A Study in Scarlet: Case Closed, vol. 85 by Gosho Aoyama

This is likely going to be a very short review and not because of a lack of quality, but volume 85 of Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed, originally published in Japan as Detective Conan, concludes a long-running story-arc that was setup years ago – going all the way back to vol. 58 and vol. 59. A longish story giving answers to what really happened at the Reiha Mountain Pass and the apparent murder of Shuichi Akai that involves a lot of familiar faces. So have to gloss over and dance around a lot of details in order to avoid spoiling anything.

Needless to say, the conclusion to this story-arc represents one of the most ambitious pieces of plotting from this series! Aoyama planted the seeds, clues and hints over a period seven years across more than twenty volumes with the lime light going entirely to the characters who have been lurking in the background or inserting themselves into Conan's investigations. So there's a cat-and-mouse game between Toru Amuro and Subaru Okiya, while Jodie Sterling and Andre Camel get chased by a band of armed men. And finding a huge surprise in the backseat of their car! Conan is mentioned several times through out the story, but mainly acts as a Wizard of Oz pulling strings and levers behind the scenes. What a great pay-off to a long-running, ambitiously plotted and told story-arc.

By the way, I assumed this big blow-off would cover the entirety of the volume, but only covered five of the eleven chapters.

Unfortunately, the blow-off scattered pieces across the board and, as Ho-Ling warned in the comments of my review of the previous volume, the stories following can be "a bit meh again as new pieces have to set in place" – as exemplified by the next story. Shukichi Haneda, a professional shogi player, was introduced in vol. 80 as the love interest of the female traffic officer, Yumi Miyamoto. This story has Shukichi Haneda preparing to compete the Master title match, "only title he doesn't hold right now," but, "if he wins the title 'Master,' he'll have all seven crowns." Only "one player in history has ever done that." Right before the match, he receives a message from someone calling himself "The Headless Shogi Player." Yumi has been kidnapped and only way to save her is solving a series of shogi-themed codes and clues. Conan comes to the rescue, but, like nearly all code cracker stories from this series, it's practically unsolvable to non-Japanese readers on top of being a boring and pretty forgettable story.

I don't know why Aoyama decided to tell this story coming hot off the biggest story-arc from the past twenty, or so, volumes. Why not take a breather from Conan & Company and fill out the second-half with a Harley Hartwell solo case? Or maybe a story focusing on Richard Moore or Conan's parents. It would have been an improvement over the shogi hunt and the story closing out this landmark volume.

The third and last story, which will be concluded in the next volume, has to be most transparent case since the first half dozen volumes. The story concerns a body discovered at the bottom of a hotel swimming pool, littered by shards of glass, but the solution seems painfully obvious (ROT13): jub “fgrccrq” ba gur oebxra cvrprf bs gur ndhnevhz? Rknpgyl! Gur bayl pyrire cneg bs gur gevpx vf gung oernxvat gur ndhnevhz haqre jngre jbhyq znxr ab fbhaq, ohg vg'f boivbhf jubqhavg naq ubj nf gur svfuvat yvar sbhaq va gur qenva jnf hfrq gb chyy njnl gur ndhnevhz gung uvqr gur obql sebz ivrj. Naq gura qrfgeblrq jura gur zheqrere cergraqrq gb fgrc ba tynff funeqf jura ur jnf npghnyyl fgnzcvat vg gbb cvrprf naq tbg phg.

So unless the swimming pool story pulls out a surprise ending in the next volume, the last two stories fall dramatically short coming right after the fantastic, red-hot conclusion covering the first five chapters – nothing disastrous enough to diminish what Aoyama accomplished in those chapters. I just hope that the individual, standalone cases see an uptick in quality again in the next couple of volumes. Onward to the next installment!

Well, I said this was not going to be a very lengthy review. So why not add some padding by dumping a bunch of Conan-related links. The Golden Age Detective fandom is a bit weird as it's not known for its fan theories or rampant speculations, but I have a fan theory, “Detective Conan: Who's the Boss,” revealing the ultimate least-likely-suspect as the mysterious series antagonist. I also compiled a best-of list with "My Five Favorite Impossible Crime Stories from Case Closed, vol. 1-69," but two of the best locked room mysteries can be found in TV original episodes The Cursed Mask Laughs Coldly and The Case of the Seance Double Locked Room.


Crucified (2008) by Michael Slade

In the previous post, I discussed the twelfth entry in the Bobby Owen series, Suspects—Nine (1939), which is E.R. Punshon's homage to those refined, witty and character-driven novel of manners mystery pioneered during the 1930s by the alternative Queens of Crime – like Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Moray Dalton. So I thought it would be fun to pick something next that is the complete opposite of a classy, satirical 1930s manners mystery novel. Something crude, brutal and horrifying with all the subtlety of a rickety, old chainsaw hacking through guts and bones. Preferably published during the past twenty years. There was only one name on the big pile who fitted the bill. 

"Michael Slade" is the collective penname of Jay Clarke, a Canadian trial lawyer, who collaborated with Rebecca Clarke, Richard Covell and Richard Banks on the "Special X" series. A branch of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police specialized in hunting down extremely dangerous, completely deranged, criminals and serial killers. Special X series has a not undeserved reputation for its, um, liberal depiction of guts, gore and grisly killings that could teach '80s slasher films a thing or two.

John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, reviewed Crucified (2008) back in 2019 and called the book sadistic retro pulp and Slade "a torture porn maven." I don't think John very much approved of me nonchalantly shrugging at the torrent of bloods and guts in Ripper (1994), but, in my defense, the whole story from beginning to end screamed '90s edginess – deliberately trying to be as shocking and stomach-churning as possible. Ripper struck me at times as trying to bait Americans from crushing the head of a critical reviewer with head clamps to evoking the name of Aleister Crowley. So took Ripper about as seriously as a horror flick that tried too hard to be shocking, but appreciated the attempt to give the gore galore a traditional slant with several impossible crimes in a mechanized death-trap house on Deadman's Island. In fact, there are three of Slade novels listed in Brian Skupin's Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019) loaded with locked rooms, impossible crimes and even dying messages of which Crucified sounded the most fascinating. A book that threw everything from archaeology, arcane history and conspiracies to locked rooms, impossible crimes and a secret crusade into the blender to create a mush better than expected.

If Ripper is a product of the '90s, Crucified is clearly a child of the 2000s. The decade of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (2003), The Passion of the Christ (2004) and conspiracy theories thriving on the internet. Yet, the book is surprisingly tame compared to Ripper. Sure, there's a little bit of disembowelment and exploding skulls scattered, here and there, throughout the story, but no worse than Philip Kerr's recently reviewed Prague Fatal (2011) or your average, dark historical mystery from Paul Doherty. They're more like violent vignettes closely entangled with an increasingly complicated and engrossing narrative that moves around between the past and present. And the many arcane historical puzzles make up the lion's share of the story. So it should be a bit more palpable than Ripper which had skinned corpses dangling from a suspension bridge on meat hooks. 

Crucified begins with a short prologue, of sorts, depicting the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in 33 A.D. as the Roman guard look up at the cross and says, "just as your shadow has vanished from the face of the earth, so you will be forgotten." But history ordained otherwise.

The story than begins to move between those long, grim years of World War II and the present-day with the former revolving around the many mysteries surrounding a long-lost Allied bomber, the Ace of Clubs, which was shot down in March 1944 over Germany – while flying a top-secret mission to bomb a specific location. The crew were ordered "to break away from the main bomber stream and fly a solitary run to an isolated target of no apparent value," but got shot down by a lone wolf fighter. So they had to bail and all but three of the crewmen were captured. Lt. Fletch "Wrath" Hannah (pilot), Sgt. Dick "Ack-Ack" DuBoulay and Sgt. Trent "Jonesy" Jones vanished that night without a trace. The impact of the crash destabilized a slope, "causing a landslide to crumble down and bury the plane" and "with bombs dropping night and day, churned-up dirt was the rule, not the exception." So the bomber lay buried and undisturbed for sixty-odd years until its wreck was discovered during road construction. A discovery that brings more to light than merely the answer to an unsolved question from the war.

In 1944, Hitler gave a mysterious individual who tried to betray him the codename "Judas" and "the rumor is that Judas conspired with Churchill to smuggle a package to Britain in the hands of a secret agent who'd been parachuted into the Reich." The Ace of Clubs was downed on "the same night that a Junkers 88 was given extraordinary orders to cripple an RAF Halifax on a solitary run in a way that would kill no crewmen except the rear gunner." So is there's a link between Hitler's Judas and the downed bomber? But there's more. Beside containing something that could topple Hitler, the Judas package includes ancient religious artifacts recovered from the Middle East. If "the resurrected bomber yields a map to the Judas package, Christendom might be rocked to its two-thousand-year-old foundations" and "the fatal nail in the Vatican's coffin."

A secret, modern-day Inquisitor, "the Secret Cardinal," has to stop the Judas relics coming to light at all costs and dispatches a crusader, the Legionary of Christ – who's either insane or possessed by the devil. The Legionary holds some decidedly old-worlds views on how death should be administrated.

The person caught between the long-buried secrets of the past and the increasing bloodshed in the present is a historian, lawyer and writer, Wyatt Rook, who writes historical expose's bringing long-kept secrets to light – earning him the reputation of muckraker and conspiracy theorist. Rook's reputation brings Liz Hannah, granddaughter of the missing pilot, to his doorstep to ask him to help her uncover what happened to her grandfather with the Judas puzzle and herself as a lure. But then one of the last surviving crewman, Mick "Balls' Balsdon, who put together an archive is horrifically tortured to death. And long-buried, apparently impossible murder is discovered inside the wreck of the Ace of Clubs.

Ack-Ack's decayed skeleton is found on the seat of the small, cage-like rear turret with its torso sprawled forward between the guns, but it's not bullets from a Junkers 88 that killed the rear gunner. Someone had stabbed him in the back three times, which appears to be impossible as everyone was in their battle stations and "remained in their combat positions until they bailed out." Slade drove home how hazardously these planes and bombing raids were and how any shot at surviving depended on teamwork over the plane's intercom. So nobody appears to have had an opportunity to stab the rear gunner. This not, strictly speaking, a proper locked room mystery, but an alibi-puzzle that works as a locked room mystery, of sorts, recalling the tangle of alibis that formed a quasi-impossible crime from Charles Forsyte's Diving Death (1962). Whatever you choose to categorize it as, an unbreakable alibi or impossible crime, Slade's absorbing storytelling turned it the best, most captivating and memorable parts of the plot and story. The circumstances of the murder, a bomber under attack above enemy territory, did wonders in itself for the trick employed. A trick that would not have impressed as much had it been pulled off in an ordinary setting under normal circumstances. This is not the only the historical locked room mystery Wyatt Rook comes across ("Am I being haunted by the ghost of John Dickson Carr?").

The trail leads to a U-boat called the Black Devil that had been on a test run as the first Elektroboot in the North Sea, between Hamburg and Scotland, but run into a destroyer and a fight ensued. Slade's depiction of what went on in that enclosed and sealed submarine as they got destroyed by a depth-charge barrage. It's as good as what happened aboard the Ace of Clubs, but the Black Devil only comes into play during the second-half and the impossibility is not discovered until towards the end. Something was being smuggled to England aboard the Black Devil, but, when the Royal Navy pried open the hatches and searched the submarine inside out, nothing was recovered. So "do you sneak a sardine out of a tin can that's sealed and remains sealed after the sardine is gone?" This one takes only a short while to be solved, but, needless to say, I really liked what it added to the overall story.

It's the historical puzzles and biblical mysteries that take precedent in Crucified with the present-day murders ending up only playing a secondary role. Admittedly, whenever the Legionary makes an appearance, it's not a pretty picture to behold and the double murder of a married couple is downright revolting, but, as said previously, they act like gory vignettes – which can be skipped without missing anything really important. The way in which the Legionary is disposed of shows how unimportant he and his murders were in the end to the story. What matters are the historical plot-threads. Who killed the rear gunner and how? What happened to the three missing crewmen? How were the items removed from a dead, submerged submarine? Who was Hitler's Judas? Who his secret agent and what happened to him? What, exactly, is the nature of the Judas relics and are they, as feared, "a biblical earthshaker?" The answers to all these questions neatly twists together fact and fiction into engrossing, cleverly plotted historical mystery with the last line being a stroke of genius a stupid joke that made me snicker. What a stupidly brilliant way to close out the story. 10/10!

So, all in all, Slade's Crucified turned out to be unexpectedly great. I half jokingly picked it as stark contrast to Punshon's über civilized Suspects—Nine and expected an all-out gore fest with a slightly traditionally-slanted plot, like Ripper, but the excellently executed historical plot-threads and the scenes aboard the bomber and submarine made it so much more than a mere mystery-thriller. Add to this two, archaeological locked room mysteries and a boatload of arcane and historical lectures and bits of knowledge, you have a serious candidate to be included on the third iteration "The Updated Mammoth List of My Favorite Tales of Locked Room Murders & Impossible Crimes." Recommended with some reservations for those who really can't stand gore. 

A note for the curious: I forgot to mention Crucified is not a part of the Special X series and appears to be a standalone, which might explain why it doesn't all out with the blood-and-guts-to-the-wall killing. Not as frequently as in Ripper. It makes me want to look at some others moderns on the big pile like Micki Browning, Martin Edwards, D.L. Marshall and Slade's Red Snow (2010), but first I need to get to that landmark volume of Case Closed.


Suspects—Nine (1939) by E.R. Punshon

Last month, I compiled a little best-of list, "The Hit List: Top 10 Favorite Reprints from Dean Street Press," which shined a spotlight on, in my opinion, the best Dean Street Press reprints discussed on this blog and, what has been discussed, comprises only a small fraction of their total output – having reprinted hundreds of vintage mysteries over the past decade. So they went over and above to fill that gawping hole the Rue Morgue Press left behind, but the flood of reprints and additional translations has made it difficult to keep track of everything. I decided to take a break from Christopher Bush and Brian Flynn to return to the first majora Golden Age mystery writer to be resurrected by Dean Street Press, "kindly Mr. Punshon."

E.R. Punshon's Suspects—Nine (1939) is his twelfth detective novel starring Bobby Owen who during this period, in this series, holds the rank of detective-sergeant and "wistfully looking for promotion." Similar to Bush's Ludovic Travers, Punshon allowed Bobby Owen to evolve over time from a young constable (Information Received, 1933) to a Commander of Scotland Yard (Six Were Present, 1956). Just like Flynn, Punshon tried his hands at different styles of detective fiction from magical criminal fantasies (Diabolic Candelabra, 1942) to more sordid, down to earth crimes (The Conqueror Inn, 1943). Suspects—Nine brings a bit of both to the table as Owen is now engaged to the proprietress of "Olive, Hats," Olive Farrar, who Punshon introduced as a love interest in Dictator's Way (1938). Giving a series detective-character a love interest was somewhat of a revolutionary idea when Dorothy L. Sayers made Lord Peter Wimsey fall in love with Harriet Vane in Strong Poison (1930) and married them in Busman's Honeymoon (1937). Margery Allingham (Sweet Danger, 1933) and Ngaio Marsh (Artists in Crime, 1938) followed suit.

So marrying off your inveterate bachelor detective is commonly associated with the Queens of Crime and Punshon seems to have written Suspects—Nine as an homage to their witty, character-driven "manners mystery" – full of social and political satire. The kind of sophisticated, well characterized mystery novel Moray Dalton could have written. 

Suspects-Nine sees Bobby Owen comically getting dragged into a petty case of a misappropriated hat when Olive Farrar's chic West End shop is caught in the middle of a feud in London's high society. Lady Alice Belchamber, "formidable and well-known explorer and traveller," who had "bullied and browbeaten her way through the most remote districts of the darkest continents." There were stories of Lady Alice that "she once had cowed with her riding whip a tribe of armed and furious reputed cannibals," while in her flat hung "a formidable knife with which she admitted having slain the Arab, who, armed with it, had penetrated her tent somewhere in the wilds of the near East." Lady Alice hates Flora Tamar who "enjoyed the deserved reputation of being one of the most beautiful women in London." Flora Tamar is married to Michael Tamar, chairman and managing director of the important Internal Combustion Engine Co., but nonetheless is known to sink her hooks in every pair of trousers that comes near her. They saw Flora Tamar pinched Lady Alice's best boy years ago and the "vindictive old bean" has never forgiven her.

The problem begins when Lady Alice learns "Olive, Hats" had designed and created a hat for Flora Tamar to wear at the forthcoming Royal garden party at Buckingham Palace. Lady Alice convinced the sales woman, Vicky, to show her the hat, tried it on and liked it ("...I said it wasn't for sale, and she shouted that every hat in a hat shop was for sale..."). She simply walked out and mailed them a cheque for £26 5s ("Consolidating the position, that's called"). Olive fully expects to lose Flora as a client and Bobby offers to act as a mediator, but Lady Alice naturally refuses and Flora expects a free new hat. Bobby came away from both meetings with an easy feeling of impending catastrophe and dark, unknown forces moving behind the petty incident of the misappropriated hat.

Bobby had been told Lady Alice somehow seems to keep tabs on Flora Tamar and he learns how when spotting a sleazy private detective, named William Martin, in the entrance hall of Lady Alice's apartment building. Martin has an unsavory, violent reputation who had "narrowly escaped arrest in connection with the case of a woman found strangled and dead in an empty house," but an alibi, though the police believed it false, saved his neck – currently works for one of London's slightly less disreputable private inquiry agencies. Bobby judges Lady Alice to be a formidable enemy and reflects "that Flora Tamar might do well to be upon her guard." But not all is well at the Tamar household as he finds out when accidentally crashing a house party and notices the undercurrent of hostility. But there's more. Michael Tamar takes Bobby aside and confides in him he has received an extortion note, of sorts, saying "there's plotting against you." If he wants to know more, he has to leave a hundred one pound notes in a tin under a stone on Weeton Hill. And that's the place where not long after a body is discovered.

The victim is identified as Munday, butler to Michael and Flora Tamar, who had been shot in the face several times and a knife wound that was inflicted about half an hour after death! A detail that lends "to the murder a strange element of the wholly inexplicable." Bobby has to comb through to the nine titular suspects to find the person who had motive and opportunity to shoot and stab a dead butler on that hillside.

First and obviously, he has to consider Munday's employers, the Tamars and two of Flora's suspected lovers, Holland Kent and Julius "Judy" Patterson. Secondly, Michael Tamar's nephew and heir in lieu of children, Roger Renfield. Thirdly, the vengeful Lady Alice along with her potentially dangerous private investigator and her lovely niece, Ernestine “Ernie” Maddox. She has been involved with Judy who lives by his wits ("cards and all that") and a regular the Cut and Come Again. A London nightclub that has figured in more than one Bobby Owen novel. Finally, there's the possibility of an unknown person, or simply "X," which would bring the whole investigation back where it begun. Bobby tackles the problem through good, solid police work ("it's just plodding, sir") and the so-called "mainly conversation" approach with one of the chapters even being titled "More Conversation," but complexity of the plot and detailed characterization never makes it a drag to read. And the many intricacies and possibilities never muddy or clutter the story.

In that regard, Suspects—Nine is a reminder of what I initially admired so much about Punshon's detective fiction. A skill to erect and navigate complicated, maze-like plots and manipulate, intertwined plot-strands like a master puppeteer. Suspects—Nine is a good example how effortlessly Punshon moved around a plot with many different moving parts and large, clearly defined cast of characters running mostly on emotions without getting all tangled up in a mess. Only thing you can really say against Suspects—Nine is that Punshon has done it even better in other novels (There's a Reason for Everything, 1945), but nothing that should take away from this excellent, Golden Age mystery.

I disagree with Nick Fuller's review in which he states that "the means Bobby Owen uses to reach that solution – police routine rather than psychological introspection – is disappointing in a book with so many detailed characters and tortuous emotions." Bobby Owen notes towards the end that, somehow, the murder of the apparently inconspicuous, unimportant Munday sprang from this "welter of passion, intrigue and claim, of counter claim and counter passion, intrigue and counter intrigue." A lot of what happens in this story is driven by all kinds of emotions, seldom rationally, which is why the murder appeared to be so incomprehensible. So figuring out the solution with calm, commonsense thinking and good, old-fashioned police routine worked better than as when Bobby had given away his best Hercule Poirot imitation. It felt really satisfying when from Bobby's memorandum (fact list) the truth emerged "so long and so strangely overlooked." A solution revealing Suspects—Nine not only as very well executed, vintage whodunit with a clever take on the general lack of alibis among the suspects, but showing it was also somewhat of masterclass in diverting suspicion. A great, long overdue return to this series and comes highly recommended to everyone who enjoys these sophisticated, character-driven 1930s mystery novels.


Inspector De Klerck and a Fatal Compromise (2023) by P. Dieudonné

I remarked in previous commentaries of the Inspector De Klerck series that P. Dieudonné is the first writer to not only succeed in emulating A.C. Baantjer's format for what has become the oer-Hollandse police procedural, or politieroman (police novel), to perfection, but managed to make it his own – expanding and building on it rather than living off it fumes. This series is no attempt at a cash clone or nostalgia act as has been attempted in the past. Dieudonné is the Adrian Monk to Baantjer's Lt. Columbo. So the series certainly bears a resemblance to its illustrious fore-bearer and hits a nostalgic note, or two, along the way, but, internally, does its own thing. For one, Dieudonné grounded the series in the world of today and another is that his plots have a tendency to tighter, knottier affairs than those found in Baantjer's novels. Not to mention the variety in stories and type of plots, while remaining stylistically uniform. 

Rechercheur De Klerck en moord in scène (Inspector De Klerck and Murder on the Scene, 2021) imported inner city problems from American and turned it into a theatrically-staged whodunit. Rechercheur De Klerck en het duistere web (Inspector De Klerck and the Dark Web, 2022) dives down the rabbit hole of internet conspiracy theories in which one of the victims scrawled a dying message in blood. Rechercheur De Klerck en een dodelijk pact (Inspector De Klerck and a Deadly Pact, 2022) is a bizarre, pulp-style police procedural about wholesale murder and a vanishing chalet. So, naturally, the plot-mechanics of the eighth novel also differs from its predecessors. 

Rechercheur De Klerck en een fataal compromise (Inspector De Klerck and a Fatal Compromise, 2023) begins with a fun bit of banter between Lucien de Klerck and Ruben Klaver on so-called serious critics and reviewers. De Klerck had appeared in a book as "an unnamed Rotterdam detective," but literary critics "found it unbelievable, out of date, that the main character was happily married" and "had no drug addicted kids" or "even a father suffering from dementia who always paints the same chicken" – simply "not acceptable to the gentlemen reviewers." Things get serious when De Klerck and Klaver are called to a community garden, Jouw Paradijs (Your Paradise), where the body of a woman has been found hanging from a tree. The police officer on the spot suspects it might be murder rather than suicide.

The victim is identified as a widow of three years, Sandra Stobbelaer-van Belzen, who has been living with her brother-in-law at his farm since her husband passed away and made a bit of a mess of her personal life.

Sandra had an illicit affair with a married woman, Mireille van Houten, whose wife, Regina van Houten, "tolerates no rival." But her family relations were also severely disrupted over an inheritance. Sandra's brother, Pieter, was not pleased when discovering that the inheritance from their Uncle Gerardus was substantially less than expected and accused his sister of draining their uncle's bank account ("...always managed to wind Uncle Gerardus around her cunning little finger"). She got the same complaint from her cousin, Arnoud de Rouwe. Sandra and Pieter's older brother, Henk, tells De Klerck how he wondered if there was something more to the death of their uncle. And perhaps Pieter was ticked-off about something more serious than a meager inheritance. There are other factors complicating De Klerck and Klaver's investigation. The secretary of the community garden, Bart Muurling, who discovered the body is incapable of telling a straight, truthful story. A gold ring that had been a heirloom since the family still lived in the Dutch East Indies and another bone of contention among the heirs of Uncle Gerardus. Why did a dead tourist carry a newspaper clipping with the obituary of Uncle Gerardus?

So, despite its modern exterior and up-to-date characters, the plot on which Inspector De Klerck and a Fatal Compromise runs is that of 1930s whodunit with its unbreakable alibis, heritage hazards, a dysfunctional family and a missing heirloom – ending with a gathering and confrontation of all the suspects. Dieudonné and De Klerck attempted, admirably so, to go for a rug-puller of ending, but only partially succeeded.

The revelation of the murderer itself certainly had an element of surprise about it, when it was sprung on the reader, but its effect got somewhat bogged down in the complicated misdirection. And the explanation threw some extra, impossible to anticipate weight behind something important regarding the motive, which I thought was a trifle weak and an unconvincing motive to snuff out several people. Nevertheless, while the ending, particularly the motive, could have been improved upon, Inspector De Klerck and a Fatal Compromise holds up the overall quality of the series and still leagues ahead of the average Dutch politieroman. That's not damning with faint praise. Your average, Dutch politieroman seldom has anything more than a very basic plots that lean heavily on the series-character and location to carry the day. Playing around with concepts like clueing, misdirection, alibi-breaking, dying messages and impossible crimes was practically unheard of until E-Pulp arrived on the scene. Perhaps that's why nobody who tried to step into Baantjer's shoes enjoyed his longevity. Dieudonné and De Klerck have so much more to offer than a warm, humanistic homicide cop and book covers with city scenes. That being said, I very much enjoyed the little subplot playing out in the background of the story showing that something different can be done with the tried-and-tested.

So you place all of the blame for still not having revisited the work of Baantjer solely on this series, because it has been doing an excellent job in satiating those nostalgic cravings. I eagerly look forward to Rechercheur De Klerck en de ongewenste dood (Inspector De Klerck and the Unwanted Death, 2023). 

A note for the curious: I shoved this review in between scheduled posts, because didn't want to reschedule any of the planned posts, but came at the cost of yesterday's review of Brian Flynn's Reverse the Charges (1943). So if you missed it, you can find it here.


Reverse the Charges (1943) by Brian Flynn

Brian Flynn's Reverse the Charges (1943) is the twenty-ninth novel featuring his consulting detective, Anthony Bathurst, which brings him to the village and Chief-Inspector Andrew MacMorran, of Scotland Yard, to the village of Mallett and the surrounding district – where an active serial killer is on the prowl. The case begins on a wet, windy March evening when Constable Wragg heard "a far-away scream" tearing through the night. And he found something downright bizarre.

A car standing on the road, "no obvious sign of collision or accident," whose dying driver lay slumped over the steering wheel with "a look of convulsed, contorted horror." Constable Wragg smells "something burning" inside the car without anything appearing to be on fire. Dr. Pegram, Divisional Surgeon, examines the body and finds six small glowing cinders lodged between his vest and the small of his back. Someone had dumped a small scoop of red-hot cinders down the victim's back and "the shock must have killed him." Sir Charles Stuart, Chief Constable, does not want to call in the Yard as it would be tantamount to an early confessions of failure. So the local police, represented by Inspector Venables, gets a first crack at the case.

The victim is identified as William Norman, farmer, who went to the market in Mallett and stayed, as customary, the whole day and had his dinner at the White Lion inn. Norman then drove home, picked someone up along the way and got murdered in a very outlandish way. Dr. Pegram discusses the case with the village physician, Dr. Martin Chavasse, who believes they have a homicidal maniac on their hands and fears a second murder before too long, because "a murderer of that type never stops at one" – which turned out to be "regrettably accurate." The body of Henry King, a baker, was found sitting at the dining table in the saloon of the White Lion. King had dropped in for lunch and is served with a dish of poisoned fish. A day later, Sir Charles calls in Scotland Yard and MacMorran is dispatched to Mallett together with Bathurst. Three days later, the drowned body of the third victim is found stuffed inside a water barrel standing in the courtyard of the White Lion.

So the murderer appears to be escalating, but, after the third murder, there's a sudden lull in the killings. It appeared as if the case was going to be "the first in the whole of Anthony Lotherington Bathurst's career as a criminologist which he was forced to relinquish." No new developments or a tantalizing clue came to him during the time spent in Mallett. Bathurst had to abandon and possibly write off the case as a failure, but was called back to Mallett when the body of an 11-year-old child is found in the smoking room of the White Lion.

Admittedly, Reverse the Charges has a premise as fascinating as it's puzzling. Flynn leaves some doubt whether you're reading a vintage serial killer mystery in the same vein as Philip MacDonald's Murder Gone Mad (1931) or something more cerebral like Agatha Christie's Murder is Easy (1939). Either way, the first-half had all the ingredients to make Reverse the Charges a standout of its kind, but the pace slackened during the second-half and Flynn really stretched out the ending. Not necessarily a bad thing or enough to sink a story, but it has to deliver something worthwhile in the end. That really didn't happen here.

First of all, the murderer enjoyed an incredible run of luck and particularly that first murder was nothing less than a gamble, which, once again, is acceptable enough as a short-lived run of luck is a defining trait of the fictitious murderer – only the method was completely glossed over. Dumping a handful of red-hot cinders down somebody's back on a cold, rainy evening is not as easy as it sounds. You can't simply say the murderer simply emptied a container of them down Norman's collar when he bent forward ("owing to the weather") to peer through the driving-screen. How where the cinders kept hot enough to cause fatal injuries? And him dying was not certainty at all ("his heart wasn't as strong, perhaps, as it might have been... but otherwise he was all right as far as I know"). If Norman had not died of shock and was only severely burned, the murderer's plan would have collapsed there and then as Norman would simply tell Constable Wragg who attacked him. So nothing really clever or inspired to it all, which is not helped when a very familiar-looking and expected solution emerges towards the end. One that has been done before and much better. Thirdly, there's an odd, stylistic choice in storytelling as the second-half introduces the plot-thread of Dr. Chavasse's mysterious, dying patient who had bouts of recovery during which he ventured outside. That plot-thread should have been expanded upon and the mysterious episodes with him peppered throughout the story. It would have livened up the pace of the second-half tremendously as the murders could be spread out a little more and shorten the dragging towards the end. It genuinely would have been an overall improvement to both the plot and storytelling.

So, as some of you armchair detectives have probably deduced by now, Reverse the Charges can not be counted among the best and finest detective novel Flynn crafted during his decades long career, but enjoyable enough to recommend to established fans of the series.


The Night of the 12th-13th (1931) by S.A. Steeman

Stanislas-André Steeman was a French-speaking Belgian illustrator, journalist and mystery novelist whom Xavier Lechard lionized as "one of the greatest mystery writers of all times." Steeman was an important, seminal figure of the early French Golden Age detective story whose work is "very representative" of French detective fiction of the 1930s that emphasizes originality, inventiveness and occasionally subverting the rules – while upholding the tenants of "rigour, fair play and cleverness" of his Anglo-Saxon counterparts. Only two of his celebrated novels were translated into English in the thirties and have never been reprinted since their original publication. So secondhand copies of the English translations tend to be as scarce as they're expensive with a copy of Six hommes morts (Six Dead Men, 1930/31) recently going on sale for $1250 plus shipping. Not all of his work is hopelessly out of reach.

Fortunately, the French-speaking Steeman had sense enough to be Belgian and therefore practically all of his mystery novels have appeared in Dutch/Flemish translations. Most of them published during the 1930s and '40s. And while copies turn up about as often as the English translations, the Dutch/Flemish editions seem to be much more reasonably priced, if they turn up. So immediately pounced on the Dutch/Flemish translations of Steeman's La nuit du 12 au 13 (The Night of the 12th-13th, 1931) when one finally headed my direction. I'd say it was influential on the French detective story of the thirties, like those published by John Pugmire's Locked Room International, but more on that in a moment. 

The Night of the 12th-13th is the second title in the Wenceslas "Wens" Vorobeitchik series and begins with setting up two separate, but obviously intertwined, plot-threads concerning a husband and wife.

Floriane Aboody is on her way to Confucius, "a shop of Chinese and Japanese goods and antiques," where she has an appointment with Van Hou Yen, but a shop assistant, Jean Heldinge, tells her he's currently absent – as is his partner, Ling Chu. However, the latter appears a few moments later to inform Floriane that Van Hou Yen will visit her home that evening. Which he does. The secretive meeting ends with Van Hou Yen handing a small parcel tied with a golden cord over to Floriane. Meanwhile, her husband, Herbert Aboody, has troubles of his own. Herbert Aboody is a co-director of an import-and export company, H. Aboody, J.B. Lawrence & Co, who has been receiving threatening letters over the past few weeks. The most recent letter informing the co-direction, "if you persevere and leave matters as they are, you will die on the night of the 12th and the 13th." Aboody's secretary, Stève Alcan, recommends him to consult a detective. This brings Wenceslas Vorobeitchik into the investigation who's not impressed with the case ("can you find something more banal than threatening letters") and critically underestimated the severity of the case. And not without consequences!

Wens proposes to spent the night of the 12th and the 13th together with Aboody in his (locked) office at the import-and export company, which he considers to be a secure location with a police detective patrolling the grounds outside. But what he fears mostly is that "this night will pass terribly calmly." Famous last words as the police detective outside hears the unmistakable sound of gunshots. Aboody was dead with a bullet in his head, while Wens had been critically injured as he was struck in the chest and leg with his body blocking the already locked office door. So that effectively takes Wens out of the case and story, which leaves the case in the hands of three other detectives. Namely the juge d'instruction, or examining magistrate, M. Plante, Inspector Aimé Malaise and Inspector Walter. Xavier Lechard did say Steeman both deeply respected the rule while "never afraid to subvert them" or "gently poking fun at them." The Night of the 12th-13th is a good example as it did not play out as an ordinary, 1930s detective novel!

There's an odd little thing about the locked room situation and I don't know if it was edited out of the translation or done on purpose, but the shooting of Aboody and Wens is never once acknowledged, treated or discussed as an impossible crime – which unnecessarily detracts from a cleverly-constructed and plotted (locked room) mystery. If it was done on purpose, it perhaps betrayed on undeserved lack of confidence in the strength of the plot and fearing to give away too much, too soon. If the translation is a condensed version, I feel slightly cheated out of my locked room fix.

Either way, you can clearly see Steeman's influence on other traditionally-minded French mystery writers of the period from even a possibly abridged translation of The Night of the 12th-13th. Noël Vindry, in particular, appears to have modeled his novels somewhat on Steeman and The Night of the 12th-13th. Vindry's series-detective is shot and wounded under impossible circumstances in La maison qui tu (The House That Kills, 1932) and the double shooting recalls the locked room problem from Le bête hurlante (The Howling Beast, 1934), while the case-for-three-detectives approach resembles Michel Herbert and Eugène Wyl's La maison interdite (The Forbidden House, 1932). The distinctly, pulp-style trappings of the plot also begs a comparison with Alexis Gensoul and Charles Grenier's La mort vient de nulle part (Death Out of Nowhere, 1945) and Marcel Lanteaume's La 13e balle (The Thirteenth Bullet, 1948), but The Night of the 12th-13th comes with a thick dollop of yellow peril. You can probably place some blame on that element for the drought in reprints over the decades.

But, purely on its merits as a detective story, it definitely deserves to be reprinted as it more than delivered on its premise. And what looked like a routine investigation following the spectacular shooting inside the locked office. An investigation in which the increasingly frustrated detectives become entangled in a web of romantic relationships, embezzlement, faked alibis, missing suspects, sinister Chinese and a noticeably growing conspiracy of silence surrounding the mysterious events on the night of the 12th and the 13th. Steeman pulls everything tightly together in the last chapters with a satisfying and for the time original explanation to the whole perplexing case. I anticipated the correct solution, but not because of any of my own cleverness or delusions of being on par as an armchair detective with Mycroft Holmes. The solution has, thematically, something in common with a few other (locked room) mystery novels from this period (SPOILER/ROT13: Jnygre F. Znfgrezna'f Gur Jebat Yrggre naq Nyna Gubznf' Gur Qrngu bs Ynherapr Ivavat juvpu nyy unir cybgf fhoiregvat gur ebyrf bs gur qrgrpgvir va n qrgrpgvir fgbel qverpgyl yvaxrq gb gur ybpxrq ebbz-gevpx).

So it didn't take me too long to notice the pattern and it gave me a pretty good idea what really happened in the apparently unconnected prologue, but you can hardly hold that against an otherwise good, solid and at the time innovative detective story. I would like to read a fresh translation to see if anything was cut out of this Dutch/Flemish edition and think a LRI reprint would complement their other French Golden Age translations. But due to the locked room angle going unacknowledged, it might make more sense to reprint The Night of the 12th-13th together with Six Dead Men as a twofer volume. Just a completely unbiased, impartial recommendation from an independent and trustworthy party. :D


Suddenly at His Residence (1946) by Christianna Brand

The past ten years have been a deluge of reprints, translations and even some newer, classically-styled works that turned into a flood of Noah-like proportions ushering in the current period of rediscovery – a renaissance age I predicted in the late 2000s and again towards the end of 2014. Coincidentally, or exactly according to my prediction, the reprint renaissance really began to gain momentum in 2015 as more publishers and imprints appeared. The downside to this success that it's hard sometimes to keep pace with all the new releases. So, usually, I'm trailing behind the new reprints and releases, except this time.

Two months from now, the British Library Crime Classics is going to publish a reprint of Christianna Brand's third novel, Suddenly at His Residence (1946), which was published in the US as The Crooked Wreath and serialized in The Chicago Tribune under the title One of the Family. Suddenly at His Residence has been on the to-be-reread list for a while now. And not without a reason.

I wrote in my reviews of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express (1934) and John Dickson Carr's The Three Coffins (1935) that the current reprint renaissance coincided with some very famous, time-honored classics having their status reevaluated and sometimes downgraded – which also went the other way round. For example, Carr's Till Death Do Us Part (1944) once had the profile of a decent, mid-tier title from the Dr. Gideon Fell series, but today, it's looked upon as one of Carr's finest detective novels. During the 2000s, Brand's Suddenly at His Residence tended to be dismissed as an inferior, mid-tier work dragged down by melodramatic sentimentality and not anywhere near the same league as Green for Danger (1944), Death of Jezebel (1948) and London Particular (1952). But that began to chance towards the end of the decade. Just compare Nick Fuller's 2001 and John Norris' 2011 reviews. Nowadays, Suddenly at His Residence is highly regarded and some even consider the book to be among the best impossible crime novels the genre has produced.

I've only read Suddenly at His Residence in a Dutch translation, ages ago, remember very little beside the spectacular, unforgettable ending and those final lines. So why not take a second look in anticipation of the British Library reprint to see if its recent status upgrade is justified.

Once upon a time, Sir Richard March was married to a ballerina, Serafita, who gave him three sons, but he also kept a mistress, Bella, with an illegitimate child in a bijou house at Yarmouth. Somewhat of an open secret. Serafita predicted she would die young and Sir Richard would bring Bella to the house where she would "listen to nothing but 'Serafita,' 'Serafita,' 'Serafita,' till she is sick of the very sound of my name," which is exactly what happened. Sir Richard turned Swanswater into a shrine to his first wife full of "ancestor worship and ballet-dancing and rose-wreaths and coloured gloves." But the family has changed since the days of Serafita. The three sons had been killed in the First World War, their wives were gone and only the grandchildren were left. You can say they form the typical, dysfunctional family that tend to inhabit these type of country house mysteries.

Philip Marsh, "returned from that heathen America where in his childhood his mother had taken him," to settle down into a promising medical practice with a wife, Ellen, and a newborn child. Only they have quickly grown apart as Philip began an affair with his cousin, Claire, who "insisted upon working in some dreadful newspaper office" and raised her grandfather's ire with her ideas about "independence and a career." Peta is the darling of Sir Richard and heir to his fortune, which the family lawyer, Stephen Garde, had fought for and won – "and in so doing, himself had lost." A quiet country lawyer does not secure "a hearty fortune" for a young lady and then ask her to marry him. Edward Treviss is their half-cousin and the only grandson of Sir Richard and Bella. Edward had lost his parents in a boating accident, which everyone assumed he had witnessed and discovered as a child he could exploit his assumed trauma ("the next time he was due for a spanking, therefore, he had put his little hand to his forehead and declared that it felt queer"). Something he continues to do as an 18-year-old to get attention and have people "express anxiety about him."

They are all coming down to Swanswater, two miles out of the small town of Heronsford, in Kent, to take part in the ceremony that Sir Richard always held on the anniversary of Serafita's death. It goes without saying they test their grandfather's patience and ends with him banging the table, "I'll cut you all out of my will, the whole ungrateful pack of you," instructs Stephen to draft a new will. Sir Richard also announces his intention, despite being in poor health, to spent the night alone in the lodge where Serafita had died. What you expect to happen is discovered next morning.

Apparently, Sir Richard died from over stimulation of his "dickey heart," but Philip concludes somebody killed him when he notices that Sir Richard's medication and a phial of strychnine missing from his bag. But how could someone have been possibly poisoned him? There were three, narrow paths running up through the rose beds to the lodge, "one to the back door, and one to the French window of the sitting-room," which were freshly sanded and smoothed over shortly after Sir Richard retreated into the lodge – two of the paths were innocent of footprints. The third path only showed Clair's footprints as she walked up the path with a breakfast tray and spotted Sir Richard's body sitting at his desk through the French window. Nobody could possibly have pushed a way through the roses without bringing "down a shower of petals." The doors and windows were all closed and locked. A pretty little puzzle!

Inspector Cockrill, "a dusty little old sparrow arrayed in a startlingly clean white panama hat," makes his third appearance, but largely acts as a spectator as he rolls cigarettes, observes and occasionally stirring the pot to keep everyone talking (“he liked to get his suspects talking”). So the focus remains firmly on the family and with a very good reason. Suddenly at His Residence pretty much plays out like one, very big and long family row during which various members accuse each other of murder complete with a false-solution to explain how they could have done it. Some of these false-solutions are not without ingenuity and form an impressive whole considering how many different possibilities Brand came up that needed to fit as many different characters as well as the unchanging facts of the murder. Outsiders also get in on the fun. A personal favorite comes during the inquest when one of the jurors proposes a false-solution, which barely holds up on a second glance, but his fellow jurors liked it so much, they brought in a verdict of murder against one of the family members. And that forced an arrest.

Fortunately, the body of the gruff, unlikable gardener, Brough, is found not long thereafter in the sitting room of the lodge with a poisonous needle in his arm. On the dusty tiles in the hallway, near his right hand, was written "I KILLED SIR R." Everything was "locked and sealed from the inside" and "there was no possible way of getting there except across the hall,” but “there were simply acres of untrodden dust between him and the door." So when evidence is found that pulls the rug from under the suicide theory, Cockrill suddenly has two impossible crimes on his hands and a family of whom one is now twice a murderer.

The strength of Suddenly at His Residence is not in the pair of no-footprints puzzles. Judging the book solely on the impossible crimes, the tricks are good enough with the second, dusty murder finding a clever new way to do that trick, but, by themselves, would hardly justify a classical status. Nor is the strength in the clues and red herrings or the who-and why. But the pure craftsmanship of the plot construction. And the pure showmanship in telling an otherwise fairly cliched country house mystery. What sets the well intended amateur apart from the masters is how much they'll allow the reader to know. An amateur closely guards clues and important information in fear of giving away too much, too early, while a master simply shows them or parades them around in front of the reader – hoping you either missed or misinterpreted those clues. What separates the masters from true legends like Brand, Carr and Christie is an unrivaled ability to rub the truth in your face or casually refer to an important clue and simultaneously pull the wool over your eyes. A talent that made lesser-known Carr and Christie novels, like Death in the Clouds (1935), The Crooked Hinge (1938), The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939) and Evil Under the Sun (1941), tower above the best works of their contemporaries. Brand had that talent as well and she went all in with it here. 

Suddenly at His Residence is already fairly clued to the point where you can call it immaculate with (HUGE SPOILER/ROT13) gur pevzr fprar orvat n fuevar gb n qrnq onyyrevan, ohg Oenaq gbbx vg n srj fgrcf shegure ol qrcvpgvat Pynver fgnaqvat “irel fgenvtug naq ybiryl” orarngu gur cbegenvg bs Frensvgn cbfvat ba cvax gbr-cbvagf nf fur snprq Pbpxevyy. Be abapunynagyl ersrerapvat gur inphhz pyrnare fgnaqvat va gur unyyjnl zbzragf nsgre gur frpbaq ivpgvz vf sbhaq. This kind of brazen confidence and command of the plot elevated everything from the impossible murders to the multiple, false-solutions to the solution and bombshell ending. An amazing, completely fair and acceptable dues ex machina plot-device to help resolve everything that happened at Swanswater and none of it would have landed without the sound structure erected underneath it all. A lesser writer and plotted would not have been able pull it off and raise an essentially thoroughly cliched detective story to something that can stand with the best from the best.

Only thing Suddenly at His Residence has going against itself is Brand wrote much better, superior detective novels and suspect its once poor reputation came from comparisons to London Particular. A painfully human detective story in which a tightly-knit, caring family construct false-solution to implicate themselves in order to protect the others. When you compare that to the family row here with relatives accusing each other of murder, even an excellently constructed and executed detective story like Suddenly at His Residence can appear cheap and gaudy. I'm sure the premise of a patriarch getting murdered after announcing he's going to change his will didn't do its reputation any favors at the time, which is why its recent reevaluation based solely on its own merits is more than deserved. I only wish I had an eye back then to see and appreciate how skillfully and audaciously everything had been put together, but those very skills is what makes the best detective stories stand up to a second read. Another thing Brand apparently has in common with Carr and Christie. So, cutting another long, rambling review short, Suddenly at His Residence is an excellent Golden Age mystery that comes highly recommended!

On a final, somewhat unrelated note: I got my hands all over a really obscure, long out-of-print, but supposedly very good, locked room mystery in even more obscure, never reprinted Dutch translation. So stay tuned!


The Mill House Murders (1988) by Yukito Ayatsuji

Soji Shimada's Senseijutsu satsujinjiken (The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, 1981) and Naname yashiki no hanzai (Murder in the Crooked House, 1982) cracked the thick ice that covered the post-war detective story in Japan, "the winter of the age of honkaku," handing the next generation of mystery writers a blueprint to carry forward the traditional detective story into the new century – ending the dominance of Seicho Matsumoto's social school. Just not right away. Well, not until Yukito Ayatsuji debuted with Jukkakukan no satsujin (The Decagon House Murders, 1987). A novel seen as the first wave of the shin honkaku (neo-orthodox) movement and remembered in Japan, to quote Shimada, "as an epoch-making event which transformed the world of Japanese mystery fiction with revolutionary new ideas."

Fittingly, John Pugmire's Locked Room International and Ho-Ling Wong's 2015 translation of The Decagon House Murders ushered in a new phase of the reprint renaissance that had been slowly gathering steam during the 2000s and really began to pick up momentum over the next decade.

Locked Room International had been mainly publishing Paul Halter and some odds and ends like a translation of Jean-Paul Török's Carrian pastiche L'enigme du Monte Verita (The Riddle of Monte Verita, 2007) and The Derek Smith Omnibus (2014). The Decagon House Murders appears to have given the traditionally-grounded, non-English mysteries legitimize and opened the floodgates to, what Brian Skupin called, a translation wave – one that's getting progressively bigger every year. Locked Room International continued with translations of writers such as Takemaru Abiko, Alice Arisugawa, Tetsuya Ayukawa, Masahiro Imamura and Pushkin Vertigo followed suit with reprints and new translations of Soji Shimada, Akimitsu Takagi and Seishi Yokomizo. In addition to a smattering of publications from smaller publishers like Yamaguchi Masaya's Ikeru shikabane no shi (Death of the Living Dead, 1989), Hiroko Minagawa's Hirakasete itadaki kōei desu (The Resurrection Fireplace, 2011) and MORI Hiroshi's Seven Stories (2017). And this only touches upon the Japanese mysteries that were ferried across the language barrier since 2015!

More importantly, Yukito Ayatsuji might very well have done exactly what Shimada predicted in his introduction to the LRI edition of The Decagon House Murders. In his introduction, Shimada discussed the shin honkaku movement and stated, "it is my belief that if we can introduce this concept to the field of American and British detective fiction, the Golden Age pendulum will swing back, just as The Tokyo Zodiac Murders and The Decagon House Murders managed to accomplish in Japan." You can argue the translation wave is leaving it traces as can been seen in the recently published A. Carver's The Author is Dead (2022), Jim Noy's The Red Death Murders (2022) and the work of James Scott Byrnside. So it was about time Yukito Ayatsuji got another novel translated into English.

Back in 2020, Pushkin Vertigo acquired the publishing rights of The Decagon House Murders and reprinted the book in a brand new edition. Every reprint of a previously published Japanese author from Pushkin Vertigo eventually receives new translations. It happened to Shimada and Yokomizo and expected it to happen to Ayatsuji some time before it was announced.

Yukito Ayatsuji's Suishakan no satsujin (The Mill House Murders, 1988) is the second entry in the yakata (mansion) series. The strange mansions providing a backdrop for each novel is the creation of Nakamura Seiji, "a curious architect," who "would only work on curious houses, projects that happened to coincide with whatever theme interested him at the time" and "he'd always conceal childish tricks in those houses" – which appear to have began to attract horrific tragedies. Seiji had died in a house he himself had built called the Blue Mansion when it went up in flames. A series of murders took place in another strange house designed by Seiji, the Decagon House. There's always one person who seem to be connected to the mansion tragedies, Shimada Kiyoshi. So begins to travel around Japan "to see what more evil Nakamura Seiji's creations have led to." On his second outing, Shimada travels deep into the mountains north of Okayama Prefecture to visit the Mill House.

The Mill House is a European-style, castle-like building situated in an isolated valley and is named for the three large water wheels attached to the mansion to generate power. A very remote, sparsely populated area, but even there the Mill House got a nickname as some refer to it as Mask Manor. A reference "after its unusual-looking master," Fujinuma Kiichi, who's the son of the late, well-known visionary painter, Fujinuma Issei. Twelve years ago, Kiichi emerged from a car wreck with severely damaged limbs and a horrendously disfigured face. Now wears a white rubber mask to hide his "accursed features" and had the Mill House built to hide from the world. When he had settled into the Mill House, Kiichi began to buy back and hoard all of his father's paintings ("the art world had dubbed it the Fujinuma Collection"). The Mill House has guests only once a year, on 28th September, the day Fujinuma Issei passed away when only four men are allowed to view the collection. Ōishi Genzō, Mori Shigehiko, Mitamura Noriyuki and Furukawa Tsunehito. All four connected to the Fujinumas and the reason why they're allowed to view the collection once a year.

A year ago, the traditional viewing of the Fujinuma Collection became the scene of gruesome murder and the downright impossible. Firstly, the housekeeper, Negishi Fumie, fell to her death from the tower and her body was seen being carried away by the rushing water. Secondly, a painting disappeared from the wall of the Northern Gallery and Furukawa Tsunehito is assumed to have taken it. Thirdly, Furukawa impossibly disappeared from the first floor of the locked and watched annex. Lastly, Masaki Shingo, friend of Kiichi and one-time disciple of his father, is killed, cut up in pieces and burnt in the basement incinerator. The police is unable to find a satisfactory explanation outside of blaming the vanished man. So the case, more or less, remains unsolved.

There ends the prologue and becomes a bit tricky discuss as The Mill House Murders is one of the clearest examples of simplistic complexity I've ever come across! The prologue gives the reader a rough idea what happened a year ago and the narrative than switches back and forth between the past and present. The 1985 chapters is a detailed retelling what happened a year ago, while the 1986 chapters sees the surviving members of that tragic night returning to the secluded house, but this time there's an uninvited guest, Shimada Kiyoshi – who's a friend of the man who impossibly disappeared, Furukawa. Shimada asks Kiichi permission to stay and join the yearly gathering to have a look around the place. So the story alternates between chapters set in 1985 that go over the events of the previous year and chapters set a year later detailing Shimada's investigation. When a 1985 chapters shows one of the incidents, you get Shimada going over that part of the house or talking to the people who witnessed something. Shimada asks a question and the next chapters shows the incident he asked about. These alternating past/present chapters, especially the earlier ones, often mirror each other and gives a pleasing symmetric structure to the storytelling and plot. Brilliantly exploited to frame an ultimately simple, absolutely solvable detective story as a warped maze. I referred to this style of plotting as a simplistic complexity and the difficult thing about spinning a great deal of complexity out of an uncomplicated plot is to do it while playing fair and not obfuscate the plot with clutter. Ayatsuji succeeded admirably as there are no irrelevant, extraneous plot-threads needlessly complicating things with everything that has happened, and continues to unfold, at Mill House is relevant to Shimada's solution.

I was actually somewhat surprised how close some of my initial impressions and suspicions were to be to Shimada's solution. While never fully giving up on those first impressions and suspicions, I questioned and doubted all of them with every twist and turn along the way. Not until Shimada finally got an opportunity to take a look at the first floor annex and bedroom from which his friend inexplicably vanished that some of those suspicions began to look not so far fetched after all. The locked room mystery really is my wheelhouse. Even then, I failed to dot all the i's and cross all the t's. I particular liked what lay behind the secret of the locked study.

Well, I can go on rambling about the book, but you probably get the idea by now. I really enjoyed The Mill House Murders. A superbly written, intricately-plotted shin honkaku mystery weaving a seemingly complex patterns out of sheer simplicity. You can see how Soji Shimada and Yukito Ayatsuji's ideas revitalized a genre that had been dominated for decades by social crime novels, which in turn inspired a new generation who completely rejuvenated the traditional detective story. I don't believe the traditional detective story could have found better custodians when it got largely abandoned in the West and eagerly look forward to the translation of Ayatsuji's third yakata novel, Meirokan no satsujin (The Labyrinth House Murders, 1988).