Model for Murder (1952) by Derek Smith

On December 20, 1893, The Half-Penny Marvel published "The Missing Millionaire" by "Hal Meredeth," a penname of Harry Blythe, which marked the first appearance of the most prolific Sherlock Holmes imitators in all of popular fiction, Sexton Blake, whose bibliography comprises of an astonishing 4,000 stories – written by over 200 different writers. A prolific run of eight decades that ended up encompassing short stories, novels, stage plays, comic books, silent movies, talkies, radio serials and even a TV-series in the 1960s.

So the sheer size and volume of the Sexton Blake Library has earned the series its own separate wing in the crime-genre, but, as everyone knows, quantity is rarely a substitute for quality. And this series is no exception.

Sexton Blake is synonymous with tawdry, formulaic thrillers with run-of-the-mill action scenes, pulpy gangsters and super-human villains (i.e. Waldo the Wonderman). That may be why I was never compelled to explore this series. A chronic lack of interest that persisted even when I learned that one of the greatest authorities on the impossible crime story, Derek Smith, had tried his hands at one that faced Blake with "a sealed room murder," which is usually more than enough to get my full attention – except that this time even that didn't work. A Sexton Blake novel simply did not appeal to me. No matter who wrote it.

That is, until that infernal nuisance, "JJ," posted a review on his blog claiming Smith's wrote "a legitimate excellent" Blake story filled "lovely clues." Showing what could have been had the writers not turned Blake in bargain basement cross between Sherlock Holmes and James Bond.

So I decided to get myself a copy of Model for Murder (1952), which went unpublished during Smith's lifetime, but was finally printed in The Derek Smith Omnibus (2014) along with Whistle Up the Devil (1954), Come to Paddington Fair (1997) and a short story – titled "The Imperfect Crime." Admittedly, the story was better than I expected even after the positive review from JJ. Most notably the opening chapters and a conclusion that resembles a contortion act!

John Pugmire's Locked Room International published The Derek Smith Omnibus and speculated Model for Murder was probably "too cerebral for the audience," which would explain why it collected dust for sixty years. Anyway...

Model for Murder, or Model Murder, begins when an artist's model, Linda Martin, hurries to Baker Street on behalf of her employer, Leo Garvary, a once well-known sculptor who has been receiving anonymous letters of a threatening nature. That morning, Garvary received another threatening letter, but this he confided in Martin that he finally guessed who sent him and asked her to fetch Blake – who happens to be abroad on a case of national importance. So the task falls on the shoulders of his assistant, Tinker, whose role in this story genuinely surprised me.

Tinker is definitely not your regular Dr. Watson or Capt. Hastings, more of an Archie Goodwin-type of character, who actually solves the locked room problem before Blake officially enters the picture. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

When Tinker and Martin arrive at the studio, they see the eccentric Garvary standing by the door of his soundproof studio. He looks at them, enters the studio, slams and locks the door behind him and that's the last time they see him alive, because when a spare key from the desk clerk opens the door they find an empty studio. All of the windows are "securely latched" from the inside. A transom was secured by a triple notched bar and a second door was locked and bolted on the studio side. After a brief search, they find Garvary's body in one of the cupboards lining the left and right hand wall, but not an atom of proof someone had been present in the room to fire the gun.

Firstly, the locked room trick is not as ingenious as the one from Whistle Up the Devil and basically reuses an age-old technique to leave behind a locked crime-scene. So you should not go into the book expecting a knock-out classic like his second impossible crime novel, but admittedly, Smith used this technique with the expertise of locked room expert. Smith mentioned two potential explanations, trick-windows that slide into the wall and a hollow statue, which gave me an idea for an alternative explanation.

When the possibility of a hollow statue was mentioned, my mind immediately conjured up the image of a Russian nesting doll. You see, there were three cupboards on each side of the room.

Just imagine the studio used to have two, large storage closets, but these closets were converted into six, separate cupboards and this would open the possibility that the walls separating the middle cupboard from the first and third cupboard is very thin, no more than wooden panels, which perhaps consists of two halves that can slide into one another – to make more room when needed. So the murderer could have been hidden in the second cupboard and, when this person heard Tinker close the door of the first cupboard, crawled into it through the sliding wall panel. Like a human shell game. And simply slip out of the room when everyone's attention was somewhere else (like inspecting the inner room).

However, the solution to the locked room murder turned out to be very different. Surprisingly, Tinker not only worked out the locked room trick, but demonstrated the trick to a baffled police constable, who demanded answers, which he refused to do until he had spoken to his employer – only to get shot and seriously wounded a short time later. A shooting briefly presented as a (semi) impossibility, but this aspect is quickly dispelled by a discovery in the hearth.

In any case, this murderous attempt effectively removed Tinker from the stage and left Blake with the daunting task to work out an explanation based on the breadcrumbs of information his assistant left behind. However, the pure detective elements from the opening chapters began to dilute in the middle section.

The reader knows by this point who shot Tinker and that this person has a connection with a shadowy underworld figure, but, more importantly, the gunman is determined to get his hands on a little black book filled with information of his criminal enterprise. So the seedy thriller elements really kick in here and this person even kidnaps and physically abuses Martin. This portion of the plot is the part that adheres to the formula of the series.

Luckily, Smith came back strong in the final stages of the story by serving a triple-layered solution to the reader. A solution that volleyed the guilt of the murder between two characters. This is likely the part that was too cerebral for its intended audience, because the conclusion is everything you'd expect from a legitimate expert on the traditional detective story. Model for Murder should have been a model for this series during its twilight years. It would be funny if this series had gone against the trend

In summation, Model for Murder is an interesting experiment of a traditional-minded mystery writer attempting to worm a puzzle-plot into the formula of a cheap, action-oriented series of pulp-thrillers and defied expectations by succeeding – better than he had any right to. I probably will never read another Sexton Blake story in my life, but glad I took a change on this one. I really like Smith and this world is a poorer place for the fact that he only wrote three (locked room) novels.

Finally, I referred to JJ's review earlier and in it he mentioned a confusing fact regarding the locked door of the studio. JJ said that the door was described as not having a keyhole, but was unlocked with a key a few pages later. I think JJ misunderstood this. The door didn't have an old-fashioned keyhole that you can look through, which were still common (indoors) in the fifties, but there was a modern lock on the door. A yale lock. So Smith didn't make a sloppy mistake there.


Jack-in-the-Box (1944) by J.J. Connington

Last year, I finally got around to reading a detective novel by J.J. Connington, namely Murder in the Maze (1927), who was one of the mystery novelist that was smeared as a humdrum writer and dismissed as a relic of the genre's past – a label that was also pasted on Freeman Wills Crofts and John Rhode. However, the test of time is slowly exculpating their reputation and legacy as they're finding their way back into print. Readers can now judge their stories without emptying their bank account to acquire an overpriced, second-hand copy.

Connington is one of the luckier humdrum writers whose work has been mostly reissued by now as either paperback editions or ebooks, which is why I recently decided to stock-up on his Sir Clinton Driffield series. And a couple of non-series titles. Connington still represents one of the biggest holes in my reading of the classic detective story. I think I have read more detective stories by obscure, long-forgotten writers than of the household names of the era and that's just being impious.

So I plucked Jack-in-the-Box (1944) from this freshly accumulated pile and have to say, as far as mysteries with a World War II background goes, this proved to be memorable example with depictions of the bombing raids by the Luftwaffe – which is used here to camouflage a murder victim as a casualty of war. An idea that only Rhode seems to have played around with in The Fourth Bomb (1942).

Jack-in-the-Box was published in 1944, but the story takes place in 1942 and begins when Sir Clinton Driffield and Squire Wendover are driving through the village of Ambledown and observe the wreckage left behind by the last swarm of Nazi bombers.

Ambledown took "a bit of a knock" in an attempt to destroy a nearby magneto factory, which left forty-three dead and quite some property damage, but the bombers missed their target. So everyone expects them to return and they come back early on in the novel. Connington also touches upon the effect the war has on the day to day lives of ordinary people, rationing, housing shortages and blackouts, which forced the people "to be content with the essentials" and "do without the frills" – one of the reasons why so many traditional mysteries from this period tend to be bleaker than those from previous decades. However, the initial reason Sir Clinton and Wendover drove to Ambledown is not related to the war.

A local archaeologist has unearthed a long-lost treasure trove at a digging site locally referred to as Caesar's Camp.

The place is an old Roman camp, on a tract of wasteland to the west of the village, but the spot probably has as much a connection with Caesar as "the Menai Bridge or Buckingham Palace." There was, however, a legend attached to the Roman camp about a cursed treasure promising death to the unlucky finder. Robert Deverell, President of the Natural History Society of Ambledown, brought "a collection of vessels and utensils" to light when digging for Roman-era coins. All of the objects were of gold and beaten and twisted out of shape, which made the collection easier to transport for the ancient looters who had buried their plunder there so many moons ago. A plunder that obviously came from an abbey.

This treasure belongs to the crown, but Deverell is granted permission to inspect and catalog the treasure, piece by piece, at his own home. But than the Luftwaffe pays a second visit to Ambledown and Deverell is killed by enemy action. Or so it looks like.

Apparently, an incendiary bomb had crashed through the skylight, hitting Deverell on the head, and setting fire to the house. An unlikely way to die, one in a million, but suspicion is aroused when pieces of the treasure turn out to have been taken from the scene – which included a battered crosier. Complications begin to pileup when the village is hit by an outbreak of inexplicable deaths. There are no less than five murders that have to be disentangled by Inspector Camlet, Squire Wendover and Sir Clinton (who's the Chief Constable). And, as if that wasn't enough, there's a super-normal plot-thread that places Jack-in-the-Box on the borders of the impossible crime sub-genre.

I decided to tag this post with the "locked room mysteries" and "impossible crimes" toe-tags, but this is really a borderline case rather than a full-blown impossible crime novel.

Jehudi Ashmun is a mulatto from Liberia and stands at the center of a group, in the village, who are interested in the occult and a technique, which had been lost in the mists of time, called New Force. Ashmun made an ordinary card-table talk and a loudspeaker was disregarded as a possible answer, because you can't hide a loudspeaker in "one of these slim-jim folding affairs" with "a top hardly thicker than plywood" – especially in the 1940s. The ancient powers of New Force is demonstrated by fiddling on a violin and this killed several animals.

Ashum killed an aquarium of minnows, but electricity was eliminated as the invisible killer. After this demonstration, a warren of dead rabbits were found outside. None of the rabbits had a mark on their body or even as much as a minute trace of poison in their system.

On a side note, Nick Fuller, of The Grandest Game in the World, pointed out in his review that similar figures appear in Carter Dickson's The Reader is Warned (1939) and Anthony Boucher's Nine Times Nine (1940). Interestingly, the character in The Reader is Warned claims to possess a power, called Teleforce, which can be used to kill people from a distance without leaving a mark on their body. Something very similar to Ashum's New Force.

So with stolen treasures, a murder epidemic and super-normal forces abound you need a logical, cool-headed detective to tackle these problems and Sir Clinton is more than up for the task. Sir Clinton pleasantly reviews all of the events and weighs the evidence against all of the possibilities, but doesn't neglect his duties to play the role of Great Detective and teases his friend with his knowledge of the truth. However, Wendover proved to be pretty useful Captain Hastings. He may not have grasped the solution, but his knowledge of local history and family relations helped frame the clutter of events, more specifically the murders, in a tight frame that will help readers who like a shot at beating the detective to the finish line.

Sadly, Connington inexplicably slipped in the final leg of the story when Jack-in-the-Box shifted from a tale of ratiocination into a thrilling shilling shocker with a sadistic murderer drugging and torturing a man, while trying to force another character to sign a piece of paper – a shift that happened from one chapter to the other. And it struck a decidedly false note. Despite this weird, pulpy revelation of the murderer, the plot was excellent and particularly the science behind the murders and borderline impossible events. I especially liked the explanation for the murder of the local drunk, who died of carbon-monoxide poisoning, which turned out to have an ingenious explanation that was tied to one of the bombing raids. Connington should have saved that method for another book instead of burying it in a series of murders.

Anyway, these science-based murders demonstrate that Connington was unquestionable a member of the Humdrum School of Detection.

So, on a whole, Jack-in-the-Box was an excellent mystery novel with a fascinating series of crimes, a well-drawn background and solid detective work, but the revelation of the murderer struck a false note in the story. It's a smudge on the plot, but not one that should deter you from enjoying a mostly well-written, cleverly plotted detective novel.


The Case of the Invisible College and Other Mysteries (2012) by Andrew May

Recently, I stumbled across a modern, little-known volume of short stories with a book-title that captured my imagination, The Case of the Invisible College and Other Mysteries (2012), which had an equally alluring sub-title – "Old Style Mysteries Set Amidst the Dreaming Spires of Oxford." This collection is comprised of seven (very) short stories, written by Andrew May, who published his own work under the banner of Post-Fortean Books.

So, naturally, I approached this self-published collection of detective stories with a great deal of trepidation, but an internet search brought some promising facts to light.

I found a rare review of The Case of the Invisible College, which was generally positive, but, more importantly, the reviewer noted that the lively stories were written by someone who evidently spent time learning how to write – rendering the customary criticism of self-published fiction irrelevant. The reviewer also suspected the stories were reprinted from “some periodical” and this turned out to be correct. All seven stories were originally published in the British Mensa Folio newsletters of 2009 and 2010. Mensa is the high IQ society. So I believe we can infer from this that May is probably a smart guy.

Secondly, I found May's blog, Retro-Forteana, which is dedicated to "the weirder fringes of history," but, to my delight, discovered he had also written about John Dickson Carr. I would really like to read his article about "the Fortean aspects of John Dickson Carr's 'Locked Room Mysteries'" in Fortean Times, 288.

So that was all I needed to know to take the plunge on these Fortean detective tales, but what I found was still different from what I was expecting.

The cases in this collection are tackled by SOLVED: the Secret Oxford League of Volunteer Extracurricular Detectives. A crime-fighting network lead by Pierce Stormson, Professor of Advanced Studies, who functions as "the central coordinating brain" of the league and "bore a close resemblance to the fiction character he admired so much," Sherlock Holmes – which is one of the many Holmesian charms of this series. For example, Stormson has the habit to deduce the name or occupations of clients who visit him from the first time and the stories are littered with references to previous cases (The Case of the Weeping Buddha, The Case of the Somerville Stripper, The Case of the Devil's Footprints, etc). And then there's the Watson-like narrator of the series.

Melvin Root is doing his Ph.D. on the works of H.P. Lovecraft and acts as both the chronicler of SOLVED and Stormson's right-hand man, but is prone to jump to the most outrageous conclusions imaginable. Stormson and Root draw on the specialized knowledge and talents of the various SOLVED members who are scattered throughout the university and beyond. SOLVED is pretty much the Baker Street Irregulars, the College Years.

"The Case of the Dangerous Book" is the first story and has Miss Higgs, a librarian of Old College, consulting Stormson on an 18th century book. A book bound in human-skin, belonging to a man who studied at the college in the early 1700, but the book was gifted to the college under the condition that it should never taken from its shelf as it was "a dangerous book" - only problem is that it had been taken of its shelf. The book was kept in the Lower Library, where book can only be read, which are then left at the table to be collected by the librarian. And this dangerous book was one of them. So who consulted this obscure book and why? Only three students were present at the time, but they appear to be innocent.

Stormson and Root discover a coded message inside the book and the decoding the message helps them to uncover a sordid attempt at an equally sordid crime. The culprit was a dunce, but, on a whole, this was a fun, little introductory story. Nothing outstanding, but fun.

The second tale is "The Case of the Invisible College" and, in spite of the promising title, it's not a grand-scale impossible crime story about an entire college building vanishing from our plane of existence. I'm not going to lie, I was mildly disappointed.

Stormson is called upon by Dr. John Philpott, a post-doctoral research assistant at the Department of Experimental Physics, who claims to be on the brink of a breakthrough in cold fusion, but "they" are out to suppress his work. Dr. Philpott has received a threatening letter from this nebulous group, telling him not to mess with the Invisible College, which is why he convinced the head of his department, Professor Carr, to move his equipment to a secure laboratory – a laboratory only four people had access to. However, this did not prevent the destruction of a valuable piece of research equipment. And, no, this problem isn't an impossible crime either.

The solution reveals that a respectable university, once again, served as a respectable front for a sordid criminal operation. So not a bad story, but again, nothing outstanding.

"The Case of the Shakespearaan Super-Chimp" is the shortest story in this collection, but also one of my two favorites. Bonzo, the experimental chimp of the university, is wired up to a machine and pictures appear on the screen that shows what the monkey is thinking. Like a picture of a banana. However, all of a sudden, passages from Shakespeare's Hamlet began to appear on screen. Root solves this case with the help of Sanyo Fujitsu, an "electronics wizard," but without Stormson. A nice story for something so short.

"The Case of the Abducted Astrobiologist" is next and begins when Stormson is visited by Anna Moletsky, the conference manager of Wolfsbane College, which has a profitable sideline conferences during the summer vacation when students are away. A conference is about to be held there on astrobiology and the keynote speaker is Dr. Haakon Asgrad from Oslo University, who was to give presentation on images from the Mars Rover, but Asgrad has gone missing – leaving behind an empty hotel room. Root immediately suggests that aliens come for him, but Stormson uncovered a more conventional answer rooted in academic backstabbery. Plot-wise, not a very interesting story, but ended amusingly when SOLVED dished out their own brand of justice to the culprit.

The next story, "The Case of the Ghost in the Machine," is only interesting to readers who are really fond of lurid pulp-thrillers from yesteryear, because the story reads like a tongue-in-cheek treatment of such stories.

A SOLVED member from a previous case, Sanyo Fujitsu, receives an unusual email, asking her to come to an address in North Oxford. A connection is quickly with Professor Maxwell Quain, a once eminent nuclear physicist, who went mad and began to obsess over alchemy and the occult – earning him the reputation of a mad scientist. Root is ready to tackle the case, but loses all interest in the case when he gets invited to a pagan orgy. Fortunately, for Fujitsu, he mixed up the addresses and ended up at the home of the mad scientist, who has sinister intentions and comic villain motive, but it's Stormson who comes to their rescue and saves the day.

A very pulpy story that had its moments, such as when Root broke into the locked house, because he assumed the screaming meant that the orgy had started without him, but nothing of interest for the amateur armchair detective.

However, the next story, "The Case of the Shocking Science Quarterly," is the standout title of this collection and is only story here with a truly inspired plot. I was pleasantly reminded of Charles Ardai's "The Last Story," collected in The Return of the Black Widowers (2003), which both fall in the same pulpy sub-category of the bibliomystery.

The plot concerns the extremely rare issue 23 of the Shocking Science Quarterly, a British pulp magazine, which was printed in the Summer of 1938, but, as soon as they were reprinted, the Home Office recalled all copies and had them destroyed – as it reputedly violated "one of the many obscenity laws of the time." There are, however, conspiracy theorists who claim to government wanted to suppress important scientific ideas in the back-up story, "The Amazing Anti-Gravity Machine" by Wilfred Barnes. So all 750,000 copies were recalled, but only 749,999 copies were destroyed. One copy was retained for legal reasons and stored in a sealed vault at the Bodleian Library.

This 1938 copy was finally released to the public, under the Freedom of Information Act, but the only surviving copy disappeared that same day. Or, rather, the original copy was replaced with a false copy. A switch that was discovered when Root, who studies gives him a natural interest early twenty century fiction, found a peculiar print-error on one of the pages, "Error! Reference source not found." Sure, it was a science-fiction magazine, but "a modern-day computer error" is unlikely to appear on the pages of even the most visionary science-fiction publication of the 1930s. So who made the switch and how was the person able to fabricate an almost perfect copy of a pulp magazine that had been sealed for seventy years?

A handful of people studied the magazine when it was released and all of them have potential motives.

A number of people studied the magazine and they all have agendas, and thus potential, motives to take or destroy it: Sam Rosenberg is a multimillionaire and well-known collector of 1930s ephemera. Ms. Arcadia Wolfe is a feminist writer and an anti-pornography crusader. Professor Harrison Carr is the nuclear physicist who previously appeared in "The Case of the Invisible College." Finally, Lancelot Austin, the elderly art-critic and political loudmouth.

All of them had the opportunity and motive turns out to be key that unlocks this case. This story is really a why-dun-it, but an excellent specimen of its kind with a beautiful answer as to why a false copy had to be supplied. Even more importantly, this is the only SOLVED story that actually has clues in them! So, yes, this is unquestionably the best one of the lot.

Finally, this volumes closes with "The Case of the Inverted Pyramid," which sounds interesting, but the story is a complete dud and the plot reworked Agatha Christie's "The Case of the Missing Lady," from Partners in Crime (1929), which is acknowledged by the end of the story – all that can be said about this story.

On a whole, these Fortean detective tales were entertaining, well written stories, but with exception of "The Case of the Shocking Science Quarterly," the plots tended to be unimpressive. Honestly, I was surprised that these stories, originally published in a Mensa newsletter, turned out to be relatively light-weight pastiches of Sherlock Holmes instead of Ellery Queen-like Puzzle Club stories. Nevertheless, despite their short comings, this collection stands head and shoulders above most self-published books. I think readers of Holmesian fiction will particular like this short series and anthologists should keep "Shocking Science Quarterly" and "The Shakespearean Super-Chimp" in mind. Those two stories deserve to be preserved.


The Clock in the Hatbox (1939) by Anthony Gilbert

The Clock in the Hatbox (1939) is an early title in the Arthur Crook series, only the sixth of fifty-some novels, written by "Anthony Gilbert," a pseudonym of Lucy Beatrice Malleson, who distinguished herself from her contemporaries by blending (domestic) suspense with a formal detective plot – resulting in some unusually-structured mystery novels (e.g. Something Nasty in the Woodshed, 1942). As unconventional as Gilbert's approach to plotting is her morally ambiguous lawyer-detective, Crook, who was accurately described by Nick Fuller as having something of "the gusto and cynicism of Sir Henry Merrivale himself."

The Clock in the Hatbox appeared on my radar after coming across it on a list, "Recommendations by Nick Fuller," originally posted on the GAD group, which listed this book as the only recommendation under Gilbert's name. John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, published a laudatory review of the book last year. Concluding that Gilbert's "unusual treatment" of the detective story, courtroom drama and Hitchcockian suspense culminated in a "mindblowing crime novel." A "landmark mystery novel" that "for some reason is never mentioned in the many studies of the detective novel." There were a number of other reviews that really enticed me.

My reason for referring back to their opinion on The Clock in the Hatbox is that, halfway through the story, I began to suspect my own opinion was going to be a contrarian one. And then that ending happened!

The story opens with the trail of Viola Ross, who stands accused of having murdered her husband, Teddy Ross, a schoolteacher who was smothered to death and the clue that landed her in the docks was the bedside alarm clock – which was found inside a hatbox in the closet. Whoever put the clock in the hatbox was likely the same person who placed a pillow over the victim's face. And had forgotten to replace it.

Viola was only twenty-three when she married Ross, a man twice her age, but the marriage provided Viola with security and Teddy with wife. However, as the years passed, Ross become "the complete domestic tyrant" and alienated his son from a previous marriage, Harry Ross, who refused to become a teacher like his father. Ross resented that Viola sided with his son and even began to harbor suspicions that they were having an affair. Predictably, he died the night before he was going to change his will.

So the police had a motive and all of the evidence argued against Viola, as well as public opinion, but a death sentence is delayed when the jury was unable to come to an unanimous decision – deadlocked by a single juror. The result is a hung jury and a new trial date is set.

The lone holdout in the jury is an aspiring novelist, Richard Arnold, absolutely convinced of Viola's innocence and is determined to rescue her from the gallows.

A mission supported by Arnold's fiance, Bunty, but her support begins to slowly wane when a threatening letter arrives demanding that she tells her boyfriend "he has twenty-four hours left in which the change his mind." However, this threat only works only worked as an incentive to carry on the investigation, because Arnold is clearly making someone nervous. Someone who doesn't want anyone looking closer at the murder, which is where the Hitchcockian suspense and thriller-ish elements of the plot come into play.

There are several attempts to kill Arnold, one of them employing the gun-with-a-string trick, but a second tragedy happens when the fumes of a tampered bathroom heater killed a completely innocent man. A man who died in Arnold's place!

During his investigation, Arnold engages Arthur Crook, a shrewd lawyer of "the most enviable repute," but Crook is only peripherally involved in the case until he pulls the rug from underneath the reader at the end. Until then, Crook makes a couple of appearances to warn Arnold not to meddle and give their prey the time to gather "sufficient rope" to hang himself. A warning that was duly ignored.

A note for the curious: Crook quotes Gilbert's original series-detective, Scott Egerton, a rising politician, who appeared in only ten novels until Crook replaced him in the mid-1930s. Towards the end, Crook tells Arnold how Egerton always used to say "the last trump always lies with fate and she bein' female, there's no telln' how she'll play it." I always like it when mystery writers acknowledge, one way or another, that their various series-detectives live in the same fictional universe.

Somewhere around the halfway mark of the story, I began to slowly doubt the judgment of my fellow mystery enthusiasts. After all, the murderer's identity looked to be rather obvious, especially to seasoned mystery readers, which would have hardly justified the lavish praise. Don't get me wrong, it would still have been a well-written, cleverly put together detective novel with a good play on the least-likely-suspect gambit, but I began to think that the book had been overpraised – which is when I arrived at the twist in the story's tail. A triumphant ending that can be likened to Anthony Berkeley's Jumping Jenny (1933).

I also understand now why Norris liked the book so much, because The Clock in the Hatbox reminded me of Joan Fleming's Polly Put the Kettle On (1952), which Norris glowingly reviewed. The books are as similar as they differ, mainly in the approach they take to the plot, but, in the end, the similarities really are striking. If you like the one, you'll probably like the other.

All in all, The Clock in the Hatbox is a classic textbook example of what it is that attracts me to these cunningly cut gems from the genre's Golden Era. I went in with expectations that were, perhaps too high, but began to get slightly disappointed as the explanation appeared to be obvious in spite of the author's to cover it up as inconspicuously as possible – only to learn at the end that I was supposed to think that all along! The Clock in the Hatbox is without question one of Gilbert's best detective novels and deserves to better known.

And speaking of detective stories that (probably) deserve to be better known, I recently got my hands on a genuinely unknown collection of short detective stories. They look very promising and, if they're any good, I might have actually unearthed something interesting. I think there are even some impossible crime stories in this collection! So that surprise collection will be next.


Quod Erat Demonstrandum: Q.E.D, vol. 1 by Motohiro Katou

Q.E.D. is a Japanese detective manga created by Motohiro Katou, who produced 50 volumes between 1997 and 2014, originally serialized in Magazine GREAT, but chapters were later published in respectively Magazine E-no and Magazine Plus – an impressive run that moved over 3 million copies and spawned a live-action TV-series. And, as to be expected from a shōnen mystery, the protagonists are high-school students who, somehow, attract murderers like an overpowered super magnet.

Sou Touma is a 14-year-old genius, who's already an MIT graduate, but moved back to Japan to experience live as a normal high-school student. Only problem is that he has the social skills of a hermit and loves to hang out by himself on the roof of the school. This is, by the way, a staple of manga-and anime series that take place around a school. They always hang around on the school roof.

Luckily, Touma befriends a classmate, Kana Mizuhara, who knows her way around the social norm of polite society and loves sports, which makes her perfect to play the Archie Goodwin to his Nero Wolfe. It helps tremendously that Kana's father is a homicide detective who's smart enough to recognize Touma's talent as an amateur detective and allows him to meddle in his work.

Going by the two stories in the first volume, my impression is that Q.E.D. is a blend of Case Closed (type of cases) and Spiral: The Bonds of Reasoning (characters).

The first of the two stories that make up the inaugural volume, titled "The Owl of Minerva," takes place at the central building of "the famous A-KS game company" where Kana is spending a rainy evening at the gaming center with a friend, Norika Arita – who's the daughter of the company's president. On their way out, they witness an altercation between two gamers. One of them is Touma, who not only utterly demolished his opponent, but honestly told him his movements were predictable and that he sucked. So Kana intervened and took him out of the situation, which marked the first occasion that she really interacted with her famous, but reclusive, classmate.

Not long after this incident, Norika is whisked away to a locked-off, top floor level of the building and the place is suddenly swarming with police. Kane even sees her father, Inspector Mizuhara, enter the building. She overhears him saying that there's "a case on the 23rd floor" of the building.

So Kana grabs Touma by the collar and drags him to an employee-only elevator, protected with an electronic, three-digit code lock, which Touma cracks by using the good old pencil trick to make fingerprints appear on the type-pad – after which they spend some time peeking around corners and gathering information. What they learn is that the company president, Norika's father, was stabbed to death in his office and the CCTV footage shows that only six people were present on the 23rd floor at the time of the murder. And the police found a dying message.

A young Wolfean at work
A crumpled playing card, the King of Diamonds, was pried from the hand of President Arita and a second playing card, the Queen of Hearts, was found on his desk. What really surprised me is that this dying message was symbolic and, therefore, solvable even for readers who don't speak Japanese. As a rule, dying messages and coded messages in Japanese detective manga and anime series hinge on the Japanese language, which makes them practically unsolvable to Western readers. Everything one of these dying message or code cracking stories turns up in a series, like Detective Conan, I turn-off my brain and just enjoy the story and that's what I did here.

After all, even the translator appeared to be baffled by this particular dying clue, because one of the characters pointed out a potential connection between the crumpled playing card and a suspect with the name Juuzo, but this was never explained and this was followed by a footnote – explaining that translator also had no idea what the connection could have been. However, it was in the original Japanese text and therefore it was left in the translation. So it was interesting that the dying message turned out to have a practical explanation and therefore solvable.

A second aspect of this story I found interesting is that Touma and Kana couldn't simply walk around the crime-scene and ask everyone impertinent questions. Touma placed a wire on Kana, who pretended to be a young journalist, while he listened to her investigation from behind a computer in his book-lined room. A room that looked suspiciously to the room from another a detective manga that was seen in the first volume of that series.

Anyway, Kana eventually introduces Touma to her father and he's really impressed by the boy's deductive abilities. When Touma acts for his cooperation, he violently shakes the boy and yelled in his face, "tell me everything" and "what should I do." Why do I never meet homicide detectives like that?

The solution itself is not too bad for a introductory story. I caught on the murderer very early on in the story, because this person used a very old locked room technique to throw off suspicion within this closed circle of suspects. I was immediately suspicious of this person's actions and I turned out to be correct. So, on a whole, not a bad kickoff to this series.

In the second and last story of this volume, "The Silver Eye," Kana drags Touma to a doll exhibition to meet a friend of hers, Suzu-nee-chan, who's the daughter of a very famous doll maker, Katsumi Nanasawa – who's considered a cultural asset of the nation. During the exhibition, Touma confronts a fanatical doll collector, Kakuzo Akutso, who made an underhanded, but daring, attempt to steal one of the dolls on display. Nanasawa has resolutely refused to sell the odious collector any of her dolls and, ever since, he has attempted to get his hands on them without having to pay for them.

Nanasawa is an elderly, sick and wheelchair-bound woman and is pretty much at the end of her life. So she devised a plan to keep her beloved dolls out of Akutso's hands. She plans to donate her house and all the dolls in it to the government and turn it into a doll museum, but, shortly after she passes away, the family estate makes an unsettling discovery. A list of sponsors for the museum turns out to be shill companies that are owned by Akutso and this gives him an opening to obtain the entire collection if the museum ever goes bankrupt. However, death intervenes in this plan.

Akutso suffered from arrhythmia and had a pacemaker to make his heart beat at a regular pace, but this did not prevent his heart from stopping and his body was found in one of the doll rooms. One of Nanasawa's lifelike dolls was standing over the body. A smaller, but valuable, doll was missing from the room and the investigation is hampered by the statement of the three suspects/witnesses. They all give different statements about who find the body and what happened thereafter.

I guess most readers will probably catch on how Akutso died, especially after Kana checks up on a clue for Touma by climbing over the roof into the murder room, but the final twist was also pretty obvious. However, it makes for an, overall, nice and pleasant detective story with an interesting background. 

My only real complaint is that the murder method was not used to create a fun little locked room mystery, like the one from Clyde B. Clason's The Man from Tibet (1938), but the story required the suspects to have immediate access to the room. So you can hardly hold that against the writer.

On a whole, Q.E.D. is an interesting detective series with fun characters and relatively good plots. Granted, the plots aren't as good, or strong, as those found in Case Closed or Detective Academy Q, but they show potential to grow and improve. After all, my favorite detective manga, Case Closed, started with some really weak stories and look how that turned out. So you can expect my return to Q.E.D. in the near future.


The Sinister Student (2016) by Kel Richards

Back in 2016, I reviewed The Floating Body (2015) by Kel Richards, an Australian journalist and broadcaster, who has been writing crime-fiction since the early nineties and his latest undertaking is a series of historical impossible crime novels – casting C.S. Lewis in the role of both detective and lay theologian. I commented at the time that the book was a bit of a genre-mutt. A mutt who was not entirely devoid of charm, but a mutt nonetheless.

Richards attempted to write a book that was a historical novel, a detective story, a reminiscence of public school fiction, a Wodehousean homage and a sermon.

Regrettably, the result was less than perfect and an anonymous commentator observed that everything about the book struck him as recycled, "even the cover is a phony," which is hard to argue against as Richards was obviously riffing on his pet writers and hobby-horse subjects (e.g. theology and morality). 

However, I promised at the end of my review to return to this series for a second serving and, at the time, a fourth book had been announced with a curiously gruesome murder inside a locked room, but, to be upfront about it, it turned out to be more of the same – even if the impossible murder had a novel explanation. But more on that later.

The Sinister Student (2016) is the fourth book in this series and takes place in 1936, among the dreaming spires of Oxford, where the narrator of the series, Tom Morris, returns after a year of absence. Morris is hoping to secure a position as the leader writer at the Oxford Mail, but shortly after his arrival he meets his old mentor, C.S. Lewis, who invites him to a meeting of the Inklings. A real-life literary discussion club that included J.R.R. Tolkien, Hugo Dyson, Rev. Adam Fox and Neville Coghill.

All of them make an appearance in this book and Tolkien even becomes a supporting character. During their meeting, he even reads the latest chapter from a book he has been writing, The Hobbit (1937), which delights all but one person who attended the meeting.

The Honorable Aubrey Willesden is a high-handed, unlikable student who, somehow, received an invitation to the meeting, but, to Morris' shock, Willesden is of the opinion that the circle is "vastly overrated" and dismisses Tolkien's story as a mere fairy tale, which has no place in a prestigious university – only in a nursery. Morris can't believe that anyone, who listened to "the vivid storytelling in the classic tradition of the great epics," could have left the meeting unaffected, but he awakes the following morning to something even more unbelievable.

A house scout was asked by Willesden to wake him up that morning, to catch a train to London, but he can't rouse him and the solid door to his room was locked from the inside. The door is broken down by two gardeners and they make a gruesome discovery inside the room.

Willesden had been "savagely beheaded" and the wound, where his neck had been, had oozed "a great pool of blood across the floor," but the head and murder weapon were miraculously missing from the room! The only door had not only been locked from the inside, but bolted as well and the windows had been securely latched. So there was no way, whatsoever, a murderer could have entered, or left, the room carrying a severed head and a bloodied weapon. However, everything at the scene of the crime suggests that's exactly what happened.

Written at the time of this case
A local policeman, Inspector Fleming, failed to find the head and immediately handed over the case to Scotland Yard, which brings Detective Inspector Gideon Crispin and Sergeant Henry Merrivale to the university. Yes, these two characters aren't exactly, what you call, a subtle nod at John Dickson Carr and Edmund Crispin. And they don't do all that much in the story exact dragging a nearby river for the head and murder weapon.

There's also a sub-plot running through the story, known as "The Mystery of the Missing Milton," concerning a first edition of John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667), which has gone missing from the Bodleian Library and the last person who had handled it was Lewis – who is (unofficially) suspected of being the book thief. This angers his brother, "Warnie," who's determined to clear his brother's name, but, in my opinion, this plot-thread is merely filler to pad out the story. So this is as good a point as to make up the balance between the good and bad points of the book. I'll start with the bad aspects of the story.

First of all, there's the ongoing theological discussion between Lewis (a Christian) and Morris (an atheist), which are hammered, like doorstops, into various points of the narrative and this can be rather awkward as well as annoying. For example, early on in the story Lewis and Morris are looking out of the window, observing the line of policemen combing the school lawn for the missing head, when the former says "ah, yes" we "were talking about the way in which people die" and "the reason why people die." And they simply resume their discussion about the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the cross. This stop-and-go discussion littered the pages from beginning to end.

In my opinion, the book, or rather the whole series, would have been better served had Richards contained these theological discussions to a single (long-ish) chapter, somewhere, in the middle of a book – like a locked room sermon. Unfortunately, I don't believe Richards is really interested in writing strong Christian-themed mystery novels. Obviously, he likes the classic detective stories and the locked room mystery, but my impression is that he sees them as a pulpit to preach from and this comes at the expense of the plot. And that's, in my book, an unpardonable sin.

A second sin is that the story, as a whole, is pretty dull and nothing of interest really happens until the end, which is quite an accomplish for a detective story about a brutal decapitation inside a locked and bolted room. The murderer, along with the motive, is even presented to the reader on a silver platter and then gets ignored by everyone until the final chapters. This is not what a good detective story should be like!

Lastly, I really began to dislike Morris over the course of this book, who comes across here as a weak-kneed pushover, which is exemplified in how he's used by a potential love-interest, the haughty Penelope Robertson-Smyth, who treats him with a complete lack of respect – like he's nothing more than a piece of modeling clay who might be molded in something remotely desirable. It's not until the end, when she tells him she never wants to see him again, that he finally pulls himself up by his own spine and whimpers, "I'm over her now." Morris also never provides any real opposition to Lewis, who lectures him like a child.

Luckily, the book was not entirely bad and had some positive aspects. One of these aspects is that story, like its predecessor, had a good amount of charm and was very readable, but also appreciated the cryptic clue Lewis gave to Morris. Lewis told him that, over the years, some of his students have been adroit and some have been sinister. Statistically, "most have been adroit" and "only a minority sinister." Morris was an adroit student and Willesden was a sinister student. Although, I think Richards should have used the word dexterous, instead of adroit, this clue was neatly tied to the solution of the locked room murder.

A pretty good locked room trick, all things considered, that deserved a better treatment. One that would have used the arterial gushing of the neck wound as a clue. The spurt of blood, after the head came off, would have literally pointed in the direction of the (locked room) solution, but here I go nitpicking again. So let me tell you about the one thing I, as a purist, should have hated, but ended up loving it.

There's a foreign student at the university, David Bracken, who has an old-fashioned wardrobe in his room, but this wardrobe has a special quality that transported the book to the border-region where genres meet. Admittedly, this element is completely out-of-place in historical mystery novels, but this part was surprisingly well-handled and loved the reason why Bracken was present there. Not everyone is going to like it, but I was pleasantly surprised by it. 
On a whole, The Sinister Student wasn't an unpleasant read, but neither was it a very exciting one and the overall plot was, in spite of a relatively good locked room trick, mediocre at best. And this can be solely blamed on the author who preferred proselytizing over plotting. The storytelling and characters have their charm, sure, but this is not enough for readers to whom plot is the most important feature of a detective novel.

I'm not entirely sure whether I'll be taking a crack at the other titles in this series, The Country House Murders (2015) and The Corpse in the Cellar (2015), which are impossible crime novels, but everything suggests they suffer from the same weaknesses as The Floating Body and The Sinister Student. So, if I take another look at this locked room series, it won't be for another year or two.

So far this overlong, drag of a review and I'll try to grab something good from the pile for the next time.