5/18/18

Dead Man Twice (1930) by Christopher Bush

Dead Man Twice (1930) is the third title in Christopher Bush's Ludovic "Ludo" Travers series and has been recommended to me several times by Nick Fuller and Curt Evans. The book considered to be one of the stronger titles from the early period of the series and not entirely without reason.

Reprinted by Dean Street Press
In this early title, Travers is still working as a financial adviser for that distinguished inquiry, advertising and publicity firm, Durangos Limited, which means that his role is still that of a chameleon in the background and cedes the stage to his friends, Superintendent Wharton and John Franklin – head of the Detective Bureau of Durangos Ltd. So the story has a slightly different feeling than those that have a more prominent role for Travers.

Franklin is visited in his office by Kenneth Hayles, a writer of hackneyed, cliché-ridden thrillers, who wants to use him and his office as a model for his next novel, but Hayles also co-authored Two Years in the Ring. A book he wrote together with Michael France, a gentleman boxer and heavyweight champion of Europe, who's scheduled to fight Toni Ferroni in New York and everyone expects him to bring the world title back to England. So their meeting ends with Franklin getting an opportunity to meet the public hero of the moment.

However, Frankling comes down to Earth again when France wants to consult him on a string of threatening letters, which gave him a few days to leave the country or his "numbers up," signed by "Lucy" and gave Franklin three specimens of handwriting to compare – all three specimens were procured from people who stand close to the boxer. France also asks Franklin to drop by his house, but when he arrived it looks as if nobody is home. The hammering with the door knocker and ringing the bell gets no response whatsoever.

After a while, the valet of France, Mr. Usher, arrives and opens the door, but what they find inside is a scene as bizarre as it's inexplicable.

The body of the butler, named Somers, was lying on the rug of the lounge with tumbler next to his outstretched arm and on the table, next to the decanter and siphon, stood "a small, blue bottle with a red poison label." A suicide note is found, "this is really the end of everything," but Usher recognizes the handwriting as that of his master, Michael France! So this prompts them to further explore the house and they find a second body in an upstairs room. France lay on the bedroom floor with a bullet wound in his forehead and a tiny, toy-like pistol two feet from his outstretched hand. However, the medical evidence reveals that the shot was fired from "a devilish awkward position" and "the bullet might have missed the brain altogether." And the awkward angle of the bullet is a clue as to what happened in that bedroom!

Travers is only a background figure in the investigation, who analyzes the published work of France and Hayles, which leaves all of the legwork to Franklin and Wharton. Once again, the performance Superintendent George "The General" Wharton demonstrated that we lost a great lead-character for a series of detective novels.

Layer by layer, Wharton slowly peels away the mysteries and is "worming his way into some subterranean and buried essential," but the complications are numerous and one of these is that there was a six-inch circle of glass cut out of the window – except this was not a garden-variety burglary. And then there's France's involvement with the wife of the well-heeled, aristocratic racing motorist and his chief financial backer, Peter Claire, who had planted Usher in France's house to keep an eye out. Compounding these confusing jumble of problems and the contradictory facts at the scene of the crime are a couple of durable alibis.

The unbreakable alibi is a trademark of Bush's detective fiction and this begs comparison with another craftsman of cast-iron alibis, Freeman Wills Crofts, but Bush's plotting technique actually makes him closer to John Dickson Carr and John Rhode than to Crofts.

The murder of France could have easily been presented as an impossible situation and Bush's plots are often borderline or quasi-impossibilities (e.g. The Case of the Bonfire Body, 1936), but rarely crosses the border to become a full-fledged locked room mystery. Regardless, this could have been a nifty locked room yarn and the method, which also helped the murderer forging a cast-iron alibi, could have been plucked from the pages of Rhode's mystery novel. As a matter of fact, I have seen variations of this trick in the works of both Carr and Rhode.

Nevertheless, this could have been a nifty locked room and the murder method is something straight out of of a Rhode's novel. As a matter of fact, I have come across variations of this trick in the works of both Carr and Rhode. John Russell Fearn even used a very similar trick to create an actual locked room murder, but I believe Dead Man Twice predates all of them.

So I really liked this plot-strand of the story, which came with diagrams and floorplans, but the poisoning plot wasn't bad either and the nature of the crime, with all its complexities, fitted the personality of the murderer like a glove – which nicely contrasted with the more plot-technical killing of France. But the best part of the plot is how these plot-strands were intertwined and threw one of these plots in disarray.

Only thing you can hold against the plot is that the identity of the culprits were rather obvious. A problem corrected by the intriguing question as to how the murders were committed and the attempt to fit every piece of the puzzle together to form a logical and coherent picture of all the events.

I've not read the first title in this series, The Plumley Inheritance (1926), but feel confident in stating that Dead Man Twice is the first of Bush's baroque-style detective novels that introduced his favorite plot-device of having two murders taking place in close proximity of each other and link them together with a bale of plot-threads. An approach he used to great effect in Dancing Death (1931) and The Case of the April Fools (1933). The result is usually a pleasantly intricate, mind-twisting and challenging detective story and Dead Man Twice is not the exception to this rule.

Dead Man Twice is a grand old-fashioned detective story and more than worthy of the praise it has received, but, personally, I would not go as far as placing it right alongside the superb Cut Throat (1932) and the equally superb The Case of the Missing Minutes (1936). Dead Man Twice stands a step below them along with the previously mentioned The Case of the April Fools, The Case of the 100% Alibis (1934) and the Carrian The Case of the Chinese Gong (1935), which is not a bad company to be in.

So, a long story short, I continue to enjoy my exploration of Bush's detective fiction and will return to him soon, but first have to pick a title. Currently, I have whittled down my options to three titles: The Case of the Dead Shepherd (1934), The Case of the Hanging Rope (1937) and The Case of the Green Felt Hat (1939). Ah, luxury problems!

5/16/18

Devil's Soil: Halter, Hoch and Hoodwinks

I know my blog is dominated by locked room mysteries and impossible crimes, which tends to come at the expense of regular detective stories, but the monster that Edgar Allan Poe created still has me firmly in its grip. Just like Vincent, "I'm possessed by this house and can never leave it again." Nevertheless, I do want to spread out my locked room reading in the future, but until then, I crossed two more short stories from my to-read list. Stories by two modern-day champions of the impossible crime story whose dedication and output rivaled that of the master, John Dickson Carr.

Edward D. Hoch's "The Problem of the Devil's Orchard" was originally published in the January, 2006 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and will be collected for the very first time in the forthcoming Challenge the Impossible: The Last Casebook of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (20??) – published by Douglas Greene of Crippen & Landru. A collection of short stories representing the closing chapters on a long-running series that was fully dedicated to the impossible crime story, but we can be downcast about this when the time comes.

"The Problem of the Devil's Orchard" takes place during Labor Day weekend of 1943, when the tide of the war in Europe was turning in favor of the Allies, but the war was not the only thing occupying the people of the New England town of Northmont. A young man had miraculously vanished from an apple orchard.

Phil Fitzhugh only recently celebrated his nineteenth birthday, works at the feed store of his family and is dating a girl, Lisa Smith, whom he intends to marry, but her folks won't hear of it. Phil became frantic when he finally received his draft notice.

So Lisa turned to Dr. Sam Hawthorne for help, who enlisted the assistance of Sheriff Lens, but after they pick a drunk Phil up at a bar, where he was "acting a bit unsteady," he escapes from Hawthorne's car and flees into Desmond's Orchard – known locally as the Devil's Orchard. The hundred-acre apple orchard is believed to be haunted and attracts "arcenous children," which is why the owner erected two, eight-feet chain-link fences topped by barbwire. Phil was completely trapped inside the orchard, but a subsequent search by fifty workers only turned up a blood-smeared shirt. And the strip of bare soil along the fences was soft enough to show footprints. Only problem is that the earth showed no signs of having been stood on. So how did he vanish from a locked and watched apple orchard?

Hoch has a deserved reputation of usually delivering one of the better, if not the best, short story in any mystery anthology that he's a part of, but this is not one of his finest pieces of impossible crime fiction.

The clues and hints to the solution where all there, like the stone that was found on the bloody shirt, but the fair play could disguise that the impossibility was weak and uninspired. An explanation that should have been used as a false, throw-away solution. Unworthy of Hoch, the King of the Short Detective Story.

So, now we go from one modern locksmith of the impossible crime story, who's no longer among us, to another artisan who still very much alive.

An English translation of Paul Halter's "The Robber's Grave" first appeared in the June, 2007 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and was translated, as always, by John Pugmire of Locked Room International. The story is a charming one and can be compared to the kind of impossible crime stories from Carter Dickson's The Department of Queer Complaints (1940).

Dr. Alan Twist had taken his car to escape the noisy, bustling city of London and lose himself in "the peaceful English countryside," but had ended up in a "desolate spot" across "the border of darkest Wales." There he stumbles into an inn and listens to the story of a nearby grave site where grass refuses to grow.

A hundred years ago, Idris Jones was denounced by "a couple of blackguards," who claim to have seen him rob and beat a beggar to death, but, despite his heated denials, Jones was hanged as a murderer. On his way to the gallows, Jones asked God not to allow "a blade of grass ever to grow over his grave" and the grass over his grave did turn yellow and then disappeared. And that's the last time green was seen on that patch of ground. An attempt to find a logical and natural explanation has driven a developer out of the village.

A property developer from Bristol, Evans, had bought the land and wanted to turn the grounds into a golf course, but you don't want your patrons to come across a haunted grave when they're doing a relaxing round of golf. So he vowed "to break the ancient curse" or "abandon the project." Evans went to a lot of trouble to prove it was all a trick or misunderstanding.

Evans removed the earth to a considerable depth and replaced it with rich, seeded loam, but the grass had scarcely began to grow when it began to turn yellow, died and a bare patch outlining a grave – which only made him double his efforts. The earth was replaced again and Evans hired the best gardeners in the region, but when even this failed he began to suspect sabotage from the locals. So he built a wall around the fence with a metal grille serving as a gate. Guards and dogs watched over this small fortress and the earth inside was, once again, replaced. But all to no avail. The grass refused to grow.

A good and novel impossible situation with a neat, simple and believable explanation that also betrayed the author is undeniably French.

I believe these type of peculiar problems and unusual impossibilities work best, as is demonstrated here, when the problem-solver of the story acts purely as an armchair detective who listens to these extraordinary accounts and then reasoning a logical answer from that same armchair – doing all of the work in his head. "The Robber's Grave" is not strictly an armchair story, because Twists does leave his seat, but he pretty much functions as one. And he figures out the method when he recalled a mean-spirited prank he played on a nasty neighbor as a child.

So we have a good, fun little detective story and another that began promising, but ended up being underwhelming. Well, we'll have to do with that, I guess, and I'll return with some non-impossible crime novels from the likes of Christopher Bush, E.R. Punshon and perhaps Erle Stanley Gardner. So stay tuned.

5/14/18

The Kindaichi Case Files: The Headless Samurai by Yozaburo Kanari and Fumiya Sato

Previously, I looked at a landmark novel of the Japanese detective story, Inugamike no ichizoku (The Inugami Clan, 1951) by Seishi Yokomizo and the detective on that case, Kosuke Kindaichi, is as iconic a figure in Japan as Sherlock Holmes is in the West – referred to some as the Columbo of the East. Yokomizo's famous detective has a well-known grandson, Hajime Kindaichi, who debuted in 1992 in Weekly Shōnen Magazine. A serialized mystery manga that has since spawned numerous manga-and anime series, light novels, video games, live action movies-and TV series and even had a crossover with Conan Edogawa from Detective Conan.

Originally, The Kindaichi Case Files was written by Yozaburo Kanari and my opinion of him, as a mystery writer, is somewhere at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Kanari would probably crack my top 3 of least favorite mystery writers and his hackwork has negatively colored my perception of the series.

Initially, I abandoned the series after only three (or so) volumes of the original series, which began with the uninspired The Opera House Murders that heavily leaned on ideas from Gaston Leroux's Le mystère de la chambre jaune (The Mystery of the Yellow Room, 1907) and Le fantôme de l'opéra (The Phantom of the Opera, 1910) – fluffed up with an impossible crime trick cribbed from a G.K. Chesterton story. The Mummy's Curse is a poorly abridged version of Soji Shimada's Senseijutsu satsujinjinken (The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, 1981) bordering on plagiarism. I don't exactly remember my third one, but it could have been No Noose is Good Noose or The Legend of Lake Hiren, but they were both equally poor in plot and execution.

I abandoned The Kindaichi Case Files with no intention of ever returning, but than I ran across Ho-Ling Wong and he insisted there were quality detective stories in the series. So I reluctantly returned with varying degrees of success. The Graveyard Isle was incredibly weak and don't remember thinking too much of Treasure Isle either, but Death TV, The Magical Express and The Undying Butterfly were generally excellent. House of Wax was even superb and still my favorite entry in this series.

There are, however, a few holes in my reading of the English edition that were published in the West, because TokyoPop folded in 2011. One of these titles, The Headless Samurai, had been recommended to me by a commenter, Jonathan, on my review of The Prison Prep School Murder Case, a multi-part episode of the latest Kindaichi anime – claiming that the story was even better than The Magical Express and House of Wax. Naturally, I was skeptical and had a very good reason to be, which has to do with my reason for picking The Headless Samurai as my follow up to The Inugami Clan.

You see, what I read about the plot of The Headless Samurai made me suspect Kanari had been "borrowing" from Yokomizo's celebrated detective novel and was ready to tar-and-feather him for it. I even hired an angry mob with torches and pitchforks. I was fully prepared for a good, old-fashioned verbal lynching, but, as much as it pains me to say, I turned out to be wrong. Again. The Headless Samurai turned out to stand toe-to-toe with House of Wax and kind of liked what Kanari did with the plot and (visual) clueing. Don't get me wrong. Kanari is still a hack of the first water, but you have to give credit where credit's due, you know.

The Headless Samurai has Inspector Kenmochi traveling to the remote mountain village of Kuchinasi in the Gifu Prefecture to visit a childhood friend, Shino Tatsumi, who had married into a wealthy family, as the second wife of Kuranosuke Tatsumi, but after he passed away she started to receive threatening letters – all of them signed by "The Cursed Warrior." Kenmochi is accompanied by two familiar faces, Hajime Kindaichi and Nanase Miyuki.

There are a few superficial resemblances to The Inugami Clan in the opening stages of the story. One of these is a masked man, Saburo Akanuma, who they spot on the bus to the village and turns up again at the Tatsumi home as a guest of Shino. A second resemblance is the reading of the will, appointing Seimaru Tatsumi as the head of the family and "the heir to all its wealth," but the problem is that Seimaru is Shino's son who was adopted by her husband and an outsider – which means that his appointment comes at the expensive Ryunosuke, Moegi and Hayato. The three children from Kuranosuke's first marriage.

However, The Headless Samurai goes its own way after the setup and the plot is draped in a legend that has hung, like a dark cloud, over the village for centuries.

Over 400 years ago, the village was visited by an army general, Kaneharu Hiiragi, who was badly defeated during the time of the battle of Sekigahara and came to Kuchinasi to seek refuge with his men. Upon his arrival, the general crowned himself leader of the village and attempted to drive out the village chief, but General Kaneharu was betrayed by his soldiers. They killed their master, presented the severed head as peace offering to the chief and settled down in the village. Only General Kaneharu placed a curse on them with his dying breath, "my spirit will wander the earth" and "you will never be free," which was followed by a series of decapitations of his former men.

So the frightened villages began to appease his spirit by erecting a shrine dedicated to him and headless statues were placed representing the victims. And the opening of the story showed that the suit of armor of General Kaneharu has disappeared.

The Cursed Warrior makes an entrance like a Scooby Doo villain, when he slashes through a paper screen with a katana, before disappearing and only an impossibly vanishing trail of sandal-prints on the veranda. However, this side-puzzle is quickly solved by Kindaichi, but the problem is that this reveals the person wearing the armor came from inside of the house. Ah, yes, detective stories are the thinking man's Scream.

This is followed by the impossible murder of the masked man, Saburo Akanuma, who is housed in the only available room at the time. A vault-like room hidden behind a hidden, revolving door that looks like a blank wall. The room itself has an iron door with a lock made in Germany, which comes with a unique, custom-made key that can't be duplicated and the only window is a narrow square with iron bars – looking out over a wide, steep cliff with a river below. One evening, Kindaichi gets a phone-call from Saburo asking to ask him if he really is "the grandson of the famous detective," because he wants to tells him the identity of the katana-wielding samurai.

Kindaichi and Shino go to the Saburo's room to have a word with him, but when they arrive in the passage they hear him scream out, "IT'S THE CURSED WARRIOR." Kindaichi tells Shino to fetch the keys and when they can finally open the door they're greeted by his headless corpse sitting in the silent, moonlit room.

A well-presented locked room problem with a good false solution by Kenmoichi, which fitted only one suspect, who promptly dies, but the actual explanation is practical, simple and believable. Clever and original enough to avoid being disappointing. And nicely contrasts with Kenmochi's solution.

However, the locked room mystery and its false solution are not the gemstones of the plot. An experienced mystery reader with a passing familiarity of the Japanese detective story will immediately suspect a classic, Eastern-style corpse-trick is being placed right under their nose, but not one you can easily unravel and the plot cleverly plays with the cast-iron certainties given by modern forensics and results in a beautiful piece of misdirection – which was nonetheless prominently foreshadowed in the artwork. This also gave the murderer an acceptable motive for all of the theatrics, because they were necessary to answer that age-old question. What to do with the body?

The Headless Samurai was surprisingly strong on motives, which is normally a weak aspect of the series, because the plot tend to be written around the eternal avenger-from-the-past theme. The murderer here had an entirely different motivation. A motive showing that old sins can cast long shadows, the cussedness of all things general and that blood will out. What drives the murderer also gives the story some nice clues and made for a dark, tragic conclusion.

So, all in all, The Headless Samurai was a pleasant surprise and, if I come across as overly enthusiastic, it's because I was determined to hate it going in. But I was proven wrong. I don't mind it at all when that happens. Kanari is still a hack though.

5/11/18

The Inugami Clan (1951) by Seishi Yokomizo

Seishi Yokomizo was one of Japan's most celebrated mystery novelists and his series-detective, Kosuke Kindaichi, is as iconic a figure in the East as Sherlock Holmes is in the West.

Kosuke Kindaichi is described as a less-than-impressive character in his mid-thirties with an unruly mop of hair and wearing an unfashionable serge kimono and wide-legged, pleated hakama trousers – which are both very wrinkled and worn. He has "a slight tendency to stutter" and a habit "to scratch his tousle-haired head with frightful vigor," but also possesses a remarkable "faculty for reasoning and deduction." A talent he puts to use as an unassuming private investigator.

Kindaichi first appeared on the scene in Honjin satsujin jiken (The Daimyou's Inn Murder Case, 1946), "a locked room tale about a bride and bridegroom found brutally slain in a snow-bound annex," which was praised by Edogawa Rampo as "the first novel of reasoning in the Anglo-American style in the world of Japanese detective fiction." This is not very surprising since Yokomizo was heavily influenced by John Dickson Carr and Roger Scarlett's Murder Among the Angells (1932). A mystery novel known in Japan as Enjeruke no satsujin (The Murder of the Angell Clan).

Frustratingly, The Daimyou's Inn Murder Case has yet to be translated into English and there are, as of now, no concrete plans to remedy this gross oversight. Even John Pugmire, of Locked Room International, hasn't glanced in the direction of this reputed classic of the impossible crime story.

There is, however, one of Yokomizo's most famed detective novels that did made it to our shores, namely Inugamike no ichizoku (The Inugami Clan, 1951), which is "a Gothic tale of murder" with a status and prestige in Japan akin to that of Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) and Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1939) in the West – a well-deserved reputation. The Inugami Clan is a monumental novel revolving around the warring branches of the titular clan over the inheritance of the dead family patriarch, which brims with long-held family secrets, resentment and a series of grotesque murders steeped in symbolism.

I read The Inugami Clan all the way back in 2006 or 2007 and wanted to see if this landmark novel of Japanese detective story held up to re-reading. Well, it absolutely did.

First of all, I need to point out something I overlooked on my first read, or failed to remember, which is that the story (especially the opening) has hints of the HIBK (Had-I-But-Known) school of detective fiction. The omniscient narrator ends the first chapter by telling the reader that, in hindsight, the death of the head of the family "set in motion the blood-soaked series of events that later befell the Inugami clan" or, when Kindaichi rescues one of the principal characters from a sinking boat, that this was "the first event that disrupted his investigation" – effectively preventing him from solving "the case much earlier than he did." This style is closely associated with female mystery and suspense writers, like Mary Roberts Rinehart, Dorothy Cameron Disney and Anita Blackmon, but you sometimes see it crop up in the work of male writers (e.g. Baynard Kendrick's Blood on Lake Louisa, 1934).

The tragedy begins with the passing of "the so-called Silk King of Japan," Sahei Inugami, whose life story was a rags-to-riches and began when, as a 17-year-old pauper, he arrived at the Nasu Shrine on the shores of Lake Nasu. Sahei would have certainly starved or frozen to death had it not been for the generosity of the priest, Daini Nonomiya, which is when fortune finally began to smile on Sahei and he felt he owed the priest a lifelong debt. However, as the omniscient narrator reminds us, everything, even gratitude, has a limit that should not be exceeded and Sahei's excessive gratitude towards the Nonomiya family would "embroil his own kin in a series of bloody murders after his death."

Kosuke Kindaichi Action Figure
During his long, successful life, Sahei sired three daughters, Matsuko, Takeko and Umeko, by three different mistresses, but never married any of them and never showed any affection to his daughters – which he reserved for the granddaughter of the Nasu Shrine priest, Tamayo Nonomiya. A beautiful, 26-year-old woman who had been brought up in the Inugami household and would come to play a principle role in the murders. A role given to her by a devilishly worded will.

Several weeks pass before the will can be read, because Sahei instructed to wait until one of his grandsons, Kiyo, returned home from the front in Burma, South-East Asia, but was disfigured in battle and has to wear a rubber mask. Something else that obviously will come to play a role in the subsequent events at the lakeside villa of the Inugami clan. But when the will is finally read, it hits the entire family like a bombshell.

Sahei bequeathed the three heirlooms of the family, the ax, zither and chrysanthemum, which "signify the right to inherit," to the granddaughter of the priest, Tamayo. One of the many conditions in the will is that Tamayo has to marry one of Sahei's three grandsons, Kiyo, Také or Tomo, within three months of the date of the reading of the will. She is only released from this condition if all three grandsons refuse to marry her or die before the three months are up. There are more conditions attached to the will and one of these conditions would give an apparent illegitimate son, Shizuma Aonuma, a slice of the estate. And this does not sit very well with the family. Particularly with the three daughters of Sahei.

So here you have a household as troubled, and strained, as that of Henry VIII of England and we all know how that story played out after the king passed away. This story is no different.

Toyoichiro Wakabayashi of the Furudate Law Office in Nasu can see the writing on the wall and summons a private detective, Kosuke Kindaichi, but, before he can tell his story, he's poisoned in Kindaichi's hotel room when the detective was out on the lake saving Tamayo from drowning – one of the most recent attempts on her live. All of this is still only the prelude to what's about to happen at the lakeside villa.

After a hundred pages, Kindaichi is summoned to the village and ushered into a chrysanthemum garden, tucked away within a European and Japanese style gardens, where a row of handmade chrysanthemum dolls stood that represented a scene from a well-known kabuki play about a legendary hero of medieval Japan. The heads of one those dolls was replaced with the severed head of Také! A scene as gruesome as it is memorable and an obvious reference to one of the family heirlooms. So there are more murders to be expected and the last one is particular memorable as the victim is found, upside down, with his legs sticking out of the frozen lake. I believe this scene is still regularly parodied in Japanese detective stories, but our resident expert, Ho-Ling Wong, could probably tell more about that.

The Inugami Clan is an intricately structured, richly detailed detective story with a plot succeeding admirably in being incredibly complex and deadly simple at the same time.

You can probably deduce the identity of the murderer and what possessed this character to commit a series of horrific murders, but the cussedness of all things general and the cross-purposes of several closely connected characters do their damnedest obscuring the truth – every move, or countermove, undertaken by these characters are properly motivated and believable. This actually reminded me very strongly of Christianna Brand's splendid London Particular (1952).

So these characters and their very human, understandable motives gave the plot of The Inugami Clan a warm, human and, above all, a tragic touch that makes it so much more than a mere game of chess. Throw in a truly iconic detective character, bizarre clues and a string of grotesque murders, dripping with blood and symbolism, and you get one for the ages. A classic mystery that will not fail to satisfy the most fervent readers of the traditional, plot-oriented detective story, but the numerous references to the, as of yet, untranslated cases of Kosuke Kindaichi can be experienced as frustrating. I pray this will be remedied in the coming years, but, until then, read (or re-read) this richly plotted, well-characterized and beautifully written gem from the land of the rising sun.

On a final, semi-related note, I wanted to return to Christopher Bush for my next read, but might slip in a review of a detective manga with a link to Yokomizo's Kosuke Kindaichi.

5/9/18

Detective Conan: The Case of the Séance's Double Locked Room

Last month, I reviewed a one-hour TV-special from the Detective Conan anime series, entitled The Cursed Mask Laughs Coldly, which first aired on March 13, 2000 in Japan and the episode has a splendid plot with a terrifying, brand new locked room trick – a grisly paragon of originality. I was alerted to the existence of this TV-special by Ho-Ling Wong and since then he has brought another, three-part episode to my attention. A three-parter with a pair of equally original impossible crimes.

The Case of the Séance's Double Locked Room originally aired in January and February of 2010, covering episodes 603-605, which were written by the same screenwriter as The Cursed Masks Laughs Coldly, Ochi Hirohito. You can clearly see his style of plotting and ideas reflected in the locked room tricks from both of these (multiple) episodes.

Just like in my previous Detective Conan post, I'll be using the English names given to some of the characters in the U.S. editions of the original manga series, re-titled Case Closed, because I already reviewed volumes 38-65. So a reversal back to the Japanese names might be confusing, but feel free to cool your purist rage in the comment-section below.

This three-part episode opens on a dark, misty road in a wooded area and Richard Moore, Rachel and Conan are, as the latter accurately predicted, completely lost, but a lonely mansion with a lighted window is spotted in the distance and they decide to seek shelter there – only to get a startling surprise when the door is opened. A cabal of cloaked figures answer the door, cowls drawn over the heads, but one of them recognizes the famous "Sleeping" Moore. Koji Yatsukawa is an assistant director working for Nichiuri TV and apparently made his first appearance as a TV original character in the two-part episode The Seven Wonders of the Hiroshima Miyajima Tour, which actually sounds like a potentially interesting detective story. Something along the lines of Yasuo Uchida's Togakushi densetsu satsujin jiken (The Togakushi Legend Murders, 1994), but hopefully with a better ending.

Anyway, the group introduce themselves as a fanclub of the late Miyahara Kira, a cosplay idol and actress, who was supposed to star in the movie adaptation of The Blackmagic Girl. A popular occult manga created by the owner of the mansion, Reiki Hirasaka, but Kira drove her car over the edge of a cliff and her body was never recovered – resulting in the movie getting canned. However, she's not at rest. Rumors are swirling around claiming Kira, like the protagonist from The Blackmagic Girl, has risen from the dead and became a witch in order to extract revenge on those who have betrayed her in life.

Several weeks ago, Hirasaka's production editor was fatally wounded in a knife attack and he left a dying message in his own blood that read "Kira."

So the fanclub decided to gather at the home of Hirasaka, who's well versed in the occult, to conduct a séance in his Meditation Room and summon the ghost of Kira, but the séance turns out to be sham performance and the two detective who happened to presence, Moore and Conan, immediately uncover a whole host of gadgets that were responsible for the apparently supernatural manifestations when they made contact with the spirits – like exploding candles, voices coming from framed posters, shaking lamps and plates tumbling out of cupboards. I think readers who love a good debunking of a séance in their detective fiction will particularly like this scene. 

 
Thackeray Phin gave an expose in John Sladek's marvelous Black Aura (1974) of some of the most well-known tricks spiritual mediums used in the old days and, if I remember correctly, he only overlooked the cheese cloth smeared with luminous paint, but this episode added a couple of new tricks to repertoire. And some of these tricks double as clue for the locked room murder later that night.

During the night, they all receive a text message from one of their fellow club members, Shoko Utakura, which says "I have come back to life" and is signed with "Kira," but Utakura is nowhere to be found and search leads them to the door of the Meditation Room – which has, somehow, been padlocked from the inside. Moore has to break a window in the door, in order to smash off the padlock, and when they enter the room they discover that all of the posters have been taken out of their picture frames and the frames are in disarray on the floor. The body of Utakura lies on top of the séance table, arms sprawled out at her sides, but the only problem is that the only other exist is a closed window high up the wall. So how did the murderer left a perfectly sealed room?


This is, however, not the only impossible murder committed that night: Hirasaka is locked inside his room and is unresponsive, which prompted one of the people to take a peek inside the room through the open transom above the door. A transom that only opened for about ten centimeters and through it you could see Hirasaka body lying on a coach with a toppled bottle of wine on the table.

Obviously, he had taken a swig of poisoned wine, but this problem gets even more baffling when Moore breaks open the door.

The decorative posters that were taken from the Meditation Room were torn to pieces and piled inside this second locked room, but even more inexplicable is that the key to this room and that of the padlock were found in a drawer of Hirasaka's desk – which also had been securely locked. Finally, the rope that was used in the first murder lay next to the heap of shredded posters!

Ho-Ling was, to use his own words, "a bit disappointed" by this second locked room trick and appeared to him "unambitious for someone who created a masterpiece" like The Cursed Mask Laughs Coldly. I admit that the central idea behind this impossibility is derivative of the locked room trick from The Cursed Mask Laughs Coldly, but it's used here in an entirely different and far more practical manner, which I found to be almost as satisfying as the gruesome trick from that previous episode. One thing I have come to appreciate, after nearly tagging 400 blog-posts with the "Locked Room Mystery" label, is innovation and originality.


However, I completely agree with Ho-Ling that this second impossibility is (further) strengthened when you see it in the light of the locked room trick in the Meditation Room, which definitely ticks the boxes for being innovative and original – as well as wonderfully clued. A great advantage of telling a traditionally plotted detective story in the medium of comic books or animation is that you can blatantly show what is going on without the danger of giving anything away.

As the viewer, you can probably gauge the escape route of the murderer from the Meditation Room, but how this person managed to do that is another story and one you won't have a shot at answering if you don't connect it with what happened in that other room. And that's where this episode becomes somewhat of classic locked room story.

John Dickson Carr described the perfect detective story as being a ladder of clues or a pattern of evidence, "joined together with such cunning that even the experienced reader may be deceived," which is perfectly exemplified in the plot and solution The Case of the Séance's Double Locked Room – which has a sound and logical reason for everything that happened during the night of the murders. Everything is linked together by logic and reason. The murderer even has a good motive for making the murders look impossible. Carter Dickson's Sir Henry Merrivale lectured in The White Priory Murders (1934) and The Peacock Feather Murders (1937) on all of the possible motives a murderer could have for going through the trouble of creating a sealed room illusion, but I don't think this one was mentioned. And that's another aspect making this a more than noteworthy impossible crime tale.

So, as a locked room mystery, this one is almost as great as The Cursed Mask Laughs Coldly, but this three-parter also shares the same weakness as that one-hour special: the who-and why behind the murders are very obvious. However, you shouldn't watch these episodes for the who or why behind the murders, but how the murders were perpetrated and why the murderer went through all that trouble to present the crimes as complete and utter impossibilities. 

I really think my fellow locked room enthusiast should start looking at these detective anime and manga series, because they have some truly excellent and original miracle crimes. And, as visual (animated) mediums, they can do more with the form than the written word or even a live-action TV-series or movie. The locked room tricks The Cursed Mask Laughs Coldly and The Case of the Séance's Double Locked Room are good examples of this. I can't recommend them enough!