2/17/18

The Strange Death of Manny Square (1941) by A.B. Cunningham

A.B. Cunningham was an American teacher and professor, who taught English for twenty years at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, before retiring in 1945 as a professor emeritus, but, as was not entirely uncommon in those day, he had a secondary career as a mystery novelist – which became a full-time occupation after he retired from teaching. Cunningham wrote roughly twenty detective novels about his series-detective, Sheriff Jess Roden, who serves the people of rural Deer Lick, Kentucky. A county with as high a murder rate as Cabot Cove up there in Maine.

Cunningham was brought to my attention by The Anthony Boucher Chronicles: Reviews and Commentary, 1942-47 (2009), which praises his rural detective stories for its "memorable writing” and "fine regional flavor." Boucher was reputedly quite a fan and called him "an unclassifiable master."

So all that praise caught my eye and, back in 2011, I got my hands on an inexpensive paperback of Death Haunts the Dark Lane (1948) and the slice of rural Americana was definitely the most memorable aspect of the story, but, according to my own review, the plot wasn't all that shabby either – warranting a second look at the series. And, after nearly seven years, a return trip to Deer Lick has been long overdue.

The Strange Death of Manny Square (1941) is the third book in the series and the opening chapters immediately gives the reader a taste of Cunningham's famed regional flavor.

Cunningham begins by looking back at some of the exciting events that had stirred the people of Deer Lick in the past. Such as a "Great Disappointment" when an end-of-the-world prophecy didn't pan out or when Gus Luker had claimed that his grandmother had foretold the assassination of President William McKinley, who had read it in "the webs of spiders," but none of them had generated as much excitement or speculation as the murder of Manny Square. A pillar and leader of the Deer Lick community.

Manny had inherited his farm from his father, Emanuel, who had divided his land and houses between his two sons and their mother. Wayne had been Emanuel's favorite son and he was allowed to pick between two plots of land, but, during "a two-year circus," he had run through in his inheritance and even the bank could no longer finance his lavish house parties – all the while his older brother had doubled the value of his inheritance by turning it into a rolling, fertile farmland. Their mothers, Old Lou, was a woman of the old stock and was described as being of "the caliber that would keep on loading and firing her rifle over the dead body of her son" until "the last redskin lay twitching from her own rifle ball." However, the strong-willed Old Lou had to admit defeat when Manny married a comely, working-class girl, Lizzie Bogle, who Old Lou tried to reinvent as Mrs. Beth Square. She was unsuccessful.

Scene of the Crime

So this sets the stage for when the news reaches Sheriff Roden that Manny had met with a fatal accident in his own stables. Apparently, Manny had been killed by "a smashing kick" to the face by his great white mule, Ligre, who some suspect had simply been biding his time to strike out. Regardless of appearances, Sheriff Roden is terribly suspicious of the situation and, quick and neatly, deduces that Manny had been murdered, which he based on the location and nature of the head wound that showed that not the toe, but the heel, had struck first – demonstrating that the fatal blow had come from above instead of below. And almost as quickly, he works out that the murderer must have wired a mule-shoe to a sledgehammer and dropped it on Manny's head from the overhead mow.

However, the how is only the first step in figuring out who-and why, for which there are more than enough candidates. Wayne is in dire need for money and Lizzie turns out to have a secret affair with one of her husband's hired hands, Fred Sutton, giving them all a rock-solid motive for murder. Then there was a petty, long-standing feud between Manny and his next-door neighbor, Brady Heard, who had refused to place a fence at the summit of his stone quarry and Manny had been too headstrong to do it himself – claiming that it was Heard's responsibility to take the precaution. Every now and then, an animal would fall into the quarry and the same would happen, a day or so later, to one of Heard's animals.

So there you have nearly all of the components of a knotty, complicated detective story, but, in spite of appearances, the observant reader should be able to arrive at the same conclusion as Sheriff Roden without too much difficulty. All of the evidence needed to answer who killed Manny Square, and why, is hidden within the personalities and behavior of the suspects.

The Strange Death of Manny Square definitely qualifies as an old-fashioned, fair play detective novel, however, the main attraction of the book is not its plot, but the writing and backdrop of the story – which reminded me of the writing of Arthur W. Upfield. Roden is even described as "a tracker," who can read and extract information from animal tracks and human footprints, giving him the same qualities as Upfield's half-aboriginal policeman, Detective-Inspector Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte. Arguably the greatest tracker in all of detective fiction.

Unfortunately, no matter how good the writing or plot may be, this specific title is never getting reprinted in this day and age. There are three black characters in the story and how they're being portrayed, or talked about, ensures that no publisher today would dare touching it.

I don't remember these attitudes were present in Death Haunts the Dark Lane and John Norris, who reviewed Cunningham's Death at the Bottoms (1942) and The Great Yant Mystery (1943), only referred to the presence of Big Nig in one of them – a character who also appeared in this book. So I assume Cunningham toned it down a bit after the first three or four books, but I can easily imagine how these earlier titles might have prevented his later work from getting reprinted after the 1960s. And that would be a terrible shame, because I would like to read more by Cunningham and in particular his two impossible crime novels. Anyway...

On a whole, The Strange Death of Manny Square is a well-written, decently plotted detective novel, in which the characters (largely) drive the plot, but the portrayal and treatment of the black characters will most likely turn off some readers today. However, if you can read this story within the time-frame it was written, you'll probably be able to admire the positive aspects of this rural detective novel.

On a final note, I was planning to return to Christopher Bush, but a particular locked room mystery arrived in the mail today. So that one is going to be next on the list.

2/14/18

Murder and Magic: "A Stretch of the Imagination" (1973) by Randall Garrett

Last week, a positive review of Randall Garrett's Too Many Magicians (1967) appeared on Mysteries Ahoy, which was voted by a 1981 panel, spearheaded by Edward D. Hoch, as one of the fourteen all-time greatest impossible crime novels, but personally, I thoroughly detest the infernal book – giving it spot on my 2014 list of "Least Favorite Locked Room Mysteries." So, naturally, I was balking in the comment-section how awful the book really was when "JJ," of The Invisible Event, dropped by with an astonishing claim.

According to JJ, the short stories in the Lord Darcy series are "variable" in quality, but the one where "a man is found hanged in his office," despite no-one having gone in, contains "a trick so devious" he'd probably put it in his top 20 locked room short stories. I happened to have a complete omnibus edition of Garrett's Lord Darcy collecting dust on my shelves, which made it even more tempting to give this series a second shot by taking a look at "A Stretch of the Imagination."

So damn you, JJ, for making me return to this series and I'll damn you again at the end of this review, if the story turns out to be really good.

First of all, an introduction of the series in order for the people who are not familiar with Garrett's Lord Darcy, because the books merged the fantasy genre with the traditional detective story. And as much as I dislike the sole novel in this series, Too Many Magicians, I do admire Garrett's attempt to transplant the fair play concept of the classical detective story to a world rife with wizards, spells and the black arts – which makes for an interesting alternative universe.

In this alternative universe "Richard the Lion-Hearted did not die in the year 1199," but went on "to found the mightiest and most stable empire in history" where "the laws of Extra-Sensory Perception (ESP) have been codified." However, the laws of physics remain unsuspected. So in this world "magic is a science."

The greatest detective of this Anglo-Franco Empire is Lord Darcy, Chief Criminal Investigator for His Royal Highness, Richard, Duke of Normandy and Officer of the King's Justice, John IV, King and Emperor of England, France, Scotland, Ireland, New England and New France, King of the Romans and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Imagine the printing costs of his personal calling cards!

Lord Darcy is assisted by Master Sean O Lochlainn, Chief Forensic Sorcerer, who always struck me as a convenient plot-device to eliminate the use of magic from the list of possible solutions or use his magic wand to uncover clues. 

The story JJ spoke so highly of is "A Stretch of the Imagination," originally published in Of Men and Malice in 1973 and collected in Garrett's Murder and Magic (1979), which takes place within the walls of one of the most important publishing houses in Normandy, Mayard House, where staff members heard a thump and noises through the thick doors of the private-office of Lord Arlen – who owns the publishing house. However, nobody dares to enter the office until the Chief Editor, Sir Stefan, takes the charge and enters the private sanctum of his boss.

Lord Arlen was hanging by his neck from a rope that been thrown over a massive wooden beam and below his feet was an overturned chair. Nobody had entered, or left, the office in over an hour. So clearly a case of suicide, but, whenever a member of the aristocracy dies violently, an Officer of the King's Justice has to make a formal inquiry. Enter Lord Darcy and Master O Lochlainn.

Master O Lochlainn is waving "a small golden wand" around the crime-scene and senses that "there was no one else in the room at the time he died." He was also able to eliminate the possibility of an evil influence or the use of black magic in the room. Later on in the story, O Lochlainn casts a spell on the rope used to hang Lord Arlen and it sprung to life to retie itself in the slip-knot noose that the murderer had originally tied. I know wizardry is an established science in this universe and Garrett never uses magic as a solution, but I did not care for these magical intrusions in my detective story.

I guess fantasy just isn't my genre, which is weird, since my all-time favorite novel is Michael Ende's The Never-Ending Story (1979).

Luckily, this time, the plot was far more inspired than the boring, slow-moving Too Many Magicians, which borrowed its locked room idea from John Dickson Carr, but here the reader is treated to a novel explanation as to how the murderer managed to hang a man, all alone, inside a closely watched office – based on a crushed larynx, height of the chair and a slightly open window. A type of trick you'll often find in Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed series (e.g. the hanging story from Vol. 57).

Considering my disdain for this series, I was pleasantly surprised that the story, as a whole, turned out to be pretty solid with an original solution for its impossible crime. I'm not sure it would make my top 20 list, but the story was good one. Although the locked room-trick would probably have been better served in a detective story without all the magic trappings. However, that is a bit of nitpicking on my part.

So that leaves me with one last thing to say: double damn you, JJ, for not being entirely wrong about "A Stretch of the Imagination." You may continue to practice as locked room expert. For now, anyway.

2/11/18

The Case of the Missing Minutes (1936) by Christopher Bush

Christopher Bush's The Case of the Missing Minutes (1936) is the sixteenth title in the Ludovic Travers series, published between 1926 and 1968, in which Travers has to demolish an alibi as ingeniously contrived as the time-manipulation trick from Cut Throat (1932) – except that here there was a human element as to how ten minutes were lost to time. Or, as a certain detective would have called it, "the blinkin' awful cussedness of things in general."

I have come to appreciate Nick Fuller's observation that Bush was to the unbreakable alibi what John Dickson Carr was to the locked room mystery, but The Case of the Missing Minutes has another aspect that makes the book standout. The truly reprehensible personality of the victim and how his own revelations forced Travers to bow out of the case.

Quentin Trowte is an elderly, eccentric sadist and his crime makes him as repulsive a character as Mary Gregor (Anthony Wynne's The Silver Scale Mystery, 1931), Sandra, the Fat Woman (Nicholas Brady's The Fair Murder, 1933) and Mr. Ratchett (Agatha Christie's The Murder on the Orient Express, 1934).

Trowte has obtained fully custody over his 10-year-old granddaughter, Jeanne, who lives with him a dark, lonely house where she's home-schooled by a private-tutor, Mr. Howcrop. Only other people who are present are the two servant, Lucy and Fred Yardman, who are banished to their cottage after the dinner table had been cleared. However, they did not suspect anything untoward was happening in the house, because the elderly eccentric appeared to dote and adore his granddaughter. Yardmans were also of the opinion that Jeanne was "a very deceitful child," but then they began to hear the shrieks coming from the house in the dead of night.

Lucy Yardman decides to write her former employee, Helen, whose brother is Ludovic Travers and he decides to go down to place to observe the situation, but when he arrives at the home he finds the door slightly ajar and inside he finds Trowte sprawled in the hallway – gasping for his last breath. Someone had knifed the old man in the back mere minutes before he arrived. A frightened, white-faced Jeanne was crouched by the stairs and she turns out to be fully dressed beneath her nightdress, which is the first of many unsettling discoveries they make about the girls.

A doctor determined that Jeanne was an undernourished, "bundle of nerves," which comes on top of the unsettling discovery that the house had been fitted with means to spy on Jeanne and Howcrop. Such as a secret panel in the dark, windowless bedroom of the girl and the presence of a locked, but empty, room.

Travers not only plays his usual part as a lanky, bespectacled detective, but doubles as "Uncle Ludo" in an attempt to win the confidence of the frightened child. But his interest in Jeanne is not merely to pry information from here. Travers becomes genuinely fond of the child and tries to analyze why he wanted her to be fond of him, which eventually makes him to decide to withdraw from the investigation. 
 
Overall, the murder of the Quentin Trowte is a complicated one with many side-issues. Why did the girl's tutor showed such great affection to the girl after the murder and is there a link to a famous pianist who's holidaying in the neighborhood? The local village physician, Doctor Mannin, was asked by a passing car to help one of the passengers, who had a stab wound in the arm, but after he had stitched up the man he was knocked over the head and thrown in a ditch – from which he emerged with a broken leg. However, this plot-thread was the only one of the bunch that had a less than satisfactory answer.

Japanese edition
And then there are the alibis. One of these alibis, if it was manufactured, makes absolutely no sense. Not if that person is the murderer. Interestingly, there was a very brief promise of an alibi-lecture, like the Dr. Fell's locked room lecture in Carr's The Hollow Man (1935), when one of the suspects asked Travers what kind of ideas he specialized in. Travers answered that he specialized in testing people's alibis and "trying to prove that no gentleman, however ingenious, can be in two places at once." Sadly, he only mentioned "clock manipulation" and the time-honored dodge of convincing an impartial witness that "you were not where the police claimed you were." I would have liked a chapter-length lecture on all of the familiar alibi-tricks used in detective stories. Has this been done by any other mystery writer or perhaps in later Bush novel?

So the case has more than enough peculiarities to keep an inquisitive amateur fully occupied, but when Travers discovers why Trowte had a twenty-five shilling bill from a pet shop he throws in the towel.

By this point, Travers has a good idea who the murderer is and, eventually, his policeman friend, Superintendent George Wharton, finds his way to the murderer as well, but both are stumped by the alibi. An alibi that continues to stump Travers until the very last pages, during which he gets a flash of inspiration when Jeanne is trying to stay up pass her bedtime and grasps the answer to the missing ten minutes. An answer that's as clever as it's bittersweet.

The Case of the Missing Minutes is Bush's The Crooked Hinge (1938) and, while the alibi-trick does not exactly qualify as an impossible crime, the plot is more Carr-like than The Case of the Chinese Gong (1935) and the cruel abuse of a 10-year-old child makes this a highly unusual, but memorable, detective novel from the genre's Golden Era. Highly recommended.

I guess the time has come to induct Bush into my personal hall of favorite mystery novelists. Let's be honest, it was inevitable after Dancing Death (1931) and The Case of the Arpil Fools (1933).

On a final note, I wanted to do three Bush reviews in a row, but there will be break and you can blame our mutual friend, "JJ," because he said Randell Garrett wrote a short Lord Darcy story with a locked room trick that he considered to be top 20 material. Yes, the guy who made an impossible crime novel about wizards, swashbuckling specters and locked room murders a dull snore-fest wrote a classic locked room tale. I'm sure he did. So you better pray that the story is as good as you remember it, JJ, because it's next on my chopping block. 

2/8/18

The Case of the Chinese Gong (1935) by Christopher Bush

Late last year, I reviewed Christopher Bush's The Case of the Amateur Actor (1955), a relatively late entry in the series, by which time Ludovic Travers had transmogrified from an amateur detective into a genteel private-investigator working for the Broad Street Detective Agency – even narrating his own cases like a proper gumshoe. Stylistically, it was a radical departure from the earlier, puzzle-oriented novels with their minutely timed, clockwork-like plots and seemingly indestructible alibis. A style that has been affectionately dubbed "Golden Age baroque."

Regardless of this change, The Case of the Amateur Actor showed clearly Bush still knew how to construct an intricate plot during his later years and that makes me really look forward to their republication in the not-so-distant future. Anyway, I ended my review at the time with a promise to return to those early-period titles and had Dead Man Twice (1930) lined up for January of this year.

Evidently, that whole plan didn't exactly pan out and Dead Man Twice has since been returned to the big pile, because I recently got my hands on a number of titles I had been eagerly looking forward to.

Only a few days ago, Dean Street Press released the second set of reprints in Bush's Ludovic Travers series and this second batch has a couple of intriguing titles, such as The Case of the 100% Alibis (1934) and The Case of the Missing Minutes (1937), but the title that really aroused my curiosity was The Case of the Chinese Gong (1935) – an impossible crime novel that has invited reviewers in the past to draw comparisons with John Dickson Carr. So that got my full attention and the reason why I picked it first.

The Case of the Chinese Gong is the thirteenth entry in the series and, as said above, considered by many to be a Carrian impossible crime story, but the opening chapters initially reminded me of Cat's Paw (1931) by Roger Scarlett. A detective novel that's still freshly lodged in my memory.

Hubert Greeve is a thoroughly unpleasant, foul-tempered and tight-fisted man who made "a pretty big fortune" by liquidating a family business in Russia and investing the money in an engineering company at the beginning of the munitions wave of the First World War – which came at the expensive of his four nephews. Greeve's settled with a gentleman's agreement that all of his money would come to them upon his death and promised to lend a helping hand whenever he could. The nephews agreed at the time, because none of them was in direct need of money and promised to come by every year to celebrate his birthday, but "then the slump came."

Hugh Bypass is a schoolmaster and the oldest of the cousins, who had invested all he had in a private school, but there were not enough pupils to keep the place afloat. Martin Greeve was an engineer with his own toy-factory, but the Great Depression and a defaulting partner had completely ruined him. And he even tries to take his own life at the beginning of the story. Romney Greeve is an artist with a wife and two children, but ever since the slump he had been unable to sell any pictures. Finally, there's Tom Bypass, a retired army officer with bad lungs, who had a comfortable, yearly, income of five hundred pounds, but he had been using most of it to help his failing relatives and this came at a personal cost – least of all having to give up a high-class service flat in town. His doctor advised him to move to a country with a more agreeable climate or else he would not make it another year. Only problem is that Tom didn't have to money anymore to live abroad.

So they all turned to their uncle to make good on his promise and pay them what he owned them, but he turned them all down! And became as unpleasant as humanly possible.

Hubert began "a deliberate policy of provocation" and tried to get the four to quarrel, or even fight, with him, which would have given him an excuse to disinherit them. His latest provocation, as the cousins learned from his lawyer, Charles Mantlin, was the drafting of a completely new will in favor of his long-lost sister, Ethel, who everyone assumed had died decades ago. Hubert even asked Hugh and Martin to witness "a very important document." Unsurprisingly, the cousins aren't particularly fond of their uncle, but, in this case, they appear to actually take steps to eliminate him from their lives!

Meanwhile, Hubert called in the local police on two separate occasions: one of them is to report an intruder in the garden, who left behind a measuring tape in the summer-house, which is followed by a threatening letter from his long-lost brother-in-law demanding that all the money goes to Ethel.

All of this culminates when the four cousins, alongside the lawyer, come to his country estate to celebrate his birthday.

On the second day, Hubert is playing a game of cribbage with Martin in the drawing-room, while Hugh, Tom and Mantlin are sitting, or watching, in the same room. Romney is working in the summer-house twenty feet away from the room. And, as the butler smote the dinner-gong, Hubert slipped from his chair to the ground with a bullet-wound in his right temple and nobody in the room saw the shooter – who appears to have performed "a first-class miracle."

The apparently inexplicable death of Hubert Greeve was very reminiscent of the second impossible shooting in Stacey Bishop's Death in the Dark (1930), in which a member of the family, surrounded by witnesses, is shot to death in the middle of the living room. And nobody saw the murderer. Interestingly, Bush smoothed over a flaw I had with that impossible shooting from Death in the Dark. I could see how the trick could possibly work, but doubted that nobody would have noticed, or heard, from whose direction the gunshot came. A problem Bush neatly solved by timing the fatal shot with the ringing of the dinner-gong.

Bush's explanation for the shooting also differed from Bishop. The latter had a more technical solution, while former employed stage trickery. This prompted genre historian, Curt Evans, to compare the impossibility to one in Carr's Seeing is Believing (1941), published as by "Carter Dickson," but with a better explanation. As matter of fact, the explanation is an unusual one and know of only one variation on this particular trick, which can be found in a short story that was written over half a century later. No. I'm not going to say which one, because that would give the whole plot away. Once you know how it was done, you'll immediately spot the killer and the rather nifty clue that only becomes obvious in hindsight. However, Travers soon learns that getting to that conclusion is easier said than done.

I imagine there are readers, even among us, who sneer at the idea that practically everyone, independent of each other, is in the process of murdering the old man and the question is really who got to him first. Travers even concludes that Hubert could have been struck by two bullets at the same time, which were fired by two murderers who were unaware what the other was doing!

I know this stretches credulity a little bit, but I think it's a nifty way to make sure nobody is above, or below, suspicion, because literately everyone could have done it. Even the butler, John Service, who was lost mobility in one hand and used the other the smote the gong. However, someone saw him pointing his bum-hand in the direction of the drawing-room. And Service and his wife also play a bigger than normal role, for servants, in the story. One of the many problems facing Travers.

Other puzzle-pieces Travers has to toy around with are two missing volumes of The Decline and Fall of Roman Empire and a small collection of fire-arm recovered from a drained pond in the garden, which turn out not to have been used in the shooting in the drawing-room. They also find a tree with a contraption nailed to it.

Three further things that have to be mentioned is that Superintendent George Wharton is absent from the story and his position is filled by the Chief Constable of the county, Major Tempest, who reportedly made his first appearance in The Case of the 100% Alibis. Secondly, Travers is writing a new book, Kensington Gore: Murder for High-Brows, which hopefully he'll get recognized as much for in the coming books as for his famous The Economics of a Spendthrift. A book that's referred to in all the books I have read to date. Lastly, one plot-thread remained unsolved by the end: who sent that threatening letter at the start of the story? We never get an explanation for that. I suppose the plot was so complex that Bush lost sight of that minor plot-thread.

So, all in all, The Case of the Chinese Gong is a delightfully complex and knotty detective story, which might stretch believability for some readers, but those who love these intricate, baroque-style puzzles will get their moneys worth when they crack open the pages of this long-neglected detective novel. A real shame Robert Adey overlooked this one, as well as The Perfect Murder Case (1929), when he compiled Locked Room Murders (1991). It makes you wonder how many more impossible crime novels there among those sixty-three mysteries Bush penned during his life-time.

Here's to the new age of discovery and I'll be returning to Bush for my next post!

2/6/18

Death of An Oddfellow (1938) by Eric Wood

Frank Knowles Campling was a writer of popular fiction and short stories for equally popular magazine publications, such as The Strand and Toby, with five detective novels to his credit and all of them appeared under his long-time penname, "Eric Wood," beginning with The Mystery of Maybury Manor (1920) – followed by a gap of seventeen years. And then, out of nowhere, he returned to the genre under his old moniker and penned four detective novels during a brief two-year period.

Two of those titles, Death in the Mews (1937) and Death of An Oddfellow (1938), are helmed by a pair of early forensic investigators.     

Arnold Keene and Bernard Young are forensic experts and "retained specialists of Scotland Yard and the Home Office." They're in close contact with one of the top detectives of the Yard, Chief Detective Inspector Bulcraig, but his role in the series appears to be limited to giving Keene and Young the green-light to usurp the investigation and end up doing more than merely analyzing physical evidence – which is exactly what happened in their last recorded case. So you can argue that this series represents a missing link between R. Austin Freeman's Dr. John Thorndyke and the modern forensic crime-scene analysts of the small screen (e.g. the CSI franchise). 

Death of An Oddfellow begins with a phone-call from Bulcraig, summoning Keene and Young to the village of Mancing, Bedfordshire, where a fortnight ago a man had disappeared under dubious circumstances.

Jeremiah Harding was the treasurer of an Oddfellow's Lodge, a fraternity of businessman who lend each other money, who had simply disappeared with 500 pounds belonging to the Lodge. However, the sensation has since not subsided in Mancing. On the contrary. One of the local artists, Sumner, was the victim of a burglary and his windmill was set ablaze, but when firefighters began to drain a nearby mill-pond for water they made a gruesome discovery. A naked, mud-caked body of a man without a head and hands!

So the police not only has to find a murderer, but also determine to whom the body belongs, which is where Keene and Young come into the picture. And the highlight of the story really is seeing them at work as scientific detectives.

Keene and Young do not only peer through microscopes, analyze bloodstains and study "the teeth marks of the saw" on the bones, but also reconstruct the face of the dead man (once the skull is found) with Plasticine and gave a remarkable demonstration on how to preserve "footprints in the dust." I have no idea whether or not you can make a cast of a dust-print, however, the scene could have easily been used in an episode of CSI.

Unfortunately, the plot is plain, simple and sorely lacked the ingenuity of the scientific methods used to unravel it. There's not much else that I can say except that you, as the reader, can't do much more than follow Keene and Young around as they go over all of the evidence that'll eventually lead them to the murderer. Death of An Oddfellow is really one of those stories about detectives rather than an actual detective story. I suppose you can also link this short-lived series to the police novels of Basil Thomson, which also tend to have simple, straightforward plots (e.g. The Milliner's Hat Mystery, 1937) where proper police work by a team of policemen is the main attraction of the stories. The same seems to go for Wood.

Despite the plot's simplicity, I did eye the completely wrong person early on the story. One of the artists, Ritsley, turns out to be clay-modeler with shelves full of statuettes, busts and plaques. The skull was still missing at this point and assumed the skull could have been hidden inside a clay bust. After it had been boiled clean, of course. So, I thought I had spotted the murderer, which practically solving half of the case, but then my main suspect had the impudence to get himself killed a chapter, or so, later – ruining my, uh, spotless reputation as an armchair detective. Anyway, I have padded out this post long enough. Time to put it out of its misery.

Historically, Death of An Oddfellow offers the modern detective readers a fascinating depiction of two early crime-scene investigators at work, who use science to detect the criminal, but the traditional-minded reader who wants a cunning, old-fashioned detective story are advised to stay clear of this one. I know what you like and this is not it. And to those who are still interested: Black Heath reissued all but one of Wood's detective novels as cheap ebooks.

On a final note, my last few reads have not exactly been first-rate detective stories and my aim is to chance that with my next one. I had already selected two titles, one with a cast-iron guarentee of fair play, but the second batch of Christopher Bush novels was just released by Dean Street Press. So I can finally take a look at Bush's most Carrian mystery novel.  

2/2/18

The Murdered Schoolgirl (1945) by John Russell Fearn

John Russell Fearn's The Murdered Schoolgirl (1945) is the second of five titles in his lamentably short-lived series about Miss Maria Black, or "Black Maria," who's the "crime sensitive" headmistress of Roseway College for Young Ladies and educated herself on criminology by ransacking the school library – as well as patronizing her local cinema whenever they're screening an American gangster movie (e.g. One Remained Seated, 1946). During her first case, Black Maria, M.A. (1944), made an unlikely ally, "Pulp" Martin, who's an American ex-thief and confidence trickster. Martin is as loyal as a dog to the headmistress and she often engages his services to do the legwork in an investigation.

Initially, the series was published under one of Fearn's innumerable pseudonyms, namely "John Slate," but were reissued during the 2000s under his own name and that's not the only (cosmetic) change to be found in the series.

The Murdered Schoolgirl was originally titled Maria Marches On and retained its original book-title when it was first reprinted in 2003, by Wildside Press, but when Philip Harbottle submitted it to Thorpe (Linford Mystery Library) he gave the book "a more exciting generic title" – hoping that it would help "clinch the sale." Obviously, it did. Harbottle later appropriated the title for one of the Ernest Dudley short story collections he compiled and sold to the same publisher (i.e. Dr. Morelle Marches On, 2010).

As some of you probably gauged from my previous reviews, Miss Maria Black is my favorite Fearn series-character, closely followed by Chief Inspector Garth, but my reason for waiting almost a year to finish the series has nothing to do with saving the best for last. Oh, no! Our mutual friend, John Norris of Pretty Sinister Books, took the wind out my sails in the comment-section of my review of One Remained Seated.

According to John, I left "the least appealing" title in the series for the end and recommended I moved on to the Dr. Hiram Carruthers series, which bristled with seemingly impossible crimes and locked room murders (e.g. Vision Sinister, 1954). Admittedly, I was aware the book had a plot-thread about an invisible ink tattoo and an invention that could be of great value to the war effort. So I feared that the detective-element was diluted by tacky, pulpy spy material, but this turned out not to be the case and the plot actually reminded me of Agatha Christie's Cat Among the Pigeons (1959) – which also takes place at a girl's college and they even share a very specific plot-point. Something that made me wonder if Christie had read the book herself and the idea had stuck with her. Anyway...

The book begins with Miss Black receiving two guests, Major Hasleigh and his daughter, Frances, who are faced with a problem. Major Hasleigh has been widowed and has been ordered to join his unit abroad immediately, but their house has already been sold and now has nowhere to leave his daughter. So he asked if she could be enrolled into Roseway College, even though the new term had already began, but Miss Black accepts Frances as a student. And the problems begin before Major Hasleigh has even left the premise. Miss Black notices something peculiar about the military man who had appeared before her and he had given her contact information of relations that appear to be nonexistent, but Frances also turns out to be a handful.

Frances is domiciled by the Housemistress, Miss Tanby, in Study F with Beryl Mather and Joan Dawson, but she's not very sociable and "broke bounds" by sneaking away to ask an unusual question to the science teacher, Robert Lever. She wants to know "the exact position of the star Sirius." However, they get caught by Miss Tanby and she drags them to the desk of Miss Black, because fraternity between pupils and teachers of the opposite sex is strictly verböten. Frances falsely accuses Lever of attempting to kiss her against her will, which forces Miss Black to unceremoniously sack her science teacher and ground Frances for a week.

However, she keeps sneaking out in the middle of the night and gets into a scrap with the head girl of the Sixth Form, Vera Randal, who's "a vindictive bully" and decides to teach Frances, Byril and Joan a lesson leaving them in Bollin's Wood – all tied-up and without their shoes. When the three girls failed to reappear, Vera returned to the spot, but what she found was two of the girls, Byril and Joan, bound and gagged on the ground. They're both unconscious. Frances is hanging from a tree branch by the neck! So that leaves Miss Black with a dead student and a possible murderer sneaking around her college.

Miss Maria Black's double role as an amateur detective and the responsibilities that comes with being a headmistress of a college are the true highlight of this entry in the series.

The position of Miss Black, as headmistress of a girl's college, has always been in the background of the other four novels, but here the reader got to see her in the role of stern headmistress who disciplines her pupils and has to brave "a whole host of parents" after the murder – all of them loaded. She also has a Board of School Governors to please and take on such duties as arranging the funeral of Frances. A position Miss Black tries to combine with her own private investigation and such clues as silk shreds in the hanging rope, triple knots and a lack of footprints in the clearing where the hanging took place greatly occupy her mind. And then there are such complications as who stole the body or why the body-snatcher horribly burned her left arm.

As to be expected, her duties as headmistress and indulging her hobby as an amateur criminologist intertwine on more than one occasion.

I was pleasantly reminded of when Reverend Ebenezer Buckle had to pull double-duty, in Nicholas Brady's Ebenezer Investigates (1934), when a member of his flock is murdered and he had to play detective without neglecting his duty as the spiritual leader of the community.

Unfortunately, the overall plot is rather weak and easily seen through. The murderer becomes painfully obvious after the girls are discovered in the clearing, but Fearn deserves props for giving it the old college try, because he did everything he could to convince the reader to remove this character from the list of suspects. The best red herring he planted was separating the obvious motive from the murderer, but I did not slip over it. Granted, the motive did puzzle me for a while. However, there really was only one person who could have done it. So that did not deter me from solving this one long before Miss Black.

So, I would not recommend readers who are new to the series, but start with Black Maria, M.A. or Death in Silhouette (1950). Or Thy Arm Alone (1947), if you want a truly original ending for a detective story (your slanderous opinion is not wanted on this flawless gem, JJ). If you take a liking to Miss Black, you'll be able to appreciate how she plays her roles here as headmistress and amateur detective, because the plot is, regrettably, one of Fearn's weaker efforts.

A stronger plot would have been nice, but, as a fan of the series, I do not regret having saved this one for last. Sadly, I do regret that this is the last time I got to follow Miss Black around as she poked her nose where it usually doesn't belong. On the bright side, my stack of Fearn's detective novels has not subsided. On the contrary! So you can expect much, much more Fearn on this blog in the future. 

Postscript Feb. 3, 2018: Philip Harbottle emailed me the following relevant background information about the book: 

"The only thing I would add to your review (which you couldn’t have known)  is that the patriotic second world war plot—irrespective of whether or not it was a little weak—was one that Fearn deeply believed in. He wrote the book during the war and had been inspired by the death in action of his cousin (a great family friend). The Rich and Cowan edition was “Dedicated to the Memory of my Cousin, Flying Officer "Rusty" Baker.