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.

5/13/17

Double Dutch

"The final touch. The brush-stroke of the master. I repeat, sir: this must be suicide. And yet—well, if it is, I mean to retire to Bedlam."
- Dr. Gideon Fell (John Dickson Carr's The Case of the Constant Suicides, 1941)
Last week, I was notified about the existence of a small, independent publishing house in my own backyard, called E-Pulp Publishers, which turns its back on the kind of realism propagated by the psychological school of crime-fiction that offers the reader no escape from the drudgery of everyday life – leaving precious little room for imagination. I could hardly believe my own eyes as I read their mission statement.

My country has not always provided the most fertile soil for the type of imaginative, plot-driven detective stories that thrive, or thrived, in England, America, France and large swaths of Asia. Sure, there were some exceptions, mostly notably A.C. Baantjer and Robert van Gulik, but they were often dismissed by "serious critics" as wholesalers of lectuur (pop-fiction). So a dissident voice is more than welcome and would love to finally add some Dutch detective stories to my never diminishing to-be-read pile. And their modest catalog already boosts some potentially interesting titles.

They're reissuing the early police novels by the massively underrated M.P.O. Books and the presumably Dutch equivalent of S.S. van Dine and Ellery Queen, who goes by the name of Eugenius Quak, is scheduled to debut in September with Gruwlijk in het huwelijk (Marriage is Gruesome, 2017) – which appears to be a tongue-in-cheek take on the arrogant detectives of yore. Anne van Doorn is the third name in the catalog and she's listed with several forthcoming titles, but one of her short pieces is offered as a free sample. A short story with a title and synopsis that immediately caught my attention. You probably won't be surprise if I tell you the story is a good, old-fashioned impossible crime story.

Van Doorn's "De dichter die zichzelf opsloot" ("The Poet Who Locked Himself In"), collected in the upcoming De geliefde die in het veen verdween en andere mysteries (The Lover Who Disappeared in the Bog and Other Mysteries, 2017), can be read as an introductory story to her series-characters, Robbie Corbijn and Lowina de Jong.

Corbijn and De Jong are particuliere onderzoekers (private investigators) specialized in reopening cases the police were unable to bring to a satisfying close, which range from tracking down missing persons to shining a fresh light on unsolved murder cases. Corbijn is the brains of Recherchebureau Corbijn – Research & Discover and De Jong, who has been working as his assistant for only three months, plays the Dr. Watson to her employer's Sherlock Holmes as she lends her voice to the narrative.

At the opening of the story, De Jong finds Corbijn down in the doldrums with twelve open files on their desks and getting nowhere on any of them. So the arrival of a new case is a welcome distraction. Particularly one that looks like a simple and routine affair. 
 
Cornelis Meijer wants to hire them to look into the death of his father, Albert Meijer, who was an obscure poet and a bad-tempered recluse. A hermit who preferred "slaving over a line of poetry" in absolute solitude. So he had erected a log cabin in the woods to escape from the bubbling social life of his wife and withdrew there to work in peace, which is where his decomposing body was eventually found and all of the evidence favored a verdict of suicide – traces of gunshot residue were found on the poet's hands and a double-barreled shotgun lay next to the body. A postcard and a negative bank statement provided the police with a motive for suicide, but what settles the matter is that the door was securely latched from the inside and the only window could not be opened. Murder was an absolute impossibility.

A rare, modern short story collection
However, Cornelis is convinced his rich stepmother had a hand in the death of his father. At the time of Albert's death, she was on an extended holiday in the French Riviera, but the police refused to look on whether she might have hired someone or maybe that she sneaked back home to kill his father. Initially, Corbijn thinks his client might be able to accept his father killed himself, but when visiting the log cabin he concludes that he has a murder of the seemingly impossible variety on his hands.

The reconstruction of a suicide into a homicide is the primary focus of this short story and therefore a howdunit, which was pleasantly clued with both physical clues and important information hidden in the statements of the various characters. You can pretty much make out how the murderer was able to disguise his murder as a suicide in a sealed log cabin. So I was very pleased with that. The identity of the murderer is of secondary importance and turns out to be proverbial unknown quantity, but even that was, sort of, hinted at with Albert's reason for having a shotgun and the white feathers Corbijn found around the cabin. However, I would purely read this story as a locked room mystery/howdunit.

Oh, and the locked room method is an elaborate one and largely original, because I know of two impossible crime stories with an explanation working from the same idea. But this one took that idea to its logical conclusion.

So my interest in the work of Van Doorn has been aroused and will come back to her work when the first full-length Corbijn and De Jong novel, De ouders keerden niet terug (The Parents Didn't Return, 2017), is released.

Stop! This is not the end of this review! You see, I happened to have another Dutch short story on my pile that's a locked room mystery.

Hans van der Kallen is better known in my country under his pseudonym, "Havank," who was one of the popular mystery writers of the first half of the previous century and remembered for his iconic creation – a French police-detective named Charles C.M. Carlier a.k.a. De Schaduw (The Shadow). A figure with an equally iconic illustration by the late Dick Bruna (see book-cover below). You should know that Bruna's illustration as famous to (genre) readers in my country as The Saint logo in the rest of the world.

I always wanted to read something by Havank, but never made the jump because he stories struck me as stories about a detective rather than detective stories. So I always gave him a pass in favor of proper mysteries. However, I have a couple of titles by him on the pile and one is a short story collection, which I bought on the promise of one story. A short short entitled "De vergrendelde kamer" ("The Bolted Room"). So I thought this was as good an excuse as any to finally check that story and actually was an honest to god locked room story. One that comes with an interesting footnote.

The short short comes from the collection De Schaduw & Co (The Shadow & Co, 1957) and only counts a handful of pages, but the plot was really nice for something as short as all that.

Inspector Carlier, or "De Schaduw," is called to an unnamed company where a gunshot was heard behind the locked door of the director's private office. The man remained unresponsive and when the police arrives they break down the door. What they find is dead man slumped over his desk, a bullet hole in the right temple, and the gun was found in the trashcan near his right hand. The door and an interlocking door had been locked from the inside, while the closed windows looked out from the sixth floor on a busy boulevard. A murderer could not have escaped from the room after the shot was heard. And, no, the solution is not what you think. The shot that was heard was the one that killed the director.

The solution is a proper locked room trick and variations of it have often been employed, but this particular spin was fairly original. I've seen this particular variation only once before and the story, technically, predates this one, but was not published until the early 1990s. So that makes Havank first, I guess.

All in all, a fun little locked room yarn of barely six pages and will read the entire collection one of these days. Havank may actually been closer to his Golden Age contemporaries than I assumed. And that's why one lifetime simply is not enough. You can barely hit a dent in the library of crime-fiction published in the previous century alone! Hindus better be right about reincarnation, because I'm already behind on schedule.

Well, this review is already bloated beyond what's justifiable for two short stories and my next blog-post will be that of regular (i.e. non-impossible crime) Golden Age mystery.

5/11/17

Passing Through

"We have nothing to fear from the dead, past or present. The spirits were not responsible for what took place here tonight. Not any of it."
- John Quincannon (Bill Pronzini's "Medium Rare," from Carpenter and Quincannon: Professional Detective Services, 1998)
Peter Lovesey is an award-winning crime novelist of historical mysteries, police detectives and various short stories, but a significant portion of his work is gilded with the traditions of the genre's Golden Age and this was recognized by such luminaries as John Dickson Carr, Edmund Crispin and Lenore Glen Offord – who all praised his earliest work from the 1970s.

I primarily know Lovesey as the author of Bloodhounds (1996), a well-known locked room mystery, but he wrote another impossible crime novel that has been recommended to me in the past.

A Case of Spirits (1975) is the sixth entry in Lovesey's historical series of Victorian-era detective stories about Sergeant Cribb and Constable Thackeray, which uses to the spiritualism craze of the late 1800s as a backdrop for a seemingly impossible murder. However, the story begins with the common, down-to-earth problem of housebreaking.

Sergeant Cribb and Constable Thackeray are summoned to the Royal Academy of the Arts by their superior, Inspector Jowett, where they're introduced to an important member of the upper-crust of society, Dr. Probert – an eminent physiologist of the University of London. Dr. Probert has been the victim of a crude home burglary and the thief made away with a lurid painting. Something similar had happened to an acquaintance of his, Miss Crush, who came home one day to find a forced window, but she was missing a Royal Worcester vase in the Japanese style.

A simple case of housebreaking and thievery, but Cribb has a "relish for a burglary" and thinks of it as "a bit of a game." And immediately notices several commonalities between both thefts. The burglar was a crude, unrefined criminal who, in each case, passed on an easy opportunity to take something more valuable from the homes, but even more significant is that the burglaries occurred after the victims participated in a spiritualistic séance.

I've to take a moment here to point out that, at this point, the story really struck me as the British precursor of the Quincannon and Carpenter series by Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller, which also takes place in the late 1800s, but the setting is California – when the Wild West had just settled down. Despite these differences in backdrop and characters, the series have a strangely similar feel to them. However, I only read this single title in the Cribb series and the impossible crime material of the book, relating to spiritualist angle, had a passing resemblance to the plot of the short story that provided this blog-post with an opening quote. So maybe that feeling is less, or even absent, in other Cribb novels.

Well, the spiritualist angle of A Case of Spirits empties out the whole bag of tricks of the table-tapping industry of the Victorian-era.

Peter Brand is "the most promising member of his profession since D.D. Home," who allegedly levitated out of window and floated back through another, but the phenomena Brand managed to produce was no less impressive. He was able to make furniture levitate and produce spirit writing from the Duke of Wellington, which has been verified by the foremost graphologist in London as authentic. It has made the young man "the talk of the metropolis." And the reader gets a front-row seat to one of his performances.

During one of his last demonstrations, Brand makes a ghostly, disembodied hand appear and disappear again. Dr. Probert's son-in-law, Captain William Nye, gets pelted with oranges by an invisible entity for being a hostile presence at the table, which all happened while everyone was linked together by holding hands. So even skeptics, such as Henry Strathmore, begin to believe they're dealing with the genuine article in Brand, but during the last experiment something goes horribly wrong and involves a deadly gizmo – an electric chair!

Dr. Probert has converted an oak chair into an electric chair, brass handles screwed to the armrests, attached with wires going to a black box with a thicker coil leading to the basement. There are four 104 volt batteries stored in the basement and the black box is a step-down transformer to "ensure that only a mild and even current passes through." Brand is to take place in the chair, holding the brass-handles, which allows observers, with the assistance of galvanometer, to monitor the medium when the curtains are drawn around him. The instrument would tell them if he broke contact for so much as a fraction of a second. But the step-down transformer failed and shot 400 volts into Brand. He did not recover from the shock.

I think this impossible situation is what lifted the plot above banality of the familiar, stock-in-trade trickery of the dead table-tapper, because the premise is genuinely original with an explanation relaying on both old-fashioned misdirection and technical hokey-pokey. However, I've no idea how sound the technical side of the trick actually is and whether the galvanometer could give such accurate reading throughout the experiment. The step-down transformer also struck me as a decidedly unsafe device, but then again, that's part of the point, isn't it?

After all, the story takes place during the dawn of the electrical age and these transformers were probably not of the same standard as those from the twentieth century.

The identity of the murderer and the excellent motive were also competently handled, which were fairly clued and even gave room to a false solution. It stretched the ending a bit longer than was strictly necessary, but a fairly minor and forgivable offense placed against the quality of the overall plot. I probably enjoyed A Case of Spirits even more since Andrew Greeley's Happy Are Those Who Mourn (1995) and Eric Brown's Murder at the Chase (2014) are still fresh in my mind, which are both disappointing examples of the contemporary locked room novel at their worst.

So, all in all, I really enjoyed my first meeting with Sergeant Cribb and Constable Thackeray. A story with an impossible crime plot that recalled the works of Bill Pronzini and John Rhode, which is definitely an invitation to return to the series before too long. I think my next stop in the series is going to be first one, Wobble to Death (1970), because Carr praised it as "a first-rate story." And who are we to doubt the word of the master? But my next review will take a look at a locked room mystery from my own country. So stay tuned!

5/10/17

Fatal Flaws: A Short Overview of Ruined Detective Stories

"These little things a very significant."
- Miss Marple (Agatha Christie's Sleeping Murder, 1976)
Earlier this month, I reviewed Family Matters (1933) by Anthony Rolls, which took an unconventional approach to telling an inverted detective story and the narrative had all the elements of a genre-classic, but was unable to sustain itself and ended with a whimper – an open-ending that managed to be simultaneously lazy and pretentious. So hardly a satisfying and rewarding read. However, the book made me reflect back on similar detective novels that were on their way of becoming (minor) classics, but slipped with the finish-line in sight.

It has been a while since I slapped together a filler-post and thought doing a quick rundown of a handful of them would make for a nice fluff piece. You may abandon this post, if you want, and come back for one of my regular review, which should be up within the next day or so. Or stick around. It's entirely up to you.

I'll be running through this short list in non-specific order and will begin with Agatha Christie. Or rather with an observation about one of her series-characters, Miss Jane Marple, who's one of Christie's two iconic detective figures, but there's remarkable difference between the Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot series – namely a severe lack of classic titles in the former. Miss Marple never handled a case of the same caliber as Murder on the Orient Express (1934), The A.B.C. Murders (1936) and Death on the Nile (1937). However, there's one Miss Marple novel that came close to matching the brilliance of her Belgian counterpart.

The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side (1962) has an American starlet of the silver screen, Marina Gregg, descending upon the sleepy village of St. Mary Mead, but soon learns that an English village can be as dangerous as a dark, grimy back alley in the States. One of her house-guests dies after drinking a poisoned cocktail and the explanation for this specific murder was one of Christie's last triumphs.

The relationship between the victim and murderer, combined with the powerful and well-hidden motive, stuck together with simplistic brilliance, but the equally powerful effect the explanation could've achieved was ruined when Christie allowed the murderer to become completely unhinged – committing several additional murders along the way. It cheapened and lessened the impact of the reason behind the first murder, which robbed the series of a book that could've stood toe-to-toe with such Poirot titles as Peril at End House (1932), Sad Cypress (1940) and Five Little Pigs (1943).

Logically, the murderer should've been stone cold sane, completely unrepentant and never went pass that first murder, which had a solid, original and very human reason behind it. I've always wondered if a much younger Christie would've made the same mistake. A textbook example that sometimes less can be more.

You can also ruin a potential series-classic by punctuating the plot of the story with sheer stupidity. Case in point: The American Gun Mystery (1933) by Ellery Queen.

The American Gun Mystery had all the potential to be one of the best entries from Ellery Queen's plot-orientated nationality series, which has a great premise and a memorable backdrop: a sports arena, the Colosseum, where a horseback rider is gunned down during a rodeo show with twenty thousand potential suspects and eyewitnesses in attendance – topped off with the impossible disappearance of the murder weapon. I distinctly remember how much I had been enjoying this slice of old-fashioned Americana, presented as an original puzzle detective, but all of that enthusiasm dissipated upon learning how the gun was made to vanish. It was one of those rare instances I actually wanted to fling a book across the room in frustration and the hiding place of the gun seems to be a stumbling block for most readers.

And that's why The American Gun Mystery is never mentioned in the same breath as The French Powder Mystery (1930), The Dutch Shoe Mystery (1931) and The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932).

Sometimes you can be on the right track, but simply bite off more than you could chew and a good example of this is Herbert Brean's still beloved Wilders Walk Away (1948).

Curt Evans described the plot of the book as "a fusion of Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr," which is an apt description, because the story is basically one of Queen's Wrightsville novels as perceived by Carr. The protagonist is a freelance photographer, Reynold Frame, who travels to Wilders Lane, Vermon, which is named after the founding family of the place. A family with a peculiar tradition dating back to eighteenth century: members of the Wilders clan have the tendency to escape the yawning grave by simply vanishing into thin air.

So what's not to like, you might ask? Well, the solutions to all of the impossibilities have some of the most routine, common-place explanations you could imagine. It stands in stark contrast with everything that came previous in the book. Barry Ergang hit the nail on the head, in his review, when observing that Wilders Walk Away appeared as "a companion to The Three Coffins (1935) and Rim of the Pit (1944) for ultimate greatness," but that "degree of feeling didn't sustain itself" and that's how I felt when reading the book. A very likable and readable detective story, but the wasted potential is painful to behold. Everything about the book screamed classic... until you reached the ending.

Brean would go on to redeem himself with the superb Hardly a Man is Now Alive (1952), the equally good The Clock Strikes Thirteen (1954) and the very amusing The Traces of Brillhart (1961), but they (sadly) never garnered the same attention as Wilders Walks Away.

Finally, I have a prize-winning book, Kay Cleaver Strahan's Footprints (1929), which could have become a personal favorite of mine, but shot itself in the foot in a way that's very similar to Rolls' Family Matters.

Footprints garnered some attention upon its publication for toying with conventions and plot-devices that were not very well established or popular at the time. One of them is that the book qualifies as a semi-historical mystery novel and this past story is entirely told through a series of old, crumbling letters. A story that took place on an Oregon farm in the early 1900s, which has, rather originally, a murder that could one of two types of impossible crimes: either the murderer escaped from a locked room to get to the victim or passed over a field of snow without leaving any footprints.

So you can imagine I was completely hooked by the halfway mark. I loved the depiction of family life on an American farm in the early twentieth century with an apparently innovative impossible crime plot at its core, but the vaguely written ending only hinted at the murderer's identity. And not a single letter was wasted on attempting to explain the impossible situation. A postmodernist would no doubt love such an ending in a structured genre like us, but I wanted, as Carr would say, strangle the author and lynch the publisher. They were really lucky they had already kicked the bucket when I finished the book.

Cleaver did redeem herself with her second locked room novel, Death Traps (1930), which was a competent, if rather conversational, piece of work with an actual ending!

So far my lamentations on several detective novels I really wanted to like, but proved to be a let down, in one way or another, when the final chapter rolled around. I hope this will be, for now, the last blog-post with my whining about bad or disappointing detective stories. My next review looks to be that of a good mystery novel and have something interesting (and untranslated) for the one after that. And both of them fall in the locked room category. Please try to act a little bit surprise about that!