The Delft Blue Mystery (2023) by Anne van Doorn

Good news for your non-Dutch speaking mystery readers and impossible crime connoisseurs. Last year, I reviewed the first short novel in the new Gisella Markus series, In diepe rust (In Deep Peace, 2022), written by Dutch crime-and detective novelist M.P.O. Books and came with the announcement he was working on another series – an internationally flavored series published under his penname "Anne van Doorn." The first entry in the New York Cops series, Het Delfts blauw mysterie (The Delft Blue Mystery, 2023), was originally scheduled to be published in 2022, but the original Dutch edition got delayed until last May. Yes, you read that correctly. There's currently an English version in the works.

The Delft Blue Mystery has already been translated into English and the only thing holding up its publication is the ongoing search for a literary agent in the United States. So it may be some time before the English translation is released, but a few people have already read and commented on The Delft Blue Mystery like David Dean ("an impossible crime/locked-room mystery in modern day NYC is quite a feat of writing") and Tom Mead ("I absolutely love it"). I've been graciously given a review copy of the translation by E-Pulp to give my take on it as the resident locked room fanboy. And the timing couldn't have been better.

The Delft Blue Mystery is dedicated to Josh Pachter, author and translator, whose The Adventures of the Puzzle Club (2022), co-ghosted with Ellery Queen, was recently discussed on this blog – followed by reviews of S.S. van Dine's The Scarab Murder Case (1930) and Clayton Rawson's Death from a Top Hat (1938). So contemporary, Dutch seasoned take on Van Dine, Queen and Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series is a perfect, unintended capstone to that round of reviews. Let's see if Van Doorn succeeded in retaking Manhattan.

The story begins with a storm rocking New York City making the New Singer Building, a high-rise tower on West 33rd Street, sway like it has never done before. Mrs. Philippa DeRoos, blinded and paralyzed from the waist down in a climbing accident, lives on the seventy-second floor and "can't stand it when the tower is struck by strong winds," but the roaring wind is not the only reason for the deeply suspicious and superstitious Philippa DeRoos to be jittery. Philippa DeRoos has been getting weird phone calls and found two voodoo dolls on her bed, "one doll lay on her side of the bed, the other on her husband's," covered with dozens of needles. Suspected to be the handiwork of their former Haitian housekeeper. Gilbert DeRoos tries to reassure his wife, "evil spirits do not roam the streets, alleys, and skyscrapers of New York City," telling her that she's absolutely safe inside the penthouse as long as she don't anyone inside ("only someone who comes up can hurt you"). And then rushes off to an important business meeting. But soon things begin to happen inside the supposedly secure penthouse.

Philippa DeRoos believes she senses a presence around her, someone moving around the place and hears something crashing to the floor. She rings up the building's security guard, Jack O'Grady, who searches the place, but only finds fragments of white and blue pottery underneath a tall bookcase – which has collection of delftware pottery placed on it. Was it the swaying of the tower and Philippa DeRoos overactive imagination or had someone really invaded the penthouse? But the guard finds no one on the premises and left. When DeRoos returns from his business meeting, he finds that his wife locked herself in their bedroom and doesn't respond to his knocking. So together with another security guard, they break down the bedroom door to find Philippa's body. She died under very mysterious and suspicious circumstances, but how can an intruder possibly have bypassed the security cameras, keycard protected doors that log every opening and closing without showing up on any of them? Not to mention the bedroom door that was locked from the inside with the key still in the lock!

First of all, the opening chapters with the high-rise building swaying in the storm and an possible intruder, prowling invisibly, on the top-floor penthouse culminating with an inexplicable death in a locked room are excellent. It breaths like a Van Dine-Queen style detective novel and in particular Anthony Abbot's About the Murder of the Night Club Lady (1931), which also concerns an apparently invisible intruder in a top floor penthouse despite being guarded and constantly searched by the police. Only difference is that the New Singer Building has a view of modern-day New York and not merely guarded by locks, bolts and guards, but security cameras and computer-logged doors. This contrast between past and present, classics and moderns, permeates throughout the story and characters.

Detective Krell, of the 16th Precinct in midtown Manhattan, begins his day not only with a possible homicide on his hands, but gets saddled with a new partner. Merrilee Hopper comes from rural South Dakota and worked as a detective in a town called Salem Meadows, but transferred to New York to follow in the footsteps of S.S. van Dine, Ellery Queen and Rex Stout ("the city of the classics, the city of my heroes"). Merrilee likes to make Sherlockian deductions, theorize with brainstorm sessions and generally treats the investigation as a game. This greatly annoys the realistic-minded Krell whose first year with the NYPD cured him of such illusions ("crime investigation is no fun"). Krell tells Merrilee not to expect any carefully crafted puzzles in New York City, “crime is sordid,” because its filled with lying suspects and witnesses, corrupt officers, snitches, unsolved cases and manufactured evidence – simply "life as a police detective is also an ugly piece of shit." But his advise falls on deaf ears. And is told by the higher ups he's stuck with her for the foreseeable future.

So they have to investigate another sordid crime in New York City by working together as they try to find out how a nervous neighbor, a jealous lover, shoddy security guards and shady business dealing possibly figure in the death of Philippa DeRoos. However, the decidedly classical storybook trimmings of the case become hard to ignore when they persist in sticking around the place. The police locked and sealed the penthouse, but someone is heard moving inside and a witness from adjacent building saw someone with a flashlight walking from room to room. But, when the police arrive to inspect the place, nobody is found!

The Delft Blue Mystery is a locked room mystery with two impossibilities: the invisible intruder and the murder of Philippa DeRoos behind the locked doors of her bedroom. Firstly, the solution to the invisible intruder and how it related to broken Delft Blue bowl is brilliant! More importantly, the reason behind those intrusive incidents proved to be not without consequences. Secondly, the murder of Philippa DeRoos is a locked room mystery of a different order, but no less clever or inspired and rather reminiscent (in spirit) of the another, massively underrated New York mystery writer, Herbert Resnicow – who specialized in these type of impossible crimes. I'm just in two minds about the clueing and misdirection. Krell and Hopper have to wait a while for the results of the autopsy to come back, which makes the exact cause of death as mysterious as the circumstances under which Philippa died and pulled a haze over the clues. There are more than enough cleverly-planted clues, pointing both to the method and murderer, but with the cause of death being an open question, you can't expect your average armchair detective to spot and correctly interpreter all those clues. Long story short, I failed to pull-off a Gideon Fell with this locked room-puzzle. But other than picking at that one thread, I have absolutely nothing to complain or nitpick.

Van Doorn's The Delft Blue Mystery is not only an excellent introduction to a promising new series, but a fine example of what can be done when you build on the rich history of the genre to create something new and exciting for the future. This is another step towards our Second Golden Age.

A note for the curious: M.P.O. Books has been writing and publishing crime and detective novels of all stripes for nearly 20 years now, beginning with police procedurals/thrillers, but a love for Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie made him branch out to the more traditional forms of detective fictions – always trying to strike a balance between the classic and modern schools of crime fiction. So you can call him the Roger Ormerod of the Netherlands with a hint of Paul Halter as nobody in the history of my country has any writer been as prolific and consistent in producing impossible crime fiction as Books. Now that the English edition of The Delft Blue Mystery is in the works, I hope some of his older work eventually finds its way to a much more appreciative overseas audience. De laatste kans (The Last Chance, 2011) is an excellent detective dressed as a police procedural with one of my all-time favorite clues and need to reread it one of these days. Een afgesloten huis (A Sealed House, 2013) is the first notable locked room mystery to be published since Cor Docter's Koude vrouw in Kralingen (Cold Woman in Kralingen, 1970) and many turned over the years in the books and short stories published under his now open penname. Such as "Het huis dat ongeluk bracht" ("The House That Brought Bad Luck," 2018) and De man die zijn geweten ontlastte (The Man Who Relieved His Conscience, 2019). So tell the American, Brits, French and Japanese to make room, because the Dutch are coming to claim their seat at the table.


The Scarab Murder Case (1930) by S.S. van Dine

Willard Huntington Wright was an art critic, editor and, under the non de plume "S.S. van Dine," one of the most celebrated and influential American mystery writer of his day – who brought the Golden Age of detective fiction to the United States. Van Dine penned a dozen novels between 1926 and 1939 about aesthete and dilettante detective, Philo Vance. A somewhat divisive character who inspired Ogden Nash to write the now famous line, "Philo Vance needs a kick in the pance." Van Dine and Vance have been criticized for their batty plots, dotty logic and Vance's erudition on any subject that happened to be at the heart of the plot. You name the subject and Vance can give you his expert, first-hand opinion on it. But they also have their champions. Mike Grost writes on his website, "the mystery field does not honor Van Dine enough" as "he tried to synthesize the best elements of mystery fiction in his work" and "in doing so he founded a new school, one that opened the door for some of the best detective writing in American history."

My own experience with Van Dine's detective fiction has been spotty. I remember immediately solving The Benson Murder Case (1926) and only recall The "Canary" Murder Case (1927) had a decent locked room-trick. The Greene Murder Case (1928) took an interesting approach to the structuring of a detective story, but hardly a beacon of fair play and read an annoying, poorly dated Dutch translation of The Bishop Murder Case (1929). I think, to the surprise of absolutely nobody, that The Kennel Murder Case (1932) is the best Philo Vance (locked room) mystery encountered, so far, but The Dragon Murder Case (1933) completely put me off Van Dine until now. A ludicrously bad detective story about a premeditated murder hinging on two unpredictable assumptions that somehow came off exactly like the murderer planned. It was so ridiculously insulting, the remaining Philo Vance novels were moved to the bottom of the pile.

So never got around to supposedly good novels like The Casino Murder Case (1934), The Garden Murder Case (1935) or The Kidnap Murder Case (1936), but enough water has passed under the bridge to give Van Dine and Vance a second shot. After all, this blog is littered with references to the Van Dine School and reviews of writers like Anthony Abbot, Kelley Roos, Roger Scarlett and Ellery Queen.

The Scarab Murder Case (1930) is Van Dine's fifth detective novels and brings Philo Vance to the East Twentieth Street home of a famous Egyptologist, Dr. Mindrum W. C. Bliss, where he maintained a private museum of Egyptian antiquities – crammed with ancient treasures and trinkets. Dr. Bliss employs an archaeologist and technical expert, Donald Scarlett, who happened to be an old college mate of Vance and turned to him when he made a unsettling discovery in the private museum. Scarlett came to New York with Dr. Bliss as a member of his staff and went to the museum that morning to classify a batch of photographs, but found the body of "that old philanthropist and art patron," Benjamin H. Kyle, lying crumpled in the corner of the room. Kyle's skull had been crushed like an eggshell with a two-foot long statue of the Egyptian goddess of vengeance, Sakhmet, still lying across his head. And his arms encircling the feet of the feet of a life-sized statue of Anubis. The god of the underworld. There are a ton of highly incriminating clues, "the scarab pin, the financial report, and the footprints," which lead straight to Dr. Bliss. Vance warns Markham and Sgt. Heath not to rush to an arrest as "a devilish plot" (is there any other in this series?) has been introduced into Kyle's murder and unraveling that hideous scheme will save an innocent person from the electric chair ("a single false step on our part, and the plot will succeed").

So the story follows the fairly typical pattern of these 1920s and '30s Van Dine-Queen style brownstone mysteries with the lion's share taking place inside the walls of the East Twentieth Street brownstone and the private museum. The scene of the crime and uncovered clues are as closely scrutinized as the other members of the household. There's the wife of Dr. Bliss, Meryt-Amen, who's half Egyptian and her faithful family retainer, Anûpu Hani. A Coptic Christian, of sorts, who believes the murder was Sakhmet's vengeance for the desecration of Egypt's tombs. Lastly, the Assistant Curator of the Bliss Museum and Kyle's nephew, Robert Salveter. So a good, old-fashioned murder mystery with "the mystic and fantastic lore of ancient Egypt" with "its confused mythology and its grotesque pantheon of beast-headed
" furnishing the background of the story. Obviously trading on the Egyptian craze that gripped the West for nearly decades following Howard Carter's discovery of the long-lost tomb of Tutankhamen. But how does it all stack up?

First of all, The Scarab Murder Case marked Vance's fifth appearance and Van Dine evidently made some attempts to humanize Vance since debuting him in The Benson Murder Case. Vance still affects British mannerisms ("beastly mess, people getting murdered, what?") and is annoyingly up to date on all things Egyptological, which allows him to decipher a hieroglyphic letter ("let me see how well I remember my Egyptian... it's been years since I did any transliterating..."), but Vance is entirely motivated by preventing a miscarriage of justice and saving the reputations of his friends, Markham and Heath. Vance even show a glimmer of humor when Heath suggests he should have been a lawyer ("I'm only tryin' to save you and Mr. Markham from making a silly blunder. And what thanks do I get? I'm told I should have been a lawyer! Alack and welladay!"). A great improvement on his first appearance as The Benson Murder Case never answered the question how Markham resisted the urge to throttle Vance on the spot. Secondly, the treatment of clues and red herrings is fascinating. Markham refers to them as negative clues and direct clues, but, essentially, the red herrings the murderer planted at the murder scene become clues when Vance identified them as red herrings. That turns his normally annoyingly cryptic remarks into clues. So it's a pity the misdirection has worn a little thin nearly a 100 years after its original publication. I'm sure it worked like a train back in 1930, but, in 2023, it's only going to fool the newest, most innocently-eyed and unblemished of mystery fans.

However, while I spotted the murderer early in the game and cottoned on to all the clues, my only real bone of contention is how Vance disposed of the murderer. It's one thing to believe and lament "this elaborate invention of imbeciles, called the law, has failed to provide for the extermination of a dangerous and despicable criminal," but do the dirty work yourself. For someone of Vance's intellect, it would have been a mere parlor trick to improve on that preposterous death trap and have the murderer's death being written off as a cosmic coincidence or "divine justice." Other than that, The Scarab Murder Case has completely renewed my interest in Van Dine and will excavate The Casino Murder Case, The Kidnap Murder Case and English copy of The Bishop Murder Case from the depths of the big pile. Even more than that, The Scarab Murder Case made me want to reread Clyde B. Clason's The Man from Tibet (1938). So... to be continued.


Death from a Top Hat (1938) by Clayton Rawson

I did not intend to do another reread so soon after the recent Agatha Christie triptych of The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1916/20), The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) and Curtain (c. 1940/75), but lately, there has been a drought of detective fiction with a substantial locked room tangle – which is not to say there has been a dearth of impossible crime reviews. There's never a shortage of those around here. However, the only significant locked room mysteries discussed over the past three months on this blog are Bruce Elliott's You'll Die Laughing (1945), Christianna Brand's Suddenly at His Residence (1946) and Yukito Ayatsuji's Suishakan no satsujin (The Mill House Murders, 1988). So began digging around for a good, old-fashioned locked room mystery that lays it on thick, but currently nothing new or unread resides on the big pile that could make such a guarantee. I turned to a novel with a reputation for reveling in the seemingly miraculous and downright impossible.

Clayton Rawson was an American magician, managing editor of Ellery Queen's Mystery
and mystery novelist whose debut, Death from a Top Hat (1938), left something of a mark on the genre.

Since its publication, Rawson's Death from a Top Hat has enjoyed the status as a classic of its kind and a 1981 panel of seventeen authors, reviewers and experts voted the seventh best locked mystery of all time – beating the likes of Anthony Boucher's Nine Times Nine (1940), Helen McCloy's Through a Glass, Darkly (1950) and John Sladek's Invisible Green (1977). But when the next century rolled around, the list of long-time genre classics underwent a slow revision as the internet began to make them easily accessible. Something I commented on in my reviews of Christie's Murder on the Orient Express (1934) and John Dickson Carr's Till Death Do Us Part (1944). Death from a Top Hat is one of those classics whose status has been challenged in recent times as some have argued its reputation far outstrips the quality of the plot. Let's find out if it can stand up to a reread.

First of all, this is the first I've read Death from a Top Hat in English as the first read was a Dutch translation, De vermoorde magiër (The Murdered Magician). Secondly, Death from a Top Hat is inevitable compared to Carr's The Three Coffins (1935) as it expands on Dr. Gideon Fell's famous Locked Room Lecture and always thought it was a little unfair to measure Rawson's debut against The Three Coffins, but had forgotten those comparisons were invited.

The Three Coffins opened alluding to the impossible murder of Professor Grimaud and the equally incredible crime in Cagliostro Street, which were committed "in such fashion that the murderer must not only have been invisible, but lighter than air." A murderer who can disappear into thin air and pass over freshly-fallen snow without leaving footprints. Death from a Top Hat begins on a similar note stating, "the New York Police Department's official attitude toward the infernal arts of witchcraft and sorcery was damnably inconvenient” when facing "murderer who apparently leaves the scene of his crimes by walking straight through solid walls of brick and plaster and by floating in midair out of second story windows." The Three Coffins is also famous for the brief scene in which Dr. Fell breaks the fourth wall and while Rawson never goes that far here, the first chapter can certainly be read as a piece of meta-fiction.

The story begins with the narrator of the series and freelance reporter, Ross Harte, writing a treatise on the deplorable state of the detective story ("why write a detective story when all the good plots have been used, all the changes rung, all the devices made trite?") in his New York apartment when there's a ruckus next door. In the corridor, there are three people pounding on the door of the apartment across Harte's and a woman's voice saying, "there is death in that room." The apartment belongs to a once top-rated anthropologist, Dr. Cesare Sabbat, who specializes in primitive magic and religions, but "his subject ran away with him" – giving credence to vampires and dabbling "in what he called modern alchemy." When the door is broken open, the group finds the strangled remains of Dr. Sabbat lying on the living room floor, "symmetrically spread-eagled in the exact center of a large star shape that had been drawn on the floor with chalk," tipped at each point with a burning candle. Strange words drawn in chalk, "Come Surgat," surround the pentacle. All the windows are bolted shut and the doors, both of them, were locked, bolted and the keyholes plugged from the inside with pieces of cloth.

By the way, Surgat is the name of a minor demon "who opens all locks" and the book include a neat woodcut reproduction of the fella in question, but is "Surgat roaming around loose, twisting necks and slithering out through keyholes"?

Inspector Homer Gavigan, "one of the department's brighter lights," arrives on the scene to find that practically all his witnesses and potential suspects comprise of a small and vastly growing variety act ("...would only bring along a couple of acrobats and a man who could play Humoresque on the saw, we could go to town with a full evening's show"). However, I'm going to bother with the cast of characters as a not wholly unjustly criticism of Death from a Top Hat today is that it's all plot and no characters. Only real characters here are Ross Harte, Inspector Gavigan and Rawson's series-detective, The Great Merlini, who runs a magic shop (Miracles for Sale) and has helped the police in the past. Harte suggests to Gavigan to bring him in as an outside expert and they go all in on the locked room problem. The banter and discussion of "locked room theory" between those three was a sheer joy to rediscover as Rawson wrote like Death from a Top Hat was going to be his only detective novel. Rawson piled on the cast-iron and gold-plated alibis, false-solutions and additional impossibilities like a tailed suspect vanishing from a taxi. And that only accounts for the first-half of the story.

I don't recall this was ever brought up or pointed out, but, while Rawson aligned Death from a Top Hat with Carr's The Three Coffins, the first-half is unmistakably written in the tradition of S.S. van Dine, Anthony Abbot and early Ellery Queen – missing only a challenge to the reader. Firstly, a good chunk of the first-half takes place in the victim's apartment. A thorough, even exhaustive, investigation to detect and deduce what happened is a staple of the early Van Dinean detective story. Secondly, Merlini is undoubtedly a much more likable character than Philo Vance and young Ellery Queen, but you can see their characters reflected in Merlini during the first-half as he displays his specialized knowledge or when discovering Dr. Sabbat's book collection ("...when you turn a bookworm of my inclinations loose in a pasture like this..."). Lastly, the story is littered with Van Dine-like footnotes providing ancient recipes for the flying ointment or to explain that "a colony of 1000 Lemurians (from the Pacific's even more ancient lost continent of Mu) was reported as late as 1932 to exist on the slopes of Mt. Shasta." They added a little extra to the overall story in addition to two detailed illustrations of locked room crime scenes.

Somewhere around the halfway mark, the body of a second victim is discovered under nearly identical circumstances, "exactly the same position as had the body of Sabbat," which offers an even bigger impossibility. Before the body is found, two witnesses heard a strong and lively argument going on inside the locked room ending with the man who they heard laughing saying, "and the police will never know." When the room is entered, they find everything properly locked and bolted with the exception of an open window with a ladder propped up on the outside. However, the foot of the ladder surrounded by snow "as white and unmarked as a new sheet of paper" and the murderer must have been able to float in midair to have escaped that way. This second impossible murder turns Merlini attention to Dr. Gideon Fell and his famous Locked Room Lecture from The Three Coffins. That "fairly comprehensive classification of the possible methods of committing murder and contriving to have the body found in a sealed room," which is put to good use as Merlini plucks half a dozen false-solutions out of thin air as easily and routinely as making a half dollar coin vanish and reappear. Robert Adey referred to this portion of Death from a Top Hat as "the second-best essay on the methods of effecting a locked-room murder" in Locked Room Murders (1991). Right behind Dr. Fell's Locked Room Lecture. It certainly is an impressive play on the multiple solution ploy from a debuting author.

But does it all hold up in the end? Was the 1981 panel correct in voting it the seventh best locked room mystery up until then or is the criticism from today's somewhat justified? This is going to be a cop out, because I think there's something to be said for both camps.

I half-remembered the locked room-tricks being a bit more involved and complicated, but they were extremely basic with some stage dressing thrown on them. That made them land like a damp squib. After all the building and examining numerous possible explanations to the locked rooms, you would expect something moderately clever that was overlooked or unsuspected combination of the various false-solutions. Even if that, too, turns out to be somewhat basic in nature. But something that looks new or used in a different way. This is like if Carr would have revealed that the mysterious, ever-present judas window he had been making a lot of hay about is nothing more than a hidden knot-hole in the locked door or the wooden frame of the steel-shuttered windows. Not the stuff of classics!

So have to agree with the critics of today that, purely as a locked room mystery, Death from a Top Hat is not the seventh best of its kind, but I can understand how it acquired its classical status – why it endured such a long-lasting popularity among locked room connoisseurs. For the longest time, Death from a Top Hat was the only detective novel offering readers a locked room extravaganza with the everything and the kitchen sink approach. Gaston Leroux's L'homme qui revient de loin (The Man Who Came Back from the Dead, 1912) and Noël Vindry's A travers les murailles (Through the Walls, 1936) were tucked away behind a language barrier. Horatio Winslow and Leslie Quirk's Into Thin Air (1928/29) was as obscure back then as it's today. Hake Talbot's Rim of the Pit (1944) was still six years away from being published and John Vance's The Fox Valley Murders (1966) was not identified as a multiple impossible crime novel until Brian Skupin's Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019) corrected that oversight. Nowadays, we have become terribly spoiled when it comes to locked room mysteries with multiple, ingeniously-contrived impossible crimes littering the works of James Scott Byrnside, A. Carver, Paul Halter, Jim Noy and the growing list of Japanese translations, but there was a time when Death from a Top Hat was one of those few treats locked room fans could completely loose themselves in. No extraneous, detracting matters like character building or realism. Just throwing out possible solutions how you can get out of sealed rooms.

I was not immune to its charm and thoroughly enjoyed it, even if the ending lacked some much needed ingenuity or simply something clever to punch its ticket as an all-time classic. Death from a Top Hat has now lost some of its shine as others have since come along and played a similar game with better and much more satisfying results. Still an impressive debut warmly recommended to hopeless addicts of locked room and impossible crime fiction like myself.


The Adventures of the Puzzle Club (2022) by Ellery Queen and Josh Pachter

The New York cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee were the heart and brain behind one of the most important names in the American detective story, "Ellery Queen," whose contributions as writers, editors and founders of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine cannot be overstated – promoting and spreading the detective story across the world. Ellery Queen still enjoys popularity today in counties like Italy and Japan where they influenced such writers as Alice Arisugawa and Rintaro Norizuki. And while the English-speaking world has yet to produce someone who can lay claim to the Queen's mantle, the cousins have to this day a dedicated and active fanbase who continue to champion their work.


A group of radical royalists, called The West 87th Street Irregulars, "who collectively have committed themselves to the preservation and revival of Ellery Queen" with "the goal of making Ellery Queen once again a vibrant and recognized name in detective fiction." A queen's quorum of writers and editors who write pastiches, parodies and continuations concerning all things Elleryana and editing anthologies. In recent years, Dale C. Andrews and Josh Pachter compiled two EQ themed anthologies, The Misadventures of Ellery Queen (2018) and The Further Misadventures of Ellery Queen (2020), which in spite of their titles are glowing tributes to Ellery Queen. And not a single truly bad story between them!

Josh Pachter's most recent project, The Adventures of the Puzzle Club (2022), is dedicated to a largely forgotten passage from the tail-end of Dannay and Lee's writing career. During the 1960s and early '70s, they produced five short-short stories introducing Ellery Queen and his readers to the members of the Puzzle Club. A tiny group of puzzle enthusiasts comprising of Cyrus Syres ("multimillionaire oilman"), Emmy Wandermere ("the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet"), Dr. Vreeland ("noted psychiatrist"), Darnell ("celebrated criminal lawyer"), Dr. Arkavy ("the Nobel biochemist") and the famous detective novelist, Ellery Queen. The Puzzle Club convene regularly at Syres' Park Avenue penthouse to mystify each other, "in a sort of ritual adoration of the question mark," which originally covered five short-short stories published in two badges – two in 1965 and three in 1971. The series ended with Lee's passing in 1971. The stories were collected separately, in Queen's Experiments in Detection (1968) and The Tragedy of Errors (1999), but never appeared together as there simply were not enough of them to justify a collection.

Fortunately, Pachter had a pastiche, "a further adventure for Ellery and the Puzzle Club," published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in 2019 and editor Janet Hutchings accepted the story with "the caveat that it would be a one-off, not the kick-off for a series of Puzzle Club pastiches." So he wrote four additionally Puzzle Club with Sherlockian-themed titles. Suddenly, the amount of material had doubled. Add introductions for each individual story and Pachter's four short stories about Tyson County’s Griffen family, The Adventures of the Puzzle Club was practically ready to go to the printers. Let's see how this collection turned out.

"The Little Spy" originally appeared in the January, 1965, issue of Cavalier and begins with Ellery Queen receiving an invitation to attend the next meeting of the Puzzle Club to be subjected to a membership test ("...if you fail to solve the puzzle we're going to throw at you tonight, you'll never be invited to try again"). The WWII-era problem he has to solve concerns an undistinguished ex-civil servant, "who came out of retirement to do his bit for Uncle Sam," but, shortly before D-Day, Intelligence received an important tip – accusing the undistinguished civil servant of being a German spy. So when he suddenly booked a priority airline passage to London, they yanked him off the plane and gave him "the most thorough search in the long and honorable history of spy-catching." It took them a while, but, in the end, they found the top-secret material. The question Ellery Queen has to answer is where the Intelligence people discovered the spy message. A clever little story that gives the central clue in the setup of the problem and then becomes a process of elimination as Ellery goes over every possible hiding place. Needless to say, Ellery passes the test to become the sixth regular member of the Puzzle Club.


"The President Regrets" first appeared in the September, 1965, issue of Diners Club Magazine and the Puzzle Club intended to welcome no less a figure than the President of the United States ("...known to be a devotee of mysteries in all lawful forms"), but the president had to cancel at the last minute. So it's up to Ellery to improvise a puzzle for his fellow club members and imagines the murder of a Hollywood starlet, Valetta van Buren, who had been threatened by one of her four suitors and had written to Ellery to ask for help. But the letter arrived too late. Valetta was murdered by the suitor who had threatened her without naming him, but she wrote in the letter "she had something in common with three of the four, and that the fourth was the one who had threatened her." Arguably, the most obvious and telegraphed solution ever devised by EQ.

"The Three Students," originally published in the March, 1971, issue of Playboy, centers on the problem of a ring taken from the office of a college president and "a delegation of three students who represent three dissident groups at the college" play the role of suspects. Only clue is a scrap of paper with a gibberish verse written on it. Unfortunately, the solution hinges on a specialized piece of knowledge. So practically unsolvable for most readers.

A note for the curious: the story is introduced by Martin Edwards and comments how extraordinary it seems that it was originally published in Playboy, which is a subject that came up not so long ago on this blog. Back in March, I reviewed Lawrence Block's "The Burglar Who Dropped In On Elvis" (1990) and "D," from Vintage Pop Fiction, commented, "Playboy published some excellent fiction because they could afford to pay writers real money."

"The Odd Man" originally appeared in the June, 1971, issue of Playboy and is the best of the original five Puzzle Club stories brilliantly playing on that EQ specialty, the multiple solutions. The Puzzle Club has concocted a riddle bound to confound their resident mystery writer and has to do with an undercover agent whose assignment it is to track down a dope supplier, which the agent narrowed down to three suspects who all live in the same building – a three-story house ("someday... instead of a three-story house, I shall make up a three-house story"). The undercover agent is murdered, but there was a clue in his last report referring to the drug supplier as "the odd man of the three." The Puzzle Club believe there's only one possible solution to the problem, but Queen points out there are two more solutions. All three solutions come back to the same person. A minor tour-de-force!

"The Honest Swindler" appeared in The Saturday Evening Post during the Summer of 1971 and relatively simple, straightforward problem of Old Pete who gathered funds to finance his hunt for uranium with the promise that "every last investor at least gets back his original investment" in case of failure. So how was Prospector Pete able to pack back everyone of his backers when he returned empty handed? A decent enough short-short, but unremarkable.

The next five stories, "The Pastiches," were penned by Pachter who brought the band back
together after nearly fifty years and aged the characters along. Syres is now a wiry, crippled old man in a wheelchair and Ellery takes an Uber to the Park Avenue skyscraper. Pachter's pastiches unapologetically revels in the typical EQ elements of dying messages, missing clues and the-three/four-suspects. So, in a way, Pachter succeeded in making his pastiches even more Queen-ish than the original five Puzzle Club stories.

"A Study in Scarlett," originally published in the May/June, 2019, issue of EQMM brings the club together for the first time in decades and they immediately place Ellery in the hot seat – known known as the "Problem Chair." The intellectual challenge of the meeting takes Ellery to the Sherbert Theater, on West 47th Street, where lead actress, Brooke Rivers, is found murdered in her dressing room. Rivers loved word games, "crosswords, cryptics, acrostics, word searches, logic problems," fittingly left a dying message. A hastily scrawled word, "FOUR." Even more fittingly, there are exactly four suspects who could have murdered the starlet. I suppose the dying message is solvable, but you probably should put the book away when you arrive at the challenge to the reader and mull it over. I didn't get this one.

"The Adventure of the Red Circles" first appeared in the January/February, 2020, issue of EQMM and the Puzzle Club have a tailor-made problem for Ellery: owner of a successful chain of grocery stores and a collector of first editions of Golden Age detective novels, Jeremiah "Red" Edwards, died in his (unlocked) library of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound. On the desk, the police finds the proofs for next week's advertising circular and Edwards had circled photographs of four items on the page with cheeses ("...in true dying-message-story fashion"). The fun solution is something only an Ellery Queen fan can dream up and appreciate.

"The Adventure of the Black-and-Blue Carbuncle" was originally published in the November/December, 2020, issue of EQMM and the Puzzle Club have another dying message problem for Ellery, but found the premise and backdrop of the puzzle better than its execution. Professor Lee Dannay is a SETI researcher (The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) who's hunched over the controls of the radio telescope one night, when a gunman enters the observatory. The gunman forces the professor to write a suicide note and shoots him, but the professor hide a clue to the murderer's identity in the note. Ellery has to find it and correctly interpreter it to solve the puzzle. The problem is that the plot (deliberately) recycles the central idea from a previous story, which came with exactly the same limitation.

A note for the curious: the story is introduced by Kurt Sercu, founder of Ellery Queen: A Website On Deduction, who writes Pachter warned him that it might be impossible for him to beat Ellery to the solution, because Sercu's not American "born and bred." Funnily enough, both Pachter and Sercu speak Dutch. If you speak Dutch, you should be able to eliminate one of the three suspects.

"The Five Orange Pipes" was first published in the January/February, 2021, issue of EQMM and is the hardest story to describe. This time, Ellery challenges the other members of the Puzzle Club with a problem starved of details, but the central question is the proximate cause of death of two of the characters. The solution is one of those elbow-in-the-ribs jokes, but amusing enough. Somewhat like a lighthearted take on Edmund Crispin and Geoffrey Bush's "Who Killed Baker?" (1950). I learned that the term Sherlockian is used in the United States and Holmesian purely British. I always used them interchangeable. There's a lock in Sherlockian. So I'll stick with that one from now on.

"Their Last Bow," originally published in the January/February, 2022, issue of EQMM, is equally difficult to discuss. In his introduction, Pachter writes "I was determined not to write more about the Puzzle Club than Dannay and Lee did, I felt that I had to do something in the fifth story to make it clear that there would never be—could never be—another one." Ellery does not meet his Reichenbach, of course, but it's the end for the Puzzle Club. I think Dannay and Lee would have approved of the conclusion to this unfinished chapter of their writing career.

The collection ends with Pachter's four short stories about the eleven children of Inspector Ross Griffen, of the Tyson County Police Force, all of whom he named after famous detective characters. I previously reviewed "E.Q. Griffin Earns His Name" (1968) in The Misadventures of Ellery Queen and "E.Q. Griffin's Second Case" (1970) in The Further Misadventures of Ellery Queen. So onto the third story.

"Sam Buried Caesar," originally published in the August, 1971, issue of EQMM, when Pachter was 18-years-old and, as I read the story, it went from a highlight of the collection to one of my all-time favorite detective parodies. The story tells the only recorded case of the youngest child of the Griffen family, Nero Wolfe Griffen, who runs a detective agency from the family garage with his best friend, Artie Goodman – who needs to keep reminding everyone his name Artie ("...not Archie Goodwin"). They charge fifteen cents, plus expenses, which is "nowhere near as profitable as a good paper route but lots more enjoyable." Their newest client is Sam Cabot whose dog, Caesar, has just been killed by a speeding car near a lonely and vacant field. Not knowing what to do and without any adults around, Sam decided to bury Caesar in a corner of the vacant field. But decided to go back to get Caesar's collar and tags as a memento. When he dug up the grave, Caesar's body was gone! So what happened? Just like Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, Artie has to do all the legwork and comes away with skinned arms, while N.W. Griffen never left the armchair in the garage. But at the end of the day, they both arrive at exactly the same conclusion. An incredibly amusing story and a strangely spot on parody of Rex Stout.

A note for the curious: Pachter mentions on his website that Stout "was still alive at the time the story appeared in print and I got a very nice not from him, telling me that he's enjoyed it."

"50" originally appeared in the November/December, 2018, issue of EQMM and written to mark the 50th anniversary of "E.Q. Griffin Earns His Name," which makes it as difficult to discuss as "Their Last Bow." The story is a reminiscence rather than a detective story in which Pachter seems to have merged himself with the now 66-year-old Professor E.Q. Griffen who teaches English literature at a small college. When the story opens, Griffen is preparing a lecture when his mind begins to wander to the past and reveals he wrote “E.Q. Griffin Earns His Name” as sixteen year old ("for the purposes of this, his first short story, young Ellery had expanded the family to eleven children..."). That brings him to an old and solved murder case as his father told him "not all crimes are mysteries," but reviewing his old, half-forgotten memories supplemented by a couple of Google searches proposes a new solution to the murder based on the victim's dying message. But what can be done five decades after the facts? A very odd, but weirdly effective, story to round out the collection. I really liked the blurring between author and character.

The Adventures of the Puzzle Club is an enjoyable collection and an even better tribute to an obscure passage from Ellery Queen's varied career, but comes with the proviso that the Puzzle Club stories are riddles and brainteasers in short-short story form. So the stories are just slightly more substantial than the radio episodes of Ellery Queen's Minute Mysteries or the one-page shorts from How Good a Detective Are You? (1934). "The Odd Man" being the only real exception with its impressive triple solutions. Unless you're a fan of EQ, you have to approach this collection as something of an oddity, but if you're a fan or simply like EQ, The Adventures of the Puzzle Club is not to be missed.

 On a somewhat related and final note: I always wanted to see Timothy Hutton reprise his father's role from the 1975 TV-series of Ellery Queen, if only for a one-off, but it has pointed out that Hutton is getting a little too old to play Ellery. So why not adapt Dale C. Andrews and Kurt Sercu's pastiche "The Book Case" (2007) with a 100-year-old Ellery as the canonical ending to the original TV-series? You can age him up with makeup and he would like Jim Hutton's Ellery at age 100.


Broken Pieces: Q.E.D. vol. 27-28 by Motohiro Katou

This series needs no introduction and there have been enough excessively padded blog-posts lately. So let's jump right in.

Motohiro Katou's Q.E.D. vol. 27 begins with an inconspicuous gem, "Mirror Image," in which
Kana Mizuhara roped Sou Touma into cycling her around town and bring lunch to her father, Inspector Mizuhara – who's investigating a suspicious house fire. A fire had burned through the second floor of a house that had stood abandoned since the previous owner died. This brings what should have been a recurring character into the story, Sakuma Toyokichi, who's a crime scene investigator and "an expert in fire scenes." Toyokichi is going to retire the next day and so the fire in the abandoned house is the last time he'll be sifting through the ashes of a potential crime scene, which he does with decades of experience behind him. Toyokichi brought along a group of rookie investigators to instruct ("don't go into the scene with preconceptions"), demonstrates his ability to identify burned or molten pieces of debris ("he's like a dictionary") and pinpointing the origin of the fire with a bucket of water. I really liked how this old crime scene investigator contrasts and complimented the young amateur detective. Touma is a teenage math prodigy who not always willingly has to play the amateur (armchair) detective and reasons the truth from often abstract clues, while old Toyokichi is an experienced hand whose job simply "is to collect evidence." They worked very well together which brings us to the puzzle component of the story.

There are four suspects to consider, as they were the only people with keys to the house, which include the twin daughters of the late home owner, Reiko and Hanako, who were separated when their parents divorced. Reiko went with her father and Hanako with her mother. So they lived entirely different lives and furthered the effect of being mirror images of each other. They both have a mole on their chin, but Reiko's mole is on her right side and Hanako has one on her left "as they were mirror images of each other," but Hanako, unlike her sister, suffered many financial hardships while living with her mother. So they never really got along and naturally accuse each other. But how does it all relate to the fire? Touma reasons that "behind this case there is a problem not behind the difference of left and right, but it is hidden within the problem of front and back." What follows is a chain of deductions that first exonerates all four suspects, before demonstrating what logically must have happened. Brilliantly reasoned!

So the story is a character-driven character piece, which has to be pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle, but an extremely clever and well done character piece. More importantly, "Mirror Image" is a great example that good detective fiction does not always have to depend tropes and tricks like cast-iron alibis, dying messages, impossible crimes or even something as simple as a body. You can do away with all of these and still produce excellent detective fiction, but, as Q.E.D. has demonstrated countless of times, it requires an appreciation and understanding what makes a detective story trick – something of a series specialty. And the next story is another experimental one.

The second story, "Burden of Proof," mixes high school theatrics and social studies with courtroom dramatics. A mock trial is staged at the school of Sou Touma and Kana Mizuhara to familiarize students with the new court and jury system. A lottery is going to randomly pick six names of students who have to sit on the jury and both were drawn for jury duty. The case of the mock trial is a simple one: Toyokawa Tsuneo stands accused of assaulting a woman, Azuma Sachiko, and robbed her of 150,000 yen. The prosecutor presents the jury with a string of circumstantial evidence with the defense showing why there's a difference between direct and circumstantial evidence, which the jurors have to weigh and decide if there's enough to prove the accused is guily beyond reasonable doubt. Touma points out towards the end, "the burden of proof falls entirely on the prosecution" and "the jurists may only make their decision based on the presented evidence." This gives the story a loophole to cheat without actually cheating as the trial is an entirely different matter, legally, than the solution Touma provides at the end ("the prosecution overlooked one possibility").

So, conceptually, "Burden of Proof" is an interesting story, but not nearly as good, or memorable, as the first story. Another excellent and solid volume with two great stories that continued to look for new ways to tell a detective story.

Q.E.D. vol. 28 starts with an archaeological mystery, "Pharaoh's Necklace," which incidentally became my backdoor introduction to Q.E.D.'s companion series C.M.B. Someone warned awhile ago that a crossover story is imminent, but it had simply slipped my mind and now all those plans so carefully laid out in the review of volumes 25 and 26 have come under threat. I really, really want to read C.M.B. now, but first things first. Sou Touma and Kana Mizuhara travel to Cairo, Egypt, where an acquaintance from his university days in America discovered a new tomb in the northern part of the Valley of the Kings. Thomas Potter, an archaeologist, tumbled into a tomb containing two mummies and the female mummy has royal necklace around her neck. So it has to be a royal mummy, but, before the untouched tomb can be thoroughly investigated, Potter is struck down by falling rocks – landing him in the hospital. Now he has the sponsor of the excavation on his back and called on Touma to take his place as a favor ("but... this is out of my field"). Touma accepting the assignment confronts him with two mysteries from the past and present.

Why was there a royal necklace in a tomb that appears to have been a commoner's tomb? Why does everyone involved in the excavation keep having unfortunate accidents? Since archaeology is outside of his expertise, Touma calls upon his cousin from his mother's side, Sakaki Shinra, who's the protagonist of C.M.B. and happened to be in Egypt to handle a murder case at the Museum of Antiquities. A story from C.M.B. vol. 6 in which Mizuhara lends him a helping hand in solving that murder. But here, Shinra helps Touma by inspecting the necklace and concludes it's genuine enough. Just completely out-of-time for the date of the tomb in which it was found. The solution to this historical conundrum, simplicity itself, proved to be much better than the contemporary problem of the dig-side accidents. Touma's hypothesis about the two mummies, differing states of preservation, presence of a royal necklace and the sealed entrance is well reasoned and provided a satisfying, if bitter sweet, answer to those ancient questions. That alone is sufficient to make "Pharaoh's Necklace" a personal favorite, but loving crossovers and archaeological mysteries almost as much as impossible crimes and unbreakable alibis also helped a lot. So, on a whole, a pretty good and fun little story!


Regrettably, I can't say the same of the second and last story, "Human Firework," which reads like a modern retelling of Edogawa Rampo as a psychological crime story. The story concerns drawing in a sketchbook depicting the body of a woman in various stages of decomposition. Touma compares the sketches to a certain type of Buddhist painting, kusoshi emaki, which "consists of nine parts starting from when someone died until the body decomposes" to make death easier for people to understand, but the sketches look new – like they were drawn "while observing a real body." But do these disturbing possess the power to change someone's behavior? The crux of the story is people who got swallowed by their own darkness. Q.E.D. has a great track record when it comes to making these off-beat, often experimental stories work, but "Human Firework" is not one of them. And perhaps it was the wrong story to follow "Pharaoh's Necklace." But who am I to complain? One out of four stories, spread across two volumes, left me underwhelmed, which is not a bad score at all. So, all things considered, another splendid demonstration why Q.E.D. is the 21st century detective story.

A note for the curious: "Burden of Proof" officially broke the series timeline and continuity. Q.E.D. started out in the late nineties with vol. 2, 3, 4 and 5 covering the period from 1998 to 1999 with vol. 6 taking place days before New Year. After that, the timeline and continuity got a bit blurry, but those earliest stories clearly took place during the late '90s and early '00s. "Burden of Proof" is set in 2007! So, if you follow the original timeline, Touma and Mizuhara should be in their mid-twenties. You tried, Katou. You tried.


Six Dead Men (1930/31) by S.A. Steeman

Back in April, I reviewed a fairly dated Dutch-Flemish translation of La nuit du 12 au 13 (The Night of the 12th-13th, 1931) by Stanislas-André Steeman, a Franco-Belgian writer, who has been called the most important and brilliant names from the French Golden Age – "a master plotter and a relentless experimenter." Xavier Lechard agrees Steeman was "one of the greatest and most inventive plotters of all times" on par with Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr. The Night of the 12th-13th gives a glimpse of how Steeman influenced and helped shape the classically French detective story of the 1930s, but there's an odd little thing about the either storytelling, plot or translation. The locked room murder is never treated or even acknowledged as an impossible crime.

I was baffled why the locked room element was ignored and feared the problem could be a condensed translation, rather than a stylistic experiment, but Nick Fuller left an illuminating comment: "I read this in late 2022 and found it inscrutable. Native French speakers complain that the writing is not always comprehensible and the slang fatally archaic." Well, Steeman was a French-speaking Belgian from Walloon and suppose he muddled his writing with formal French and Belgian-French, but Nick's comment suggests the translations are an improvement on the original French texts. I read a rather dated Dutch-Flemish translation from 1935 and found it to be perfectly comprehensible. So, with that in mind, I poked around a bit and found an old Dutch translation of the novel that solidified Steeman as a leading light of the French Golden Age detective story.

Six hommes morts (Six Dead Men, 1930/31) netted the then 23-year-old Steeman the 1931 Grand Prix du Roman d'Aventures and a translation published the following year gave him a brief, fleeting presence in the English-speaking world, but disappeared as fast as he had appeared – likely due to a lack of new translations or fresh reprints. I noted in the review of The Night of the 12th-13th how scarce secondhand copies of the English edition of Six Dead Men have become and copies that are available tend to come with a hefty price-tag. Those who managed to snare a copy were unanimous in their praise. Curt Evans thought Six Dead Man is "a great novel to read alone in a 1930s apartment building at midnight" and Martin Edwards called it "a real landmark of the genre." So thank you to that rebellious Dutch province of Flanders for making Six Dead Men and The Night of the 12th-13th a little easier to get your hands on.

Six Dead Men concerns six young, poor friends, Henry Namotte, Marcel Gernicot, Nestor Gibbe, Hubert Tignol, Georges Senterre and Jean Perlonjour, who collectively agreed their current state of affairs is deplorable and things had to change. Drastically. So they agreed to break away from their old life, scatter to the four corners of the world and work hard towards making a fortune. They would reunite in exactly five years time to fulfill their agreed upon promise to "put together whatever they might have earned and won" and divide the pile equally among the six men. But there's a catch. The agreement can work like a tontine insurance policy ("each time one of us disappears, the share of the others grows in proportion"). What could possibly go wrong?

When the reunion date crawls nearer, the six men begin to journey back home and some of them earned a fortune, but not everyone has been as lucky or fortunate – not merely where the money is concerned. One of them dies on the home journey when he falls overboard, while another brings back a crazy story about a man with a red beard and dark glasses who condemned the six to death. And believes this mysterious man has followed him back home. This mysterious man makes an appearance almost on cue, fires a shot that leaves one of the men mortally wounded and promptly disappears. Next, the dying man is taken away, presumably kidnapped on account of the coded tattoo on his chest.

Inspector Wenceslas Vorobeitchick arrives on the scene to mark his first appearance and the first time I got to see him act as a proper detective from beginning to end. Vorobeitchick is seriously wounded in The Night of the 12th-13th and had to make an early exit as the examining magistrate with two inspectors carried on the investigation on his behalf. A highlight of Vorobeitchick's handling of the case comes when the third victim is stabbed under apparently impossible circumstances, while riding alone in an elevator to a second floor apartment. The Night of the 12th-13th never acknowledged its impossible crime element. So nice to see Steeman giving it some consideration in Six Dead Men, but Vorobeitchick needs only a single chapter to figure out the locked room-trick. A rather mundane one at that. There are better and more inspired takes on the inexplicable murders or disappearances from sealed elevators, but the trick served its purpose here as a small cog in the machine of the plot.

The ingenuity of Six Dead Men is found in the identity of its mysterious murderer and the attempt made to misdirect the reader, which is unlikely to work on many readers today, but undoubtedly did the trick back in the early 1930s – deserving the comparison to Agatha Christie. There are, however, some issues. Xavier warned that despite Steeman's "almost carrian devotion to fair-play," the storytelling and plots can often be "wild and hard to follow as they are." Something Nick's comment can attest to. Having now read Six Dead Men and The Night of the 12th-13th, Steeman strikes me as an idea man who had great and inventive core ideas, but lacked the writing skills to build something truly special from those designs as most of what surrounds those core ideas tends to get blurred or glossed over. For example, I'm still not entirely sure how the murderer intended to cash-in without getting caught. While the almost pulp-style storytelling camouflages some of those faults and certainly helped with the entertaining end phase of the story ("You!"), the discerning reader can't help but notice blurriness of the overall plot. However, that all comes with the caveat that the dated translation might really be the problem.

Whichever the case may be, Steeman is unquestionably a historically important mystery writer, locally anyway, whose importance seems to have been in sowing the seeds by showing what's possible rather than crafting genre defining classics himself. You only have to glimpse at the catalog of Locked Room International to get an idea how fast those seeds took root and reaped a harvest. So, historically, Steeman deserves new translations and fresh reprints, but fear the overall quality might not be sufficient enough for most publishers to justify the costs. Particularly when there are still so many better alternatives to translate or reprint like Pierre Boileau's Six crimes sans assassin (Six Crimes Without a Killer, 1939) and René Reouven's Tobie or Not Tobie (1980).

A note for the curious: I have a good reason to belief one of the translators of the either the Dutch or English version made a mistake. The English translation makes no mystery about the setting of the story, Paris, France, but the Dutch-Flemish translation for some reason obscures the setting – referring to it as a European city. There was a hint early on in the story that it actually take place in France, but then the murders start to happen and one of the authority figures who turned up is referred to as the "substituut van de heer procureur des konings' (deputy of the crown prosecutor). I'm pretty sure France was on its Third or Fourth Republic in 1930. So that would make Brussels, Belgium, the location of Six Dead Men, but a passing mention to someone's rank is a really weird way to localize the story, if Paris was its original setting.


Curtain (c. 1940/75) by Agatha Christie

So the last two ramblings on this blog were rereads of Agatha Christie's novel-length introductions of her famous literary creations, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, who made their first formal appearances a decade apart – respectively in The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1916/20) and The Murder at the Vicarage (1930). If you have read those rambling reviews, you know my reasons (i.e. "hot takes") for preferring Hercule Poirot over Miss Marple. I'm not going to regurgitate those reasons here, except that I decided to reread The Mysterious Affair at Styles after The Murder at the Vicarage to put those reasons to the test.

The Murder at the Vicarage is backed by a decade of experience, which should have given the book a decisive edge over The Mysterious Affair at Styles, but even with a handicap, Poirot came out on top. However, they're both still minor titles in their respective series written when Christie's natural talent for murder was like a raw diamond in the process of being cut, shaped and polished. So having revisited the first Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple novels, back-to-back, I decided to go for the hat-trick and take a second look at a mystery from her vintage period. I think most of you agree there's only one logical title to follow a reread of The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

During the London blitz of World War II, Christie wrote two novels, Curtain (c. 1940) and Sleeping Murder (c. 1940), as an insurance policy, of sorts, for her family in case she was killed in the bombings – which were to be the last recorded cases of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Fortunately, Christie emerged from the London blitz unscathed and the unpublished novels were stored away in a safety deposit box with the intention to publish them posthumously. A change of plans allowed Curtain to be published, in 1975, mere months before Christie passed away in January, 1976.

Curtain, often subtitled "Poirot's Last Case," gives a fitting end to the Golden Age most recognizable detective character. I don't think it would be spoiling anything at this point in time to note that The New York Times published Hercule Poirot's obituary when Curtain was published. So this is truly Poirot's last hunt and gave Christie her last hurrah from the past, which in turn also presented a continuity problem. Curtain was written in the early 1940s and some references imply it takes place during the war ("...the war that was wiped out now by a second and a more desperate war"). Something that would make sense as the story returns to the location of the first novel, Styles Court, which is set during the First World War, but Poirot survived long after World War II! The Third Girl (1966) places an aged Poirot in the Swinging Sixties and Hallowe'en Party (1969) has him realizing that his fame has somewhat faded in the modern world. There are numerous references to the death penalty ("do you think I want to see you hanged by the neck..."), but Poirot's penultimate case (Elephants Can Remember, 1972) was published three years after the death penalty was abolished in Britain. I'm not even going to speculate about Poirot's age.

So, chronologically speaking, the book can be deemed as a bit of a mess and therefore something of an oddity within the series. Which could explain why the book tends to be so strangely and unjustly overlooked. Curtain is certainly not the best detective story Christie wrote during the 1940s, but it's without question one of her most creative and daring pieces of detective fiction. This is how you end a series on a banger!

Curtain begins very similarly as The Mysterious Affair at Styles as Arthur Hastings travels down to Styles Court and reminiscing, "how long ago was it that I had taken this selfsame journey." Hastings is now widower and his children scattered across the globe, which made it both surprising and alluring when Poirot invited him to come down to Styles Court. Poirot is now a very old man, crippled with arthritis and bound to a wheelchair, but his brain still "functions magnificently" ("I could at least perceive clearly that no deterioration of the brain in the direction of modesty had taken place"). Poirot summoned Hastings to Styles Court to hunt down a murderer one last time. Hastings is presented with brief accounts of five different murder cases, "all occurred in different places and amongst different classes of people," which have "no superficial resemblance between them" and "in none of those cases did any real doubt exist" – except there was "one alien note common to them all." A certain person Poirot simply refers to as X who appears to have had no conceivable motive and even has an alibi for one of the murders, but X can be linked to all the victims. Hastings agrees getting involved in five murders is a bit too thick to be a mere coincidence and X has to be a murderer, but then Poirot tells him X is currently at Styles Court. Poirot believes "a murder will shortly be committed here," but can only prevent it if he knows who the next victim is going to be.

A sticky problem that not only requires a first-rate brain, but eyes, ears and a pair of legs, which is why Poirot needs Hastings. But refuses to tell Hastings the identity of X ("I do not wish, you see, that you should sit staring at X with your mouth hanging open..."). This naturally rankles Hastings to the point where he begins to questions his friends mental faculties ("what more likely than that he should invent for himself a new manhunt?"), but the reason why Poirot illogically guarded the identity of X so closely turned out to be entirely logical once you learn why the X-murders "the perfect crimes." Until that moment arrives, Hastings has wonder as he pokes around the guests staying at Styles Court which has since been sold and turned into a guest house that tries to pass itself off as a hotel.

There are the current owners of Styles Court, Colonel Toby Lutrell and his wife, Daisy Lutrell, who bullies her husband with "a tongue like vinegar." Dr. John Franklin is a research scientist specialized in tropical diseases and rents a small studio at the bottom of the garden that had been fitted up, "hutches of guinea pigs he's got there, the poor creatures, and mice and rabbits," to do his research work. Dr. Frankling brought along his wife, Barbara, who's an invalid and the reason he had turn down a research post in Africa. Nurse Craven came along to attend to Barbara and Dr. Franklin has a research assistant, Judith Hastings, who's Hastings modern, independently-minded daughter. Sir William Boyd Carrington is a former governor of a province in India, first-class shot, big game hunter and the sort of man, according to Hastings, "we no longer seemed to breed in these degenerate days." On the other hand, the easy talking, womanizing Major Allerton is the type of man Hastings instinctively dislikes and distrusts ("most of what he said holding a double implication"). Stephen Norton is a nice, but rather shy man who loves bird watching and Elizabeth Cole appears to be somewhat a woman of mystery ("a woman who had suffered and who was, in consequence, deeply distrustful of life"). But who could possibly be the mysterious, homicidal X?

Fascinatingly, Christie depicts Styles Court as psychologically tainted, possibly infected, by the tragic events from The Mysterious Affair at Styles ("A virus of murder, you mean? Well, it is an interesting suggestion"). A place where "evil imaginings" came easily to mind and even Hastings falls prey to the corrupting influence of its atmosphere. So the small, seemingly meaningless domestic incidents and quarrels turn into something more serious and eventually into something very deadly.

This is also the point in the story where I can't discuss much more about the plot and know the description, thus far, hardly sounds like an Agatha Christie vintage, but the stingy twist is in its tail. Here, more than ever! A smash ending precariously balanced on the last two deaths towards the end of the book. Firstly, one of the characters is found shot in a locked bedroom holding a small pistol and the key of the door in the pocket of the victim's dressing gown. This very late death earned Curtain a mention in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991), but the trick is extremely routine and what matters about this death is the who-and why. Here, more than ever! Well, you know who dies last ("I don't want to write about it at all"). So the solution had to be pretty good to turn it's low-key premise into something really special to justify it being Poirot's last great challenge. And it did!

Curtain ends with a posthumous letter from Poirot to Hastings, "I hazard a conjecture that by the time you read this you will have evolved the most preposterous theories," explaining everything that happened. Normally, ending a detective story with a posthumous letter lands like a damp squib, but this one delivered on practically all accounts. First of all, X truly proved to be a worthy final opponent and arguably one of the most intriguing killers the Golden Age detective story has ever produced. A subtle sadist who perfected the art of murder with "a technique superb, magnificent, that arouses admiration in spite of oneself." Secondly, which is not often mentioned, but can anyone name a single detective novel that handled (SPOILER/ROT13) zhygvcyr, vaqrcraqragyl-npgvat zheqreref as good and convincingly as Christie did here? Not a bad accomplishment considering it's the kind of thing we complain about as lazy and uninspired plotting, but it worked here like a charm. And to top it all, Christie delivered a mortal blow. A coup de grace preying on a glaring, psychological blind spot to deliver a grand play on her beloved least-likely-suspect! What a way to bow out of the grandest game in the world!

So, as you probably deduced by now, I really enjoyed rereading Curtain and appreciated it so much more second time around. My only complaints are purely stylistically. I think the text should have been slightly revised to correct some of the continuity errors, which could have been done easily enough by altering the period references. It would have blurred the timeline enough to make it conceivable it takes place shortly after Elephants Can Remember. The title should have been something like The Last Hunt or Another Affair at Styles. Curtain feels a little thin to cover such a grand-style detective story. Regardless of those few stylistic continuity issues and errors, Curtain is a detective story of a rare and very special excellence. I called The Mysterious Affair at Styles a diamond-in-the-rough, but Curtain really is a rare, precious metal that's perhaps not originally from the series main timeline and could be as some have suggested take place in a parallel universe in which Poirot's health deteriorated during the war years (rationing is what really killed that delicate man). Whatever your personal take is, Christie undeniably threw Poirot a phenomenal and unforgettable farewell party worthy of one of the greatest and most beloved Golden Age detectives.

I think its fitting to end with a quote from Sherlock Holmes: "If my record were closed tonight, I could still survey it with equanimity. The air of London is the sweeter for my presence." Yes, London and far beyond!