Six Were to Die (1932) by James Ronald

Last time, I reviewed the three novelettes and bonus short story from Stories of Crime & Detection, vol. 1: The Dr. Britling Stories (2023), which is the first of twenty-some planned volumes by Moonstone Press and Chris Verner – aiming to collect all of James Ronald's detective fiction by 2025. The first installment in this series of reprints introduces the regrettably short-lived characters of Dr. Daniel Britling and his twin sister, Miss Eunice Britling, who only appeared in three novelettes and a single novel. That pulp-style locked room novel is also included in this first volume.

Ronald's Six Were to Die (1932), marking the final appearance of Dr. Daniel Britling, was originally published as a Hodder & Stoughton's Yellow Jacket Original, reprinted in 1941 by Mystery House as 6 Were to Die by "Kirk Wales" and a Cherry Tree digest edition in 1947. Verner used the version that was serialized in various newspapers around the world under the penname "Peter Gale" ("...minor punctuation and text differences between these and other versions"). Just to give you an idea that the publication history of pulp writers like James Ronald or John Russell Fearn are detective stories unto themselves.

Six Were to Die deceivingly begins with blissful scene of domesticity at the little flat in Orchard Street, which Miss Britling shared with her brother. Dr. Britling annoyed his sister by staying in bed late, delaying their breakfast and "adding insult to injury" by singing and splashing around in the bath. If I didn't know beforehand what the story is roughly about, I would have assumed from the first few pages it was going to be one of those lighthearted mysteries from the murder-can-be-fun school of Kelley Roos and the Lockridges, but the arrival of a parcel pulls it right back to the pulps. The package comes with a letter warning for the police surgeon, "this morning one Jubal Straust will call upon you and request your aid on behalf of himself and five associates," but advises Dr. Britling not "to be drawn into an affair which is none of your concern" or risk a swift, sudden and untimely death – package included a poisonous death trap as a demonstration ("...you will receive no warning with the next deadly message"). Something that has the completely opposite effect on Dr. Britling ("I don't like to be threatened. I regard it as a challenge"). Dr. Britling explains to Straust he's willing to listen to him not in spite of the anonymous threat, but because of it.

Jubal Straust is a prominent financier, "one of the crookedest members of the London Stock Exchange," who twelve years ago was one of the six partners in the Eldorado Investment Trust. There were, of course, financial shenanigans afoot that eventually caught up with them. So they scapegoated their partner and friend, Arthur Marckheim, who was sent to prison for ten years ("Besides, what is friendship? Its commercial value is nil"). After the trial concluded, they all went their separate ways, considerably richer, but now Marckheim has returned to remind them that the penalty for their double-cross is death. And knowing their former partner, they take the threat very seriously. So the five partners, Gideon Levison, Mark Annerley, Hubert Quail, Jubal Straust and has old father Israel Straust, buried themselves away in Grey Towers near Leighton Buzzard. Home of the old Straust. The sixth person on Markheim list of people to kill is his ex-wife, Cora, who's the current Mrs. Annerley.

Grey Towers is very well protected as the ten foot high fence around the estate has an integrated burglar alarm and the grounds outside are constantly patrolled by armed men, "all ex-policemen or ex-pugilists," who are armed – blowing a whistle turns on the rooftop search lights. What could go wrong? Jubal Straust is fatally poisoned while driving Dr. Britling to Grey Towers. A simple, but clever, poisoning trick demonstrating the murderer's creativity and resourcefulness. Particularly when it comes to playing on the victim's personalities, weaknesses or simply habits to help them along to an early grave. One by one, the men are poisoned under seemingly impossible circumstances or get shot in locked rooms or speeding cars.

Six Were to Die has more impossible situations than Robert Adey listed in Locked Room Murders (1991). For example, a warning from Marckheim is found inside a sealed package of playing cards or the overarching impossibility of how Marckheim can enter or move around the house without being detected. Some are better and more convincing than others, of course, but all the tricks are firmly rooted in the tradition of the pulps. I think the best of these pulp-style locked room-tricks is the poisoning of Hubert Quail, because the method to introduce the poison is ludicrous. A trick you might actually have heard about and wondered if anyone actually used in a detective story. Well, yes. Ronald tried not unsuccessfully to make it sound somewhat plausible and turning it into a locked room problem certainly helped towards that end. Another quasi-impossible situation I enjoyed is how one of the characters gets thrown out of the house and manages to sneak back in without getting caught or even spotted by the guards. It's cartoonishly clever. Something you can imagine Bugs Bunny doing to get into the house.

When it comes to the impossible crimes, Six Were to Die gives you, more or less, what can be expected from a pulp-style locked room mystery with a group of people under siege and dying under inexplicable circumstances – comparable to Brian Flynn's Invisible Death (1929) and Fearn's Account Settled (1949). Not always credible, as far as method goes, but always bubbling over with wildly imaginative, downright crazy ideas or tricks. Where it differentiates itself from other pulp stories like it is simply plot management. There's never more than a chapter between one of the impossible crimes taking place and it's solution, which made for a far tidier and tighter plot and story than had they accumulated until a lengthy explanation was needed. Not to mention adding to the overall mystery how a murderer can have the run of the place without getting caught or seen. It also cleared the way for the ending when it was time to abandoned any pretense of being a detective story and barreled full throttle into pulpville, which is where the story managed to loose me.

In the previous review, I noted that pulp writers like Ronald and Fearn wrote for a less demanding audience than the Golden Age aficionados who are discovering them today. Now I don't think anyone expects the rigor of a Golden Age mystery from a pulp novel nor will the outlandish nature of the locked room-tricks be a stumbling block for many, but after such a well written, nicely balanced and above all entertaining mystery I expected something slightly better from the conclusion. Something more inspired fitting everything that preceded it. And how the murderer had the run of the place is ridiculous. Something that's always tricky to pull of convincingly, but didn't buy it here at all. But it comes with the territory of the pulps. For every good, wildly imaginative or original idea, they do half a dozen things that makes most GAD fans want to pull out their hair at the roots.

Sorry to have to conclude this on a somewhat sour note, but I really did enjoy Six Were to Die right up until the last handful of chapters. Until then, Six Were to Die is an incredibly entertaining pulp mystery dispatching its cast of characters, left and right, under seemingly impossible circumstances and the ominous presence of the killer constantly looming over them – eating away at their nerves. It deserved a better ending. Just like Dr. Britling deserved a longer run as a series-character, because, once again, he shined as a leading character. Even his twin sister has a strong, off-page presence when she begins to exchange letters with her brother. So much more could have been done with them. However, I also realize the three Dr. Britling novelettes and this novel merely represents some of Ronald's earliest, tentative steps as a writer of pulp mysteries. Six Were to Die is perhaps not a rival to the plots of John Dickson Carr or John Rhode, but possesses all the promise, ingenuity and freshness to eventually deliver on that promise. So eagerly look forward to the coming reprints of Murder in the Family (1936), They Can't Hang Me (1938) and the "Michael Crombie" novel The Sealed Room Murder (1934).


Stories of Crime & Detection, vol. 1: The Dr. Britling Stories (2023) by James Ronald

James Ronald was a Scottish-born writer of detective stories, pulp-style mysteries and thrillers, but, despite receiving high praise for his "ingenuity, freshness, and sharp sense of humour," Ronald passed into obscurity upon his death in 1972 – going out-of-print practically immediately. So nearly all of his work became scarce, often expensive collector items and, if they were not completely forgotten, mentioned every now or then in passing (see "99 Novels for a Locked Room Library"). That slowly began to change in the 2010s with the rise of the Golden Age mystery blogs.

The first to bring up James Ronald was John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, who reviewed They Can't Hang Me (1938) in 2013 and Death Croons the Blues (1934), The Sealed Room Murder (1934; as by "Michael Crombie") and The House of Horror (1935; as by "Michael Crombie") in 2019. Jim Noy, of The Invisible Event, began adding to the intrigue in 2018 with four and five-star reviews of Six Were to Die (1932), Murder in the Family (1936) and This Way Out (1939). So included Ronald's work in "Curiosity is Killing the Cat: Detective Novels That Need to Be Reprinted" on the strength of those reviews, but John turned up in the comments with some bad news. Moonstone Press tried and nearly succeeded in securing the rights to five of Ronald's novels, but family members put a stop to it ("...they do not have fond memories of the man and they would prefer if he were not back in print"). It looked as if Ronald was doomed to obscurity for the foreseeable future and only sheer serendipity would get me a copy of Six Were to Die, The Sealed Room Murder or They Can't Hang Me.

Somehow, someway, Moonstone Press managed to resolve the dispute and secured the rights to not only five of those elusive, long out-of-print novels, but Ronald's entire body of works – covering everything from his early short stories to those ultra rare locked room mystery novels. A 14-volume reprint project scheduled to be published over the next two years!

Stories of Crime & Detection, vol. 1: The Dr. Britling Stories (2023) was published last December and collected three pulp fiction novelettes, a short story and one of Ronald's elusive impossible crime novels. I also recommend you read the introduction by Chris Verner, son of Gerald Verner, who gives both background details about the author as well as the Herculean task in tracking down, piecing together and restoring all those stories ("a treasure hunt for lost tales"). Many of which were published under a retinue of pseudonyms in newspaper serials or obscure pulp magazines. Not to mention that a lot of his work exited in multiple, slightly differing versions from one publication to another. It reminded me of the exhaustive, decades-long archaeological detective work Philip Harbottle had to undertake to disentangle John Russell Fearn's labyrinthine publication history and tangle of pennames in order to get his work back in print. See, for example, Harbottle's 2017 guest-post "The Detective Fiction of John Russell Fearn."

I'm going to tackle this collection in two parts. First up are the three novelettes and short story. Six Were to Die is going to be discussed separately in the next post.

These three novelettes introduce a regrettably short-lived series-character, Dr. Daniel Britling. A short, slim and meticulously dressed police surgeon with a Vandyke beard and a pearl-gray fedora on his large head, "nothing of his association with crime or the police was suggested by his appearance," but Dr. Britling does more than merely examining bodies – playing "an active part in unravelling more than one mystery." Dr. Britling is a student of crime and acting as a quasi-official amateur detective a favorite pastime ("criminology was his hobby..."). Scotland Yard had to admit that whenever Dr. Britling "put his enterprising finger into the pie of criminal detection, he almost invariably pulled out the plum that the detective in charge had groped for in vain."

"The Green Ghost Murder," originally published in the April, 1931, issue of Hush Magazine introduces Dr. Britling and his twin sister, Eunice, who rented a furnished cottage in Carstow where Dr. Britling is recuperating from a bout with pneumonia. Eunice knows her brother's weakness for any kind of mystery and, as she expected, her brother becomes very interested in the news that the Green Ghost of Heaton Forest, "famous in local legend," has returned from nearly a century of slumber ("...to protest against the houses which now stand where its forest, dark and impenetrable, once stood?"). However, the problem of the mounting sightings of the luminous green ghost is not the primary problem of the story, which is easy to see through, but that makes it all the more baffling when the green ghost apparently stabs Carstow's leading bookmaker to death inside his garden. A murder that was witnessed by the victim's cook!

A great, promising and even clever setup as knowing who plays the ghost makes the murder seem even more baffling, but, as remarked elsewhere, "The Green Ghost Murder" is pure pulp fiction written against a hard deadline – polishing never took place. More importantly, they were written for a less demanding audience than the Golden Age aficionados that pour over these stories today. And the ending shows it as the story takes a sharp turn into pulpville! So not much here in terms of a proper detective story, but the two elderly Britling twins shine as characters in this story. For example, Dr. Britling has to deal with a nosy newspaper reporter who's desperate for an interview, but gets a hard no from the police surgeon, "if I allowed you to tell your readers how much cleverer than the police I am, do you suppose the police would ever allow me to 'nose' about the scene of a murder again?" ("they'd simply point to the body, allow me to make my examination, then lead me gently but firmly to the door"). What a waste, the Britlings only made a handful of appearances.

"Too Many Motives" predates the first story in this series, originally published in the April, 1930, issue of 20-Story Magazine, but Chris Verner suspects "The Green Ghost Murder" must have had "a preceding publication somewhere, or the story sat on the shelf." The publication histories of these pulp, or pulp adjacent, writers are practically detective stories by themselves. Anyway, the story begins with a birthday dinner in honor of an enormously wealthy financier, Mark Savile, who "was despised even by fellow-financiers" ("thousands of small investors lost their savings in the crash of his bubble company"). Savile's grim sense of humor tempted him to invite four men with a motive to kill him and spends the evening needling them, until one of them assaults him, but did he, or one of the other three, came back to finish the job? Dr. Britling is called upon to make sense of a murder with too many motives, but Ronald borrowed the solution from a Sherlock Holmes. A particular kind of solution I loath as much as others dislike Conan Doyle's "Birlstone Gambit." That being said, Ronald appears to be the first to have employed this particular variation on that now shopworn idea and some credit should go his way for not making it a locked room mystery. Only serious problem the story has is that the murderer's plan makes no sense, psychologically or simply long term (HUGE SPOILER/ROT13: Fnivyr jnf “n pbjneq ng urneg,” ohg fubg uvzfrys va gur urnq naq znqr gur tha qvfnccrne hc gur puvzarl va beqre gb pnfg rgreany fhfcvpvba ba gubfr sbhe vaabprag zra... Jul abg fvzcyl gnxr cbvfba juvyr gurl jrer qvavat naq svtugvat, orpnhfr gung tha vf tbvat gb or sbhaq fbbare be yngre. Naq gung jbhyq ehva gur ybat grez nvzf bs gur cyna. So not a personal favorite.

Fortunately, the next two stories are much better. "Find the Lady" was originally published in the May, 1931, issue of Hush Magazine and is the best of the three novelettes. Dr. Britling is asked by Lord Clavering to track down his niece, Lady Frances Dorian, who disappeared without a trace from the Royal Lancaster Hotel – where she had been living for some months. One day, she packed her belonging, settled the bill and went away. Yet, nobody saw her leave the hotel. The aunt of Lord Clavering and Lady Frances, Lady Agatha Dorian, is screaming blue murder, but refuses to call in Scotland Yard. Lord Clavering asks Dr. Britling to nose around the hotel and he's only to eager to oblige ("I love to dabble in these things, but I have no wish to profit by my hobby"). So the police surgeon and hobby-horse detective begins to nose around the hotel and questions everyone from the manager and doorman to the chambermaid and switchboard operator, which comes with a stronger spot of clueing than the previous two stories. Not the most intricate or complicated detective stories written in 1930s, but not too bad on whole and loved Dr. Britling acting as a spirited, buzzing amateur sleuth. Note that "Find the Lady" also has some Sherlockian echoes ("The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax," 1911), but that's all they are. Just echoes. Ronald wrote a different story around the idea of a Lady Frances vanishing from a hotel.

"Blind Man's Bluff," originally printed in the October 5, 1929, publication of the Daily Mail and is Ronald's first published short story. It's not a detective or pulp-style mystery, but a simple, very well done crime story. Martin Longworth is a blind man who learned over the decades to rely on his other senses and his sharp hearing noticed a few familiar characteristics about the new owner of the local tobacco shop. But where has he heard them before? And in what connection? Ronald only has about 10 pages to tell the story, but Martin Longworth feels as fleshed out and convincing as Baynard Kendrick's blind detective, Captain Duncan Maclain. So not bad for a first stab at the crime-and detective story.

Going into this collection, I expected "The Green Ghost Murder" and "Too Many Motives" to emerge as my unsurprising favorites. After all, you don't have to be Sherlock Holmes or Nostradamus to know whether, or not, something is to my liking. And those two novelettes appeared to fit the bill. But no. "Find the Lady" and "Blind Man's Bluff" proved to be the two unexpected standouts. Still a very mixed bag of tricks with the characters of Dr. Daniel Britling, Eunice Britling and Martin Longworth carrying the plots. So these four shorter works have not entirely convinced me of Ronald's reported genius as a mystery writer and crafty plotter, but the novel-length Six Were to Die is next on the list. Don't touch that dial and stay tuned.


The Meiji Guillotine Murders (1979) by Futaro Yamada

Late last year, I put together a list of ten "Non-English Detective Novels That Need to Be Translated" from Europe, Asia and the Americas, but, as noted in the introduction, the list could be entirely filled with the Japanese titles Ho-Ling Wong has discussed on his blog – enough to put together a top 100. One of those intriguing-sounding detective novels Ho-Ling has discussed over the years is Meiji dantodai (The Meiji Guillotine Murders, 1979) by "Futaro Yamada" (penname of Seiya Yamada). A collection of short, connected historical mystery stories or rather an episodic novel with the epilogue turning it into a complete narrative ("...never seen it done as good as here") praised by Ho-Ling as a masterpiece and one of the best mysteries he has ever read. So a translation seemed next to impossible when he reviewed the book in 2013. Fortunately, Pushkin Vertigo asked Ho-Ling for a list of (shin) honkaku recommendations for possible future translations and one of the suggestions was The Meiji Guillotine Murders.

Futaro Yamada was a writer best remembered in his native country for his historical fiction and ninja stories. Reportedly discovered by Edogawa Rampo, Yamada first short story, "Daruma-tōge no jiken" ("The Incident on Dharma Pass," 1947), bagged an award from Hôseki magazine. That short story was not Yamada's last dalliance with the detective story.

The Meiji Guillotine Murders is set in 1869 Tokyo, "although it had been renamed Tokyo, it was still, to be sure, the old capital of Edo," which is the first year of the Meiji Restoration that ended the reign of the shogunate and restored imperial rule – opening the country to the rest of the world. Until then, the country had been under the military dictatorship of the Tokugawa shogunate for two and a half centuries that enforced a policy of national isolation (*). A state of affairs rudely interrupted by the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry's "Black Ships," in 1853, who forced a treaty on Japan opening it up to international trade and diplomacy. Naturally, these rapid changes were not welcomed by everyone, destabilized the sitting power and exploded in a full-blown rebellion known as the Boshin Civil War of 1868-69. The outcome of this civil war restored imperial rule in the young Emperor Meiji and the new government began a process of rapid Westernization, which causes even more social upheavals, political turmoil and, what can be generously termed, growing pains of the Meiji Restoration.

This short story collection-cum-novel takes place during the first year of that brave new era for Japan, but the government had their hands full. Not only had the country to rapidly catch up with the West, but they had to contend with political assassins, rebels and deeply-rooted corruption. So they reinstated the Imperial Prosecuting Office, "a revival of a Heian-period administration," created "to investigate and root out official corruption." There the three protagonists of The Meiji Guillotine Murders enter the picture.

Chief Inspector Toshiyoshi Kawaji is a real historical figure who was tasked with setting up and recruiting men for the new Japanese police force, which in the beginning comprised of several thousand men "charged with maintaining public order in the capital." Chief Inspector Keishirō Kazuki is his colleague and friendly rival ("in the best sense of the term, let's be rivals") who imported a guillotine from France, because "the old method of beheading by sword is on the way out," but "that French beheading block" is not all he brought back from Europe – returning with a golden-haired woman, Esmeralda Sanson. She's the ninth generation of the Sanson family of Parisian executioners and something of a spiritual medium. Every case ends with Esmeralda going into a trance and have the ghost of the victim explain everything happened. Always opening with the lines, "for the first time since arriving in the land of the dead... I can see the land of the living without hindrance." How's that for a setup?

Before delving into the story, it's important to keep in mind The Meiji Guillotine Murders is very different from most Japanese mysteries translated up until now. Particularly if you're only familiar what has been translated over the past 5-10 years. And, knowing some of my regular readers, the book requires some patience to get through.

First of all, The Meiji Guillotine Murders is, as noted before, an episodic novel structured like a short story collection. However, the book begins with two stories, "The Chief Inspectorate of the Imperial Prosecuting Office" and "Esmeraldo the Miko," merely laying the groundwork. They introduce the reader to the three main characters, sketching a picture of 1869 Tokyo and the French contraption getting erected on the execution ground at the Kodenma-chō jail. And getting tested on a couple of unfortunate criminals. After the introduction, the two Chief Inspectors of the Imperial Prosecuting Office get to investigate a handful of cases in five long-ish short stories divided in a setup (roughly 30 pages) and the discovery of the crime with its conclusion being covered in the remaining twenty-some pages. There's a wealth of detail, both historically and to the overarching story, in those preambles to murder. So discussing them in depth is impossible and will only look at the detective elements of those story.

"Kaidan tsukiji hotel kan" ("The Strange Incident at the Tsukiji Hotel") centers on the potential consequences of an unlawful execution coalescing around the titular hotel with a bell tower atop of its roof. A case culminating in a man being found at the bottom of the tower stairs, "abdomen clearly cut open and his innards spilling out," but the suspects who discovered the body had vowed never to kill again. Only other suspect possessed a rock solid alibi. The trick is ingeniously grotesque and agree with Ho-Ling it's something Soji Shimada could have dreamed up, but this story predated his first novel by several years. "America yori ai wo komete" ("From America with Love") has an original take on the no-footprints scenario: two rickshaws end up in the freezingly cold river drowning its sole occupant. Curiously enough, there are wheel tracks of the rickshaws in the snows, but "there are no footprints from the person pulling it" between them. I envisioned a very different solution to the impossibility, but a good and fun story also involving political assassinations, corruption and a haunted cemetery. "Eitaibashi no kubitsuribito" ("The Hanged Man at the Eitai Bridge") reads like a historical reimagining of Freeman Wills Crofts and his alibi-breaking, in which the victim is found hanging from the Eitai Bridge over the Sumida River and the murderer turns out to have a peach of an alibi. The solution is very clever with the period setting doubling as a smokescreen to the correct answer. A great example of the historical mystery in how the setting is used to build up the plot. "Engankyou ashikiri ezu" ("Eyes and Legs") and "Onore no kubi wo daku shitai" ("The Corpse That Cradled Its Own Head") do what so many Japanese detective stories enjoy doing, playing around with body parts. The former introduced a pair of binoculars to the capital and immediately a murder is observed through it ("they were cutting her flesh with a dagger and sawing right through the bone"), while the former toys around with severed heads of executed prisoners.

A hazy kind of vagueness began clouding the endings to those last two cases and made me wonder how, exactly, Yamada was planning to pull everything together in a tight, coherent narrative – which worried me for a second. It proved to be unnecessary as the last story, or chapter, "Seigi no seifu wa arieru ka" ("Can There Be a Just Government?") provided a conclusion that delivered on all fronts. I had some ideas in what direction the story could be headed and harbored certain suspicions against someone, but didn't imagine anything like this. A grand historical double play on (ROT13) gur yrnfg yvxryl fhfcrpg gebcr. More importantly, Yamada wrote and plotted a historical detective novel with crimes and motives that feel indigenous to that specific time and place in history.

I'm very picky when it comes to historical mysteries and impossible crime stories, because both obliges the author to do something with it. Preferably something good. I don't want a historical mystery where the setting only functions as period dressing or backdrop for the story and character. Nor do I want locked room mysteries with uninspired, routine solutions or tricks that belong back in the 19th century. So love historical impossible crime novels like John Dickson Carr's Captain Cut-Throat (1955), Robert van Gulik's The Red Pavilion (1961), Paul Doherty's A Murder in Thebes (1998) and more recently James Scott Byrnside's The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire (2020) and Jim Noy's The Red Death Murders (2022). You can add The Meiji Guillotine Murders to the list.

The Meiji Guillotine Murders is engrossing, richly detailed gem of a historical mystery novel that stands out due to it being structured like a collection of shorter stories, which allows it to deliver a stunner of an ending. Highly recommended. Just keep in mind The Meiji Guillotine Murders is very different from what most of you have come to expect from Japanese writers like Seishi Yokomizo and Yukito Ayatsuji.

*: Only exception to the strict policy of isolationism was the Dutch enclave of Dejima, which was their umbilical cord to the outside world. It's also the setting of the excellent Judge Ooka historical mystery novella "Een lampion voor een blinde" ("A Lantern for the Blind," 1973) by Dutch poet Bertus Aafjes. The ultimate "isolated island" mystery that deserves to be translated and should be bundled together with an English translation of Seicho Matsumoto's novella "Amusuterudamu-unga satsuyin jiken" ("The Amsterdam Canal Murder Case," 1969). A Dutch and Japanese writer writing detective stories that take place in each others countries is a great hook to hawk a pair of novellas.


Murder Behind Closed Doors (1980) by Phillips Lore

Terrence Lore Smith was an American crime-and mystery writer probably best remembered today, if he's remembered at all, for his bestselling novel The Thief Who Came to Dinner (1969) about a computer programmer turned jewel thief – which was turned into a popular movie in 1973 starring Ryan O'Neal and Jacqueline Bisset. Something ran in the family as Smith was the son of a Methodist minister, Charles Merrill Smith, who wrote the Reverend Randollph series comprising of six or seven novels. I'm not entirely sure if the last title in the series, Reverend Randollph and Modern Miracles (1988), ended up being published or only announced as forthcoming.

Charles Merrill Smith died in 1985 and the few listings that can be found online credits his son as the co-author, suggesting Terrence Smith was either completing an unfinished manuscript or intended to restart the series, but died tragically that same year. Terrence Smith worked part-time as a courier for the Pikes Peak Library District in El Paso County, Colorado, while driving the library van on an icy road lost control and got hit by another car. Smith died from his injuries on December 7, 1988, aged 46.

So perhaps Smith's untimely death got the book canned, whether it be legal issues or simply an unpolished manuscript, but Reverend Randollph and Modern Miracles has a brief plot synopsis ("...miraculous, paranormal murders are occurring and the minister-sleuth must find an earthly explanation...") and someone rated it four-stars on Goodreads – implying it got published and copies still exist. But only in hardback. And the lack of paperback reprints made the hardback edition ridiculously rare. So rare you can't even find exorbitantly prized copies online! I'm not sure if it should be added to the list of lost mysteries or the one with all the extremely scarce titles, but fortunately, father and son collaborated on three detective novels during their lifetime. Writing under their shared pseudonym of "Phillips Lore," Charles and Terrence Smith penned Who Killed the Pie Man? (1975), Murder Behind Closed Doors (1980) and The Looking Glass Murders (1980). All three novels were published by Playboy Press and starred a multi-millionaire attorney, Leo Roi, who inherited the fortune his father raked together with his Prohibition-era shenanigans.

This short-lived series would not have caught my attention, or interest, had Murder Behind Closed Doors not been listed in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991). An enticing entry describing four distinctly different (attempted) locked room murders. However, I got my copy of Locked Room Murders when I was still skeptical and hesitant when it came to detective fiction published after the 1950s. Everything about Murder Behind Closed Doors impressed me as one of those locked room curiosities that occasionally popped up during the second-half of the previous century. I reviewed a few on this blog like John B. Ethan's The Black Gold Murders (1959), Robert Colby's In a Vanishing Room (1961), Stephen Frances' The Illusionist (1970) and Tony Kenrick's A Tough One to Lose (1972).

What earned Lore's Murder Behind Closed Doors a special notation on my wishlist was a comment from John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, praising it as "a much better book with an unusual locked room plot" in his review of the first novel in the series, Who Killed the Pie Man? – calling Lore "one of the better locked room mystery writers of the 1970s-1980s" elsewhere. A copy finally landed in my lap last December and I can say right off the bat that Murder Behind Closed Doors is not a curiosity. It's actually quite interesting for two reasons: how it resettled a more or less traditional detective story of yore in then modern-day America and how the concept of a locked room murder is treated and received by the characters. So it proved to be an unexpectedly fascinating read considering the '80s presented something of a small revival for the traditional detective story and locked room mystery. Let's take a closer look at the story.

Phillips Lore's Murder Behind Closed Doors is dedicated to Raymond Chandler, "for his unparalleled Philip Marlowe—the great American detective," but reads like a mash of John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen. Funnily enough, every chapter begins with a quote from A.A. Milne's work. Chandler dragged Milne's The Red House Mystery (1922) behind the shed in his 1944 essay "The Simple Art of Murder" ("if the logic is an illusion, there is nothing to deduce"). Just one of the clues Lore had his tongue placed firmly in his cheek when he wrote the book. Anyway...

Leo Roi is a multi-millionaire lawyer, or to be more precise, an investigative attorney whose partner, Jack Pine, handles the courtroom end of business ("I build briefs and Jack tries the cases. It works pretty well"). Since he has more than enough money, Roi can afford to dabble in ethics, "lawyers' ethics are generally no better than those of the ordinary run of humanity, but I keep thinking they should be," who's not opposed to somewhat bending the rules. But never breaking them. A much needed quality when an old friend, Smith "Soldier" Jones, comes knocking to represent and possible defend one of his friends, Robert A. Garrison. A sculptor of some local fame wanted for questioning regarding the strangling of a Chicago advertiser, William Helld.

The Chicago advertising agency of Fruin, Helld, Forbes & Bascom threw a party for the cast and crew of the Black Ram Players to celebrate the opening of their play, Black, White and Blond, which was held at the home of the victim – whose body was discovered in the coach house studio of Garrison. That makes the case potentially explosive in 1980s America, because Garrison was Helld's "longtime companion." Roi assures his friend that fact does not bother him, personally or professionally ("as a man I'm more interested in my own sex life and love life than other people's"). Agrees to accompany Garrison to the police station, expecting him to be at least held as a material witness, but surprisingly get brushed off and send home. Why? Roi gets the answer from the Sun-Times crime reporter, Art Hough. The murder of William Heldd is a "puzzle mystery, locked room murder" as the door, windows and even the skylight were all found securely locked from the inside. They have a good laugh about it. Roi and Hough explain to Garrison that locked room murders only happen in fiction and "they never occur in reality." This locked room murder is no different as it's not really a locked room murder at all.

Hank Davis, "international film star who is appearing in the production," discovered the body when he missed Helld at the party, went looking for him and saw him lying on the floor of the coach house. And broke one of the windows to get inside. So he's the only one who logically could have staged an impossible crime by pretending he broke into a tightly locked coach house and the police is simply waiting with an arrest until they can pin a motive on him. Davis and Helld were ex-lovers before Garrison entered the picture. Either way, Roi's client is off the hooks for murder. Or so they believe.

A week later, they have "a real, live, genuine, double-dyed, locked-room, puzzle-mystery murder" on their hands when an anonymous tip leads the police to a second body, shot to death, inside the locked and bolted den of the coach house. A second locked room murder that places an entirely different complexion on the first. So now they have two impossible crimes. Hough points out to Roi that "most of the methods used in locked-room murders are absurd or unworkable and not the sort of thing anyone would really do" ("that's what makes this case so fascinating"), but admires "someone wild and crazy enough to kill with a flair" as most killings tend to be routine and boring ("...except to the participants"). Roi figures the seemingly impossibilities is a signature as easy to identify as a fingerprint, because "there just can't be that many people who could conceive of and execute two locked-room murders." But to find that person, Roi has to look beyond the private life of the victims and suspect.

That brings him to the theatrical company and advertising agency, which is when the story begins to taste a little pulpy. The play is produced by the son of a mob boss, Giovanni Palese, who tries to go legit and is busy cleaning up his public image doing charity or funding "art crap," but getting publicly involved in a double murder case could undo all of that – which gets the sympathy of the attorney. And even promises to look out for his interest, if the case allows it. Only for a third victim to get run through with a rapier inside the locked theater. The two characters Roi encounters at the advertising agency, Anson Forbes and Bonita Bascom, would have been completely at home in a 1940s pulp magazine or Clayton Rawson novel. Yes, there's a fourth locked room, of sorts, involving an elevator, but Lore saves that one for the very end of the story.

So how does Murder Behind Closed Doors stack up as a modern-day locked room mystery? Better than expected, but not for the reasons some might assume.

Firstly, the quality of the locked room-tricks with the first one being the best of the four. Theoretically, the trick is kind of brilliant, original even, but, as the crime reported predicted, somewhat absurd and perhaps impractical. Nonetheless, it's the kind of creative solution you hope to find in a locked room mystery. The second locked room-trick has been done before and since, while the third one is merely a filler impossibility (ROT13: n frys-ybpxvat qbbe) and even the murderer admits to that fact. So, on that account, it's more or less what you can expect from a most detective stories trying to string together more than two impossible crimes. What makes Murder Behind Closed Doors noteworthy, beside the first locked room, is how the impossibilities are treated and received. Going from bemused disbelief someone actually was stupid enough to try rigging up a storybook murder to almost surprised admiration a murderer is actually going around leaving bodies in locked rooms. A reader unaware of the history or status of the genre in 1980 might get the impression from Murder Behind Closed Doors the Golden Age-style (locked room) mystery never went away and Lore took the old warhorse for a little joyride. Instead of going through a two decade dark age. Lore unwittingly produced a very fitting novel to kickoff that first, short-lived revival and makes want to do another historical retrospective taking a closer look at the '80s. That's something for later this year.

Secondly, Murder Behind Closed Doors is not only about four impossible crimes. There's also the who-and why to be considered, which proved to be as unusual as the how with a memorable murderer and motive for creating a series of locked room murders – all “clued” in a somewhat unorthodox manner. I liked how the full solution punishes readers who (ROT13) whqtrq n obbx ol vgf pbire naq qernqrq n pregnva glcr bs fbyhgvba gb gur ybpxrq ebbzf jura n pregnva punenpgre vf vagebqhprq. I feared that possibility and even considered that character working cahoots with another character to get the job done (nsgre nyy, gur svefg ivpgvz jnf fgenatyrq). So the eventual solution came as a nice surprise. Even the routine solution to the second locked room murder and the attempt at a fourth was put to good use at the end. There is, however, an overall drawback to the story.

Lore tried to pack a lot in a very short novel counting a little more than a 180 pages with a lot of blank pages between chapters, whittling the page-count down to under a 170. In those pages, Lore introduced three locked room murders, separate casts of characters (theater and agency), plant clues, sprinkle around some red herrings and even introduce a personal sub-plot for Leo Roi involving his wife, Christina. Not to mention the delayed investigation until the second murder is committed. So Murder Behind Closed Doors was not bad at all, but obviously could have been better had it been given more room to develop. In that regard, Murder Behind Closed Doors reminded me of the work of Ton Vervoort, e.g. Moord onder de mantel der liefde (Murder Under the Mantle of Love, 1964), whose novels were written in a loose, light style with a small page-count, but always pleasantly full of clever ideas and unexpected surprises. Although you can't escape the feeling it could have been even better had it been properly worked out. Judging by Murder Behind Closed Doors, I suppose the same can be said about this series.

Nevertheless, as you can probably gauge from this unnecessarily long, rambling review, I enjoyed this unusual locked room mystery and the reason why you can almost certainly look forward to a retrospective of the 1980s impossible crime revival sometime in the near future. In the intervening time, I'm going to hunt down a few additional titles from that decade and this series. Probably The Looking Glass Murders. Next up... a return to the Japanese shin honkaku mysteries!


Let X Be the Murderer (1947) by Clifford Witting

In 2020, Clifford Witting emerged from six decades of obscurity with a reprint of Catt Out of the Bag (1939), courtesy of Galileo Publishers, who have since reissued eight of his sixteen novels and expended their catalog of Golden Age detective fiction – adding Joan Cockin, Joan Coggin and Max Murray to their line-up. I'll get to those three, but first want to go through their Witting reprints.

Let X Be the Murderer (1947) is the seventh title in the Inspector Harry Charlton series, following the superb Subject—Murder (1945), which begins ordinarily enough for a detective story. An early morning call from to Elmsdale, "Sir Victor Warringham's place," to the Lulverton police station to report an attempted murder. Sir Victor claims that during the night a pair luminous hands tried to strangle him, but, when he jumped out the bed to turn on the light, there was "no trace of anything unusual in the room." So asks the police to come down immediately and have "this spook removed from the premises without any of the customary delays."

Inspector Charlton takes Detective-Sergeant Bert Martin to Elmsdale to hear Sir Victor's story. Instead, the two policemen find a very strange and suspicious situation full of contradictions. Lily, the maid, confirms the Sir Victor's call ("the master was nearly murdered in' is bed last night"), but the housekeeper, Mrs. Winters, tells a different story – saying her employer was simply taken ill and is not to be disturbed ("doctor diagnosed heart trouble"). Sir Victor's son-in-law, Clement Harler, takes the confidential approach and explains to Charlton that "the old boy" never was same after his wife and only daughter were killed by a flying-bomb in 1944. So every now and then, Sir Victor gets funny ideas, but assures he's quite harmless and that a specialist is coming down from London to look him over. Clement's second-wife, Gladys, had yet a different yarn to spin. In the end, they're turned away without seeing Sir Victor and it doesn't end there. Sir Victor had also summoned his lawyer, Mr. Howard, but gets told his client is not fit to see him ("he's mad, I tell you!"). Only for Mrs. Winters to intervene and telling the Harlers, "you'll not prevent me from doing everything I can to protect an honourable, trusting old gentleman from a pair of cheap confidence tricksters."

So, as they would say back in the days, the game's afoot. This all proves to be a prelude to murder and someone at the mansion gets strangled in their bed, but the victim is not the supposedly sick or mad Sir Victor. And it's obvious the murder committed by a human. Not a pair of disembodied, glowing hands.

I've seen Let X Be the Murderer being described as a homage to the Victorian-era sensation novel and the premise suggests one of those Golden Age tributes to the period. Brian Flynn's The Triple Bite (1931) and Christopher St. John Sprigg's The Six Queer Things (1937) come to mind. As others have pointed out, Let X Be the Murderer reads like a Victorian sensation novel with its long monologues and soapy transgressions driving the tangled plot and cast of characters, but the resemblance became less, and less, as the pages between the opening and closing chapters grew – as it weaved unexpected patterns into familiar designs. For example, Sir Victor's own account of the midnight attack and why the assailant should have read his book, England's Haunted Houses, is a clever and unexpected touch to the plot and overall story. While it plays on the familiar themes of the Victorian-era novel, I found the story (after a while) to stand closer to one of Francis Vivian's excellent Inspector Knollis novels like The Laughing Dog (1949) or The Singing Masons (1950).

Another comparison I've seen thrown at the book is John Dickson Carr, but the ghostly attack in Sir Victor's bedroom is not an impossible crime or even presented as one. On the contrary! Witting headed in the completely opposite direction when setting up the plot. Now if Carr had written Let X Be the Murderer, the menacing hands would have been the resident ghost terrorizing the family for generations by trying to strangle them in their beds and the murder, two disembodied hands strangling the victim, would have been observed through the keyhole of the locked and bolted bedroom door. That and I can't see Carr handing this particular murderer over the hangman.

So this is not that kind of detective or sensational novel, but an enjoyable and pleasant take on the crime fiction of a bygone era presented as one of those thoroughly competent British detective stories of the Golden Age. Charlton said it best, "the policeman plods steadily along the winding highway of cold fact" unlike "the carefree amateur sleuth" scampering "madly across the green meadows of intuition." So the inspector is not all that impress by a pair of murderous hands, Sir Victor's madness, his scheming relatives or domestic servants with agendas of their own. It cleverly undermined expectations. If there's anything to hold against Let X Be the Murderer, it's the reason why this rambling review is a bit shorter than usual as the plot leaves very little room for discussion. This time, Witting can be called stingy when it comes to clueing. A ton of misdirection and red herrings, but not much to help the reader, or the inspector, to logically piece the whole thing together. Nevertheless, even with a glut of red herrings, I think most readers, just like Charlton, will eventually get "a very shrewd idea" about the who-and why – or at least in which direction a solution can be found. So, purely as a fair play mystery, Let X Be the Murderer is not a patch on the previous Catt Out of the Bag and Subject—Murder, but, comparisons and nitpicking aside, it's a good and thoroughly enjoyable Golden Age mystery. I liked how Witting used the Victorian sensational novel to frame a 1930s-style country house mystery, of sorts, pleasantly diverting the plot from established patterns once the murder is committed. Recommended with some “buts” and nitpicking.

A note for the curious: one of the characters references a story about a boy that "hadn't any relations at all and was Alone in the World." Is this a reference to Hector Malot's Sans familie (Nobody's Boy, 1878) famously known in my country as Alleen op de wereld? For some reason, I always thought the story is virtually unknown in the English-speaking world.


The Living Dead: Case Closed, vol. 88 by Gosho Aoyama

The 88th volume of Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed traditionally begins with the conclusion to the story that closed out the previous volume, which placed two recurring side-characters from the pop-culture world of this series, Yoko Okina (pop star) and Ryusuke Higo (soccer player), on the scene of a murder – an Italian restaurant that was recently opened by a high school teammate of Higo. A body was found in the storage room and the story ended with Conan figuring out the cunning killer made use of a simple tool to create "an instant alibi."

I'll grand that the trick to whip up an instant alibi is clever, in theory, but how it was put to use here comes across as cheap and silly. Almost like it was written around the idea, which is not a recipe for a good detective story. Regrettably, this story is a good example. I found the little side story of Richard Moore and Anita being devastated over the news that their celebrity crushes are dating each other slightly more interesting than the case itself. Inspector Meguire is becoming a very entertaining, quasi-self aware side-character who has becomes tired of the formula and tropes of the series. Meguire is beginning to see Conan as a little grim reaper stalking city's crime scenes and begins to tire of the whole "Sleeping Moore" act (Sleeping Moore: "but you can't overlook how ludicrous that theory is" Meguire (thinking): "not as ludicrous as these performances..."). So mostly a poor showing in the opening story, but the next one is somewhat of an improvement.

The second story returns to the setting of a previous case, Drop-Dead Delicious Ogura Ramen, where Conan solved an impossible murder by poison in vol. 73. This time, Conan is in the company of Rachel, Serena and Masumi Sera when they learn from the owners about "a big crime went down" in the neighborhood – "a woman down the street was robbed and killed." Apparently, the murderer was chased down to the noodle shack and three customers present were questioned, but no arrests were made. However, the two police women who discovered the crime, Yumi Miyamoto and Neako Miike, keep returning to the noodle shack to ask questions. You guessed it. Conan happened to be there are at the same time as the three suspected customers and one of the now regular visits from the two police women. Conan has to deduce whom of the three customers is robber/murderer based on how they over season their food and why that person was seen, shortly after the crime, swinging a garden hose in front of the building ("...like some kind of weird ritual"). There was tape residue found on one end of the hose, but why would the murderer "tape something to a hose and swing it around instead of making a fun for it?"

A good question and the answer is not half bad, better integrated into the story than the instant alibi-trick from the previous story, but both tricks obviously came out of the same brainstorming session. So the plot can feel a bit cluttered, but overall, a small improvement over the previous story with some minor developments of the larger storyline going on in the background.

Fortunately, the third story is a return to form and reads like a parody 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)! Richard Moore takes Conan and Rachel on a "pilgrimage" to a deserted, rundown lodge the woods, which has become legendary as the location where Zombie Blade: Feast of Death was filmed – a "sleeper hit" with horror fans starring Yoko Okina. Harley and Kazuha also turn up at the lodge ahead of the film crew and cast members to shoot a teaser of the long-rumored sequel. Harley tells Conan there was a strange incidents a few days ago nearby, when a couple hit something with their car and when they went to look "a zombie in tattered clothes with its neck all broken" crawled from underneath the car. So they left cartoon smoke. The cast and crew of the film have a haunting, of sorts, of their own.

They all used to be members of the same college horror club. Eight years ago, they came to the very same lodge to shoot a horror movie for the school film festival, but the brother of the current director decided to turn their horror movie into a Scooby Doo-style locked room mystery ("...twist will be that the zombie is a human killer in disguise"). And came up with a trick to make a corpse disappear from a room like "it was revived as a zombie and walked out." Joji Naito demonstrates his trick by disappearing from a room with every exit guarded and observed, but he never reappeared and a subsequent search of the room turned up nothing. Four days later, the group returns to the lodge to discover Joji somehow reappeared in the room, sitting against the wall, dead from dehydration. In the present, the producer unexpectedly commits suicide and filmed it on his phone, which includes Conan and Harley finding the body. So murder seems out of the question, but then the story takes an unexpected turns ("they're coming through the window!") and a second body is found. This death is also captured on video, but shows the victim was attacked and killed by the dead producer! And his body has disappeared!!

An incredibly fun story and the best from this volume, but could have been a series classic had the video-trick been more credible. The idea is solid enough, in principle, but (SPOILER/ROT13) na rvtug-lrne tnc vf gbb jvqr gb pbaivapvatyl hfr byq sbbgntr sbe n gevpx yvxr guvf. The solution to the impossible disappearance from the guarded room (“that's the room with the disappearing corpses”) is good and quite appropriate for a horror-themed detective story. Edgar Allan Poe would approve! So, overall, a pretty good and above all entertaining story.

On a side note, I can sometimes understand why some part of the Conan fandom, who are not necessarily detective fans, get frustrated with the slow-moving or even lack of development in certain areas – like the Conan/Jimmy/Rachel angle. Rachel hears Conan talking to Harley on the phone recording and notices how similar Conan sounds like Jimmy when talking normally ("was that Conan? It sounded like Jimmy"), but gets easily sidetracked by Harley ("da kid's copyin' me"). I know I drummed on about this twenty, thirty volumes ago, but, now nearly 90 volumes deep into the series, it has to be said Aoyama wasted an important character and storyline. Over the first fifty volumes, Rachel should have become increasingly suspicious, uncertain and worried before trying to figure what Jimmy is up to, who Conan really is and eventually putting them together. That should have been her case to solve. Not wandering around for hundreds of stories in a daze obliviousness with occasional flashes of lucidity.

Anyway, this volume ends with a story that will be concluded in the next volume and begins with Serena suggesting to Rachel and Masumi they form an all-girl band. So they end up at a sound studio that rents space where bands can practice and run into another girl band. And, as to be expected, one of them gets murdered. What should have been a open-and-shut case is wide open, because the surveillance camera was partially covered by a phone on a selfie-stick and a mirror had been covered. Both would have shown the murderer strangling the victim. I loved how Inspector Meguire calmly observes, "we've got the kid detective, the girl detective and the barista detective," who are respectively Rachel, Masumi and Toru Amuro. Not sure what to expect from this story as it could turn to be either pretty average or something surprisingly good. I'll find out next volume which has at least one story that already sounds very promising.

So, on a whole, this volume is slightly disappointing and without the third, zombie-themed story it would have been below average, but, to be fair, there only two complete stories in this volume. Judged only by those two complete stories, it's actually a pretty good, solid volume. Not the best in the series, but good enough and look forward to next few volumes. Hopefully, Saguru Hakuba reappears one of these days, because I'm still unwilling to entirely let go of my pet theory.


Under Lock & Skeleton Key (2022) by Gigi Pandian

I recently read J.L. Blackhurst's Three Card Murder (2023) and revisited two of Clayton Rawson's Great Merlini mysteries, The Footprints on the Ceiling (1939) and The Headless Lady (1940), which all have one thing in common – applying the art of stage magic and illusions to the detective story. I suppose Clayton Rawson founded, what can be called, the sleight-of-hand school and only recently realized it has some loyal adherents. Not just back then, but today.

Tom Mead praised the Great Merlini series as "the purest example of the overlap between professional magic and professional mystery" ("in both cases, the key to the trick lies in the art of misdirection"). Rawson and the Great Merlini appear to the biggest source of inspiration for Mead's two Joseph Spector locked room mysteries, Death and the Conjuror (2022), The Murder Wheel (2023) and the upcoming Cabaret Macabre (2024). Mead is not the only locked room champion today who cited Rawson and Merlini as an influence, Gigi Pandian. I reviewed The Cambodian Curse and Other Stories (2018) in 2019, but only "The Haunted Room" (2014) stood out to me. However, I probably would have enjoyed the collection a lot more had the introduction not spoiled the theme linking all the short stories together.

In 2022, Pandian started the "Secret Staircase" series entirely dedicated to the traditional craftwork known as locked room mysteries and impossible crimes. Pandian is not the first, or last, who in recent years began an impossible crime series. I really should have waited until 2025 with "The Locked Room Mystery & Impossible Crime Story in the 21st Century: A Brief Historic Overview of the First Twenty (Some) Years," because a few extra years would given a clearer picture and more to talk about than just the firsts in all these new series – many from debuting and/or self-published authors. So the locked room revival is still very much in its It Walks by Night (1930) phase en route to the modern-day equivalents of The Three Coffins (1935), The Judas Window (1938) and Rim of the Pit (1944). I'm getting off-topic.

Under Lock & Skeleton Key (2022) is the first of currently two novels and one novella in the "Secret Staircase" series with the third novel, Midnight Puzzle (2024), getting published next month. This series stars a disgraced stage magician, Tempest Raj, who previously appeared in the short story "Tempest in a Teapot" (2015) collected in The Cambodian Curse. A botched escape trick nearly killed her and pretty much ended her career, because everyone assumed she had "replaced the vetted illusions for something far more dangerous" ("...putting her own life and those of many others in danger"). Tempest believes the illusion had been sabotaged by her former stage double, Cassidy Sparrow. Either way, Tempest is back home with her father, Darius, and the family company, Secret Staircase Construction. A business specialized in creating secret rooms and hidden doors like "a bookshelf that slid open when you reached for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" or "perhaps a door in a grandfather clock that led to a secret garden." Tempest has to consider working for her father, if she can't get her career back on track.

Tempest goes with the Secret Staircase crew to the home of a client, Calvin Knight, who bought a 110-year-old house and moved in with his six-year-old son, Justin, but while renovating the place, it seems like the the house is "hiding something" – not counting the secret room they built behind a bookcase. When they break open a very old wall, they discover a dusty sack with black hair sticking out. And inside is the body of Cassidy Sparrow. But how did her body end up inside a wall that hadn't been worked on or tempered with for at least half-a-century?

A fresh, barely cold body inside an old and practically hermetically sealed crawlspace, walled up for the better part of a century, is fantastic premise for an impossible crime story. So it's unfortunate that impossibility is not the focal point of the plot. You can even argue the story turns into something entirely different once the body is pulled out from behind the wall.

After the body's discovery, the story shifts focus to the more personal mysteries surrounding Tempest. Five years ago, her mother disappeared and her ghost has been haunting Tempest ever since she returned to Hidden Creek, which comes on top of the family curse ("the eldest child dies by magic") and a treasure hunt for her inheritance. And introducing recurring characters. So it might appear as if things are happening or being investigated, but, beside the opening and closing chapters, not all that much happens. Just a lot of talking and very little in the way of an actual detective story. Now that can be largely put down to Under Lock & Skeleton Key having to setup the series and the second novel, The Raven Thief (2023), appears to be detection oriented with no less than four impossible crimes, but neither the characters nor the story pulled me in. I like the idea of "a haphazard team of misfit craftspeople" fitting people's home with elaborately hidden reading rooms, nooks, secret doors and fantasy locks or how all of Pandian's series-character occupy a shared universe, but this just didn't do it for me.

That's the double-edged sword of the miracle problem. A reality-defying impossibility or even a simple locked room murder is always a great hook for a classically-styled detective story, but it obliges the author to do something with it – preferably something good or original. So when you pull a freshly murdered corpse from a dark, dusty crawlspace sealed for decades, like a rabbit from a top hat, it sets certain expectations that were ignored. However, the next entry in the series look a lot more promising and apparently begins with a body miraculously appearing during a mock séance. I've noticed a lot of the current locked room revivalists enjoy making bodies impossibly appear instead of making them disappear. That's something to keep in mind, but next up, a return to Case Closed and promising-looking Golden Age whodunit.


The Footprints on the Ceiling (1939) by Clayton Rawson

Recently, I reviewed the last of the unread Great Merlini mysteries that resided on the big pile, namely The Headless Lady (1940), which proved to be surprising in just how radically different it's from Clayton Rawson's better-known Death from a Top Hat (1938) and "From Another World" (1948) – two classics which gave him the reputation of a locked room artisan. The Headless Lady dispenses with the locked room murders and impossible disappearances in favor of cast-iron alibis, dodgy identifies and an escalations staged around a three-ring circus. In spirit, The Headless Lady stands closer to the works of Christopher Bush and Brian Flynn than John Dickson Carr or Hake Talbot.

The Headless Lady left me with two thoughts. I already mentioned in that review it left me with the idea that Rawson's biggest contribution was not his bag of locked room-tricks, but creating the archetype of the magician detective in the Great Merlini. What I didn't bring up is how the plot almost suggested, or revealed, Rawson's background and ethics as a magician hamstrung his abilities to deliver satisfying solutions for his locked room scenarios. Reluctant to give away trade secrets. Rawson appeared to be more comfortable handling a non-impossible crime story, toying around with alibis and identities, than a grand-scale, Carr-like locked room mystery. Such as the impossible crime extravaganza Death from a Top Hat or the atrociously bad No Coffin for the Corpse (1942).

So decided to take another look at the second novel in the Great Merlini series, The Footprints on the Ceiling (1939), to test that fan theory hypothesis. I read The Footprints on the Ceiling ages ago in an old, dated Dutch translation (De voetstappen op het plafond) and remember practically nothing of the overall story or plot – except for the upside down footprints and some other (minor) impossibilities. Hey, subverting your expectations is not my job.

First of all, The Footprints on the Ceiling is a tightly packed, complicatedly-plotted mystery piling incident, on incident, right up till the end. I'm going to gloss over a lot of details as encapsulating everything that goes on is next to impossible.

The story begins with Ross Harte reading a curious notice in the newspaper, "WANTED TO RENT: Haunted House, preferably in rundown condition. Must be adequately supplied with interesting ghost," which leads him to the Magic Shop. And from there the story quickly begins to resemble a story of old-world adventure and harum-scarum. The shop assistant, Burt, tells him Merlini is away at the moment, but the magician detective has been looking for him and investigating the spooky history of Skelton Island, which is a small island in the East River – "a stone's throw from Manhattan." Skelton Island has a "positively lurid" history of piracy, sunken treasure and a haunting. In 1850, Captain Arnold Skelton, "an eccentric, fiery-tempered old boy," appeared out of nowhere to settle down in New York. Rumors at the time opined the old sea-devil bought Skelton Island and built his house with pirate loot. The Skeltons were never able to shake-off their pirate legacy, but instead became rather proud of it over the generations ("adds an interesting spot of color to the ancestral tree"). There are still three Skeltons living on the island, Linda together with her two half-brothers, Arnold and Floyd, which has become a hotspot for spiritualism, treasure hunters and other criminal activities. However, the spiritual star attraction is not the noisy ghost of Captain Skelton, but Colonel Watrous' prize medium, Madam Rappourt, who both previously appeared in Death from a Top Hat.

Colonel Watrous is a psychic researcher of two decades and believed Madam Rappourt to be genuine article. And wrote extensively on her in his latest book Modern Mediums. Going as far as saying that "psychical research can rest its whole case on her phenomena," but doubt has began to set in ("she's up to something even stranger than usual") and wants an outside opinion. So turned to the Great Merlini to sound out the medium. Linda Skelton happened to be greatly interested in psychic matters and asked the Colonel to bring along Madam Rappourt when requesting permission to investigate the deserted, reputedly haunted house on the island. A séance is being planned that gives Merlini the opportunity he needs. Ross Harte is instructed to go the island with his camera "loaded with infra-red film" and a loaded .32 automatic.

Now all of that sounds conventional enough for a Golden Age novel. A mystery novel covering everything from a fraudulent medium, séance shenanigans and an isolated island to the figure of the Great Detective trying to disentangle a tangle of Grade-A alibis, seemingly inexplicable occurrences and a very subtle murderer. This is, however, only the introduction to the environs of the story and some of the colorful characters dwelling there. When the plot kicks off, it gives the strong impression Rawson patterned The Footprints on the Ceiling after Carter Dickson's The Unicorn Murders (1935) and The Punch and Judy Murders (1936). Before he can even get to the island, Ross Harte's suitcase gets switched for one crammed with "funny-looking old coins, worn and wobbly about the edges" and inscribed "GEORGIUS III—DEL GRATIA" – dated 1779. But loses this treasure as soon as he gained it when he gets blackjacked from behind. Everything begins to rapidly accelerate once they land on Skelton Island.

Merlini, Harte and the Colonel go to the haunted house to inspect it when they hear footsteps upstairs, but the only one they find upstairs is Linda Skelton. She has been dead for hours from cyanide poison. So what happened to person they heard walking upstairs and where did the intruder disappeared to as the only way out is a forty feet drop to the dark river below? A sudden fire breaks out in the cellar. The phone line is cut and someone scuttled all the boats, which marooned them on the island. Not to mention the curious footprints on the ceiling of the crime scene, "one uncanny, inexplicable footprint after another," stopping "directly above the open window and the sheer 40-foot drop outside" ("an upside-down procession of surrealist impossibilities"). Believe it or not, this is still only a small sample of everything Rawson throws in the direction of his characters and readers. A naked, unidentified body of a man is discovered in a locked hotel room who died of the bends and shootout happens towards the end with one of the bullets magically changing direction mid-air.

So, on paper, The Footprints on the Ceiling is as much an impossible crime extravaganza as Death from a Top Hat, but with key differences. One, the impossibilities are not overplayed and treated like the small puzzle pieces of a bigger, overall picture. That helped to manage expectations. And, two, none of the tricks really hinge on any type of magic-tricks or techniques. Rawson constructed the plot entirely around the gentle art of misdirection and the principles of deception ("...nothing more than psychology turned upside down and inside out"). Without the risk of breaking the magician's code, Rawson put those minor impossibilities to better use than those from Death from a Top Hat and the footprints-trick even allowed for a flicker of inspired clueing you normally find only in an Agatha Christie or Christianna Brand story (SPOILER/ROT13: jura bar bs gur punenpgref bofreirf nobhg gur sbbgcevagf, “fher, gur thl gung znqr ’rz vf gjryir srrg gnyy naq pna jnyx ba uvf unaqf”). Like I said, the impossibilities here are only pieces of a larger, incredibly jumbled puzzle that, perhaps, has too much going on with too many independently moving parts. It's easy to lose track of all that's going on on the island and to pull the plot-threads together in the end without dropping one, or two, would have been impressive feat. But to do with a solution almost bordering on the believable is the work of master. Not a second-stringer. So either that old, crummy Dutch translation was rubbish or my taste had not yet matured or been fine-tuned enough to appreciate this gem.

On top of all of that, Rawson peppered the story with fascinating tidbits of the arcane and macabre. The dead man in the hotel room who died of the bends provides an opportunity to discuss "compressed air as a murder device," how it can be done, impracticable as it may be, as well as pointing out its horrific effects – "it carbonates the blood, literally turns the victim into a human soda-water bottle." What about the reverse, death by implosion, which could happen to the hardhat divers of the past. If the surface pump would let the air pressure go, the tons of water pressure would squeeze a diver right up into his helmet and taken out with a spoon ("divers have facetiously referred to the results of a squeeze as 'strawberry jam'"). Another chapter delves into the subject of poisons and makes an inventory of all the available poisons on the island with final tally coming to thirty ("this case is getting to be a toxicologist's nightmare"), which makes the island something of a poisoner's paradise. And a fascinating sidetrack in the forgotten history of the so-called Blue Men. In earlier days, doctors prescribed silver nitrate for stomach ulcers or silver salts for epilepsy, but they turned their patients skin permanently blue. Some were condemned to earn their living as freak show attractions ("billed as The Great What-Is-It From Mars").

It all makes for a rich storytelling adding to a crazy, but surprisingly lucidly-plotted detective story. Something that had no right to work or even be successful, but, somehow, someway, Rawson pulled it off with flying colors. The Footprints on the Ceiling might very well be the best trick Rawson ever played on his readers and is the detective novel he should be remembered for today (together with The Headless Lady). Highly recommended!