1/20/17

The Policeman Who Explained Miracles

"Always remember, it's a trick. Keep that in mind and you can figure out how it's done."
- Lt. Columbo (Columbo Goes to the Guillotine, 1989)
Stephen Leather is a former journalist from the United Kingdom, who used to write for The Times and The South China Morning Post, before he became a full-time crime novelist and saw his thrillers translated in a dozen languages – which makes it safe to say that his career switch was a success. However, what caught my attention were not his contemporary crime novels, but a series of classically-styled short stories about Inspector Zhang of the Singapore Police Force.

I don't remember who recommended the Inspector Zhang stories, but remember they were described as a spirited homage to the locked room mystery and the great detective stories of yore. So, of course, they found their way onto my TBR-pile!

Leather penned this series during the early years of this decade, between 2011 and 2013, which were then collected a year later as The Eight Curious Cases of Inspector Zhang (2014). All of the stories are impossible, or semi-impossible, crime stories that are, mostly, set in "squeaky-clean Singapore." But the main attraction of this collection is the titular police-inspector.

Inspector Zhang is best described as a kindred spirit of ours. A policeman who loves detective stories, in particular locked room mysteries, but crimes of a seemingly impossible nature seldom occur outside of the printed page and rarely on the island state of Singapore – as it boosts one of the lowest crime rates in the world. So, whenever a criminal situation shows some inexplicable peculiarities, Zhang takes the opportunity to give a Carrian locked room lecture or litter his speech with references to Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle and Ellery Queen. The good inspector also revealed he learned Japanese for the sole purpose of being able to read the work of Soji Shimada.

So, the character of Inspector Zhang is both incredible fun and interesting: a policeman who operates in one of the cleanest, safest and low-crime areas on the face of this planet, but with a soul yearning for the kind of problems that faced Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. This makes them especially fun stories for the reader who's as big a fanboy as the inspector.

I better stop this bloated introduction here and start taking a look at each of the eight stories in this collection, because my reviews of short story collections have the tendency to expand to the size of Nero Wolfe's waistline.

The first one of the lot, "Inspector Zhang Gets His Wish," confronts the duo of Inspector Zhang and Sergeant Lee with the murder of an American distributor of plastic products, Peter Wilkinson, who was found in a five-star VIP hotel room with a stab wound to the throat. However, the windows were secured from within and the only door opened on a corridor that is constantly monitored by CCTV, which showed the victim was completely alone and this makes the murder look like a seemingly impossible one – much to the excitement of Zhang. As he confessed to Sgt. Lee, he has been waiting his whole life for an actual impossible murder and uses the situation to give an impromptu dissertation on all of the tricks mentioned by Dr. Gideon Fell in his famous Locked Room Lecture from John Dickson Carr's The Hollow Man (1935). Granted, this is used to pad out the story and makes the routine solution, which is a slight variation on an old trick, slightly disappointing, but Zhang's contagious enthusiasm made this a passable effort.

In the second story, "Inspector Zhang and the Falling Woman," Zhang has taken his wife to a restaurant to celebrate thirty years of marriage, but the ending of the evening is spoiled when they came across the prelude of a drama: a young woman was standing on the roof of a twelve-story apartment building and threatened to jump. She acts upon her threat and jumps to an ugly mess on the pavement below, but this routine case of suicide takes a strange twist when the medical examiner takes a closer look at the body. The woman who apparently jumped to her death was drowned!

However, the method was actually not too difficult to figure out and really the only answer that made logically sense, which (for your information) had nothing to do with the medical examiner. I know what some of you were thinking, but that's not the answer. What really was the highlight of this story was not the plot, but Zhang's imitation of Columbo, when he waltzed into the apartment of one of the suspects, speaking irrelevances about "my wife" and even saying "just one more thing." Loved it!

The third story, "Inspector Zhang and the Dead Thai Gangster," finally shows a clever and even an original impossible situation. One that takes place aboard a Boeing 777-200. Zhang and Lee are flying to Thailand, "to collect a Singaporean businessman who was being extradited on fraud charges," but upon landing the inspector is summoned by the captain: a passenger has been found dead in the sparsely occupied business class and the body has a bullet hole in the chest with gunshot residue on his shirt. The shot was fired at close range, but that seemed, under the circumstances, as impossible as getting a gun aboard and then making it vanish again – which is, nonetheless, what appears to have happened. But that's not the only problem facing the inspector.

The name of the victim is Kwanchai Srisai, "a well-known gangster" with "political aspirations," who has been target of several murder attempts before. Zhang contacted his superiors over the telephone, who contacted the Royal Thai Police, and they want him to take a crack at the case and sort out the mess before taking over the case, which means they prefer to come aboard to take the killer into custody rather than taking over the investigation. And, while not every piece of information was fairly shared with the reader, the explanation for the impossible situation was still pretty clever and somewhat innovative. I liked how it came about.

Next in line is "Inspector Zhang and the Perfect Alibi" and the plot shows the inspector is acquiring a reputation, up and down the ranks of the police force, as someone with an uncanny knack for getting "to the heart of seemingly impossible situations." The Deputy Commissioner is stuck with what appeared to be a simple case, which turned into an impossible one, that has the potential of turning the entire police department into a laughing stock. A woman had been murdered in her home, throat cut, but there were clear signs of burglary and there were cast-iron, tale-tell clues pointing towards a known burglar – fingerprints on the murder weapon and a bite-mark on victim. However, the suspect was in custody at the time of the murder. So either the suspect managed to slip from his sealed and guarded prison cell or their forensic scientists made a mistake. Both answers are bad for the police.

A good and intriguing premise, but very simple to solve and you should be able to stumble to the correct answer by the halfway mark. By the way, I did learn something from this story: caning is a legal and perfectly normal punishment in Singapore. It can be given for a wide variety of crimes and offenses. The video I found of a caning looked very, very painful, but makes you almost understand why they have clean streets and a chronic lack of petty criminals.

The fifth story, "Inspector Zhang and the Hotel Guest," is the shortest entry in this collection and is fairly simple, non-impossible problem. A man was found in one of the hotel rooms, booked in the name of a Russian woman, but the man has a bump on the back of his head and no memory of who he is. So the inspector has to make a series of Sherlockian-style deductions based on the man's appearance and study the CCTV footage in order to ferret out the answer to this little conundrum. A short, simple, but passable, story.

There's an original locked room problem at the heart of the next story, "Inspector Zhang and the Disappearing Drugs," which begins with the Senior Assistant Commissioner summoning Zhang to his office in connection with a case of "a highly confidential nature." A sensitive case that requires the mind of "an expert in the field" of seemingly impossible crimes.

A team of Customs officers accidentally came a consignment of drugs, a hundred kilos of Burmese heroine in ten cardboard boxes, which gave the Drug Squad an opportunity to setup a trap by following "the boxes of drugs to the customer who had paid for them" - effectively rolling up the Singapore end of the operation. Well, that didn't happen. The boxes were delivered to a shabby apartment on the eighth floor of a building and were left behind there, but the address was known known to the police. So they made their preparations: CCTV cameras were installed in the hallway and the apartment was under constant police observation, but the boxes were never retrieved from the apartment.

After a week passed, they called off the operation and the police-detective in charge was given to order to enter the apartment in order to retrieve the heroine. But that's when they made a startling discovery: the apartment was empty and the boxes, alongside the drugs, had vanished into thin air!

Zhang is great form and figures out both the method and the culprit based on the CCTV footage and the pesky security on the reinforced front-door of the apartment, which offers the reader with the same opportunity. And that makes this one of the better and most rewarding stories from this collection.

The penultimate story in the collection, "Inspector Zhang Goes to Harrogate," is a fun one. Zhang's wife arranged a holiday to England for his birthday and the main attraction of this present is attending a mystery writers' conference, where he meets a hated writer and publisher, Sean Hyde, who sold over a million ebooks by selling them "for less than the price of a cup of coffee" - which is resented by a lot of people. They claim Hyde is "devaluing books" by selling them so cheaply, but he merely suggested agents and publishers needed to adept to a changing market. Or that some of his vocal colleagues should supply better written books at the right price, because badly written, over priced schlock was doomed to fail. So this made him not the most popular speaker at the conference.

But the situation takes a dramatic turn when Hyde's body is found in his hotel room, hanging from the bathroom door, in what appears to be a suicide: a maid was outside in the corridor outside and saw nobody leaving the room after hearing a thud. So nobody was present when he apparently hung himself. However, this is, technically speaking, not a locked room, because the door was not locked from the inside and the bathroom window was open. It's one of those alibi breaking stories that strongly reminded me of one or two similar tales from Case Closed (e.g. Vol. 57), but it's a fun one, which is strengthened by the setting and the background that delved into ebook publishing. An area not yet widely explored by mystery writers. So this story may very well be an original in that regard.

Finally, there's "Inspector Zhang and the Island of the Dead," which sounds very grim and promising, but the setting, Sentosa Island, is a popular resort that was associated in a dark and distant past with piracy. However, that has very little to do with the story at hand. A domestic affair dressed up as a botched burglary: Dr. Samuel Kwan was found stabbed to death in his study by his wife and Dr. Mayang. They heard a scream emanating from the study, but the door was locked and they had to go round the house to discover that one of the windows of the backdoor had been broken. But this apparently botched burglary turns into another alibi breaking story when Zhang learns the house was a divided one with a divorce in process.

So, not a bad story, but I expected something better from both the title and the last story in this collection, which really should have had a (strong) impossible crime.

In any case, I genuinely enjoyed The Eight Curious Cases of Inspector Zhang, which may not have always been perfect or played entirely fair, but, as a whole, the book offers a great band of tribute stories to the locked room mystery and the classic detective story – exemplified in the character of Zhang. His presence and enthusiastic love for detective stories made even the weaker stories fun to read. Hopefully, this is not the last time we got to see him take charge of a curious case involving locked room murders, baffling disappearances that appear to be completely impossible or destroying a cast-iron alibi of a guilty person. All the while he's happily chattering away about Carr, Christie and Doyle.

1/18/17

Lucifer's Pride

"I could murder that woman... she treats us like muck." 
- Amy Ford (Harriet Rutland's Knock, Murderer, Knock, 1938)
Alfred Meyers was, like Anthony Boucher, "a great opera buff" and snatched at any opportunity to sing "in every chorus that would use his talents," while working off and on in his father's bank, but Meyers also achieved modest success as a writer – publishing short stories, a stage play and a detective novel.

Murder Ends the Song (1941) was Meyers' sole contribution to the genre, but, despite his scanty resume, he was elected the first Treasurer of the Northern California chapter of the Mystery Writers of America. A chapter of which Lenore Glen Offord was Secretary and Boucher was its Vice President. Meyers would go on to write only a single chapter for an anthology of true crime stories, San Francisco Murders (1947), before fading from the public-eye and his work was hurled into obscurity.

There it was, after seven decades, found by one of the usual suspects, Curt Evans, who reviewed the book in early 2013 and in his two-part post (here and here) called it "a work worthy of the masters" that "merits reprinting" - which finally happened in 2015. A small, independent publisher, Coachwhip, reissued the book with an introduction by Evans, which is a compendium of his blog-posts on Meyers. It also, enticingly, points out that the book contains several illustrations, a floor plan and a tabulations of clues. Showing that Meyers was dedicated to playing the game fairly and resulted in "a most enjoyable classic mystery" composed "in the manner of the great Ellery Queen." And for the most part, I agree with this assessment.

Murder Ends the Song is told in the first person and the narrative voice is that of a promising young tenor, Anthony "Tony" Graine, who's a most amusing character and this is particularly shown in the opening chapter – when his business manager, "Nero," insistently rings his phone until he drags himself out of bed. The subsequent conversation was rife with verbal abuse, with one of them threatening to ram a telephone "down his yapping managerial gullet" and the other evoking "the curse of the Witch of Endor," but the manager won in the end. Graine collected himself and met with him ten minutes later to go to the airport to join the entourage of "La Grazie."

Marina Grazie was a star of the operatic stage, but, while her star had dimmed, her fame had not entirely faded. She was heard on the radio often and could still gather a crowd of newspaper reporters. However, to her dismay, she has been unable to set a toe on the big stage after prematurely retiring, hoping the famous managers would track her down with "a contract as fat as she was," which never happened – eventually giving and making a guest appearance on a radio program. Grazie wants more and joined the "one-horse outfit" of Nero in the hopes of making a West Coast comeback.

So, a typical spoiled diva with a high opinion of herself and was knocked down a peg, or two, by the world around her. However, the subsequent story "The Great Grazie" to be a truly villainous piece of work. A woman who has been described as "a grasping, egotistical, demanding slave-driver" and not adverse to abuse her authoritative position to physically assault the people around her. Graine quickly became aware that Grazie has "a gift for inspiring impulses to violence" and hears several references to her murder long before stumbling across her body. Someone even wrote a message in blood on her mirror! So someone has it out for her.

The entourage of the opera diva consists of the following people: Miss Elena Grazie (her niece), Miss Ambrosia Swisshome (companian-secretary), Dr. Beale Thorndyke (personal physician), Mr. Julian Porter (accompanist) and Mr. James Paris (chauffeur and pilot). They find themselves stranded, together with their tormentor, inside a grim, half-finished castle, called Lucifer's Pride, which was constructed by Grazie's dead fiance, Lucifer Bollman – an elderly Wheat King who, reputedly, died of a broken heart and now haunts the place.

Lucifer's Pride is "perched on a bluff some three hundred feet" above the Columbia River Gorge and a violent storm cuts the party off from the mainland for a full twenty-four hours, which is enough for the killer among them to dispatch a few people to Great Beyond. And this person begins with Marina Grazie.

After a confrontation between Grazie and her rebellious entourage, she takes possession of the library and repeatedly sings her favorite aria, Caro Nome, but when Graine goes to check on her he finds that the singing came from a phonograph in the corner – playing a ten-year-old recording. Grazie was slumped over the keys of the piano, her head resting in her arms, where she slumped to the floor when Graine touched her shoulders. A steel knitting needle protruded from the base of her skull!

Alfred Meyers
So there you have it: the premise of a classically-styled mystery novel with a closed-circle of suspects, cut-off from the outside world, which is a clichéd situation often associated with detective stories from this period. However, Murder Ends the Song is everything but cliché or an unoriginal imitation of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1939). Meyers allowed his character to perform a different kind of detective story on this stage and this resulted in some very well imagined set pieces.

One of them is how nobody, except for Graine, is really concerned about the murder and they find it more important to search the library and padding down the corpse(s). What are they looking? Graine suspects it is Lucifer diamond. After all, Grazie's jewelry box has been looted, but, obviously, the party is searching for something completely different. There was also a very bizarre musical scene, in which everyone had gathered in the library and was singing Shall We Gather At the River at the piano, while the body of Grazie was laying on the couch and tucked around with an Indian robe. It ended with the question whether it would have pleased the old bird. I was reminded of a similar and equally bizarre singing-scene from Boucher's The Case of the Seven Sneezes (1942). So the writing and story-telling were as inspired as the plot.

A plot further complicated with addition of two bodies. One of them belonging to an unknown man who broke his neck in a rather unpleasant fall and the third victim perished in a muddled shooting incident, but the main attraction of the story is the murder of Marina Grazie and the person responsible for her death.

Meyers did an exemplary job in plotting and writing a genuine whodunit. I was pleasantly surprised when it became apparent this person was the killer, because I had not seriously considered this option and experienced one of those rare, but pleasant, jolts of surprise that attracts readers to detective stories, but (admittedly) become rarer once you become well read in the genre. But this one did it. I also found the motive to be interesting and very original for the time. It may very well have been the first example of its kind.

So that aspect of the plot was definitely satisfying, but, like a tiresome nitpicker, I have to point out a strange, anomalous flaw in the solution. Meyers may have done too good a job at hiding the murderer, because the (main) clues do not, necessarily, point this person out as the only possible candidate to have committed the murders – which makes them more indicators than tell-tale clues. Well, there's the clue of the bottle, but that one veered closely to the territory of Dagmar Doubledick's tie. However, I guess the bottle clue can be seen as the connecting puzzle piece to the aforementioned indicators and together point towards the murderer.

I should also point out that the caretakers, Mr. and Mrs. Tait, withheld a key piece of information until the end. Granted, it was established early on in the story that they didn't always show the back of their tongue or "forgot" things, but still, it should have been divulged a whole lot sooner.

Anyhow, you should not allow this technical nitpicking to deter you from trying Murder Ends the Song, because it is a genuine and pleasantly surprising whodunit with an original background placed in a familiar setting. And it is a notable entry in the Van Dine-Queen School of Detection. I just found the effect of the clues on the overall plot to be a bit weird. But, again, that's just me nitpicking the finer details of a clever and enjoyable mystery novel.

1/15/17

A Plan of Attack

"You stand in the way not merely of an individual, but of a mighty organization, the full extent of which you, with all your cleverness, have been unable to realize."
- Professor Moriarty (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Final Problem," from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, 1894)
Yes, I know. I know. I allowed way too much time to pass between this blog-post and my last review of Case Closed, which dates back to late August of 2016, but here we are again with, perhaps, the most important volume in the series and the plot heavily involves the black-clad men from the crime syndicate – known as the Black Organization. A volume jam-packed with revelations and progress in the main story-line that runs like a red-thread through the entire series!

The 58th volume of Case Closed, known in some quarters as Detective Conan, is basically a novel-length story.

Traditionally, this volume begins where the previous one ended: Rena Mizunashi is still in the hospital, closely guarded, but an operative from the syndicate has infiltrated the hospital and is posing as a patient. So the last volume saw Conan assisting the FBI with ferreting the agent from a group of three patients, which he accomplished by tricking each of them in picking up his cell phone from the floor. However, Conan's discovery triggered a large-scale battle-of-wits between the FBI and the Black Organization. Both groups have some very familiar faces on their team.

In the corner of the FBI, there's the head of the operation against the syndicate, James Black, who is accompanied by Jodie Sterling and Shuichi Akai – considered by the Organization to be their most dangerous opponent and refer to him as the "Silver Bullet." Gin even mentions to Vodka and Vermouth that "he's got The Boss shaking." Akai's longstanding feud with the Organization yields some very interesting revelations, harking all the way back to a case from the second volume, but Eisuke Hondo also learns the truth about his father and sister. And how all of that relates to Rena Mizunashi. So this volume definitely provides some answers to the overarching story-line of the series.

On the opposing side are the aforementioned syndicate agents, Gin, Vodka and Vermouth, who are backed up by a pair motor-riding snipers, Chianti and Korn. They pose a tricky challenge to Conan and the FBI agents in the hospital, because they're effectively trapped there with no apparent way of getting Mizunashi out of there. James Black points out that one wrong move on their side might result in them having to effect an escape "through a hail of bullets."

So this quickly moves in an almost city-wide game of cat-and-mouse between the Black Organization and the FBI, in which the former seems to have the upper-hand over the latter – flooding the hospital with compact time-bombs and patients of several catastrophes they created in the city. I won't give further details about this dangerous mental tango between both parties, but the result is, what I dubbed, a "Strategic Detective." A series such as Spiral: The Bonds of Reasoning is good example of a "Strategic Detective," but a better comparison, for the readers of this blog, would probably be the scheme Nero Wolfe cooked up in Rex Stout's The Doorbell Rang (1965) to ensnare a bunch of corrupt FBI agents. It makes for a very good, fun and captivating read!

The last four chapters seems to ease the volume back in the normal pattern and rhythm of the series, which begins when Conan and the Junior Detective League bump into Police-Detective Takagi at a hotel where they were eating lunch – learning from him that a murder has just been discovered there. Apparently, the head of a foreign agency was murdered in his office, on the 39th floor, "shot several times in the chest" and evidence suggests the gunman is still in the vicinity.

Three foreigners, who speak perfectly Japanese, turn out to be the main suspects, but one of them was a character introduced in the previous chapters: Agent André Camel of the FBI! So this minor murder case is a convenient excuse to tell Camel's back-story, but the Black Organization also rears its head. One of their operatives, Kir, has received orders to kill Akai and a body cam/wire allow Gin and Vodka to watch the whole show. The volume ends with a cliffhanger when Akai is shot.

Oh, the murder case, in which Camel became a suspect, was typical for an Aoyama story that involved Western characters. The solution always hinges on language. Or a misunderstanding between two different languages (e.g. The Spider Mansion Murder Case from vol. 25).

While this was not a volume brimming with locked rooms, dying messages, code crackers and other kind of detective stories, this was still one of the more rewarding entries for long-time readers. You're finally getting some answers, but also because you finally got to see Conan getting involved in a serious tangle with the Black Organization. So this was welcome break from the regular pattern of the series and one that reminded why I love this series: it is, as another eloquent fan of the series so scholarly described it, a "superspecialawesome volume."

Well, since I'm already two volumes behind on the release schedule, I'll pick up the next volume from TBR-pile ASAP and then fetch those other two volumes. I might also do a blog-post about my favorite locked room mysteries from the series. But that's something for the coming weeks. Stay tuned!

1/13/17

To Wake the Dead

"You say you've known magicians and escape artists. Can you think of any trick that would explain how it was done?"
- Superintendent Hadley (John Dickson Carr's The Hollow Man, 1935)
Several years ago, I posted a review of Gauntlet of Fear (2012) by David Cargill, which was self-published and came with the kind of flaws one expects from such a venture, but the book is part of a short and very intriguing series – namely a locked room trilogy! So, not surprisingly, I always intended to return to this series of impossible crime novels and give it an opportunity to redeem itself. But first things first.

Cargill is a retired school teacher from Dumfries, Scotland, who's in his eighties and began to translate his "lifelong interest in stage magic and the writings of John Dickson Carr" in 2010. According to this author's comment, left as a response to a negative review, Cargill revealed he hoped his writing aspirations might produce enough proceeds to repay the Alzheimer nurses who looked after his wife until her death in 2010. So this drove Cargill to write three locked room novels: The Statue of Three Lies (2011), Gauntlet of Fear and The Cinderella Murders (2015), but what fueled their plots was his obvious love for stage magic and detective stories.

The Statue of Three Lies is dedicated to the memory of the undisputed master of the locked room mystery, Carr, whose work was "the inspiration that triggered this piece of fiction" woven "around an incident of fact" - which, in "Notes for Curious Minds," is shown to have been a "spooky" anecdote from chapter 2. A domestic incident of the unexplained that should have been narrated by Warwick Moss on an episode of The Extraordinary. Anyhow...

Cargill showed with The Statue of Three Lies that he's closely aligned with two of Carr's modern-day followers, Paul Halter and David Renwick. The book really could have been plotted and written by those two.

The Statue of Three Lies takes place in 1966, making this a historical mystery, but the seemingly impossible murder, which is the central problem of the plot, happened fourteen years previously – during the early 1950s in a large, sprawling place called Maskelyne Hall. Jack Ramsden was "a craftsman," who loved cabinet making and magic as an art form, using "all of his ingenuity in the production of props for stage illusionists." Ramsden even began to perform as an amateur magician, but tragically died in a shooting accident when he was setting the stage for an elaborate trick in the library of his home on the eve of his wife's birthday.

Every year, on the 31th October, which is both the night of Isabella Ramsden's birthday and the anniversary of the death of Harry Houdini, Ramsden "entertained the household with his latest version of an old illusion." Jack worked tirelessly to improve upon the ideas of the great masters of illusions, past and present, such as a famous levitation act, but the last trick was supposed to be a recreation of "the Bullet Catching Trick of Chung Ling Soo" - using a different kind of rifle. However, when he returned from a trip to the United States, where he attended a convention for magicians, he had become wildly enthusiastic about an illusion he witnessed there. He compared it with The Substitution Trunk and wanted to recreate it with the entire library acting as the trunk. The trick would include "a transformation scene of earth shattering dimension" using R.L. Stevenson's characters of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but an invisible intruder turned this amateur performance into an impossible murder.

David Cargill
Ramsden insisted that every inch of the library was searched, to show nobody was being hidden, while the windows were being locked and the curtains drawn. The lodge-keeper, groom and gardener, Old George Gardner, was outside guarding to windows to make sure "there was no jiggery pokery." The large fire place was blocked and entirely filled by a solid steel, built-in safe. A room that was, for all intents and purposes, a sealed one!

So, finally, he was locked inside the empty library and the sole key was in constant possession of his wife, which set the stage for the bizarre sequence of events that happened next – such as a series of strange sentences of a one-sided conversation emanating from the library.

They heard him say "leave that alone," "put your mask on" and "no, no... don't touch that," which is followed by the report of a gunshot, but, when they enter the room, they only find a dying man. The shot apparently came from the mounted rifle on the stand. Since nobody was in the room, or could have entered it, the death was filed away as an accident.

So, here you have, what could be, the premise of Halter novel: a seemingly impossible murder that has occurred in the past and the resembled the premise of the locked room murder from Le brouillard rouge (The Crimson Fog, 1988), which also occurred on the makeshift stage made for the performance of magic tricks. However, the subsequent investigation resembled a (later-period) episode of Renwick's Jonathan Creek.

After fourteen years, Ramsden's daughter, Laura, contacts Professor Giles Dawson, who specialized himself in the history of stage illusions and is a member of The Magic Circle, but also stayed at Maskelyne Hall as a child. Dawson credited Ramsden's stories about Houdini's exploits as the root cause of his fascination with stage magic. Well, Laura wrote a letter to Dawson telling him that she has began to believe that her father's death was meant to happen and how "the past is closing in" on the family. So she wants him to attend her mother's seventieth birthday party and help prove that her father's fatal accident was murder.

What follows is largely a type of sedentary investigation, which I call "Mainly Conversation," since a considerable amount of time is spend sitting around and talking. And not always about subjects that are immediately relevant to the problem at hand. However, some of these conversations were interesting and covered a whole gamut of topics: such as the story of the brief, but impossible, disappearance of a diver from his old-fashioned diving suit, which is given a rather gruesome explanation. There's a talk about the scientific nature of coincidences and several famous events are brought up, which include the coincidences surrounding the Titanic disaster and two Presidential assassination. Ghosts are also brought up, followed by a rather useless séance, as is the locked room mystery itself. Of course, the Dr. Gideon Fell's famous and often cited Locked Room Lecture is discussed. So these parts are not entirely without interest, but neither are they of integral importance to the overall plot.

However, Dawson does some actual detective work. One of the first things he does, upon his arrival at Maskelyne Hall, is solving a Jonathan Creek-style riddle that gave him to the combination to the safe in the fireplace. The safe contains a clue that eventually brings him to Boston, in America, where learns of the illusion, witnessed by Ramsden, of "the disappearance of an individual" from "a room that was locked and had no windows" - a locked room filled with magicians as an audience! Dawson also gets an idea or two from the titular statue, which is a statue of John Harvard that earned its nickname for the many inconsistencies surrounding it. So he does not just sit around discussing esoteric subjects or ride his hobbyhorse.

My explanation for the locked room murder of Jack Ramsden was very, very close to the one provided by Cargill. I think my solution can be regarded as a simplified version of the actual explanation, but Cargill's overdressing of the trick prevented from it being a disappointment. Cargill took a similar approach to the impossible crime angle as Ramsden took to stage illusions: trying to improve on the old masters and taking a shot at adding "a new dimension to a classic." And he thoroughly refurbished one of the oldest tricks in the book.

Honestly, I appreciate the work Cargill put in reinvigorating this trick. It definitely was more inspired than the whodunit angle or the second murder this eventually provided.

So, The Statue of Three Lies has its fair share of problems, two of the most ones are the obvious absence of an editor and an annoying overuse of exclamation marks, but the book is rather grandfatherly in nature. It's as if your grandfather is telling you a story about bloody murder, family secrets and locked rooms, but the problem is that its told at an old man's pace with a liberal amount of side distractions and irrelevant stories. But there's something kind and benevolent about the whole book. Cargill's love for John Dickson Carr, impossible crime fiction and magic tricks is also very evident, which makes some of its flaws forgivable to a Carrian reader.

However, if you decide to give The Statue of Three Lies a shot, you should keep in mind that this is a self-published novel that missed out on some much needed editing and came with the expected flaws of a debuting novelist. So readers, purely looking for a brilliant locked room novel that can rival Carr's The Three Coffins (1935) or John Sladek's Black Aura (1974), should probably look elsewhere. I, on the other hand, will take a look at the third and final entry in this series purely for the sake of completion. So you have a review of The Cinderella Murders to look forward to somewhere in the not so distant future.

1/11/17

Scouting for Danger

"It is the unofficial force – the Baker Street Irregulars."
- Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four, 1890)
Manly Wade Wellman was an old-fashioned "fictioneer," known in some quarters as "the dean of fantasy writers," but he also wrote detective stories, science-fiction, westerns and juvenile fiction. A versatile writer whose bibliography encompasses a wide sweep of (sub) genres and this is reflected in the two books and short story reviewed on this blog, which comprises of a hybrid-mystery (Devil's Planet, 1942), a private-eye novel (Find My Killer, 1947) and an impossible crime story - "A Knife Between Brothers" collected in The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries (2014).

The subject of this blog-post is one of Wellman's lesser-known novels, which, once again, belongs to a completely different sub-genre than his previously reviewed work. One that can be placed in the category of juvenile mysteries, but also, very snugly, fits into the niche corner of boy scout fiction and scouting literature in general. A peculiar field of fiction now only of apparent interest to collectors.

Holmes "Sherlock" Hamilton is the sixteen-year-old protagonist of The Sleuth Patrol (1947) and the son of the police chief of Hillwood, who wants to follow in his father's footsteps, but for the moment he's still in the scouts and the opening of the book finds him in his basement den – one that resembles "an outlaw hide-out." The walls are decorated with crossed fencing foils, a couple of grim looking "Most Wanted" posters and tacked-up certificates of Scout achievements. A corner table functions as forensic laboratory were fingerprints can be taken with ink, ground pencil lead or white talcum.

Sherlock is eager to help his father, who's also the chairman of the Troop committee, by using his den as a gathering place for the formation of a new Troop. A handful of boys show up: Pete Criley, Harry McMurray and Chuck Schaefer (who reads Ellery Queen), but the three Scouts taking center-stage are Sherlock, "Doc" John Watson and the wisecracking Max Hinkel. So this makes the book really feel like a predecessor of Robert Arthur's The Three Investigators.

One thing this group of boys have in common, besides being Scouts, is that they love detective stories ("we're all Hawkshaws at heart"), which makes it a logical decision to become Scout Detectives. They call their newly formed patrol the (sleuth) Hounds. The second chapter, entitled "The Case of the Bean Burglar," provides Sherlock with his opportunity to shine and quickly solves the case, but his interference will come back to haunt the young detective. A month later, during a school holiday, their Scoutmaster takes them on an outdoors camping trip and this provides the Hound Patrol with a number of problems and challenges – from a friendly rival with the Eagle Patrol to a rundown, reputedly haunted, house in the middle of the woods.

First of all, the car of the Assistant Scoutmaster, Mr. Brimmer, disappears in the middle of the night and this provides the plot with a borderline impossible theft, because how was the (noisy) car started without anyone waking up? Why did they fail to find any of the tracks with the distinctive zigzag pattern? I should probably have tagged this blog-post as an impossible crime, but this was really a slight and easily solvable problem without any real emphasis on the apparent impossibility of the situation. To be honest, the entire plot, what they call, waver thin and relies heavily on the Scouts showcasing their physical-and mental prowess to solve problems and get out of tight situations. A part of the middle section tells of a competition between the Hounds and Eagles, which, for example, showed them using their wits to try and win a swimming race.

I was strangely reminded of Spiral: The Bonds of Reasoning, both the manga and animated series, which also had physical battle-of-wits and logical (survivor) games. Of course, they were a whole lot less deadly in The Sleuth Patrol, but they're definitely related. And, yes, the combination of the camping trip and the criminal angle of the abandoned house in the woods recalls some of the disastrous camping trips of the Junior Detective League from Case Closed (a.k.a. Detective Conan).

The haunted house
But the plot-thread of the haunted house, tied to both the burglary from the second chapter and the car theft, is far from complex and only gives Sherlock an opportunity to showcase his skill set when he finds himself trap at the place – alongside a couple of gun-toting criminals. I got the impression this book was written with the idea of showing young teenagers the advances of taking their homework and physical exercises seriously. For example, when Sherlock finds himself trapped in the dark cellar he deduces, using math, that "the basement of the haunted house was a deep one," once inch short of ten feet, by simply counting the number of stairs and estimating their height. He also showed how his physical fitness allowed him to sneak around the criminals and escape from their clutches unscathed.

So the book really is closer to adventure stories and boy scout fiction than to the juvenile mysteries of The Three Investigators.

Finally, The Sleuth Patrol ends with an interesting and somewhat unique event, in which hundreds of Scouts, from different groups, are summoned to help the police comb the swamp for a wounded man. So you can also view the book as a recruitment tool for the Scouts, because Wellman painted an attractive and exciting picture of the life of Scouts. Even if you eliminated the presence of the criminals. It reminded me of the traditional school-camp droppings. So one can only imagine how attractive this must have looked to children and (young) teenagers from the pre-1950s (i.e. last generations before TV-and internet).

So, plot-wise, The Sleuth Patrol is a very thin detective story, but still a well-written and fun read, which told a boy scout story on top of the premise of a juvenile mystery. Admittedly, that was not entirely without interest. Probably not to everyone's taste, but worth a shot to readers of juvenile (mystery) fiction.