The Hit List: Top 10 Favorite Cases from Motohiro Katou's Q.E.D. vol. 1-25

Back in 2018, I began reading and reviewing Motohiro Katou's Q.E.D. series centering on an introverted, teenage polymath, Sou Touma, who graduated from MIT's mathematical department at the age of 15 and moved back to Japan the next year – enrolling into a regular high school to get a taste of the normal. Touma befriends an energetic, tomboyish girl, Kana Mizuhara, who becomes the Archie Goodwin to his Nero Wolfe. Because normalcy, in a high school detective manga, usually translates to playing Sherlock Holmes between and after classes.

That sounds not too dissimilar to Case Closed and The Kindaichi Case Files, but Q.E.D. is incomparable to any other series of its kind. And possibly unique in the history of the genre.

I called the Q.E.D. series in recent reviews the detective story for the 21th century and strongly suspect Motohiro Katou intended to reconstruct the traditional detective story with the modern world in mind. Q.E.D. began serialization in July, 1997, which is a period reflected in the first six volumes. There are still a ton of very good, classically-styled stories plotted around such things as unbreakable alibis, impossible crimes and some good, old-fashioned whodunits, but the stories that distinguish this series from everything else are a lot harder to pigeonhole. A good example would be "Jacob's Ladder" (vol. 4), originally published in 1999, in which a rogue AI wreaks havoc on the traffic lights in downtown Tokyo and even threatens to "crash all the computers in the world" – mirroring the Y2K fears of '99. However, that story is not at all representative of all the less than orthodox stories littering this series. There are deep, character-driven stories in which the human being and what drives them or makes them tick. Some of these earlier stories revolve around Sou Touma and the friends he left behind at MIT in the United States (e.g. "Breakthrough," vol. 3). There are more ambitious, outright experimental stories defying categorization (e.g. "Serial John Doe," vol. 7) or simple cases about minor crimes or incidents (e.g. "A Melancholy Afternoon," vol. 7). But also stories about mathematical problems or probing the mysteries of memory. Or stories in which the two main characters are shoved to the background to shine the spotlight on a recurring or one-time characters.

I can go on citing examples, but, suffice to say, Katou has a streak of originality coupled with a willingness to experiment and explore the fringes of the detective story, while remaining true to its tenants. So, having recently reached vol. 30, I thought it was appropriate to compile a top 10 favorite stories from the first twenty-five of fifty volumes with part 2 coming after reaching the 50th volume. However, I'm a little bit disappointed in my own picks. Having lavished praise on Katou for being a bold, original storyteller and plotter cutting new paths and opening previously unexplored areas for the genre, I ended up selecting mostly the more conventionally-plotted stories. What can you do? So here's my selection of favorite Q.E.D. stories from vol. 1-25.

"The Fading of Star Map" (vol. 3)

 An excellent, shin honkaku-style detective story bringing Sou Touma and Kana Mizuhara to an abandoned, crumbling star observatory on a lonely mountaintop – whose founder disappeared twenty-five years ago. Those long-buried secrets come to light when the giant telescope is accidentally opened to reveal a charred skeleton followed by murder. Even better than the clever trickery or clues is the human element pinned to the motive driving the truly tragic figure of the murderer. One of the first and best examples from this series showing puzzles can have feelings.

"Breakthrough" (vol. 3)

An important story and the first to delve into the character and background of Sou Touma. One day, two students from MIT, Eva Scott and Syd "Loki" Green, turn up at Touma's school in Tokyo. They were stunned and worried when Touma had left MIT without a word. Everyone suspected it had something to do with the research lab incident. Touma's thesis was taken from the research lab, thrown into the river and even the backup data on the computer was erased, but he doesn't want to talk about it. Even taking the blame for the incident. But why? However, the problem of the destroyed thesis is only a vehicle to tell the story of the friendship between Touma and Loki.

"The Afterimage of Light" (vol. 5)

This is another story shining some much needed light on a dark, dimly remembered incident from the past. Sou Touma and Kana Mizuhara buy an old camera at the flea market with an undeveloped roll of film inside, which upon developing contains five snapshots. Those snapshots show a doll, storage house, group of children, mountains and a blurry picture of a man's shoulder. So they follow the trail of clues to a remote mountain village where they find the old, crumbling and windowless storage room. A place where long ago strange things happened concerning a little girl who could see through walls. That's not the last forgotten locked room mystery that has to be pried out of that old storage building. A good, solid impossible crime story and overall exactly the kind of detective story I enjoy.

"Uncertain Memories" (vol. 6)

A great character piece and slice-of-life puzzle that takes place during the final days of 1999 as the world counts down to the new millennium. Yuu Touma returned to Japan to celebrate New Year with her brother, but Mizuhara wonders why Touma never talks or even mentioned his sister to her. A problem that goes all the way back to their childhood days, family home and a particular incident whose memory still pains Yuu. So bridging the gap between the distant siblings in order to mend their relationship is the core problem of the story, which makes for a great ending as the year 2000 arrived. One of my favorite character stories from this series!

"Secret Blue Room" (vol. 6)

From the same, excellent volume, "Secret Blue Room" returns the series to its traditionalists roots with a very neat variation on the conventional detective story. Mizuhara convinces Touma and when they arrive at the drop zone, preparing for their own dive, they watch a four-man skydive team doing a formation jump – until one gently plummets down to earth. A safety device automatically opening the parachute in case something goes wrong appears to have saved the sky diver, but, when they go check on him, they find a knife sticking out of his back! Since you can't stab someone in mid-air, the police assumes the victim must have been killed on the ground, but that possibility gets rejected pretty quickly. So they're stuck with an impossible crime after all with the airport setting ensuring an exciting conclusion to a superb story and overall great volume.

"The Frozen Hammer" (vol. 9)

A puzzle-within-a-puzzle that is so much more than some abstract, completely artificial brainteaser. A part of dried, mummified arm drops from an iron pipe under the Kachidoki Bridge onto a passing boat and the subsequent investigation reveals human remains inside the pipe, which is sealed and blocked at both ends with steel. So the only way to extract the body is to open the bridge, but the last time it was raised was 30 years ago and that poses a problem when examining the corpse's wristwatch – which dates the secreting of the corpse at roughly 25 years ago. A second problem is a map found on the body or rivers and bridges. Touma recognizes the map as an age-old mathematical problem, "Seven Bridges of Königsberg," but the puzzles play second fiddle to who and what is behind it all. More importantly, the motive and how the culprit (sort of) succeeded in turning back time for a brief, fleeting moment. A puzzle with a heart and soul!

"Summer Vacation Case" (vol. 14)

This story takes place over the summer vacation at the school of Touma and Mizuhara. There are no classes, but the clubs are still active. So the empty school grounds and mostly unoccupied classrooms tend to be a lot quieter than on regular schooldays, "only the sound of club activities," but a prankster is stalking the hallways and classrooms. Someone who commits all kinds of weird acts of vandalism or pulling little stunts that are hard to explain. A minor story, perhaps, but enjoyed how Touma and Mizuhara played detective here. Touma's explanation how all these small, apparently unimportant incidents tied together and demolishing a cleverly-staged alibi in the process is simply first-class.

"Glass Room" (vol. 15)

I think this pick, more than any other on this list, reveals my personal tastes and prejudices. "Glass Room" is arguably the most conservative, but deviously plotted, detective stories in the Q.E.D. series concerning the impossible murder of an audiophile, Oya Etsuro, who received three visitors on the day he was murdered – all possessing unimpeachable alibis. Additionally, the housekeeper was knitting outside the workshop and claims Etsuro was still alive after they had left. So who killed the audiophile and how? What makes this story a gem is how Touma methodically eliminates all the suspects and every possible method of getting in or out of the workshop. Only start all over again from scratch to show the workshop has a third, practically invisible entrance comparable to Carter Dickson's The Judas Window (1938) and "The Unguarded Path" (1963) by Arthur Porges.

"Three Birds" (vol. 18)

 This is definitely not a conventional, traditionally-styled detective story, but a psychological crime tale showing the darker side of memories and even nostalgia. The story is not easily described without giving away too much, however, it concerns some strange gaps in someone's childhood memories concerning a toy pistol and an apparent double suicide many years ago. The story is interspersed with illustrations from a children's story about three birds and a gold coin. A weirdly effective story as the solution to the memory gaps is brilliant and original.

"Outer Space Battle" (vol. 25)

Enari "Queen" Himeko, Nagaie "Holmes" Koroku and Morito "Mulder" Orisato, of the Sakisaka Private High School Detective Club, burst onto the scene in "Arrival of the Famous Detective(s)" in vol. 18. Those three stumbling, wannabee detectives have been nothing but trouble ever since. This time, the trio get conned out of their own club room by a group of students who needed a place to hang out. So they enlist Touma and Mizuhara to get their club room back. Surprisingly, Touma agrees to help and go along with their insane scheme, because he believes "those three need to be kept in that room." What they planned to do is stage a full-blown alien invasion. A completely tongue-in-cheek con game with high school students over a club room, but my favorite story, so far, starring the detective club.


Death on Bastille Day (1981) by Pierre Siniac

Pierre-Mitsos Zakariadis was a French crime writer who authored over forty novels and short story collections, "stories with surprising and paradoxical endings," who debuted with Illégitime défense (Illegal Defense, 1958) – published as by "Pierre Signac." Success came in the early 1980s when he won the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière for two collections of short stories and a novel. More importantly, he produced an impossible crime novel around this time that would go on the collect a five-star rating from Roland Lacourbe in 1001 chambre closed (1001 Locked Rooms, 1997). That novel was translated and published earlier this year by John Pugmire and Locked Room International.

Un Assassin, ça va, ça vient (A Murderer Comes and Goes, 1981), published as "Pierre Siniac," appeared in English under two different titles complete with their own covers. Death on Bastille Day is the ebook edition and Bilocation the print version.

John Pugmire writes in the introduction Death on Bastille Day is "one of only three works in detective fiction featuring what the French call bilocation." A phenomenon better known in the rest of the world as the doppelgänger central to the plots of Noël Vindry's Le double alibi (The Double Alibi, 1934) and Helen McCloy's Through a Glass, Darkly (1950), but there are more examples of the cast-iron alibi being presented as a quasi-impossible situation of bilocation. This year, I reviewed Norman Berrow's quadruple locked room mystery, The Bishop's Sword (1948), in which a prisoner appears at the bedside of a magistrate who ordered his detainment – while the guards at the police station swear the man was lying comfortably in his cell. Anthony Boucher's Nine Times Nine (1940) arguably had one of the better takes on the problem with a man who could not only be in two places at the same time, but vanished from a locked and watched room. Herbert Adam's The Spectre in Brown (1953) reputedly took a similar approach as Nine Times Nine and there are some miscellaneous examples like Brian Flynn's The Orange Axe (1931), Paul Halter's La quatrième porte (The Fourth Door, 1987) and the always underappreciated Jonathan Creek episode Time Waits for Norman (1998). I'm sure there are more out there.

So the problem of the doppelgänger, or bilocation, is not as rare as all that in detective fiction, but rarely explored to its full potential. Siniac tried to make up for lost time and missed opportunities with the novella-length Death on Bastille Day that begins as one of the smuttiest impossible crime stories on record.

One of the two main characters of the story is somewhat of an old playboy, Camille Feuillard, who "sold his five failing public baths in the suburbs," in 1969, "to mount smutty spectacles" with a traveling theatrical company called the Paris-Porno – attracting "a shady crowd" wherever they went. But even in France, "Feuillard had been obliged to scrub the lewd pictures from the sides of the heavy vehicles in the caravan." The other main character is one of Feuillard's many ex-girlfriends, Lise Dolari, whose health has recently taken a sharp decline. She looks to be on the verge of dying. Something the astrologers and clairvoyants she consults confirm, but things get weirder. Lise sees a vision of her own, gruesome death at the hands of Feuillard inside a dark, isolated house ("firing three bullets into her head and hanging her from a hook"). A vision sinister that came to pass several days later as a witness heard Lise's screams coming from exactly that house, "no, Camille, no," before seeing her getting shot and strung. The killer escapes the scene, but is identified as Feuillard. There is, however, one problem: the murder happened on the night of July 14th, Bastille Day, when everyone was out dancing and enjoying the fireworks. At the time, Feuillard was observed by several amused and reliable witnesses passionately dancing in the streets of Paris with a redhead. So how could he have been seen dancing in Place de la Bastille while simultaneously shooting and hanging his ex-girlfriend many kilometres away?

A double impossibility. The true rarity of the impossible crime genre, predictive dreams or visions, complemented with the contradiction between the strong evidence against Feuillard and his rock solid alibi. So the enviable task of cracking this conundrum falls on the shoulders of Inspector Rolande Kiéwicz.

Inspector Kiéwicz came very close to be the only stand up character in the story, "you and your damned scruples," but decided to throw in his lot with a disgraced private detective turned insurance agent. Gilbert Givrette offers to take a crack at Feuillard's alibi in return for his private eye license. Givrette is not going to do some brilliant detective work to demolish the alibi, but intends to "get Feuillard to talk" and "obtain a confession." However, the Givrette employs would plunged a lesser, weaker plotted detective story to the ranks of third-rate tripe. It begins innocently enough as Givrette gets Feuillard drunk and confesses to the murder on tape. But not how he managed to be in two different places at the same time. And "recordings, of whatever kind, are worthless legally." Nor does it prove anything. So he maneuvers Feuillard towards a befriended surgeon to remove a cyst from his stomach and have him confess while under anesthetic, but again, it's not enough to build a case on. What's the next step on the escalation ladder? Givrette has two thugs abduct, tie-up and gag Feuillard to perform a spot of "narco-analysis" by pumping with pentothal sodium – popularly known as truth serum. Why not? After all, "the Nazis used the technique, as did the Soviet Union under Stalin” and “Beria, Mao, the CIA, the KGB, et cetera, made great strides in improving it." Sure, its use here is arguably more horrifying than that time the District Attorney in Anthony Abbot's About the Murder of Geraldine Foster (1930) waved around a syringe of truth serum as he third-degrees an innocent man on the way to the electric chair. Sure, there possibly were some side effects with the previous attempts taking its cumulative toll, but who am I to argue with such a wide, varied list of authoritative voices on the subject. If the Nazis say it works, it probably works.

So, yeah, the opening chapters and so-called "investigative" parts hardly suggest a classically-styled mystery novel in the tradition of the French-language Golden Age detective writers, but appearances in this case were very deceiving. Siniac came through in the end and delivered an extremely clever explanation how a man can appear in two different places at the same time neatly tied to the death vision and other incidents. Not until then can you see how snugly Death on Bastille Day fits in the lineage of the France detective story going back to the experimental Stanislas-André Steeman and his Golden Age followers to the plain realism of Georges Simenon and the seediness of Martin Meroy.

Normally, I would not go as far as calling it an outright masterpiece as it has drawbacks, but this time, I agree with Lacourbe pinning a five-star rating on it. Death on Bastille Day is one of the best and effective demonstrations why having a good plot is as important as fleshing out characters and setting. A detective story without a plot and some awareness of what came before is like building a house on sand. If you strip Death on Bastille Day of the dirty P-word, all you have at best is a smutty genre curiosity not worthy of being called pulp or bother preserving. Let alone translate it into another language. It has a stiff dose of the dirty P-word. The excellently positioned and executed plot formed a solid foundation for everything else to stand and perform on, which is why it has so far stood the test of time for over forty years. Giving it enough time to get noticed, translated and discovered by non-French speaking mystery fans. Recommended with the caveat that you should not expect something along the lines of John Dickson Carr or Paul Halter. Death on Bastille Day is the kind of impossible crime/unbreakable alibi story that will be best appreciated by fans of Christopher Bush and Roger Ormerod.

A note for the curious: Pugmire's introduction mentions Death on Bastille Day is Siniac's only impossible crime novel, however, "99 Novels for a Locked Room Library" on "A Locked Room Library" lists another, Le mystère de la sombre zone (The Dark Zone Mystery, 1999). I'm rather curious now about that title, because Pugmire's introduction notes Siniac died under rather sad circumstances in 2002 ("his neighbours only noticed his absence a month later, because of the foul odour emanating from his flat. When firemen broke the door down, they found his body in an advanced state of decomposition"). I now want to know what kind of locked room mystery Siniac wrote several years before his death that garnered enough votes to make Lacourbe's list of 99 novels.


The Golden Box (1942) by Frances Crane

Frances Crane, "a small town girl who became a sophisticated world traveler," was an American mystery novelist who wrote thirty detective novels, published between 1941 and 1968, all but four featuring the lighthearted, globetrotting crime solving couple, Pat and Jean Abbott – contemporaries of the Troys and the Norths. The Abbotts appeared in twenty-six novels, no short stories, often taking place in localities as colorful as the varicolored book titles that earned Crane the label "the travelog mystery writer." So they were a perfect fit for Tom and Enid Schantz's Rue Morgue Press.

In 2004, RMP reprinted the first title in the Pat and Jean Abbott series, The Turquoise Shop (1941), which was followed by a half dozen more reissues before closing down around 2015. Enid passed away in 2011 and Tom suffered a combination of flood problems, health issues and financial difficulties forcing him to permanently shutter RMP. One of their last reprints to be published was, in fact, Crane's The Cinnamon Murder (1946). Crane and the Abbotts enjoyed a small revival of their popularity during those years, but retreated somewhat back into obscurity following the closure of RMP. Something that happened to a lot of once obscure mystery writers who make up RMP's catalog like Delano Ames, Glyn Carr, Clyde B. Clason and Kelley Roos. Crane recently came back to my attention, but in a good news-bad news way.

The good news is that Crane is returning to print once again courtesy of the MysteriousPress/OpenRoad combination (ebooks) and Otto Penzler's American Mystery Classics (print). The bad news is that The Rap Sheet reported last July that Tom Schantz had "died on June 6 at 79 years of age." The story of the Rue Morgue Press has a special place in the history of the genre as Tom and Enid Schantz were among the first to setup shop on the internet, which not only helped pave the way for today's reprint renaissance, but opened the door to a possible Second Golden Age – sometime in the hopefully not so distant future. A reprint renaissance would likely have happened regardless, but it would developed a lot slower rate without the Rue Morgue Press pushing it ahead a good 10-15 years. Without them, I think we would be today where we roughly were around the late 2000s. And who knows how that would have affected our beloved translation wave. So if you feel spoiled for choice or overwhelmed by the relentless, unceasing stream of reprints and translations, you can thank the Schantz for your luxurious little problem.

When I learned of Tom Schantz's passing, I dug the Rue Morgue Press edition of Frances Crane's The Golden Box (1942) from the bottom of the to-be-read pile and moved it near the top. After all, Crane wrote the type of mysteries Tom and Enid enjoyed. The type of mystery novel showing the only acceptable place in a civilized world to commit murder is the printed page.

The Golden Box is the second novel in the series and takes place mere weeks after The Turquoise Shop, which introduced mystery readers to the San Francisco private eye Patrick "Pat" Abbott and his future wife, Jean Holly. At the time, the last days of November, 1941, the United States populace was occupied with Roosevelt's presidential proclamation to move Thanksgiving ("...cash registers play jingle bells an extra week") or listening to radio broadcasts on developing tension with Japan ("the Japanese emissaries were in Washington"). Just a little over a week before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Jean, only 26-years-old, is wondering whether Pat is the man for her and what to do with her shop in Santa Maria shop ("...a pain in the neck because I couldn't make it pay...") when she receives a telegram from her cousin. Peg McCrea invites Jean to come back and visit her old hometown, Elm Hill, which she left behind eight years ago when her parents died in a car crash, but very little has changed in the small, old-world town – lorded over by the matriarchal tyrant of Fabian House. Mrs. Claribel Fabian Lake is a domineering, mean-spirited old woman who leverages her wealth to control everyone and everything from her own relatives to the church committee. Woe onto those who dare cross or defy her wishes.

Mrs. Claribel Fabian Lake has three daughters, Emma, Claire and Valerie, one of whom she wishes to see married to her dear cousin, Ernest Fabian. Ernest is "the very last Fabian" and Mrs. Lake "was going to endow him heavily when he married Emma," but she eloped with a high school chemistry teacher, Carl Green. They had several children one of whom got hit by a car and needs expensive medical care or risks losing a leg, but Mrs. Lake refuses to give as much as a penny for treatment ("bitchy Mrs. Lake reminded Emma that if she had married Ernest Fabian things might have been nicer, meaning they'd've had money"). So the next in line to marry Ernest is the second, distantly-minded daughter, Claire, who agreed to become engaged to Ernest ("...just a sort of business arrangement, you see"). However, this does not mean the third and youngest daughter can marry whomever she wants. Valerie has fallen in love with a young pilot, Tommy Ross, but Mrs. Lake is "fighting the match" and "Val spends most of her time in hysterics." That's not all. Mrs. Lake is furious at the whole church as the congregation voted against her sappy candidate preacher and gets back at them by canceling the annual Christmas party. If the committee insists on having a Christmas party regardless, she'll stop her yearly three-thousand dollar donation. A donation that practically pays for everything the church does for the community.

This is going down as Jean returned to her hometown and writes a letter to Pat that there are some "funny doings next door" which "might interest a good detective." Pat wired back three days later, but, by that time, Mrs. Lake "had been stowed in the Fabian vault in the Elm Hill cemetery." The circumstances surrounding her death got the town talking. For a while anyway.

Ernest had the body taken to St. Louis for embalming and the coffin returned to Fabian House, "under a blanket of orchids and gardenias," but was not opened and the funeral was to be private, which is considered a snub in the community – "funerals are rather communal in Elm Hill." There's another story doing the rounds about her supposed death. Mrs. Lake's young black maid, Ida Raymonds, told her sister she found her mistress "lying on the bed with a bashed-in face" and "a golden box clutched in one dead hand." Is that why Ernest wanted the body cremated? But then her body is discovered hanging from a length of clothesline in the so-called bird room crammed with stuffed animals. So, when Pat comes to Elm Hill, there's plenty of suspicion and motives to go around, but the imminent treat of war has doused any interest in a potential double murder in Elm Hill ("I suppose murder on a mass scale rubs out little double murders like that"). And nobody wants "to bother seriously because it's only Ida Raymond." Which is not necessarily a handicap for a detective like Pat Abbott. Or, as Jean described it, "you size up your case and set your little trap and they talk themselves into it."

The Thrilling Detective Website described the Pat and Jean Abbott novels as "definitely on the cozier side of the P.I. genre." Frances Crane can be called the female counterpart to Rex Stout as both wrote mysteries most read for the main characters rather than trying to pick apart a tricky, intricately-constructed puzzle plot. That is very much true for The Golden Box. Crane does put in some work to make the obvious murderer somewhat less obvious and not always in the fairest of ways, but the only way you can miss the murderer is (SPOILER/ROT13: vs lbh nffhzr gur zbfg-yvxryl-fhfcrpg vf gbb boivbhf n pubvpr sbe zheqrere) and expect a bit of ingenuity or cleverness waiting for you in the last couple of chapters. Crane simply was not an Agatha Christie or Helen McCloy. Funnily enough, Tom and Enid Schantz tried to help on this occasion to make the murderer less obvious by editing out a racial slur. Not "because of concerns about political correctness but because it might actually give away the killer's identity" as "in 1942, readers might not have assigned guilt at its mere utterance," but "but in 2005 we could easily see a reader exclaiming, 'Aha, here's our killer'." Stressing that Crane was "a champion of the underdog who abhorred prejudice" and "was expelled from Nazi Germany as a journalist for defending Jews." It barely helped.

However, The Golden Box is a highly readable, but not particular challenging, detective novel giving a snapshot of a period when the United States held it breaths in anticipation war while trying to fuss over little things like Thanksgiving getting moved a week. So if you like these comfy, more character-oriented mysteries with a dash of romance and a pinch of Had-I-But-Known, Frances Crane and The Golden Box comes highly recommended. But if you want something a little more challenging, you should look somewhere else.

A note for the curious: I nostalgically poked around the now sadly long gone Rue Morgue Press website on the Wayback Machine and came across the following on the about section what collecting vintage mysteries in the 1970s was like: "in those days, used mystery books from the Golden Age were plentiful and cheap and not in wide demand, except by thrifty readers. Booksellers kept first editions in dusty back rooms and rejoiced when we came to town looking for them. Book sales had tables full of them, priced at a quarter apiece regardless of edition or condition. We would come back from buying trips with our Volvo station wagon crammed with boxes of old mysteries... remember, a book from 1935 had been out of print for only 35 years at that time, about the same length of time that books being published in 1970 have been out of print today. And there were very few real mystery fiction collectors back then." One of those early collectors was Bill Pronzini. No wonder he got his hands on all those rare, long out-of-print locked room mysteries! But it's interesting to note how the fandom has grown and expanded since the late 1990s and early 2000s. Almost like RMP actually had a hand in it! ;)


The Caves of Steel (1953/54) by Isaac Asimov

Once upon a time, in the 1950s, the detective genre received a distinguished visitor from outer space, Isaac Asimov, who came as an ambassador from a space-faring fandom bearing a truly priceless gift, The Caves of Steel (1953/54) – one of the most important detective novels of the 20th century. The Caves of Steel is not the first attempt to fuse the detective and science-fiction genres on an atomic level, but it's the first to do it successfully. More importantly, Asimov demonstrated that advancements in forensic science and technology poses no obstacle to writing and plotting a legitimate detective story. Asimov managed to craft a fair play, Golden Age-style detective novel that takes place in a dystopian future replete with humanoid-looking robots, force barriers, mind probes ("cerebroanalysis"), energy blasters and breakaway civilizations. First a short detour.

The hybrid mystery has always been somewhat of a novelty in the peripheral of mostly established writers. John Dickson Carr injected time travel into some of his historical mysteries and Anthony Boucher wrote the best-known time travel (locked room) mystery, but Carr's historical novels never received the same acclaim as his regular work and "Elsewhen" (1946) is Boucher's only real hybrid mystery – representing two of the more successful attempts. There are also far less impressive hybrid mysteries like Manly Wade Wellman's nonetheless interesting Devil's Planet (1942), David V. Reed's poorly conceived Murder in Space (1944) and John Russell Fearn tried his hands at a couple science-fiction mysteries with generally mediocre results. The Master Must Die (1953) is the only somewhat decent hybrid mystery Fearn produced and tended to keep himself to one genre at the time.

You can find more of these short-lived, often one-off experiments like Christopher St. John Sprigg's alternate history mysteries Fatality in Fleet Street (1933) and Death of a Queen (1935). Moray Dalton's tantalizingly sounding, long out-of-print apocalyptic whodunit, The Black Death (1934). Theodore Roscoe's speculative I'll Grind Their Bones (1937) must have read like a science-fiction mystery when it was first published, but sadly turned out to be a prophetic image of the then coming war. However, the only two writers who appear to have made serious work of the hybrid mystery were Isaac Asimov and Randall Garrett. Consequently, they delivered the only high profile, even iconic hybrid mysteries, The Caves of Steel and Too Many Magicians (1966). Yes, I famously dislike Too Many Magicians, but you all decided it's a genre classic. I was not consulted nor signed off on that decision, however, that's a discussion for another time.

So until the relatively recent translations of Yamaguchi Masaya's Ikeru shikabane no shi (Death of the Living Dead, 1989) and Masahiro Imamura's Shijinso no satsujin (Death Among the Undead, 2017), the hybrid mystery seldom came up – unless in reference to Asimov or Randall. Masaya and Imamura served fans a reminder of the still largely untapped plotting and storytelling potential that comes with mixing genres as long as it has an internal logic and consistency as an overlay for the detective story's fair play rules. Ever since, the hybrid mystery has come up more often around these parts, but a lack of available (quality) material prevented a deep dive into the subject. Pickings are slim in the West and most of the Japanese more recent takes on the hybrid mystery currently reside behind a language barrier. I remember Asimov did exactly the same thing with science-fiction in The Caves of Steel as Masaya and Imamura did with the living dead in their detective classics. I decided to toss Asimov's famous science-fiction mystery hybrid on the reread list.

The Caves of Steel was originally serialized from October to December 1953 in Galaxy magazine and published in hardcover the following year. The story takes place 3000 years into the future when Earth's population has 8 billion and counting. So over a period of millennia, the people retreated deep inside windowless, metallic mega cities ("the Cities") housing tens of millions of people. Practically nobody lives or even dares to venture outside the Cities, "outside was the wilderness, the open sky that few men could face with anything like equanimity," except for robots working the yeast fields, farms and mines for food and resources. The City was "the acme of efficiency, but it made demands of its inhabitants" as "it asked them to live in a tight routine and order their lives under a strict and scientific control." This came with a credit score system and each ranking came with special privileges ("a seat on the expressway in the rush hour, not just from ten to four. Higher up on the list-of-choice at the Section kitchens. Maybe even a chance at a better apartment and a quota ticket to the Solarium levels"). One of the worst things that could happen in this world is "the prospect of the desperate minimum involved in declassification" stripping an individual of all special privileges making existence somewhat endurable.

So, under these conditions, built-up inhibitions sometimes explode, but twenty-five years ago, the Spacers returned to their ancestral home world and not without some dire consequences.

Centuries before Earth buried itself in its Cities, humanity experienced a true Golden Age as mankind expanded to the stars and colonized fifty different worlds, all under Earth's control, but there was a hard break between Earth and the so-called Outer Worlds – a break in more ways than one. Spacers not only made themselves "independent of the mother planet," but "had bred disease out of their societies" and "avoided, as far as possible, contact with disease-riddled Earthmen." So they kept their birthrate down, immigrants from teeming Earth out and enjoyed the luxury of underpopulated, robot-serviced worlds and an average life expectancy of 350 years. Twenty-five years ago, the Spacers returned to Earth in gleaming cruisers to "sent down their soldiers into Washington, New York and Moscow to collect what they claimed was theirs." Ever since their arrival, the Spacers had a permanent presence, or enclave, on the planet.

Spacetown is situated in the Newark Section of New York City, larger than Los Angeles and more populous than Shanghai, which is "spread over two thousand square miles and at the last census its population was well over twenty million." ("what was called Yeast-town in popular speech was, to the Post Office, merely the boroughs of Newark, New Brunswick and Trenton"). Naturally, access to Spacetown is as restricted to Earth people as the Outer Worlds themselves. That has caused problems ever since Spacetown was established ("...remembered the Barrier Riots") as it has become the target of anti-robot sentiments. Spacers try to get the robots out of the mines and off the farms and integrate them into the Cities. An integrated human/robot society they call "a C/Fe culture." Something that comes at an additional cost as robots began taking away jobs, "creating a growing group of displaced and declassified men." There's growing resentment fawning the flames of "the thing called Medievalism" whose rallying cry is "back to the soil." So things get very tricky when a well-known Spacer is brutally murdered right inside the limits of Spacetown.

Roj Nemennuh Sarton, a sociologist specialized in robotics, planned to make a drastic, last ditch effort to penetrate the psychology of the City societies rather than dismissing their attitude as being part of the make-up of "the unchanging Earth" – or else Spacetown will go down as a failure. But he never gets that far. Someone, somehow managed to enter Spacetown and kill the sociologist ("He died of a missing chest. Someone had used a blaster on him"). Spacetown is under New York jurisdiction and Spacers have agreed to leave the investigation in their hands, but under the condition one of their agents assists their policeman. Plainclothes Man Elijah "Lije" Baley, Police Department, City of New York, Rating C-5, gets partnered with R. Daneel Olivaw. R stands for robot. The latest, most advanced model in Spacer robotics barely distinguishable from real humans. The keyword is barely which will spell no end of trouble for Baley and his family in a crammed, tightly-packed City rife with anti-robot and Spacer sentiments.

The Caves of Steel begins closer to a science-fiction novel than a detective story as Asimov does a lot of world-building and some characterization, but don't make the mistake to skim over these parts to get to the "good parts." Asimov is doing so much than world-building as he carefully places all the pieces of the detective story on the board. What you're being told about this world and the information Baley learns a crucial building blocks of the plot, which excellently demonstrated in Chapter 8 ("Debate Over a Robot") and 9 ("Elucidation by a Spacer"). Baley takes everything that has been learned and absorbed up to that point to present a very convincingly (theoretically speaking) argued solution largely based on the apparent impossibility of a robot dying the First Law of Robotics ("a robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm"). The end of that chapter and the next one neatly demolished Baley's theory. A false-solution in the tradition of the best from Anthony Berkeley, Leo Bruce and Ellery Queen! So back to the drawing board. And as they continued their investigating, Baley learned enough new things and information for a second false-solution.

Most ingenious of all, the two false-solutions show how extremely well Asimov fused the science-fiction genre with the Golden Age-style detective novel as the solutions are based on pure science-fiction, while simultaneously being completely logical and fair. All could have been done within the clearly stated boundaries of this fictitious world to the point where it actually like The Caves of Steel could be detective story written during in that time and place. However, did Asimov avoided the pitfall of the false-solutions outshining the real solution? Yes! More on that in a minute. First I want to briefly return to the world-building.

Since good hybrid mysteries have been short supply, I've been dipping into Jack McDevitt's Alex Benedict series. A science-fiction series often sporting strong mystery, or puzzle, elements to the plot, but always appreciated the small details to its world-building that makes it feel like it's populated and colonized by human beings. Littering the galactic culture with our little customs, stories, myths and legends. 

Asimov never gives the reader an extensive history lesson on how his future Earth and the Outer Worlds came about. Just how everything works and giving a sense of time-and place, but does it very well and enjoyed the faux historical and cultural references as much as the real ones from the classics – even giving some character and homeliness to the "imprisoning caves of steel." For example, there's a chase scene across the accelerating strips of the Cities densely crowded, rapid transit system. Baley draws on his experience as a teenager who used to play a game called Running the Strips ("its object is to get from point A to point B via the City's rapid transit system in such a way that the "leader" manages to lose as many of his followers as possible"). A handful of players get killed every year playing the game, dozens more get injured and the police persecutes them relentlessly, but the strip-running gangs remain. Because a successful, well-known leader is "cock-of-the-walk." Another example is a reference to a fictional short story that began as a crime story and ended as a ghost story that "lost the attributes of ordinary fiction and had entered the realm of folklore" ("the Wandering Londoner had become a familiar phrase to all the world").

The Caves of Steel is not a pleasant place to live, or thrive, where a good, even exciting day is taking your kid to the zoo to gawk at cats, dogs and sparrows or getting to pick what kind of grub you get served in the community kitchen. These small, human touches provided a few bright spots to its bleak, desolate and dystoptian surroundings. It's what humans would do even under those circumstances. However, Asimov does provide a small flicker of hope and seamlessly wove it all together with the question who murdered Dr. Sarton. And why. Or how. So back to Baley's third and correct solution.

Firstly, I somewhat reluctantly tagged the review as a locked room, because The Caves of Steel is generally considered to be a locked room mystery. Technically, the problem of the murder weapon disappearing from a thoroughly searched crime scene, "yet it could not have vanished like smoke," qualifies as an impossible crime, but it wouldn't be fair to present it as an impossible crime. The Caves of Steel is an excellent whodunit with a good how-was-it-done pull masterly playing on the least-likely-suspect gambit. Secondly, Asimov played the game scrupulously fair with the reader, dropping clues and planting red herrings, while explaining how everything worked and fitted together in his world. Just as impressive is how the correct solution contrasted with the two false-solutions. The false-solutions have a certain artificiality to them, while the third solution brings everything back to human proportions by offering that hopeful flicker of light. And not at the cost of the correct solution turning out to be less ingenious or satisfying than the false-solutions. Everything from the far-flung future settings and its own unique array of troubles to the politically sensitive murder of an elite Spacer, everything simply came and fitted together effortlessly to form one of the best and most important detective novels of the 20th century! A double masterpiece and deservedly the most celebrated hybrid mystery novel on this side of the planet.

In short, Asimov's The Caves of Steel is a strange, exotic material not originally from our timeline that sometimes receives strange signals from Ganymede and comes recommended without a single reservation.


Bughouse Chess: "The Pawns of Death" (1974) by Bill Pronzini and Jeffrey Wallmann

Bill Pronzini and Jeffrey Wallmann's "The Pawns of Death" originally appeared in the August, 1974, issue of the short-lived, quarterly publication Charlie Chan Mystery Magazine under a shared pseudonym "Robert Hart Davis" – a house name of Renown Publications. Charlie Chan Mystery Magazine was apparently Renown Publication's attempt to mine past glory and licensed the character to carry their new quarterly. Each issue has a "brand new" Charlie Chan novella as its marque, but "an idea whose time had probably passed by then" and the magazine got discontinued after only four issues.

"The Pawns of Death" is the fourth and last of these newly written Charlie Chan pasticheWhile I enjoyed Earl Derr Biggers' original novels, especially Behind That Curtain (1928) and Charlie Chan Carries On (1930), the pastiches would have passed under my radar had it not been pointed out by one of the usual suspects, Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991). Even then I didn't immediately connect "The Pawns of Death" by Robert Hart Davis in Adey with Pronzini and Wallmann's "The Pawns of Death" reprinted by Wildside Press. But eventually the penny dropped. And someone, somewhere, a long time ago recommended it as an excellent pastiche.

I've aired my general skepticism about detective pastiches in the past, because trying to write a good, convincing or even a passable pastiche always struck me as walking through a minefield – situated in the middle of a field of rakes. A pastiche either fails miserably to measure up to the original or so bad it stains it or being a pastiche detracts from a writer's own qualities. Good ideas or writing whose qualities get lessened or overlooked, because they're presented as imitations. For example, I think the titular novella from Sherlock Holmes and the Chinese Junk Affair and Other Stories (1998) could have been more than a curio or another Sherlock Holmes imitation had Roy Templeman created his own detective-character. There have, of course, been writers who absolutely nailed a detective pastiche. Jill Paton Walsh's completion of Dorothy L. Sayers' last Lord Peter Wimsey novel (Thrones, Dominations, 1998) and continuation of the series (A Presumption of Death, 2002) are prime example of excellent pastiches. Dale C. Andrew and Kurt Sercu's "The Book Case" (2007), starring a 100-year-old Ellery Queen, is personal favorite that added to the EQ canon and lore.

However, finding that Goldilocks zone for pastiches appears to be an incredibly difficult and tricky thing to do. It seems much more success is to be gained with original homages (James Scott Byrnside's Goodnight Irene, 2018), outright parodies (Barry Ergang's "The Audiophile Murder Case," 1982) or a measured combination of a homage, parody and pastiche (Leo Bruce's Case for Three Detectives, 1936). So that brings us to the all important question to be answered: were Pronzini and Wallmann successful in finding and landing "The Pawns of Death" in the Goldilocks zone? Let's find out!

Charlie Chan is in Paris, France, to attend the Transcontinental Chess Tournament at the "luxurious and Gallic" Hotel Frontenac ("his interest in, and love of, the intricate game was well known throughout the chess world"). Chan is accompanied by his friend and Parisian lawman, Prefect Claude DeBevre. While their attendance is purely a pleasure trip, there are rising tensions and hostilities between the defending champion and his young challenger. Roger Mountbatten is the reigning, three-time Transcon champion who accuses his American challenger, Grant Powell, of cheating during their first few of potential twenty-four games ("...continue to meet head-to-head until one of them acquired a total of 12-1/2 points and was crowned the new champion of Transcon chess"). They do not much to hide their mutual animosity.

When Powell wins another match, Mountbatten refuses to shake hands, "yet another example of unethical if not downright illegal chess to boot," before storming off angrily. Powell takes childish joy in publicly needling Mountbatten ("we're in the presence of the soon-to-be dethroned Transcon champion in all his bitter, whining glory"). Even their respective entourage get in on the action and make very public scenes in the hotel. Charlie Chan is a keen student of the human condition and knows "harsh emotions such as those which had been displayed could all too easily erupt into violence." There's a scene to which neither Chan nor Claude DeBevre are privy, except the reader, which shows someone at the hotel already tried to commit cold blooded murder.

Only problem is that the gun refused to work. So the would-be-assassin decides on a more sophisticated method befitting the world's most cerebral game. Something like "a locked-room death to puzzle the police completely" ("chess and a baffling murder what a beautifully ironic combination").

Surely enough, it does not take long before a body, shot to death, is discovered in a hotel room with the windows securely latched and the door locked from the inside, but the sheer impossibility of the murder is not only mystery. Firstly, the victim is not who you would expect from the premise. Secondly, the odd "bullet" the police digs out of the mattress. This is not the last murder at the hotel. A mortally wounded man is discovered in another locked hotel room who mutters with his dying breath a last, cryptic remark ("another murder, this time with an enigmatic dying message"). The whole situation has Claude DeBevre perplexed, "a gun that will not fire, bullets that cannot work, not one but two locked-room murders," but Chan has a pretty good how the murder was committed. And narrows down his suspects to only two names. But who? Chan baits a little trap to lure out and ensnare the killer.

So where does "The Pawns of Death" fall as a pastiche? I say it falls just within the Goldilocks zone. First of all, Pronzini and Wallmann's portrayal of Charlie Chan is no smudge or stain on the original. I've never seen any of the movies, but understand they didn't do the legacy of the character any long-term good. This incarnation is not an exact one-on-one copy of the Charlie Chan who appeared in the six original novels, however, the character is treated respectfully and made me want to revisit Behind That Curtain or Charlie Chan Carries On. So, on that account alone, "The Pawns of Death" is a reasonably successful pastiche of the character. But what about the plot? Well, the plot is a bit rough around the edges and the characters, setting and story obviously written around the locked room-trick and dying message idea. That helped in piecing everything together long before the murderer walks into Chan's trap. I had completely solved it by the end of Chapter X and that was before the second murder with the dying message clue. The discovery and nature of the strange bullet, sort of, gives away what type of trick must have been used, which is not one that always enjoys great popularity among impossible crime fanatics (SPOILER/ROT13: n uvqqra qrivpr) and the second murder hardly qualifies as a proper locked room puzzle (SPOILER/ROT13: n qhcyvpngr xrl). So the rough, unpolished plot is what pushed this novella to the outer edge of the so-called Goldilocks zone. Regardless, I tremendously enjoyed reading this continuation of the Charlie Chan series and interesting considering how relatively early it came in Pronzini's career.

Reportedly, Pronzini "doesn't seem to think much of this early effort," but it contains some ideas he would return to later and improve. Such as the trick to the first murder or the dying message inside a locked room, of which the classic Nameless Detective short story "The Pulp Connection" (1979) is the best example. A locked room dying message also features in the more recent The Paradise Affair (2021). The characters and plot would actually translate very well to a Carpenter and Quincannon novel, because there so much to expand upon (the chess feud, investigating the cheating accusations, the first attempt and locked rooms and dying message) with the added benefit of a charming historical setting. All it needs is a better solution to the first locked room murder and second impossibility can be easily fixed by having the scared, dying victim lock the door to keep the murderer from coming back ("...the workings of a dying man's fevered mind") – consequently locked out any form of immediate life saving help. Yes, a routine locked room-trick, or solution, but allowable for a second, or third, additional locked room. I'm rambling and flogging my hobby horse again.

So, yes, "The Pawns of Death" is not a groundbreaking locked room mystery, but it's a perfectly serviceable and thoroughly entertaining pastiche. And piqued my interest in the other three Charlie Chan Mystery Magazine novellas as they were written by Dennis Lynds/Michael Collins. Who has been frequently discussed on this blog under his "William Arden" penname and reviewed his short story "The Bizarre Case Expert" (1970) a few years ago. "The Silent Corpse" honestly sounds like a cracking yarn. I also plan on tracking down Pronzini's other, earlier locked room short stories like "The Perfect Crime" (1968), "A Killing in Xanadu" (1980), "Cat's Paw" (1986) and "Ace in the Hole" (1986), but I'm flogging that poor hobby horse again. And you get the idea by now. You can expect a future review of "The Silent Corpse," before I decide whether "Walk Softly, Strangler" (1973) and "The Temple of the Golden Horde" (1974) are worth it. To be continued...

A (final) note for the curious: Pronzini and Wallmann collaborated on another short locked room mystery, "The Half-Invisible Man" (1974), which stands out not for its plot machinations, but its detective character. Sadly, the story is Patrolman Fred Gallagher's only appearance.

Oh, just one last thing: I really went on, bloating this review, but didn't even touch upon how the curious murder weapon dated the setting of the story as no earlier than the 1950s, but likely somewhere around the late 1960s or early '70s. Charlie Chan made his first appearance in The House Without a Key (1925) and if this novella takes place close to its publication date, Chan has barely aged a day in nearly fifty years!


Blood from a Stone (1945) by Ruth Sawtell Wallis

Ruth Sawtell Wallis was an American academic, physical anthropologist and author who enjoyed a promising, but regrettably short-lived, stint as a mystery novelist during the 1940s – penning a handful of well-received novels. Anthony Boucher praised Too Many Bones (1943) for its "well-prepared climax, literate writing and some authentic shivers." Too Many Bones also has the rare distinction of being an anthropologically-themed mystery ("gruesome details about preparation of bones aren't stressed but neither are they minimized," Boucher) of a vintage date. John Norris identified one earlier example (Frederica de Laguna's The Arrow Points to Murder, 1937) and reviewed S.H. Courtier's The Glass Spear (1950) on this blog some years ago. On a whole, they simply were not all that common at the time.

In 2020, Stark House Press began reprinting the modest contribution Wallis made to the genre and read Too Many Bones a year later, but the book left me in two minds. On the one hand, Too Many Bones is quietly gripping, well-orchestrated suspense novel with the museum setting and skeleton collection giving the story somewhat of a personality of its own. However, the book is not a triumph of detection and fair play. Fittingly enough, Too Many Bones can be identified as an ancestor of the modern, character-driven crime novel that rose to prominence after the '40s. Not necessarily a bad thing, depending on who you ask, but hard to recommend to the people who follow this blog. However, the Stark House Press edition is a twofer volume also containing Wallis' third (archaeological) mystery novel, Blood from a Stone (1945).

Too Many Bones and Blood from a Stone are the only two novels in which Wallis draws from her anthropological training and firsthand experience in excavating archaeological sites. Wallis discovered the first Azilian skeleton in the French Pyrenees, which is the backdrop of her third go at the detective story. And it sounded promising!

Curt Evans, of The Passing Tramp, draws a comparison in his introduction between Blood from a Stone, "steeped as it is in history and romantic legend," and "the tale of the impossible murder that takes place atop a ruined medieval French tower" (John Dickson Carr's He Who Whispers, 1946) – which is not at all what you should expect. Susan Kent, "another winning anthropologist heroine," is mistaken in the first chapter by some children for a local legend, dame blanche (white lady), but don't expect anything remotely similar to Carr or even Paul Halter. You may end up bitterly disappointed otherwise. What you should expect is short, snappy novel of character heavily leaning on its characters, scenery, archaeological digging and plot coming third or fourth. More on that in a minute.

Blood from a Stone takes place in the summer of 1935 and brings Susan Kent to the valley of St. Fiacre in the French Pyrenees to explore the mountain caves and root around for bones, flints and shards. But the single, red-headed and independent Susan Kent stands out in the ancient land of ruined towers, ghosts and caves. A very old land where people live under the shadow of two fears, "the fear of want and the fear of the supernatural." The fear of the so-called Fear ("La Peur") like ghosts, fairies, werewolves and unnamed shapes, but "the greatest of these is the White Woman." So, naturally, the locals look with suspicion upon the modern anthropological researcher digging for bones in caves ("...where the spirits live") and sharing a house (called The Woman of Bad Habits) with a female friend, Neva Borodin. There's no shortage of suspicious locals taking an interest in Susan or buzzing around her dig site. From the elderly Comte de l'Arize and prodigal son who suddenly returned home to the local clergyman and a British amateur archaeologist. And the incidents surrounding Susan's discovery of a skeleton as complete as it's ancient begin to pile up.

Firstly, Susan very nearly becomes the victim of a deadly simple, but ingenious contrived, death trap in one of the caves ("a beautiful cave full of magnificent paintings made by paleolithic man"). Only genuine clever touch to the plot and almost on par with the out-of-order sign from Agatha Christie's Towards Zero (1944). Secondly, the discovery of the skeleton brings two gendarmes to her doorstep who received an anonymous message that the American girl "has found a body in the Tutto Biouletto." Finally, Susan discovers a second, more recent body in the caves belonging to a man who had been foully murdered. However, the murder is practically irrelevant to the plot as Wallis does not even bother to properly identify the victim. The dead man is a complete outsider who's only role in the story is to make things as difficult as possible for Susan.

I'm afraid that's all I have on this one. Blood from a Stone has some nice scenery, local lore and a bit of archaeology with flashes of romance, but, simply as a detective story, it landed like a damp squib. Blood from a Stone should have been anthropological novel instead of an anthropological detective novel. The detective story element, or puzzle, should have come from an archaeological discovery revealing something of a historical mystery that needs solving. An archaeological puzzle like the one from Motohiro Katou's "Pharaoh's Necklace" (Q.E.D. vol. 28) without the interference of a second, halfhearted and lukewarm corpse would have made Blood from a Stone a truly unique mystery novel. A minor classic even. But this is definitely not that novel. Well, they can't all be winners and will try to pick something better next.


Blogging Gone Wrong: Case Closed, vol. 87 by Gosho Aoyama

The 87th volume of Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed series begins, traditionally, with the concluding chapters to the story that left the previous volume, quite literary, on a cliffhanger as the latest victim of the cop-killing serial killer is dragged behind a car with a noose around his neck – plunging over the edge of a ravine. The victims reputedly belong to the Woodpecker Society. A secretive group of Nagano policemen and the latest murder appears to implicate someone from their own ranks, Kansuke Yamato, who disappeared as the evidence against him began to emerge.

This is somewhat of a strange story, because everything except the Woodpecker murders are of interest here.

Firstly, the previous volume introduced the character of Nagano's 1st Investigation Division Director, Hyoe Kuroda, who makes a startling remark, "the brains behind Sleeping Moore, a little boy who collects clues and makes clever observation so Moore can close the case" – "that's the gossip about you at the Metropolitan Police Headquarters, Conan Edogawa." Worst of all, Hyoe Kuroda fits one of the descriptions of the second-in-command of the Black Organization, "Rum." Secondly, Conan role in the story is pretty much that of an observant, well-informed onlooker as the Nagano police need no help identifying and capturing the murderer. So rather a shame the case itself is one of the worst series with the cliffhanger murder revealing a preposterously stupid trick. It also made the murderer standout like a light flare, but scratched my head (like Kosuke Kindaichi) trying to figure out how such a stunt could have been pulled off. I like a good trick as much as the next detective fan and have overlooked some stretching for the sake of a good or original idea, but, even by comic book standards, this solution is insultingly bad, unconvincing and hardly worth the risk. Something that can get the killer killed.

The only way to make such a trick work is to have it go horribly wrong (SPOILER/ROT13): sbe rknzcyr, Nxvlnzn qvrf qhevat gur rkrphgvba bs gur gevpx ol fznpxvat snpr svefg vagb gur fvqr bs gur enivar, juvyr gur cybg pbagvahrf gb hasbyq jvgu nhgbzngvpnyyl fraq grkg zrffntrf. Ohg abguvat unccraf va gur raq. Fb gurl erghea gb gur fprar bs gur ynfg zheqre naq svaq Nxvlnzn qnatyvat sebz gur gerr oenapu jvgu gur urnqyrff znaardhva ba vg. That would have been acceptable. So read this one for the characters and ongoing storyline.

Fortunately, the second story is much better and combines the inverted mystery format with the locked room mystery. Doc Agasa won a trip to an all-you-can-eat cake buffet at a famous hotel and the Junior Detective League is right there with him to share in the spoils of victory. While enjoying their cake, they meet two rivaling TV stars, Saya Kitami and Kyona Shono, who star in reality show competition to have the most popular blog ("...loser has to shave her head"). Anita calls it "trashy fun." Kyona claims to have found out a dirty secret and tells Kyona she better start waving the white flag, if she doesn't want it to go public. So, of course, Kyona is found bludgeoned to death in her hotel room with the key card right next to her. And the doors don't lock automatically. That makes it locked room murder, but Conan knows Saya killed her co-star. But how? And why?

I had to go back to two much earlier volumes to refresh my memory, but this story indeed recycled its plot ideas from a previous story dating back to the late '90s. Everything from the locked room-trick to the motive, but recycled into something entirely new. The similarities are obviously there, however, the way in which this story, originally published in 2015, plays out could not have been done back then. Simply because some things featuring in this story didn't exist in 1998. It would have been better had these new things been used to create something new instead of recreating old plots. One new addition to the plot screams out to be used for an alibi-trick or frame job, but, as it is, this is not a bad locked room mystery overall.

A minor highlight of this story is Inspector Meguire thinking of Conan as "a tiny grim reaper," because he "pops up at every crime scene."

The next story is a flashback to when Conan, then still Jimmy, met Rachel for the first time in preschool and their friendship was not immediately evident. Jimmy is an obnoxious, bratty child who just discovered Sherlock Holmes and tries to impress Rachel with his deductions. Jimmy becomes mightily suspicious of their teacher, Ronsuke Efune, who seems to be playing favorites with Rachel. But why? I expected this to be nice little fluff story showing where their friendship started and Jimmy's shaky beginnings as a detective. Jimmy might have been clever, mouthy brat in preschool who notices things, but clearly lacked the life experience to follow his astute observations to its logical conclusions. And misinterpreted their teacher's action ("I bet he's trying to recruit that kid to be his evil henchman"). But then the story took a slightly darker turn towards the end. A touch darker than the premise warranted (rira gur jbeq tebbzvat jnf hfrq). A good story regardless.

The last two chapters setup a story that will be concluded, traditionally, in the next volume and centers on two recurring side characters from the pop-culture of the Conanverse, Yoko Okino and Ryusuke Higo. Okino is the famous pop star Richard Moore is always drooling over and Higo is the star player of the Big Osaka soccer team. Apparently, Anita is as big a fan of Ryusuke Higo as Moore is of Yoko Okino. Anita and Moore are left devastated when the news breaks on social media that the two stars were spotted jewelry shopping together. Anita asks Moore to investigate ("pro bono, of course") whether, or not, they are dating ("these two are getting unhinged"). That leads them to an Italian restaurant recently opened by one of Higo's high school teammates and a body in the storage room with the next volume revealing how "the killer created an instant alibi by making clever use of a simple tool."

So, on a whole, a pretty good volume of cases, but one carried by the promise and intrigue by the main storyline and the introduction of the character of the Divisional Manager, Hyoe Kuroda – who has noticed the pattern of Conan's involvement in Moore's cases. And the ending of the blogging case reveals Kuroda has transferred from Nagano to Tokyo. So very much look forward how that develops further over the next couple of volumes, but really hope the individual cases will see an uptick in plotting quality.