The Secret of the Pointed Tower (1937) by Pierre Véry

Last year, I reviewed the short story "Le mystére de la chambre verte" ("The Mystery of the Green Room," 1936) by Pierre Véry, "novelist of adventure, novelist of the fantastic," who believed in saving "what has been able to remain in us as the child that we were" ("...full of flaws, of changes of heart, of shadow and mystery") – essentially wrote fairy tales for grown-ups. One of his few works to be translated into English is L'assassinat du Pére Noël (The Murder of Father Christmas, 1934) and is a fine example of Véry's home blend of the formal, 1930s detective story with his brand of gentle surrealism.

I mentioned in the review that the few translations like the previously mentioned seasonal mystery novel and the now even rarer English edition of Le thé des vieilles dames (The Old Ladies' Tea Party, 1937) have since gone out-of-print. There seemed to be no plans or rumors swirling around at the time to translate Véry's other celebrated novels such as Le testament de Basil Crookes (The Testament of Basil Crookes, 1930) and Les quatre vipères (The Four Vipers, 1934). Little did I know that Crippen & Landru was putting the finishing touches to a brand new translation that was published back in December.

Renaissance man and author of Death and the Conjuror (2022), The Murder Wheel (2023) and the upcoming Cabaret Macabre (2024), Tom Mead, translated Véry's famous collection of short stories, Les veillées de la Tour Pointue (The Secret of the Pointed Tower, 1937) – which at the time caught the attention of Ellery Queen. This first English edition opens with a photocopy of a handwritten letter from Frederic Dannay to Véry thanking him for sending a copy of Les veillées de la Tour Pointue and hoped to see some of the short stories published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Something that would not happen until "The Mystery of the Green Room" appeared in the August, 2011, issue of EQMM. More than sixty years after Dannay wrote the letter and now we have the whole collection.

In addition to translating this collection, Tom Mead penned insightful introduction that presented Pierre Véry as a writer who a "unique path" through the Golden Age of the French detective story. A mystery writer enjoying "the distinction of being both an exponent and a critic of the Golden Age" whose tales of mystery and imagination "often existed outside of the strict parameters of the conventional whodunit." Véry's mystery output consists of everything ranging from everything subversive reimaginings and parodies to the traditional locked room mystery, but always distinguishable by their "often-eccentric blending of genres" and his "taste for the surreal or fantastical."

Before diving into this collection of short stories, I should note that the Crippen & Landru edition neglected to list the original French titles and publication dates. I found the original French titles, but have no idea when, or where, they first published. So, lacking the publication information, this one is going to be slightly less autistic pedantic than most short story collection reviews that can be found on this blog.

The Secret of the Pointed Tower begins with a short chapter, "A Message to the Reader," in which Pierre Véry himself is roaming the streets of nighttime Paris in search of somewhere, anywhere, to hang a man ("such is the morbid fate of mystery writers...") when he accidentally discovered a secret passage – revealing a dark, narrow passage. A passage leading to a hidden attic room in the pointed tower of the police headquarters, on the Quai des Orfevres, where he finds a pile of handwritten reports on "all kinds of crimes, burglaries, mysteries, enigmas." But written down as dry, clinical reports. These are full-fledged stories that Véry immediately began to copy to present to his audience under the title The Secret of the Pointed Tower. A near, simple little framing device to tie these vastly different stories together.

"Le menton d'Urbin" ("Urbin's Chin") is the first of these short stories following a so-called book-taker, "specialist in the theft of rare tomes," named Simonet. A bibliophile book-taker with designs on "a renowned collection of literary rarities" tucked away in the private library of a collector, Urbin. Simonet's carefully prepared burglary goes entirely wrong when coming across the bloodied, curled up remains of Urbin inside a crate, which is how the gardener finds him and the police believe him guilty. Simonet uses his imprisonment to work out whom of the potentially five suspects killed Urbin ("...by keeping quiet I might just be able to turn a decent profit out of this"). This is a fun little mystery caper and solid opening story that reads like a direct ancestor of the Bernie Rhodenbarr series by Lawrence Block. Loved it!

"Police technique" (no translation needed) concerns the murder of Yvette Lemoine and the
problem her death poses the police. Only person who appears to have had the opportunity to deliver the fatal blows is her cousin, Marcel, but he claims to be innocent and has no motive. Then the police are called the bedside of Yvette who says with her dying breath, "my uncles," but both men have "indisputable alibis." Another possible interpretation of those dying words implicates her fiancé, which again leads the police into a dead end. It's not until Véry's lawyer and sometimes detective, Prosper Lepicq, appears to confront the murderer that the case gets solved, but not in the way Lepicq had hoped. I think this story is more interesting for the style than the plot as it pulls a potential locked room mystery, dying message, unbreakable alibis and even some forensic shenanigans from the old bag of tricks – before ending as a dark, psychological crime story. Lepicq actions at the end echoes some of the practices of his American counterparts like Perry Mason and John J. Malone.

The next story "Le disparition of d'Emmeline Poke" ("The Disappearance of Emmeline Poke") is about the disappearance Miss Emmeline Poke. She was last seen by two witnesses walking home through the woods, in the company of her brother, but she never arrived home. Her brothers were both arrested, the ground around their shed dug up and the woods comb through. Not a trace of the body. A problem arises when one of the investigators points out that one of the witnesses is hard of hearing, while the other is extremely long-sighted. So what did they really see in the woods? And what happened to the body, if there's a body? This could have been a good story, but the actions of one of the characters killed it for me. I suppose the moral of the story is (ROT13) qba'g unir nppbzcyvprf jura pbzzvggvat zheqre, rfcrpvnyyl jura gurl'er fghcvq.

"Police montée," translated here as "The Tale of a Tartlet," is one of my favorite stories from this collection. A charming, playful and excellent take on both the classical whodunit and inverted mysteries. Léon Petitquartier is the seventeen year old son of a pastry chef and an arachnid collector who had been given the unpleasant task of euthanizing the old family dog, Vega ("...the animal was quite literally dying on its feet"). Léon poisoned a honey tartlet with cyanide as a final meal for Vega, but, while being distracted for a few minutes, the poisoned tartlet disappears from the kitchen table. So now Léon has to wait nervously for the news to break that someone has been mysteriously poisoned, but the events doesn't quite play out like the teenager expected. This story really benefited from being longest story in the collection and particularly liked how the village community reacted to the news or simply the simple, but excellent, explanation to the whole mystery.

"La multiplication des négres," re-titled for this collection as "The Salvation of Maxim Zapyrov," tails a penniless Russian in Paris, "stumbling from weariness and weeping with hunger, desperate and begging," who believes a black policeman is hunting for him – which has to do with a "detestable thing" that happened in a dark, narrow street. Maxim Zapyrov tells his unusual story to a M. Paul. A crime story with a predictable twist and not really my poison, but not bad for what it is.

"Le prisonnier espagnol" ("The Spanish Prisoner") is modeled on the classic and titular confidence trick, which is still around today, but changed and adapted along with the times. You might know it as the Nigerian Prince email scam. In this story, the poor Celestin Lainé who surprisingly receives a letter from someone imprisoned in Spain and needs help to collect a trunk containing nearly two million francs. However, Lainé has four very rich friends and they decide to respond to the letter with somewhat predictable results. The key word there's somewhat, because the devil is always in the details and the end result is a good, solid and fun scam story. I love good scam story and the next one is even better.

"Les 700,000 radis roses" ("The 700,000 Pink Radishes") is not a locked room mystery or impossible crime, of any kind, but this story has a delightful, utterly bizarre plot and premise that will be appreciated by fans of John Dickson Carr and Paul Halter. The great Parisian publisher M. Hippolyte Gour keeps receiving a baffling, one-sided correspondence about the purchase of 700,000 pink radishes ("they are guaranteed fresh and free of worm bites") and an equal amount of radish leaves ("these will be dispatched to your personal address"). And, before long, his personal secretaries either get attacked or kidnapped. The case kicked up so much dust that it attracted "the attention of a band of popular mystery novelists" who "were trying to apply the method of their fictional detectives," but the problem of the 700,000 pink radishes seriously tasked their wits. Until they had their storybook moment, "where the police failed, the amateur sleuths succeeded," which comes with a small, delightful twist at the end. More importantly, this is one of those few detective story that manages to do something meaningful with a kidnapping plot (of sorts).

The next short story is "La soupe du pape" ("Soupe du Pape") and reads like Véry tried to recapture the magic of "Les 700,000 radis roses" without much success. A policeman finds a dozen pearls while shelling peas. So has to figure out where the pearls came from, how they ended up in his bag of peas and who stole them. This story did nothing for me.

The next two short stories are the previously mentioned "The Mystery of the Green Room" and "L'assassin" ("The Killer"), but have already reviewed the former (see link above) and the latter is a short-short barely covering two full pages. Fortunately, The Secret of the Pointed Tower concludes with an absolute banger!

"Cours d'instruction criminelle" ("A Lesson in Crime") is not really a mystery short story, but a science-fiction musing on the distant future, somewhere around the year 2500, where crime fiction "gradually took precedence over all other forms of literature" – until they all "fell into disrepute and then obscurity." In those future years, the great mystery writers of the early twentieth century have become the classics school children study from seventh grade onward. The study and history of the traditional detective story is central in every classroom ("if locked-room Y is shaped like an isosceles triangle ABC and locked-room Z is a hexagon MNOPQR, calculate...") and children ask their mothers how they would poison their dad or quiz their father on how he would snuff out his mistress! The ending is both humorous and very perceptive as it's something I can see happening under those circumstances, but Véry's vision of the year twenty-five hundred nonetheless feels like home. But I'm stuck with you lot. What can you do?

The Secret of the Pointed Tower ends with a parting message to the reader from Véry, "when I have more stories, you will be the first to know," but no idea if a second collection ever materialized. Tom Mead also included several pages of explanatory notes, which I always enjoy to find in translated mystery novels or collections.

So, all in all, the short stories collected in The Secret of the Pointed Tower perfectly demonstrates why Véry considered the detective story to be "the brother of the fairy tale." When blended with Véry's home brewed brand of surrealism, you don't always get the most orthodox or traditionally-styled detective stories. You can hardly call any of the short stories traditional, Golden Age-style mysteries, but that doesn't mean the quality isn't there. "The Tale of the Tartlet," "The 700,000 Pink Radishes," "The Mystery of the Green Room" and "A Lesson in Crime" are all first-rate for variously different reasons. "Urbin's Chin" and "The Spanish Prisoner" are simply good, solid stories. "Police Technique" is not quite as good, or solid, but interesting in how it played with different styles and tropes. Only "The Disappearance of Emmeline Poke," "The Salvation of Maxim Zapyrov" and "Soupe du Pape" were off the mark. Not much can be said about the two-page short-short. That's not a bad return for a collection as varied as The Secret of the Pointed Tower. More importantly, the fact that it was translated by Tom Mead is very hopeful for the future. John Pugmire is no longer alone in bringing these French-language novels and short stories to an international audience and the changes of getting a translation of Véry's legendary locked room mystery novel The Four Vipers sooner rather than later has gone up! In short, The Secret of the Pointed Tower is indeed something of a lost classic and comes highly recommended to fans of the short crime fiction.


The Summer of the Ubume (1994) by Natsuhiko Kyogoku

Natsuhiko Kyogoku is a graphic designer, yokai researcher and mystery writer whose debut, Ubume no natsu (The Summer of the Ubume, 1994), is credited together with MORI Hiroshi's Subete ga F ni naru (Everything Turns to F: The Perfect Insider, 1996) with the starting the second shin honkaku wave – couching its traditionally-styled plots in specialized backgrounds or subject matters. The Perfect Insider takes place at what, in 1996, must have appeared as a futuristic IT research institute and The Summer of the Ubume draws on Kyogoku's research of Japanese folklore.

The Summer of the Ubume is the first in a series of nine novels and a handful of short story collections, known as the Kyogokudo series, which combine the detective story with Japanese folklore, myths and urban legends. Ho-Ling Wong called it "a wordy mystery with deep conversations on a wide variety of topics and a somewhat strange locked room mystery" that's "actually available in English." Sort of.

In 2009, Vertical published an English-language edition translated by Alexander O. Smith. A name you might recognize from the Keigo Higashino translations. Speaking of Higashino, the translation of The Summer of the Ubume was published before Higashino's Yogisha X no kenshin (The Devotion of Suspect X, 2005) became an international bestseller in 2011 and Ho-Ling's 2015 translation of Yukito Ayatsuji's Jakkakukan no satsujin (The Decagon House Murders, 1987) for LRI started the translation wave – largely went unnoticed by mystery fans. But through no fault of our own. The Summer of the Ubume was not really presented as a shin honkaku locked room mystery, but something closer to the horror genre or supernatural fiction with a rational and skeptical bend. It didn't help that translation silently went out-of-print around the time Japanese detective fiction started to get momentum. Since then, Vertigo ceased to be and was consolidated into Kodansha USA.

So that pretty much put a brake on a possible second printing or a translation of the second, award-winning novel, Moryo no hako (Box of Goblins, 1995), ended there for the time being. And used copies have become insultingly pricey. Like you're buying rare coins or something. But, every now and then, you get a lucky break. Let's finally take a look at this overlooked translation of a second wave shin hokaku mystery reputedly even more unusual than Hiroshi's The Perfect Insider.

First of all, the Kyogokudo books form a series of historical mysteries set in post-World War II Tokyo, Japan. The Summer of the Ubume takes place during its titular month of 1952 and marks the first appearance of the proprietor of a used bookstore, Akihiko Chuzenji, but everyone has to the habit to call him by the name of his bookstore, Kyogokudo. A ferocious reader and bookseller who moonlights as a priest and faith healer specialized in curing possessions and exorcising evil spirits "modified to fit the beliefs of the particular sect to which each customer belonged." You see, Kyogokudo is not a believer who looks out on a world filled with ghosts, monsters and other creatures from Japan's folklore, but acknowledges their existence as social and cultural constructs – which can have very real effects on the people who believe in them or have fallen under their spell. So the bookseller and part time exorcist is prone to hold "arcane lectures" that eat into the page-count of the book. Case in point: the opening chapter that runs for roughly one-hundred pages.

The Summer of the Ubume is narrated by Kyogokudo's long-time friend and freelance journalist, Tatsumi Sekiguchi, who traveled to the bookstore to ask his friend a very unusual question. Is it possible for a woman to be pregnant for twenty months? This question gets bogged down in the first lecture covering everything from ghosts, quantum mechanics and the perception of reality to folklore and the ubume ("...if they die in childbirth, their regrets come back to walk the earth..."). So it takes a while before the problem becomes evident, but it comes down to this: Sekiguchi has gotten wind of a rumor that a woman by the name of Kyoko Kuonji has been pregnant for twenty months with the salient detail that her husband, Makio Kuonji, vanished from a locked and watched room at the Kuonji Clinic in Zoshigaya. A clinic the family has run for generations. Kyogokudo tells Sekiguchi to get into contact with Reijiro Enokizu, "a member of a rare breed, a genuine professional detective," to investigate the case. However, it takes them a while to get to the clinic, because the introduction Enokizu takes some time.

Reijiro Enokizu is a childhood friend of the two and one of two reasons why this review has the "hybrid mysteries" tag. Enokizu is someone who can see other people's memories ("...Enokizu doesn't read people's memories, he sees them"), which makes him a very unusual sort of private eye ("I don't do investigations. I do conclusions"). So kind of like a short cut detective that has gotten him trouble in the past, but a handy gift when tackling a case in which someone "vanished from a sealed room like a puff of smoke" and a woman pregnant for twenty months. Somewhere halfway through the story, they finally arrive at the clinic that would have been a fantastic setting for a more traditional shin honkaku mystery. A writer like Seimaru Amagi could have done something with the largely abandoned building that went from a fully staffed hospital to only doing obstetrics and gynecology as the war depleted their staff and American air raids destroying part of the clinic ("wow, they really did a number on this place, didn't they?"). Enokizu quickly bows out of the case and tells Sekiguchi to call on their friend, Detective Shutaro Kiba of the Tokyo Police. Yes, it takes a while for them to return to the clinic, but the parts with Kiba are actually fun. And feel like the story was starting to get back on track. I was wrong.

All the slow, meandering developments and lectures eventually culminate with Kyogokudo going to the clinic to gather everyone around Kyoko Kuonji's sickbed for the expected denouement – dressed up and presented as an exorcism. Only for Natsuhiko Kyogoku to take a page from Edogawa Rampo's playbook of grotesque body horror, which admittedly is used quite effectively to deliver a scene as unexpected as it's unsettling. Regrettably, this memorable scene didn't signal the end of the story as Kyogokudo's lengthy explanation gobbles up the final quarter of this wordy, rambling and overlong book. I love detective stories soaked in the bizarre or arcane, but a writer has to eventually deliver something on those ideas. Particularly if you keep dragging and delaying things. That was unfortunately not the case here.

Going by what has been translated up until now, The Summer of the Ubume stands as a poor specimen of the Japanese detective story. Even if you want to be generous and only compare it to other hybrid mysteries.

First of all, the vanishing from the locked room is an important part to the overall plot and what, exactly, makes a good locked room-trick is still being debated today, but what Kyogoku pulled here is simply infuriating. A suggestion that was mocked a century ago (ROT13: n punenpgre sebz T.X. Purfgregba'f “Gur Zvenpyr bs Zbba Perfprag” fhttrfgf gung gur zheqrere tbg va, naq bhg, bs n pybfryl jngpurq ebbz ol gvcgbrvat npebff cflpubybtvpny oyvaq fcbgf bs gur bofreiref gb juvpu nabgure erfcbaqf, “nppbeqvat gb lbh, n jubyr cebprffvba bs Vevfuzra pneelvat oyhaqreohffrf znl unir jnyxrq guebhtu guvf ebbz juvyr jr jrer gnyxvat, fb ybat nf gurl gbbx pner gb gernq ba gur oyvaq fcbgf va bhe zvaqf.” Kyogoku thought that was a good idea to explain the disappearance from a locked room (ROT13: ur arire qvfnccrnerq sebz gur ybpxrq ebbz. N cflpubybtvpny oybpx ceriragrq crbcyr, vapyhqvat gur aneengbe, sebz frrvat gur obql naq gura jrag n fgrc shegure ol univat gur obql ghea vagb n jnk-zhzzl haqre irel fcrpvny, uvtuyl hayvxryl pvephzfgnaprf. And, no, Kyogokudo saying "I'm no statistician, but I'd say you're looking at chances close to zero" doesn't make it any better. I should note here Ho-Ling pointed out in his review that while not being a fan of the locked room-trick, it does work in conjunction with the themes of the story like a thematic device. Fair enough. But still rubbish. Nothing else about the plot, motives, missing babies and morbid psychology, justified its length either. So if you're looking for one of those ingeniously-plotted, delightfully subversive shin honkaku locked room mysteries, The Summer of the Ubume is going to disappoint and severely test your patience.

The Summer of the Ubume has one, very small redeeming quality. Historically, it's a fascinating read. I mentioned last year how the translation wave has largely ignored the Japanese mystery novels from the 1990s and especially that second wave of shin honkaku authors. Hiroshi's The Perfect Insider was very enlightening in that regard and The Summer of the Ubume is very similar as they both show their influence on writers like Motohiro Katou and "NisiOisiN." Even more interesting, The Summer of the Ubume might have even influenced H.M. Faust's Gospel of V (2023). It might just be one of those coincidences, but, having read both unintentionally back-to-back, I can't help but see some trace similarities. For example, the two unusual private detectives or the solution to the vanishing skeleton from the locked collection room. It's like a solution Faust came up while reading the book and decided to use it for his own locked room mystery. Rightfully so, if that's what happened! Read that one instead.

So, yeah, to cut a long story short, The Summer of the Ubume simply didn't do it for me. A historical, not unimportant curiosity, but a curiosity nonetheless. The reader has been warned! Next up, back to the Golden Age!


Gospel of V (2023) by H.M. Faust (a.k.a. "DWaM")

H.M. Faust is a Croatia-born mystery writer who "primarily specializes in writing impossible crime stories" and "his main goal is to push the limits of the mystery genre, merging bizarre storylines and modern narrative techniques with the tropes of the Golden Age period of detective fiction" – who previously published his fiction under the pseudonymous acronym "DWaM." Jim Noy reviewed three of his stories back in 2020 and Stephen M. Pierce compiled "The DWaM Top 5." So pretty much an underground phenomenon, but one that's beginning to claw its way to the surface.

Back in December, Faust published Gospel of V (2023) on Amazon with the intention to eventual re-release all his previous work starting with a short story collection and his longest work to date, An Odyssey to the Castle of Vampires (2023). Earlier this year, Faust dropped me an e-mail to ask if I wanted to read Gospel of V without strings attached or even expecting a review. Naturally, I wanted to the read his take on the locked room mystery. And, of course, I'm going to review it!

Gospel of V is a meta-detective novel with a dual narrative alternating between a fictitious, unpublished manuscript and two mystery fiction obsessed editors discussing the story. So a mystery novel promising to make for a fascinating read and an interesting highlight in the inevitable addendum to "The Locked Room Mystery & Impossible Crime Story in the 21st Century."

The first half of this dual narrative is the manuscripts part, titled The Fall of House Cosmigrove, which introduces the Cosmigroves headed by their dying patriarch, Joseph Cosmigrove – a genius scholar and "revolutionary voice of the century." Joseph Cosmigrove has four children with the oldest, Mundus, groomed from birth to become his successor ("Mundus' only crime was being born first"). His brothers and sisters were spared their brother's fate, but they were expected to excel in their assigned or chosen disciplines. Sofia choose music and became one of the most successful violin players in the world. Constantin took up the brush, "he, like Mundus, was forbidden from sculpting," to garner fame by "painting scenes of sculptures." Ishmael Cosmigrove became a writer, "a mystery writer of little renown," who presumably narrates the story, but curiously is never mentioned by name. Mundus remained with his father as his siblings scattered to pursue their disciplines, but returned when Joseph Cosmigrove became gravely ill. Cosmigrove told his son to sell the old house and move them somewhere more suitable to recover or die. But the moment the family reunites, strange things start to happen.

After their first night back together under one roof, the household discovers someone has dug a large, deep and rectangle-shaped hole in the garden with a human skeleton lying at the bottom of it! A garden surrounded by an electrified, ten-feet tall fence. So who buried it and why? When they bring the skeleton to the collection room for a closer examination, the door bell rings and find a young, disheveled man on their doorstep. The young man introduces himself as Lane Prospero and announces, "I'm a Great Detective." Lane Prospero urgently needs to speak to Joseph Cosmigrove, but the family immediately suspect the whole thing is a setup and begin banging on about the skeleton in the garden. But when they want to show the skeleton, it has disappeared from the locked collection room. This is not the last impossibility of the story!

The second half of the dual narrative follows Sparrow and Chariot, senior editors of "a niche venture dedicated to putting out amateur detective fiction" ("...Chief was a huge fan of Japanese writer Yukito Ayatsuji"), who are assigned to go over an unpublishable manuscript – The Fall of House Cosmigrove by Virgil Hesse. A one-day fly who made a splash a few years ago without ever writing a followup to his bestselling debut. Or so it appeared. Hesse delivered the manuscript of The Fall of House Cosmigrove to his editor with the urgent message to publish it "in case anything happened to him," before disappearing from the face of the earth. The chapters featuring the two editors are my favorite part of the book as they dissect the manuscript, throw out observations and critical comments or trying to construct their own solutions ("insert the obligatory locked room lecture here"). More importantly, they give a voice to the critical reader and armchair detective raising an eyebrow at how the manuscript unfolds. To quote Sparrow, "he's aware of the tropes. He understands the concept of impossible crimes. He understands the general flow of detective logic. But there's no – I don't know how to even describe it – mysterious events are happening, but that's about it." Those mysterious events in the manuscript begin to pile up quickly.

Most notably, the seemingly impossible murder of Joseph Cosmigrove. Stabbed to death in his bedroom, while his male nurse was standing outside the door. I also enjoyed how much Faust got out of the stabbing in the locked library and the skeleton's disappearance from the collection room by playing on some of the normally oldest, cliched tropes of the locked room mystery. A fantastic example of what can be achieved when you know, understand and are willing to built on the history of the genre your working in. Particularly if your intention is to take the detective story apart and reassemble it in a different order. In that regard, Faust delivered on the statement that Gospel of V is "built in honor and deconstruction of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction" to "keep readers guessing until the very end." Who knew you can use a deconstructionist approach to create, like cutting new shapes with a pair of hedge clippers, instead of being wielded like a sledge hammer to destroy? Purely as a locked room mystery, it's the solution to Joseph Cosmigrove's murder giving the book a future claim as one of the impossible crime classics of the 2020s! Now this specific locked room-trick is at its core-idea not brand new, but the previous examples that spring to mind are terribly basic and dressed down by comparison. Faust really went to work on it and something only made possible by the ambigious, often bizarre structure of the novel. My description of Gospel of V has so far done no justice to that important aspect of the overall story.

Just to give an idea, Gospel of V has a rather useless "A Challenge to the Reader" after the halfway mark followed by an Intermission with the subtitle "The Jesus Christ Murder Case." It's a short story within a dual narrative rewriting the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as an unexpectedly good locked room mystery. Surprisingly, the sealed cave has very little to do with it! And a very intermission for a detective story with a biblical touch to the plot and characters. After all, the story begins with stating that the conception of Cosmigrove's children were all immaculate ("and so great was Joseph Cosmigrove that he had himself a different Mary for each of his four miracles'). Or the excellent chapter in which the gruesome crime scene described in the manuscript is finally discovered and the deduction chapters in which Sparrow and Chariot drag out the solution. I was immensely satisfied with the conclusion to this ambitious meta-detective novel and locked room mystery with multiple, well-handled impossibilities with one absolute standout or simply how it toyed with the role of the Great Detective. So it's almost petty to start nitpicking about a small, nagging detail, but I've to do it.

This contains a small, but not unimportant, spoiler (ROT13): gur fgbel boivbhfyl gnxrf cynpr va gur abg fb qvfgnag cnfg naq ebhtuyl jura vf, rknpgyl, n ovt zlfgrel, ohg abg bhgevtug fgngrq. Jura gur Terng Qrgrpgvir nccrnef ba gur fprar, Cebfcreb vf erzrzorerq nf univat orra “va gur zvqqyr bs Gur Erq Dhrra Zheqref onpx va '85” jvgu nabgure yvar fgngvat gung gur zheqref unccrarq guerr lrnef ntb. Vg'f riraghnyyl erirnyrq gur Fcneebj naq Punevbg puncgref gnxr cynpr va 1987 jvgu gur npghny znff zheqre qrfpevorq va gur znahfpevcg unccravat va 1985. Gung pbashfrq zr nf V fhfcrpgrq guebhtubhg gur fgbel V jnf orvat zvfyrnq nobhg gur lrne va juvpu vg gnxrf cynpr. Sbe rknzcyr, gur bcravat puncgre zragvbaf gur fvoyvatf bppnfvbanyyl r-znvyrq va gur gra lrnef fvapr yrnivat ubzr, juvpu frrzf hayvxryl sbe '85 be '87. V qba'g guvax vg jnf rira pnyyrq r-znvy hagvy gur rneyl 1990f. Va 1987, Lhxvgb Nlngfhwv'f unq whfg choyvfurq Gur Qrpntba Ubhfr Zheqref. Fb ubj pna ur rira or ersreerq gb nf n zlfgrel jevgre “jub serdhragyl rzcyblrq gur gebcr bs univat gjb cnenyyry aneengvirf unccravat va gur fnzr obbx”? Pbhcyrq jvgu gur ntrf bs gur punenpgref, V fhfcrpgrq gur fgbel ernyyl gbbx cynpr fbzrgvzr orgjrra 1995 naq 2005, juvpu sbe fbzr ernfba unq gb or bofpherq. That was a bit distracting at times as I keep looking how that could figure into the story. It didn't.

Other than that little inconsistency, Faust penned a fair play meta-locked room mystery as deceiving and ambitiously constructed as it's written with its "wishy-washy first person narration" belying its deviously original and tricky plot – expertly hidden underneath it all. Some knowledge and awareness of Golden Age-style detective fiction and locked room mysteries in general is required, because you won't fully appreciate Gospel of V otherwise. But, when you do, it's a fascinating and engrossing read from start to finish. Particularly in light of recent developments.

I'm seeing two different strains of impossible crime fiction, and writers, evolve from the current locked room revival in front of my eyes! On the one hand, you have, what can be called, the traditionalists who came out or can be tied to the reprint renaissance. These writers include Tom Mead, J.S. Savage and Gigi Pandian whose locked room mysteries aim to restore the fair play detective story to its former glory and cite John Dickson Carr and Clayton Rawson as their main influence. On the other hand, you have the as of now unnamed strain (mavericks?) influenced by the translation wave and especially the Japanese shin honkaku writers. A movement that revitalized the traditional detective story in Japan with their college-age detectives, corpse-puzzles, strange architecture and a fresh take on the impossible crime problem. You can find these ideas applied to the Western genre in the locked room mysteries by James Scott Byrnside, A. Carver, Faust and Noy's The Red Death Murders (2022). Interesting times, indeed!


Mortmain Hall (2020) by Martin Edwards

An enjoyable, underrated luxury of being hooked on Golden Age mysteries in the 21st century is the opportunity the reprint renaissance created to practically pick and choose, which is made even easier by the episodic structure of the most long-running series from the period – like giving an addict access to a pharmacy's supply of prescription drugs. One side-effect of this cherry picking habit is that it made me chronologically-challenged over time. Reading a series in order? That's too retro even for me. Funnily enough, the first flickers of a burgeoning, second Golden Age is slowly breaking that habit. Now we have to wait a year on average for these emerging, traditionally-minded mystery writers to finish their next novel instead of sampling their best, most celebrated or influential detective novels. That's a luxury future fans can take for granted.

However, I'm a little behind on recent releases and developments, which has offered opportunities for a relapse. Last year, I read Gallows Court (2018) by the Nestor of the Golden Age Renaissance, Martin Edwards, which is the first of currently four novels in the Rachel Savernake series. The temptation was there to begin with the third novel, Blackstone Fell (2022), because it featured two seemingly impossible vanishings from a locked gatehouse. I decided to learn from past experiences and start at the beginning of the series, which proved to be a good decision. A notable difference between the greats of the past and this new wave is that their novels tend to be slightly less episodic in nature and feature detectives with a backstory that gets intertwined with the plots.

Gallows Court introduces the reader to Rachel Savernake, "the daughter of a sadistic judge," who was notorious during his lifetime as a hanging judge, but "retired from the bench after his mind had begun to fail and he'd attempted suicide" – spending his remaining years on a small, isolated island with his daughter. Rachel endured a bleak, lonely childhood on the island as her father descended "deeper and deeper into a dark pit of madness." When the old judge finally passed away, Rachel inherited his fortune and returned to London with her loyal retinue ("...Trueman family supported her with extraordinary devotion"). There she's spending a solitary existence collecting surrealists paintings and the study of crime, "murder obsessed her," but her involvement in murder cases is not always, exactly, on the up-and-up ("she danced to her own tune"). This eventually attracts the attention the Clarion's roving crime reporter, Jacob Flint, when she gets involved in a string of bizarre murders.

So it sets up everything and likely would not have fully appreciated Blackstone Fell without it. Why not stick with this whole reading things in order with this series.

Mortmain Hall (2020) is the second novel in the series and as difficult to pigeonhole as the retro-GAD, pulp-style thriller Gallows Court, but suppose "a what-the-hell-is-going-on-here" is a good description. The opening of Mortmain Hall opens outside the private station of the London Necropolis Company, in 1930, as Rachel Savernake boards the funeral train to warn a "ghost." Gilbert Payne is the ghost in question, traveling under the name Betram Jones, who faked his own death and fled to Tangiers. Only returned to see his mother buried. Rachel warns Payne that if she knows he's back in Britain, others will know as well. And offers an opportunity to not end up getting murdered simply by trusting her. Unfortunately, Payne turns her down and falls out of the funeral train on the return journey ("run over by one train after being thrown out of another"). So, once again, Rachel and the Truemans are up to their necks in a dark, murky affair, but, what exactly, is not immediately clear.

Jacob Flint also returns in this second novel and finds him in court to cover the sensational trial of Clive Danskin. The man standing trial is accused of the torch-murder of an unidentified victim in order to pass the body off as his own and escape a costly divorce, numerous mistresses and countless creditors – a strong motive with a weak, unsupported alibi. Flint watches on as all the damning, circumstantial evidence and testimonies begins to form a chain, "chain strong enough to drag him to the gallows," but a surprise witness saved him neck. Clive Danskin is not the last one to appear in this story who escaped an early morning appointment with the hangman. And those murder cases appear to be modeled on famous cases from the past. For example, the Wirral Bungalow murder is unmistakably patterned after the Wallace Case that captured the imagination of so many Golden Age writers (e.g. The Detection Club's The Anatomy of Murder, 1936).

A person who appears to take a great deal of interests in these supposed and freed murderers is "one of England's foremost criminologists," Leonora Dobell, who writes under the name Leo Slaterbeck. When she spots Flint in court, she asks him to pass on a message to Rachel. Pretty soon, Flint is dragged into another dangerous, godless adventure straight from the pulps bringing him to the shady Clandestine Club and becoming the target of an attempted frame job. It takes a while before everyone ends up at the titular hall and it's hard to describe much of what happens before or after that ("...it's impossible to be clear who is doing what") without giving anything away. And the less you know, the better.

So while the plot can't really be discussed, Edwards delivered another oddly compelling, not always easy to define, take on yesteryear's crime fiction. I've seen this series described as mystery-thrillers, combining the best of both, but traditional detective novels masquerading as retro-pulp would fit as well. What matters most is that it simply works. No matter how strange the emerging patterns become or turns of events take, Mortmain Hall has an intricate, fair play plot hiding underneath what appears to be a pulpy retro-thriller. It even has a "Cluefinder" at the end of the book pointing out "thirty clues in the narrative to the principal strands of the plot."

I only wished Mortmain Hall allowed for a longer, more detailed ramble, but I'm sure Blackstone Fell is going to give me exactly that opportunity with two impossible disappearances centuries apart. I intend to get to that one presently, but until then, this series comes highly recommended as a fresh and engrossing take on the popular detective stories and pulp-thrillers of the 1920s and '30s.


Murder in the Family (1936) by James Ronald

Last month, I reviewed James Ronald's Six Were to Die (1932) and a handful of his shorter works collected in Stories of Crime & Detection, vol. 1: The Dr. Britling Stories (2023), which is the first in a reportedly 14 volume reprint project by Moonstone Press – aiming to reprint all of Ronald's crime fiction over the next few years. The first volume is a sampling of Ronald's earliest, tentative steps as a writer of crime stories and pulp mysteries. So quality tended to vary between stories, but what difference a few years makes!

Stories of Crime & Detection, vol. 2: Murder in the Family (2023) collects a novel, a novelette and a short story. I'm going to save the two shorter works for another time and concentrate on the titular novel.

Murder in the Family (1936), alternatively published as The Murder in Gay Ladies and Trial Without Jury, is a novel of crime rather than detection, but there's nothing pulpy about this deeply human, sometimes downright uneasy crime novel. This book is not what I expected from the man who wrote the Dr. Britling series and have never agreed with Jim so much when he wrote this about Murder in the Family, "something that's so far from the sort of thing I'd expect to like that I honestly don't know what to make of it." Not only because it's a character-driven crime novel, but, in a way, it can be read as a criticism of treating murder as a parlor game. Not my poison, yet I loved it.

Stephen Osborne, a man in his fifties, worked for the firm of Samuel Padbury & Son for more than two decades, "twenty-four years of clerical drudgery," but a small sacrifice in order to support a large, loving and everyday family – a family he started with Edith in the small, charming village of Gay Ladies. They have a handful of children, Dorothy, Ann, Michael, Marjory and Peter, who range from twelve years to twenty-three. This loving household is rounded out by the house help, Hannah Gale, who's dog loyal to the family and sporadic stays from the children's Uncle Simon Osborne. A "graceless reprobate" whose only legitimate source of income was occasionally churning out "a thriller for the publishers of twopenny bloods," but there was always a bed waiting for him at Gay Ladies when he needed to get away from his creditors. So with five children to feed, cloth, educate and helping out Uncle Simon every now and then, they had never been able to save money. And when, one day, Stephen is let go from his job with no prospect of finding a position elsewhere. Just like that, Stephen's dreams of a better life for his children are shattered.

There is, however, one option still open to Stephen, but not one he relishes. Stephen has a rich half-sister, Miss Octavia Osborne, who cut him off without a penny when he married Edith against her wishes ("that's why he's been slaving his heart out on an office stool..."). Uncle Simon explains to his niece Ann that with her Aunt Octavia "quarrels may slumber, but they never die," predicting she'll turn down her father ("her veins flow with vinegar"). The family is not exactly looking forward to a week-long visit from "acid-tongued, sniffy-nosed old megalomaniac" as she's only happy when she can fault in the children, criticize how the house is run and generally having a beastly temper. When she arrives in Gay Ladies, Octavia makes short work of establishing herself as top 10 material for most murderable victim in a detective story.

Just as predicted, Octavia not only considers it her duty to withhold her assistance, but, gleefully, announces she has taken steps of drafting a new will – which cuts out her brother and his children completely. So tempers begin to flare and think a lot of readers will get some satisfaction from this unvarnished confrontation, but Octavia simply brushes it off and informs them she'll be leaving immediately. But while waiting in the sitting room, someone sneaks up behind her and tries to strangle her, causing a fatal heart attack. Ann was in the room reading Shakespeare, but says she didn't hear or see anyone enter the room.

Conventional enough for something written in 1936 and the following police investigation does not immediately dispel the illusion of a typical, Golden Age village mystery, but the police soon retreat into the background of the story. Simply for the reason that they can make a good case against every member of the family, even its youngest members ("a child could have done it"), but they can't put them all on trial. So the focus of the story shifts to showing the often brutal fall out the family has to endure of being implicated in the murder of a close relative in their own home. Firstly, there's the press descending on Gay Ladies and having to read about themselves in the papers complete with descriptions of each family members and "veiled hints that no outsider could have been responsible" ("...cunningly enough to avoid an action for libel"). Secondly, the heart breaking way in which the family is cast aside by their own community or at best treated as a morbid curiosity. There's a gaping crowd at their garden gate, their letterbox is over flowing with hate mail and their ghoulish neighbor, Miss Whipple, talked her way into the house to sit in the murder chair – delighted that she now had a story to tell. The eldest daughter, Dorothy, was about to be engaged, but the parents of the boy immediately packed him off to France when the news broke. And the two youngest find that they have no friends left at school.

The blows to this sympathetic family keep coming, one after another, which only appear to stop to take a breather, but never veering into over the top dramatics. On the contrary. Murder in the Family is uncomfortably homely with on the one hand a once loving and caring household put through hell, while the outside world sees their situation as nothing more than a good story that sells newspapers or give people something to speculate over at the pub. This stark difference becomes painfully clear at the end when you see just how much they're willing to sacrifice in order to protect each other. After all, someone knotted that scarf around Octavia's neck. But who?

I feared Ronald had written himself in a corner here, because how can you possibly deliver a murderer who's not coming across a letdown or cop-out? Do you actually pick someone from the household, because whether they're allowed to get away with it, or not, it would be dark, unrewarding end either way. The preceding events made that abundantly clear. But picking an outsider would be a cheap cop-out to go for a happy ending. So became increasingly more skeptical towards the end as there appeared to be no way for the story to deliver a worthy ending that was not going to feel like a letdown, one way or another. My first response to the murderer finally being pulled out in the open was thinly veiled disappointment. Only to be then told the motive for the murder! What it implied as to what happened after the murder. Someway, somehow, Ronald's pulled it off in the end and created, what's essentially, an anti-detective story which even a proponent of murder-as-a-parlor-game can enjoy. You can call me a radical, if you want, but I believe the only place for murder in a civilized world is in fiction. So I'm not going to apologize for being a ghoul who enjoys a good game of whodunit crammed with locked rooms and dying messages, but appreciated the point that was being made. More importantly, how it was made. If I'm ever redoing my list of 101 all-time favorite crime-and detective novels, Murder in the Family has secured a spot on it! So never let it be said I only care about the nuts-and-bolts type of detective story. Anyway, highly recommended!

A note for the curious: you know what I haven't done in a while? Share one of my half-baked, incorrect armchair solutions I concocted and entertained while reading. On the day of the murder, Peter gets into a fight with the village bully, Ernie Piper, but get pulled apart by Marjory. She returns in kind everything Ernie throws at them ("Ernie hated games that two could play") and beats a hasty retreat, while vowing revenge. Octavia died of shock from suddenly having a scarf pulled across her throat without any force. Not strangulation. Which is why the police couldn't discount the two youngest as the deed required no strength whatsoever. So began to wonder if Ernie could have been sulking around the house, looking for an opportunity to settle his score, noticed Dorothy's scarf and Octavia in the sitting room with his back towards him. Why not scare the hell out of the old bat and place the blame with the Osborne children? Ernie is the post office messenger boy and could approach the house without arousing curiosity. For example, from the all-seeing of Miss Whipple's telescope. Of course, the intention was to frighten, not to kill, but Ernie is a cowardly bully who would initially keep his mouth shut, but, over a long enough time, would probably give himself away. It would not have been best solution, but it would have made for an interesting enough ending. After all they went through together, the police stroll back into their home to casually announce the whole matter has been resolved complete with a confession. A terrible tragedy and all that. No hard feelings or harm done and take their leave. A solution that likely would have deflated the entire story, but a possibility I seriously considered. Fortunately, Ronald came up with a much better conclusion.


Locked and Loaded, Part 4: A Selection of Short Impossible Crime and Locked Room Mystery Stories

I always try to somewhat vary the type of detective novels and short stories discussed on this blog. For example, I recently reviewed James Ronald's pulp-style impossible crime novel Six Were to Die (1932) followed by a character-driven whodunit by Nicholas Blake (The Dreadful Hollow, 1953), two Japanese manga mysteries (Motohiro Katou's Q.E.D. vol. 35-36) and J.S. Savage's retro-GAD The Mystery of Treefall Manor (2023) – which I think is varied crosscut of our corner of the genre. There's, of course, a difference between trying and succeeding. A firmly established tradition on this blog is that the locked room mystery is omnipresent and impossible to escape. Whether discussing Golden Age mysteries, their modern-day descendants or the detective stories currently getting ferried across multiple language barriers. The locked room is always present.

So, despite my attempts to keep everything somewhat varied, the blog regularly goes through periods where every other review is tagged with the "locked room mysteries" toe-tag. I'm simply obsessed fascinated with the damn things. This blog is currently going through one of those periods, but this time, I've an excuse a pretty good reason to fanboy all over them make a rigorous study of them.

Last year, I put together "The Locked Room Mystery & Impossible Crime Story in the 21st Century: A Brief Historic Overview of the First Twenty (Some) Years." I very soon realized I should have waited until 2025 as two more years would have given a much clearer picture of the current developments. So the plan is to eventually do a follow-up focusing solely on the ten-year period 2015-25, which is why I have been building a small pile of contemporary, retro-GAD mysteries. Not all of them are of the impossible variety, but most are and intend on decimating that pile in the two, three months ahead – interspersed with some golden oldies. So that's what you can expect in the coming weeks and months, but first need to get some odds and ends out of the way.

I previously compiled three posts under the title "Locked and Loaded," part 1, 2 and 3, which reviews uncollected short stories. This time, I had a handful of uncollected stories from the past 60 years (1963-2023) that I needed to get out of the way.

Lawrence G. Blochman's "Murder Behind Schedule," originally published in Clues for Dr. Coffee (1963) and reprinted as "Young Wife" in the November 17, 1963, publication of This Week. A very short, but legitimate, impossible crime story somehow not mentioned in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) nor Brian Skupin's Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019). This is the perfect filler material for locked room-themed anthology as it's short, simple and not devoid of interest. Dr. Daniel Webster Coffee, chief pathologist at Pasteur Hospital, is trying to work on New Methods of Post-mortem Diagnosis of Drowning when Lieutenant Max Ritter whisks him away to the scene of a very curious crime ("...like a case for that Dr. Gideon Fell you made me read about last summer"). Michael Waverly is a patron of the arts and a hard businessman, "people either worshiped him or hated his guts," who collected enemies left and right. Even at home. Waverly's marriage is on the rocks as his wife is having an affair with the second violinist of the Waverly String Quartet and someone tried to kill him only a week ago. Ritter received a frantic call from Waverly, "he's after me again," followed by a groan, loud banging noises and then utter silence. So what, exactly, happened and how did the murderer manage to escape from a locked room?

Like I said this is a very short, good and cleverly constructed detective story with an interesting and even realistic take on the classic trope of a murder inside a locked room. A locked room situation that would not be out of place in an episode of CSI. Despite being, what can called a realistic impossibility, Mike Grost points out on his website that the story "contains a gracious homage to John Dickson Carr" and "Carr in turn was a fan of Blochman" praising "his stories in print" – which got Clues for Dr. Coffee moved nearer the top of the pile. This short story and praise from Carr is enough to warrant further investigation.

Edward D. Hoch's wrote "The Locked Room Cipher" for a game-themed anthology, Who Done It? (1980), which hid the identity of the authors behind a code. So the story is not particularly well-known either as a work from Hoch's hand or as a locked room mystery.

"The Locked Room Cipher" stars the one-shot detective and newspaper columnist, Ross Calendar, who's invited by Terry Box to attend a high profile reunion. Terry Box had once worked in Washington, "doing something with codes and computers," but nowadays owns and runs "the hottest new disco restaurant since Studio 54," Sequin City – a place with some peculiar features. Beside giving its patrons the feeling they're in Hollywood or Las Vegas, every room and corner is under the watchful eye of closed-circuit TV cameras. The mirrored panels are actually one-way glass allowing viewers from above to watch the action below without being seen ("...something more suitable to a bank or gambling casino than a New York disco"). Now there's a reunion with three of Box's former colleagues from Washington who all worked with computers, ciphers or both. During the reunion, Box and Calendar witnesses one of them getting shot and killed on live CCTV inside the private dinning room with the door securely bolted from the inside. When they break down the door, the murderer has vanished and the only clue is a computer print-out of a cipher found in the victim's pocket.

Just as to be expected from Hoch, "The Locked Room Cipher" is a competently put together detective story, but the most difficult one to crack. The murderer is easily spotted and the method to create the illusion of an unseen shooter vanishing from a bolted room under camera surveillance is easy to anticipate. However, the passage of time turned it into a historically noteworthy "modern" impossible crime story. Sure, the technology used in the story is hopelessly outdated today, crude and clunky, but that crudeness gives it a charm of its own. More importantly, it's technological crudeness is what allowed Hoch to put a new spin on an old trick. In 1980, "The Locked Room Cipher" must have impressed as a promising example of what can be done with the classical locked room in a high-tech environment.

I wonder if detective fans of the future will look back on a story like "The Unlocked Locked Room Murder" (Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed, vol. 79) as crude and clunky, but quaint and pleasantly old-fashioned? After all, by that time they should be experiencing (which replaced reading) detective stories in which murderers create unbreakable alibis with AI-operated, holographic doubles or creating locked rooms with nanomaterials that can form a sealed door. Anyway...

M.P.O. Books' "De schilder die de waarheid liefhad" ("The Painter Who Loved the Truth," 2019), published as by "Anne van Doorn," shamelessly lingered on the big pile for years. And pretty much one of the main reasons for doing this compilation post. If you're not familiar with previous reviews, Books is the only Dutch crime-and mystery writer, past or present, who has written (good) impossible crime fiction in a significant quantity. From the early De blikvanger (The Eye-Catcher, 2010) and the excellent Een afgesloten huis (A Sealed House, 2013) to De man die zijn geweten ontlastte (The Man Who Relieved His Conscience, 2019) and Het Delfts blauw mysterie (The Delft Blue Mystery, 2023) under the Van Doorn name. And more than half a dozen short stories.

"The Painter Who Loved the Truth" could have just as easily been titled "The People Who Played Dominoes," because the story is plotted around the domino-effect as "crime sometimes takes the form of a game of dominoes, which are placed half a stone apart and upright" ("if the first one falls, they all fall"). That proved to be the case when an outgoing minister, Herman van Grootheest, is shockingly shot to death in his vacation home on Texel, "the first assassination of a prominent politician since Pim Fortuyn," but the police soon have a prime suspect, Joost Leijendekker – a house painter who was in possession of the murder weapon. And that's not the only damning evidence the police uncovers. During a reconstruction on the island, Leijendekker manages to escape and his flight ends on the doorstep of the two private investigators of Research & Discover, Robbie Corbijn and Lowina de Jong.

Leijendekker pleads he's innocent and Corbijn wants to help "the most wanted man in the Netherlands," but the painter is not exactly making it easy by insisting the gun was in his possession at the time of the murder. Not only in his possession, but safely under lock and key! Nobody except him knows the code to the safe. The trick to explain this impossibility is a neat one. However, this story is even better in its cause-and-effect structure as Corbijn and De Jong have to pick apart a series seemingly unconnected incidents that proved to be domino stones toppling one after another, which created the circumstances allowing for the murder to happen. It's a pleasing effect.

Tom Mead is a prominent member of today's locked room revivalists who signed his name to three novels, Death and the Conjuror (2022), The Murder Wheel (2023) and the upcoming Cabaret Macabre (2024), and a growing list of short stories – which I wish were easily available. Preferably in one place like a proper short story collection. One easily accessible short story from Mead you can read right now is "Jack Magg's Jaw" (2022).

"Jack Magg's Jaw" was published on The Strand Magazine website on September 30, 2022, as part of a competition to win a Locked Room Prize pack comprising of a hardcover copy of Mead's Death and the Conjuror, Otto Penzler's Golden Age Locked Room Mysteries (2022) and tickets for an escape room. All you had to do is solve the problem of the titular jaw and a small matter of a seemingly impossible murder. Joseph Spector, a retired magician and amateur detective, travels to the dark, rambling country house of Cliver Stoker to attend a slightly macabre weekend party. Stoker has his own private black museum ("behold... my museum of murder") and his most prized possession is the jawbone of a notoriously brutal highwayman, Jack Magg, who was executed in 1740. Every guest at the house party wants it. Stoker tells them they'll get to bid on it the following day, but, until then, it's locked away behind a steel door protected with a time lock that's "utterly impenetrable." When the morning comes and time lock runs out, the door opens to reveal a body inside what should have been a completely inaccessible vault. A very short, but good and fun little impossible crime story in which Mead's love for Clayton Rawson and Jonathan Creek bleeds through.

After last year's Monkey See, Monkey Murder (2023), James Scott Byrnside is currently working on a collection of short stories featuring his two Chicago gumshoes from the Roaring Twenties, Rowan Manory and Walter Williams. On the last day of 2023, Byrnside posted the first short story from that future collection, "The Silent Steps of Murder," on his blog as a New Year's present. Thanks! Very much appreciated and enjoyed!

"The Silent Steps of Murder" begins with Rowan Manory and Walter Williams out and about on New Year's Eve, "Chicago was ready to bid farewell to 1927," when they hear someone yelling murder. A young beat cop, Quinn, who immediately recognizes Chicago's famous detective and tells Manory he heard a loud crash, or noise, coming from one of the apartment buildings on his beat. When he goes to investigate, Quinn finds the body of the woman who lives there with a gunshot wound to the chest and stab wounds to the face. The state of the room suggests a robbery gone wrong or, perhaps, arranged to appear like a botched burglary that ended with a brutal murder. Just one problem. The murderer has to be still in the building, because the only footprints in the snow outside belong to Quinn. Manory assures Williams that Quinn is not the murderer, but, if not Quinn, who else could have left the place without leaving footprints?

There's a challenge to the reader, "Rowan has already solved the case. Have you? Here are some questions you should be able to answer," but it took me until after that point until things began clicking into place. Even then, I considered another variation that was actually mentioned in the comments. However, the solution deserves a blue ribbon. A bold move turning the story from an impossible crime story into a grand-style whodunit. This is exactly what I hoped envisioned would emerge from the Golden Age renaissance of the past decade. Go read it now and I look forward to complete collection which appears to have an overarching storyline.

So this rambling has gone on long enough. Next up is a (non-impossible) gem (I hope) from the 1930s.


The Mystery of Treefall Manor (2023) by J.S. Savage

Recently, I reviewed two novels from the current crop of locked room revivalists, Gigi Pandian's Under Lock & Skeleton Key (2022) and J.L. Blackhurst's Three Card Murder (2023), which both made me realize I should have waited with "The Locked Room Mystery & Impossible Crime Story in the 21st Century" until 2025 – things began to take a more definite shape right after it was posted. Under Lock & Skeleton Key and Three Card Murder also continued the tradition of having a very mixed reactions to this new generation of locked room magicians. I either love them on first sight or leave me hoping the series improves in future installments, which in case of the latter tends to produce not the most enthusiastic reviews. And those are not among the popular reviews on this blog.

So let me put those at ease who saw the title of this blog-post and feared another one of my lukewarm "hot takes," because today's subject is the genuine article!

J.S. Savage is a London-based mystery writer "who specializes in impossible crimes" and launched historical Inspector Graves series last year with The Mystery of Treefall Manor (2023). For someone who has been prophesying a second Golden Age for years now, I feel not entirely up-to-date of what's currently being produced towards that end. Savage and The Mystery of Treefall Manor are among the many authors and novels slipping pass me unnoticed. Fortunately, the GP of the mystery sphere, Steve the Puzzle Doctor, remedied that oversight with an enticing review ("this is an outstanding book") and making it a contender for his "Grand Puzzly" award in "Review of the Year – 2023." I also added Dolores Gordon-Smith's The Chapel in the Woods (2021) and Victoria Dowd's Murder Most Cold (2023) on the strength of Doc's reviews. After all, D.L. Marshall's Anthrax Island (2021) was a real winner! So lets dissect this newest arrival to the locked room revival.

The Mystery of Treefall Manor takes place in October, 1926, at the titular manor of the widowed Alexander Grimbourne in Swinbridge, Rockinghamshire, which is soon to hosting the wedding party of daughter, Ruth – who's going to be married to their young neighbor, Lord Frederick "Freddie" Taylor. A joyous occasion, to be sure, but not all is well at Treefall Manor. Alexander Grimbourne is the typical, storybook patriarch who's "quite the historian when it comes to the family roots" and their achievements ("my ancestors supplied the wood that was used to build the ships that saw off the Spanish Armada"). However, "the Grimbourne heritage is not made of wood as some people think," but "the Grimbourne men themselves, the men who cut the deals, undercut the competition, it is the name Grimbourne itself." So it was a disappointment to Grimbourne when his only son, John, was born with a withered leg and developed a love for "writing dreary, awful poetry." And their relation was never good. While he loves his daughter, Grimbourne believes she doesn't know what's best for her.

Is this why her engagement to Lord Freddie came out of nowhere or why the wedding is so hastily rushed through? Or why Grimbourne took it upon himself to invite two old friends of the bride and groom? What's on going between him and his private secretary, George Campbell? And who took the antique dagger from the library? This culminated with Grimbourne casually announcing he's going to change his will the next day with predictable results.

Alexander Grimbourne is found murdered in his study, "from his chest protruded the handle of the missing dagger," clutching a dying message plucked from the bookcase, but the door and barred windows are securely locked from the inside – confronting the local police with an impossible crime. So they immediately dispatch their top guy, Detective Inspector Graves, to the scene of the crime together with a recent addition to their ranks, Detective Constable James Carver. A young, eager and promising policeman who's still somewhat rough around the edges.

So, as you can probably gather by now, Savage hits on some of the most familiar notes and themes of the Golden Age detective story, but appearing like a Golden Age-style mystery is not always a guarantee it works like one. Often lacking good plots, fair play or simply not getting the difference between a "closed circle" and "locked room" mystery. I think we have all burned ourselves, once or twice, on such cases of false advertisements, but, as said before, Savage and The Mystery of Treefall Manor is the genuine article. A tight, cleverly-plotted and fairly clued locked room mystery that pleasantly kept me puzzling along with Graves and Carter. And, for the most part, the story felt as if it could have been published nearly a century ago. However, Savage is not merely a Han van Meegeren of detective fiction who created a nigh perfect copy of a Golden Age mystery. Savage used the same techniques as the masters from the past, but went to work fresh, new paints of his own.

Firstly, The Mystery of Treefall Manor takes place in the 1926, but is plotted like a locked room mystery from 1936. A trope of the pre-1930s detective story is that the crime scene often resembled a busy, crowded thoroughfare – littered with monogrammed handkerchiefs, cigarette buds and train tickets. Just to muddy the waters by casting suspicion on as many of the characters as possible. Graves and Carver find some litter in the locked study, but they're not red herrings. They're full-fledged clues! The detective story in 1926 was not quite there yet. Secondly, Savage avoided a pitfall some of these debuting retro-GAD novels fall into by trying to setup the whole series and fleshing out the characters in the first novel, which always comes at the expense of the plot (e.g. Pandian's Under Lock & Skeleton Key). Savage gave more depth to his two series-characters than most of their past counterparts got in their entire run, but it was done with a very light, subtle touch as Graves and Carver got to know each other a little bit over the course of their first joined-investigation. I particularly liked why Graves never acknowledges a particular question or keeping the solution to the locked room to himself to give Carver an opportunity to cut his teeth on a really tricky problem ("this looks to be a meaty sort of case to get his teeth stick in to").

I'm left with practically nothing to complain or nitpick about except for two, very minor details. Carver eventually figures out how the locked room-trick was done, which is a good and absolutely solvable, Graves asks him to name the murderer. Because "only one person could have committed the crime in that way." Aside from opportunity, the method fitted another character even better than the actual murderer and combined with the implied content of the love letter I entertained another possibility for the solution. Funnily enough, as the ending showed, even that wrong solution was not all that far off the mark. And that ending also showed a modern hand was at work. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it broke the illusion a little. If you're going to do it, you should do it right at the end.

So, nitpicking aside, Savage and The Mystery of Treefall Manor is indeed an outstanding detective novel with a plot and characters shining as bright as its Golden Age ancestors. More importantly, it's a welcome and promising addition to the rapidly growing list of locked room revivalists and retro-GAD authors. I'm eagerly looking forward to the second Graves and Carver locked room mystery, Sun, Sea and Murder (2024), which going by the title should be out around summertime.