The Bishop's Sword (1948) by Norman Berrow

Back in 2020, I reviewed The Three Tiers of Fantasy (1947) by Norman Berrow, a British-born New Zealand mystery writer, who together with Max Afford pushed the frontiers of the impossible crime story in the Antipodean region – producing about a dozen locked room novels and short stories between them. That may not sound like much, but Afford and Berrow crafted some very imaginative, original and outright fantastical impossible crime fiction that stand out even today. Although, it should be mentioned Berrow's homespun brand of impossible crime fiction has not unfairly been criticized for being better at stating the impossible mysteries than explaining them. Afford definitely was the better of the two when it came to explaining his sealed rooms like The Dead Are Blind (1937) and "The Vanishing Trick" (1948), but there's something insanely attractive about Berrow's ability to parade them around.

Berrow had an undeniable knack for dreaming up inventive and fanciful miracle problems involving vanishing landmarks, time-slips and the devil's hoof-marks trekking through an impossible obstacle course in the snow. 

The Three Tiers of Fantasy is a mystery caper anticipating Hilary St. George Saunders' The Sleeping Bacchus (1951) and Edward D. Hoch's "The Theft of the White Queen's Menu" (1983) as they all string together three impossible disappearances that include one or two large objects. Hoch's short story concerns the inexplicable taking of a roomful of furniture, while the homeowner had his back turned for a moment. Saunders found a way to lose a police van complete with occupants from a guarded stretch of road, but Berrow took things a step further in The Three Tiers of Fantasy by making a whole room vanish and apparently wiped an entire street out of existence. The balance between quantity and quality is always a thorny issue with these multiple impossible crime stories and the reason why they tend to be one-offs among a writer's work (*), but Berrow upped the ante in his next novel comprising of no less than four seemingly impossible incidents. I finally wanted to take a look at that novel after reading Wadsworth Camp's House of Fear (1916), which is one of the earliest mysteries to pile on locked rooms and impossible incidents. 

The Bishop's Sword (1948) is the second novel to feature Berrow's regrettably short-lived series-character, Detective Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith, whose base of operation is the small, mountainous environs of a country town called Winchingham – described as "a fair sample of rural nomenclature." Miss Antonia “Toni” Meridew, a London girl, is a new arrival and came to Winchingham to take up the position of companion-secretary to Mrs. Miriam Pendlebury, "a vigorous-spoken woman woman of sixty with a determined chin and a pile of snow-white hair," at Hilltop House. Mrs. Pendlebury household consists of her son, Eric Pendlebury, who's not oblivious to Toni's good looks ("don't stare at Miss Meridew like that!") and her spinster sister, Miss Emmeline Forbes. Miss Forbes has a keen interest in esoteric matters and mysticism ("illusions, realities—what are they?"). Over dinner, Toni learns that the place houses two treasures, "a greater and lesser," of considerably monetary and historical value.

Firstly, there's the lesser treasure: a magnificent necklace gifted by Mrs. Pendlebury's late husband on their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary and which contained some of the finest pearls in the country. So worth a pretty packet. Secondly, the Bishop's Sword and is considered "more of a national institution than a private possession." A sword of the finest Toledo steel in a red velvet scabbard adorned with gold curlicues and gemstones, which belonged to a distant and infamous ancestor of the Pendleburys, Richard Buckstone, who was an ordained pirate. If the legend is to believed, Buckstone murdered a Spanish nobleman with his bare hands to get possession of the sword and a curse has rested on it ever since he died. Whoever draws the sword shall die very soon after and the last victim was Eric's great-uncle only sixty years ago. So the bedeviled weapon was sealed away inside a cunningly made, one-piece, casket of glass and steel hooked up to a loud burglar alarm. But its best protection is it's priceless reputation as no fence would dare touch it. Or so they reason.

So the stage is set when a nighttime prowler begins to poke around Hilltop House and provides the story with its first of four impossible situations. Toni is awakened in the middle of the night by sounds, creaking floorboards and shuffling footsteps as if someone is sneaking about in the hallway outside. When she goes to have a peek, Toni gasps when seeing the door of the empty room next to hers being closed and "caught a glimpse of a hand on the inside door knob drawing it shut." She rouses Eric from his bedroom without losing sight of the other door, but, upon entering the room together, they find it as empty and unoccupied as always – only exit is a window securely latched. So how did the intruder vanish from a locked and watched room as that person could not possibly have snicked over the catch after stepping out of the window. These nightly incidents come to the attention of Mrs. Pendlebury and that brings Detective Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith to Hilltop House as well as drawing another character into the case as Toni is not the only new arrival in town.

Matthew Strange is an Anglo-Tibetan mystic, or wizard, who has lived Tibet where he acquired "power and mastery of mind undreamt of in our materialistic hemisphere." Now he occupies a small, stone house practically next door of the Pendleburys and brought along six Chinese disciples. Who are known collectively as the Six Virtues. Strange becomes involved when the nighttime prowler returns to Hilltop House, but disturbs the sleeping Mrs. Pendlebury and flees from the house. The alarm is raised and the police constable posted nearby finds Eric and Strange standing not far from the body of the Pendlebury's gardener. Smith uncovers damning evidence at the scene incriminating Strange and arrests him for murder. So the string impossibilities all centering on the supposed supernatural abilities of Strange.

During the inquest, the magistrate tells Strange he will be given an opportunity to make a statement at the next hearing, but Strange tells the magistrate he'll be speaking to him at two o'clock the following morning at his house. While under lock, key and guard at the police station. That night, Strange apparently appears in the flesh to the magistrate and even forcibly restrains him. But when he makes his exit and a telephone goes out to the police station, the magistrate is informed Strange is still lying comfortably in his cell. A trick Strange repeats with the Chief Constable during which he tells him that the Bishop's Sword has been taken from its sealed, unbroken casket. When he calls the house to check, it's confirmed the casket is empty. Lastly, Strange impossibly disappears from inside the excavated cave, while the only entrance and exit was being observed. But how does it all stack up?

JJ, of The Invisible Event, noted in his review of Don't Go Out After Dark (1950) Berrow "really does deserve credit for how neatly he fits the unlikely into a small community, always knowing that base intent will be behind it somewhere." That's very much the case here as it begins as a small household thrown into turmoil by prowlers, murder and eastern mysticism, but The Bishop's Sword is arguably a better detective story than locked room mystery and the non-impossible plot-elements regrettably get a bit lost in the melee or miracles. For example, the missing, three-cornered murder weapon and the triangular indentation in the corner of the rose bed offer an intriguing little puzzle and how it linked up to another incident is quite clever and satisfying. Admittedly, the whole picture hinged on a big coincidence, but coincidences do happen from time to time as wires gets crossed. What holds the book back is actually the profusion of impossibilities, or rather, the lack of quality when it comes to the explanations.

First of all, the disappearing prowler from the watched and locked bedroom is the easiest one to solve. When the hand closed the door, I half-expected the situation would turn on a misunderstanding and Toni unknowingly caught a glimpse of the hand in a hallway mirror closing the door to another room. After all, she was new to the house and the incident happened in the middle of the night, but the subsequent investigation of the room left very little doubt the solution had to be one of the most routine locked room-tricks on record. The disappearance of the sword from its sealed casket poses as much of a challenge as the disappearing prowler once you learn how useless one of the security measures really is and the same goes for the vanishing act inside the cave, but enjoyed the scene in which Smith worked out the solution to the cave puzzle "on the floor of the living-room in his own home with a set of chessmen and ashtray" that represent the various characters and cave. While these three impossible problems were ridiculously easy to piece together, they were at least legitimate and proper locked room mysteries. Just not very challenging or impressive and recall the slightly underwhelming vanishings from Herbert Brean's Wilders Walk Away (1948). So had the story limited itself to those three disappearances, The Bishop's Sword would have emerged as a well-constructed, immensely entertaining and balanced second-string mystery novel that cleverly worked a trio of decent, but not especially challenging, locked room mysteries into the plot – which would have made for a perfectly serviceable and enjoyable detective story. What dragged The Bishop's Sword dangerously close to becoming a third-rate, pulp-style detective is the hackneyed answer to Strange's psychic projections while imprisoned. Berrow had enough genre awareness to know what he did is neither acceptable nor particular fair and to drag it out in 1948 is inexcusably stupid. It was inexcusably stupid and hopelessly out of date when Robert Brennan used it two decades previously in The Toledo Dagger (1927)!

And, yet, despite being slightly disgusted over the psychic projections and conflicted over the overall mixed quality of the plot, I really enjoyed The Bishop's Sword. Whatever shortcomings the complete picture has, Berrow definitely understood how to play a mysterious situation up to full effect and certainly was not inapt when it came to handling a complicated, multi-threaded plot full of moving parts that mostly played fair with the reader. The problem is that the story swings back and forth between the good, the bad and just plain average, which makes it hard to recommend it unhesitatingly to anyone except seasoned locked room and Golden Age mystery fans. So decide at your own discretion. Anyway, The Bishop's Sword was fun enough to move The Spaniard's Thumb (1949) to the top of my wishlist and plan to revisit The Footprints of Satan (1950) sometime later this year. So stay tuned! 

*: writers who have two or more multiple impossible crime (three or more) novels to their name appear to be a bit more common in the non-English speaking world and especially Japanese writers, ingenious as ever, have made the multiple impossible crime story their own. Their increasing availability is beginning to rub off on the Western locked room mysteries with such recent publications as James Scott Byrnside's The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire (2020), A. Carver's The Author is Dead (2022) and Jim Noy's The Red Death Murders (2022). Some have a distinctly Japanese flavoring to their storytelling, plots and characters.

Sorry for this messy, choppy and rambling post, but foolishly started writing it right after reading the first few chapters and became progressively more conflicted forcing me to rewrite and move around parts of it. I'll try to be somewhat coherent next time.


Memory Retrieval: Q.E.D. vol. 25-26 by Motohiro Katou

I noted last February in my review of Motohiro Katou's Q.E.D. vol. 21 and 22 that the plan going forward is to get as close as possible to vol. 50, which marks the end of the series, before 2024 rolls around in order to clear the way to begin exploring its sister series, C.M.B. – which I might like even more than Q.E.D. Some comments on previous reviews pointed out Q.E.D. vol. 41 and C.M.B. vol. 19 form a crossover meant to be reader together as a set. So before reaching vol. 41, I'll review C.M.B. vol. 1 and 2 as an introduction to the series before tackling Q.E.D. vol. 41 and C.M.B. vol. 19 together as a sort of crossover special. After that, I'll stretch out the last nine volumes by doing double-reviews comprising of one volume from each series. So, barring World War III or some other disaster, C.M.B. is coming to this blog in 2024. Now, onto the series at hand!

The first story from Q.E.D. vol. 25, "Outer Space Battle," centers around the three members of the Sakisaka Private High School Detective Club, Enari "Queen" Himeko, Nagaie "Holmes" Koroku and Morita "Mulder" Orisato. Those three bumbling, wannabee detectives have been plaguing Sou Touma and Kana Mizuhara since vol. 18, but they're usually good for a fun, lighthearted story and "Outer Space Battle" is no exception. This time, the already troubled high school club sorely needs additional members to be officially recognized as a school club. Suddenly, as if by magic, a group of four students come knocking eager to become club members and bringing the number up seven. Enough to be recognized.

However, they never participated in club activities and began to bring their own stuff into the club room, but then they played a dirty trick on them when they let them signed a request letter for the club's promotion. Suspiciously, they insist the three sign it with a marker instead of a ballpoint pen. Not long thereafter, the three discover they signed their names to three resignation letters and, to add injury to insult, they got kicked out of their own club room and Enari's mystery novel got deleted from the club computer – she vows to make the usurpers bend the knee. But how did they turn the request letters into resignation? So they turned Sou Touma and Kana Mizuhara to help them get even ("...and of course, those two will help us out"). Touma makes short work of the signature trick, but ousting the four and getting the club room back is going to be a lot trickier. What they concoct is basically an alien invasion to exploit the believe of one of them in UFOs and government cover-ups. Touma naturally has more practical reason to go along with this harebrained scheme and finds a way to get the club room back, but not for any friendly, altruistic motivations. Touma explains to Mizuhara "those three need to be kept in that room."

So, yeah, "Outer Space Battle" is pretty much high school students conning each other to get possession of a club room, which is as preposterous and fun as it sounds. Interestingly, the scenes with the one-eyed alien demonstrating its advanced weaponry (technically) belongs to that ultra rare subcategory of the locked room and impossible crime genre, "Impossible Technology." It recalls the impossibilities involving ray guns and flying saucers from Mack Reynolds' The Case of the Little Green Men (1951).

The second story from vol. 25, "Parallel," is another demonstration how perfectly Q.E.D. can tiptoe across that impossibly slippery tightrope between the traditional and outright experimental. The body of an elderly man, "shot in the back," is discovered inside an irrigation pipe and circumstances indicate the bullet came from the direction of a holiday villa. Since the holiday season is over, there are only three people staying there at the moment, but these men are not your common, garden variety suspects. They are (ex) cabinet (vice) ministers and not the type of people you can just interrogate without evidence. The police identify the victim as a university chancellor, Norizuku Ochi, who, fifteen years previously, headed the Synchrotron Project ("...a kind of particle accelerator") and three politicians were deeply involved or attached to the project – before it got unceremoniously canceled due to budget constraints. Touma eventually enters the case when someone he knows from his MIT days, Shigeyuki Sudou, is interviewed as he used to be Ochi's lab assistant. So begins digging up everything he can find on the Synchrotron Project.

"Parallel" is a weirder detective story than it sounds. The first murder has a clever angle with a hidden alibi and the second-half has two of the politicians poisoned in a cafeteria, but it's neither the who nor how that matters here. It's the murderer's motivation, mindset and personal convictions, which is strangely perched on supersymmetric string theory and parallel worlds. A multiverse where "there is a world where humanity does not exist" and "a world where there is no war" as well as a world where a certain person never died ("I'm certain it does... somewhere..."). Fittingly, the tragic conclusion is a little bleak with the final two panels unsuccessfully trying to end the story on a somewhat brighter note. I've remarked before parallel universes and alternate timelines are an untapped reservoir of storytelling and plotting potential. "Parallel" merely touched upon its possible existence to elevate an otherwise average, typical Japanese detective story. Q.E.D. simply is the detective series for 21st century.

The first story from vol. 26, "Summer Time Capsule," appears to be a fairly minor character-arc focusing this time on Kana Mizuhara, but it really is a great story playing on the theme of faulty memories and time passing by. During construction work near the train station, construction workers a time capsule with an inscription on the lid, "the TREASURE of Kana Mizuhara CLASS 3-2." Mizuhara recollection of her primary school days have become hazy ("is it really mine?") and hardly recognizes the childhood mementos inside. It's her friends who need to remind her about the marble and a picture of pop star, but there are two other items that pose an even bigger mystery. Firstly, there's an old, sun-faded baseball, but Mizuhara only began playing baseball in high school without even liking it. Secondly, there's a group photograph taken during a summer holiday and includes a kid nobody recognizes or remembers. Something about Summer that has been forgotten and Mizuhara gets the feeling she might have done something bad ("...maybe you took it from someone by force..."). Or did she? Touma helps his friends get to the bottom of what happened that summer and uncover a cleverly hidden, fairly minor crime along the way, but what really matters in this story is how destructive time can be to a person as you can't possibly recall every single second of your life ("I wonder if there will come a time when I forget about this moment as well"). Great stuff!

The second and last story from vol. 26, "Accomplice," is an inversion of both the locked room mystery and inverted detective story. The story begins with Inspector Mizuhara taking his wife and daughter to a French restaurant, Chemin, to celebrate winning some money in the lottery. So, as to be expected, the restaurant becomes the scene of a murder before the Mizuharas can reach dessert. The victim is the director of Ohara Finance, Hidetsugu Ohara, who has a stake in the restaurant and chef, Yosuke Murase, confesses to have stabbed Ohara, but refuses to tell how he did it. Ohara was discovered inside the locked, windowless storage room with a door fitting so tightly in its frame there's no gap beneath the door "even for a piece of string to go through." The facts point out that "until the body was found, nobody had the key." So how did Murase open the door without the key? Inspector Mizuhara suspects he might have had an accomplice, but the clock is ticking. Since there's a confession, the police has to file a report, but, as the report is incomplete, the time limit for arrest might expire.

Touma agrees with Inspector Mizuhara and demonstrates how, in this case, " the identity of the accomplice will be the key to solve the mystery." A pretty good solution considering the locked room-trick and inverted mystery format can both be considered basic in nature, but Motohiro Katou pulled them inside out and stitched them together to create something a little different. And it worked!

So these were two excellent, absolutely rock solid volumes comprising of four wildly varied stories covering everything from locked room murders and high school shenanigans to flirting with parallel realities and memory archaeology. These experiments so often work in this series, because it uses the detective story's long and storied history as the foundation to erect a new kind of detective story for a new century. You can find four of its success stories in these two volumes!


House of Fear (1916) by Wadsworth Camp

Charles Wadsworth Camp is best remembered today as the father of author Madeleine L'Engle, but ink ran through the family's blood as Camp himself wrote detective novels, thrillers, books of military interest and short stories – some of which were turned into movies during the 1920s. Camp wrote his most successful, best-known detective novels when the Great War temporarily stemmed the flow of the genre and gives Camp the distinction of being one of the few mystery writers from the period 1914-18. More importantly, Robert Adey listed two of Camp's WWI era mysteries in Locked Room Murders (1991).

Back in 2014, I reviewed The Abandoned Room (1917) that reads like an ancestor of Hake Talbot abounding with ghostly impossibilities inside locked rooms or corpses ceasing to be death upon being touched as the void between the living and dead slowly appeared to dissolve. What held it back in the end as a genre classic of those pre-GAD years is that the plot is shackled to the cliches and gimmicks of a bygone era. While very well, evocatively written and convincingly put to use, The Abandoned Room obviously lacked the rigor and ingenuity the genre would rapidly develop over the next decade or two. Nevertheless, The Abandoned Room is better written than most detective novels of the period and can see how it could have potentially ignited the imagination of a very young John Dickson Carr. So that second locked room mystery never quite left my wishlist.

Camp's House of Four (1916), alternatively published under its 1928 movie title The Last Warning, has an entry in Locked Room Murders describing a whole raft of different impossibilities. There are inexplicable deaths, mysterious vanishings, invisible entities and "many other impossible and near impossible happenings." Such as telephone calls from beyond the grave and the furtive pattering of a ghost cat. House of Fear seems to follow the impossible crime tradition of early works like L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace's A Master of Mysteries (1898) or some of the more rational tales from William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki, the Ghost Finder (1913). Stories that use the expose and subsequent debunking of apparently supernatural occurrences to frame an impossible crime or locked room mystery, which often turn on obscure, poorly understood natural phenomena, scientific knowledge or mechanical gadgets – which can come across as crude and dated in the 21st century. While the scientific detective story survived, the naturalistic, turn-of-the-century impossible crime story in which scientific-minded ghost hunters attempt to find a rational explanation to seemingly supernatural events disappeared as the 1920s rolled around.

It seems like Camp wanted to return to those early, turn-of-the-century stories. Plot-wise, anyway, because the detective and gloomy backdrop makes House of Fear one of the earliest theatrical mystery novels on record. Arthur McHugh, "an aggressive, ambitious Irishman," had "fought his way from the headquarters detective force to a managerial throne from which he wielded a supreme power over many actors and actresses and plays." So not an investigator of the paranormal, but an ex-policeman who became a Broadway theatrical manager.

Arthur McHugh conceived of the brilliant idea to stage a revival of a four decades old play, "Coward's Fare," which ended tragically when famous actor and director Bertrand Woodford died on stage. During an impassioned scene, the limping Woodford toppled to the stage, lain still and never got up to receive the adoration and applause of the audience. Disturbingly, the black cat who was Woodford's constant companion, "rushed from the wings and curled itself on the motionless body" where "it had fought and scratched tigerishly when anxious hands had tried to snatch it off." Ever since, the Woodford Theater gained a haunting reputation and became "a tradition in the profession, an evil one, a menace, in short, for the superstitious." So why not resurrect the play in exactly the same place as where it died forty years ago? But actors can be a superstitious lot. McHugh has hands full with keeping the rehearsals goings, hunting ghosts and playing detective when Bertrand Woodford begins to make his presence felt throughout the old theater. The inexplicable incidents come thick and fast.

The first incident takes place when they go to look over the dark, empty and decaying theater, in which "the past seemed to have gathered with a heavy and tangible melancholy," when the lights suddenly go dark and those present hear the dragging footsteps across the stage of one who limped – tailed by "furtive pattering like the noiseless pursuit of a cat." The disembodied, dragging footsteps and the unaccountable pattering reminiscent of a cat stalk the characters throughout the story. Dolly Timken, who also played with Woodford forty years ago, swears she can feel the presence of a cat either on stage or roaming around the theater, but nobody has seen a cat. Things get far more serious than just getting scared in the dark.

A part of the ghost stories surrounding the old theater that "Woodford dead, as jealously as Woodford alive, would permit no man to play his part." The actor who played Woodford's part, Carlton, is not immune to the stories and claims to have received mysterious "warnings from the airs," which later turn out to have been threatening phone calls from the long-dead actor ("Your phone has not been rung since noon. It could not have been rung"). During the first rehearsal, Carlton simply drops dead "the very point, the very line at which Woodford forty years ago had died." A doctor and subsequent autopsy reveal his heart simply stopped without any apparent reason. So now McHugh has a death that could potentially be murder on his hands as well as having to deal with scared actors, frightened stagehands and the reclusive, misery owner of the theater who wants to cancel the lease when the papers get a hold of the story ("Mysterious Death in City's Oldest Theater"). All the while, the paranormal activity continue with barely a pause.

The most notable of these incidents is when the playwright who modernized to play, Richard Quaile, is asked by McHugh to hold a nighttime vigil inside the empty and locked theater. Right on cue, the ghostly footsteps return closely followed followed by the purring of a cat, but this time, the sound takes on the shape of a "growing splotch of unnatural radiance" stalking down a passageway. Quaile shoots at the light in the passageway ("...the bullet altered nothing"), before it vanished from a locked theater without a trace. The place is subsequently searched (twice) in the presence of a policeman, but nobody is found hiding inside. This is only about half of all the impossible and quasi-impossible situations. A door is locked and unlocked with nobody inside. The ghost of the dead actor and his cat appear on a photograph taken to be used as a promotional poster and there's a fascinating episode of lost time. The actor who replaced Carlton in the play, Tyler Wilkins, had left his apartment to go to the dress rehearsal and had, "as far as he knew, come straight, nevertheless had taken an hour and a half to complete the twenty-minute journey" – experiencing that hour and a half as twenty minutes ("that hour's gone out of my life"). I was quite impressed at both the pace and rate these impossible and quasi-impossible began to pile up as well as their overall quality and consistency comparable to Hake Talbot's Rim of the Pit (1944) or Horatio Winslow and Leslie Quirk's Into Thin Air (1928/29). It certainly showed more ingenuity than you would expect to find in a mystery novel from the mid-1910s.

Now, that being said, House of Fear is not completely free of some hoary, time-worn trickery and tropes that belonged to a bygone era, but the death of Carlton during the rehearsal has a glimmer of the coming Golden Age. I expected from the emphasis put on (ROT13) gur pnaqyrfgvpx va gur cynl naq gur yvar “V bayl fhttrfg gung ryrpgevpvgl nf n zrqvhz sbe fcvevghny pbzzhavpngvba vf jbegu n tbbq qrny bs gubhtu” that the murder was accomplished by (ROT13) ryrp-gevpx-vgl, but Camp provided a very different solution to the actor's inexplicable demise. I was pleasantly surprised as it was linked to the problem of the lost hour from which I expected nothing more than clocks being manipulated. So on the account of those two impossible problems alone, the book is a noteworthy, early impossible crime novel. While the other impossibilities and locked room tend to be a much lesser, sometimes poorly dated quality, they serve their purpose as camouflage to "Scooby Doo" a highly conventional, 1930s style American detective story. I was working along the lines of Gaston Leroux's Le fantôme de l'opéra (The Phantom of the Opera, 1909) and Christopher Fowler's Full Dark House (2003) trying to spot a missing character from the past who could have been secretly living in the theater for the past forty years. It took a while for the penny to drop and began to grasp what could be behind the haunting activity. Admittedly, not everything is done or pulled off with same rigor and sportsmanship as your average Golden Age mystery, but more than you can hope to expect from a detective story published in 1916.

Something else the ghostly impossibilities and locked rooms effectively covered up is any reference to the war raging on in Europe at the time. The book appeared a year before America officially entered the conflict to turn it into a full-blown World War. I'm probably giving too much weight to this observation, but House of Fear breaths nostalgia-flavored escapism and interestingly contrasted with how the dark, melancholic past appeared to continuously reject the present like the theater being described as having "an air of asking to be left alone in its decay" or Woodford's ghost warning over the telephone to keep away – saying "I prefer to play my parts to empty seats." So it probably was not written with the intention to distract readers from the war, but it would certainly serve that purpose and thought it deserved a mention as it, technically, a wartime mystery novel.

So, cutting another overlong review short, Camp's House of Fear is a dramatically underrated mystery novel that falls between the Doylean era of the genre and the then coming Golden Age. I anticipated to find little more than a very well written, evocative, but somewhat dated, curiosity littering that particular period of the genre, but got so much more out of it than a mere curio. Purely as a locked room mystery, it's not tied with both hands to the past and dared to try something new and fresh at the time. On top of that, House of Fear is a pretty decent detective story that could very well be the granddaddy of the ever popular theatrical mystery novel. So there's much here for to recommend and for you to rediscover!


The Name is Malone (1958) by Craig Rice

Craig Rice's The Name is Malone (1958) is together with The People vs. Withers and Malone (1963) and Murder, Mystery and Malone (2002) three, posthumously published short story collections starring the hard drinking, shop soiled Chicago criminal attorney, John J. Malone – who has to do without the company of Jake Justus and Helene Brand in his short story outings. Stuart Palmer's Miss Hildegarde Withers replaced Malone's troublesome friends in the above mentioned collection of crossover stories, but most of the short stories tend to be solo cases for the Chicago attorney. So they also tend to be less screwbally than the novels and the stories collected in The Name in Malone, while having comedic elements, are more in line with the hardboiled, alcohol fueled private eye fiction of those days with plots.

The first story from The Name is Malone is the curiously and tantalizingly-titled "The Murder of Mr. Malone," which appeared to have been originally published in 1952 or '53, but have been unable to find out in which magazine publication. But it was first collected here. It has that odd touch of surrealism that runs through a lot of Rice's detective fiction. Malone is hired by Ed Cable to investigate the death of his aunt, Eva Cable, who died from natural causes and left behind one of those "screwy wills." Eva left her entire fortune to the daughter of an old friend, Mici Faulkner, which left the young woman "a decidedly astonished heiress." Ed Cable ordered Malone to investigate the will and the cause of death, but his investigation showed Eva died of natural causes and the will to be genuine. But when Malone is stuck at a Los Angeles airport ("...still fogged down"), the case begins to twist and turn in unexpected ways. Malone's luggage and ticket gets mixed up with those of the "friendly stranger" he met at the airport cocktail bar and unknowingly travels under the stranger's name, J.J. McNabb. When he finally lands, Malone is greeted by newspaper headlines screaming, "JOHN J. MALONE, CHICAGO ATTORNEY, FOUND MURDERED ON PLANE." So he continues digging into the problem under the dead man's name, which turns out to have an interesting variation on murder hinging on a motive that's not a motive.

So good, tangled and sometimes humorous opening story showing Rice belonged to that small, select group of mystery writers who could write comedic mysteries that can be genuinely funny. For example, Malone arranges for the body of "Malone" to be be transported to funeral parlor of his friend, Rico di Angelo, who tells Malone that "ever since your body arrived, I have been expecting to hear from you" – "tell me, Malone, is it for your life insurance?" Yes, Malone enjoys quite a prestine reputation in Chicago. Lastly, I should note the story has a slightly bigger role for Malone's secretary, Maggie, who even gets herself arrested off-page for her employer's murder. It sometimes felt like Rice was nodding and winking towards Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason and Della Street.

There is, however, nothing to laugh about in the second story, "The Tears of Evil," culled from the March, 1953, issue of Manhunt. A dark, grim tale of crime rather than a detective story where the question is not so much whodunit but why. Malone attends the wedding anniversary of two close friends, George and Kathy Weston, whom, of all the people he knew, they "were two of the ones he'd liked the best." During the party, George staggers towards Malone with the expression of "a punch-drunk prize-fighter" and tells him Kathy is dead. Murdered. George found her naked lying on the bedroom floor with a broken neck. There were about seven other people in the house and one of them, curiously enough, served time for "assault and rape" and is currently out on parole. Not a character you often find in the works of Golden Age mystery writers. But this is not a whodunit. The real murderer is pretty obvious and the question becomes why it was done, which is where the story falls to pieces. Firstly, this is one of the shortest stories in the collection and can only tell you these people are important to Malone ("If Kathy was dead, then a little part of him had died too"). Not show you. So the story completely misses the emotion punch it tried to deliver. Secondly, there's not a single clue to the motive and leaves a not unimportant detail unexplained. I can see why it was included, but surely, there must have been better, uncollected stories in the series?

The third story is a locked room mystery, of sorts, but already discussed "His Heart Could Break" (1943) not so long ago as part of the anthology Golden Age Locked Room Mysteries (2022). So I'll be skipping that one here. 

"Goodbye Forever," originally published in the December, 1951, issue Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, which is a virtually unknown impossible crime story in the tradition of G.K. Chesterton, John Dickson Carr and Edward D. Hoch – neither listed in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) nor Brian Skupin's Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019). Larry Lee, "handsome young orchestra leader" and "America's Number One glamor boy," who has a new song to feature on that night's radio broadcast. Lee worked up a special, last-minute arrangement using the first four notes from a cursed song, Tosti's Good-bye Forever. A prevailing, stupid superstition among musicians that any part of the song can never be played or broadcast without some terrible disaster happening immediately. Since it was a last-minute arrangement, it was impossible to rehearse and now Lee is worried about the nervous, highly superstitious clarinet players, Art Sample, because those four notes were "so skillfully hidden in the orchestration that no one would know what he was playing," until he had played it. So he asks Malone to come along to the radio studio as legal insurance in case something would happen.

Malone agrees to come along to the radio studio, but wonders whether it's a gag or publicity stunt cooked up by Lee's press-agent. But when the band played the four notes, Art Sample slowly crumpled to the floor in front of Malone's eyes. A medical examination reveals he had been killed with a quick acting poison, aconite, but "he didn't eat or drink anything, or even smoke, just before he died." No, the poison was not on the reed of his clarinet. So an impossible poisoning and the seasoned, borderline obsessed impossible crime fans will likely spot the method and murderer, before the vital clue is given. But normal people have a shot at solving it by spotting that tell-all clue. A very decent, very conventional impossible crime story that as Mike Grost observes "fits into the paradigms of John Dickson Carr's Locked Room Lecture" and reads like an ancestor of Hoch's locked room stories. This could just as easily have been the plot for a Simon Ark or Dr. Hawthorne story. Sure, "Goodbye Forever" is not a blistering original impossible crime mystery, but quite enjoyed it as a whole and really deserves to be a bit better known. 

"And the Birds Still Sing" was first published in the December, 1952, issue of EQMM and is best described as an imaginative flight of fancy with Rice's take on the multiple, false-solutions. Malone has a client dropped into his lap out of nowhere. Mona Trent, an ex-showgirl, needs his help and asks the lawyer to come to her apartment the next morning to discuss the matter in detail. But when he arrives the next morning, Malone finds Mona Trent sitting in a big chair near the window with "a neat little bullet hole in her forehead." She had been killed with a rifle shot. What follows is a carousal ride as Malone goes from client to client as he goes through multiple, different solutions involving the victim's jealous ex-boss, an even more jealous admirer and a woman who took a shot at the chirping morning birds. A fantastic story reminiscent of the best from Ellery Queen with its multiple, false-solutions and the real solution hinging on space, time and bits of seemingly trivial information ("Maggie, where can I find an Almanac?"). A highlight from this collection! 

"He Never Went Home," originally published in the March, 1957, issue Manhunt, is another unusually structured, mostly well-done detective story opening with Susie Snyder waking up in her apartment and finding the body of a stranger sprawled on her davenport – a knife sticking out of his chest. Whoever tried to frame Susie counted on her "flying into fits" and "coming unglued generally," but she kept calm and called Malone. Malone immediately goes to work on covering up anything that could get her into trouble, but first arranges a fake alibi before tampering with the evidence inside the apartment. But then he finds himself in a sticky situation when an anonymous tip to the police brings Captain Dan von Flanagan and Detective Lieutenent Klutchetsky, of the Homicide Squad, to the apartment. The strength of this story is definitely in how far Malone is willing to go to protect a client and the brilliantly posed, slightly surrealistic problem posed by the murder weapon later on in the investigation. It also provides a clue to the murderer's identity, which is not nearly as good or inventive as other elements. Great storytelling with a somewhat uneven plot that has moments of inspiration. 

"Life Can Be Horrible" comes from the September, 1953, issue of Manhunt and is possibly unique in the history of the genre as well as occupying a special in the series, but both for vastly different reasons. Firstly, the story gives a bigger role to a family of recurring characters headed by Joe the Angel, of Joe the Angel's City Hall Bar, where Malone usually celebrates his victories in court, drowns his sorrows or tries to pry a quick hundred-buck loan from Joe. Joe the Angel sends his two young nephews, Eddie and Frankie di Angelo, to Malone as they themselves in potentially a lot of trouble. Eddie and Frankie were approached by a big, pretty lady who told them her ex-husband was holding onto ten thousand dollars in thousand dollar bills that belonged to her. She offered the boys a cut of the money, if they agreed to get it and provided them with instructions ("sap him"). But what they find was a body and no money! Secondly, Malone is receives another client, "a king-sized Amazon," named Nadine Sapphire who's "a lady wrestler." Nadine Sapphire tells Malone the same story about a husband holding on to ten thousand dollars and Malone accompanies her to the secluded house expecting to help discover the body, but "now the body was gone and the money was here." And then Rico di Angelo calls Malone to tell that somebody had left a body in his funeral parlor! A pity you really can't solve what actually happened as some of the relevant information does not surface until Malone attends a wrestling event to watch Nadine Sapphire wrestle Daphne Flowers ("a combination of ballet and sheer mayhem"). That brings us to what this story a rarity and possibly one-of-a-kind.

First of all, I'm not American. So might have missed something culturally, but professional wrestling always struck me as more American than Teddy Roosevelt, MacDonalds and Bald Eagles mating to a gunfire rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. You would think the world of professional wrestling with its loud, colorful and clashing personalities, real and fake, would have provided fertile ground for mystery and thriller writer alike for the past 100 years, but appears to be practically untouched – only example being Rice's "Life Can Be Horrible." Sports mysteries have a long history to the point where you can call it a sub-genre or sub-category of the genre with its own fans and collectors. You can find sports mysteries incorporating murder in almost every sport imaginable, but not professional wrestler and their absence in the American detective story and pulps is simply baffling. I always understood it was pretty big in America and quite important during the early days of television, but, whenever a ring is involved in a sports mystery, it usually is a boxing ring (e.g. John V. Turner's Death Must Have Laughed, 1932). So why did it never, in all those decades, provided a backdrop or character for more than one detective story or novel? It seems like an untapped reservoir of potential for creative mystery writers to play around in. Just think of all the bizarre motives and potential tricks that could spring forth from that strange, back then closed world of wrestling. Anyway, moving on!

Regrettably, the last three stories are not anywhere near as good as the previous seven stories and partly mired in the territory of the pulp-thriller, which was not for the best here. 

"Good-bye, Good-bye" (1946) started captivating with a very well-done, dizzying scene in which a young woman is clinging to the ledge twenty-two stories above the pavement. Malone manages to get her inside and learns she has a history of attempted suicides, but she claims someone tried to kill her. The story definitely has its moments, but the ending turned on a curious, complicated will and inheritance that felt a little trite. "The Bad Luck Murders" (1943) is another story that began very promising as Malone tries to help a client find her criminal, no good brother among the lost youth and homeless men who roam the city shelters and two-bit flop houses. Only thing that adds any interest to the story as Malone uncovers a ridiculous, needlessly complicated and risky murder plot. That's coming from the mouth of someone who fanboys all over impossible crime, dying messages and unbreakable alibis! "The End of Fear' (1953) begins as a chase thriller as a rich heiress apparently killed two men and went on the run "carrying a briefcase full of narcotics," but the echoing gunshot immediately clues you which direction the story is heading once Malone enters the picture halfway through. Not one of Rice's best or most inspired detective stories and only notable for Helene making an appearance.

It's a pity the last three stories dragged down the overall quality of The Name is Malone, because the seven stories preceding them were great examples of Rice's ability to combine complex plot patterns with vivid, borderline surrealistic storytelling to create her own unique brand of detective fiction. Some worked slightly better than others and personally liked the more tightly-plotted, fairly-clued stories like "His Heart Could Break," "Goodbye Forever" and "And the Birds Still Sing," but, on a whole, the collection was a pleasant reminder why John J. Malone is my favorite dodgy lawyer-detective. Definitely recommended with the only caveat being that fans who know Malone primarily from his novel-length outings will miss the all-out, boozy madcap antics, screwball comedy and the general pell-mell. There's still some of that in the short stories, but done with a bit of restraint... except for the excessive drinking.


Look Upon the Prisoner: "Who Killed Matthew Corbin?" (1939/40) by John Dickson Carr

A few years ago, Crippen & Landru published a collection of John Dickson Carr's manuscripts of his obscure, long-lost radio series, The Island of Coffins and Other Mysteries from the Casebook of Cabin B-13 (2021), which gathered twenty-some radio-plays featuring his forgotten detective, Dr. John Fabian – a ship doctor aboard the luxury liner the Maurevania. A fascinating collection with such gems as "The Street of the Seven Daggers" and plays like "The Blind-Folded Knife Thrower" drew back the curtain a bit on some of his post-1940s novels. Carr repurposed a trick or two from his even then long-forgotten radio-plays and it explained why The Dead Man's Knock (1958) and In Spite of Thunder (1960) read like his last hurrahs as a locked room mystery novelist.

I think Carr's work in radio is as unfairly overlooked and underappreciated as his pioneering historical mysteries. I always wanted to take a look at his first foray into radio-plays, which always sounded like a potentially first-rate courtroom drama and whodunit.

In 1939, Carr invited BBC broadcaster, director and mystery writer, Val Gielgud, to attend a meeting of the Detection Club as his guest. At the time, the drama department at the BBC had been handed an idea from an actor for a radio-serial and contest entitled "Consider Your Verdict." Carr was commissioned to turn the idea into a three-part script, which underwent numerous changes, different titles and the idea to make the serial a contest was "dropped as too cumbersome" – until the final version emerged retitled "Who Killed Matthew Corbin?" The radio-play originally aired in three parts on December 27, 1939 and January 7 and 14, 1940. Regrettably, no recording survived of the original broadcast survived, but Carr reworked elements from "Who Killed Matthew Corbin?" into radio-plays he wrote for Suspense ("The Hangman Won't Wait," 1943) and Appointment with Fear ("The Clock Strikes Eight," 1944). However, I was always given to understand "Who Killed Matthew Corbin?" is the superior version and, while no recordings survive, the script was finally published for the first time in Fell and Foul Play (1991).

So being familiar with the other two versions, it was not difficult to separate the genuine clues from the red herrings and anticipate the correct solution, but even then Carr somehow pulled out a small surprise in the end. "Who Killed Matthew Corbin?" is pretty much Carr pulling an Agatha Christie.

The premise of "Who Killed Matthew Corbin?" is a three-part BBC interview with the famous detective, Dr. Gideon Fell, who's "going to tell us the truth about the murder of Matthew Corbin." Dr. Fell tells the interviewer is going to tell what he believes to be the truth as he has "the Christian humility to imagine that I may be wrong," before uttering the kind of paradox you'd expect coming from the mouth of G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown. Dr. Fell drops a bombshell by stating that everybody in the Corbin case had it wrong ("The judge was wrong. The jury was wrong. The prosecution was wrong. The defense was wrong"). The story than jumps several years back in time to tell how John Corbin returned to his ancestral home, in Hampstead, after making his own fortune in South Africa. And he brought along a fiancée.

John Corbin had been away for two years and met Mary Stevenson on the ship coming home ("well, we got engaged"). So he decided to drop by his two older brothers, Arnold and Matthew, and their cousin, Helen Gates. John had always been "the fool of a brilliant family" as both his brothers are professors and credits their cousin with being cleverer than himself. So, naturally, he's eager to return to his family as a successful man engaged to be married and tells Mary about them on the car ride to the house. Such as Matthew abandoning his career as a barrister when he successfully defended a woman who had been accused of murder, but "afterwards she smiled sweetly" and "admitted she was guilty after all." They arrive at the house in the middle of a thunderstorm, but John had lost his key to the front door and went to the back to rouse his brother in the study. When he gets to the French windows, John witnesses his brother being ordered to raise his hands by someone standing out of sight in the door to the hall. But despite following orders, this unknown person shot Matthew through the heart. So who shot Matthew Corbin?

The first part ends with Dr. Fell telling the interviewer that four person gave testimony in the murder of Matthew Corbin, John Corbin, Arnold Corbin, Helen Gates and Mary Stevenson, but "one of these persons was telling a pack of lies" and drew attention to "the most significant bit of evidence" – namely that the victim was wearing a waistcoat. An enigmatic hint in the light of Dr. Fell's previous comment about everybody being wrong and the second part of the story. Mary Stevenson is arrested and put on trial for the murder of Matthew Corbin, because she was identified as the woman Corbin had successfully defended and the prosecutor argues the victim posed "a stumbling-block in the prisoner's projected marriage to Mr. John Corbin" as he could identify her as his former client. The defense "ridiculed and trampled on their evidence," which ends with the jury returning their shocking verdict. A great piece of courtroom drama! But who really killed Matthew Corbin? That answer is given in the third, final part of the play and its everything you expect from one of the best mystery writers who at the time was at the top of his game.

Even though I have read the other two versions of the stories and could anticipate practically the entire ending, I still marveled at how masterly Carr diffused suspicion among less than a handful of characters. Some might consider the banquet of red herrings is a little too rich and hearty, but the vital, tell-tale clues pointing straight to the truth are all there in plain sight. From never letting the reader forget about the importance of the victim's waistcoat to the defense's view on the prosecution's evidence ("...though he did not realize what it meant"). It's all there and the ending struck impressed me as a dark re-imagining of Agatha Christie with a twist (SPOILER/ROT13: n sniberq gebcr bs Puevfgvr vf ybiref jub perngr nyvovf sbe rnpu bgure, ohg Pnee hfrq vg gb cebivqr gur zheqrere jvgu n fpncrtbng naq na nyvov fb vapbagrfgnoyr (v.r. cergraqvat gb gur jvgarff gb gur zheqre), vg'f abg gerngrq be rira erpbtavmrq nf na nyvov). Only a correct interpretation of the facts will shot it for the pack of lies it really is. There was an extra little surprise regarding the murderer's identity I did not see coming, but it fitted the story perfectly.

I can see why "Who Killed Matthew Corbin?" was so well received at the time. Very few wrote a better detective story than Carr and wrote "Who Killed Matthew Corbin?" when he was at the top of his game, which must been a real treat to listeners already familiar with his novels and Dr. Gideon Fell. It must have been like what it would be today, if they made a proper, faithful TV/movie adaptation of The Three Coffins (1935) or Till Death Do Us Part (1944) today. So it's unfortunate that no recordings of the original broadcast survive, but glad to have finally been able to read the script. Highly recommended! 

Note for the curious: I plan to get to one of Carr's supposedly bad mysteries, like Scandal at High Chimneys (1959) and Papa Là-bas (1968), to put some restraints on the repetitive fanboying over his work.


Black Run (2021) by D.L. Marshall

D.L. Marshall's Anthrax Island (2021) was one of last year's standouts, a hybridization of the action thriller, espionage and the classically-styled detective story, which introduced his lead-character, John Tyler – a sort of black opts mercenary. Anthrax Island takes him to Gruinard Island where experiments were carried out to weaponize anthrax spores during the Second World War that had rendered the island inhospitable for humans and animals alike. Only pocket of habitability is a sealed research outpost. A small cluster of ten, bright orange cabins on stilts forming a U shape and connected by narrow, plastic tunnels. Tyler is dispatched to the island to help the scientific research team trapped inside the base, but claustrophobic setting and post-apocalyptic aesthetics soon become the backdrop for a good, old-fashioned locked room murder.

Normally, the book cover of Anthrax Island would have been enough to never give the book or author a second glance as it screamed out everything that makes the modern thriller so unappealing to me. I would never haven given it a shot, if Steve Barge had not praised it as "one of the best modern mysteries" and picked it as his 2021 Book of the Year. Toss in an impossible crime and you grabbed my attention. And he was not wrong. Marshall wrote an immersive thriller that worked equally well as a locked room mystery and the quarantined setting, deadly contagion and even a Russian treat makes it the mystery-thriller encapsulating the early 2020s. I'm sure genre historians of the future will have a field day with Marshall's Anthrax Island. So it easily secured a place on this blog's yearly roundup of 2022 as well as an eventual place on "The Updated Mammoth List of My Favorite Tales of Locked Room Murders & Impossible Crimes." Whenever I'll get around to updating it again.

Steve also reviewed the John Tyler novel, Black Run (2021), praising it as an "absolute top-draw twisty thriller" and very exciting read, but admitted the locked room ("...the room is very, very locked") murder "seemed more of an afterthought" – which is not the reason why I hesitated to immediately pick it up. I like detective stories that use a strong, evocative and perhaps even unique settings dripping with atmosphere to full effect. Black Run has a pretty tall wave to climb in order to live up to its predecessor. Honestly, I was a little skeptical if this second title could pull it off. But was I right? Well, let's find out!

Marshall's Black Run reads like a novelization of a bullet pumping, blood spurting 1980s style action movie switches back and forth between different timelines of the same story.

Firstly, John Tyler is hired to extract (i.e. kidnap) a target ("a traitorous, murdering scumbag") from the French Alps and transport him back to England, but the target surrounds himself with armed bodyguards. These interspersed chapters tell the story of how Tyler eventually captures the target and countdown to the current, second-half of the story ("Twelve days previously," "Eleven days previously," etc). Secondly, the second-half of the story concerns with the transportation of the target to England and the troublesome, blood-drenched voyage to reach that safe harbor. Tyler goes to an old contact, Captain Miller, who smuggles "pretty much anything else UPS won't carry" on his old, rusty Cold War era transport ship. Tiburon is undeniably a great setting. A dark, grimy old ship with passageways of "damp, dimly lit tunnels of pipes and metal" and "faded Nineties neon paint ran down the walls" like "a ghost train of badly painted Simpsons characters and Sharpied quotes in German" – strange, otherworldly looking "in the flickering light and red emergency lighting." Just one problem: Captain Miller does not smuggle people. So when the crew of modern-day pirates discover Tyler's team brought a captive aboard and somebody issues a one million euro bounty on their “cargo,” the proverbial shit starts hitting the fan... hard. The bodies begin to drop fast and hard in both narratives, but the one of importance is the murder of Tyler prisoner under seemingly impossible circumstances.

Tyler stowed away his prisoner in the old center tank, tied to a chair and a sack over his head, right beneath his cabin. The hatch is the only entrance to the sealed tomb below and covered by a bed, which had to be moved aside to open the hatch. Tyler also put a smartwatch on the prisoner to monitor his heartbeat, but, when he notices on his app that the prisoner's heartbeat has flatlined, he goes inside the sealed room. And finds a body with a knife sticking out of his chest! The data from the smartwatch eventually hands him incontestable proof someone had stabbed his prisoner while he "was lying across the only entrance."

A good, neatly posed locked room problem and liked how it incorporated the evidence of the smartwatch and heartbeat monitor, but the solution to how it was done is immediately obvious. This is the kind of locked room-trick that once you know how it was done, you'll know who did it and probably why as there's only way to do it under the given circumstances. And the main principle behind the trick is almost as old as the genre itself. Not so long ago, I reviewed a mystery with a very similar locked room setup and trick. However, it's something that will only somewhat bother people on deeply entrenched on this side of the fandom rather than those who want to read a nail-biting, action packed thriller. So probably a good decision to treat the locked room here as a minor side-puzzle as it would not have carried the plot. I still appreciated the locked room mystery got to play a small part in what is essentially a hard thriller. Even if the bit part is that of a simple stowaway.

At this point, I began to fear there was nothing left to discuss as the past and present narratives is a twisted thriller crammed with double-crosses, counter-plots, shootouts and Michael Slade levels of gruesome violence – leaving little doubt Tyler is a little more than a morally ambiguous mercenary. Then the story did something that caught me by surprise as it concerns something I tend to dismiss in detective stories.

I've mentioned before how kidnap stories lend themselves poorly to any type of traditional detective story and, to my knowledge, has never produced a classic or writer whose name became synonymous with it. There have been some halfhearted attempts and Gosho Aoyama tries his hands at one every now and then in the Case Closed series with varying degrees of success (e.g. vol. 72), but never a genuine masterpiece like there have been with locked rooms, dying messages, multiple-solutions and least-likely-suspects. It's always a sub-plot or complication to the larger plot. So why expected anything more from a thriller? Well, Black Run might have actually accomplished the impossible by delivering a great, nigh classic, kidnap tale 182 years after Edgar Allan Poe created the detective story by placing a spare heart of the horror genre underneath the floorboards of the locked room in "Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841). Yes, it was stuffed deep within a modern, heavily leaded thriller, but the end dovetailed everything from the two narratives together to great effect. And since the series has one foot firmly in the traditionalists camp with its impossible murders, isolated locations and surprise twists, it counts as a detective story as well. Parts of it anyway. More importantly, it narrowed

And while hidden deep inside a heavily leaded thriller, it beautifully dovetailed everything from the two narratives together. Yes, it was stuffed deeply within a heavily leaded thriller, but, since the series has one foot firmly in the traditionalists camp with its impossible murders and surprise twists, it counts. More importantly, it narrowed what appeared to be a large, yawning gap between Anthrax Island and Black Run. Not quite there on the same level as Anthrax Island, but it pulled through in the end and left me excited to see in what kind of godforsaken hellhole Tyler ends up next. So much can be done with the premise of mystery-thrillers in dangerous, isolated locations. I can imagine Tyler getting locked up in some outpost prison with a serial killer who leaves bodies in locked cells or having to provide protection to an archaeological excavation that comes under siege. Either way, a third Tyler novel is apparently in the work and my basic pattern recognition tells me the title will probably begin with a C (Close Quarters?).

So to cut this long, quasi-coherent ramble short, I recommend starting with Anthrax Island before tackling Black Run, but, let the reader be warned, the latter depicts death and violence with all the subtlety of an old LiveLeak video. Up next... returning to the Golden Age with my favorite mystery writer, John Dickson Carr.


Silent Parade (2018) by Keigo Higashino

So, lately, I've been taking down some of the modern traditionalists from the big pile and the accumulation of newer titles left me spoiled for choice, but randomly picking Michael Slade's Crucified (2008) and Micki Browning's Beached (2018) certainly provided very different, stark contrasts of the classic detective story in a modern-day setting – which made me want to pick something very different from those two next. I had the likes of Paul Doherty, Martin Edwards, D.L. Marshall and Bill Pronzini to pick and choose from. But then noticed a name I had not given much thought over the years.

Keigo Higashino is an award-winning, international bestselling Japanese mystery writer who stood at the cradle of the current translation wave. A wave that began with the 2011 translation of Higashino's most famous novel, Yogisha X no kenshin (The Devotion of Suspect X, 2005), which won some prestigious awards in Japan and was translated into numerous languages. That success was followed by translations of Akui (Malice, 1996) and one of the boldest impossible crime novels published this century, Seijo no kyusai (Salvation of a Saint, 2008). I remember being amused with the publisher trying to present a shin honkaku writer to a Western audience by brandishing such labels as "A Novel" or "The Japanese Stieg Larsson" on their front covers, before settling on "A Mystery" or "A Detective Galileo Novel."

Just around 2015, the translation wave slowly began to pick up momentum as Locked Room International, Pushkin Vertigo and a few smaller publishers joined the fray with an ever-increasing variety of classic and modern (shin) honkaku mystery novels and short stories – ranging from Keikichi Osaka and Seishi Yokomizo to Soji Shimada and Masahiro Imamura. That was about the time I lost track of Higashino. So why not return to the Detective Galileo series during the most bountiful year for translations of Japanese mysteries. 

Chinmoku no parēdo (Silent Parade, 2018) is the fifth book to feature professor of physics, Manabu Yukawa, who earned the nickname "Detective Galileo" as an occasional consultant to his friend from the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, Detective Chief Inspector Kusanagi. This case has roots going back nearly twenty years and concentrates on a small, family-run restaurant in the Kikuno shopping district. The Namiki-ya restaurant is run by Yutaro and Machiko Namiki together with their two daughters, Saori and Naoki. Everything looked bright for the Namiki family. The restaurant enjoyed a small, loyal core of regular customers "who are more like family friends" and particular Saori had all the reason to look forward to the future. Saori was embarking on a career as a professional singer under the tutelage of music impresario Naoki Niikura and his wife, Rumi. She also had a boyfriend, Tomoya Takagaki, but, one day, she simply disappeared without a trace.

Three years later, two bodies were recovered from the burned-out ruins of a so-called trash house, "a house so overflowing with junk that it becomes a local landmark and eyesore," in a small town in Shizuoka prefecture – one body is identified as "the old woman who had lived alone in the filthy house." She died of natural causes six years ago. The second body had "a caved-in skull" and a DNA test identifies it as having belonged to the aspiring singer. But why had the murderer disposed of her body all the way out in Shizuoka?

While the trail is three years old and apparently stone cold, the police quickly zeroes in on a suspect. Namely the stepson of the old woman, Kanichi Hasunuma, who twenty-three years previously got away with a pretty nasty and gruesome murder. A 12-year-old girl, Yuna Motohashi, went missing one day and her body would not be found until four years later. A hiker deep in the mountains to the West of Tokyo comes across bones that had been dismembered, chopped and buried, but evidence suggests the body had been burned first. At the time, Kusanagi was a young, promising detective recently assigned to the Homicide Division and the evidence of the burned bones brought Hasunuma into the picture. Kusanagi assumed "the sheer volume of circumstantial evidence" he had accumulated would secure a conviction, but Hasunuma "just kept his mouth shut" and escaped with a not guilty verdict. Now he pulled that trick a second time by pleading ignorance ("I can't remember"), denial ("I don't recall") or simply refuses to answer the questions ("No. I have nothing to say"). This guy is the wet dream model client of every criminal defense lawyer and the prosecutor thought the case to weak to indict him. So, once again, despite the best efforts from the police, Hasunuma appears to have gotten away with murder.

Kusanagi airs his grievances and frustration over how the case has run aground to his friend, Manabu Yukawa, because he remained silent. And, when he talked, it was to deny or evade. Ever since this chat, Yukawa began to visit Namiki-ya and became one of the regulars. All the while, a dark conspiracy is taking shape around him to get some sort of justice.

The Kikuno shopping district only claim to fame is the autumn festival and the Kikuno Story Parade, which has become a popular event with cosplayers from all over the country taking part in it. This year, the day of the parade ends with the news that Hasunuma has been found dead. Hasunuma lived in a hut and his body was found in the tiny storeroom inside it without a mark of violence on his body. I've read cover blurbs ("...stopwatch timing, locked-room murder") and reviews ("...killed in a sealed room") suggesting a good, time-honored impossible crime, but that's not the case. Yukawa uses the locked room-trick from a well-known John Dickson Carr as the foundation for a series of hypothesis how death could have been introduced into the storeroom that was locked from the outside. The chapters in which he goes over all the possible ways it could have been done is a highlight of the story, if you care about such things, which does not make for a classically-styled locked room mystery, but actually stands closer to Freeman Wills Crofts and John Rhode – a how-was-it-done complete with "fortuitous, ironclad alibis." The mysterious method behind Hasunuma's death and the problem posed by the circumstances somewhat recalled the central puzzle from Crofts' The End of Andrew Harrison (1938). Beside the how of the murder, Yukawa has to contend with the people closest to Saori possessing almost flawless alibis. Something the professor is "not able to ascribe all that to coincidence." Yukawa also impresses on the police the importance of finding "the hinge between the old case and the current case."

However, while the plot has all the technical and scientific know-all of John Rhode and a croft of alibis, Keigo Higashino is essentially writes altruistic, character-driven and motivated detective fiction. Now my memory of the The Devotion of Suspect X and Salvation of a Saint is a little hazy, but Silent Parade seems to be in a very similar mode of storytelling and plotting. The people in Higashino's stories tend to enter into pacts and conspire to commit murder or dispose of bodies out of love, loyalty and simply to protect or avenge people they care about. You can call them noble motives, but they can exert a heavy toll on people when tragedy strikes. And provide a powerful motive to do things most people under ordinary circumstance would never do. The how-was-it-done hook and quasi-inverted nature of the plot with a twist, or double-twist, you know is coming is like stacking scaffolds with trapdoors. So you get strong, character-driven, but technically clever and satisfying, plots giving the impression of stacking scaffolds with trapdoors on top each other to drop the final, twist revelation through. 

Silent Parade follows this pattern of the altruistic conspiracy told in a semi-inverted way, which tells the readers just enough to keep them guessing, but, while an excellent, well-crafted mystery in its own right, it does not quite measure to its two predecessors – lacking their oomph or cheek. The Devotion of Suspect X had a final twist as brilliant as any of the genre classics from yesteryear demonstrating that modern forensics is no excuse for bad, uninspired plotting, but characterization and human emotions running through the story likely made most readers root for the conspirators. Salvation of a Saint has the kind of cheek rarely seen in Western detective stories, which Higashino pulled off with some first-class characterization and a maddening amount of (ROT13) pnyz, raqhevat cngvrapr. You can find some of the latter in Silent Parade, but not to the same, memorable effect. I suppose you can partially put that down to the character of Hasunuma being comically, unnecessarily evil and brilliant at the same time ("...sounds like he's got a pretty high IQ"). I think it would have worked better had he been a bit denser and lucked his way out of trouble. While the ending has its twists and turns, it's never quite as good or memorable as the setup and previous novels promised.

That's really nitpicking. I wish the average Western crime novel had the plot competence, character depth and overall quality of Silent Parade. An excellent, intimately-crafted detective story of character that only suffers from a slight case of little brother syndrome when compared to its older, admittedly more successful siblings. Nothing that should detract from a solid piece of detective fiction. And it finally brought Higashino back to my attention. So I'll move Manatsu no hōteishiki (A Midsummer's Equation, 2011) higher up the pile and go after a copy of Kirin no tsubasa (A Death in Tokyo, 2011).

I'll probably pick another modern one next, before mixing it up again with some obscure stuff and Golden Age reprints.