The Locked Room Reader VI: The Hit List

"You have a dead body in a locked room, locked from the inside perhaps, and the question is how on earth could they be in that position with no one else available to have committed the crime. That's it, really, in a nutshell."
- Robert Adey (Miles Jupp in a Locked Room, BBC Radio 4, May 21, 2012) 
Only a few day ago, I posted a review of a short story by Herbert Resnicow, "The Christmas Bear," in which I linked to a list of locked room stories and this gave me the idea to compile an inventory of all the locked room lists posted across the internet – a list of lists. I know what you're thinking: this sounds like the blog-post equivalent of a landfill (i.e. filler-post). You'd be absolutely correct!

Well, I guess I'll start filling up this post with the lists that can be found on this very blog, which is a bit self-serving, but it's a convenient starting point.

I compiled two best-of lists, "My Favorite Locked Room Mysteries I: The Novels" and "My Favorite Locked Room Mysteries II: Short Stories and Novellas," which are two of the most popular blog-posts on this blog. They're due for an update, but I’ve been told they're excellent for expanding the wishlist of both the novice reader and full-blown locked room addicts. I also composed a list under the self-explanatory title of "The Reader is Warned: A List of My Least Favorite Locked Room Mysteries."

There's an additional list I put together, "Dutch Impossible Crime Novels," but that one can be found on the Golden Age of Detection Wiki, which has several overviews of non-English detective stories – including "Japanese Impossible Crime Novels." A number of locked room authors are also mentioned in the articles discussing "French Golden Age" and "Portuguese Golden Age." On the page "What Not To Do—A Guide for Murderers," the advice is given to aspiring murderers to "wait in a dark alley with a big stick" instead of going through all of the trouble of creating a risky locked room trick (e.g. John Russell Fearn's The Crimson Rambler, 1946).

The next entry on this list is "A Locked Room Library," strung together by John Pugmire of Locked Room International, which covers three different lists: a top 15 of locked room novels selected by a group of mystery writers and critics in 1981 – a group that included Robert Adey, Douglas G. Greene, Edward D. Hoch, William Link, Bill Pronzini and Donald A. Yates, et al. The second half of the list, "99 Novels for a Locked Room Library," was put together in 2007 by an alliance of English-and French speaking locked room enthusiasts and the project was headed by a French anthologist, Roland Lacourbe. Finally, there are fourteen additional titles added to the bottom of the list, which received four or more votes, but were not available in French. So they did not make the final cut.

On the page that hosts "A Locked Room Library," you can find several supplementary lists, "Locked Rooms and Other Improbable Crimes" and "More Locked Rooms and Improbable Crimes," which were respectively compiled by Steve Lewis and John Pugmire. You can also find an article by Pugmire on the MysteryFile website about "Paul Halter, A Master of Locked Rooms."

The Thrilling Detective Website is the home of aficionados of the hardboiled gumshoe, but one of their pages, "And Throw Away the Key: Locked Room P.I. Mysteries," gives ten examples of seemingly impossible crimes occurring on those mean streets of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Surprisingly, the Thackery Phin novels by John Sladek are mentioned, but they got publications dates for Black Aura (1974) and Invisible Green (1977) completely wrong. I also think the list could be appended with Anthony Boucher's The Case of the Solid Key (1941), Manly Wade Wellman's Find My Killer (1947), Bill S. Ballinger's The Body Beautiful (1949), Mack Reynolds' The Case of the Little Green Men (1951) and Roy Huggins' 77 Sunset Strip (1959).

One of the classics
I found the following list only recently, "IMBb: Locked Room Mysteries + Impossible Crimes," which is an enticing accumulation of movies and TV-series that played around with the locked room ploy. Obviously, this area of impossible crimes I have to take a closer look at. Literally! So I might give a movie like Grief Street (1931) or The Verdict (1946) a shot one of these days.

TV Tropes has a page dedicated to the "Locked Room Mystery" and is notable for some of unusual examples it found from a wide variety of mediums, which include anime, video games and even tabletop games.

I previously mentioned John Pugmire of Locked Room International and on his website, under 'Articles," there's a wealth of engrossing and genre-related material – such as "The Top 50 Locked Room Mysteries" (PDF) by Jonathan Scott and "Ten French Impossible Crime Stories Available in English" (DOC). And much, much more.

Hal White is a modern practitioner of the miracle crime and created a contemporary version of Father Brown, whose cases are chronicled in The Mysteries of Reverend Dean (2008), but you can find a wide selection of "Suggested Reading & Viewing" on his website – alongside a long page of interesting links. Oh, look, my blog is on it!

Back in 2014, an Irish crime writer, named Adrian McKinty, received some press when several websites published his "10 Favorite Locked Room Mysteries," which had some interesting and unusual picks. My fellow blogger, Les Blatt from Classic Mysteries, published his "Favorite Locked Door Mysteries" on Flash Light Worthy Books. Some of the usual suspects make an appearance, but Les also picked Stuart Palmer's The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (1934) and Glyn Carr's Death on Milestone Buttress (1951). You won't find those two often on any kind of list, but they're great mystery novels (especially Pepper Tree).

You can find a fairly standard list of "Locked Room Mysteries" on GoodReads and the official Wikipedia article has a decent list of English, French and Japanese locked room novels, but not particular noteworthy compared to other lists in this blog-post.

Finally, The Locked Room Mystery website has several interesting list of impossible crime stories and novels, which include "A Locked Room Christmas," "Locked Room Anthologies: Recommended Reading" and "Locked Room 101: An Introduction to the Masters."

I think these were all of the noteworthy locked room lists and impossible crime related articles, but let me know in the comments if I missed one.


The Impossible Shot

"A minute examination of the circumstances served only to make the case more complex."
- Dr. John H. Watson (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Empty House," from The Return of Sherlock Holmes, 1903)
John Russell Fearn was primarily an author of science-fiction and helped fill the popular magazines of his days, which included Amazing Stories, Astounding Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories, but had to adopt a number of pennames to toil in the field of crime-fiction – such as "John Slate" and "Hugo Blayn."

A Toronto-based magazine, named Star Weekly, was one of the periodicals that printed his detective stories and his first (short) novel for the publication, Within That Room! (1946), was a locked room mystery! It was published under his own name, but Fearn experienced some success in the same magazine with one of his science-fiction series, "The Golden Amazon," which forced him to switch to pseudonyms for his subsequent detective novels. So the Star Weekly began to publish his mystery novels, such as Shattering Glass (1947) and The Fourth Door (1948), under pennames like "Thornton Ayre" and "Frank Russell." One of these enigmatically titled detective novels has always intrigued me.

The Crimson Rambler (1947) has been described as being "written in the vein of John Dickson Carr" and how "no discerning collector of locked room and impossible crime stories" can't afford to miss out on it, which worked like a dog whistle on me – drawing me to it with a lure that I can't ignore. So here we are!

The enigmatic book-title is the nickname of the main-character, Chief Inspector Douglas Gossage of Scotland Yard, whose brick-red complexion, "an efflorescence which wandered unchecked far beyond the normal confines to the roots of his close-cropped grey hair and the back of his neck," earned him the colorful moniker. Gossage apparently has a reputation at the Yard for cracking tough cases, because the book opens on a gloomy November morning in his office with a visit from a reluctant colleague.

Divisional Inspector Craddock is faced with an inexplicable murder case at Darnworth Manor, "a big, rambling place some hundreds of years old," where the owner, Werner Darnworth, was shot through the head inside his private study – which seems pretty straightforward and uncomplicated. But the door was locked from the inside and the key was still in the lock. It had to be wriggled out "on to a piece of newspaper under the door" and the sole window in the room was of "the non-opening variety." A solid frame of mullioned panes. On top of that, the divisional surgeon extracted a pellet from an air rifle from the victim's skull. A large and cumbersome weapon for an indoors killing!

After unceremoniously dumping Craddock ("I don't want you, or the local inspector, or even the Angel Gabriel"), the Chief Inspector takes his right-hand man, Sergeant Harry Blair, to the scene of the crime. There they are confronted with a fairly typical pool of suspects: the wife of the victim, Mrs. Jessica Darnworth, who’s an invalid and blamed her husband for the accident that bound her to a wheelchair. She relies on her companion-help, Louise. Sheila Darnworth is the youngest daughter and an aspiring mystery novelist, but, at the time of the shooting, she was heard playing the piano in the music room. Elaine Darnworth is the second and eldest child of the couple, who assists the local vet, but she away from home at the time her father was shot. Or so she claims. Both of the girls have a fiancé: Sheila is engaged to a radio engineer, Barry Crespin, who was sound asleep after a hard day of work when the deadly shot was fired. Elaine is engaged to Gregory Bride, a scientist and inventor, who received financial backing from his future father-in-law and was staying for the weekend at the manor house. Finally, there's the handyman-chauffeur, Preston. And he shows at one point in the story that he's fiercely loyal to Mrs. Darnworth.

The interaction between Gossage and the Darnworth clan, as he probes for potential motives and opportunities, makes for a pretty standard detective story, which swayed from clichéd (the part about to the wheelchair) to somewhat original (how the malicious will was handled), but the best and strongest part of the plot was the reconstruction of the seemingly impossible murder – which can only be described as a murderer's triathlon. It's an extremely complex scheme and the culprit made murder look like an Olympic sport.

First of all, there's a very understated alibi and the idea behind it was nice, but perhaps belonged on the pages of a parody of the detective story. The crux of the trick is a bit silly for serious and technical locked room mystery. Secondly, the murderer had to gain access to a certain spot in (or around) the home, which was properly foreshadowed. You only need to remember a certain thing by the time Gossage and Blair begin to examine this part of the murderer's plan. The third step is the locked room trick itself, but even with the given explanation the impossible shot still seems, well, impossible. Sure, the murderer made careful calculations and "trial shots," but it was still a blind shot in the dark. On paper, it's a novel locked room idea. But you never get that lucky outside of the printed page. Lastly, there's the disposal of the air rifle, which I actually liked slightly more than the locked room trick itself. It fitted snugly in with the rest of the webwork plot.

So, all in all, The Crimson Rambler is definitely a second-tier locked room novel, but one that shows a measure of ingenuity and has some fun detective work. Yes, the trick is perhaps overly complex and stretches credulity, here and there, but a good read if you love detective stories with a strong how-dun-it element (e.g. Miles Burton's Death in the Tunnel, 1936).

Well, that's another locked room novel I can scratch off the list. Only a few thousand of those wretched things left to go!


A Mere Child's Play of Deduction

"A part of childhood we'll always remember,
It is the summer of the soul in December."
- It Feels Like Christmas (The Muppet Christmas Carol, 1992)
My last blog-posts discussing the work of Herbert Resnicow stem from 2012 and consisted of reviews of two of his later period detective novels, The Gold Gamble (1989) and Murder at City Hall (1995), but after these posts he fell off my radar – presumably because I had exhausted all of his locked room mysteries. I simply used him to supplement my crippling impossible crime addiction and tossed him aside the moment he had served his purpose. It’s shameful, I know, but here we are again and for a good reason!

Recently, I found one of his short stories, "The Christmas Bear," which was listed by Steve Lewis on his list of "Locked Rooms and Other Improbable Crimes." So why not, I thought, add one more title to this year's naughty list of holiday-themed detective stories. A list that already includes J. Jefferson Farjeon's Mystery in White (1937) and Winifred Peck's Arrest the Bishop? (1949).

Originally, "The Christmas Bear" was published in the January 1990 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and anthologized by Cynthia Manson in Mystery for Christmas and Other Stories (1990), but also found its way into several other short story collections – such as Merry Murder (1994) and Murder Most Merry (2002). So not a bad print run at all, but the story can easily be added to the line-up of any Christmas-themed anthology, because it’s a bit more than just a detective story.

The first thing one has to note about this short story, comprising of fifteen pages, is its rich texture, which consist of clear-cut characterization and a plot as solid as the originality of its premise. Resnicow even included a false solution that doubles as a tell-tale clue for the actual explanation for the theft of the stuffed teddy bear. But let's begin at the beginning.

"The Christmas Bear" takes place in a small, poor town of only twelve hundred families and the scene of all the action is the local firehouse, which has organized a toy auction to raise funds for a four-year-old girl, Petrina Rozovski, who badly needs a liver transplant. There is, however, a hint of gloom here, because the town is very poor and the characters admit that there's enough "money in the whole county" to pay for the operation. So the toy auction will only get them so far.

Miz Sophie Slowinski, "the youngest great-grandmother in the county," takes her great-granddaughter, Deborah, to the firehouse to look around, but the girl immediately falls in love with a funny looking teddy bear on the top row of a rickety shelf. It's a black-furred, stuffed moon bear, "shinning blueish when the light hit it the right way," with a long snout and "a big crescent-shaped white patch on his chest," but the organizer refuses to take money upfront for the bear – on account of wanting to raise as much money as possible during the auction. But when they return to the firehouse, Miz Slowinski is practically accused of having taken the teddy bear regardless. Naturally, she did not snatched the bear and it seems not very likely anyone else did as well.

The shelves are improvised: boxes piled up with boards across them and these contraptions are liable to fall down if "you look at them crooked." There's "no way to get to the top row" until "you've taken off the other rows," but someone managed to snatch the bear from the top shelf without wrecking the whole construction. So Miz Slowinski set out to find answers and finds several of them in the store of Mr. Wong, who donated the bear to the auction, which is also where she the gets the idea for the false solution.

I actually imagined this false solution, before the theft was discovered, because it was very similar to how the high-hung prizes in game booths at the fun fair are taken down, but Resnicow showed here why he was a modern-day locked room artisan. This false solution would have been the most obvious answer to this small problem, but Resnicow found an equally acceptable answer that fitted the whole story like the final piece of a jigsaw puzzle. As the cherry on top, the motivation gives the story an ending that was diabetic-inducing sweet. Just sickening sugary, but therefore perfect if you're in a jolly holiday mood.  

So, I would call "The Christmas Bear" an excellent example of, what they call in Japan, an "Every Day Life Mystery," which additionally is also a splendid Christmas story. It's also an interesting take on the impossible crime story, but this will no doubt result in JJ writing a blog-post questioning the story's legitimacy as a locked room mystery. You're an old humbug, JJ! 

Speaking about locked rooms, the next review might be of one, but some of you would argue that's hardly surprising. 


The Devil's Saint

"As long as Satan walks the earth, evil walks with him. Even here... someone held hands with the devil..."
- Simon Ark (Edward D. Hoch's "City of Brass," from City of Brass and Other Simon Ark Stories, 1971)
Lately, the Dean Street Press began resurrecting the literary legacy of Winifred Peck, which began with one of her mainstream works, Bewildering Cares (1940), together with both of her detective novels and I reviewed one of them earlier this month – a splendidly imagined mystery entitled The Warrielaw Jewel (1933). I alluded in that review to Peck's famous relatives and singled out her younger brother, Ronald A. Knox, who penned several highly regarded mystery novels. Knox was also a Catholic priest and a theologian of some renown, but he was not the only family member who served the church.

The father of Winifred and her five siblings, one sister and four brothers, was the Right Reverend Edmund A. Knox, fourth Bishop of Manchester, while another one of her brothers, Wilfred Knox, "earned distinction as an Anglican clergyman and theologian" – which likely resulted in a discussion or two between her Protestant and Catholic brothers.

Evidently, Peck drew on her family background when she briefly returned to our beloved genre with her second, and last, mystery novel, which was given the Episcopalian-sounding title of Arrest the Bishop? (1949). The story is set inside the walls of a Bishop's Palace and takes place in anticipation to both Ordination day and Christmas, but the arrival of an unpleasant and scandalous character casts a shadow over the proceedings. However, I should point one or two things before I begin poking the plot.

Peck dedicated Arrest the Bishop? to her husband, Sir James Wallace Peck, who helped her plotting the book and the dedication tells how he "horrified a guest" by announcing at breakfast they were going to make it "a fatal dose of morphia." Or terrified her housekeeper with a note asking to tell "Lady Peck we must have an inquest." This endeared them to me! Secondly, the book, similar to its predecessor, qualifies as a historical mystery, because the story takes place in the then recent past, which is two years after World War I – during a dark, snowy December in the year 1920. So the characters that fought in the trenches of the Western front add an extra layer to the depiction of ecclesiastical life at the Bishop's Palace. On top of that, the book can also be read as a Christmas mystery and all of this makes for an interesting detective story.

The villain of the piece is the wicked Rev. Thomas Ulder: a silver-tongued drunk and a scoundrel whose tenure as the head of the Theological College was dogged by "tales of bad management," financial discrepancies and muttered curses of his name by candidates who passed through the college – followed by "definite tales of drunkenness and dishonesty." He was finally persuaded to retire to a remote village, where the congregation was small and old, but he seems to have spent his time there gathering material.

Thomas Ulder's intention to return to the diocese coincides with the visit of several important guests, namely Canon Wye and Chancellor Chailly, but the Bishop is thoroughly appalled when he learns Ulder "is coming out to see him and his guests." On the eve of ordination, Ulder arrives at the Bishop's Palace, but his health has deteriorated in the intervening years and collapses as soon as he crossed the threshold. They placed Ulder in one of the bedrooms, but someone took advantage of this medical emergency and slipped him a fatal dose of morphine. And this is where the trouble really begins for the poor Bishop.

Initially, it is assumed Ulder took the poison himself, which would be bad enough, but a scrap of paper seems to indicate he had picked up blackmail as a side trade and every name on the list was present at the time of his death – which both strongly suggest murder. But as bad as a suicide or murder at the Bishop's Palace, is the person who'll be in charge of the investigation: Major Mack, the Chief Constable, who is "a violent Dissenter" and "a real enemy of the Church." Someone who sneers at the clerical tendency to sweep every hint of a scandal under the rug. However, I should note here that "the burly Chief Constable" is described as bursting with prejudices, against prelacy, pacifism and (modern) women, but his distaste for foreigners did not extend to the Dutch. So he probably has a point about those white feathers, harlots and fence crawlers. Personally, I found no reason to dislike the Major. He's a good guy!

Funnily enough, the Major, "who is no mere agnostic," is assisted by Dick Marlin, ex-military intelligence and now a Church deacon, who sees himself as a Church Militant. They make for a surprisingly well-matched pair of characters who ought to have had their own series of mystery novels. Sadly, they only appeared in this one-off. A large chunk of their work consists of drawing the past sins from all of the potential blackmail victims, which also involves one of the Bishop's daughter and this convinces the Major at one point that he has the "duty to arrest the Bishop." It was Marlin who convinced him to hold off the arrest for another day.

The introductory chapters, the subsequent investigation and the depiction of (family) life within the walls of the Bishop's Palace makes for an excellent and fascinating story, which came close to being superior to The Warrielaw Jewel, but the solution was prosaic and uninspired – which prevented the book from being a truly noteworthy detective novel. A genuine shame because I assumed, throughout the entire story, that the book was heading to my best-of list for 2016, but the final two or three chapters prevented that. It's really frustrating when you read a mystery that's consistently great and then fails you in the end. Anyway...

So Arrest the Bishop? is really well written and characterized, but as a detective story, the book stumbled and fell with the finish line in sight.


A Winter Wonderland

"I told you these were shadows of the things that have been... that they are what they are, do not blame me."
- Ghost of Christmas Past (Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, 1843)
One of the most remarkable resurgence from obscurity has to be the small-scale renaissance of J. Jefferson Farjeon's fanciful crime-fiction (e.g. Holiday Express, 1935), which can be traced back to a 2012 blog-post from genre historian and critic, Curt Evans – who spoke warmly about Mystery in White (1937). A wondrous and wintry crime novel that became "a festive sleeper hit" when it was reprinted by the British Library in 2014. Everyone was astonished when the book, out of nowhere, sold over 60,000 copies!

So, I'm kind of late with my review of the book, but still well ahead of this years' festive season and you can expect two or three further reviews of Christmas mysteries in the coming months. But first things first!

Mystery in White is a rattling yarn of Mitchellian crime and wonder, which embarked on its fantastical journey when the "half a dozen inmates of a third-class compartment on the 11.37 from Euston" found themselves stranded on a snowbound train. The seemingly never-ending snowfall blocked the railway tracks, back and forth, turning the unofficial halt into a permanent one. However, this extreme Christmas Eve blizzard does not worry Mr. Hopkins, "the elderly bore," who experienced a month-long tempest in the Yukon town of Dawson, but he's the only one in the compartment who "pooh-poohed the whole thing as insignificant" – as most of them wished they were somewhere else.

The young woman next to the bore is a beautiful chorus girl, named Jessie Noyes, who is on her way to Manchester for an important audition. Robert Thomson is a tall, pale and unhealthy looking youth, which is "due partly to the atmosphere of the basement office in which he worked," but the clerk also has a rising temperature. David and Lydia are brother and sister en route to a Christmas party, which they probably have to miss due to the complete whiteout outside of their railway compartment.

Finally, there's the fascinating personality of Mr. Edward Maltby, of the Royal Psychical Society, who has an appointment to interview the ghostly residue of Charles I of England – reputedly stored inside the walls of an old house in Naseby. Maltby believes that "the past is ineradicable," stored away, which can be revealed and replayed like a gramophone record. And he proved to be an interesting detective-like character in the tradition of William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki, the Ghost Finder (1910) and John Bell from A Master of Mysteries (1898) by L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace.  

Malty is also the one who set the train of events in motion when he out of the compartment, "into the all-embracing snow," in an attempt to reach a different line.

Not long after his departure, Jessie, Robert, David and Lydia decide to follow in the footsteps of the psychic investigator, but Mr. Hopkins, the eternal bore, frowns at the notion of venturing out in the snow. So he stays puts. But "the four adventures" are determined to track across "the motionless white scene" of the "strange fairyland" outside, which is fraught with more dangers than they initially anticipated. Luckily, they manage to survive a renewed blizzard, a small avalanche and a pitfall, but they manage to penetrate "the curtain of whirling white" and the reach the threshold of a lonesome house – where a welcoming log fire is roaring in the hearth, tea has been laid and a kettle of water is boiling. There is, however, one problem: nobody appears to be home! In fact, the place seems to be completely abandoned.

On a quick side note, the lonely house, in combination with the holiday theme, reminded me of Bill Pronzini's "No Room at the Inn," which can be found in the short story collection Carpenter and Quincannon: Professional Detective Services (1998). It makes for an interesting comparison.

Anyway, the marooned party from the train slowly ease into their role as comfortable trespassers, because having two wounded (or sick) members is as good an excuse as any, but they begin to realize that something is not quite alright – such as noises and sounds coming from behind a locked door of an attic room. A room that is later found to be unlocked and empty! Soon, they find Maltby on the doorstep and a man, who calls himself "Smith," with a Cockney accent and a suspicious act, accompanies him. Smith claims he knows nothing about a snowbound train, but is in the possession of a train ticket.

An obvious lie that might be easily explained by news that’s brought to the stranded party by the half frozen bore, Mr. Hopkins: the body of a man, strangled to death, was found in an adjoining compartment not long after their departure. So is the murderer one of them and is there a possible connection between the murder and the empty house?

I could go on to describe the subsequent events, but, after a quarter or so of the book, it turns into the kind of story you really should read for yourself, because the overall plot is not easily pigeonholed. Mystery in White can hardly be described as a traditional whodunit with a logically constructed plot or a thriller with breathtaking scenes of suspense. The story is far too gentle to be a thriller and the explanation really disqualifies it from being a whodunit. However, the plot does borrow components from these types of stories: Maltby makes a series of deductions based on several items he found in the house and stages an excellent dénouement, in which he brings an old portrait to life to explain a long-forgotten murder that happened there on Christmas Eve of 1917.

There was also a nice touch about "the official version," described in the next to last chapter of the book, in which the reader is told about the police's official, but incorrect, view of the case and its explanation. So you can have a chuckle at their expense.

I really liked these particular scenes, however, they did not make for the sort of detective story that was typical of the 1930s. I labeled the book earlier as a Mitchellian crime fantasy, but I suppose a Poean tale of mystery and imagination would be a better description. One that only allows you to take it one chapter at a time, but even after eighty years, the book still feels like a breath of cold, fresh air in the genre. Something that's genuinely out of the ordinary, strange and original, but can still be enjoyed and appreciated by such fervent classicist as yours truly. I guess the best way to view the book is as our genre’s version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843).

But enough of my blabbering. Mystery in White is a good, likeable and imaginative Christmas tale, which happened to have a criminal element. It's good to know the book not only found its way back into print, but also enjoyed some success. Well, I guess I'll leave it that and try to find something more traditional for the next review. So stay tuned!


The Collegian Bodies

"Sometimes you learn something you don't know is important until, when it fits in with everything else, it turns out to be the key piece of the puzzle."
- Ed Baer (Herbert Resnicow's The Dead Room, 1987) 
A month ago, I posted a review of Clifford Orr's second and last published mystery novel, The Wailing Rock Murders (1932), once a rare and highly collectible item, but has since been reissued by Coachwhip as a twofer edition alongside his genre debut – a college-set detective story entitled The Dartmouth Murders (1929). I did not want to wait too long with eliminating this two-in-one volume from the Big Pile. So here's the blog-post that’ll complete my overview of Orr's short-lived stint as a mystery novelist.  

The Dartmouth Murders was published in the same year as Ellery Queen's prize-winning debut novel, The Roman Hat Mystery (1929), which introduced the eponymous series-character of Ellery Queen and his policeman father, Inspector Richard Queen of the New York Police Department. A remarkable coincidence for a number of reasons. 

First of all, The Dartmouth Murders also had a father and son poking around in a murder case in a semi-official capacity. Secondly, the father from Orr's novel, Joe Harris, is an amateur criminologist who authored several "so-called detective stories," which happens to be a pretty apt description of Ellery Queen – especially of his early incarnation from the international series. Finally, the victims from both books were missing a particular article of clothing: one of them was found in a theatre without his top hat, while the other had last been seen wearing a stripped pajama, but was found clad in a blue, rain-slicked pajama. So it was quite a coincidence these books were rolling off the press around roughly the same time (give or take a few months).

I was also surprised how few father-and-son detective teams followed in footsteps of the Queens and the Harrises. I'm sure there are a few of them, but I can honestly think of only two examples: Porterfield and Andy Adams from Robert Arthur's marvelous "The Mystery of the Three Blind Mice," which can be found in Alfred Hitchcock's Solve-Them-Yourself Mysteries (1963) and Mystery and More Mystery (1966). And then there are Ed and Warren Baer from Herbert Resnicow's The Dead Room (1987) and The Hot Place (1990).

So far my shallow observations about the similarities between these two mysteries and now that I cut through all of the extraneous stuff, lets finally take a jab at the book itself. 

The Dartmouth Murders is told from the perspective of its main character, Kenneth "Ken" Harris, who is called away by his father from a fall house party on campus with the request to fetch from a hotel so he can spend the weekend with him – which takes a lot longer than planned. When he finally returned to the dormitory, "the clock on Dartmouth Hall was just striking three across the campus," he found the door to the dorm room he shared with his best friend locked and deadly silent. Nobody answered his knocking. So he decided to crash in Charlie Penlon's room on the floor below, but his sleep is repeatedly disturbed by the sound of dull thuds against the window. 

Kenneth finally ran up the window shade and saw the thumping came from two bare feet: the body of his best friend and roommate, Byron Coates, was hanging by his neck from the rope fire-escape that had been tossed out of their window. Back in those days, the fire escape could be a thick, stout piece of rope you had to slide down from in case of a house fire, but the rope is the first indication that Byron was murdered. A rope the size of the fire escape, "which must be large enough for a hand grip," is unfit for hanging and the bruises under the rope suggest Byron "was dead before it was even tied around his blessed neck." The final piece of evidence is a very peculiar murder weapon that is found inside his body during the post-mortem examination. An "instrument of death" that's used almost immediately after the first murder when a student suddenly drops dead in the college chapel during a service. 

The second death in the chapel came very close to being an impossible crime, but Orr never went the full distance with it. However, the method he employed did anticipate one of John Dickson Carr's earlier Sir Henry Merrivale novels, published as by "Carter Dickson," which demonstrated how this strange murder weapon could be used to stage a full-fledged impossible crime – which makes for an interesting link between both authors. However, the subsequent investigation is a bit of a hit and a miss for various reasons. 

Joe Harris practically takes over the entire investigation from the local sheriff, Ad Barker, who refuses to play the role of "the blundering up-county constable" that populate detective fiction and eagerly cooperates with the criminologist. This effectively gives Joe and Kenneth a free hand to act as they wish, which leads to some unusual developments: a "ghost" who looked like one of the victim was seen fleeing the chapel and Kenneth slowly begins to suspect that his father might be personally involved in the case. Why else would there be a photograph of his father in the picture album of the Coates family? 

All of these developments and Orr's ability to spin a good yarn keeps the reader engaged, but the plot begins to shake and rattle as the final chapter begins to loom on the horizon. 

The truth behind the college murders is firmly rooted in Byron's muddled family history. A history he learned about in a missing letter he received from his mother on the eve of his twenty-first birthday, which contained the motive for his murder, but you can hardly work out the (full) identity of the murderer from all of this information – even when you finally learn the content of the letter. I actually suspected the local inn keeper, because his personal ties to one of the students gave him a motive-by-proxy, but the eventual solution was an even less inspired play on the least-likely-suspect gambit. So that aspect of the plot left something to be desired. Still, I found it to be a well-written detective novel and loved the journey to that final chapter.

So, all in all, The Dartmouth Murders is a dark, moody tale of murder and hidden motives, which is noteworthy for being one of the first college-set mysteries, but plot-wise, the book is standard fare for the period. I agree with Curt Evans, who wrote an introduction for this twofer edition, that Orr's second detective novel, The Wailing Rock Murders, is "an altogether more original work."


A Scandal in New Orleans

"When the night wind howls in the chimney cowls, and the bat in the moonlight flies,
and inky clouds, like funeral shrouds, sail over the midnight skies –
When the footpads quail at the night-bird's wail, and black dogs bay at the moon,
Then is the specters' holiday – then is the ghosts' high-noon!"
- Sir Roderic Murgatroyd (Gilbert & Sullivan's Ruddigore, 1887)
Last week, one of my fellow locked room enthusiast, "JJ," posted a two-month notice, "John Dickson Carr is Going to Be 110 – Calling for Submissions," which is an open invitation to post Carr-related reviews and blog-posts on the day marking his 110th birthday – which is on November 30, 2016. I immediately called dibs on the criminally underrated Captain Cut-Throat (1955), but the notice still left me with an urge to return to Carr.

Fortunately, I still have about half a dozen of his (primarily) non-series work residing on my prodigious TBR-pile. And one of them promised a Last Hurrah for my all-time favorite mystery novelist, the great John Dickson Carr. 

The Ghosts' High Noon (1969) is a historical mystery and Carr's third-to-last novel, which would only be followed by penultimate Deadly Hall (1971) and the much-maligned The Hungry Goblin (1972). These titles were published during the last twelve years of Carr's life and this period showed a painful decline in the quality of his writing. A downturn that first overtly manifested itself in The House at Satan's Elbow (1965), but one of these last novels seemed to be relatively rot-free: the aforementioned The Ghosts' High Noon, which received some honest criticism, but never the abuse leveled against its contemporaries – e.g. the mediocre Panic in Box C (1966) and the tedious Dark of the Moon (1967).

On his excellent website, Mike Grost has shown the greatest amount of enthusiasm for the book, which he labeled as "a genuine mystery classic" with "a well done impossible crime."

So it has always struck me as a sudden, but briefly lived, revival during the final stage of Carr's literary career. I simply decided the time had come to take it off my TBR-pile. And I know, I know. I should've probably saved the book for November, but who asked you to drag common sense into my decisions? Get out!

Wooda Nicholas Carr
The Ghosts' High Noon is set during the early days of Carr's early childhood, 1912, when his own father, W.N. Carr of Pennsylvania, was elected to Congress and the United States was in the throes of "a three-cornered fight for the Presidency" – pitting the incumbent W.H. Thaft against Democratic Governor Wilson and the boisterous Teddy Roosevelt for the Progressives. There are references throughout the book to these three gentlemen, because the plot of the story is tinged with political intrigue.

The protagonist of the story is a newspaper reporter, Jim Blake, who wrote bestseller, The Count of Monte Carlo, which gave him new found prosperity and "freedom from the ancient shackles." But he's adverse to take on special assignments as a reporter. So when Colonel George Harvey, "president of the stately old publishing house in Franklin Square" and "the very active editor of Harper's Weekly," contacts him with a particular request he accepts. Colonel Harvey wants him to travel down to New Orleans to write an article on a promising Congressional candidate, James Clairborne "Clay" Blake.

James "Clay" Blake is a young lawyer and a colorful character, who's running for Congress, but he's unopposed and therefore can't help being elected. So the Colonel wants James "Jim" Blake to write a personality piece on his namesake, but there's also an underlying motive: the underground wire is reverberating with rumors "that some enemy is out to ruin him." As an investigative reporter, Blake immediately sets out to work and makes a stopover in Washington before traveling to New Orleans. There he learns from a legendary police reporter, Charley Emerson, what the tool of Clay Blake's potential downfall could be: a high-class courtesan, Yvonne Brissard, who captured the full attention of the future Congressman. In spite of their discreet conduct, it became very evident that "the Creole siren and the Anglo-Saxon lawyer" have "fell for each other like a ton of bricks." A scandal in the making, but could the courtesan be a part of "the alleged plot" against the budding politician?

On his way to New Orleans, Jim encounters a pair of mysterious figures: first of them is his love interest, Gillian "Jill" Matthews, who literary walks into his arms, but also vanishes when she wants to and her role in the overall story is a actually a genuine plot-thread – a pretty good one at that! The second figure is an unknown person on the train, who knocks at his compartment, but when he opened the door there was nobody outside. And the porters on either side of the corridor swear they saw nobody.

This incident is presented as an impossible problem, but the explanation is extremely bad and Robert Adey did not even deign it worthy of being mentioned in Locked Room Murders (1991). Luckily, there's a bone-fide locked room mystery in the second half of the book.

However, the pace of the story considerably slows down until the murder occurs and this section of the book has Jim encountering several characters in the New Orleans setting: the Colonel and Charley recommended Jim to ask Alec Laird for help, the high khan of the Sentinel newspaper, who is described as "an unredeemed puritan," but also someone you want to have in your corner. One of his relatives an elderly dowager, Mathilde Laird, a crusty aristocrat who inexplicably rented the village of her dead and beloved brother to Yvonne Brissard. She has a son, Pete, who she overly mothered and refused to even let him drive his own car. So he has his own personal chauffeur, Raoul. And then there's Flossie Yates. A woman who can discreetly be described as "the madam of a brothel."

Eventually, the plot begins to pick up the pace again. One of Jim's old classmates, Leo Shepley, "a rake and bon viveur," becomes entangled in the plot and this does not end well for him: there are several witnesses, including Jim, who saw him speeding like a devil out of hell in his two-seater Mercer – which ended with a crash and the sound of a gunshot inside a partially locked-and watched shed. Shepley had been shot through the head from close range, but the police fail to find a gun at the scene and nobody could've entered or left the shed without being seen. So how did the murderer or the murder weapon manage to vanish from the closely watched shed?

The seemingly impossibility of the murder frustrates Lieutenant Zack Trowbridge and wonders out loud "what kind of a murderer" vanished "like a soap-bubble as soon as he pulled the trigger," but Jim "pieced the whole thing together less'n twenty-four hours" after the murder. Admittedly, it's a pretty clever piece of work and showed how Carr was still capable of constructing an intricate locked room puzzle. Even if the execution required some low-conscience life forms (i.e. pawns) to make it work. And the motivation for making this an impossible crime is also noteworthy.

So the storytelling, characterization, setting and the plot were somewhat uneven, but, overall, The Ghosts' High Noon is a very consistent detective story. In any case, the plot and writing are far better than what most readers would expect from one of his novels from this late date. That being said, I've to point out one thing: by the late 1960s, Carr had sadly lost his ability to write historical fiction. Carr's writing used to be able to breath life into long-dead, dust covered periods of history (e.g. The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey, 1937), but here he never came further than making some clunky (pop-culture) references. One of the characters even notes how long-distance phone calls would've been considered a miracle only a couple of years ago, which felt really, really forced.

I thought this was a sad aspect of the book, because Carr was not only the undisputed master of the locked room, but also an early champion of the historical mystery novel. And the historical mystery novel was also his retreat when began to tire of the modern world (i.e. post-WWII England). This allowed him to add a few additional classics to his resume when the quality of his regular series began to suffer. Nobody will deny that his post-1940s historical mysteries were better than any of the Dr. Gideon Fell or H.M. novel that appeared in the same period. So it was sad to see that by the late 1960s he was unable to bring the past back to life as once had done in such delightful works as The Devil in Velvet (1951) and Fear is the Same (1956).

Well, look at me, I still managed to end this review on a depressing note! So, yes, The Ghosts' High Noon has some of expected flaws of later-day Carr, but not nearly as many as most would expect and large parts of the plot shows flashes of the old master. That alone should warrant investigation.

Let me end this overlong review by directing your attention to my previous review, which is of the excellent translation of Alice Arisugawa's Koto Pazuru (The Moai Island Puzzle, 1989).