The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) by Agatha Christie

Over the past two years, I have had the pleasure of returning to Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express (1934), Death in the Clouds (1935), Hercule Poirot's Christmas (1938) and Evil Under the Sun (1941), which not only stood up to a second reading, but often better than memory had me believe – rekindling my admiration for her nearly matchless talent as a plot creator. I've always thought Christie's best detective fiction can be found in the Hercule Poirot series and some exceptional standalone novels. But never held the Miss Marple series quite in the same regard. That has several reasons.

First of all, I don't believe the series produced even a single masterpiece or something remotely close to the best, most well-known Hercule Poirot novels or standalone mysteries. Some point to A Murder is Announced (1950) as the Marple par excellence, "one of the best surprises in all Christiedom," but it can hardly be claimed it reached the same heights as Death on the Nile (1937) or And Then There Were None (1939). The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side (1962) could have had a claim on the status of series classic had Christie not allowed the murderer to become mentally unhinged, muddle the plot with additional murders and ended up dulling the effect of the brilliantly conceived and motivated crime that opened the story. So what's left? The Body in the Library (1942), The Moving Finger (1943), They Do It with Mirrors (1952), A Pocket Full of Rye (1953) and 4.50 from Paddington (1957) are no better or worse than the average, mid-list Hercule Poirot title like Peril at End House (1932), Dumb Witness (1937) or Mrs. McGinty's Dead. The last four novels beginning with A Caribbean Mystery (1964) generally suffer from the decline in quality of late-period Christie. Secondly, I'm just not a big fan of the character or most spinster sleuth.

I prefer the American take on such characters, like Stuart Palmer's Miss Hildegarde Withers, Anita Blackmon's Miss Adelaide Adams and Torrey Chanslor's Beagle Sisters, who always have a little more of a bite to their personality. Their counterparts in Britain can often be a bit too precious and twee, while reeking of rose gardens and Werther's Originals. So never warmed to characters like Miss Marple or Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver. I wanted to give Miss Marple a fair retrial as personal preferences, or prejudices, can not always escape the process of maturing and fine-tuning – memory is not always the most reliable record to draw from. Least of all mine. I really should have gone with the often recommended A Murder is Announced, but, despite all my gripes, there's actually one Miss Marple mystery I remember enjoying a lot. That has to do with the character of Miss Marple being very different and more interesting than the benevolent maiden aunt she would become in later stories.

Miss Jane Marple, of St. Mary Mead, Downshire, debuted in a series of short stories beginning with "The Tuesday Night Club" (1927) and were gathered under the title The Thirteen Problems (1932). The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) marked Miss Marple's first and only novel-length appearance until Christie revived the character twelve years later in The Body in the Library. Whose personality had altered considerably since The Murder at the Vicarage.

Miss Marple is "the worst cat in the village" who "always knows every single thing that happens" and "draws the worst inferences from it." A horrendously nosy, village gossip who boldly stands in her little garden with binoculars to do a spot of "bird watching." The birds in question being her neighbors and she made their study a hobby to pass the time. Miss Marple calls it observing human nature and in a small village there's ample opportunity to become proficient in one's study, "one begins to class people, quite definitely, just as though they were birds or flowers," which combined with a lifetime of experience allowed her to tackle small, quite unimportant and everyday mysteries – like "that matter of the changed cough drops" or "the butcher's wife's umbrella." I think Miss Marple cast as a gossip mongering busybody with an insatiable curiosity is a much more interesting and effective detective than the Aunt Jane who knits in a corner and quietly observes. The events leading up The Murder at the Vicarage and subsequent fallout gives Miss Marple enough to mull over in her first novel-length outing.

The narrator of The Murder at the Vicarage is the vicar of St. Mary Mead, Leonard Clement, who opens the story with the remark "that any one who murdered Colonel Protheroe would be doing the world at large a service."

Colonel Lucius Protheroe, churchwarden and local magistrate, is "the kind of man who enjoys making a fuss on every conceivable occasion" and gets an opportunity when a pound note disappeared from the offertory bag. So now he wants he wants to go over the church accounts, "in case of defalcations," but there's also trouble brewing closer to home. Lawrence Redding is a young painter who drifted into the village and is using a shed in the garden of the vicarage as a studio to paint a portrait of the vicar's wife, Griselda. When he's not working on the portrait, Redding is painting the colonel's daughter, Lettice, in her bathing dress. Colonel Protheroe found out and old worldly forbade the young artist the house. So the village gossip among each other if there's anything between Lawrence Redding and Lettice Protheroe, but Miss Marple believes the artist is likely involved with quite another person ("that kind of old cat is always right"). Miss Marple is proven correct when the vicar catches Redding in flagrante delicto with the colonel's wife, Anne Protheroe.

This "nasty tangle" finishes setting the stage for murder as, not long thereafter, the body of Colonel Protheroe is found in the vicar's study at the vicarage. Inspector Slack, "a man more determinedly strive to contradict his name," appears to have an open-and-shut case on his hands when Redding confesses to having shot Colonel Protheroe, but a second confession, medical evidence and two perfectly acceptable alibis topples his apple cart. So he has began all over again trying to piece together how a stopped desk clock running fifteen minutes fast ("to induce punctuality"), the scrawled letter the victim was writing with the time neatly printed at the top and the sound of a gunshot that was heard coming from the woods figure in the colonel's murder – which also brings some otherwise peripheral characters into view. Like a man named Archer, "an inveterate poacher," who had been sentenced several times by Colonel Protheroe in his role as magistrate. Dr. Stone, a well-known archaeologist, had recently arrived in the village to lead the excavation of a barrow on Colonel Protheroe's property, but there already been several disputes between the two. Mrs. Lestrange, "the Mystery Lady of St. Mary Mead," went to see Protheroe the night before he was killed. And nobody seems to have any idea what about. So "a lot of queer things about this case."

Miss Marple pops in and out of the story, often at the most opportune moments, until the time arrived to begin tidying up, but it was done in an incredibly anticlimactic way showing Christie was still a few years away from realizing her full potential. Miss Marple simply tells whodunit, why and how, which is then followed by an off-page scene in which the murderer falls into a police trap. It should have been done the other way round. The ending should have come with Miss Marple urging Slack to bait a trap without naming the murderer and concluding with the trap closing to reveal the (hopefully) surprising identity of the culprit, because it would immediately beg for an explanation. Miss Marple can then sit back and answer all the questions in the last chapter. It would have improved the ending considerably.

Regardless of the slightly anticlimactic ending and clues/red herrings not being as abundant as in coming novels, The Murder at the Vicarage is still a very good, solid and early example of the thoroughly British countryside mystery. More importantly, The Murder at the Vicarage gives the reader a glimpse of Christie testing and developing certain ideas that in the years ahead would shape some of her most celebrated and timeless detective novels. Not as polished or fine-tuned, of course, but a clear sign that both Christie and the detective story as a whole were about to go into full bloom. Just a shame this incarnation of the Miss Marple character was abandoned upon her return in The Body in the Library. We could have had a Miss Marple who steamed open letters in The Moving Finger to find out what being written in those scandalous poison pen letters.


Death Against Venus (1946) by Dana Chambers

Albert Leffingwell was an American advertising executive who co-founded two ad agencies in the 1920s and embarked on a not unsuccessful, but short-lived, career as a writer of hard-and medium-boiled mysteries with some apparently having a hints of screwball comedy – somewhat reminiscent of Craig Rice. During an eight year period, Leffingwell wrote thirteen mysteries that appeared under his own name and two pseudonyms, "Giles Jackson" and "Dana Chambers." The first novel to appear under the Dana Chambers name was Some Day I'll Kill You (1939) and introduced his most successful series-detective, Jim Steele, who would go on to star in half a dozen additional titles. Steele likely would have continued solving murders had his creator not died in 1946 aged only 50 or 51. So the author along with his books began their slow, posthumous descent into relative obscurity ("you don't hear much about Dana Chambers these days"). And, from what I gather, it was not due to a lack of quality.

Curt Evans wrote in his review of Some Day I'll Kill You, "A Country House Mystery, Shaken and Stirred," Chambers was "praised in his day by no less than Anthony Boucher and Bill Pronzini has told me that he owns all the Leffingwell novels and has enjoyed his work." I checked The Anthony Boucher Chronicles: Review and Commentary, 1942-47 (2001/09) and Boucher generally holds Chamber's work in high regard. Chamber's The Last Secret (1943), "part spy story, part deductive mystery, part science-fiction, party anti-appeasement propaganda," got added to the wishlist based Boucher's glowing review ("breathless, bloody and beautiful in all departments"). Something curiously worth noting is Leffingwell's wikipedia page mentions that Jim Steele is referenced several times in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951).

So who knows if Leffingwell had sunken so deeply into obscurity had he not died so relatively young, added another twenty novels to his name and remained in print a decade or two longer. He might at least have gotten a page on the GADWiki out of it!

I very likely would never have even heard of given any particular attention to Leffingwell or Chambers, but, as you can probably guess, the name Dana Chambers is noted by Brian Skupin in Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019) – who listed the book to be published during his lifetime. Death Against Venus (1946) was automatically added to the special and separate locked room wishlist without actively looking for it. But every now and then, serendipity throws you a bone. Or in this case, the original, unabridged edition of Death Against Venus.

Death Against Venus is a standalone mystery which begins in the Florida Keys with the introduction what could have been a series-character, Richard Vine, who's presented to the reader as a beach bum. Vine sleeps on the beach or under the life guard's stand, steals dimes and quarters from unattended newspaper stands and has been working on an alcohol dependency by drinking a lot. Until three years ago, Vine was "one of the most brilliant diagnosticians in the United States," but an affair with a married patient, Victoria "Vee" Garland, ended all of that. Vee gave birth to a stillborn baby and began to sank into a deep depression that made her resident patient of Dr. Andrew Woolcot at Rest Haven. Woolcot explained to Vine "that with a temperament like hers and a family full of neurotics in her immediate ancestry, you wouldn't gamble a plugged nickel on how long the depression would last." Vine exiled himself to Florida until three years later a telegram from Vee is delivered at his flophouse address ("...I need you... come quickly... tell no one underscore no one..."). So he returned homeward to visit Vee and Woolcot at Rest Haven to find out what's going on.

Vine learns from Woolcot that about a year ago, Vee began to show the most amazing signs of quick recovery and a complete recovery was in the cards. But she suffered a very bad relapse six months ago. The reason for the relapse is that Vee is "becoming more and more firmly and unshakeably convinced with every day that passes, that for the past few months someone has been trying to kill her." Firstly, there were the nightly, unintelligible whispers in her bedroom that kept her from sleeping. Secondly, so-called obscene signs ("inverted crosses, phallic symbols") began to manifest themselves all around her. Lastly, Vee is convinced someone gave her a nasty crack on the back of the head while out on a stroll. However, the doctor and nurse believe she tried to kill herself again. Is someone really out to get Vee or is she steadily losing her mind? Something that has to be seriously considered when one of her nurses is shot under circumstances making Vee the only person who could conceivably have pulled the trigger. Vee was taking a bath in her a little three-room apartment at Rest Haven and told her nurse to try on her canary yellow sweater, but, moments later, she leaps out of the bath when a bang came from the living room and finds the nurse sprawled face down in front of the mirror – shot in the back. The male nurse sitting in the corridor outside swears nobody had gone in or out of the room when the shot rang out.

So nobody could have slipped away unseen and you can't shoot yourself in the back ("...unless you're an acrobat"). Vine believes whoever is behind the nightly whispers and obscene symbols decided Vee is not going to be scared back into depression, which is why they're now taking actual shots at her. This is not the last detective story trope Vine encounters as he tries to save Vee by finding the person, or persons, persecuting her.

Vine tackles the case like a proper amateur detective and compiles a list of people he needs to interview, but one of these talks turns deadly when the interviewee, a silver dagger sticking between his shoulder-blades, stumbles back into the room – murmuring a dying message with his last breath. This second killing also has a locked room element. Vine notes that the front and back entrances where "guarded within seconds after the knife had been plunged" and, disregarding the "innocuous family retainers," it faces them with "an invisible killer who evaporates into thin air from the sixteenth floor." Naturally, one of those complicated, tangled wills comes to light that can be read as an invitation to murder.

But is it any good? That's extremely mixed bag of tricks, but lets start with the good first. I can see how Chambers garnered such well-known fans as Boucher and Pronzini as he appears to have been a better writer than most mid-list American writers from the era who hovered between medium-and hard-boiled tough guy fiction and the traditional detective story. Hampton Stone's Jeremiah X. Gibson series and the more cerebral of Brett Halliday's Mike Shayne novels (e.g Murder and the Married Virgin, 1944) spring to mind.

Regrettably, the plot became a bit of a tangled mess by the end. Boucher warned in his review that the diffusion of guilt is bound to annoy some readers, which is true, but the solution revealed that there were actually two different, concurrently running plots sharing the same cast of characters with the various complications arising from these threads crossing each other. Something that can absolutely be done, convincingly even, but requires the skilled, crafty hand of an expert plotter. Judging by Death Against Venus, Chambers appears to have been somewhat lacking in that department. I found the motive behind one of entangled plot-threads to be a trifle weak and the explanation for the pair of locked room murder and dying message extremely basic to the point where you have to wonder why they were presented like that in the first place. I would have settled for a gunshot through a knothole or the murderer making an unseen getaway by donning the uniform of a domestic servant or postman, but nothing labyrinthine like that in Death Against Venus.

Death Against Venus began promising enough with its introduction of Richard Vine and sketching a premise recalling Jonathan Latimer's Murder in the Madhouse (1935) or Patrick Quentin's Puzzle for Fools (1936), but the ending left me both unconvinced and very dissatisfied. Not one that should go on the shelf with the overlooked, long-forgotten classics.


What Happened at Hazelwood (1946) by Michael Innes

"Michael Innes" was the pseudonym of J.I.M. Stewart, Professor of English Literature, who penned nearly fifty erudite, gently humorous and outright fantastical academic mysteries teeming with literary allusions – often credited with popularizing the donnish detective novel. A popularity that lasts to this day and not entirely without reason.

Innes enjoyed a long-lived career as a mystery novelist who debuted in the middle of the detective story's golden decade (Death at the President's Lodging, 1936) and ended his career by penning the last country house mystery from the hands of a Golden Age writer (Appleby and the Ospreys, 1986). During that five-decade writing career, Innes produced some undeniable, highly imaginative and ambitious classics of the genre (e.g. Lament for a Maker, 1938). Particularly, the first three novels standout as nothing less than first-rate detective stories. Nick Fuller, of The Grandest Game in the World, agrees that "the early books are brilliantly imaginative phantasmagorias" and "show what a really first-class mind can do with the detective story." Regrettably, as Nick observes in "Michael Innes: A Critique," the genius shown in those first novels "only lasted a decade or so before fading" as Innes began to place style over substance. So the wildly imaginative and witty became artificial, unconvincing and tedious while the once dense, carefully constructed plots were turned "vehicles for weak puns."

If you have purist tendencies, when it comes to plots, Innes is uneven at best and frustrating at worst. The reason why the unceasing flood of reprints, translations and an inexplicable fascinating with locked room mysteries so easily directed my attention away from Innes and Inspector John Appleby. However, the fact remained that Innes produced some genuinely good and excellent detective fiction. A perk of reading Golden Age detective fiction in 2023 is how easy it has become to pick and choose. Innes is not exactly obscure nor are copies difficult to find as never appeared to fully gone out-of-print (except, maybe, for the 1990s).

Back in 2018, I tackled Appleby's Other Story (1974) and Nick dropped by in the comments to recommend What Happened at Hazelwood (1946), a comedic melodrama à la Gilbert & Sullivan's Ruddigore, which goes out of its way to be an australiaoutrageous, deliberately improbable spoof of the country house mystery – delivering a "thoroughly bizarre, but, on the story's own logic, quite convincing" solution. Nick left a second comment in 2022 to remind me it has been "three and a half years later and I'm waiting." Well, it took a couple of years, but What Happened at Hazelwood recently made its long-awaited arrival at the peak of Mt. to-be-read.

What Happened at Hazelwood is a parody of the British country house mystery and there are some hints in the story suggesting Innes wrote it with Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot's Christmas (1938) in mind. The backdrop of the story is the ancestral home of the disreputable Simney clan, Hazelwood Hall, whose current master is the most disreputable of the lot, Sir George Simney. When he was a young lad, the then still George Simney was up to no good in Australia, "very likely he had killed a fellow prospector on the gold diggings or drowned in a billabong some rival in a lewd love," until his father and two brothers died in a railway smash. So the baronetcy unexpectedly fell to him. Sir George promptly returned home to take charge of the estate, but did his dark, unsavory Australian past eventually caught up with him? It would explain "the fact that the master of Hazelwood slept with a shotgun at his side" and when his end came it had been "sudden, unaccountable and violent." But he had departed according to tradition: "mysteriously in his library, at midnight, while a great deal of snow was falling in the park outside." The features of the dead baronet "displayed that expression of astounded and incredulous terror only assumed by persons who see that they are about to be murdered in the most pronouncedly bizarre way."

However, to quote the narrator of the first-half, "there will be no corpse available for your inspection, Gentle Reader, until you have struggled on some way ahead" as the first-half necessarily has to introduce the horrid family and recounting all of the ghastly incidents – which immediately preceded the murder of their patriarch. Firstly, there's the unhappy lady of manor, Nicolette, who came from a long-line of actors and actresses which made her "a scarlet woman" in the eyes of the local vicar and her husband's unmarried sister, Grace. The permanents of Hazelwood Hall are Sir George's widowed sister, Lucy Cockayne, who has a 19-year-old son, Mervyn, who plays the role of "beastly little son" known for his "nauseous wit." Sir George also brought back to England a one-eyed butler, Afred Owdon, "who looked much more like a retired pirate than a respectable upper servant." Curiously, Owdon has a 16-year-old son and houseboy, Timmy, who not only looks like a Simney every inch, but is the split image of Mervyn Cockayne ("...possibly because his mother was a Simney..."). Sir George took great pleasure in parading Timmy around the house as one of the family scandals. That would have been a strong enough composition to thicken the plot, but What Happened at Hazelwood is something of family reunion as Hazelwood Hall opened its doors to a number of relatives. I say opened its doors as saying their warmly welcomed would be a lie. Sir George's younger brother, Bevis, has come to stay and nothing bring the brothers together quite like "the ritual business of shooting over each other's land." Bevis brought along his son and aspiring painter, Willoughby, who has designs on the blacksmith's fair-haired. Not just on canvas. But what really disrupted an already disagreeable family get together is the unexpected arrival of their antipodean cousins.

Hippias Simney is a cousin and turned up "loudly declaring that George had in some way cheated or defrauded them," which has something to do with a place called Dismal Swamp back in Australia. Cousin Hippias brought along his young son Gerard and his wife, Joyleen. Sir George and Joyleen immediately get each others attention.

Yes, as the narrator observes, "a crowded stage at the start," but absolutely necessary as the characterization of the dysfunctional Simneys is key to the plot. It has been noted elsewhere Innes depicted not entirely without a glee a whole family worth of suitable murder victims and its to his credit not one of the characters can be described as a theatrical puppet completely devoid of humanity. Some more than others. For example, the victim-in-waiting is a boorish brute, but Sir George showed he had a grasp on the concept of humor in how he, uhm, decorated the walls of his study ("one of his rather offensive jokes"). So the unfolding melodrama remains strangely believable as the drinks and bottles begin to fly across the dinner table, obnoxious cousins get dumped out of windows and secret trysts in the park – while others spy among the trees. This act ends when the body of Sir George is found bizarrely sprawled on the table in his study, like "some preternaturally powerful force from behind had picked him up and flung him across the table," only his toes touched the floor.

It's not Inspector John Appleby who arrives at Hazelwood Hall to take charge of the investigation, but a colleague, Inspector Cadover, who mentions Appleby in passing ("what would Appleby have done?"). Cadover's handling of the case is narrated by a young detective, Harold, who compared Cadover's methods to Darwin's "extraordinary fertility in hypotheses." Going from one hypothesis, or guess, to another until "one of these would look sufficiently promising to be called a theory." The messy murder of Sir George provided fertile grounds for boundless hypothesizing. Such as tracks in the snow below the windows and an unlikely hiding place for a pair of boots, the murky details of the family's Australian past and scandals like the question of Timmy's parentage. Among many other odds and ends, usual and unusual, that continue to complicate the case.

What Happened at Hazelwood threatened to become a little long-winded by the end and really needed to deliver something extraordinarily good or truly exceptional to make it all worthwhile, which gave rise to some skepticism on my part. Somehow, the story came through in the end and delivered something that can be truly called either extraordinarily or exceptional. Either way, the solution certainly is original, but whether, or not, it's any good left me divided. On the one hand, the solution is ingenious, strikingly beautifully in its imagery and logically linked everything together, but, on the other hand, it's hardly a credible explanation. I think it would have been better suited as a false-solution that sounds very pleasing in theory, but falls apart under a critical examination. I suppose you have to take What Happened at Hazelwood on its own terms as a fantastic, melodramatic parody of the country house mystery and according to its own internal logic (the kind of logic you find in a mad dream) the ending makes perfect sense. That in itself is something of a success story. Recommended, if you're looking for something a little different in a thoroughly traditional British country house mystery.


The Case of the Extra Grave (1961) by Christopher Bush

Earlier this year, Curt Evans broke the devastating news that his friend, "the publisher Rupert Heath of Dean Street Press," died unexpectedly of heart failure on March 6, 2023, aged only 54 – which is no age to die. Rupert Heath's untimely passing also spelled the end for Dean Street Press. It's perhaps cliché to say that the shortest lived stars shine the brightest, but it certainly applies to Heath and DSP as their contribution to the current reprint renaissance can't be overstated.

This renaissance age of reprints began over twenty years ago as the internet provided a new market place to smaller, independent publishers and came to fruition in 2010s. A breakout moment came in 2014 when the British Library reprint of J. Jefferson Farjeon's Mystery in White (1937) unexpectedly became a "runaway bestseller." After that, it appeared as if the floodgates were truly opened and the newly founded Dean Street Press had a huge part to play in pushing the reprint trend into a full-blown renaissance. Heath took an industrial approach to bringing obscure or long out-of-print authors back by republishing 5-10 novels at a time. So it took less than a decade to accumulate a catalog of over 500 novels that include the (partially) complete works of writers like Brian Flynn, Robin Forsythe, Ianthe Jerrold, Harriet Rutland and E.R. Punshon. The name that for me will always be synonymous with Dean Street Press is Christopher Bush.

Between 2017 and 2022, Dean Street Press reissued all of Bush's sixty-three Ludovic Travers novels. A series, taken as a whole, possessing the same variation and balance, quantity-quality wise, as the entirety of the DSP catalog as Bush was capable of adjusting with the times – unwittingly creating a microcosm of the changes the genre underwent from the 1930 to the late '60s. Curt Evans wrote in his introduction to the last baker's dozen of reprints that Bush "managed rather better than the Queen of Crime to keep up with all the unsettling goings-on around him, while never forswearing the Golden Age article of faith that the primary purpose of a crime writer is pleasingly to puzzle his/her readers." So the series began as elaborate, lavishly-plotted 1930s detective novels crammed with unbreakable alibis, paired corpses and the occasional impossible crime. During the war, Bush switched the narrative style from third-person to first-person and began trimming the baroque from the plots. This also started Travers transformation from an amateur sleuth to the head of the Broad Street Detective Agency.

Travers completed his transformation into a private investigator in the early 1950s when the series had shed all of its baroque to become genteel private eye novels with sleek, classy plots. Now complications, like murder, arose from ordinary crimes and routine cases like blackmail, theft and missing persons or valuables. The Case of the Russian Cross (1957) is an excellent example from that period, but sometimes you got a novel like The Case of the Three Lost Letters (1954) that hearkened back to those earlier novels. The subject of today's review tried to combine some of the old and new in its first and second halves.

The Case of the Extra Grave (1961) is Bush's 55th Ludovic Travers novel and my first foray into the 1960s period of the series. A regular client of the Broad Street Detective Agency, John Hill of the United Assurance Agency, asks Travers to investigate a problem with a personal link. Hill's great-uncle used to run a modest, specialized jewelry store, "principally in the antique side of the jewellery trade," which was taken over by his nephew, Julian Matching – who lived under the "dominating influence" of his elderly mother. When his mother died, Julian cut loose from his old life and got married to "the last woman his mother would have picked." Julian met Mary Hyson at Frascoli's Restaurant where she performed as the vocalist for the dance band under her stage name, Moira Delane. The old, stuffy family home, "a Victorian monstrosity," was modernized and refurbished, but there home life was a happy one. This culminated with Moira doping a glass of port one night, packing all her belongings and disappearing with several pieces of antique jewelry valued at several thousand pounds.

So the problem appears to be fairly straightforward, "try to discover the whereabouts of Mrs. Matching and recover the jewellery," but Travers receives information and begins to uncover clues suggesting something else all together. Moira's car is found abandoned near a train station with all of her baggage crammed into the boot and empty, recently filled-in grave is found in the garden. Julian believes the grave was meant for him. And the doped drink was intended to kill him. However, Moira had mastered "the art of fluent lying" and had been involved with that great unknown of the detective story, "X." A lover-confederate who could have nicely stashed her away somewhere, until everything quieted down. And could that lover-confederate be the rising pop singer, Rocky Carlisle?

That plot-thread gave the story a scene that now stands out as it was obviously intended as a sign of the times, but, more than sixty years later, it's quaint and homely. Chapter 9 ("Low-Brow Half-Hour") has the Travers sitting at home in front of the fire and reading about Rocky Carlisle in the Radio Times. So they turn on the television set to watch the pop sensation perform on the B.B.C. to a shrieking audience. I realize this is an incredible minor scene, perhaps not even worthy of highlighting, but it drove home (very simply) how much has changed culturally, technologically and personally since such faraway novels like The Perfect Murder Case (1929) and The Case of the Green Felt Hat (1939). Anyway, back to the story.

The first half of The Case of the Empty Grave is concerned with Travers trying to figure out what, exactly, happened to Moira and when, and what, to tell the police in a worst case scenario. I can't even hint at the developments in the second-half, but Bush played on one of his own homespun devices often employed in his 1930s novels (SPOILER/ROT13: gur cnverq pbecfrf zheqrerq jvguva n fubeg crevbq bs rnpu bgure va qvssrerag ybpngvbaf, ohg guvf gvzr, gb nqq n zbqrea gbhpu, vg gbbx n juvyr sbe gur qrpbzcbfvat obqvrf gb or sbhaq). Not nearly as a complicated as in those earlier novels nor used to craft one of those cast-iron alibi, but really liked the false-solution spun out of these developments and discoveries. Sordidly suitable to the times and overall plot. By comparison, the correct solution feels like Bush took the long way round and Travers forcefully ignored a not unrealistic possibility to arrive at a somewhat obvious conclusion. Most of my initial suspicions were on point, but Bush did a credible enough job in drawing attention away and allowing the unfolding story to sneakily fill in the details. Admittedly, the correct solution effectively threw some of the earlier scenes in a different light.

So, on a whole, The Case of the Extra Grave can be summed up as a briskly paced, well-written novel from Bush's twilight years genuinely attempting to do something clever with the plot, but not always with same shinning brilliance as thirty years previously. However, I think you can only truly appreciate Bush's 1950s and '60s mysteries, if you have followed how Travers evolved over the decades. Curt Evans noted in his introduction not all of Bush's colleagues fared as well as he did when it came to staying abreast of the times, "John Dickson Carr, an incurable romantic, prudently beat a retreat from the present into the pleasanter pages of the past" and Agatha Christie's "strivings to understand what was going on around her collapsed into the utter incoherence of Passenger to Frankfurt and Postern of Fate." That makes the series somewhat of a rarity as not every Golden Age detective aged and changed along with the years quite like Travers, which is rare enough, but to do it simultaneously with the style of storytelling and plotting that do not feel out-of-touch is no mean feat. One of the many, many reasons why Christopher Bush is my favorite name to have come out of Dean Street Press. Recommended with the caveat that new readers should begin at a much earlier point in the series.

On a final, semi-related note: the next time I return to this series, I want to tackle The Plumley Inheritance (1926) and The Case of the Prodigal Daughter (1968) either back-to-back or do a twofer review. A first and last detective novels in long-running series tend to be marred by inexperience or wear-and-tear, but The Plumley Inheritance ("this is the England of village cricket, vicars and country gardens") and The Case of the Prodigal Daughter (drugs, pop music and discotheques) sound like a fascinatingly historical bookend to one of the most fascinating series the Golden Age has produced.


The Spaniard's Thumb (1949) by Norman Berrow

I joked in the past that Edgar Allan Poe created the detective story, or rather gifted it a heartbeat, when secreting a spare heart from the horror genre under one of the floorboards of the locked room mystery and perhaps gave the traditional detective story its immortal quality – given how many times critics tried to sign its death certificate. So the detective story has, fittingly enough, unnatural blood and organ ties to the horror genre. You can spot the family resemblance every time the detective story evokes the supernatural or other worldly creatures. From the hell-beast roaming the foggy moors in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) and the windigo from Hake Talbot's Rim of the Pit (1944) that stalks it human prey from the sky to the living dead of Yamaguchi Masaya's Ikeru shikabane no shi (Death of the Living Dead, 1989) and Masahiro Imamura's Shijinso no satsujin (Death Among the Undead, 2017). Simply having a good, old haunted house or a cursed room that kills as a backdrop for murder. 

Norman Berrow's The Spaniard's Thumb (1949) takes the cake with its giant, disembodied centenarian thumb haunting a disused cellar and crushing anyone who dares to enter!

The empty, disused cellar is located underneath the old, original stone part of Falloway Hall and has an iron door with a barred opening at eye-level that has been locked for over half a century. And the key has been lost for years. What lurks behind the iron door is the proverbial skeleton in the closet of the Falloways. A 100 years ago, the third Sir Jeremy was the master of Falloway Hall who had imprisoned his wife's Spanish inamorato in the dark cellar where he taunted the gaunt, ragged prisoner for three long years – reminding him constantly he was completely under his thumb. When the prisoner was on death's doorstep, he told Sir Jeremy with his dying breath that "for hereafter and to all eternity, you will be under my thumb" and "you and your heirs and descendants shall live under it and die under it." So the family curse was born and several Falloways died under bizarre circumstances in the cellar. This went on until the last male Falloway passed away mysteriously and the estate passed onto the female line as the thing in the cellar quieted down.

Decades later, Mrs. Lavinia Falloway-Fairfax died childless and left the entire estate to her very surprised grandniece by marriage, Cherry Fairfax. She's accompanied to her new home by Aunt Margaret, "that good lady who had taken charge of Cherry when she had been orphaned," and the family lawyer, Mr. Champion, to show them around the place. Only smudge on the place appears to be general post-war malaise of rationing and shortages of everything from food and petrol to labor. So everything appeared to be peachy, a dream come true, until a week passed and some unnerving, midnight noises ("thud-thud-thud-thud-thud") began to emanate from the locked cellar ("it wasn't Jarvis, by any chance, doing some nocturnal carpentering?").

Aunt Margaret suggests to call upon Quentin Veil, "an investigator of psychic disturbances," while their next door neighbor, Stephen Kevin, fabricates a skeleton key from another period key. So the cellar can now be entered and properly investigated. Veil intends to catch whatever is making the disturbing sounds on photograph and rigs up an infrared camera, but things go horribly wrong during a second attempt to capture the source of that peculiar, rhythmic drumming. Veil and Kevin are brutally attacked when they go into the cellar. Kevin is struck with such force that "he was hurled out of the cellar and across the passage outside" to "split his skull open on the opposite wall," while Veil got "stamped or smashed" to death – simply squashed flat. Kevin caught a glimpse of what attacked them and described it as looking like "an enormous human thumb" that squashed Veil "like you'd squash an insect."

Falloway Hall stands in the small town of Winchingham and so the investigation falls onto Detective Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith, who has dealt before with phantom rooms, psychic bodies, apparitions and vanishings, but "there was an element of comedy" to those capers – not something with "shades of Bram Stoker." John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, suggests The Spaniard's Thumb is parody of Horace Walpole's 18th century Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764), in which a giant helmet crushes its victims to death. But that as an aside. The Spaniard's Thumb is a Golden Age detective novel and Smith has a dark, complicated intrigue to untangle as the victim poses an even bigger mystery than the circumstances under which he died. Why was the harmless ghost hunter murdered? Veil only entered the picture after the noises in the cellar had started. If the murderer is flesh-and-blood, why did the photograph Veil took only shows a long stretch of wall with a human murderer or an over-sized, aggressively territorial human thumb? And can the solution to "The Case of the Spaniard's Thumb" in a handwritten account titled The Secret History of Falloway Hall? Not before a second body is found in the locked cellar with "the only known key to it in the inspector's pocket."

However, I decided against using the "locked room mysteries" and "impossible crimes" tags on this review. Technically, the thumping sounds coming from behind a locked door and the second murder qualify as locked room mysteries, but found them to be marginal, disappointing in their resolution and detracting from everything else the story did right. It has been said that Berrow was better at stating his mysteries than explaining them, but he was a great storyteller who "found a way to eke out the uncunny in the everyday" that makes everything leading up to the conclusion so incredibly captivating and entertaining to read. Even if you can trim 20 or 30 pages from nearly all of his novels. The Spaniard's Thumb is a fine example of Berrow's talent and skills when it comes to characterization and telling a story.

The central conceit might evoke an 18th century Gothic novel, The Spaniard's Thumb takes place under a warm, lazy summer sun that casts Falloway Hall in a bright light. So it takes some time until not even the sunshine streaming in through the open windows or the singing of birds can not keep out the "fear and foreboding" that "enveloped Falloway Hall in an invisible pall." I can see how having two dead, mutilated bodies dragged from your supposedly haunted cellar can kill the mood around the dinner table, but a very well-done piece of storytelling as the frightening experiences keep getting dispelled by sunny mornings and long summer afternoons. This building to the point where the fear becomes palpable in the daylight is so much more effective than immediately going for thunderstorms or a white winter shroud to set the mood. Berrow also made more work than usually of the who-and why, which was neither too obvious nor too evasive, but could have been clued a bit stronger. The Spaniard's Thumb has a small cast of characters. So everyone who enters the picture is eyed suspiciously, but, this time, it took while for it to become apparent as important connecting clue is not given until the second-half of the story. One aspect of the misdirection regrettably demonstrated where Berrow comes up short as a plotter (ROT13: “...grfgvzbal bs jung unccrarq gura vf n snoevpngvba”).

And, yet, despite its shortcomings and Berrow rarely delivering on his wildly imaginative premises, I find it impossible to dislike The Spaniard's Thumb. I believe its link to the locked room mystery, albeit a very tenuous and disappointing one, overshadowed the fact The Spaniard's Thumb is an extremely well-written, decently plotted Golden Age detective yarn. And were it not for those minor, disappointing locked room elements, it might be better remembered today. If only for the imagery of giant, disembodied thumb squashing people like bugs.

So never let it be said I only care about tricks with no eye for atmosphere, characters and storytelling, but would like to know why Berrow decided to specialize in locked rooms and impossible crimes. Berrow had enough genre awareness to understand most of his solutions do not measure up their splendid premises. You can call them at best prosaic and at worst hackneyed. Only two exceptions to date are The Three Tiers of Fantasy (1947) and The Footprints of Satan (1950). So was it stylistic choice to pair fresh, original and out-of-this-world impossibilities with the simplest, down-to-earth answers or simply had no idea how to explain them? Either way, you'll most likely enjoy Berrow's work not expecting something that could have been plotted by John Dickson Carr or Paul Halter. I recommend to approach The Spaniard's Thumb as a non-impossible room that kills story like Carr's radio-play "The Devil's Saint" (1943) and Halter's La chambre du fou (The Madman's Room, 1990). 

A note for the curious: it has been a while since I tacked on one of my alternative, armchair solutions to a locked room problem. A possibility occurred to me how the cellar and the thing could be used for a legitimate locked room-trick, a trick as cockamamie as the idea of a murderous thumb angrily stamping around a cellar in the dead of night, but you have to complete alter the story and plot to make it work – like a turn-of-the-century style treasure hunt mystery. So hear me out. A long, long time ago, a treasure was buried or secreted somewhere in or around Falloway Hall. The then owner who buried the treasure also hid a clue to its location in the cellar, but had the iron door locked, sealed and the key destroyed. And decreed the cellar a time capsule not to be opened until a 100 or 150 years has passed (tasking the ghost of the giant thumb with protecting the secret). So how can the treasure hunter and murderer bypass the iron door to examine the room? Forcing it open would make too much noise. And looking through the opening only shows an empty, dusty cellar. Suggesting the clue is probably buried under the stone floor, carved in the walls right next to the door or maybe a hidden passage to the clue. The culprit has to take a gamble by having the door opened by some with a reason and authority to break open the door... like the police.

Lets suppose this person begins going down the cellar in the middle of the night to loosen the bars, one by one, on the eye-level opening until they can all be taken out and simply placed back in (source of the ghostly noises). Now suppose this treasure hunter had someone on hand who needed disposing anyway, bludgeons that person and tightly wraps the body inside a blanket or piece of tarp. He then places something long, thick and sturdy over the body (legless table top or plank?) and drives a car or small tractor over it to break all of the bones. It also makes it look as the victim was rubbed out by a giant thumb. This broken, mangled mess of a body and pulverized bones can be much more easily squashed through the opening, minus bars, of the iron door and shoved into the middle of the room with a pole. Yes, it would leave a trail in the dust, but adds to the illusion of someone getting rubbed out of existence by a giant, disembodied thumb. Only thing the murderer is super glue the bars back into place, wait for an opportune moment to discover the body and be one hand when the room is opened. The big, jokey twist (of course) would be that the clue to the treasure was always accessible as the stone floor is laid out like a map of the estate with a round stone, or something, marking the burial place. The iron door with the slightly bigger barred opening (a clue) was merely a psychological obstacle to mislead treasure hunters with gold fever who peeked through it hoping to get a glimmer of what kind of clue could be hidden in there. And completely missing the bigger picture right in front of their eyes.

So this little nugget of pulpy insanity bubbled up in my brain, while pondering the impossible possibilities of The Spaniard's Thumb and thought some of you might appreciate it. I know I'm not the only locked room loon around here.


You'll Die Laughing (1945) by Bruce Elliott

Bruce Elliott was an American author, editor, screenwriter and magician whose work ranged from detective and science-fiction novels to contributing short stories, under the house name "Maxwell Grant," to The Shadow pulp magazine and penning episodes for the 1950s TV-series Flash Gordon – reportedly wrote some Captain Marvel and Mighty Thor comics for Marvel. Elliott also wrote several non-fiction books about the art of conjuring (e.g. The Best in Magic, 1956) and co-founded the magic magazine The Phoenix with the creator of The Shadow, Walter B. Gibson.

Despite an impressive resume, Elliott is practically forgotten today and even has to go without a page on the GADWiki. A usual haunt of the genre's obscure and forgotten, but Elliott is nowhere to be found. Generally, information about Elliott's work is scarce, scattered and evidently incomplete. I very likely would not have given Elliott's obscure, long-forgotten mystery novel Robert Adey listed in Locked Room Murders (1991) any special consideration had it not been for Jim "JJ" Noy of The Invisible Event.

Jim reviewed Elliott's You'll Die Laughing (1945) back in 2017 and called it "a pacy piece of light, fun detective fiction" that's "frustratingly close to brilliant." Last year, Jim included You'll Die Laughing in "A Locked Room Library: One Hundred Recommended Books" with the added comment, "you could add perhaps three lines to this and make it one of the most enjoyable minor classics the subgenre ever produced." I was sufficiently intrigued to finally track down a copy of this obscure, largely forgotten locked room mystery. Surprisingly easy to find as a reprint edition of You'll Die Laughing has been available from Ramble House since 2006! So let's see if Jim got it wrong as usually or end up agreeing with him and consequently moving humanity an inch closer to the end times.

Elliott dedication of You'll Die Laughing reads, "for my wife, because she loves mysteries as much as she hates practical jokers." The practical joke is the theme of the story embodied by a single character and prime-mover of the plot, Jesse Grimsby, who's a notorious practical joker blessed, or cursed, with a streak of originality – mingled with a childish sadism. Admittedly, Jesse did get laughs out of people and some of the anecdotes of his hi-jinks are funny. For example, Jesse pulled a childishly cruel prank on a business enemy by staging a seemingly impossible situation. Jesse hired some workmen to take a small tractor apart, move the pieces into the man's house and had it reconstructed in the center of his study ("he was more upset trying to figure out how it got there than by its actual presence"). So the kind of character you only want to hear or read about, lest you become a target for one of his loony pranks.

One of the characters notes, "you need a tough constitution to last out one of his parties" and the story takes place during a weekend party at Jesse's Riverdale mansion (somewhere in the borough of Manhattan) crammed with tricks and gimmicks.

So, as to be expected, Jesse Grimsby begins to subject his guests to a series of jokes from tampering with their food to a rather ingenious prank involving the swimming pool that would have got him a passing grade at Acme Looniversity. While merely jokes, the guests are all but ready to murder their host and some even get physical when Jesse's joking and taunting begins to cut a little too close on the personal front ("...this Jesse Grimsby was going through life just asking for lead poisoning"). This situation culminates with a clap of thunder and the sound of a gunshot coming from the first of three bedrooms on the first floor that Jesse had entered moments before. Several people saw him going inside and swear the room was empty "except for Jesse and the usual bedroom furniture," before closing and locking the door. So they break open the door, but Jesse and the bed have disappeared into thin air. And the remaining bedroom furniture is smashed to pieces. All of this happened in a locked room, while several people were standing outside the door, but the case gets even stranger. Jesse's body miraculously reappears moments later in the second, unlocked bedroom next door with a fatal bullet wound.

Lieutenant Leonard Brissk has his work cut out when arriving at the house. Not only has he to figure out how the body of Jesse Grimsby could pass through a solid wall into the next room, "the blank wall of the impossibility of the crime," but where the murderer could possibly have concealed the bulky gun and had his men "practically rip the house apart" without finding a trace – a missing phonograph poses a similar puzzle ("not bulky, but not too easy to conceal, because of it's peculiar shape"). These two concealed objects "which cannot be found through extensive searches" suggests Elliott was familiar and very likely influenced by the works of Ellery Queen and Stuart Palmer. An exhaustive search for concealed or missing items often feature in their detective stories (e.g. Palmer's "The Riddle of the Whirling Lights," 1935), but there are also some hardboiled intrusions along the way. Most notably, the two gangsters who break into the house to make an attempt on one of the characters and have shootout with the police as they make their escape. Impressively, Elliott subtly integrated this violent intrusion into the puzzle plot and linked them together with a cleverly planted clue.

I can see why Jim called You'll Die Laughing frustratingly close to brilliant or why Tom Mead picked You'll Die Laughing as one of his "5 Underrated Locked Room Mysteries." Elliott packed a lot of great stuff into a mere 120 pages, which would have struggled to crack the 100 page mark had Ramble House used a smaller size font, but it feels like a full-fledged novel that you just breeze through in one sitting. So you can't help but feel a little disappointed that such a fun, loopy roller coaster ride with its, to quote Jim, "haywire, helter-skelter pace" and "the all-out pell-mell tone" is over when it feels like it has only just begun. However, I honestly don't see how you can improve upon it. Even by adding only a couple of lines or wrinkles. 

You'll Die Laughing is not a locked room mystery a la John Dickson Carr or Christianna Brand, but a short, fast-paced and pulp-style impossible crime story in the spirit of John Russell Fearn, Virgil Markham and Theodore Roscoe. Judged purely as a pulp-style locked room mystery, You'll Die Laughing genuinely can be counted as a minor classic with all the usual out-of-the-box ingenuity often found in the more imaginative pulp stories of the impossible variety. I think most readers can probably take a pretty good guess in which direction the solution to the locked room problem is heading, but Elliott skillfully elaborated on the main core of the trick and the answer to the broken, moved pieces of bedroom furniture is a stroke of absolute genius! Satisfyingly, the who-and why were not entirely overlooked in all the tumult, parlor tricks and discussions of crimes committed by three-dimensional humans in a world of two-dimensional creatures or a fourth-dimensional kidnapping someone unseen from the third dimension.

So, yeah, what else can I say except that You'll Die Laughing comes highly recommended to locked room fans and a warm commendations to everyone else looking for a Golden Age mystery that's not quite like the others. 

A note for the curious: Ramble House has low-key reprinted a lot of great, unusual and often original locked room/impossible crime fiction, which all standout for one reason or another. Firstly, there are Hake Talbot's two celebrated novels, The Hangman's Handyman (1942) and Rim of the Pit (1944). Max Afford's The Dead Are Blind (1937) and "The Vanishing Trick" (1948) from Two Locked Room Mysteries and a Ripping Yarn (2008). Norman Berrow's The Three Tiers of Fantasy (1947) and The Footprints of Satan (1950). Walter S. Masterman's The Wrong Letter (1926), Maurice C. Johnson's Damning Trifles (1932), Virgil Markham's The Devil Drives (1932), Manly Wade Wellman's Devil's Planet (1942) and RH edition of E.R. Punshon's Six Were Present (1956). All do something interesting, slightly different or downright original, but only recently realized how overlooked and underestimated RH's selection of locked room reprints are. They deserve to better known and might go for another Afford or Berrow next. So stay tuned!


Final Destination: "The Locked Roomette" (1990) by William Bankier

William Bankier was a Canadian mystery writer from Belleville, Ontario, who specialized in short fiction with over 200 short stories published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine from 1962 to 2010 – chiefly focusing on standalone stories with two exceptions. Firstly, there's a pair of short stories, "The Big Bunco" (1974) and "Real Bullets This Time?" (1997), featuring the detective duo of Joe Huck and Stan Percival. Secondly, Bankier penned some twenty stories with Baytown, Canada, as a series-character. Having a city or small town as the central "character" with the inhabitants acting as an ensemble cast is a rarity in detective fiction, but not unheard of. Theodore Roscoe wrote a series for Argosy about all the criminal activity, big and small, in the town of Four Corners and Japanese mystery writer Tokuya Higashigawa did the same in his Ikagawa City series. I would certainly be interested in a Baytown collection or track down a couple of stories to sample and compare to Roscoe and Higashigawa. But that's for another time.

The story under examination today is one of Bankier's numerous standalones, "The Locked Roomette," which was published in the November, 1990, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. You can probably gather from the title how and why it turned up on my radar. "The Locked Roomette" is listed in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) and described the impossible crime as "death by poison in a locked roomette on a moving train." A train-bound locked room mystery? Punch my ticket, I'm on board! 

"The Locked Roomette" opens with Bernie Loyola, Dean Parish and Penni Dandridge, employees of the R&B Advertising Agency, climbing aboard the Montreal-Toronto train en route to meet with an important client. But there's trouble ahead. Parish, a copywriter, is known around the agency as a manic depressive and has a mood on the down turn, which means he has gone to his roomette with four bottles of booze – one of them already empty when the train departed. Loyola drops in on him to check and tell him he has been forgiven. Loyola and Parish write songs as a sideline and Parish gave award winning lyrics, "one that won the CBC contest," to someone else. So the stage is set for the following morning, when they find Parish's compartment door securely locked from the inside and him unresponsive to their knocking. When the door is opened, they find Parish's body lying on the floor next to a syringe, a dose bottle and suicide note ("It's gone gone on far too long. It's time for me to end it").

Detective Sergeant Peter Cleary arrives to take charge of the case and the premise suggests he has to figure out whom of Parish's two colleagues, Loyola or Dandridge, cunningly staged his suicide. Clearly is prepared to accept Parish "injected himself with something lethal" and dismiss the case as a simple suicide, but Dandridge has her doubts and turns amateur detective to prove it was murder. That suddenly changed "The Locked Roomette" into an inverted detective story with an how-did-he-do-it angle as there is only one person left who could have done it. As we learned earlier this year from E.G. Cousins' Death by Marriage (1959), these type of stories can stand or fall on how that how-did-he-do-it is handled. I'm glad to report Bankier's "The Locked Roomette" passed that test a lot better than Death by Marriage.

I feared the locked room-trick might turn out to be routine in nature, like Parish getting drugged first and injected after the door was unlocked, but the trick proved to be a new wrinkle on a very particular locked room technique belonging to the category of (ROT13) whqnf jvaqbjf, hathneqrq cnguf naq nyvpr-qbbef – which incidentally is also the only real smudge on the solution. The trick is incredibly difficult to hide or camouflage in short story format and think most seasoned locked room fans will immediately zoom in on a particular detail. A detail that could have been better hidden in a novel-length story as emphasizing the state of the body and method of death would certainly would help draw some suspicious away from that very small, but mightily suspicious, detail. Nevertheless, I liked it and liked how the planted suicide note worked as an unintentional dying message.

So "The Locked Roomette" is a very good, solidly-plotted detective story, but I would be amiss if I didn't pointed out that, while being a classically-styled locked room mystery, the story also had some decidedly modern touches to the characterization and storytelling. Most notably, Clearly's brief backstory explaining why he's not eager on hunches without hard evidence backing it ("you could be too intense about this crime-solving business") and a bitter twist at the end making what happened on the train more of a senseless drama than an old-fashioned murder mystery. The plot perhaps needed a larger canvas to do it fully justice, but regardless of the story-length, Bankier's "The Locked Roomette" is a fine example of the inverted locked room mystery and worth considering for any potential future locked room-themed anthologies.


Five to Five (1934) by D. Erskine Muir

Dorothy Erskine Muir was a British academic who embarked on a writing career following the death of her husband, Thomas Muir, who died in 1932 of cancer and left her with two young children to support in the depths of the Great Depression – which is how she returned to academia. Muir supplemented her income by writing historical biographies and penned three detective novels under the name "D. Erskine Muir." While three novels is a modest contribution to the genre, Muir's detective fiction distinguishes itself by having "a true crime as the basis for the fiction plots" and "spinning original solutions to unsolved mysteries."

Moonstone Press has reprinted all three of Muir's detective novels, In Muffled Night (1933), Five to Five (1934) and In Memory of Charles (1941), which come with an introduction from Curt Evans. 

Five to Five is Muir's second, true-crime-inspired detective novel and has a plot drawing on the unsolved Glasgow murder in the 83-year-old spinster, Miss Marion Gilchrist. The murder became known as the Oscar Slater Case for the man upon whom the police "proceeded crudely to pin the crime." Curt Evans noted in his introduction that while a lot has been written on the Slater Case, they "mostly devoted themselves to pointing out the manifold structural weaknesses in the shaky scaffolding which the state had erected in support of Slater's shameful conviction." Muir pieced together and presented an altogether different solution to the problem. More importantly, Muir reportedly constructed her mysteries with "all the sober rigour of Freeman Wills Crofts" with a series-character, Detective Inspector Woods, "whom Crofts' own Inspector French doubtlessly would have been honoured to serve." So why not?

I should mention Five to Five is not a one-on-one recreation of the Slater Case combined with the author's solution. Rather, it takes the circumstances in which Miss Gilchrist was murdered and employ them as a framework for a similar, but completely fictitious, murder case. So the story takes some artistic liberties with the cast of characters ("all the above characters are fictitious and have no reference to any living person or persons") and naturally how the story plays out. A obvious difference between the Gilchrist murder and Five to Five is Oscar Slater has no analog in the story at all, but then again, Woods is not the type of policeman who would ignore or temper with evidence – clinging "tenaciously, like a pug on a trouser leg, to the belief that Slater was their man." Five to Five and Woods are Golden Age detectives with standards.

So instead of the murder and robbery of an octogenarian spinster in Glasgow, Scotland, the victim in Five to Five is the infirm Simon Ewing. An elderly, comparatively wealthy widower and "something of a tyrant" who collects jade and has a veritable heap of jewelry in the house ("it's just asking for trouble, and tempting people to come in"). Simon Ewing has an all-round reputation for being an "selfish, self-indulgent old man" and keeps everyone around him on a short leash. There's his struggling nephew and last remaining relative, George Fordham, whose wife Penelope, "a woman who was not finding life easy," tried to plead with him to help them out financially right before the murder. Ewing also frowns on Nurse Edwards having her time outs to get a breath of fresh air.

That's how things stand on the afternoon of the murder. At the time, Ewing's downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Dutton, is having tea with her niece and nephew, Anne and Henry Godfrey, and Doreen Godfrey. Henry's wife. During their little family tea party, they hear a muffled thud above their heads and moments later the front door bell rings. Nurse Edwards is standing there with a bruised, plastered face and one arm in a sling. She had been knocked down by a cyclist and had to go to the hospital to get patched up, which is why she was gone for so long. But when she returned to the flat, Ewing refused to answer or open the door. And she couldn't turn the stiff door key with her left hand. Henry goes up with Nurse Edwards and they meet a man, hat pulled down and collar turned up, going down the stairs from the top of the house – casually nodding goodnight as he went down and out to the street. Upstairs, Henry and Nurse Edwards discover the brutally battered remains of Simon Ewing lying in front of the hearth.

Just as promised, Detective Inspector Woods arrives on the scene to take charge of the investigation and lives up to his reputation "based upon the extreme thoroughness and tenacity with which he would scrutinize every detail of a crime." Scrutinizing he does!

Woods goes over the scene of the crime numerous times, interviewing everyone who was near the scene numerous times and drawing up timetables that get "checked again and again." This sounds like a laborious, plodding "humdrum" detective story and Five to Five unquestionable has a familial resemblance to the straightforward detective fiction of Freeman Wills Crofts and John Rhode, but it didn't read like one at all. Five to Five is not a lengthy mystery novel with relatively short chapters. So it never has an opportunity to became truly laborious and plodding as Woods uncovers bits and pieces of the truth. Logic and simple police routine. Since the story has a small cast of characters mostly confined to Clevedon Street, the story often read like a fleshed out stage play. Where the story bears an unmistakable resemblance to the detective fiction of Crofts and Rhode is that murderer, or murderers, identity is easily spotted with all the ingenuity going towards the method of the crime. There are definitely some clever touches to the circumstances in which the murder was committed.

A detail baffling Woods is "a man kneeling, or leaning over the body, must have been quite deeply stained with the spurting blood," but nobody concerned in the case had been stained with blood or had the time to remove it. Muir came up with a good, credible answer to the problem involving the missing murder weapon and Woods rightly called (SPOILER/ROT13) gur zheqreref oyraqvat vqragvsvrf gb pbashfr gur genvy "the real cleverness of the plot." Something worthy of Christopher Bush and Brian Flynn.

So, on a whole, Five to Five is a thoroughly solid, cleverly constructed detective novel in the tradition of Crofts and Rhode, but what makes the book standout is how it applied the skill of the mystery novelist to a cruel, sordid real-life-inspired crime and not going for the obvious take. It would been tempting to work the angle of an innocent man accused or turn it into a full-blown courtroom drama. Muir decided to show what could have happened if a competent and careful policeman had investigated the murder of Miss Gilchrist. I agree with Curt Evans "the author has come up with a far more credible solution than the Scottish authorities ever managed to do during their infamous investigation." If you're not allergic to Crofts and Rhode (you have been warned, Kate), Five to Five comes highly recommended and will be looking into her other true crime mysteries.