own bias speaking. If you can take the gritty, historical noir and uncompromising depictions of the horrors of the Second World War with an unconventional, well-handled take on the traditional detective story, Kerr's Prague Fatale comes highly recommended as an excellent piece of historical fiction. 

A note for the curious: I had no idea where to fit this into the review, but Jim needs to know what he did. HUGE SPOILER/ROT13: V erpragyl erivrjrq nabgure bar bs Wvz'f erpbzzraqngvbaf, Jnygre F. Znfgrezna'f Gur Jebat Yrggre, juvpu hfrf rknpgyl gur fnzr ybpxrq ebbz-gevpx naq nyfb unq na vagrerfgvat pubvpr va vgf zheqrere. Shaavyl rabhtu, V gubhtug Gur Jebat Yrggre jnf gbb fubeg gb or gehyl rssrpgvir, juvyr Sngnyr Centhr pbhyq or fubegrarq sbe fvzvyne ernfbaf. Vg'f nyzbfg yvxr gurl'er sha ubhfr zveebe ersyrpgvbaf bs rnpu bgure naq fbzrubj gurfr jrer gur gjb gvgyrf V cvpxrq sebz Wvz'f ybpxrq ebbz yvfg gb fnzcyr. So, thankfully, they both turned out to be good detective stories in their own right or Jim would have some explaining to do.


The Whistling Hangman (1937) by Baynard Kendrick

This year, Otto Penzler's American Mystery Classics is reprinting one of my two favorite Baynard Kendrick detective novels, Blind Man's Bluff (1943), which I read a few years ago and called it a pulpier version of John Dickson Carr's The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) – nearly as good as the other favorite, The Whistling Hangman (1937). The book that introduced me to Kendrick and his blind private eye, Captain Duncan Maclain, who appeared in twelve novels and several short stories. I found The Whistling Hangman impressive enough at the time to seek out more and did not forget about it when compiling "The Updated Mammoth List of My Favorite Tales of Locked Room Murders & Impossible Crimes." And while having enjoyed Kendrick's detective fiction, only Blind Man's Bluff came close to matching The Whistling Hangman.

So with the news of more Kendrick reprints in the works, I wanted to revisit The Whistling Hangman to see if my favorable first impression can stand a second look.

Baynard Kendrick's The Whistling Hangman is the second novel featuring his former Intelligence officer and sightless detective, Captain Duncan Maclain, who had been "blinded in the war more than 20 years before," but, through "indomitable persistency and unrelenting work," he had beaten the darkness – becoming New York City's greatest detective. Three times a week, Captain Maclain practices blind target shooting in a bat-cave-like subbasement followed by "long hours spent improving hearing, touch, and the closely allied senses of taste and smell" in addition to exercising and disciplining his "memory until it seldom failed." However, he does not stand alone. Samuel "Spud" Savage is Captain Maclain's partner and close friend "who had piloted the captain through dark years after the war" and married his secretary, Rena Savage. They guarded him with "a loyal, fierce intensity which was almost fanatic." And then there are the two German shepherds ("one named Schnucke, to guide him from the left; and the other, a trained police dog named Dreist, to protect him, from the right"). On top of that, the office is crammed with early 20th century recording and even photographic equipment ("everything said in his office is recorded on an Ediphone record").

I mentioned in previous reviews Captain Maclain occupies a rather unique spot in the genre as links the traditional detective story to the pulp magazines and comic books. The link to the comic books was not done intentionally, but came after the facts when Stan Lee used Captain Maclain as the model for Daredevil ("if a man without sight could be a successful detective, think what a triumph it would be to make a blind man a comic book superhero"). But due to the darker, pulp-style trappings of the series, you can easily imagine the stories taking place in an alternate Gotham without costumed vigilantes or villains running amok. Regardless of all of that, the series never comes across as a gimmicked one. On the contrary. 

The Whistling Hangman is not a pulp-style thriller (The Last Express, 1937) or a WWII spy thriller (The Odor of Violets, 1941), but, more or less, a regular who-and howdunit. The setting of the story is Doncaster House Hotel, a luxurious apartment hotel made up of "is a collection of beautiful homes housed in a single building" with a reputation as spotless as their linen. When the story begins, the staff is awaiting the arrival of a most desirable guest, Dryden Winslow. A once bankrupt stockbroker who left the United States and carved out a second fortune in Australia, but left behind his two children, Baxter and Gertrude. They have not seen their father since they were small children and Winslow has arranged a family reunion, of sorts, at the Doncaster House Hotel and rented six furnished apartments. These are for his son and daughter. A niece and a nephew, Rose and Emmet Black, and two maiden aunts, Marcia and Purcella Forrest, who raised Baxter and Gertrude. So a desirable guest list, but there's a reason to be anxious as the hotel receives notice that Dryden Winslow is "incurably ill" and has come home to die.

This is very much a so-called hotel mystery as a large part of the story concentrates on the hotel, its staff and how the murder affects the well-oiled routine of such an establishment ("it seemed incredible that the standards of years could disintegrate completely under the touch of murder..."). So you get some keyhole snapshots of how the hotel is run and some humorous observations ("guests so inconsiderate as to die were smuggled downstairs via a service elevator, and always late at night"), but it's really the characters of the hotel staff who stand out here. There's the hotel manager, Rudolph Bleucher, who's a friend of Captain Maclain and his assistant manager, Thomas Fralinger, but the most important character here, storywise, is the head housekeeper, Mrs. Colling-Sands – who has "20 years of hotel experience and wore it proudly as a badge of merit." You get to see a lot of the characters and incidents in the story from her point-of-view as well as trying her hands a bit of sleuthing herself. But not before witnessing the seemingly impossible death of Dryden Winslow. Mrs. Colling-Sands was in apartment 608 she heard "a soft call of two notes rising and falling" followed by a crack ("which might have been a small-sized gun") merged with a strangled scream. Next thing she sees is Winslow's battered, broken body landing on the balcony of 608. Winslow had fallen from one of the apartments he had rented on the top floor of Doncaster House, but was it an accident or suicide?

Captain Maclain was playing chess with Bleucher when it happened and is immediately guided to 608 to make a primarily investigation and comes to a startling conclusion. Dryden Winslow was hanged! But how could have possibly have been hanged ("...his neck was broken too") without a rope or when taking Gertrude's statement into consideration. She was talking to her father when he suddenly stopped, went out on the terrace and disappeared over the railing before her eyes. A few seconds later, Mrs. Colling-Sands saw him land on the balcony of 608 ten floors below.

I believe this to be a legitimate impossible crime, or an open-air locked room mystery, as there appears to have been no possible way someone could have either pushed or hanged Winslow from the terrace of his apartment. Somehow, The Whistling Hangman is omitted from both Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) and Brian Skupin's Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019) and have only seen it referred to as "a borderline impossible crime." I suppose the trick has some hints of Kendrick's pulp-roots to perhaps place it closer to the weird menace stories, but John Dickson Carr used two variations of this trick in a short story and radio-play. While the trick might feel a touch out of place in an otherwise straitlaced, 1930s detective story, Kendrick uses the bizarre circumstances surrounding the murder and method to great effect. I liked there was room for Inspector Larry Davis and Sergeant Aloysius Archer, of the New York Homicide Squad, to give their take on the problem and provide the story with a false-solution – one that got demolished in a practical demonstration. There are more aspects for Captain Maclain to consider.

Why did Winslow request a Gideon Bible to be brought to his apartment? Who or what frightened the maid, Carrie Ritter? What role does Gertrude's fiance, the Hon. Paul Holden, O.B.E., who also book an apartment at Dorcaster House play in the case? Or how does another guest, Dr. Lorenzo Ynez, figure in it or at all? Despite all these complications and two impossible murders, The Whistling Hangman is a pleasantly clear, uncomplicated, but solidly plotted, detective story with the strange clueing standing out on my second read. Firstly, there are the sound-based clues that accompany the partially witnessed murders and recall the impossible crime from Kendrick's Death Knell (1945). This again may sound like a gimmick in a series about a blind detective, but it never feels forced and naturally something a detective who largely relies on hearing to focus on. Secondly, the clues to the murderer's identity and motive come not the form of a trail of breadcrumbs with one, or two red herrings along the way, but a growing list of requirements that can only fit the whistling hangman ("Spud and I have spent a frantic day trying to fit all those requirements onto the same person"). It works as far as fair play goes and a tell-tale clue is never even acknowledged (SPOILER/ROT13: xrrc lbhe rlrf bhg sbe vavgvnyf), but it feels like there's something slightly off about the detective story element. Not broken. Just slightly askew like a painting hanging crooked on the wall. But it really fitted the tone of the story. You can even say it complimented the rest of the story.

I can see why The Whistling Hangman impressed me so favorably on my first read. It feels like a fresh and original treatment of the traditional, fair play detective story without breaking or deconstructing it. The Whistling Hangman holds up as an excellent and fine example of the American Golden Age detective novel, but it pulp roots and well realized main character gives the series an atmosphere all of its own that makes it stand out. And inspiring the creation of a beloved comic book hero only adds historical interest to the series. Highly recommended! You can expect some of the lesser-known titles from this series, like You Die(t) Today (1952), The Aluminum Turtle (1960) and Frankincense and Murder (1961), to be moved up the big pile.


The Wrong Letter (1926) by Walter S. Masterman

Walter S. Masterman was an English fiction writer who dabbled in horror, fantasy, science-fiction and detective stories, twenty-six novels in total published between 1926 and 1942, but they all sunk into obscurity upon Masterman's death in 1946 – where they remained until the late 2000s. Ramble House rekindled some interest in his work when they began to reprint his oddball novels, concerning "demonic toads and toxic mistletoe," in 2008.

JJ, of The Invisible Event, has been cultivating a fascination with Masterman's "sprawling, loose style evoking detective fiction's Victorian forebears" ever since reading The Border Line (1936) back in 2016. He keeps returning to the reprints because "there's something fascinating about Masterman's insistence on writing books in this style despite the genre accelerating away from him." John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, is a bit more skeptical and not at all "convinced that Masterman is the genius that John Pelan would like us to believe he is." Masterman appears to have been writer who firmly entrenched himself in the pulps and liked to indulge in some of its more fantastic and outré elements (e.g. The Yellow Mistletoe, 1930). So you can probably file most of Masterman's detective (adjacent) fiction away under curiosities and oddities, but there are always exceptions and Masterman debuted with a slightly more conventional, old-fashioned locked room mystery.

Robert Adey mentioned Masterman in his introduction to Locked Room Murders (1991) as the author of "several successful impossible crime novels," like The Wrong Letter (1926), before turning "to more sinister world of giant toads and other misshapen monsters." The Wrong Letter also received a special mention as one of the fourteen additional titles to John Pugmire's 2007 "99 Novels for a Locked Room Library" and JJ selected it for his "A Locked Room Library: One Hundred Recommended Books" as "a remarkably readable and entertaining entry in the world's greatest subgenre." Even better, Ramble House reprinted the once extremely rare The Wrong Letter back in 2018. So why not take a gamble and take JJ up on his recommendation.

First of all, I need to mention that the Ramble House edition includes the original introduction by G.K. Chesterton, "I can say with all sincerity, nay with all solemn responsibility, that this detective mystery deceived me," which, to quote Jim's review of The Wrong Letter, feels "a bit like he's been caught doing something he shouldn't've and is writing this to make amends" – like a shotgun review. On the other hand, Chesterton admits the story is "on many points open to criticism" and the praise is genuine as the story avoids all of the pitfalls of the period mentioned in his preface. More on that in a moment. Secondly, The Wrong Letter is a really, really short novel running only for a svelte 111 pages. Now with that out of the way, let's dive into it. 

The Wrong Letter begins with setting up the plot and introducing the two detectives of the story, Superintendent Arthur Sinclair and Sylvester Collins.

Sylvester Collins had a successful career at the Bar and everyone expected him to "take silk," but he decided on a career as an Inquiry Agent and Amateur Detective. Although he claimed he was "not a Sherlock Holmes or anything like it" and hated the expression. So when his friends wanted to upset or tease him, they referred to him as a regular Sherlock Holmes ("like a red rag to a bull..."). Superintendent Sinclair was "more like the Scotland Yard officer or real life than of fiction" and "made no pretensions to be other than a trained official with no particular brilliance." So he was very grateful to have a friend, like Collins, "who had brains and not his experience." Coincidentally, I mentioned in my previous review of Brian Flynn's The Swinging Death (1948) that I like it when a writer combines the invaluable experience of the professional policeman with the imaginative intelligence of the amateur theorist. It was encouraging to seem them introduced like that.

The story begins with Superintendent Sinclair receiving an anonymous phone call informing him that "the Home Secretary has been murdered at his own house" and when he asked who's speaking, the voice answered "oh, no one in particular, just the murderer." A few minutes later, Collins arrives after getting a call himself that the superintendent wanted to speak with him. So they go to the house of the Home Secretary, Sir James Watson, but he's in the library with the door locked on the inside with the key still in the lock and doesn't respond to the housekeeper's repeated knocking – who confides in them that "there have been some queer things today here." Collins unlocks the door from the outside by turning the key with a pair of pliers and discover the body of the Home Secretary slumped in a chair with a bullet hole in his head! What surprised me here is how carefully the crime scene is treated as they entered it by placing mats on the floor to create a path to the body, because crime scene preservation is not always a big priority in vintage detective stories. 

The Wrong Letter begins as a fairly typical, 1920s detective novel with a body in a locked library with some of the usual characters and potential motives. Sir James Watson was a reclusive widower who lived with his only child and adult daughter, Mabel Watson. And he strongly opposed her relationship with his personal secretary, Eric Sanders. There's also a son, Ronald Watson, who left the house under a dark cloud and simply dropped off the map. However, once the plot has been setup, it kind of gets pushed to the background as Collins begins to pursue Mabel in what can be described an infernal triangle. You have to remember Masterman only gave him a little more than a 100 pages to tell the story. Not that the case comes to complete standstill. Sinclair and Collins have to contend with their superior, Commissioner Boyce, who "subsisted on the brains of his subordinates" and prefers an easy, clean cut solution. One presented to him on a silver platter when a lunatic turns himself in and makes a full confession ("...I killed that dog... because he is not fit to live"). Meanwhile, someone is playing the ghost at the house of Sir James Watson and the press keeps publishing leaks.

It has been reported that Masterman tended to be better at weaving plot-patterns than structuring a story, which is certainly true here and The Wrong Letter would have been a stronger detective story had there been a clearer structuring of the story and plot – in addition to some extra chapters. Nonetheless, Masterman weaved interesting, far-sighted patterns here that ended up holding the somewhat loose storytelling together. More importantly, the pattern weaving allowed him to drop clues and hints even when the focus was not on the investigation with a solution that was definitely original for its time. A few aspects of the overall solution anticipated two better-known (locked room) mysteries, but not necessarily where the locked room-trick is concerned. SPOILER/ROT13: V guvax zbfg ernqref jvyy vzzrqvngryl svther bhg gur zvffvat Yrjvf vf gur cebqvtny fba, Ebanyq, orpnhfr Znfgrezna ehof vg vagb lbhe snpr, ohg gur jnl va juvpu Pbyyvaf svtherf vg bhg (fcbggvat gur snzvyl erfrzoynapr orgjrra n cbegenvg bs Fve Wnzrf naq Yrjvf) vzzrqvngryl erpnyyrq Ntngun Puevfgvr'f Urephyr Cbvebg'f Puevfgznf. Gur ovt chyy va Gur Jebat Yrggre vf gur jub, abg gur ubj be jul, naq jub riraghnyyl raqf hc fbyivat gur zheqre naq vg pregnvayl jnf vaabingvir sbe gur gvzr. Nyna Gubznf gevrq fbzrguvat vaperqvoyl fvzvyvne va uvf 1928 abiry Gur Qrngu bs Ynherapr Ivavat, ohg Znfgrezna orng uvz gb gur chapu ol gjb lrnef. Obgu ner tbbq rknzcyrf ubj fbzr 1920f zlfgrel jevgref jrer gelvat gb zbir njnl sebz gur Qblyrna ren bs gur traer gb svaq n ibvpr bs gurve bja.

Masterman's The Wrong Letter is not a perfect detective novel nor a classic locked room mystery, but certainly a cut, or two, above the average, 1920s detective novel. Even it derives most of its interest today from being a historical artifact representing a period when the genre was transitioning and experienced growing pains (see ROT13 comments). I appreciate Masterman tried to do something fresh and different in 1926, which helped the detective story into the Dazzling Thirties. Just compare it to Robert Brennan's recently reviewed The Toledo Dagger (1927). An embarrassingly bad, third-rate and cliché-ridden dull mess and strongly suspect Ronald A. Knox had a copy of it on his desk when he wrote "The Ten Commandments for Detective Fiction" (1929). The Wrong Letter has its problems and limitations that held it back, sure, but it has some redeeming qualities and the short-length ensured the drawbacks didn't overstay their welcome. It's a pity Masterman's fiction became odder, and odder, because would have loved to seen him develop as a slightly more traditional mystery writer.

That being said, I'm not entirely sure if I want to return to Masterman. Only The Curse of the Reckaviles (1927) looks mildly promising and is listed in Adey's Locked Room Murders. So might hunt down the reprint of that one. If I never return to him, The Wrong Letter stands as a flawed, but enjoyable, ancestor to the pulp-style locked room mysteries by John Russell Fearn and Gerald Verner.


The Swinging Death (1948) by Brian Flynn

Brian Flynn placed his thirty-fifth Anthony Bathurst novel, The Swinging Death (1948), among "the best of my humbler contributions to mystery fiction" and hoped "those who come to read it will find themselves in agreement with me in this assessment," which until recently was easier said than done – as it used to be one of Flynn's more elusive titles. Even to this day, you can't find a picture of the original dustjacket anywhere online. However, The Swinging Death itself has recently returned to print when Dean Street Press reissued it last year together with the previously reviewed The Sharp Quillet (1947) and Exit Sir John (1947).

This new edition comes, of course, with an introduction by Steve Barge, of In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, who notes that, "starting with Black Edged in 1939, Brian seemed to want to branch out in his writing style" and veered away from the traditional detective story. Flynn began to experiment with the inverted format, thriller trappings and "an increasing darkness in some of his villains," but "switched back to a far more traditional whodunnit format" beginning with The Sharp Quillet. Just like it's immediate predecessor (Exit Sir John), The Swinging Death feels like a return to those earlier, more conventional mysteries Flynn wrote in the 1920s and '30s. Flynn front-loaded this one with a murder so strange and bizarre, it lured Anthony Bathurst back into the game ("For nearly a year now, crime had eluded him...") and "the fascination of the chase touched him again with its spell-binding fingers."

Flynn's The Swinging Death opens with Dr. Julian Field, from King's Winkworth, journeying back home after visiting a patient in Stoke Pelly, but, for some unknown reason, he gets off the train at the wrong railway station, Fullafold – a small, rural village. And never returned home. That night, a village girl finds Dr. Field's nude body swinging from a hook in the porch St. Mark's Church. A terrible murder that becomes "a proper mystery" when some incredibly strange clues and incidents come to light.

Firstly, the murderer divided Dr. Field's clothes in two consignments and dumped them on the doorsteps of two different churches ("some at Fullafold—some at Friar's Woodburn"). Secondly, the only items found missing among his possessions is an unknown sum of money, a bunch of keys and a specimen of sputum which Dr. Field took from his patient at Stoke Pelly. Thirdly, Claudia Field received a phone call on the night of the murder telling her husband got seriously injured in an accident, asking her to immediately go to the railway station at Friar's Woodburn, but, when she arrived, there had been no accident – nobody knew anything about her husband or a message from the police. When she returned home, Claudia discovers the house had been entered while she was away and husband's surgery had been turned over.

Anthony Bathurst calls it "a case after my own heart" and Sir Austin Kemble, the Commissioner of Police, sends him together with Chief Detective Inspector Andrew MacMorran to the scene of the crime to sort out the mess. I should say here that Chief Inspector MacMorran is no Lestrade and pairing him up with Anthony Bathurst is almost as perfect a team as Christopher Bush's Ludovic Travers and Superintendent George Wharton. I like it when the theoretically-minded amateur detective and the experienced policeman compliment each other ("just another illustration of the superiority of two heads over one"), which is regrettably a lot rarer in detective fiction than you might think.

Bathurst and MacMorran concentrate on the route between King's Winkworth and Stoke Pelly, "the two places which seem to me to be the poles," between those two given points there are Greenhurst, Four Bridges, Fullafold and Friar's Woodburn – each one of which "is not entirely devoid of interest." So they begin to retrace Dr. Field's steps on that faithful evening along the country railway stations as they question people and poke around for clues along the way. This sounds like something straight out of Freeman Wills Crofts and in some way it is, but not one of those time-table mysteries so many of you dread. So no ingeniously contrived, minutely-timed train alibi. And while there's an alibi, of sorts, at the core of the plot, Flynn goes for something different (SPOILER/ROT13: n cynl ba uvf snibevgr cybl, gur frperg vqragvgl). But the resemblance to Crofts is interesting considering the story is streaked with nostalgia.

The introduction mentions Flynn abandoning his thriller-ish experiments with the inverted mystery format coincided with "a family tragedy during the Second World War." There's this almost nostalgic hankering for the detective stories of yesteryear with several nods to G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown, E.C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case (1913) and Bathurst's baptism as a detective in The Billiard-Room Mystery (1927). And, not to be forgotten, Flynn planted a Sherlockian-themed Easter Egg. The Swinging Death also reads like it was published in 1928 instead of 1948 as the First World War casts a cold shadow over the second-half of the story and something about the solution feels like it belonged to a different era of the genre (ROT13: anzryl gur zbgvir naq nggvghqr gung “gurer vf fpnepryl n pbhagel va gur jbeyq jurer qrprag crbcyr qba'g ertneq gur oynpxznvyre nf fbzrguvat yvxr n fyht hcba juvpu lbh fubhyq fgnzc lbhe sbbg,” juvpu jrag bhg bs snfuvba nsgre gur 1929 penfu naq svanapvny fcrphyngbef gbbx gur cynpr bs oynpxznvyref nf gur zbfg zheqrenoyr punenpgref va n qrgrpgvir fgbel). Only thing breaking the illusion is that the Second World War rears its ugly mug as well. Regrettably, the 1920s was the decade the genre experienced growing pains and often lacked the rigour associated with the succeeding two decades. The Swinging Death unfortunately also resembles a 1920s mystery in that regard.

A pity as Flynn tried something incredibly cheeky with the ending, which can absolutely work, but you need to deliver something especially good or original to succeed. Where it falls short is that Flynn did a lot of mystifying in building up a strange, utterly bizarre murder, but then had Bathurst wave away some of its most intriguing elements as trivialities. For example, the missing keys posed a baffling question: why did the murderer need to climb up the balcony at the back of the house to search the surgery when possessing the house keys? The answer (ROT13): “V pna bayl guvax gung gur xrl zhfg unir orra zvfynvq va fbzr jnl. Cbffvoyl ybfg—be cbffvoyl qebccrq fbzrjurer.” And what happened to the stolen sputum specimen? Why steal something like that? The answer (ROT13): “Puhpxrq njnl cebonoyl... V qba'g guvax zhpu vzcbegnapr arrq or nggnpurq gb gur snpg gung vg'f zvffvat.” You can't really do that, if you try to pull a stunt like that, because you take away that oomph it needs to land. On the other hand, the central puzzle of Dr. Field's last journey and the two parcels of clothes is handled with Flynn's customary care and competence. Something you either spot early on in the story or overlook entirely. And would have been even more impressive had Flynn not done something similarly in a previous novel with more audacity.

So, while the ending is a mixed bag that fell a bit short, The Swinging Death is still a thoroughly enjoyable return to those earlier, more conventionally-styled mysteries, but readers new to the series are strongly advised to start with those earlier mysteries. The Swinging Death is best appreciated by those who are already a fan of the series. I'll be following that advice myself as the next stop in the series is either going to be The Creeping Jenny Mystery (1930) or The Case of the Purple Calf (1934).