The Hit List: Top 10 Works of Detective Fiction That Have Been Lost to History

Last time, I used the top 10 format to do a follow-up to my list of reprint suggestions, "Curiosity is Killing the Cat: Detective Novels That Need to Be Reprinted," because "Curiosity is Killing the Cat: Non-English Detective Novels That Need to be Translated" lacked the scope and depth of the reprint list – restricted to what I happen to know is out there. Mostly consisting of French and Japanese titles. So whittled down the list to ten tantalizingly-sounding, non-English and untranslated mystery novels covering countries from Europe and Asia to South and North America. That gave me an idea.

For years, I wanted to redo two depressing blog-posts, "The Locked Room Reader: A Selection of Lost Detective Stories" and "The Locked Room Reader: A Return to the Phantom Library," both old, badly written and incomplete. However, the subject of those two blog-posts never stopped fascinating me. A subject known in other parts of the internet as "Lost Media."

John Dickson Carr's The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933) introduced me to concept of "lost detective stories" as the plot concerns a rare, hitherto unknown manuscript of an Auguste Dupin short story by Edgar Allan Poe. Carr even convincingly creates a passage from that lost story, but never suspected lost detective stories were more than fiction nor so abundant. Over the years, I've learned of a shocking number of unpublished, now irretrievably lost detective novels written by some respectable names in the genre. And lost came with its own story ranging from genuine tragedy to the mundane. I unfortunately messed up the first two, incomplete posts by muddling the unpublished with truly lost.

So, concentrating only on lost detective stories, you won't find Anthony Boucher's unpublished The Case of the Toad-in-the-Hole or Christianna Brand's never seen before The Chinese Puzzle on this list, because both manuscript still exist. And, potentially, could be published at some point in the future. This depressing list will only go over the detective novels which can be labeled as permanently lost or made it to print in an inaccessible, parallel universe. On the other hand, knowing my track record, one of the crumbling, supposedly vanished manuscripts mentioned will magically turn up before the list gets posted and make my half-baked lament look a bit hammy. Let's find out what's currently residing on mystery shelves of the Phantom Library.


1. The Last Voyage of Jacques Futrelle and The Thinking Machine

Jacques Futrelle was a journalist, theatrical manager and mystery writer who created America's answer to Britain's Sherlock Holmes, Professor Augustus S.F.X. van Dusen, better known to the world as "The Thinking Machine" – appearing in some forty short stories from 1905 to 1912. Sadly, Futrelle boarded the RMS Titanic and died when it tragically sank during the early hours of April 15, 1912, but not before forcing his wife, May Futrelle, into a lifeboat. The last glimpse she caught of her husband was him casually smoking a cigarette on deck with John Jacob Astor IV (Futrelle's "bravery aboard the Titanic is the ultimate example of manliness and the act of a true gentleman"). All of "the stories that Jacques Futrelle wrote during his stay in Europe were lost as well that terrible night, leaving his canon far short of what it might have been." This is the only lost on this list that does not bother me at all, because I like the idea Van Dusen was right there with Futrelle until the end.


2. John Dickson Carr ("Carter Dickson") & J.B. Priestley's Unpublished and Forgotten Mystery Novel/Serial

John Rhode and Carter Dickson's Fatal Descent (1939), alternatively published as Drop to His Death, is one of those rare collaborations between two well-known Golden Age mystery writers. Regrettably, the book is not a crossover between their two series-detectives, Sir Henri Merrivale and Dr. Priestley, but at least it was published. Douglas G. Greene writes in John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles (1995) Carr and playwright J.B. Priestley agreed to write a serial, The Dancing Men, to be serialized in the British magazine Answers and "a book edition was announced under the name The Dancing Postman." Apparently, the story was completed as "the two men were paid three hundred pounds for it," but Answers never published it and "no book under that or a similar title appeared during the 1930s or early 1940s." So unless it was published elsewhere under a different title and pseudonyms, The Dancing Postman is likely lost forever.


3. The Self-Destruction of Marcel Lanteaume

In 2019, John Pugmire's Locked Room International published a translation of Marcel Lanteaume's La 13e balle (The Thirteenth Bullet, 1948). One of three unique novels, "the fruit of the unbridled, wild, weird and surprising imagination of a heretofore unknown author," published shortly following the liberation of France. La Labyrinth edition contained "a mouth-watering list" of forthcoming novels, but poor sales numbers prevented their publication. A disappointed and frustrated Lanteaume destroyed all his unpublished manuscripts with such tantalizing titles as Crime rue des Fantasques (Crime in Weird Street), La Morte sous scellés (The Dead Woman under Seal), Le Barbier massacré (The Butchered Barber), La Vallée dans la brume (The Valley in the Mist) and La Plaine sous le soleil (The Plain under the Sun). So "what other marvels of superb logic and subtle wit did they engender? We shall never know." Only bright spot is that non-French speaking mystery fans still have translations of Lanteaume's Orage sur la Grande Semaine (Storm Over Festival Week, 1944) and Trompe-l'œil (Optical Illusion, 1946) to (hopefully) look forward to.


4. The Four Lost Mystery Novels of a Short Story Specialist

Joseph Commings was together with Edward D. Hoch and Arthur Porges a short story writer specialized in locked room mysteries and impossible crimes, but, starting in the early 1960s, the short story market began to stagnate and dry up by the end of the decade – forcing Commings to try his hands at writing novel-length mysteries. The Doctor Died First was his first attempt and abandoned the book after four chapters, but eventually completed four, intriguingly-sounding detective novels starring his short story series-detective, Senator Brooks U. Banner. The New Orleans set Dancers in the Dark "was taken by an agent to send to France" and "was never seen again." One for the Devil reportedly was a stunning locked room mystery, "along the lines of a Carr novel and containing two impossible murders," but was together with the two non-impossible crime novels, Operation Pink Poodle and The Crimson Stain, rejected by every publisher in New York. So none of them made it to print and the manuscripts were likely reduced to "yellowing crumbling carbons" that "will never be seen this side of heaven." Fortunately, there are still more than enough uncollected short stories to do Banner Warnings: The Inexplicable Cases of Senator Brooks U. Banner (20??), the long-awaited sequel to Banner Deadlines: The Impossible Files of Senator Brooks U. Banner (2004).


5. The Missing Mr. Tarrant

C. Daly King was an American psychologist and mystery writer who penned six detective novels, most extremely obscure today, but earned most of his praise with a series of short stories featuring a garnered most of his fame with a series of short stories about Mr. Trevis Tarrant. Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine announced in its December, 1946, issue that King has completed the manuscript of the first Travis Tarrant novel, The Episode of the Demoiselle D'ys ("publishers, get busy! Snag that manuscript!"). There were no takers and the book was never published. Mike Grost cites King's lost novel as "evidence of the deliberate suppression of the traditional detective story after 1945 by publishers," which comes with the caveat that the "deliberate suppression" part has been disputed. However, I agree that a trend among publishers emerged at the time to lower the standards of crime fiction and generally began to shy away from the traditional detective story. That closed the door to nearly everyone except the well-known, solidly established names of the genre. More on that in a moment.


6. Hake Talbot Sees His Third Novel Vanish Into Thin Air

Henning Nelms was an American magician and under the name "Hake Talbot" penned two beloved fan favorites, The Hangman's Handyman (1942) and Rim of the Pit (1944), but it proved insufficient to get the third Rogan Kincaid mystery novel published. The Affair of the Half-Witness remained unsold and the whereabouts of the manuscript is unknown, which after all this time means it got destroyed or forgotten about and eventually thrown away. So why did Talbot's third novel fail to find a publisher? Probably the same story as with Commings, King and many others. The publishers began to favor the type of crime fiction that was easier to pump out rather than the traditionally-plotted, Golden Age detective fiction that required some finely-honed skills or talent to do successfully. There are, however, other reasons why some detective novels never got published and faded out of existence.


7. When Losing Mystery Novels Becomes a Habit

John Russell Fearn is my favorite pulp writer and second-string mystery novelist. I use the term "second-stringer" affectionately, but even a pet second-stringer has undeniable, often impossible to defend drawbacks that usually have to do with quality control – except my pet second-stringer cultivated a very peculiar drawback. Fearn was as prolific in producing so-called "lost media" as he was in strange, weirdly imaginative science-fiction and detective stories. In 1946, Fearn wrote "several wonderful impossible crime novels" that were axed due to hardcover publishers in the UK struggling with a post-war paper shortage. Fearn also sold three novels under the penname "Rosina Tarne" of which one actually came close to making it into print. You Murdered Me would have been a hybrid mystery in which the ghost of the victim helps her grieving boyfriend and detective to find the murderer. The book was advertised as forthcoming on the jacket of Gordon Meyrick's The Ghost Hunters (1947). The Eyes Have It would have been about a husband-and-wife detective team investigating a murder at a swimming pool, but nothing is known about Murder in Suburbia. A final title to be added to the list is Unfinished Journey, another impossible crime story set on a train, but the manuscript got rejected. Fearn also was a loyal patron of the cinema and an amateur filmmaker who ambitiously made a full-length, home video adaptation of the unpublished novel. A copy, of sorts, still exists, but, reportedly, it's unwatchable.

A note for the curious: all of this information was provided to me by Philip Harbottle, literary agent extraordinaire, who tirelessly worked for decades to preserve Fearn's legacy and work. More importantly, Harbottle rescued several previously unpublished novels from limbo. Such as the pulp-thriller The Man Who Was Not (2005) and the truly excellent Pattern of Murder (2006), which somehow remained unpublished during his lifetime. So not all was.


8. Lost in Liquidation

R.T. Campbell was a poet who wrote eight lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek detective novels in the spirit of Leo Bruce and Edmund Crispin featuring a parody on John Dickson Carr's Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, Professor John Stubbs – a loud, portly beer guzzling botanist. Five more titles in the series were announced as forthcoming by his publisher, John Westhouse, but, in 1948, they went into liquidation. The Hungry Worms Are Waiting, No Man Lives Forever, Death is Not Particular, Death is Our Physician and Mr. Death's Blue-Eyed Boy never made it to print nor turned up somewhere else. And are now considered to be lost.


9. Two for the Price of One

This is twofer! Coachwhip is one of the publishers that made the reprint renaissance possible by bringing unjustly forgotten authors and long out-of-print mysteries back into circulation. Willoughby Sharp (Murder of the Honest Broker, 1934) and Kirke Mechem (The Strawstack Murder Case, 1936) were two of those forgotten authors who had their work finally return to print. Sharp had two mystery novels published and Mechem only one, but not for a lack of trying. In a 2013 blog-post, Curt Evans reveals Sharp "was scheduled to produce a third detective novel in 1935," The Mystery of the Multiplying Mules. A short description was actually given in promotional material, "Inspector Bullock is called in by the Logans not because something has been stolen, but because something has been added to their household," but the book never materialized. In the same post, Curt notes Mechem also wrote an additional detective novel (Mind on Murder), but the manuscript was rejected by his publisher ("...because it dealt with miscegenation") and never got published.


10. The Lost Generation

For the last entry on this list, I want to return to King's unpublished and lost mystery novel. I noted how Mike Grost sees the lost of The Episode of the Demoiselle D'ys as evidence of the deliberate suppression of the traditional detective story and how some find that a bit too strong. I always assumed it was simply short-minded, heavy-handed favoritism that pushed the traditional detective novel out of the picture during the post-war era. Over the past few years, I've come across the remnants of, what should have been, the new generation of Golden Age-style mystery writers. A small group of writers comprising Kip Chase (Murder Most Ingenious, 1962), Charles Forsyte (Diving Death, 1962), Jack Vance (The Fox Valley Murders, 1966) and a special mention for Paul Gallico's two Alexander Hero novels, Too Many Ghosts (1961) and The Hand of Mary Constable (1964). All tried to continue the Golden Age tradition in their own way, often with a modern slant, but most of them didn't get more than two, or three, novels published – before you can hear the plug being pulled on their little dalliance with the whodunit. If you hold their work up against what was being published at the time, you almost get the idea that they accidentally slipped through the meshes of the net. Just like John Sladek's beloved Black Aura (1974) and Invisible Green (1977) more, or less, came about accidentally, because Sladek won a short story contest with "By an Unknown Hand" (1972).

You would expect more writers to have appeared in the '60s and '70s, who read Golden Age mysteries during the '30s and '40s, wanting to give their take on their favorite type of detective story or character. And the aforementioned author makes their absence look even more conspicuous. So that begs the question... how many Chases, Foresytes and Sladeks got consistently rejected, regardless of quality, because they wrote Golden Age-style, fair play detective fiction containing the p-word (plot)? Is that favoritism or suppression? Either way, I suspect publishers moving away from the traditional detective story and slamming the door in the face of new writers resulted in the lost of an untold amount of detective fiction. Ever since discovering post-1950s writers, like Chase and Forsyte, I can't help but wonder what could have been had the traditional detective story been allowed to change and adept to the times. A legitimate claimant to Agatha Christie's crown might have emerged or enough of an incentive would have existed for Sladek to take on the mantle of John Dickson Carr.

This was depressing enough for one post. I don't know when, or if, I'll do another one of these top 10s. Currently, I've no idea for an original theme or worthy topic to do another one, unless "The Hit List: Top 10 Non-English Detective Novels That Need to Be Translated" gets enough suggestions to do a follow-up. So next up is likely going to be a review of either Case Closed or Clayton Rawson. Stay tuned!


The Headless Lady (1940) by Clayton Rawson

Clayton Rawson was an American magician, magazine editor and mystery writer who wrote four novels and a dozen short stories starring his most well-known creation, The Great Merlini – a professional magician and amateur detective who first appeared in Death from a Top Hat (1938). The Headless Lady (1940) is the third title in this short-lived series and apparently the book everyone saves for last.

The Headless Lady begins in "that curious commercial establishment in which the Great Merlini carries on his darkly nefarious business of supplying miracles for sale," The Magic Shop, stocking "only the best grade of witchcraft, every item fully guaranteed or your money back." So no surprise when a woman enters the shop asking for the headless lady trick, complete with "visible, circulating blood feature and the respiratory light attachment," but Merlini only has a show model in stock. However, the woman is adamant about wanting the illusion immediately ("I have to have it at once") and is willing to pay cash money to get it. Merlini is positively intrigued by her haste in acquiring the illusion and the false name, Mildred Christine, she gave him ("...tell me why the monogram on your purse is an H rather than a C"). No answers are forthcoming. The mysterious woman manages to get her hands on the headless lady illusion outside the ordinary ordering-and-delivery process, before disappearing.

Nevertheless, Merlini picked up enough clues and hints to make an educated guess where to
find her. Merlini together with his chronicler and freelance journalist, Ross Harte, travel to the Mighty Hannum Combined Shows currently playing in Waterboro, New York. Only to find the circus plagued by trouble, ill-omens and even death.

Major Rutherford Hannum, "an old-time circus man who dates from the wagon-show days," owns and runs the show, but died the previous night outside of Kings Falls when his car hit a bridge abutment ("pretty bad smash"), which immediately arouses suspicion as the Major was a notoriously slow driver – "no one ever saw him go faster than forty-five on a straight stretch." More evidence comes to light pointing towards a staged roadside accident as the strange incidents, and accidents, start to pile on. Pauline Hannum is the daughter of the late owner and wire-walker who makes a nasty fall when the lights fail, but was it merely an accident or attempted murder? And who, or what, left the bizarre, whorlless fingerprints on a trailer window? Who took the evidence Merlini had gathered and who is the mysterious, reclusive woman playing the headless lady?

Ross Harte astutely observes, "murder on a circus, as I'm beginning to realize, is as easy as breathing and damned hard to prove," because, "instead of a nice tight little matter of half a dozen suspects cooped up in an isolated mansion out at the end of nowhere," they "got a hundred or more all in the open and moving rapidly across-country" ("clues, if any, scattered halfway across the state"). A problem that gets even worse when nearly everyone has solid-gold alibis and potential shenanigans with identities have to be taken into consideration. It takes a while, but eventually The Headless Lady produces a dead, headless and very likely murdered lady. Merlini immediately becomes the number one suspect in the eyes of the local police.

Clayton Rawson is remembered today as a writer of locked room mysteries, a reputation largely due to his impossible crime extravaganza Death from a Top Hat and a handful of short stories, but The Headless Lady stands closer to Christopher Bush and Brian Flynn than to John Dickson Carr and Hake Talbot. First of all, The Headless Lady is not a locked room mystery. It's sometimes mistakenly identified as one on account of the jail house scene in the second half. Merlini and Ross Harte are thrown in a brand new, up-to-date cell block with an electrical control box operating "an additional bolt on all the cells simultaneously, double locking them" ("a ghost couldn't get outta here unless I let him"). What follows is a fun vignette along the lines of Jacques Futrelle's "The Problem of Cell 13" (1905) in which they try to escape from their cells and cell block. A fun little escape story-within-a-story, but not really a locked room mystery.

Like I said, The Headless Lady is much more reminiscent of Bush or Flynn with its caravan of alibis, potentially dodgy identities and a woman of mystery. While the story can feel fragmented without a main hook or even really a central murder, Rawson wrote an engrossing, tremendously enjoyable whodunit loaded with background information and footnotes on circus life, carnival slang and some colorful characters. My favorite footnote gives a translation to an anecdote entirely told in slang beginning with the sentence, "I was tossing broads on the backstretch at Saratoga." Add to this an earnest attempt to hide the murderer in plain sight and trying to plant clues in the direction of this person, the result is one of the most striking circus mysteries from this period. And a low-key good, solid Golden Age detective novel! I'm glad I saved this one for last. I liked it.

More importantly, the absence of a locked room murder or other type of impossible crime in The Headless Lady proved to be eye-opening. It made me realize Rawson's most important contribution to the detective story are not his bag of locked room-tricks, but simply the creation of the Great Merlini. One of the first and still the best magician detective the genre has produced. I can see now why writers like Tom Mead and Gigi Pandian cite this series as a favorite and major source of inspiration. So you can probably expect a review of The Footprints on the Ceiling (1939) before too long.


Three Card Murder (2023) by J.L. Blackhurst

Jenny Blackhurst is a British crime-and thriller novelist who debuted a decade ago with How I Lost You (2014) and has since written seven more psychological thrillers, which are of no interest to me, but last year she started a new series – published as by "J.L. Blackhurst." Three Card Murder (2023) was alluringly touted as "a real puzzle box of a story" with "three deviously clever impossible crimes." Blackhurst described the book herself as "Jonathan Creek meets Hustle" (the BBC TV-series, not the 2019 movie), but you have to be wary these days of novels falsely presented as locked room mysteries. Several reviews appeared assuring that Three Card Murder is the real deal with no less than three genuine locked room murders. What sealed it is that this series is called "The Impossible Crimes Series" with Smoke and Murders (2024) scheduled for release in September.

That somewhat alleviated some of my initial doubt and hesitancy when it comes to modern crime fiction. One of the alarm bells is what's printed on the cover, "One sister is a cop. The other is a con artist. Both of them are suspects," which sounds more like a character-driven crime novel than an intricately-plotted, triple locked room mystery. So was glad to find that the character-arc of the protagonists were integral to the puzzle plot.

Acting Detective Inspector Tess Fox, of Sussex Major Crimes Team, has a secret. She's the daughter of "Brighton and Hove's biggest confidence men," Frank Jacobs, who runs a crew (his "family") with Sarah at his right hand. Fifteen years ago, Tess turned up at their doorstep as the long-lost prodigal daughter and stays with them for six months, but then she and her step-sister Sarah got into some serious trouble, which made Tess decide to leave the Jacobs to join the police as "some kind of redemption quest" – which is a big no-no in the Jacobs family. So fifteen years come, and go, when Tess gets to handle and lead her first murder investigation. A man had his throat cut and thrown from the third-floor balcony of a high-rise flat, but there a few oddities about this brutal murder. Firstly, the front door is both locked and boarded-up on the inside. Secondly, the CCTV showed nobody left the flat after the body landed outside on the pavement. Apparently, "a man who had been sliced from one side of his neck to the other" and "thrown from a third-floor balcony by the invisible man himself."

So more than enough complications to untangle and earn her stripes as an acting detective inspector, but Tess recognizes the victim, knows he had a connection with Sarah and that incident fifteen years ago. There are even clues at the crime scene that hint at it, which should not be possible as only two people knew what really happened. Tess and Sarah.

Tess tries to reconnect with Sarah, not as a suspect at first ("I do illusions, not murders"), but to help explain the murderer's miraculous exit from the scene of the crime. After all, "when it came to illusions and sleight of hand, Sarah had been an expert, even fifteen years ago." However, their uneasy reunion is beset with trouble as nobody is supposed to know Tess is the daughter of the man who heads a crew "consisting of forgers, illusionists, actors, street magicians and all manner of other grifters" – something could get her fired ("every case I've ever worked on would be called into question"). Likewise, Sarah can't be seen with her step-sister who works for the enemy. This makes for great storytelling and their character-arc is nicely braided into an engrossing plot and intriguing locked room-puzzle. I really liked the character of Sarah. Not only because she's a self-declared "student of Dr Fell, a rival perhaps to Merivale (sic) and Dr Hawthorne" who hit upon exactly the same two solutions for the first locked room that immediately occurred to me, which then got demolished as false-solution, but how she dons and shreds disguises and personalities like she's Kaito KID. Blackhurst obviously intended to have some fun with this series. So, as a fan of Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed series, I found that to be a small treat.

While the two sisters work out their issues, on top of a locked room murder, the invisible killer is still roaming the city and strikes two more times under seemingly impossible circumstances. One man is stabbed by the invisible killer inside an elevator and the third one is shot in a hotel room locked and chained from the inside. Every murder and discovery hands Tess more evidence against Sarah, while simultaneously driving Tess into a corner. Like I said, it all makes for good, fun read with the three impossible crimes giving weight to the plot. But is it any good purely as a detective story and locked room mystery?



First of all, I think I speak for all rabid locked room fans that we love and adore David Renwick's Jonathan Creek series. If only because episodes like Danse Macabre (1998) and Black Canary (1998) gives us a glimpse of what good, faithfully done adaptations of Carter Dickson, Edward D. Hoch and Hake Talbot would look and feel like. There is, however, a gulf in quality between the best and worst episodes large enough for an entire fleet of aircraft carriers to sail through. Generally, Jonathan Creek is not the best series to use as a model. Blackhurst definitely modelled Three Card Murder on Renwick's plotting. The first locked room (SPOILER/ROT13: erjbexf gur gevpxf sebz gur wbanguna perrx rcvfbqrf ubhfr bs zbaxrlf naq zbgure erqpnc vagb fbzrguvat gung yrsg zr hapbaivaprq, ohg gur nggrzcg vf nccerpvngrq. The stabbing in the elevator has a perfectly fine solution, but is given the least amount of attention as the trick would eventually have revealed itself (va gur nhgbcfl naq gbkvpbybtl ercbegf). The third and last murder has something clever and perhaps even new to offer to the locked room mystery. A good, simple enough trick, but a satisfying one and particular how it's executed. Just one observation: jnf vg ernyyl arprffnel gb uvqr gur zveebe jvgu fhpu n tvzzvpx, orpnhfr vg purncraf gur pber vqrn bs gur gevpx n ovg naq gur cerfrapr bs n zveebe jbhyq abg vzzrqvngryl tvira njnl ubj vg pbhyq or hfrq gb yvar hc gur xvyy fubg.

So while the trio of locked room-puzzles are somewhat uneven in quality, best one saved for last, it's the jack-in-the-box approach to the who-and why that ultimately left me in two minds about Three Card Murder – coming after a thoroughly enjoyable read. But the identity of the murderer is impossible to anticipate. And what drove this person to murder somehow seemed almost flimsy compared to the perceived motive. I remember not everyone appreciated my lukewarm "hot take" on Tom Mead's Death and the Conjuror (2022) and feel a little pang of guilt for ending this review so tepidly, but found the conclusion to this otherwise fun and excellent mystery to be a bit of a letdown. Nevertheless, Three Card Murder is a spirited first stab at the locked room mystery that tried to do something different with it and mostly succeeded. I never expect a writer swim or drown on their first try, especially in a specialized area such as the traditional detective story and locked room mystery. So very much look forward to see where the series goes from here and what it will bring to the locked room revival. One thing is for sure, I really should have waited with "The Locked Mystery & Impossible Crime Story in the 21st Century" until 2025.


Terrarium Nine: "Murder in the Urth Degree" (1989) by Edward Wellen

Earlier this month, I revisited the short-lived Dr. Wendell Urth series of short stories, "Earth is An Armchair: The Wendell Urth Quartet by Isaac Asimov," which was brought back to my attention by two anonymous comments left on The Caves of Steel (1953/54) review – recommending the Edward Wellen pastiche "Murder in the Urth Degree" ("...which has perturbed me ever since"). "Murder in the Urth Degree" is a pastiche specially written for Foundation's Friends, Stories in Honor of Isaac Asimov (1989) with short stories set in Asimov's universe. I'll admit right off the bat this is a good short story and pastiche, but not for the reason you might think.

Terrarium Nine is one of a dozen hydroponics in near-earth orbit comprising of six concentric spheres with a pseudo black hole at the center to provide Earth-gravity for the innermost sphere. In this future, there are laws in place "against releasing genetically altered plants and animals into the terrestrial environment." So experiments have to be done off-place and the Terrariums in near-earth orbit were created for exactly that purpose.

Keith Flammersfeld, "the lone experimenter aboard Terrarium Nine," is hard worker and only occasionally takes a break to enjoy an interactive video. When the story opens, Flammersfeld is enjoying an interactive video of Through the Looking Glass, but, shortly after plugging out, discovers "someone had entered his system and infected it with rabid doggerel" ("who will win the Red Queen's race?"). A computer virus? A very elusive stowaway who suddenly made its presence known to Flammersfeld? The answer, or part of the answer, is found in the disturbance, uprooted soil of a cabbage patch in Buck Two. Flammersfeld "knew perfectly well what had grown at this particular spot, what should still be growing here, what seemed now on the loose" – stalking and targeting him ("how could he not have seen its intelligence waken, its hate turn on him?"). And he does not survive the encounter.

Now you might think I've revealed too much or Wellen tipped his hand too early, which is not the case. Wellen just managed expectations very well by not being too mysterious about what exactly was running loose in Buck Two of Terrarium Nine. It just needed a lot of horrifying details filled in.

That brings Inspector H. Seton Davenport, of the Terrestrial Bureau of Investigation, to the extraterrologists' extraterrologist, Dr. Wendell Urth. From the point of the view of the investigators, the death of Flammersfeld presents something of an impossible crime ("we can't call it accident, we can't call it murder, and we're not ready to call it suicide”) on a isolated space station with an array of bizarre clues and facts. Flammersfeld died from a poison-tipped dart, "a weird kind of curare crudely prepared," of which the remnants were found in a walnut shell along with a crude, toy-like catapult and winch ("...contraptions looked as if a child might have put them together"). And a decomposed cabbage! So had the story not been a quasi-inverted mystery showing from the beginning the murderer is non-human, the ending would have been something of a letdown. Well, not to its purely science-fiction audience, but the visiting detective fan certainly would have been disappointed. Now "Murder in the Urth Degree" stands as the most striking of the Wendell Urth short stories. An imitation outshining the original!

However, "Murder in the Urth Degree" is perhaps closer to a science-fiction/horror hybrid seasoned with a pinch of existential dread than an actual science-fiction mystery, but a great short story regardless. I enjoyed it. Thanks for the recommendation, Anon!


The Footprints of Satan (1950) by Norman Berrow

Last year, I reviewed the last two of Norman Berrow's locked room mystery novels, The Bishop's Sword (1948) and The Spaniard's Thumb (1949), featuring Detective Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith of the Winchingham police – a small, rural community plagued by strange, seemingly impossible crimes. The Bishop's Sword ambitiously tried to string together numerous miraculous incidents and The Spaniard's Thumb centered on the legend of a giant, disembodied thumb angrily stamping around a sealed cellar in a homicidal rage. Regrettably, the locked room-tricks were prosaic at best and hackneyed at worst, which detracted from their other qualities as wildly imaginative Golden Age detective stories. If they had have been penned by a writer and storyteller of lesser talent and capabilities, they would have been extremely disappointing.

That being said, Berrow's was not inept when it came to handling locked room mysteries and produced two often overlooked classics of the form.

The Three Tiers of Fantasy (1947) is a crime caper in which respectively a man, a whole room and finally an entire street simply vanish as if they were wiped out of existence. The Footprints of Satan (1950) is his crowning achievement with one of the most enterprising treatments of the impossible footprints-in-the-snow. Both can stand comparisons with other locked room classics, but, until recently, you rarely heard or came across them on the many best-of and must-read lists – neither receiving a spot on the 1981 nor 2007 ranking (see John Pugmire's "A Locked Room Library"). Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) is an exception as it singled out The Footprints of Satan as "one of the surprisingly few stories to make use of the devil's-hoofprints case of early-nineteenth century Devon" and "probably Berrow's best effort." In 2005, Ramble House began to bring Berrow's back into print and The Footprints of Satan has since garnered some favorable reviews. And, finally, appeared on one or two best-of lists. So high time to revisit this old favorite.

The opening chapter suggests a conventional, typically British village mystery as the young, recently widowed Gregory Cushing arriving in Steeple Thelming, Winchingham, to stay with his uncle, Jake Popplewell – who's considered by some a character and by other "a blot on the town's escutcheon." An independently minded drunk who sneers at moderation ("the curse of the cultured classes") and women. Stating to his nephew that "never the breath nor the shrill complainin' voice of a woman shall poison the atmosphere" of "Jake Poplewell's castle." The castle being a small cottage stands at the foot of a small hill on the outskirts of Winchingham known as The Rise. On the other side of the road, up the Rise, stand the homes of well-to-do, mostly retired gentlefolk of the rural community. Old Jake shows his nephew around the neighborhood and who lives where. From the poor, bedridden Jacques who lives opposite of Jake, Farmer Silver and the Croxley's to the fancy homes of Lionel Maltravers and old Mrs. Pendlebury. And the later lives there together with her sister, Miss Emmy Forbes, who previously appeared in The Bishop's Sword. She hasn't changed a bit ("an old maid with funny ideas"). Lastly, there's a small county house where Montague Mason, a London business of ill-repute, occasionally stays.

So, like I said, The Footprints of Satan begins ordinarily enough and could have been the beginning of a Christopher Bush mystery (e.g. The Case of the Curious Client, 1947). One morning, after a night of heavy snowfall, the inhabitants awaken to discover a trail of hoof-marks that defies a natural explanation. All the evidence suggests the Devil, "or one of his imps," came down to Winchingham ("specifically to The Base and Steeple Thelming...") and it walked by night!

According to the physical evidence, a hoofed entity that "walked upright on two legs in a fashion unlike any creature known to man" landed at the foot of The Rise ("like a bird from flight"), casually walked up The Rise and entered various private gardens – always "turning away from the front doors of those people's houses." But it gets even weirder as the hoof-prints are found in physically inaccessible places. They are found on top of flimsy privet hedge, "which would not have supported a newly-born kitten" and across the top of a six-foot wall. Detective Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith is called to investigate and follow the trail to its end, which become increasingly more impossible as it nears its end. Bafflingly, the creature apparently can walk through solid matter as it passed through Maltraver's garden pavilion and Pendlebury's boarded-up summerhouse, towards the Steeple Inn and Montague Mason's house. There the situation really begins to look otherworldly. Mason's house has a steep roof, "far too steep for almost anything other than a fly to retain a footing on it," but nobody present fails to notice that on that steep, snowy roof was "a ring of marks where something that had hooved had walked round and round in a wide circle." Another ring of hoof-marks circle the house, as if it was trying to enter the house, and a pair of prints are found on a window sill. The trail that began at the bottom of The Rise came to an end in the middle of a bare, empty paddock underneath a dead tree. Montague Mason was hanging from the lowest branch of the dead tree and the only traces where his bootprints going from the house into the paddock!

What an amazing and fantastic premise for an impossible crime story of the no-footprints variety. Surprisingly, like Adey said, perhaps the only detective novel to make use of the real-life, unexplained 1855 incident of the Devon hoof-marks. That case gets discussed complete with excerpts from The Times and the Illustrated London News, but also the 1840 report of similar hoof-marks on Kerguelen Island and the foot-marks found around the famously haunted Borley Rectory at Christmastime 1938. Miss Emmy Forbes who stimulates the discussion of alternative explanations for the strange hoof-marks in the snow. I enjoyed how Berrow's depicted the discovery of the hoof-marks with the yawning, sleepy-eyed people leaving their warm beds to study the line of prints, rampantly speculate and even taking some pictures. That small touch of simple humanity made those strange prints standout even more as something that intruded upon reality and left its traces.

However, Smith has more on his plate than just a dodgy suicide and a trail of footprints that appear to have cleared an obstacle course from hell without breaking a sweat.

The barren, empty paddock with the dead tree has a ghost story, the ghost of a reputed witch called the Blue Woman, who had been hanged in paddock centuries ago and now her ghost walks Steeple Thelming on certain nights, but the only one whoever sees her is Jake – always when he returns home drunk. Whoever, or whatever, left those impossible hoof-marks returns. This time, the hoofed creature left behind another dead body inside a circle of hoof-prints. Just like the first time, "the hoof-prints began from nowhere, ended in nothing." So not the usual questions of motive and opportunity, checking the soundness of alibis or even trying to solve a normal locked room-puzzle dominate the story, but trying to find a rational, down-to-earth explanation for the hoof-marks. Smith simply has to find an answer rather than admit "the phenomena transcended the bounds of physical interpretation" that would hurl them "back a thousand years to days of misty medieval thought and fearful belief in black magic and witchcraft."

Smith has been called a drab, colorless character. I would call him homely rather than colorless and, artistically, some might want to see a character like Dr. Gideon Fell or Rogan Kincaid the case of the devil's hoof-marks. There is, however, something to be said about having a normal, level-headed and logical detective on a case as extraordinary as this one. Smith explained it himself as follow: "I've got a simple mind! I don't make mysteries—only the complicated minds do that—I unravel them, or try to. My mind is too simple to believe what my eyes seem to tell me, so I look for the simple truth." Smith simply does not believe a demonic presence came down to Winchingham and methodically begins to examine every inch of the trail. Uncovering small inconsistencies along the way. And, inch by inch, print by print, Smith begins to slay his goblins and uncovering pieces of the puzzle. Pieces that slowly start to fall into their place with satisfying clicks.

The solution to the titular footprints is worthy of its ambitious premise. It would have been easy to simply say the murderer created the prints by walking on long stilts that allowed to reach the high places to make imprints by hands, but most of us would have tossed the book angry across the room had that been solution. Berrow's put some work into setting up and then explaining away this hellish obstacle course in the snow. Some stretches of the journey are better and more convincing than other parts, but, on a whole, admirably done and particular liked the tricks for apparently passing through the boarded-up summerhouse and the circle of prints on the steep roof. If the plot comes up short anywhere, it's all the attention and focus going into the impossible hoof-prints that allowed a small, really tiny flaw to be overlooked (ROT13: rira nsgre n phefbel rknzvangvba, gur qbpgbe fubhyq unir orra noyr gb gryy gung Znfba qvqa'g qvr va n unatvat cbfvgvba naq jnf abg unatrq hagvy frireny ubhef nsgre uvf qrngu onfrq ba gur yvibe zbegvf. Nsgre qrngu oybbq frggyrf va gur ybjre cbegvba bs gur obql, juvpu, jura unatrq, jbhyq unir orra uvf yrtf).

Other than that, The Footprints of Satan is a one-of-a-kind impossible crime novel that does something very special and out of the ordinary with the ever tricky problem of the miraculous footprints. I consider the impossible footprints to be the most difficult of all impossible crime scenarios to pull-off convincingly and satisfactory, which is why there are so few classics of it. So always admire any mystery writer who can do one, or two, successfully without relying on one of the basic tricks. Berrow's turned the impossible footprints-in-the-snow into an Olympic winter sport. Something that can only be compared in scope and originality to Hake Talbot's Rim of the Pit (1944), James Scott Byrnside's The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire (2020) and maybe Kaito KID's mid-air walk from Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed, vol. 44. I hope John Dickson Carr got to read The Footprints of Satan as it's the kind of pick-me-up he sorely needed in 1950. So highly recommended to everyone hopelessly addicted to impossible crime fiction and Golden Age detectives in general.


This is It, Michael Shayne (1950) by Brett Halliday

This is It, Michael Shayne (1950) is the eighteenth novel in the Michael Shayne series by "Brett Halliday," penname of Davis Dresser, which attracted my attention for exactly the same reason as The Corpse That Never Was (1963) – promise of a tough nut (i.e. an impossible crime) to crack. Shayne is a hardboiled private eye who, every now and then, "solved classical locked room mysteries." This is It, Michael Shayne is cited as an example and The Corpse That Never Was is another often marked as one, but neither are locked room mysteries. Only legitimate locked room mystery in the series appears to be Murder and the Married Virgin (1944).

I wanted to get that out of the way first as the only locked room mystery discussed on this blog since Edmund Crispin's short story "The Name on the Window" (1951) is D.L. Marshall's 77 North (2023). That's simply shocking for this blog and something that will be remedied in the next post, but first let's take a look at This is It, Michael Shayne.

This is It, Michael Shayne begins with Shayne stepping from a deep-sea fishing boat, "luxuriously relaxed after a day of good-fellowship combined with moderate amounts of aged liquor" and "a fair day's catch," but upon returning to his office he finds an urgent message on his desk from his secretary, Lucy Hamilton – three messages in fact and a thick envelope. The three memos urge Shayne to immediately call Miss Sara Morton at the Tidehaven hotel when he's back. Shayne then opens the envelopes and finds three, small squares of paper with threatening messages, "YOU HAVE THREE DAYS TO GET OUT OF MIAMI ALIVE," "TWO MORE DAYS" and "ONE DAY LEFT," but even more perplexing is the half of a five-hundred dollar bill ("ripped across the middle"). A letter from Morton explaining she has "given up hope that you will contact me before it is too late" and enclosed "the notes which my secretary will explain to you, and one-half of a retainer which I trust you will earn by bringing my murderer to justice." Miss Morton does not answer his calls, but her secretary, Beatrice Lally, does and she's not alone. Timothy Rourke, a reporter from the Miami News, is also at the hotel. There he learns Morton has been in her hotel room awaiting his call, but the door is still locked and light can be seen through the transom without a sign of life. So they enter the room through an unlocked, connecting bathroom door and find Morton with "an ugly gash in her throat." So the problems begin as Sara Morton was not only a celebrity, but practically a legend in her profession.

Sara Morton is a roving reporter for a national syndicate, "feared by the underworld and criminals in high places," who "broke into the big time years ago by becoming the moll of one of Capone's original mob to get an exclusive." She came to Miami to get a story and has been pestering a local criminal, Leo Gannet, who runs the Green Barn and the Red House. And both places offer an opportunity to do some illegal gambling. She immediately jumped on Gannet and began dropping into those two places as soon as she arrived, "they have both closed their gambling-rooms since she started visiting them," which is always a dangerous game to play with hardened criminals. Nor was it perhaps a clever idea to turn down Gannet's $25,000 (more than $300,000 today!) to leave town immediately. There's also a potential personal angle to the case. Sara Morton intended to divorce her estranged husband, Ralph Morton, whom she pays half a grand a month to stay out of her hair. And she intends to marry a man, Edwin Paisly, several years her junior ("...all the earmarks of being more interested in her money than in her"). Will Gentry, Miami's chief of police, really wants to speak with Beatrice Lally, but Shayne whisked her away from the crime scene and stubbornly keeps her away from Gentry as long as possible. And not with reason. But it goes without saying this causes some friction between the two.

This all makes for a quick, fun and perfectly serviceable tough-guy private eye novel and Shayne always seems to act more as a detective than a pulp-style gunslinger, dodging bullets and catching fists, but the plot is pretty lousy – a transparent plot that needlessly tied itself into a knot. First of all, the murderer is so obvious, I kept dismissing it as a red herring. After all, why (SPOILER/ROT13) frghc gur zheqre nf n ybpxrq ebbz zlfgrel jura gur bayl crefba jub pbhyq unir qbar vg, rvgure orvat va gur nqwnprag ebbz be univat n xrl gb gung ebbz, unf qbar vg? Lbh qb gung gb ybnq fhfcvpvba ba na vaabprag punenpgre naq cerfragvat n ceboyrz gung arrqf fbyivat: svaqvat nabgure jnl vagb gur ybpxrq ebbz. Guvf vf whfg havafcverq naq qvfnccbvagvat, ohg, rira jbefr, vg znxrf Funlar ybbx yvxr ur unq whfg orra ehaavat nebhaq cbvagyrffyl gur ragver gvzr. Fbzrguvat rnfvyl svkrq unq gur pevzr fprar abg orra fb gvtugyl ybpxrq be Unyyvqnl unq whfg ena jvgu gur vzcbffvoyr pevzr, juvpu pbhyq unir orra rnfvyl nppbzcyvfurq ol tvivat gur xrl gb gur nqwnprag ebbz na nyvov ol unaqvat bire ng gur ubgry qrfx (gur gvzr-gevpx jbhyq unir gnxra pner bs gur erfg). So a fun enough read that long-time fans of the series will undoubtedly enjoy, but has nothing to recommend to most readers of this blog who come for the classical whodunits, unbreakable alibis, dying messages and miraculous murders.

However, I'm not going to give up on this series just yet. Only on trying to find one, or two, hidden locked room mysteries within the series. There are some and intriguing titles to be found the series with the meta-sounding She Work to Darkness (1955), Shayne crosses path with Brett Halliday at a mystery writer's convention, is likely going to be next stop.


A Novel Crime: Q.E.D. vol. 33-34 by Motohiro Katou

So the original plan to get to Q.E.D. vol. 36, or even as far 38, regrettably didn't pan out as planned, holiday's certainly did its part in sidetracking it, but still, not a bad result considering I covered vol. 21-32 in 2023 – on top of "The Hit List: Top 10 Favorite Cases from Q.E.D. vol. 1-25" and "Q.E.D. X-MAS/NEW YEAR SPECIAL." I'm getting back on track with the intention of finishing this series this year or get as close as possible to vol. 50, which is likely going to translate into some extra Q.E.D. reviews down the line. That includes sampling the first two C.M.B. volumes in anticipation of the crossovers between C.M.B. vol. 19 and Q.E.D. vol. 41.

Q.E.D. vol. 33 opens with a fantastic story, "Paradox Room," which is very different from what the title and my track record suggests. The story is not a locked room mystery, but a puzzle of personalities.

Hisanaga Rio is the legal representative of her elderly, ailing grandmother who had to go to court to get the tenant evicted currently living in her apartment. Mineyama Tatsuo had rented the apartment, but stopped paying rent eight months ago and, somehow, appeared to have disappeared. Presumably leaving the apartment abandoned, but she needed and secured an eviction letter from the courts. Rio confides in her two friends, Kana Mizuhara and Sou Touma, who accompany her to the apartment to oversee the eviction. When they try to go inside, they're immediately repelled by a foul stench ("smells like a corpse in here"). Behind a sliding door and a garbage heap, they find the decomposed remains of Mineyama Tatsuo. This is where things begin to get weird.

Firstly, the police suspects from the lack of external injuries that he either died from an illness or possibly suicide, but then his ex-wife, Mineyama Etsumi, turns up at the crime scene – screaming blue murder that her ex-husband was murdered. Not only murdered, but taken out by assassins ("...hired by a mysterious organization which rules all of Japan"). According to her, Tatsuo had a strong developed sense of justice and "often wrote books books and blog articles that exposed the bad side of the government." Secondly, the investigation turns up two more people who were close to Tatsuo, but they both describe two entirely different people. Somehow, the apartment reveals clear cut evidence supporting all three differing testimonies! So what's going on? Sou Touma recognizes the problem as a paradox, "something that can trap mathematicians in a labyrinth," because the three "are all simultaneously supporting as well as contradicting each other's testimonies." Touma assures this particular paradox can be destroyed, "the key to that is already hidden in one of their testimonies," but also reminds Kana and the reader "paradoxes exit not just in cold logic" ("but also in people's hearts"). Touma breaks the contradictory testimonies apart in order to destroy the paradox and reveal the tragic backstory of the real Mineyama Tatsuo, which made for one of those human, character-based puzzles that sets this series apart. I kind of liked the open, unanswered question posed to Touma and the reader in the final panel.

The second story from vol. 33, "The Detective Novelist Murder Case," was praised in an anonymous comment left on the review of vol. 31-32, "it is not a grand trick by any means, but it is original and still one of my favorite tricks by Katou." I agree. But more on that trick in a moment.

Enoki Sadayuki, Higashinaka Kazuo, Maitake Toshihiro and Shimeji Mamoru are a group of friends who all have one thing in common: they're all published mystery writers. Some more successful than others. A week before the story begins, the four were drinking at a Shinjuku bar and discussing the state of the genre when Higashinaka tells them he come up with a method to commit the perfect murder. A murder disguised as a domestic accident in the bathroom, but someone detects a flaw in the trick. How is the murderer is going to get out and leave the place locked from the inside, because "the police will suspect the presence of another person if the victim is found in the bathtub at night with the door unlocked." So exactly what you expect to hear from four drinking, mystery writing buddies, but then Higashinaka "died in the exact same way as described in that trick" – only the murderer added something to the trick. All the doors and windows to the house were found to be securely locked from the inside!

One by one, the mystery writers turn to the police, represented by Inspector Mizuhara, to air their fear and suspicions how one of them might be a killer. Why employ a very specific trick narrowing down the potential suspects to just them? And how did the murderer manage to turn that trick into a full-fledged locked room mystery? Sou Touma and Kana Mizuhara insert themselves into the investigation with the latter doing the legwork, while the former acts as an armchair detective reasoning from the shadows. Touma reasons "the culprit is someone who has a reason to use this trick" and ends with a challenge to the reader, before all the suspects are gathered at the victim's house. Note that none of the suspects has met teenage detective until then ("what does this brat want to talk about?") and enjoyed that little touch to the storytelling. Touma not only reveals the who, why and how, but also explains why the other two couldn't have done it. A detective story with a purity of the highest order.

What about the locked room-trick, you ask? I agree with anon that the trick is a grand one, but locked room mysteries and impossible crimes don't always have to be grandiose spectacles like John Dickson Carr's The Three Coffins (1935) or John Sladek's Black Aura (1974). A locked room murder can have a simple, elegant solution without being inferior or less effective than those grandiose spectacles. For example, Anthony Boucher's The Case of the Solid Key (1941) and Douglas Clark's Death After Evensong (1969). "The Detective Novelist Murder Case" is a beautiful demonstration of combining elegance and simplicity to create a very satisfying impossible crime. Just avoid the really time-worn tricks (secret passages) or the dull routine ones (culprit simply replacing the key after the crime is discovered). A fantastic detective story all around!

After two first-class detective stories, the first story from Q.E.D. vol. 34 is a bit of a step down. "Disaster Man's Wedding" brings together some familiar recurring characters for the wedding of the CEO of Alansoft, Alan Blade, whose last appearance was in vol. 22. Alan Blade is about to be married to his company secretary, Ellie Francis. Part of the wedding gift is a joined charity, Alan & Ellie Foundation, "to help those less fortunate than us that live in third world countries." Just one problem. A notorious international bank, "infamous for the many failures that led to people becoming victims worldwide," has shown interest in their charitable organization. So the bank is want to attach themselves to the newly minted, high profile charity, in order to rehabilitate their tarnished reputation, but their behavior strongly implies to Alan "they're definitely trying to cover something up" – which might have something to do with a refugee camp in Africa. But what? Sou Touma, Kana Mizuhara and several other recurring characters begin to trot across the globe in search for answers. I suppose the story deserves some credit for planting an unusual puzzle at its heart and trying to do something with a rarely touched subject, but it all fell a little flat in the end. Not in the least because the bank is apparently run by a collection of cartoon-like villains who can't help but say the quiet parts out loud. So, on a whole, a fairly minor story in the series that could, perhaps, have been better than it ended up being.

Fortunately, the second and last story making up vol. 34, "Bonaridou," is a return to form. Sou Touma and Kana Mizuhara travel to the Tono City, Iwate Prefecture, to support Kana's friend from middle school, Shirakawa Ryo.

Ryo is competing in the local diving tournament to secure a place in the national competition, but, before they even arrived, trouble has started. Ryo was raised by her grandmother, Shirakawa Hari, because her father ran away with another woman and left her mother with a large debt. Just before the arrival of our two protagonists, the body of Ryo's father is found inside a car on the side of a road. Fukatsu Shinji has a bullet wound in his stomach and a gun is lying in the passenger seat, but "how did the culprit get out of the car?" Yes, this is a locked car mystery, of sorts. A second, cleverly camouflaged murder occurs halfway through the story at a swimming pool and a masked stranger with a scythe appeared to make threatening gestures at them. Touma points out that “these are not murders, but choices” and begins to reconstruct what really happened noting the importance of the locked car doors, a gun with only one shot fired and the similarity between both deaths. I also liked how the floor plan is used, if only in a very small way. The methods of both murders might not go down with every reader, but I thought they fitted the character of the murderer like a glove. More importantly, the motive is a refreshing take on a well-worn trope of Japanese mystery fiction (ROT13: vafgrnq bs niratvat gur qrnq, gurl jrer xvyyrq gb cebgrpg gur yvivat). So not as good as the two stories from the previous volume, but a pretty solid story on a whole.

All in all, two truly excellent stories, a good one and one that's average at best, which is not a bad at all and convinced me that compiling "The Hit List: Top 10 Favorite Cases from Motohiro Katou's Q.E.D. vol. 26-50" is going to be bloodbath. I already have seven or eight candidates from just vol. 26-34!


Earth is An Armchair: The Wendell Urth Quartet by Isaac Asimov

During the early 1950s, Isaac Asimov observed "one would think that science fiction would blend easily with the mystery," but, oddly enough, "it was the mystery form that seemed most difficult to amalgamate with science fiction" – hybrid mysteries were little more than novelties at the time. There were some early, well-intended attempts to blend the detective story with science-fiction, which were clunky at best (Manly Wade Wellman's Devil's Planet, 1942) and poorly conceived at worst (David V. Reed's Murder in Space, 1944). Anthony Boucher arguably produced the only good hybrid mystery of the period, the time travel short story "Elsewhen" (1946).

Asimov saw a practically untapped reservoir of potential, "science itself is so nearly a mystery and the research scientist so nearly a Sherlock Holmes," prompting him to write his own science-fiction mystery, The Caves of Steel (1953/54). I reread it last year and remained of the opinion that it's one of the most important detective novels of the previous century. A truly futuristic, fair play detective novel demolishing the future argument that advancements in science and technology made the traditionally-plotted detective story obsolete. The Caves of Steel played the Grandest Game in the World inside a dystopian hellhole with humanoid-looking robots, mind probes and high-tech, breakaway civilizations. Asimov wrote a sequel, The Naked Sun (1956/57), "just to show that the first book wasn't an accident" in addition to "several short stories intended to prove that science fiction mysteries could be written in all lengths."

A personal favorite of these short stories is the standalone "Obituary" (1959), another criminal time travel story horribly gone wrong, but Asimov also created a short-lived series-character, Dr. Wendell Urth, who, "if the judgment of experts counted for anything, was Earth's most outstanding extraterrologist" – "on any subject outside Earth men came to him." However, Dr. Urth is an earthbound space sleuth who visited any of the planets nor strayed further than a few miles from his rooms. So basically a space detective who reasons from the largest and most comfortable armchair in our Solar System, Earth.

I read the four stories in the collection Asimov's Mysteries (1968) and thought the character was a great and original take on the armchair detective, but found the plots to be lacking. An anonymous comment brought up this short-lived series and noted "Edward Wellen also wrote a Wendell Urth mystery in Foundation's Friends which has perturbed me ever since." That just sounded like a good excuse to revisit this series. After all, I wanted to probe deeper into the hybrid mystery following the publication of Yamaguchi Masaya and Masahiro Imamura's two zombie mysteries, but there's simply not much out there to probe. So why not take another look at this series to see how they stand up.

"The Singing Bell," originally published in the January, 1955, issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which is an inverted mystery involving the "first murder on the Moon." Louis Peyton is asked by Albert Cornwell, "small-time retailer of stolen things," to help him get a cache of moon rocks, so-called "Singing Bells," from a crater on the Lunar surface ("...enough there to enable you and me to retire in affluence"). Singing Bells make heavenly sounds when struck correctly, which makes them expensive collector's items ("a supply of Bells would be worth murder"). After securing the cache, Peyton shoots Cornwell with a blaster and hastily beats a return to Earth to destroy evidence where rigged up a clever, counter intuitive non-alibi – reasoning that nothing is "so conducive to an appearance of innocence as the triumphant lack of an alibi." Peyton has a long-standing habit to seclude himself every August inside his remote house in the Rocky Mountains, Colorado, protected with a force field fence ("no one saw him, no one could reach him"). Inspector Davenport, of the Terrestrial Bureau of Investigation, knows Peyton was on the Moon and shot Cornwell, but difficult to prove without an apparently rock solid alibi ("if he had an alibi, I could crack it somehow, because it would be a false one"). And he first needs to prove Peyton was on the Moon, before he can subject him to a psychoprobe. So turns Dr. Wendell Urth to help him nail the man on the Moon for murder.

A fairly good and amusing short story with an intriguing enough premise and a clever take on the unbreakable alibi, but it all begged for something better, slightly more ambitious than a simple "ha, gotcha" solution.

"The Talking Stone" originally appeared in the October, 1955, issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and is rightfully the best-known of the Wendell Urth stories. The titular stone is a silicon based life form, a silicony, which are ovoid-shaped creature with smooth, oily skin with two sets of appendages – six "legs" below and rabbit-like "ears" on its back. Siliconeus asteroidea exist on asteroids who "get their energy by the direct absorption of gamma rays" and Dr. Wendell Urth argued "there isn't enough gamma radiation on any asteroid to support siliconies more than an inch or two long." When a spaceship, Robert Q, docks at Station Five in the asteroid belt for emergency repairs, the attendant notices the captain has a bigger than usual silicony aboard. And figures the creature must have come from an uranium rich asteroid ("...one great big fat chunk of uranium ore like nobody on Earth saw..."). So sees an opportunity for promotion, but everything goes horrible wrong when the Robert Q collides with an asteroid. The human crew of uranium died in the crash and the silicony is dying.

Only the dying silicony knows where the human crew hid, or wrote down, the coordinates to the uranium asteroid, which are nowhere to be found. Fortunately, the silicony have "rudimentary telepathic powers" that allows it to read minds and talk to humans. Although not much help as the last words of the silicony, "on the asteroid," proved to be very little help. Why write the coordinates on the asteroid ("that's like locking a key inside the cabinet it's meant to open"). So they turn to Earth's most celebrated extraterrologist, Dr. Wendell Urth, to decipher the silicony's dying message.

This is an excellent blend of science-fiction and mystery as having a detective decipher a dying message from an alien creature is a great idea. Due to the short length and some clueing, the problem is actually a solvable one. All you need is to add a bit of creative thinking and the solution should not be too difficult to spot, which is incidentally its only weak spot. Not because it's solvable, but because cracking an alien dying message should be a lot harder to do. And perhaps "The Talking Stone" should have been a novel-length science-fiction mystery. Nevertheless, it's a rock solid hybrid mystery.

The last two stories are both longer and poorer, much poorer, detective stories beginning with "The Dying Night," published in the July, 1956, issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which centers on a class reunion of four scientists – three of whom recently returned to Earth. Edward Talliaferro worked on the Lunar Observatory, Stanley Kaunas on the Mercury Observatory and Battersley Ryger and the distant Ceres Observatory. Romano Villiers, "the most brilliant of the four," became sick and was unable to leave Earth. Something that ate away at him and eventually unbalanced his mind, but, during the reunion, Villiers announces he's "discovered a practical method of mass transference through space." But then he dies in his hotel room. And papers goes missing. Most curious of all is the particular, illogical hiding place of a certain object. Dr. Wendell Urth is asked to shine his light on this little mystery among scientists.

Asimov wrote in his afterword that "this story, first published in 1956, has been overtaken by events" and (jokingly) wishes "astronomers would get things right to begin with," because he refused to "to change the story to suit their whims." That's all fine and funny, if "The Dying Night" had just been dated science-fiction short story, but it also tries to be a fair play detective story requiring knowledge of astronomy in order to solve the problem. So, purely as a detective story, it has aged very poorly and became less fair overtime. Still better than the last story in the series.

"The Key" first appeared in the October, 1966, issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and takes the series back to the Moon. Karl Jennings and James Strauss are conducting the first ever, privately funded selenographic expedition to land on the Lunar surface and they make a momentous discovery. A ragged, nearly amorphous piece of metal and the spectrograph identifies it as artificial, "titanium-steel, essentially, with a hint of cobalt and molybdenum," but no records exist of a spaceship ever landing or crashing on that part of the Moon – suggesting it "to be of ancient and non-human manufacture" ("an artifact of some ship wrecked eons ago"). Something they're able to confirm when they find something Jennings calls the Device. A strange piece of technology that allows for mind reading and it reveals to Jennings that Strauss is an Ultra. A group of radicals who want to reduce the six billion people of Earth down to roughly five million.

So the aftermath of this revelation is Jennings' body being found on a skim boat with a stab wound and Strauss was alive but in delirium. What happened to the Device? A dying Jennings hid it somewhere on the Moon and left behind a coded message addressed to his old teacher, Dr. Wendell Urth, who naturally manages to decode it. A very disappointing story as it completely ignored the fascinating mystery of what and who crash landed on the Moon ages ago. Why bring in a mind reading device when Dr. Urth could have been presented with the ultimate case for an extraterrologist! Something that could very well have forced him to break his habit of never leaving his neighborhood, which would have been fitting for his final outing and a puzzle of such a enormous magnitude. This is just dumb, stupid and unworthy of Asimov.

Well, it seems a second reading only confirmed my first, dimly remembered impression that the first two were definitely better than the last two and the best part being the character of Dr. Wendell Urth. There's something very pleasing about an earthbound extraterrologist and armchair detective who uses the planet as his armchair to ponder the mysteries of the universe, but Dr. Wendell Urth deserved to have better, much more cases to his credit. Perhaps even his own science-fiction mystery novel as there's more in the character and series than Asimov got out of it. So I'll definitely going to track down Edward Wellen's pastiche "Murder in the Urth Degree" (1989) to see what he managed to do with the character.