The Hit List: Top 10 Fascinating World War II Detective Novels

Last March, I cobbled together "The Hit List: Top 10 Favorite Reprints from Dean Street Press" and intended to make "The Hit List" a semi-regular feature of the blog without using it as an excuse to ride my favorite hobby horse to pieces – which is why it took so long to compile another list. I'm sure most of you would have thrown up your hands in despair, if the second Hit List had been titled "Top 5 Favorite Translations from Pushkin Vertigo" or "The 10 Best from Locked Room International" (We know, Tom, you like locked room mysteries. Shut up).

So, being the hack that I am, it took a while to come up with some ideas that were not as basic as listing ten favorite sleuths or recurring side characters. I finally hit on a good idea.

I decided on a World War II theme, which may sound as basic as any other top 10 list, but wanted to put together a list with titles with some historical weight behind them. Not merely titles that take place during the war or use WWII aesthetics as a frame for the period of the story. Just reference to blackouts, air-raid wardens and rationing is not enough to make the cut. So no Anthony Wynne's Emergency Exit (1941), Nap Lombard's Murder's a Swine (1943), E.C.R. Lorac's Checkmate to Murder (1944). The war has to play a significant part in the plot, storytelling or characters, while trying to pick titles that also happen to be great detective stories.

That was not as easy as it sounds. There are one, or two, novels on the list that made the cut purely on the strength of their now historical content than the quality of their plot, but, on a whole, I'm quite pleased with the result. A wide and varied selection of titles with publication dates ranging from 1934 to 2008! It's often overlooked that the Golden Age detective story was ahead of the world when it came to expecting a sequel to the Great War. Hopefully, you can all appreciate this historically skewered list and find something to fatten those bloated, but always famished looking, wishlists.


The Talking Sparrow Murders (1934) by Darwin L. Teilhet

A prescient novel contemporary to the Nazis rising to power in Germany using the detective story as a vehicle to address those early atrocities. To quote Douglas G. Greene, "it took five or six tears for popular writers, who usually reflect widely-held attitudes, to feature Hitler and the Nazis in their novels." The Talking Sparrow Murders is more than an unheeded warning. It's a darkly comedic chase mystery crammed with spy-and thriller material that anticipates Carr's The Unicorn Murders (1935) and The Punch and Judy Murders (1937). The story turns on such bizarre, seemingly inexplicable situations as an elderly men hearing a sparrow talk or high-ranking Nazis going out of their way to bow to a lonely tree. A rare bird, indeed!


I'll Grind Their Bones (1936) by Theodore Roscoe

Another novel years ahead of its time. Roscoe was something of a military historian who was commissioned by the United States Naval Institute to write "the detailed and massive histories" of US submarine operations during the Second World War, but he had a finger on the pulse of modern, industrialized warfare back in the 1930s – penning a terrifyingly prophetic pulp-style mystery. I'll Grind Their Bones breaths the atmosphere of the immediate pre-WWI period as tensions between Teutony (Germany) and Esperance (France) threaten outright war. When their respective Iron Premier and Foreign Minister are assassinated, Der Meister of Teutony declares war on Esperance and destroys their capitol city in an apocalyptic attack from the sky with "aerial torpedoes." The protagonist stumbling through the smoking rubble of the devastated city is just one of the prophetic images that would become reality in less than five years. I'll Grind Their Bones is currently also available under the title War Declared. My mistake. See comments.


Nine—and Death Makes Ten (1940) by Carter Dickson

Arguably, one of the two best-known, most celebrated and atmospheric World War II mysteries of the period. A blacked out munitions-carrying ship, HM Edwardic, traverses the Atlantic gale and submarine infested waters shipping a precious cargo of war equipment. So not even the nine passengers aboard know the ship's exact destination, but then someone disappears and another passenger is foully murdered. The cut-throat left behind a set of incriminating, bloody fingerprints, but, to everyone's surprise, they do not match anybody aboard the ship. A classic of both the shipboard and WWII-era detective novel unfairly overshadowed by the author's more famous novels.

The Case of the Murdered Major (1941) by Christopher Bush

During the early years of the war, Bush wrote three excellent, wartime detective novels forming, what can be called, the home front trilogy and the first of these three novels was drawn from firsthand experience – administrating prisoner-of-war and alien internment camps from 1939 to 1940. The Case of the Murdered Major finds Ludovic Travers serving as an Adjutant Quartermaster at POW camp in a Victorian-era hospital, but there appears to be a phantom prisoner among the captives who moves around the camp unimpeded. A serious problem exacerbated when the body of the titular major is discovered lying outside in untrodden snow. This is a rock solid, tightly plotted detective story giving an inside look at a British POW camp combined with two borderline impossible crimes and a carefully constructed alibi that needs knocking down.

Green for Danger (1944) by Christianna Brand

The most famous and celebrated of all British WWII mystery novels. Green for Danger entirely takes place in a military hospital during the Blitz and concerns the death of a patient who died under mysterious circumstances on the operating table. A fiendishly plotted detective novel demonstrating why Brand's only rivals were John Dickson Carr and Agatha Christie.

Not Quite Dead Enough (1944) by Rex Stout

The United States homeland, oceans away from the theaters of war, remained untouched and American writers seem to have produced more (foreign-set) spy fiction than proper, wartime detective novels like their British counterparts – barring one or two exceptions. Between 1942 and 1944, Rex Stout wrote two first-rate novellas, "Not Quite Dead Enough" and "Booby Trap," in which the war adds a whole new dimension to the characters of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. "Not Quite Dead Enough" is easily the best of the two. Not only in how the war has changed the characters, but sporting one of Stout's cleverest plots. "Booby Trap" is not quite as good, but still a very well done story about corporate espionage and a US army colonel blown to pieces by an experimental grenade.

Subject—Murder (1945) by Clifford Witting

A recently uncovered and reprinted gem that begins with the promise that the story is not going to be another rookie's war diary, but Peter Bradfield's account of his first weeks of training to become a bombardier certainly can be read as a war diary. I fear the long prelude to murder, "a comedy-drama that ended in tragedy," will test the patience of many readers, but I detailed account fascinating. And, when the murder finally happens, it happens with all the ingenuity of the Golden Age and "the brutal justice of the Dark Ages." Only drawback is the long prelude cutting into the page count of the detective side of the story. Subject—Murder is pretty much a war novel ending with a detective novella.

Hangman's Hill (1946) by Franklyn Pell

Practically every title on this list is either currently in print or used copies can be easily found online, but Franklyn Pell's Hangman's Hill is a truly obscure, long out-of-print novel and had a fresh take on the WWII-era detective story – secreting a murder victim on the battlefield. The book takes place in partially liberated France as the Allied forces push onward from the perspective of news correspondents following closely behind. Since the book was published shortly after the war, Pell had the room to give a more sober and realistic depiction of the war with references to soldiers making cognac out of gasoline, racketeering and stiff punishments for minor mistakes. If more care had been given to the quality of the plot, Hangman's Hill would have been a minor classic rather than a fascinating historical curiosity. Weakly plotted, as it may be, its depiction of the battlefield towards the end of the war warrants its presence on this list.


The Danger Within (1952) by Michael Gilbert

This is one of my personal all-time favorite detective novels! The Danger Within, alternative published as Death in Captivity, is another novel inspired by the author's own experiences as a prisoner and escapee in Italy. Just imagine The Great Escape playing out like a classically-styled whodunit and a murder victim miraculously appearing inside a collapsed escape tunnel. There are some genuinely funny scenes as the British soldiers try to get the body out of the tunnel to prevent the Italian guards from discovering it and putting a stop to "The Great Crawl" of Campo 127. The Danger Within has it all and the fact that the story is informed by firsthand experience makes it so much more a mere masterpiece of detective fiction.

Crucified (2008) by Michael Slade

I started the list with two novels from the 1930s providing prophetic glimpses of the then coming war and wanted to end the list with a title dealing, in some way, with its aftermath or long-buried secrets – one title immediately sprang to mind. Michael Slade is somewhat of a controversial figure around these parts as he has been called "a torture porn maven." Yeah, Slade's approach to murder tends to be that of a sadistic butcher with a hacksaw working at piece rate and enjoys a fanbase known as "Sladists," but Slade kept the torture at an appropriate minimum to tell an archaeological and historical (locked room) mystery. A construction project uncovered the wreck of a long-lost Allied bomber and inside the find the remains of a seemingly impossible murder: the decayed skeleton of the rear gunner is found in his turret with obvious signs of stab wounds in his back. But who could have killed him when everyone was in their battle stations? And remained their until they bailed out. The wreck of a sealed submarine, destroyed by a depth-charge barrage, offers the story a second archaeological locked room mystery towards the end. A fitting book to the close out the list as one of many examples of the continued fascination with the Second World War and how it continues to drive stories today. 



The Perfect Insider (1996) by MORI Hiroshi

Back in 2020, I reviewed MORI Hiroshi's "Sekitō no yane kazan" ("The Rooftop Ornaments of Stone Ratha," 1999), a short story from the celebrated S&M series, tackled the short story collection Seven Stories (2016) last year – translated and published by the BBB. The Breakthrough Bandwagon Books is a collection of Japanese writers who created the BBB to give expression to "a serious desire to try their chances in the English world." Last February, the BBB published MORI Hiroshi's "legendary debut" that netted him the first-ever Mephisto Prize.

Over the years, even before trying some of MORI's short stories, I regularly got recommendations for the anime and live action adaptations of Subete ga F ni naru (Everything Turns to F: The Perfect Insider, 1996). A watershed work for the second wave of the shin honkaku school building on the works of Yukito Ayatsuji, Takemaru Abiko and Alice Arisugawa by couching the "still more-or-less classic puzzle plots" in highly specialized subjects. Additionally, The Perfect Insider is reputedly one of the best-known Japanese locked room mysteries of the '90s.

So enough to kindle my curiosity and knew The Perfect Insider is available to watch, but wanted to wait, and see, if it got swept up in the translation wave's momentum. Well, it turns out that patience really can be a virtue. The BBB began to serialize the translation in July, 2022, before publishing the complete translation as an ebook in February. Everyone who kept nagging on about The Perfect Insider, the following rambling review is for you. Enjoy the mess!

The BBB edition is translated by Ryusui Seiryoin and appears in English under just its Japanese subtitle, The Perfect Insider, beginning with freshman student Moe Nishinosono visiting the remote and isolated Magata Research Institute to meet a genius programmer suffering from multiple disorder personality, Shiki Magata – who's imprisoned by her own grisly past. When she was only a 14-year-old, Shiki Magata murdered both her parents with a knife and got acquitted, because "she was considered clearly insane." Although she always claimed that "the doll did it." Ever since the trial, Shiki has been living away from the public eye in total isolation at the high-tech research institute. Moe has her own reasons to want to talk with the genius programmer and convinces Sohei Saikawa, associate professor of architecture at N University, to setup camp for the next seminar trip near the institute.

Magata Research Institute is located on Himaka Island and appears to be a two-story building, "lack of windows made it impossible to determine the number of floors," situated on the top of a hill ("...the impression as if the research institute building itself were a giant spaceship..."). The institute is entirely run by a computer, "Deborah," who's sort of an AI, but the story takes place in 1996. So she's referred to as the institute's subsystem. The group of mostly nameless researchers dwelling in this fortress-like building are anti-social, hermit workaholics who work in their private rooms or at terminals placed all over the facility ("the familiar and commonplace concepts of actual location and distance are very vague in this place"). Everyone communicates via email, chat or VR meetings as (physical) telephones have become obsolete at the Magata Research Institute ("...about five years ago, we got rid of them all"). This is where Magata has been living for the past fifteen years, locked away in her private quarters and shunning any human contact with conversations conducted through microphones and displays.

So the setting makes it obvious The Perfect Insider is not going to be a typical, traditionally-styled shin honkaku novel like Ayatsuji's Suishakan no satsujin (The Mill House Murders, 1988) or Abiko's Shinsoban 8 no satsujin (The 8 Mansion Murders, 1989). This translation includes an interview to commemorate the completion of the English version and in it MORI tells Japanese readers, back in 1996, assumed The Perfect Insider to be science-fiction, because "the futuristic IT-related atmosphere was still rare back then" – assuring "that level of technology existed at that time." I'll take his word for it, however, I can understand why some readers perceived the book as science-fiction at the time. You have then seemingly futuristic technology like phones with touch screens, a subsystem (AI), robots and VR Carts running on a '90s operating system. And there are elements to the story somewhat reminiscent of Isaac Asimov's science-fiction mystery The Naked Sun (1956/57). That's kind of the story's greatest weakness. A lack of clarity. Is it a detective story with science-fiction components, science-fiction presented as a detective story or a cleverly disguised, full-blown hybrid mystery? During the first three, four chapters, I began to consider Shiki might be a highly advanced, human-like robot who went haywire and killed her "parents." It would have explained why she looked so young or was locked away in a technological research facility rather than a mental institution. And explained certain remarks ("couldn't they have stopped a fourteen-year-old girl while she killed two people with a knife?").

Normally, not knowing which direction the story and plot is going to take is a good thing, but here it really felt like a lack of clarity. I was not willing to entirely let go of the robot hypothesis, even when the detective story elements began to kick in.

After they arrive on the island, Moe Nishinosono returns to the institute with Sohei Saikawa when a system malfunction cuts them off digitally from the rest of the world as all outside calls were canceled and e-mails were sent back. A very different, novel approach to the isolation trope and a welcome change from the blizzards and collapsed bridges. So there's no way to contact the outside world, let alone the police, which becomes pertinent when Shiki's is murdered under somewhat impossible circumstances in a so-called triple locked room – a locked room inside a highly secure institute on a remote island. The way in which Shiki's murder is presented to the characters and reader is something you have read, or watch, for yourself, but, needless to say, the murderer took away some body parts. This is not the only impossible murder at the institute. Shortly after the discovery of Shiki's murder, the body of the director is found inside the cockpit of the helicopter on the rooftop, but the system showed nobody had opened the entrance to rooftop helipad. I think this is where The Perfect Insider begins to shine as a detective story, although not exactly like its shin honkaku predecessors.

I've droned on about this in the past, but it bears repeating that advancements in forensics, technology and science in general should never be an excuse to ditch traditionally-plotted detective fiction as something impossible to do in the modern age. Asimov demolished that lazy argument in The Caves of Steel (1954) with truly futuristic technology driving the classically-styled plot and Keigo Higashino's Yogisha x kenshin (The Devotion of Suspect X, 2005) is another great example for unmentionable reasons. What I really enjoyed about The Perfect Insider is how it tech background was used to expand and give a new dimension to the traditional aspects and even tropes of the plot. For example, the murderer removed several body parts and the high-tech surrounding opens the door to several new possibilities/motives to take a corpse apart or the boat-in-a-bottle suggestion with increasingly smaller robots dismantling each other. Or digitally isolating the island and the meaning of the cryptic message Shiki left behind on her computers, "everything turns to F." You can't do that in a non-tech locked room mystery. I also enjoyed the little discussions and musings on advancing technology and its impact with one perceptive observation how more communication ≠ more in-person communication. However, I don't believe the '80s and '90s vision of a VR future will ever happen. Simply not convenient to constantly have a hotbox strapped to your forehead like a facehugger in heat.

But does it all add in the end? Yes, sort of. On it's own terms. MORI admitted in the interview the plot required an unrealistic set of circumstances and characters to work nor that the tricks are necessary great. I don't think The Perfect Insider is one of the best Japanese locked room mysteries written since the early '80s, but thought the solution to the locked room to be perfectly accessible acceptable and even better was the answer to what really happened in that locked room all those lonely years. You just have no chance in hell of arriving at the same conclusion as it's either not fair enough or requires specialized knowledge. Such as the meaning of everything turns to F. Conceptually, The Perfect Insider is undoubtedly an ambitious novel high on ideas, but not always as rigorous in its execution as it should have been and, purely as a detective story, left me feeling a little conflicted. I should not have liked it as much as I did, but thoroughly enjoyed it despite its obvious shortcomings as a fair play mystery. Perhaps some of that has to do with recognizing the influence of The Perfect Insider on Motohiro Katou's Q.E.D. series and Zaregoto series: kubikiri saikuru (Zaregoto, Book 1: The Kubikiri Cycle, 2002) by "NisiOisiN," which are both personal favorites.

So not sure to whom to recommend The Perfect Insider as it goes without saying not everyone who follows this blog is going to like it, but, if you're not adverse to trying a piece of '90s experimental mystery fiction, you probably couldn't do better than The Perfect Insider. I'm certainly looking forward to the English publication of MORI's Tsumetai misshitsu to hakase tachi (Doctors in the Isolated Room, 1996), which already began circulation.

A warning to the reader: the BBB translation is a little rough around the edged, particularly during the first two chapters, but improves as the story progresses.


The Devil's Flute Murders (1951/53) by Seishi Yokomizo

Pushkin Vertigo has since 2015 been publishing translations of crime-and detective classics from all around the world, Argentina, France, Italy and Switzerland, but in recent years, they have been particular dedicated to the traditionally-styled, Japanese detective novel – starting with the 2019 translation of Soji Shimada's Naname yashiki no hanzai (Murder in the Crooked House, 1982). Since then, Pushkin Vertigo has been rapidly expanding their catalog of Japanese translations and reprints.

A second, long-awaited translation from Yukito Ayatsuji, Suishakan no satsujin (The Mill House Murders, 1988), appeared last March and Futaro Yamada's Meiji dantoudai (The Meiji Guillotine Murders, 1979) is scheduled for publication in early December. Akimitsu Takagi's Noumen satsujin jiken (The Noh Mask Murder, 1949) and Seishi Yokomizo's Akuma no temari uta (The Little Sparrow Murders, 1957/59) are the first two titles announced for 2024. Curiously, those two titles will be published only a month apart, April and May, which hopefully means we'll be getting two more translation for July and December. So fingers crossed for Tsumao Awasaka's 11 mai no trump (The Eleven Cards, 1976) and Ayatsuji's Meirokan no satsujin (The Labyrinth House Murders, 1988). So much to look forward to in the near future, but a few months ago, Pushkin Vertigo released their fifth translation in Seishi Yokomizo's Kosuke Kindaichi series.

Yokomizo's Akuma ga kitarite fue o fuku (The Devil's Flute Murders, 1951/53) originally appeared as a serial in Hôseki, beginning in November 1951 and concluding in November 1953, published as a book in 1954 and 1973 – which is the copyright date given in the translation. I don't know why Pushkin Vertigo always goes with the copyright dates from the Yokomizo Boom of the '70s, because it gives the impression Yokomizo wrote historical mysteries. Yokomizo very much wrote contemporary detective novels with some taking place in the then recent past. Usually no more than a handful of years.

The Devil's Flute Murder takes place in 1947, post-war Japan, two years after the US Air Force razed central Tokyo to the ground and the consequences are ever present throughout the story. There are massive food shortages, scheduled blackouts to relieve the strained power supply, black market shenanigans everywhere and a housing crisis giving rise to shanty towns among the burned out ruins of the city. Naturally, there were enormous changes and social upheavals ("...Japan's new constitution abolished the peerage..."). So the country's nobility became a so-called "Sunset Clan," or "Sunset Class," overnight and struggled to keep from falling to ruin ("we have to sell our things just to eat"). Yokomizo, already skilled at creating atmosphere and conjuring devils, fiendishly weaved the realities of post-war Tokyo into a lavish, elaborately-plotted detective story worthy of his Golden Age contemporaries in the West.

Tsubaki family belongs to one of the most prominent, old aristocratic lines in the country and the estate of the head of the clan, Viscount Hidesuke Tsubaki, miraculously survived the firebombing. The mansion now stands, "strangely untouched," among the scorched ruins, but it survival brought its impoverished master nothing except misery. After the war, several homeless members and branches of the family moved into the Tsubaki house, but this new situation was "simply too much for the sensitive viscount's nerves" – even stranger things started to happen. Viscount Tsubaki, "a gentle, somewhat delicate and polite gentle," unexpectedly became the prime suspect in a horrendous murder-and-robbery case, known as the Tengindo Incident, which left ten employees of Ginza jewelry store dead. The three survivors and several witnesses helped to police to create a photo composite of suspect, which "triggered a flood of letters and anonymous tip-offs to police," but one very detailed anonymous letter directly implicating the Viscount. And he very much resembles the composite. Only saving his neck by unwillingly giving his alibi.

After proving his alibi, Viscount Tsubaki is released and disappears shortly thereafter. More than a month passes before his body in the woods covering Mount Kirigamine in Nagano Prefecture. Apparently, Viscount Tsubaki had gone there right after leaving his house and taken poison, but "the body had barely begun to decompose." Viscount Tsubaki, composer and flutist, created and recorded a haunting flute solo, "The Devil Comes and Plays His Flute" ("it is a melody of bitter hatred, as if it were drenched in foul blood"). That eerie flute melody becomes a prelude for several tragedies as it haunts the characters throughout the story. Several family members begin to see the dead viscount. A public sighting at the Togeki theater makes the family decide to hold a divination in order to find out if the viscount is truly alive or dead. Kosuke Kindaichi is invited to attend the raising of Viscount Tsubaki's ghost.

The divination in The Devil's Flute Murders is not the kind of séance so often found in Western detective stories in which people sit around a table, holding hands, in a darkened room. The medium in this case is a plate covered with sand and a metal cone, "just touching the sand," suspended above it to draw messages upon the surface of the sand. However, the message left in the sand is a symbol they call the devil's mark. And then they hear that terrible melody.

This is only "the first bloody act of the tragedy of the Tsubaki family" and really begins when the divination room becomes "the scene of a bloody locked-room murder."

Kimimaru Tamamushi, a former count, powerful political force in the shadows and head of his branch of the family, is found dead inside the divination room with obvious signs of a struggle ("two or three wounds on the back of his head before a massive, final blow") and murderous intent (“on top of that, he was strangled with his own scarf”), but the door and windows were all locked and barred from the inside – only opening being a ranma, or ventilation window, above the door. The window is only six inches high. So nobody could wriggle through it. Fortunately, Kosuke Kindaichi is on hand to help Chief Inspector Todoroki. After all, the murderer must have used a trick to either escape or leave behind a locked room, but the story shifts gears shortly after the murder.

Ho-Ling Wong reviewed The Devil's Flute Murders all the way back in 2010 and commented that the story is divided in three parts with the opening and closing parts taking place in post-war Tokyo, but the middle portion brings Kindaichi to Hyogo Prefecture. Ho-Ling liked the excursion to Hyogo more than the Tokyo parts, because Yokomizo got showcase his gift for creating atmosphere and depicting the difference between rural and urban post-war Japan. I think some of the regional charm and flavor got lost in translation, where the local dialects are concerned, but Kindaichi acts as a pleasantly active and involved detective (while constantly scratching and tugging at his wild mop of hair). Kindaichi heads towards Hyogo to go over the viscount's alibi for the Tengindo Incident, but pretty soon he's trying to track down and identify people from the family's past. There's always the ever-present problem of motive, "whoever the murderer might be, the motive for all this is nothing as simple as money," buried deep in the messy, tangled web of family affairs and guarded secrets of the various branches. So, purely as a detective story, it remains engaging throughout and rarely drags in its 350 some pages. Just an odd turn to go from a locked room mystery evoking the supernatural to a Christopher Bush-style detective story tracking down alibis and questionable identities.

Yokomizo has been called the John Dickson Carr of Japan. You're always on treacherous grounds when comparing a mystery writer to one of the genre's greats, but anyone who debuts with an impossible crime novel like Honjin satsujin jiken (The Honjin Murders, 1946) has earned that comparison. Having now read five Kosuke Kindaichi novels, Yokomizo's locked rooms and impossible crimes feel closer in spirit to Hake Talbot than Carr. The opening and closing parts of The Devil's Flute Murders, concerning the impossible murder and its solution, is a perfect example with a dead man rising from the grave and an eerie séance – recalling the fantastic opening of Talbot's Rim of the Pit. Even the locked room-trick is more in line with Talbot and to some extend Clayton Rawson than the Chestertonian miracles of Carr. Kindaichi even warns ahead of time, "just like how every magician's trick turns out to be as simple as child's play," the explanation to the locked room murder is going to be "quite underwhelming." Not true. The locked room-trick is not the greatest the Japanese detective story has produced, but something that works well enough within the story and everything but routine or unoriginal.

But where The Devil's Flute Murders unmistakably differs from its contemporaries in the West is the driving force behind all the murders. A motive and backstory you'll never find a Western detective story from '40s or '50s. Something unsettling enough to still pack a punch today. A human tragedy presented as a detective story in which a devastating truth extracts a heavy toll on a lot of people. While the country and social order largely lays in ruin around them. I don't know what else to say about this rich and elaborate detective story except (to echo Ho-Ling) that it could have been even better and richer had it included sheet music and floor plans. Only thing you can hold against the plot is that certain key-elements have a certain quality best served in a visual medium. Such as the potentially brilliant tell-tale clue that could only be used here for a tragic after note to the case, but other than that, this run of Yokomizo translation has opened a new vein of Golden Age detective fiction for English readers and I want more Yokomizo and Kosuke Kindaichi. Much more!


Face Value (1983) by Roger Ormerod

Last time, I discussed Anthony Lejeune's Key Without a Door (1988), second and last novel in the short-lived James Glowrey series, which began promising enough with the disappearance of a man in pajamas from the doorstep of his London home and an intriguingly-posed puzzle – concerning the titular key and absentee door. Regrettably, the book regresses from a bright detective story into an uninspired crime/thriller novel closing this two-book series with an open ending. Key Without a Door had nothing to recommend in the end and guaranteed to make an appearance on the annual round-up of the years best and worst detective novels and short stories under the latter. So needed something really good as a palette cleanser, of sorts, which brings me to a long-standing recommendation.

John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, was sufficiently tempted by my 2021 run of Roger Ormerod reviews to pick up the Ormerod's first Richard Patton novel, Face Value (1983). The book was published in the United States under the lurid title The Hanging Doll Murders in 1984.

Face Value blew John away like a shotgun blast, "rarely am I as thoroughly surprised by everything in a story as I was by this book," presenting "an excellent example of a modern mystery that honors the traditions of the Golden Age and still incorporates modern police technique, modern behavior and a motive that will never go out of style." John was not wrong. Face Value is the best of Ormerod's detective novels to date and perhaps one of the ten best pure detective stories from the last twenty-five years of the previous century! A mystery that not only upholds the values and traditions of John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen, but delivered something that can stand right alongside their best works.

Detective-Inspector Richard Patton, a widower of three years, is mere days away from retirement and dreaded a big case would present itself at the last minute, because it would be handed over to his successor, Inspector Donaldson – an idea he finds appalling. Patton whittled away his last two months on the force keeping a low profile and "dicker around with a couple of minor issues." So on the first of his last three days, Patton appears on the scene of an abandoned, burnt out car wreck and meets a young, imaginative police constable, Brason. A character who would not have been out of place in an E.R. Punshon novel and would go on to play an important part in the unfolding story as Patton got his first inkling something was brewing. A second problem is the return to the district of a notorious character, Clive Kendall, who received a life sentence for the rape and murder of 9-year-old Coral Clayton. Prisoners' Aid Association turned Kendall into a pet project and got him released after only eight years. Carol's father committed suicide and her mother moved away, but she has two uncles, Ted and Foster, who threatened to outright murder Kendell, if he dared to show his face in town. Patton finds a message on the window of Kendall's old bungalow, "THIS FOR YOU—BASTARD—>." The arrow pointing to a child's doll hanging by the neck from a tree branch. A report of a shotgun gone missing from a nearby farm only adds to the impending doom, but the most important of these minor matters is a missing person's report.

You may, or may not, remember from previous reviews, I referred to this series as the Richard and Amelia Patton series. Face Value introduces Amelia as Amelia Trowbridge and, two weeks before, she reported her husband has gone missing without a trace ("no suggestion of a crime involved—no foul play hinted"). So nothing to act on for the police, but now there appears to be connection between her missing husband and the burnt out car wreck. Amelia is the counsellor in the Prisoners' Aid Association who was instrumental in getting Kendall released from prison ("he's been my own special case"). These little threads get pulled together to form a dense, intricately-woven web when a man's body is found in a cottage on a farm called Swallow's End.

A body was found in the living room of the deserted cottage, head and shoulders against the cold grate, whose face was on the receiving end of a double barreled shotgun blast ("very little of the skull was left, just enough for the bit of hair to hang on"). The victim had his hands up to his face and "blast had shattered both hands on the way through, leaving little more of them than tatters of flesh clinging to the hones," which poses a problem in 1983 when it comes to identification. And then there's the locked nature of the cottage. I say locked nature as Face Value offers one of the oddest and original impossible crimes from the post-WWII era.

Firstly, the cottage is surrounded by tripwire, strings and old electric wire "looped over the trees, with rusty cans tied to the ends," to rig up "some sort of a warning system." Secondly, the rear door and windows are locked on the inside, while the cold weather wedged the unfastened front door solidly in its frame. Thirdly, there's a new, fist-sized hole in the living room window, but why are the broken pieces of glass scattered outside in the snow a patch about a foot square? Did the victim fire the first shot with the shotgun that was found leaning next to him against the wall? But why casually put it away like after emptying a barrel at an intruder without even reloading it? And the murderer could not have returned fire through the hole in the window. The victim was shot from no greater range than three feet, but he was found nearly ten feet from the window. This description barely does any justice to the simplistic complexity of the situation. It's like Schrödinger's cat, but with an unidentified body, who could be one of two men, inside "a locked and fastened cottage" that's not as locked or fastened as it looks. Or is it? A locked room mystery you should not read just for how the murderer entered, or exited, the locked cottage – only for that very same locked room-trick to take you by complete surprise. Not on account of that small detail of entrance, or exit, but how it dovetailed everything together with several twists and false-solutions before the truth is finally revealed. What an ending! Something truly worthy of Carr or Christie.

I can't tell much more without running the risk of spoiling the game, but, to give some you an idea, Face Value is the kind of detective story that at the time was just beginning to take shape in Japan and Western equivalents would not really appear until James Scott Byrnside picked up the gauntlet in 2018. Ormerod dashed one off from scratch in 1983 to start a new series. However, the irresistible comparison between Face Value and the Japanese shin honkaku movement is perhaps not so strange as they share the same quality: a clear and sound understanding of what makes a proper detective story tick and getting the people who devour them. That understanding mercilessly efficient used against poor, unsuspecting readers like John and I.

So while I can't tell much more about the plot, there's something else I can ramble and rattle on about.

Hercule Poirot pointed out in The ABC Murders (1936) how terribly revealing crime can be, "try and vary your methods as you will, your tastes, your habits, your attitude of mind, and your soul is revealed by your actions." A reason why the Golden Age detective story is so varied is that they all approached the problem of the detective story in their own individual way. So you get Detection Club members like Agatha Christie and Gladys Mitchell who both wrote detective fiction, but in such a radical different way that they might as well take place in completely different realities. Not to mention Christie's preference for administrating poison or Mitchell's never explained obsession with drownings and water in general. I've now read a dozen of Ormerod's novels from which a fascinating, multi-varied kaleidoscope of personalized tropes and plot-patterns emerged.

I noted in a previous review how Ormerod utilized cars, moving or standing still, to drive the plot with a preference for firearms rarely discharged in traditionally-styled detective stories (shotguns, rifles and target pistols), but Ormerod had another unusual fixation – which turns up time, and time, again. Namely broken windows and shattered glass. For example, A Shot at Nothing (1993) also concerns a shotgun murder inside a locked room with a hole blasted through one of the windows from which Ormerod spun a great deal of complexity and two completely different solutions. When the Old Man Died (1991) is another locked room mystery with a broken window and, most originally, the shattered glass from a grandfather clock is all over the floor where the door opened. So nobody could have opened the door and left without creating a wide arc in the carpet of glass. An Open Window (1988) is another example of broken glass playing a part in the solution to an impossible murder. The Key to the Case (1992) has a variation on the broken window as the smashed front door provided the story with an excellent false-solution. There are other things that turn up every other novel like (ex) policemen too personally involved and toying around with clocks. Never with the same answers and results. So they're never repetitive. And the more you read, the more you notice there's a sort of rhyming quality to Ormerod's overall body of work.

According to When the Old Man Died, Richard Patton was on his first, unrecorded case around the same time David Mallin and George Coe were on their last recorded investigation (One Deathless Hour, 1981). Both stories deal with murders committed with a target pistol, smashed clocks and shooting clubs as alibis. Yet, they're nothing alike. Same goes for Face Value and A Shot at Nothing.

So to cut another long, senseless rambling short, Face Value toppled The Key to the Case and A Shot at Nothing as the best of Ormerod's (locked room) mystery novels and a haunting glimpse of what could have been had the Golden Age detective story persisted pass the 1950s. Highly recommended. Particularly to those who were less than impressed with previous recommendations.


DeKok and the Immortal Death (1998) by A.C. Baantjer

Today, September 16, 2023, marks what would have been the 100th birthday of A.C. Baantjer. A former Amsterdam police inspector and part of de moordbrigade (the homicide squad) who worked from 1955 until his retirement in 1983 in the red light district at the illustrious, sometimes notorious, Warmoesstraat police station – while nursing an urge to write and tell stories. A talent that emerged in the administrative side of police work as he had to write reams of police reports, but a police report only allowed him to write down the facts without any room for the human and emotional element ("so I am a writer out of frustration"). After a failed attempt in the late 1950s and winning a short story contest in the early '60s, Baantjer properly debuted under his own name with Een strop voor Bobby (A Noose for Bobby, 1964). A novel starring the quickly abandoned character of Inspector Albert Versteegh. Baantjer replaced him with a character who made a one-page appearance in A Noose for Bobby and struck the mother lode.

Inspectors Jurriaan de Cock and Dick Vledder appeared in a series of seventy novels that were published between 1965 and 2008, which sold millions of copies and even enjoyed a small measure of international success.

Regrettably, the thoughtless, dumb down English translations altered and added to the original texts. A notable change is that the name of De Cock was changed into DeKok, which perhaps makes sense to non-Dutch readers, but De Cock always spells out his name (“met cee-oo-cee-kaa”) because DeKok ("with kay-oh-kay") is the most common spelling of the name ("there are many Kok's, De Kok's, Cocq's en Cocky's..."). So there's no reason for DeKok to spell out his name to all the Dutch characters in the English translations. De Kock would have been a better compromise, but, since this blog drones on, and on, to an international, English-speaking audience, I'll try to keep things consistent and simply go with DeKok. I needed to get that out of the way, before continuing.

Upon his retirement from the Amsterdam police, Baantjer had already become the bestselling crime novelist in the Netherlands with over one-and-a-half million copies sold. So the books had always been popular that had attracted a loyal readership over the decades, but the series exploded in popularity, becoming mainstream hot, in 1995 when the TV-series Baantjer debuted on RTL4 – spanning 11 seasons and 123 episodes. A series based on the characters rather than the novels, but proved to be so incredibly popular, even reruns drew an audience of millions. It turned "Baantjer" into a brand and cash cow still being milked to this day.

So the centenary of what would have been Baantjer's 100th birthday is marked with two publications, Uit de verhoorkamer: belevenissen van rechercheur Baantjer van Bureau Warmoesstraat (From the Interrogation Room: Experiences of Inspector Baantjer of Bureau Warmoesstraat, 2023) and P. Dieudonné's Leven en werk van rechercheur De Cock (Live and Work of Inspector DeKok, 2023). The former is a collection of anecdotes and the latter a biography of DeKok. A good excuse to finally return to the series that formally introduced and hooked me on the detective story. Not Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie, but Baantjer and DeKok. However, I first needed to revisit one, or two, of the original novels because it has been a while. I wanted to begin with a title from that comfy period of the late '90s and early '00s. Looking at that period in the series, only one title stands out as imminently suitable for the occasion.

De Cock en de onsterfelijke dood (DeKok and the Immortal Death, 1998) is the fiftieth entry in the series and begins at the end of the evening shift when a pleasant conversation between DeKok and Vledder is interrupted by a knock on their office door – a man with a limp enters. The man introduces himself as Aard van de Koperberg and has come to report to file a missing person's report. Alida van Boskoop is a palmist who relieved him of his "hellish pains" and asked her to marry him, but her three daughters, Angela, Beatrijs and Christina, objected to marriage plan. Now the palmist has disappeared ("...just wiped off the face of the earth"). Angela has told him her mother has gone to France to reflect, but Van de Koperberg believes her own daughters murdered her and done away with the body. A background check on the supposed victim reveals Alida van Boskoop is somewhat of a character. She has called herself in the media Hippocratine, "a sort of female equivalent of Hippocrates," who claims her powers come directly from God. What's more, Alida says she's immortal as God personally ordered her to live forever to bear witness to him for eternity. But in the police archives, there's a record showing she had been prosecuted for practicing medicine without a license. Not to mention financially exploiting an elderly, dying lady with the promise of curing her aggressive cancer. Things only get stranger...

Beatrijs and Christina don't agree with their older sister, "she has her own views," who tell DeKok and Vledder that their mother is not on holiday in France. She has passed away, but not in the traditional way mere mortals die. Alida van Boskoop has been "temporarily recalled" to heaven ("Not forever. Hippocratine is not dead. Her soul has gone to heaven for a short visit to heaven. She will return in all her glory").

Needless to say, the reported immortality of Alida van Boskoop is not as cracked up as it's supposed to be. Solving the problem of the missing palmist only lead to the much more serious, darker problem of murder in which all the traces and potential evidence had been obliterated. Vledder sighs, "why do people always come to us with such miserable cases? Why not an ordinary, homely murder with a nice, prestine corpse and a yes-nodding killer within reach?" DeKok and Vledder don't have to wait too long to be confronted with a fresh, undisturbed crime scene as one of the three daughters, "clad in the beautiful, blood-red robe with the signs of the zodiac," is found dead in the consultation room – hanging from "an expertly-knotted noose." DeKok is an old hand and immediately recognizes the tell-tale signs of murder camouflaged as suicide. So now they have to pick around an abundance of motives and potential suspects to find a very determined murderer. Such as the three ex-husbands of Angela, Beatrijs and Christina who all blame their mother for wrecking their marriages. DeKok and Vledder have their work cut out for them, but did it all stand up to memory?

First of all, rereading DeKok and the Immortal Death was a quick, fun and nostalgic trip down memory lane and a reminder this series gained its popularity from its main characters and storytelling. Not meticulous, intricately constructed puzzle plots or adherence to the principle of fair play. There are exceptions, of course, but the reason for picking up these books is simply to tag along with DeKok and Vledder tailing a trail of strange, sometimes downright bizarre or even grotesque murders through the streets of Amsterdam until the time arrives to ensnare the murderer – which is usually done by baiting a trap. It's a formula Baantjer perfected over the years and proved to be very successful. Baantjer did it very well as the years away from this series simply disappeared after reading the first page or two. Baantjer, DeKok and Vledder can be compared to Rex Stout, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin in that regard. You never feel you have been away from Wolfe's brownstone or DeKok's Bureau Warmoesstraat for very long, when it has been years. A decade even! So it's regrettably that plotting here is threadbare and not something I find particular satisfying these days. There are no clues, some information is withheld and the best you can do make an educated guess about the who and why. Which is honestly not too difficult to do as all you have to do is (ROT13: whfg cvpx gur vapbafcvphbhf, yrnfg-yvxryl-fhfcrpg ba gur fvqryvar jvgu n fgebatyl vzcyvrq zbgvir), but a liberal dose of nostalgia helped alleviate those, what I consider now to be, shortcomings.

So a very fun, long overdue trip down memory lane and intend to do one more before the end of the year. I'm leaning at the moment towards De Cock en de treurende kater (DeKok and the Sorrowing Tomcat, 1969) for obvious reasons, but nothing on this blog is ever set in stone.


Key Without a Door (1988) by Anthony Lejeune

Last February, I reviewed Mr. Diabolo (1960) by "Anthony Lejeune," a pseudonym of Edward Anthony Thompson, who aspired to write a genuine, Golden Age-style locked room mystery – paying homage to John Dickson Carr and Clayton Rawson. There is, however, a considerable gap between Lejeune's aspirations and his delivery. The opening chapters of Mr. Diabolo reads like the genuine article, but the plot never went beyond the basics and utterly failed to deliver on its promise. I noted in the review, the plot would have been somewhat impressive had it been written for a younger audience. Mr. Diabolo fits in better with Enid Blyton's The Mystery of the Invisible Thief (1950) and Bruce Campbell's The Clue of the Phantom Car (1953) than The Three Coffins (1935) or Death from a Top Hat (1938). The plot is that basic.

Nevertheless, Mr. Diabolo is not a trudge to read and actually made curious about the second, intriguing-sounding impossible crime novel listed in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) written nearly thirty years later.

During the late 1980s, Lejeune started a short-lived series starring an Oxford professor, James Glowrey, whose tranquil life in academia gets uprooted in two genteel thrillers, Professor in Peril (1987) and Key Without a Door (1988). The latter is listed in Locked Room Murders as a "disappearance of a man in pajamas from outside his front door," but is it better than the impossible vanishing from his 1960 locked room mystery? Let's find out!

The first chapter recounts how James and Cressida Glowrey met and befriended their neighbors, Norman and Eve Prestwick, while walking their dogs and getting the dog leads entangled and struck up a friendship – it helped that both Cressida and Eve are Americans ("...strangers in a strange land"). Norman Prestwick is the director of Compuparts, a manufacturer of "miniaturised computers," who has political aspirations "nursing what was considered a safe seat." One early morning, the Glowreys find Eve on their doorstep with a startling news that Norman is gone ("I mean he's gone. Disappeared. Vanished"). The circumstances under which he disappeared are downright mysterious. While Eve was preparing breakfast, Norman fetched the milk and newspapers from the doorstep, but never came back inside. A minute, or two, pass before Eve goes outside to have a look and only finds Norman's bedroom slippers ("one was just outside the door, the other was halfway up the steps") and his dressing gown draped across a trashcan. So how could Norman have possibly vanished from his own doorstep as "he could hardly have walked through the streets barefoot and in pyjamas, unnoticed, even at that time in the morning." Nor had he enough time to reach the end of the street, before Eve poked her head out of the front door.

Yes, the disappearance of Norman Prestwick is not exactly, technically-speaking anyway, an impossible disappearance, but more a mysterious vanishing without an apparent reason. It reminded me of the disappearance of Dr. James Earle from The Hog's Back Mystery (1933) by Freeman Wills Crofts. One moment he was sitting by the fire in his bedroom slippers reading a newspaper and the next moment he was gone. So only a quasi-impossible vanishing, but those first couple of chapters really do capture the spirit of John Dickson Carr and reads like a impossible crime story.

James and Cressida go out to investigate, but the pleasant, sunny weather and the London sounds of mid-morning bustle makes "Eve's tale of a man vanished in the shadowy quiet of that day's dawn" seem "more incongruous than ever" – like "being rapt away by the fairies." That's not the only mystery that has James enthralled. Eve discovered an extra key, a front door key, on Norman's key ring that does not fit their own front door. Doors without keys are ten a penny, but a key without a door is something very different, "there is something inherently mysterious about an unknown key," but regrettably does not heed his own warning that "one should never gratuitously open doors without knowing what's behind them." James finds the door fitting the key, opens it and discovers a body. And, from there on out, the whole story simply collapses into itself.

Key Without a Door goes in a handful of chapters from a fascinatingly-posed and presented mystery of a man in pajamas being spirited away from his doorstep to a boring, uninspired thriller. The underhanded business dealings, government contracts, emerging technologies, kidnappings, attempted murders, successful assassinations and even a Great Villain (known only as Shaman) are enough to distract the book away from the tantalizing disappearance of Norman. Only thing really worth mentioning from the second-half is the open ending ("I have a fancy, a fantasy, that one day I shall meet him again myself") suggesting a continuation of the series, but, for whatever reason, it never materialized.

So the puzzling vanishing is not brought up, until James has an inspirational moment showing how it could have been done and it certainly is an interesting take on this type of solution. Very different from how I imagined it was done (more on that in a minute). But nothing more than that. And nothing special or good enough to save the book as a whole. On the contrary, it made the second-half even worse as you feel the first three chapters lured you into an old, dirty van with the words "FREE CANDY" crudely scrawled on the side under false pretenses. I had hoped the twenty-eight year gap between Lejeune's impossible crime novels would have given his second stab at the form some weight and more substance, but Mr. Diabolo is definitely the better of the two. Mr. Diabolo might have unwarranted bluffed and bragged its way through the story without anything to show for it at the end, but at least remained consistent throughout. More importantly, it tried to do something with its alluring premise for longer than three chapters.

I can't recommend Key Without a Door. Not even to locked room and impossible crime fanatics.

A note for the curious: the last time I tacked one of my alternative, armchair solutions to a review was back in June when reviewing Norman Berrow's The Spaniard's Thumb (1949). What put this idea into my head is the suspicious description of the front door setting of the Prestwick home, which is not at street level, but half-basement height forming a small area with trashcans and several steps up to street level – surrounded by iron railings. A nice little place, obscured from view, to pull some shenanigans. In roughly two out of three of these vanishing mysteries, the victim, one way or another, had a hand in their own disappearance. I reasoned Norman could have left a parcel of clothes and shoes in one of the trashcans. So when Norman goes outside to get the milk and papers, he puts the clothes over his pajamas, puts on the shoes and maybe a hat or cap with a wig attached to it and walks away. One minute to throw on the clothes and one minute to get as far away from the front door as possible. Eve looked down the street looking for a barefoot Norman in pajamas. Not a normally dressed stranger. There was no danger in Eve calling to him to ask if he had seen a man in pajamas going down the street, because the milkman was doing his morning round. Who would you ask if they had seen Norman in that situation... a complete stranger of the milkman? Makes sense, right? But, of course, nothing at all was done with it and gave too much importance to the setting. So another marvelous misfire of a false-solution from the Roger Sheringham of the Netherlands!


The Golden Window: Q.E.D. vol. 29-30 by Motohiro Katou

Oh, ye of little faith! Last February, I (once again) returned to the Q.E.D. series by Motohiro Katou and began the review of vol. 21-22 stating the plan to get as close to vol. 50 this year as possible without 6-8 month gaps between reviews, which you heard before – numerous times ever since discussing the first volume in 2018. So there undoubtedly was some amount of unspoken skepticism, but, this time, it took a little less than six months to reach vol. 30. If I continue at this pace, I should arrive at vol. 36 or 38 when December rolls around. That means I can begin sampling C.M.B. sometime in January in anticipation of the crossover event with Q.E.D. So with that out of the way, let's dig into vol. 29 and 30.

The first story from vol. 29, "Elephant," begins with Sou Touma and Kana Mizuhara spotting the homeless pirate on the streets. A man they call "the pirate old man," or pirate-san, who recently appeared on the streets and, if you get caught by him, "he'll make you listen to his ramblings of many weird stories from his supposed outer space travels." So they try to avoid him, but they notice the man has found an eager listener, Morita "Mulder" Orisato. A member of the Sakisaka Private High School Detective Club who's obsessed with aliens and the supernatural. The self-professed space pirate asks Mulder to help him find treasure.

If you're familiar with the series, or just read my reviews, you might expect the story to develop into one of those character-driven, humanistic stories posing a person as the puzzle that needs to be unpacked and solved – of which there's certainly an element present. But only partially. "Elephant" has a legitimate and excellent detective problem of the impossible variety. The treasure in question is a small, heavy safe located on the top floor of a high rise building and the pirate is suspected of having stolen it, but how, since the security footage shows he left the room empty handed ("is it even possible for one person to carry something that heavy from the top floor?"). And enigmatically hints that he took away the safe by putting it into a coffee cup. A neatly done little problem with an even better solution that would not be out-of-place in an Arthur Porges short story.

So an excellent story, overall, but let the reader be warned, the answers to the human puzzle involves something suspiciously looking like advanced math homework as Touma attempts to explain the Poincaré conjecture ("we don't understand at all... think about it from our perspective").

The second story, "Motive and Alibi," is a conventional, first-rate whodunit and begins with a surprised Mizuhara finding Touma doing oil painting as an after school activity. Touma is tutored by the high school's art teacher, Aonori Makio, who has to leave early to attend a private celebration party. Makio's old art academy teacher, Kuromame Fukuzo, won an award, but Fukuzo's history as an artist is not an unblemished one. There were accusations of plagiarism, "apparently he was copying other artists' paintings," but "since he was a big-shot, the judges didn't say anything." So the small dinner party is not without tension as Fukuzo announces that it's not time for him to step back and feels like he could last another hundred years. Famous last words! On the following morning, Fukuzo is found dead in his bed from an insulin overdose and everything points towards murder. There are three suspects to pick from: two painters, Ryokucha Yozo and Akagome Akira, who received backing from Fukuzo and the high school teacher, Aonori Makio. So with Inspector Mizuhara in charge of the case and Makio neck deep in murder, Touma gets roped in to try to figure out who gave Fukuzo an overdose of insulin.

A problem focused on the possible motives and particularly the peculiar alibis of the three suspects. Akagome Akira was watching a movie in the living room, while Ryokucha Yozo and Aonori Makio played shogi in the adjacent recreational room. Touma who notices an artificial-looking set of circumstances regarding the motives and alibis, "this kind of situation is not possible without someone pulling the strings from behind," which revealed a murderer who's extremely confident in his own alibi – passing through a "golden window of opportunity" to commit murder. The alibi-trick is as ingenious as it's original, but, more importantly, I really enjoyed how Touma's explanation built on Inspector Mizuhara's bare-bones solution. That's how the collaboration between the amateur detective and professional policeman should be done.

Motohiro Katou deserves acknowledgment and praise as an innovator who's always looking for new ways to tell the detective story, but "Motive and Alibi" is a perfect example of why his traditionally-styled, über conventional mysteries should not be overlooked. He does them very well.

The first story from vol. 30, "Doll Killer," returns to the slightly less conventional detective stories that begins when "a mannequin with a knife lodged in its forehead" is thrown from a second floor building in Setagaya, Tokyo. A second doll murder is discovered in Yoyogi Park, but this the stabbed doll is hanging from a noose and wearing a wig. Every mannequin doll has a card in his pocket implicating cabinet members with ties to dodgy pharmaceutical companies.

Shunji Nashida, an investigator for the Cabinet's Information Department, whom previously appeared in "Parallel" (vol. 25) comes to Touma for assistance ("I remember your help in an old crime, so I want to know if you can help us out once more in this murder case"). Touma answers. Touma has an unexpected answer, "this cannot be considered as a murder because the victim is a doll" ("it's just a broken thing"), which he explains later on in the story. A very interesting explanation having to do with human-shaped technology and why he believes "there's no benefit in making a human-shaped robot" as it will create unnecessary pressure on ordinary people ("the thinning line between dolls and humans"). Touma illustrates an example of a human-shaped robot and an automatic bulldozer getting struck by rocks in a landslide. For us, the bulldozer "still looks like a broken machine," but "seeing the robot with human-like injuries we will feel a greater shock." I wish the story had developed into something along the lines of "Jacob's Ladder" (vol. 4) about the implications of advancements in robotics. It would probably have been a more interesting story than this forgettable one about corrupt politicians, medical mishaps and a culprit as obvious as a flesh wound. Not a series highlight.

The second and last story, "Dog Bowl," is a fun, simple story in which Touma and Mizuhara match wits with the crooked, unscrupulous mind behind the Futuristic Products Research Group, Kuromatsu Bunji, who's "a seasoned scammer" without a single conviction to his name – always working behind the scenes and using a fall guy as a front man. Kuromatsu Bunji newest scam targets the elderly by selling them so-called luxury articles at ridiculously inflated prices ("this is called hypnosis sales"). Touma and Mizuhara know one of their victims. Mizuhara intends to get their money back "by any means legally possible," but Touma sees no other way than giving the salesmen a dose of their own patent medicine, old-school style! So this is basically a con story in which the detective turns the tables on the conmen involving the titular dog and bowl. A relatively minor story, but, as usually with these con stories, fun enough to read.

Evidently, the two cases from vol. 29 provided better, stronger and more skillfully executed detective stories than the doll killer case and con game from vol. 30. So, surprisingly, the conventionally-plotted stories stand tall for once over the usually fascinating experimental stories or sidetracks into other corners of the genre, which is what makes Q.E.D. practically unique in the genre. But got a good impossible crime and an excellent alibi-breaker stories out of it. So I'm not complaining.


The Longer Bodies (1930) by Gladys Mitchell

The last time Gladys Mitchell and Mrs. Bradley graced this blog was in 2017, greatly enjoying The Devil at Saxon Wall (1935), Laurels Are Poison (1943), Groaning Spinney (1950) and The Echoing Strangers (1953), but around that time, the number of reprints and translations began to serious mushroom – which distracted my attention away from the Great Gladys. Well, that and an inexplicable, all-consuming obsession with locked room mysteries. So the titles I had intended to go through in 2018 slipped down the big pile, but recently had the urge to return to the detective fantasies of Mitchell.

Nick Fuller kindly reviewed those to-be-read novels like Brazen Tongue (1940), Here Comes a Chopper (1946), Death of a Delft Blue (1964) and The Greenstone Griffins (1983) in the comments of The Devil at Saxon Wall review. The long standing recommendation that recently came back to my attention is that of the third Mrs. Bradley novel.

The Longer Bodies (1930) has been described as one of Mitchell's most orthodox, conventionally-structured detective novels and essentially a parody of the English country house mystery with nods to S.S. van Dine's The Canary Murder Case (1927) and The Greene Murder Case (1928). However, you have to keep mind descriptions and terms like orthodox and conventionally-structured always comes with a huge asterisk when discussing Mitchell's zestful mysteries. Even at her most traditional, Mitchell's detective fiction stands in a class of their own and seldom lose their vitality or surrealistic qualities. I've not read Mitchell's reputed humdrum and routine affair Winking at the Brim (1974), but where else except in "a Gladys Mitchell novel would the heroine be winked at, or the murderer eaten, by the Loch Ness monster." So with that out of the way, let's take a look at The Longer Bodies.

Great-aunt Matilda Puddequet, "a cranky old girl of ninety," is reputed to be enormously wealthy with "a tradition in the family that she was extraordinarily mean" and a willingness to impart unasked-for advice – causing a separation with her nephew, Godfrey Yeomond. It only took about thirty-two years and Godfrey becoming a prosperous man for Great-aunt Puddequet to forget her quarrel. So invited herself to have a look at his children. During their reunion, they attend an international athletics match, between Sweden and England, which leaves Great-aunt Puddequet unimpressed with the results of the English team. So devices a plan to leave her entire fortune to the grandnephew who's first to represent England in an aesthetics field event. And to this end, she had turned ten thousand square yards around her home into a training camp.

A rough pasturage had been dug up, leveled, drained to rise a sports ground with a oval running track, a long jump pit and places for the high jump and the pole vault. Great-aunt Puddequet invited three branches of the family to come to Longer to train and compete for a shot at inheriting half a million pounds. Not everyone is looking forward to acting like "a monkey on a stick for the sake of her rotten cash," but everyone goes and participate in the games. Mitchell's detective stories and characters always seem to be bursting with health, energy and vitality as they never seem to be able to sit down for long. The characters in a Mitchell novels constantly move around with purpose like burying, exhuming and reburying bodies or stamping up and down the spiral staircase of a lighthouse. This is reflected in the busy, often convoluted way in which Mitchell's murderers produce and desposes of their corpses.

It does not take very long, before the Puddequet Family Games are interrupted by murder, but the victim is a villager. Jacob Hobson, "a drunken lout," is found in a nearby lake tied to the statue of a mermaid. Only the long-suffering Mrs. Hobson has plenty of motive and no alibi, but neither has she a traceable accomplish who could have helped with the physical demanding dumping of the body. So what's going on? More than one character remarked that the case is all wrong ("it ought to be all to do with the old lady's money, and it isn't") with the baffled Inspector Bloxham remarking, "what the deuce anybody can make out of the murder of a drunk by somebody who couldn't even have known he was coming to the house, and the murder of the young man who ought to have set to and murdered all the other claimants, passes my understanding." That second murder finally brings Mrs. Bradley into the story.

I can see why Mitchell decided to wait until the halfway mark, because I began to look forward to the inevitable meeting between Mrs. Bradley and Great-aunt Puddequet, two formidable characters, following the first couple of chapters. Mrs. Bradley is one of the most striking and unique characters from this period of the genre. A descendant of witches who looks like a benevolent crocodile or shoebill trying to pass for an elderly lady with her black, birdlike eyes, yellow claws and loudly cackling or screeching with "eldritch glee" – who sometimes condones and even commits murder herself. A unique and unforgettable detective character. Mrs. Bradley is in fine form during her third outing as she immediately understands the significance of the body being tied to the statue ("...when I set eyes on the statue of the little mermaid that half the truth dawned on me"), while the plodding Bloxham concentrates on the alibis and lack of motives. A very done combination of Mrs. Bradley psycho-analytical methods and Bloxham's painstaking police routine, which nicely worked towards Bloxham's false-solution and Mrs. Bradley presenting him with a written confession from the murderer.

A marvelous play on the usually disappointing written confession and an even better parody of the detective story ("...only in fiction that the motive is worthy of the crime"), but the solution to the tangled problem is another demonstration why Gladys Mitchell is an acquired taste. Mitchell's novels have always taken place in a caricature of the real world with its own set of bizarre rules and slightly cracked logic. So whether they work, or not, as detective story depends on how far the reader is willing to go along with it, which needs some consistency and convincing. I think Mitchell pulled it off here and called Michael Innes' What Happened At Hazelwood (1946) to mind. Both are deliberately improbable in order to spoof the country house mystery with a plot ticking according to its own internal mad logic and should be taken on their own terms in order to appreciate what they tried to accomplish, but can see why it's not going to be everyone's liking.

However, if you want to see the traditional country house mystery getting strapped down to a bath chair, raced around a track field in the dead of night before getting chucked into a lake, The Longer Bodies has you covered.