5/28/17

The Political Body

"Politics makes liars of us all, Lieutenant."
- Joe Devlin (Columbo: The Conspirators, 1978)
Frans and Tineke Steenmeijer's Moord in het provinciehuis (Murder at Provincial House, 1999) originally appeared in the Frisian language, as Moard yn it provinsjehûs, followed in 2001 with the publication of a Dutch edition and can therefore by categorized as a streekroman (regional novel) with the northern province of Friesland (Frisia) as a backdrop – which probably explains how the book managed to elude me until recently. But when I came across the book and read the plot description, I immediately recognized the characteristics of a potential impossible crime story.

According to the synopsis, the story concerns the murder of a provincial politician, shot through the heart, during a meeting of the College of Deputies in a room closed from the outside world. A brief internet search lead me to a website, cataloging Dutch crime-fiction, mentioning that the book opened with "a pleasant, old-fashioned locked room mystery."

So my curiosity was duly aroused and wanted to know whether Murder at Provincial House qualified as a genuine locked room novel or simply dealt with a murder committed in a closed-circle of suspects, because the two are often conflated with one another. Well, it turns out the plot worked with both tropes.

Murder at Provincial House opens during one of the regular assemblages of the college of the Gedeputeerde Staten van Friesland, but the rituals and routine of the gathering is disturbed when, during a talk on spatial planning, "a strange plop" is heard and one of them slumps back in his chair – a growing bloodstain on his shirt. Someone has shot Fons van Thorn, while everyone sat around him, but nobody in the room could possibly have discharged a gun without being seen. And a search of the premise failed to produce the proverbial smoking gun.

It's as if the bullet came out of nowhere and the problem of an inexplicable death in a closed, and watched, room in which several witnesses were present was reminiscent of Max Afford's The Dead Are Blind (1937) and E.R. Punshon's Six Were Present (1956). But the locked room angle here was rather quickly disposed off.

During the second chapter, one of the people present in the room notices, what could be called, a clue and the impossibility is fully explained when the third chapter rolls around. Obviously, this altogether too slender plot-thread was inspired by Havank's "De vergrendelde kamer" ("The Bolted Room"), collected De Schaduw & Co (The Shadow & Co, 1957), which I happened to have reviewed here only a fortnight ago, because the authors are apparently great admirers of Havank – an enthusiasm shared by their own series-character, Rijksinspecteur Doede Deschesne. So they probably got the idea for the locked room from that short-short story and tweaked it a bit.

Understandably, I was disappointed that the book stopped being an impossible crime by the end of the second chapter, but the explanation showed the killer had knowledge of both the layout of the historic building and movement of the people. Since the crime-scene was a government building and all of the potential suspects were elected representatives or government employees the investigation is given to a special investigator of the Rijksrecherche (state police), Doede Deschesne.

Deschesme has his work cut out for him. The victim was the dictionary definition of an infant terrible. A personality trait not everyone around him found endearing.

Frisian edition
Fons van Thorn was a gynecologist who retired early and, "more or less as a joke," began his own political movement, under the banner of the Gezond Verstand Partij (Common Sense Party), which pulled seven seats underneath the political establishment in previous provincial elections – allowing him to become the Deputy of Environment and Housing. Something that earned him the ire of one of his colleagues, Anna Kup-Boltini, who's fanatical environmentalist and wanted the position to reshape local policy. But he also has a sworn enemy within his own party, Abel Hondelaar, who had been plotting a coup d'état.

And there there are the personal motives. Van Thorn was a known philanderer and his latest conquest was a young girl from the finance department, Wiegertje de Groot, which put an end to her relationship with Wigle Adema. They were planning to move in together, but then Van Thorn appeared on the stage. So this gives the young man a potential motive and he does not exactly go out of his way to give Deschesme the idea he's barking up the wrong tree.

All of this, and more, has to be sorted out by Deschesme and his capable assistant, Henri Dulder, who loves Columbo and sometimes couldn't resist to imitate the famous TV-detective. So this makes for a pleasant read and the story-telling nostalgically reminded me of the glory days of A.C. Baantjer, but with a plot that appeared to be moving along the same lines as the excellent police-detectives by M.P.O. Books and the Commissioner Daan Vissering series by Cor Docter.

Sadly, these positive attributes did not extend all the way to the solution. The murderer was revealed to be a minor character, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but the only tangible clue pointing in this direction was a slip of the tongue. Something that's even harder to spot when you learn about the weak, wishy-washy motive of the murderer. There were a plethora of legitimate suspects with genuine motives, but the authors went for the most underwhelming combination of the two. So that was a bit disappointing.

There was, however, a possibility for a clever, Agatha Christie-style solution using the disputed alibi of one of the suspects. A different combination of people, involved with the alibi, would be required, but it would have given the story a splendid and satisfying solution in the Golden Age tradition.

So, all in all, Murder at Provincial House has some first-class story-telling, but the plotting was less than perfect and the ending was underwhelming. A pity since the book had all the potential to be one of those rare Dutch detective novels that could stand toe-to-toe with its foreign counterparts. 

On a semi, related note: my fellow locked room connoisseur, "JJ," wrote a blog-post, titled "A Little Help for My Friends – Finding a Modern Locked Room Mystery for TomCat Attempt #1: Murder in the Oval Office (1989) by Elliott Roosevelt," which weirdly synchronizes with this review. The plots of both books deal with the impossible shooting of a politician inside a secured room of a iconic government building, but Murder in the Oval Office also has a Dutch connection as the author and the detective, Eleanor Roosevelt, were Dutch-Americans. You would almost think we planned this, but we were both unaware what the other was reading.

I wish Patrick was still around to point an accusatory finger at the mischievous ghost of Harry Stephen Keeler.

5/25/17

Fenced In

"This is no ordinary murder! This is an impossible crime!"
- Edogawa Rampo
The late Roger Ormerod, who hailed from Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, England, worked a wide variety of jobs during his lifetime, such as postman, factory worker, country court officer and an executive officer in the Department of Social Security, but also moonlighted as a novelist with more than twenty crime-and detective novels under his belt – published over a quarter of a century between 1974 and 1999.

Honestly, I probably would've remained completely ignorant of Ormerod had it not been for the inclusion of three of his books in Robert Adey's invaluable Locked Room Murders (1991). And the descriptions of the impossibilities were original enough to attract my attention. One of these books in particular held my interest.

The Weight in Evidence (1978) appears to have brought two of Ormerod series-characters, David Mallin and George Coe, together in a partnership as private-investigators. Mallin seems to have been his main series-characters, debuting in Time to Kill (1974), while Coe only appeared sporadically in such books as A Spoonful of Luger (1975) and A Glimpse of Death (1976) – with the former being one of the three impossible crime novels listed by Adey. They seem to have crossed paths for the first time in Too Late for the Funeral (1977), when they approached the same case from opposite ends, each unaware of the other's interest, which ended with them becoming partners in crime.

However, the crossover aspect of the past entries in this series was not the primary reason for picking this particular title. Oh no. My reason was much more banal: Adey listed not one, but two, impossible situations for The Weight of Evidence. So, just like a kid in a candy store, I pounced on the bag of sweets which looked to me to be the fullest.

The Weight of Evidence tells of the first investigation of Mallin and Coe as official partners, which brings them to a fence-enclosed site "in the middle of an area obviously being systematically torn down" by a horde of construction workers. But one of the hard hats has gone missing under inexplicable circumstances.

On the previous day, they had erected a site-foreman's shed on the terrain by pouring an eleven by nine slab of concrete on the ground and lowering a floorless shed by crane on this foundation, which was then bolted down on the inside by one of the construction workers, Fred Wallach – who was not a popular member of the crew. So when the crane operator, Walter Dyke, noticed Wallach, who was giving directions in the center of the concrete patch, appeared to be unaware that the shed was coming down the wrong way round he kept his lips sealed. Because a chain-link fence now blocked the door and this trapped Wallach inside the shed.

Next thing they know, "the five o'clock hooter" went and they "packed it in," which left Wallach to spend "a cheerful night" trapped inside a bare shed. However, when they returned to the shed it appears to be inexplicably deserted and when the two private-investigators take a look inside they discover the nuts have been bolted down and tightened, which left Wallach with absolutely no room to escape. The chain-link face blocking the door was undisturbed and taking out the window proved to be an unlikely explanation.

So how could anyone vanish, like a burst soap-bubble, from a shed with its only exit blocked by a solid, undamaged chain-link fence? It's "a classical locked-room situation."

The trick for the impossible disappearance is pretty nifty and logical, splendidly using the bolted down, tightened nuts as red herrings, which did not prevent me from figuring out how Wallach escaped from the blocked shed. However, this was not due to my dazzling abilities as a brilliant armchair reasoner, but because certain elements of the setting and problem reminded me of another locked room novel. I would probably spoil too much by naming the book in question, because the method for the vanishing trick here hinges on exactly the same idea used in the other book to present a murder in a small, completely sealed environment – getting a different result with pretty much the same trick. And Ormerod looks to have been the originator of this locked room idea.

Anyway, the impossible disappearance is resolved by the end of the second chapter, but there's a legitimate and very clever reason offered for this early revelation of, what should've been, one of the focal points of the plot.

The solution to the first impossibility leads them to a long-forgotten room on the demolition site, bolted from the inside, which contains two bodies: one of them is the missing construction worker, shot through the heart, but the second body has been rotting away in that room for the past thirteen or fourteen years. As it turns out, the decayed skeleton belonged to Marty Coleman, a local, who disappeared after taking part in a bank robbery with the loot. A "bag of white fivers" that could not be spent. A second accomplish, Dutch Marks, got away empty handed and the third one, Karl Lubin, served time for shooting the bank manager. Now he lives in the neighborhood again!

So that makes for a nice, double-layered locked room problem, but the bolted door is not even the biggest obstacle facing Mallin, Coe and the police. Coleman and Wallach were shot with the same gun, thirteen years apart, but the missing hand of Coleman suggested the murder weapon had been wrenched from his grasp. But can a gun, "rusted to hell," fire a second, fatal shot after nearly fifteen years? What role does the bank robbery and bag of banknotes play in the case? Are any of the old robbers involved or did Wallach's murderer accidentally stumble across this nifty hiding place?

Admittedly, the whodunit angle is the weakest facet of the plot, because Ormerod gave the murderer's identity away when the robbery angle turned up. Mallin made a throwaway remark that contained the whole truth and could have flown under the radar had Ormerod handled this so-called clue with a bit more subtlety and sophistication. 

Regardless of this blunt handling of the killer's identity, the main attraction of the plot remains the locked rooms and the way in which they were interconnected. One simply could not exist without the other and the only other example I could think of with such a pair of linked impossibilities is John Dickson Carr's The Hollow Man (1935).

Of course, The Weight of Evidence is not in the same league as that landmark impossible crime novel by the master himself, but the ambition was definitely there and the locked rooms were good, and original, enough for Adey to label the book as "the genuine article." Even though he was taken somewhat aback by the complexity of how both locked room tricks were stringed together. I fully admit the story would have benefited from some maps or diagrams, but the tricks are not impossible to imagine. You just have to read the explanations very carefully.

So, no, it would be unfair to compare The Weight of Evidence to some of the classics of the genre, but I think a comparison with the trio of locked room novels Bill Pronzini wrote during the 1980s is allowable. 

I know Pronzini is an American and Ormerod was English, but everything about this book, such as the tone, atmosphere and plot, felt not entirely dissimilar to Hoodwink (1981), Scattershot (1982) and Bones (1985). Particularly the last one felt similar in mood to this one as well as dealing with skeletal remains and an impossible crime. So you should expect something along the lines of a 1980s Nameless Detective novel when picking this one up.

As you can probably judge by this review, you have not heard the last of Ormerod on this blog and I'll not limit myself to his handful of locked room novels. Some of his "normal" detective stories also piqued my interest and found some of the negative commentary on his work by the critics very encouraging, which stated that his labyrinthine plots tend to have too many twists and turns. Ha! There's no such thing as too many twists and turns in a traditionally (styled) detective story.

So expect a quick return to this writer, but the next blog-post might be taking a look at a Dutch mystery novel with, what might be, a very unusual locked room problem.

5/24/17

The Body in the Library

"Surely a collection of old books is harmless enough?"
- Bobby Owen (E.R. Punshon's Comes a Stranger, 1938)
Jill Paton Walsh is a British novelist, who began her career as an author of children's fiction, but during the early 1990s she turned her eye to detective stories and her first, tentative steps in the genre were shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger Award – which was an auspicious beginning. However, Paton garnered most of her fame, as a mystery novelist, when she was tapped by the estate of Dorothy L. Sayers to complete her unfinished Lord Peter Wimsey novel, Thrones, Dominations (1998). She has since then penned three additional books based on the characters created by the Queen of the Literary Detective Novel.

As a purist snob, I tend to curl my upper lip in absolute disgust at the mere idea of pastiches. I share Rex Stout's sentiment when he said that writers should "roll their own," but there are a few, rare exceptions that even I found impossible to condemn, because they actually respected and did justice to the original – one of these exceptions to the rule was Walsh's Thrones, Dominations.

Walsh's commentary on the completion of the unfinished manuscript showed the kind of respect you should expect from a writer handling someone else's creations. She mentioned that "the fragmented notes made it clear who the murderer was," but felt tempted to "invert her scheme" and make "the victim top the murderer." But it was Sayers' book and therefore Walsh followed her pattern, which is what made Thrones, Dominations and A Presumption of Death (2002) such pleasant reads.

So the remaining titles in this continuation of the Lord Peter Wimsey series, The Attenbury Emeralds (2010) and The Late Scholar (2013), were jotted down on my never-ending wishlist years ago, but also wanted to sample some of Walsh's own crime-fiction. I actually collected all but one of them over the years and dumped them on the big pile. It was kind of time I finally took a look at one of them.

The Wyndham Case (1993) is the first of four novels about Walsh's own series-character, Imogen Quy, a college nurse attached to the fictional St. Agatha's College, Cambridge. My reason for picking this particular title is that I had seen it billed as a locked room mystery, but that turned out not to be the case. However, it was still a good detective novel in the tradition of such (lesser-known) literary Crime Queens as Dorothy Bowers, Joanna Cannan and Elizabeth Gill.

The story begins with Walsh's heroine, Nurse Quy, being dragged by the Master to the Wyndham Library where the body of Philip Skellow, a history student with a scholarship, was found spread-eagled beneath the famous "Wyndham Case" - a ginormous, "two-storey bookcase of ancient oak" with "a little gallery running along it."

Wyndham Library was bequeathed to the college by a seventeenth century occultist, Christopher Wyndham, who was a "passionate opponent of Sir Isaac Newton," but the Wyndham Bequest came with a series of conditions that proved to troublesome as the time went on.

A permanent, overpaid library keeper was to be appointed and his only task was to make sure no books were taken out, or added to the collection, which consisted of books dealing with such obscure and rejected ideas that they were only of interest for "their splendid binding" or the insight they offered on "the history of typography" - which means they were "reverently inspected, but never read." Wyndham also designed the special lock on the door and only two people were supposed to be in possession of the keys: the library keeper and an (unknown) auditor. One every century, on an unknown date, the college is visited by an auditor to inspect the library. So a lot of trouble to simply become the custodians of a burdensome collection of ancient, yellowing tomes without any appear to scholars, but the college was in financial dire straits in 1692 and could not afford to turn the bequest down.

All of the conditions Wyndham placed on the college was the first domino stone to fall in a long series of events that resulted in several deaths, but I'll return to that aspect of the plot later on in the review.

First of all, there's the police investigation and Quy finds herself working on the inside of the college to help her policeman friend, Mike Parsons, with clearing up the numerous questions surrounding the death of the young student. One of them is what Philip was doing in the library, after dark, and how he obtained access to the vault-like room, but there's also the inexplicable pool of wet blood around the head of the stiffened body – as he was not a haemophiliac. Quy is the kept the busiest with sorting out the mess of Philip's college life. Philip was "a grammar-school boy," with poor parents, who was not very popular with his more well-to-do peers, such as his roommate, but lately, he had ready cash to spend. Who did he get the money? Why did his roommate, Jack Taversham, suddenly disappear? And how is all of this related to the drowning of a medic student in the fountain pool?

What impressed me the most about all of the plot-threads is not only how tightly they're interwoven with one another, but how they're depended upon one another to have played out in the way they did. It's like one, long row of falling domino stones that began in the late 1600s and if one thing had gone differently nobody would have died.

If the Wyndham Bequest had not such idiotic, strenuous conditions the subsequent tragedies would simply not have happened. If the Domestic Bursar of St. Agatha's College had assigned Philip and Jack to different rooms, the former probably would not have died on the cold floor of the library. If Philip had not planned an Easter holiday in Kashmir or forgot his appointment with Quy to get holiday inoculations he would certainly not have died (etc, etc, etc).

It's one of the best examples of the Merrivalean "blinkin' awful cussedness of things in general" at work, which is a lovely way to structure a plot, but it should be pointed out that the actual clues are rather thinly spread around – which might be a problem for an armchair detective. There is, however, an important clue hidden early on in the story that should tell you what Philip was doing in the library and how he got pass the locked door, but, as you probably guessed from this blog-post, that's only a minor part of the overall plot. So you have to keep that in mind when you pick up The Wyndham Case.

All in all, The Wyndham Case is a well-written mystery novel, like a modern Crime Queen, with a tricky plot structure that's as unusual as it satisfying, but not one that really lends itself to the reader who wants to play armchair detective. Once again, you have to keep that in mind. However, in spite of this minor reserve, The Wyndham Case is light-years ahead, in overall quality, of pretty much 99% of what has been published since the 1960s under the banner of crime-and detective fiction. I can specifically recommend the book to readers who love the Golden Age Crime Queens and their followers.

Finally, the next blog-post will probably be a review of a locked room novel, but I'm torn between two options. One of them is a writer from the seventies and eighties who penned three locked room mysteries and the other one is an obscure Dutch novel from the early 2000s with a very unusual impossible situation. Ah, luxury problems!

5/21/17

Where Journeys End, Lovers Meet

"Life is like a train, Mademoiselle. It goes on. And it is a good thing that that is so."
- Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie's The Mystery of the Blue Train, 1928)
John Russell Fearn was an astoundingly prolific writer of detective stories, science-fiction and westerns, who had his roots in the British pulp magazines of his days, which means that his name is not synonymous with literary respectability, but this second-tier wholesaler of pulp-fiction has wormed his way into my heart. You might have noticed that yourself by the growing amount of reviews of his work.

As a mystery novelist, Fearn earned my endearment with an obvious love for (webwork) plotting and a drive to be as original as possible, which resulted in a wildly varied catalog of crime-fiction that ran the entire gamut from hybrid mysteries to scientific detective stories – published under as many pennames. Some notable examples include a first-rate inverted mystery (Except for One Thing, 1947) and a Carrian-style locked room mystery (The Five Matchboxes, 1948), but he also penned a short precursor to the contemporary crime novel in the mid-1950s.

Lonely Road Murder (1954) was originally published under one of his legion of pennames, "Elton Westward," which (surprisingly) lacks all of the bells and whistles usually adorning the plots of his detective stories.

So you won't find any great detectives, locked rooms, alibis or the diabolical application of science in order to make someone vanish from the face of the earth here. Instead, the book offers a very short, straight-laced and uncomplicated crime story that I did not expect from Fearn.

Lonely Road Murder is narrated by Rosemary "Rosie" Lennox and she lives a simple, but happy, existence among the people who she really cares about. Rosie is romantically involved with her boss, Stephen Lane, who singled her out when he was "practically knee-deep in beauties" and they succeeded in keeping everyone at the office in the dark – preventing any kind of work floor gossip. She also on friendly terms with the people who live in her flat. Bob McDonnell is high-spirited, budding author who loves to tease Rosie and she usually hurls some good natured abuse at his head ("temper, temper"). Elly Moreland is her next door neighbor and a friendly, plump woman who had mothered Rosie the day she had moved in.

Rosie is also on friendly terms with a married couple, John and Mary Francis, who occupy one of the ground-floor apartments and they work in a small nightclub as vocalists with Les Roberts' Band, but John has been quarreling with Mary over her being "too friendly" with their boss – resulting in him storming out of the apartment.

So a relatively normal, everyday collection of people who have their fair share of common, or even petty, problems to keep them busy. You often encounter such regular, often working class, characters in Fearn's work. Such as the cinema employers in One Remained Seated (1946) and the modest, slightly middle class, family from Death in Silhouette (1950). Fearn appears to have been better at writing about down-to-earth people than about the upper classes (e.g. The Crimson Rambler, 1947) or eccentric characters (e.g. Adam Quirke from The Lonely Astronomer, 1954). Anyway...

One foggy evening, Rosie returns home from a date with Stephen and notices, to her surprise, the door of John and Mary's flat was open. When she goes inside to inspect she finds the huddled, prone figure of Mary on the bedroom floor with finger marks on her throat.

The minor police presence in Lonely Road Murder comes in the guise of "a queer bird-like appearance," named Inspector Nevil, who is mighty suspicious of the victim's husband, John. A suspicion that's both understandable and completely justified when John apparently committed suicide, gassing himself to death, but a post-mortem examination revealed "a large quantity of laudanum" in the body – which turned this murder/suicide in a double homicide. However, this is also the point where this already short novel, of merely eight chapters, had completely ran out of steam.

At this point in the narrative, my impression that Fearn began to struggle to finish writing a crime story without a solid plot or even a central problem to concentrate on. There are some minor concessions made to the traditional detective story, such as when Rosie went over the crime-scene and questioned the band leader, but the explanation is reached when she accidentally stumbles across it. And places her in the clutches of a slightly unhinged killer.

Obviously, the books Fearn wrote under the "Elton Westward" byline must have been commissioned by the publisher, who probably wanted some of those newfangled crime thrillers, because this is not the type of story that must have been fun for him to write. However, it was mercifully short and the story makes for interesting material to compare with his more plot-driven detective novels.

One thing that amused me about Lonely Road Murder is how Fearn seems to have been considering the possibility of turning the murder of John Francis into a full-blown locked room mystery, but probably decided against it on account of the nature of the story. However, the way in which they had to break into the gas filled room sure as hell promised a good, old-fashioned locked room murder.

So, all in all, Lonely Road Murder was off the beaten track for Fearn and not a book I would recommend to readers who are new to his work, but eventually it might be an interesting read to see what happens to a plot-driven mystery novelist when you take his bag of tricks away. And it was short enough not to be excruciatingly disappointing. Only thing that really annoyed me was the final scene that resolved a romantic sub-plot, but it was embarrassingly childish. Act your age, Mr. Fearn! Act your age!

5/20/17

The Curmudgeon Got Cut

"The situation is serious, far more serious than you seem able to realise."
- Dr. Constantine (Molly Thynne's Death in the Dentist's Chair, 1932)
Last year, all of the obscure, long-forgotten detective novels by Molly Thynne were reissued by the Dean Street Press, comprising of six titles, which can be divided into two groups of three books each – starting with a trio of standalones and ending with three mysteries about her only series-character, Dr. Constantine.

I reviewed all three of her series titles, shortly upon their re-release, but decided to temporarily store the remaining ones on the big pile. It was a decision I now slightly regret, because the subject of today's blog-post is easily the best detective story I have read by Thynne so far.

The Case of Sir Adam Braid (1930) is the last of the three standalone novels and opens in the London flat of a distinguished, but cantankerous, artist with a penchant for malice and hoarding money, which may be at the root of his untimely demise. On the evening of his death, Sir Adam was pouring all of his venom into a response to his granddaughter, Jill, in order to put an end "to the hopes of the one relative he possessed who did not actively dislike him."

Jill had made the foolish mistake of asking her ill-tempered grandfather for an advance on her inheritance, as she really needed the money, but a murderer's hand prevented the completion of the letter and this secured her position as his heir – as well as giving her a cast-iron motive when Sir Adam's body is found with "a cut at the back of the neck."

There are, however, more potential suspects for the police to consider who live in, or were around, the flat where the murder took place.

Sir Adam's long-suffering manservant, Johnson, was drinking a pint of a beer and discussing horse-racing at "The Nag's Head," which is an alibi, but subsequent investigations exposed he still had a thing or two to hide. Someone who also has something to hide are the occupants of the top-floor flat, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, who are not entirely unfamiliar with the police. A brother and sister, Everard and Bella Webb, occupy the ground-floor flat and they're "born gossips," but do these two splendid characters know more than they shared with the police?

Luckily, Chief Inspector Abel Finn finds an ally in an old friend and neighbor of the victim, Dr. Gilroy, who's normally too busy peering at bacteria through a microscope, but catching a glimpse of Jill is all the motivation he needs to get himself involved – which provides the plot with a pinch of romance. And they have some serious clearing up to do before they can get to the heart of the case.

Several of the previously mentioned characters have something of an unlawful nature to hide, which are not always (directly) tied to the slaying of Sir Adam, but require clarification for the plot to advance. The plot-strands that are directly tied to the murder consists of a missing hat-box (stuffed with banknotes), stolen jewelry and the quarreling voices heard coming from Sir Adam's flat around the time of his death. All of these problems, unanswered questions and developments are keeping Finn and Gilroy on their toes, which makes for a pleasantly busy and complex detective story. A detective story that could've easily become a tangled mess of plot-threads, but they were all firmly within Thynne's grasp and were only let go off once she was done with a specific thread.

However, Thynne's greatest accomplishment here is how she actually managed to prevent the solution from becoming an anti-climatic disappointment.

The identity of the murderer and the motive is not what you would expect to arise from the premise of the plot, or any kind of classical whodunit for that matter, but all of the evidence was there. And it was used to play on the least-likely-suspect motif. I liked it.

So, to sum up this review, The Case of Sir Adam Braid is a well written, competently plotted Golden Age mystery with a purity of at least 22k. I genuinely hope the other two standalone titles, The Draycott Murder Mystery (1928) and The Murder on the Enriqueta (1929), will be able to match, or even surpass, this one.

P.S. I was constraint for time when I began to write, which is why this hastily slapped together review is shorter than usual, but I'll back to my rambling old self for the next one. 

5/17/17

Driven to the Grave

"It's a cinch he didn't climb into our rumble seat to make it simple for his murderer."
- Jack Storm (Dorothy Cameron Disney's Death in the Back Seat, 1936)
One of the detective story's most famous admirers was T.S. Eliot, poet, playwright and critic, who reviewed mystery novels in the Criterion and was among the first to recognize the genre was entering a Golden Age in the 1920s, but also compiled some "general rules of detective technique" in 1927 – preceding both S.S. van Dine's Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories (1928) and Father Knox's Ten Commandments for Detective Fiction (1929).

So you would expect Eliot to have followed in the footsteps of A.A. Milne and T.H. White, but it was his older brother, Henry Ware Eliot, who penned a one-off mystery novel.

Henry Ware Eliot, Jr. was a Research Fellow in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Peabody Museum, Harvard, where he worked on Excavations in Mesopotamia and Western Iran: Sites of 4000-500 B.C.: Graphic Analysis (1950). A "labor of love" that was published posthumously, but twenty years previously, Eliot wrote a novel already showing the "devotion to detail" one expects from an academic researcher. Sadly, the book in question was buried in the sands of time and lay there completely forgotten by the world until a couple of months ago.

The Rumble Murders (1932) was originally published under a pseudonym, namely "Mason Deal," but Coachwhip has reissued the book under Eliot's own name and comes with an introduction by Curt Evans and a special afterword by David Chinitz – which briefly looks at T.S. Eliot's affection for the detective story. So this new edition is book-ended with some insightful material, but is it one of those unjustly forgotten detective novels worthy of resurrection? I would say yes.

The Rumble Murders is one of those fun, high-spirited amateur affairs with a group of friends, or acquaintances, assuming the role of detective and crawl all over the place for clues.

One of the detectives in Eliot's yarn is an author, George Palmerston Gaynleigh, who is down to "three dollars and fifteen cents" and Ed Marsh's "invitation had come in the nick of time." Marsh is part of a syndicate who had taken over the village of Beesonville and turned the place into a suburban neighborhood, which is now known as Westwood. Recently, Marsh converted his barn into a guesthouse and George is one of the people who's supposed to fill the place. A retired private detective, named Gil Hubert, is the other one. But then the first of many problems began to manifest itself.

After a fire damaged the previous barn, Marsh converted the silo, attached to the barn, into a fire-and thief proof storage for his rare books, manuscripts and firearms, but a burglar managed to penetrate the tower-like structure and take away one of the handguns – a Colt Model 1917 from the First World War. Suddenly, everyone looks as if they're acting mighty suspiciously and someone even seems to have taken flight. On the heels of these events, the news reaches the small suburb about what became to be sensationally known as the "Rumble Murder Case."

In a neighboring town, six or eight miles from Westwood, the body of a man was found in the closed rumble of the car belonging to a wealthy resident, J. Clopendyke Clifford, who made the discovery upon his return home. The unknown man had been shot through the head and stripped of most of his clothes. A suitcase that was in the rumble seat has gone missing. Shortly upon this discovery, "a second victim of the rumble murderer" is found "jammed into the closed rumble of a car submerged in Lake Putnam." Once again, the victim was shot through the head and stripped of clothing, but this time the victim is quickly identified. So the neighborhood "Homicide Squad" have their work cut out for them.

The (Other) Rumble Murders
As others have noted, Eliot had an eye for detail and this allowed him to construct a complicated mesh-work of crossed plot-strands, which includes ballistics, obtaining fingerprints, a cryptogram, golden dollars and long-forgotten family secrets. But he also knew how to write memorable set pieces.

The backdrop of the book comes across as a very real place with its own history, recognizable landmarks (e.g. the hand-shaped tree) and the traces left behind on its landscape by the people who have lived there. One scene has Hubert, Ed and Mike tramping alone the ravine to get to the base of the cliff where a "junked car" lay, but what they found was a boneyard of scattered, rusted-out old automobiles – all of them "in an extreme condition of wreckage." A nice little to imagine to modern readers, I thought. I also appreciated the long-lost cemetery on the hill with its missing headstones and a looted grave, which turned out to play a key role in the double murder case.

So all of the plot-strands are closely tied to this place and the history attached to it, but what is all the more enjoyable are the activity of characters tramping about this place. Not only do they discuss and theorize about the possibilities the evidence suggest, but they also actively hunt for physical evidence. Such as gathering fingerprints and trying to find a tree that was once used for target practice, which would allow the police to determine whether the stolen revolver was used to kill one or either of the rumble murders.

I closely associate this kind of enthusiastic and animated teamwork among a cast of befriended characters with the detective fiction by Craig Rice, but one point where Eliot differed from Rice is that his plot was not fueled by an ungodly amount of hard liquor. Otherwise, I found them both equally entertaining, if for different reasons.

However, I have one complaint. Not one that deterred my overall enjoyment of The Rumble Murders, but one that should be mentioned. Eliot crafted a delightfully complex case that perfectly fitted together in the end, but the only smudge on this accomplishment is that some important pieces of information were given relatively late in the game. And this will seriously hamper the armchair detective to arrive at the solution before the ending. You can (sort of) figure out the whole picture at the eleventh hour, but there aren't that many pages between the last pieces of information and the revelation of the truth. So you might want to take a break when you arrive at chapter XXVII and ponder the problem before reading the last ten pages of the story.

The Rumble Murders has also been reviewed by Kate over at Cross Examining Crime and Curt Evans briefly discussed the book on his blog.

On a final, semi-related note: years ago, I reviewed Dorothy Cameron Disney's excellent Death in the Back Seat, 1936), which also focuses on a murdered man found shot to death in the rumble seat of a car. The book has been reprinted since then and some of you might want to read it as comparison material.