8/22/16

The Long Way Down


"You make it sound like something out of a dime novel."
- Shirley Taggert (Edward D. Hoch's "The Long Way Down," collected in Hans Stefan Stantesson's The Locked Room Reader: Stories of Impossible Crimes and Escapes, 1968)
Kel Richards is an Australian journalist, broadcaster and author whose bibliography is stuffed with crime-fiction, such as Sherlockian pastiches, thrillers and traditional detective stories, but what beckoned me to his work were a number of historical mysteries – which threw the mantle of Sherlock Holmes over such literary figures as G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis. Oh, there's also the fact that these novels are saturated with impossible crime material.

So I was compelled to take a gander and see how Richards handled everyone's favorite plot-device, because hey, any excuse to further bloat the locked room label. We're getting close to 250 blog-posts! But, for now, let’s take a look at one of these locked room novels.

The Floating Body (2015), originally published in Australia as The Floating Corpse, entered third in a series about the author of The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56), C.S. Lewis, who now has a penchant for getting involved in murder cases – usually of the impossible variety. The person responsible for drawing Lewis into these cases is one of his former pupils, Tom Morris, who seems to be the true murder magnet of the series.

Tom Morris is the Acting English Master at Nesfield Cathedral School, located in the fictional town of Nesfield, which Richards (admittedly) borrowed from Michael Innes' The Weight of Evidence (1944). The Author's Note at the end points out that Innes, the penname of Prof. J.I.M. Steward, was "a colleague of Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien in the English School at Oxford." So that's a nice touch to the story and the narrative has several of these literary Easter Eggs. For instance, Morris confiscated a lurid crime novel from one of the schoolboys, The Purple Gang, which is "a non-existent mystery novel referred to a number of times in the comic novels and short stories of P.G. Wodehouse."

I got the impression Richards tried to emulate the kindly, lighthearted tone of the Gervase Fen mysteries by Edmund Crispin. A tone that become particular audible in the plot-thread concerning the shenanigans of some of the schoolboys.

The Floating Body begins with the introduction of this particular plot-thread, which happens when Morris has to order the school bully to release his prey, "young Stanhope of the Fourth," from his stranglehold, but the Acting Master discovers the boy has a propensity for trouble – trying to use his father's standing and money to get one of his fellow students to steal next week's exam paper for him. However, not everyone appreciated how the School Toff approached them, nose high in the air and "an ingrained look of vast superiority to the world around him," which placed a pair of nasty bullies on his tail.

Regardless of his faults, Stanhope is only a small boy who still has some things to learn and Morris asks a group of friends, who refer to themselves as "The Famous Four," to play the role of guardian angels to the young boy. This storyline runs, like a red-thread, through the entire plot of the book and breaths some real life in the school setting. It's also a lovely throwback and homage to the long-gone era of school-and sporting stories from the boy's magazines of yore, which were, if I'm not mistaken, at their zenith during the 1920-and 30s – diminishing in popularity after the Second World War. You can also make a case that this plot-thread ties the book to juvenile crime-fiction.

However, not everything is fun and games at the school: Morris ensnared his former university tutor, C.S. Lewis, to come down to Nesfield and fill the spot of guest speaker, but eventually has to play detective when he witnesses a seemingly impossible murder.

The young Mathematics Master, Dave Fowler, is seen going to the roof of one of the school building, "well away from all noisy schoolboys," where he plans to enjoy the summer weather and a mystery novel – which happens to be the then recently published The Nine Tailors (1934) by Dorothy L. Sayers. By the way, the story takes place at the start of the summer of 1935. Anyway, Lewis and Morris witness how Fowler is arguing with an invisible person on the roof, who stabs him in the stomach, which is followed by the math teacher staggering unsteady across the roof. He then "seemed to lose his balance" and "disappeared from view as he plunged over the far side of the roof," but what they find where the body was supposed to be was "a bare, gravel road." The body seems to have vanished on the way down.

Fowler's corpse is eventually found where it was supposed to be, after it was seen tumbling from the rooftop, but not for another twenty-four hours. As if the body had been suspended in midair, completely invisible, before falling down to the ground on the following day.

The explanation was surprisingly simple, somewhat reminiscent of Leo Bruce's Nothing Like Blood (1962) and the rejected solution from a fairly well-known locked room short, but these ideas were used here to form a nice little impossible crime. My only grip about this part of the plot is the knifing of the victim, which unnecessarily complicated matters for the murderer. I think this person should have used a crook-handle cane, instead of a knife, to work Fowler over the edge of the rooftop. If you know how the murderer remained invisible to onlookers, you know how the crook of the cane could be employed and used as a clue that nodded in the direction of the murderer. Otherwise, I enjoyed trying to work out possible explanations for the invisible assailant and the midair disappearance of the body.

On the other hand, I was not as impressed with the who, why and the fair-play of the overall plot. One of the potential motives, linked to a hidden sub-plot and false solution, is simply thrown into the story and the actual explanation felt uninspired, which can be explained by all of the attention spend on the schoolboy-angle, the impossible crime and Lewis' exhortations on Christianity – which sometimes made the book feel like a sermon with detective interruptions.

So I feel very divided about The Floating Body: there's some things to like about the story, but, purely as a fair-play mystery, it has its fair share of flaws. However, I'll further investigate his work before giving my final judgment. After all, I read some positive responses to the second book in the series, The Corpse in the Cellar (2013), which is also a locked room mystery. I'll get back to him sooner rather than later.

Finally, allow me to apology for any sloppy mistakes in this blog-post, but I cranked this one out rather hurriedly and was foolishly attempting to multi-task. I promise better for my next blog-post. In the meantime, you might be interested in this interview with Kel Richards. The next book in the series sounds interesting as well: a beheading in a locked room? I'll take a dozen of those, please!

8/19/16

Song of Storms


"The more we dig in the surer we get. The picture, atmosphere, are the same. A killer who came and went and didn't even leave a shadow on a windowshade."
- Inspector Richard Queen (Ellery Queen's Cat of Many Tails, 1949)
Arthur W. Upfield's Winds of Evil (1937) is the fifth book about one of the genre's most unusual policeman, Detective-Inspector Napoleon "Bony" Bonaparte of the Queensland Police, which tells an equally curious tale about "a mad strangler who strikes only in dust storms" and was deservedly praised by Anthony Boucher – extolling the clear-cut plot and "a new quality of horror" permeating the story. It definitely deserves the attention of genre historians and mystery scholars as an early incarnation of the modern serial killer novel.

The initial setup of the plot tailgates one of the series familiar patterns: in a far-flung corner or settlement of the Australian continent a murder is committed or a person vanished under mysterious circumstances, but the local police failed to find an explanation and the trail grew cold. So the authorities usually assign these cold, dead-end cases to Detective-Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte. Bony is of mixed blood, a "half-caste," whose aborigine heritage endowed him with the tracking skills of his maternal ancestors, which he used to rise through the ranks of the police force and carving out a name for himself as a relentless man-hunter in Western attire.

His talent for tracking in the wild and uncanny ability to draw conclusions from observation about his immediate surrounding, plants, trees and animals has a prominent role in Winds of Evil – which adds an additional layer of interest to the plot. But more on that later.

The setting of the book is a small, wind-swept township in the dusty outback of New South Wales, called Carie, which is ruled over by the owner and licensee of the only hotel in town, Mrs. Nelson. She clinched her rule over the town by holding the mortgages on most of the property there, but it was a quiet, peaceful settlement. That is, until the murders started happening.

Two years prior to the story's opening, the body of a young, half-aborigine girl, Alice Tindell, was found on the bank of a watering hole: she had been strangled! A police sergeant from Broken Hill came down to investigate the case, but failed to uncover as much as a shadow of a motive for the murder. The story was repeated a year later when a recently arrived laborer, Frank Marsh, was found near a fence gate with strangulation marks on his throat. Only two facts could be asserted with certainty: they were both strangled to death and their killer struck when "the wind sang its menacing song" – assuring "the strangling brute" that the storm of dust and sand would wipe all of his tracks out of existence. So the case requires the attention of an expert tracker and Bony is dispatched to this "wind-created hell."

Bony takes on the identity of a fence-rider, named "Joe Fisher," who finds an ally in the local police officer, Mounted-Constable Lee, but also a common enemy in the Sergeant Simone from Broken Hill – whose uncouth personality and bully-boy tactics were completely useless in this bush case.

As Lee observed, "you can't get anything out of bush people by bullying them." Bony further notes that "the detection of criminals in a city is much easier than the detection of the rarer criminal in the bush," because the city criminal "operated against a static background," such as a house or a street, but the background of this case is "composed of ceaselessly moving sand" and "exposed to the constant action of sun and wind."

Bony gives an interesting demonstration on how the interpret the many hints left behind in open wild of the Australian outback, which consist of a series of observation about twisted tree branches, green tree bark and wisps of brittle grass that was left behind in abandoned nesting holes – all of them lineup to form a route along the creeks. These places are described with Upfield's accustomed vividness and given such unusual names as Nogga Creek, Catfish Hole and Wirragata Station. While roaming around these places, Bony meets an array of equally colorful and unusually named characters such as Hang-dog Jack, Bill the Cobbler and Dogger Smith.

This makes Winds of Evil as rich in character, setting and atmosphere as all of his other Australian-set mystery novels, but, what really deserves praise, is how the extremely simplistic plot was handled.

Despite the appearance of both murders and several attempted murders, the killer does not use the sand storms as a cover for his crimes, but is "periodically governed by his lust to kill" and this urge to kill seems to coincide with "the rising wind." So it is very obvious Bony is tangling with a mentally disturbed individual and this leaves no room for the clever serial-killer devices of the Golden Age. However, Upfield expertly avoided bitter disappointment with a clever bit of misdirection. Oh, the false solution that sprang from this was bitterly disappointing and was afraid I had to write another lukewarm review, but the twist, revealing the actual murderer, made more than up for this and the misdirection also made a part of the murderer's action easier to swallow – which drew on Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes (1912). But more acceptable and down to earth.

I would not place Winds of Evil among the very best of Upfield's work, which includes Venom House (1952) and Cake in the Hat Box (1954), but it's a very solid and remarkable entry in the series. And one that precedes the modern serial killer novel by several decades. So it's a very interesting read all around.

8/15/16

Scared to Death


"The Press, Watson, is a most valuable institution, if you only know how to use it."
- Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Dancing Men," from The Return of Sherlock Holmes, 1905) 
Dorothy Salisbury Davis was an American author of seventeen crime novels, several historical works and numerous short stories. She was one of the founding members of Sisters in Crime and served as President of the Mystery Writers of America in 1956, who declared her a Grand Master in 1985, which were followed by two additional lifetime achievement awards – dolled out by Bouchercon and Malice Domestic. So Davis left her mark on the genre and it all began with a crime/mystery novel that was released on the tail-end of the 1940s.

The Judas Cat (1949) takes place in a small town, called Hillside, which is situated in the Midwestern region of the United States and "the town's chief claim to renown was the annual visit of a famous inventor."

Once every year, the eminent inventor, Henry Addison, descends upon Hillside to spend a day with the town’s recluse, ninety-two year old Andy Mattson, but the inventor passed away several months before the story opened. It was prophesized Mattson "wouldn't live long after Addison went." However, even the speculators of the local rumor mill were unable to envisage the consequences Mattson's death would have on certain members of the community.

Mattson spent his days on his front porch, "rubbing the soft neck of his cat with his leathery fingers," but his nosey, gossipy neighbor, Mabel Turnsby, was the first one to notice that he "had not taken his customary place on the porch by moon" and saw the cat pacing the length of the window seat inside – looking at her pleadingly "like it was human." She notified the local Chief of Police, Fred Waterman, who broke his way into the home, but had to shoot the crazed, half starved cat in the process. What he finds in the living room makes it very apparent that the cat had some part to play in the tragic death of its owner.

The body of Mattson is found huddled on the sofa, scratches on his face and blood on his white shirt, but the most striking was the terror in the eyes that had been black and fierce when he was alive – as if he had been scared to death. A post-mortem shows his heart had given out. However, the circumstances seem to suggest that the heart attack was not a result of Mattson's advanced age.

Police Chief Waterman finds an ally in Alex Whiting, a young publisher, who took over the Whiting Press from his father, but was more interested, editorially, in the business of the Weekly Sentinel. As a team, they pry open the skeleton-filled cupboard of the old man and uncover many unusual and long-buried secrets: one of them is the surprising discovery of Mattson's furtive occupation as a gifted toy maker.

There were drawers full of hand-crafted, lifelike wooden wind-up figures of animals, people and vehicles. Mattson sold many of his wooden figures to Joe Hershel, owner of a nearby toy factory, but they came with the condition to not patent them and this is potentially of interest since Hershel and the opportunistic mayor, Altman, are talking about expanding the factory – which might give them a reason to get rid of the old man.

Waterman and Whiting also learn Mattson knew his way around a mathematical equation and was a skilled engineer, which made him an adept toy maker and had collaborated with the design of some hydraulic equipment, but problems arose with the filing of the patents. And then there was his unusual friendship with the dead inventor, a missing will and an intricate web of hidden (family) relationships. All of them cast an ever-darkening shadow over the tight-nit community of Hillside. Something that becomes very apparent when the carcass of the dead cat is stolen from the veterinary's office and the laboratory is smashed up.

At one point in the story, Whiting reflects how much their digging is resented by their neighbors, because the resulting "malice and confusion had made them more suspect than the murderer they were trying to find." This aspect of the plot comes to a head during a town council meeting, where Waterman and Whiting are pretty much ordered to drop the whole affair. I think this is by far the best and strongest point of The Judas Cat: the depiction of a small, close-knit town in the United States and the peculiar characters who dwell there. As well as the effect of suspicious death has on them and their response to the resurfacing of long-held secrets. This facet foreshadows the character-driven crime novels that would blitzkrieg across the genre's landscape in the succeeding decades.

Guess this also explains why I ended up disappointed with the detective element of the plot. The problems and mysteries attached to the peculiar circumstances of Mattson's death managed to held my attention throughout the book, but the explanations were very anti-climatic and under whelming. I had hoped on a better explanation for the how of the murder, but Davis stuck with the unsure, hare-brained method to put a notorious coffin dodger out of the way. So no. I was far from impressed with the final tally of the plot. Well, that surely dampened this review, didn't it?

So let me close-out this blog-post by demonstrating some of my amazing deductive reasoning skills: Davis never gives an exact location for Hillside and places the town somewhere in the Midwest of the United States, which is an area comprising of twelve states. Ohio is the only one that can be disregarded, because the story specifically mentioned that the original settlers came from there. So that leaves us with eleven potential candidates, but the (side) characters share an interesting commonality that narrows it down to just one state: a large number of them have Nordic surnames (e.g. Mattson, Thorson, Sorenson, Olson, etc). So there's a big chance Hillside was located in Minnesota, which is where Scandinavian immigrants clustered when they left Europe for the Americas. It could also be in the area where Wisconsin borders with Minnesota, but I think Minnesota is your best bet to find so many people in one spot with Nordic surnames. Especially in those days.  

Well, I better put this lackluster blog-post out of its misery here. Hopefully, I'll have something better for the next one. So keep checking back!

8/12/16

Sweets Are a Child's Poison


"It's a dirty business, my lad: poisoning kids."
- Superintendent Hadley (John Dickson Carr's The Problem of the Green Capsule, 1939)
Elizabeth Daly was an American novelist who, during the forties of the previous century, penned sixteen sophisticated mystery novels about a professional bibliophile and amateur snoop, Henry Gamadge, which earned her an Edgar statuette – awarded a decade after the publication of her last novel, The Book of the Crime (1951). Reportedly, one of Daly's most famous admirer was no less a figure than Agatha Christie.

So she had excellent credentials, but when I took a look at Daly, some time ago now, I was very disappointed with what I found. The book that turned me away from her work was Murders in Volume 2 (1941), which had an alluring premise, but the plot never delivered the goods and the story progressed excruciatingly slow – comparable to the pace of a morphine drip. There are parts of my brain that think they're still reading the damn book! But enough time has passed to warrant a second glance at Daly and Gamadge.

Deadly Nightshade (1940) was Daly's second mystery novel and finds Gamadge in his private library, "where he followed the occupation of consulting expert on old or pseudo-old books, manuscripts and autographs," but his attention is divided between a yellowed fragment of paper, war news rattling from the wireless and memories of State Detective Mitchell – whom he met in first recorded case, Unexpected Night (1940), when he was "inveigled by circumstances" to play amateur detective. Coincidently, the phone rings a few minutes later and it is a long distance call from Maine. Mitchell has a case on his hands that might interest Gamadge.

A rash of nightshade poisonings of small children plagued the vicinity between Oakport and Harper's Rock, which claimed at least three victims. A group of children got their hands on some poisonous berries and the resulting tragedies varied greatly: the youngest son of Albert Ormiston, a relatively well-known artist, fully recovered, but the daughter of Carroll Bartram, a manufacturer of artificial silk, was allergic to atropine and died. A third girl, Sarah Beasley, evidently had eaten some of the berries, but, in a poisonous stupor, "wandered off and got in the marsh" – she has not been found.

There are also suspicions of a fourth poisoning, involving one of the children from a gypsy camp, which is giving the locals a reason "to start pestering the gypsies," but Mitchell have reasons to believe that the affair is slightly more complicated then that. The boy who survived, Tommy, says "a lady in a car gave him the berries." Only problem is that the poison has a confusing effect on its victim and there can't be a value put on the boy's statement. These poisonings coincided with a fatal motorcycle accident of a young state trooper named Trainor. But was it really an accident?

Gamadge and Mitchell have to dig through a lot of back-stories and family history in order to unsnarl all of the links in the chain of tragedies that rocked the small Maine community. Rooting around in other people's past live can be an unpleasant occupation and this was touched upon when they visited the gypsy camp. Gamadge has his fortune told by an elderly lady, Mrs. Stuart, who told him he was "born under a dark star," the companion of Sirius, which is "so dark that no mortal eye has ever seen it" and is only known through "the perturbation of orbits" – condemning the bibliophile-detective "to perturb the orbits of others" while "remaining unsuspected and unseen." Perturbing is exactly what he does.

In one of the households, he finds the survivor of a forgotten tragedy, the wholesale poisoning of family with arsenic, which also concerned a lost child. He also gets on the trail of woman, a Miss Humphrey, who claimed to work for a magazine and went around snapping pictures of children for a competition to crown the finest child in Maine. However, some of the more interesting plot-threads were introduced to the story through the Bartram family.

Carroll's brother, George, sold his part in the silk mill to his brother and moved to the Netherlands, where married and had a little girl, but the European situation scared him and moved his family to the United States. Surprising his brother on a very short notice. Naturally, I perked up when the background of these characters were pointed out and the plot was littered with references to their past lives in the Netherlands, but their return also brought an additional complication to the plot: the late father of Carroll and George lost a "mythical nest egg" of at least four hundred thousand dollars and there's a mention of a collection of pictures he bought in 1927, which may have included a long-lost painting by Vermeer of Delft. Yes. There was one of those in the recently reviewed There's a Reason for Everything (1945) by E.R. Punshon.

Well, I guess it's time to make up the balance: Deadly Nightshade does not only setup a premise full of promise, but, on this occasion, delivered on it and the explanation for the plot was as original as its premise. I can easily see now why someone like Christie would be a fan of her work. Only drawbacks are Daly's feeble grasp on the concept of pacing (i.e. slow moving) and the sub-plot of the murdered state trooper was unnecessary. I think the story could have done without it, but Daly probably felt a detective story needed a clear-cut murder.

To make a long story short, I wish Deadly Nightshade had been my introduction to Daly's work instead of the seemingly never-ending and soul-deadening Murders in Volume 2.

Finally, allow me to draw your attention to the website of Les Blatt, Classic Mysteries, who is a fan of Daly and reviewed thirteen of her sixteen Henry Gamadge mysteries, which is how this series never left my peripheral field of view.  

8/10/16

A Chimerical Impossibility


"One of the most extraordinary cases Ellery has ever investigated. The newspaper called it "The Case of the Wounded Tyrolean;" more specific identification may not be given here. It is one of the few problems, to my knowledge, which stalemated Ellery; and it is still an unsolved crime."
- J. McC. (Ellery Queen's The Spanish Cape Mystery, 1935)
Last month, I wrote a blog-post, headed "The Locked Room Reader IV: The Lazy Anthologist," that used a line from an essay by Donald A. Yates, titled "The Locked Room: An Ancient Device of the Story-Teller, But Not Dead Yet," which attracted the attention of our resident archivist, Mike Gray – who can be found blogging at Ontos. This resulted in a compilation post with links to the essay, articles, blog-posts, a short video-clip and a short story by Yates.

Yates' short story, "The Wounded Tyrolean," began as a Watsonian reference in Ellery Queen's The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935), which was meant as a nod and a wink at the unrecorded cases noted by Dr. Watson in the official Sherlock Holmes canon. As Ellery Queen observed, Dr. Watson's allusions have "sent Sherlockians screaming into the night hunting for the reference source and finding only a ghostly chuckle," but the consequence of these tantalizing allusions is that people began to write their own Sherlock Holmes stories – which has grown into a sub-genre of its own. The mountain of Holmesian pastiches, parodies and semi-official sequels dwarfs the number of original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

So it was only to be expected that Ellery Queen's oblique reference to "The Case of the Wounded Tyrolean" would result in at least one write-up.

According to this blog-post, Yates wrote "The Wounded Tyrolean" during the early fifties and at the time he was "trying repeatedly to write a story" that "he [Fred Dannay] would accept for EQMM." One of the editors, Mildred Falk, suggested writing a story that could carry the title "The Wounded Tyrolean" and "be so perplexing that even Ellery himself had not been able to solve it." Yates picked up the gauntlet and decided to turn his hand to the classic locked room mystery, determined "to come up with a new solution that had never been devised before," but the fruit of his labor was rejected by Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and only a Spanish translation of the story made into print – appearing in the Argentine magazine Leoplán in July of 1955. Fifty-seven years after being published in Argentina, the story appeared in English in the Fall 2012 issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review, published in Ann Arbor, the "very setting where the action of the baffling locked-room murder had been situated." So, let's take a look at the story.

The Austrian-born Professor Behring of the Middleton University physics department is "The Wounded Tyrolean," whose "characteristic limp was the consequence of a leg wound he had suffered in the First World War," but the "indelible figure" of the old professor was cruelly snatched away from the campus-town – stabbed to death in his study. There was a sense of the unreal clinging to the circumstances of the crime, because, from all perceivable angles, it seems like an impossible murder.

Donald A. Yates
Professor Behring had scheduled an appointment with Dr. Gaines and Wenley, the College President, but nobody appeared to be home and when they entered the premise found that only the study door was locked. Dr. Gained and Wenley forced open the door and discovered the body of the professor in the middle of the room, "the handle of a kitchen knife protruding from his back," but they found nobody else inside the windowless room, which had walls lined with bookshelves. The only door was locked from the inside and the modest furnishings, a desk and some chairs, offered no hiding place for the killer.

The rundown of these facts showed a missed opportunity for a false solution and one that would have been as classic as the locked room problem itself, which would have been very similar to such short stories as Agatha Christie's "The Idol House of Astarte" (The Thirteen Problems, 1932) and Peter Godfrey's "The Flung-Back Lit" (The Newtonian Egg, 2002). Essentially, it would have been a play on the "replacement of space-and time" illusion and this trick would have fitted the given facts, but Yates deserves some points for trying to come up with an explanation that was a little bit different.

A bright senior and editor of the student newspaper, John Rossiter, eventually stumbled to the truth "through a feat of inspired logic," but "never revealed the solution to a soul." I think the best part of the plot is explaining how someone like Ellery Queen could have failed to reach the correct answer. I can easily imagine Queen would've read about the case and came to the campus-town to investigate it himself, but by that time, Rossiter had already swept the whole affair under the rug and the tell-tale clues expunged – which makes it very difficult for even the best logicians to reach a sensible and rational conclusion.

With that being said, the locked room facet of the plot under-performed to the who-and why, which were far better imagined and linked than how the trick was pulled off. The locked room was pretty incidental to the whole thing. Not to mention borderline insane and extremely risky. If it weren't for the high concentration of spoilers, I would probably slap together a re-imagining of this plot, because I see an alternative explanation for the locked room that would've served the purpose of the guilty party a whole lot better.

Regardless, "The Wounded Tyrolean" is a good and laudable attempt at an original locked room story by a then still young and ardent mystery enthusiast, which, arguably, required some polishing. But you can read and judge the story for yourself by clicking here.

8/7/16

The Naked Truth


"The world is filled with mysteries... many very intelligent people work solving them. My skill lies in making that talent pay."
- Penelope Peters (Lois H. Gresh and Robert Weinberg's "Death Rides the Elevator," from The Mammoth Book of Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes, 2000)  
Erle Stanley Gardner was an incredible productive novelist, who had his roots in the pulps, but garnered everlasting fame in the genre as the author of more than eighty mysteries about a lawyer and courtroom wizard, named Perry Mason – which have the tendency to overshadow all of his other work.

Gardner also wrote a few short-lived series about such characters as Gramps Wiggins (e.g. The Case of the Smoking Chimney, 1941), Terry Clane (e.g. The Case of the Backward Mule, 1946) and Sheriff Bill Eldon (e.g. Two Clues, 1947). However, they only lasted for a couple of novels or a handful of novellas. The life-span of Doug Selby, the D.A. of fictitious town, stretched across nine novels, but, volume-wise, only one of Gardner's secondary series came (somewhat) close to matching the sheer prolificacy of the Perry Mason mysteries.

Bertha Cool and Donald Lam are at the front of twenty-nine novels, initially published under the name of "A.A. Fair," who were defined by the Thrilling Detective website as "one of the all-time great mismatched team ups in detective fiction" and "a real blast of fresh air." During the introduction of Cool and Lam (1958), an unsold pilot for CBS, Gardner described Lam as "a little thinking machine" and Cool as his "big, penny-pinching partner," which is all very appetizing, but I found myself in a quandary – where to begin? I was torn between The Bigger They Come (1939), Top of the Heap (1952) and The Count of Nine (1958), but settled, predictably, on the last one. Why is it predictable, you ask? Why, it's an impossible crime story! What else did you expect from me?

A globetrotter and gentleman-explorer, Dean Crockett, engaged Cool and Lam to keep out sticky-fingered gatecrashers from his upcoming social gathering. Or to prevent any potential intruders from leaving the place with a valuable item from his exhibition room. The last time he threw a party someone lifted "a jade statue worth six thousand bucks," but this time Crockett turned his penthouse into a mousetrap: the place is at the twentieth floor and can only be reached by a special elevator, which runs up to a vestibule-like room "that opened out from the twentieth floor hallway." You need to be let in or have a key to get inside the penthouse, but that’s not the only precaution that was taken.

Cool stationed herself by the door, in charge of checking invitations of the guests, while the elevator has been secretly out fitted with an x-ray machine. This turned the elevator in a primitive body scanner. Regardless of these obstacles, a second jade statue and a five feet long blow-pipe from Borneo were taken from the tightly watched and secured penthouse. It seems like a complete impossibility!

I've to make an annotation here that, at this point in the book, the story really began to show how wrong my assumptions about the characters were. I assumed Cool and Lam were, partially, inspired or based on Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, but it was Lam who most of the brain-and leg work – basically all of it after the theft was discovered. After Cool bungled the job, she receded into the background and occasionally hurled abuse at poor Lam ("I'll take a swing at you right here in front of all these people"). But it was her partner, not her, who figured out how a long, cumbersome blow-pipe and a jade statue were carried, unnoticed, out of a guarded apartment.

The explanation for the theft of the blow-pipe was logical, fairly well clued and not too difficult to solve yourself, but I can't say the same for how the carved jade Buddha was smuggled out of the apartment – which was revealed without giving any real clues. You could probably make a good guess how the statue was lifted, but it would be a pretty long shot. So I would say The Count of Nine is decent, but not stellar, as a locked room novel, but the seemingly impossible theft of a blow-pipe and a hunk of jade are not the only crimes confronting Cool and Lam. There's also a murder a little later on in the novel.

Dean Crockett’s lifeless body is found inside his so-called hibernation room, where he retreated to write travel articles and books, with "a dart from a blowgun embedded in his chest a short distance below the throat." The dart was fired into the room through the open window and the shot likely originated from the studio of his wife, Phyllis, who was painting a portrait of a nude model, Sylvia Hadley. She has a link to Crockett's personal photographer, Lionel Palmer, who has an interesting collection of photographs and gives Lam some pickup tricks. Finally, there is Crockett's public relations man, Melvin Otis Olney, and a receiver of stolen good hovering in the background.

All of these potential suspects dance around the body of the dead explorer, but the who and why of the murder were uninspired, bland and run-of-the-mill. Only the how-part of the explanation lifted this part of the plot slightly above the ordinary. Gardner toyed with ideas from G.K. Chesterton's "The Arrow of Heaven," collected in The Incredulity of Father Brown (1926), and Agatha Christie's Death in the Clouds (1935), but the clueing is a bit iffy – as the only proper hint was an observation that a second dart was "shot with sufficient force so that the point was deeply embedded in the wood" of a closet.

So I found The Count of Nine to be a very uneven mystery novel: there were definitely aspects of the story I liked, but there were also a lot of aspects that left me completely underwhelmed and unimpressed. Honestly, I expected a bit more from the author of Perry Mason, because those books had a fairly high and consistent quality of plots. But maybe I should try some of the earlier ones.

Well, that's all I have to say about The Count of Nine as a detective story, but there's one thing I need to point out to everyone. The book mentions vending machines at airports for insurance policies, which actually existed. I found the following link that briefly goes over the history of these vending machines and mentions how several airplanes were blown up with these insurance policies as a motive. One of these cases is the infamous 1955 bombing case of United States Flight 629, which resulted in 44 fatalities.

Finally, I have some good news that connects this review with a recent blog-post, "The Locked Room Reader V: A Selection of Lost Detective Stories," in which I went over a number of lost and unpublished manuscripts. Today, I learned Gardner's publisher shelves the second book in this series, The Knife Slipped, because they objected to Cool's tendency to "talk tough, swear, smoke cigarettes and try to gyp people," which happened to be exactly the kind of gal Hard Case Crime likes – who'll be publishing the book for the first time in December of this year. You can read more about the book here.

So that's one detective story we can scratch from that lamentable list of lost detective stories!

8/5/16

Vermeer's Ghost


"Suddenly, all around us, there sounded a drip, drip, drip, upon the floor of the great hall. I thrilled with a queer, realizing emotion, and a sense of a very real and present danger—imminent. The 'blood-drip' had commenced. And the grim question was now whether the Barriers could save us from whatever had come into the huge room."
- Thomas Carnacki (William Hope Hodgson's "The House Among the Laurels," from Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder, 1913)
There's a Reason for Everything (1945) is E.R. Punshon's twenty-first book from his voluminous series about policeman Bobby Owen, now Deputy Chief Constable of Wychshire, which has one of the authors patent carpets of densely knotted plot-threads, but the emerging patterns usually form a logical, well-defined image. This one is no exception in that regard!

Bobby Owen has risen through the ranks of the Wychshire police department and has now become the Deputy Chief Constable, but he felt "both a trifle unemployed and a trifle grand" in his new office. The daily grind of the police apparatus were now taken care of by the men below him, like his assistance Inspector Payne, which is "a loss he was inclined occasionally to regret." Opportunely, the new Deputy Chief Constable receives an unusual invitation that places him on the spot of a fresh crime-scene.

Dr. Clem Jones, of Wessex and Mercia University, secured permission to investigate "the rumors or renewed hauntings" at Nonpareil, the ancient seat of the Tallebois family, where blood once flowed like beer at an Irish pub – which packed the house to the rafters with ghosts. There were some pretty famous ghost stories associated with Nonpareil.

During the English Civil War, a Cavalier's family sought refuge from a troop of marauding Roundheads in its great cellars, but they were locked in and died of starvation. On the anniversary of this tragedy, their disembodied "groans and lamentations" can be heard coming from the basements. Another story involves twin brothers, rivals in love, who fought a duel to the death in one of the rooms, but the ghost they left behind is that of their grief-stricken mother – who was often seen hastily walking through the corridors in search of her sons. A third story is closely intertwined with the second one: a bloodstain is often seen in the room where the twins perished, usually after their mother is seen walking the hallways, which then gradually begins to fade away. According to the legend, the "appearance of the bloodstain is a sign of an approaching death."

Dr. Jones and one of his colleagues, Mr. Parkinson, reported to have found a fresh bloodstain in the room where, reputedly, the tragic duel took place. Naturally, bloodstains are of professional interest to Owen. So he decided to poke around the place, but what he found there had very little to do with ghost stories.

Nonpareil is a dark, abandoned and largely empty house. Only a row of statues in the picture gallery are a reminder of its glory days, but a stone bust, "of a Roman emperor apparently," was toppled over the balustrade of the inner hall – nearly crushing Owen, Payne and Parkinson. And that’s just for starters! The second problem concerns the ghostly bloodstain: Dr. Jones and Mr. Parkinson drew a chalk outline round the stain and sealed the room, which was done by placing "threads in position across the crack of the door" and "a small paper wad fixed between the doorpost and the door." So that if would fall if the door were opened. Parkinson claims these "most effective precautions" makes it impossible for anyone to have been there during absence, but the only traces they find on the bare, wooden floorboards is a chalk outline. The bloodstain has completely vanished!

I first assumed the bloodstain-angle was some kind of chemical trick, which made it fade from a sealed room, but the actual explanation, given one or two chapters later, hinges on a common gambit of the locked room mystery. However, this very explanation betrays a very shaky claim to the status of a locked room, but, considering the premise and explanation, I still decided to tag this blog-post as an impossible crime – which I also had to do with Punshon's Crossword Mystery (1934).

Finally, there's a third complication that'll provide a great deal of trouble for Bobby Owen: between the space of a statue of a prostrate stag and a posturing goddess are the strangled remains of the paranormal investigator, Dr. Clem Jones.

The introduction, written by genre-historian Curt Evans, notes how "haunted houses figured in Golden Age detective fiction with some frequency," which include such notable examples like John Dickson Carr's Hag's Nook (1933), Carter Dickson's The Plague Court Murders (1934), Gladys Mitchell's When Last I Died (1941) and John Rhode's Men Die at Cyprus Lodge (1943). It's a rich enough background to draw on for a good, old-fashioned detective story, but Punshon never seemed to be satisfied unless he was clutching a whole jumble of apparently confusing plot-threads.

This is what makes his books seem so complex. But, by the end, they usually reveal themselves to have a logical and comprehensible plot-structure, which is perhaps Punshon's greatest accomplishments as a mystery novelist: being able to manipulate a multitude of plot-strands without getting entangled in them. So let's have a quick look at the plot threads.

One of those plot-threads triggered Owen's interest in the bloodstain at Nonpareil. Owen had read in one of Inspector Payne's daily reports how Constable Reed and Major Hardman, who lived at The Tulips, had heard a gunshot coming from the direction of Wychwood forest – which is not unusual for the countryside. But it had been late in the evening and Major Hardman was worried about his young, troublesome nephew, Francis "Frank" Hardman. He had been discharged from the army as medically unfit, but had already caused trouble in the village, which did not sit very well with both his uncle and twin sister, Frances. Major Hardman had given his nephew a five-pound note and told him to get a decent job if he wanted another penny, but, since then, he seems to have vanished from the face of the earth. How does the gunshot and disappearance of Frank Hardman ties in with an attempted burglary at the village of Major Hardman?

A different plot-thread involves a young woman, Miss Betty Anson, who works in Wychwood and takes a footpath through the forest when going homeward, which means she might have heard the shot. She has hurt her foot and a footprint, corresponding with her size shoes, was found near a spend cartridge and something seems to be weighing on her mind. But the question is whether or not any of this is related to the murder at Nonpareil or tied to the unidentified corpse that was found in Midwych Canal with two bullet holes in his back.

However, the most important of all the plot-threads from this novel concerns "a first-class, long-lost Vermeer," which, as a Dutchman, I always find an interesting angle for a detective story (e.g. Herbert Resnicow's The Gold Frame, 1986). I should also point out that Evans' introduction makes a connection between this plot-thread and a famous, real-life forgery case from my country, which could have inspired Punshon. However, this book has very little to do with forgers.   

Apparently, the lost masterpiece is "a view of Rotterdam in sun and rain" and Vermeer described it in a letter as one of his best works, but parted with the panel when an English lord made a generous offer, forty guineas in gold, which he was unable to refuse – after which the painting vanished from the history books. But now there are several people hunting for the painting. A Mr. Marmaduke Clavering, "an Honourable," who entered the story as an art expert who assessed the value of those "deplorable specimens of sculpture" in the picture gallery of Nonpareil, but it becomes apparent that what he's really after is the lost Vermeer. And he has a rival: a junior partner of a Mayfair Square picture dealer, Mr. Tails, who's "not too particular in his business methods."

As you can probably deduce, There's a Reason for Everything is made up of an intricate, multifarious and complex web of plot-threads, but Punshon laces all of these plot-threads up tightly. There are also a fair amount of clues and hints dropped along the corridors and rooms of this maze-like plot, which should point out the truth to the observant reader. It also provided another demonstration of Punshon ability to navigate the reader through a labyrinthine plot. I also like how he handled the abundance of twins appearing in this story and how he sidestepped the clichéd fate that usually befalls long-lost paintings and manuscripts in detective stories.

So, all in all, I found There's a Reason for Everything to be a rewarding read and even slightly better than Punshon's much touted masterpiece, Diabolic Candelabra (1942), which really was more along the lines of a Mitchellian crime fantasy than that of a traditional whodunit. And I begin to believe that I'm becoming a fan of Punshon.

Well, I guess that's a good a place to end this drawn-out review and let's see what I'll fish up for my blog-post.