Jan 302015

An unusual setting of West Africa in the 1950s, a locked room murder involving death by bow and arrow, evidence of tribal witchcraft rituals in the surrounding village, and a cast of characters whose names seem inspired by the board game Clue. There’s even a map of the scene of the crime. Sounds like a lot of fun, doesn’t it? So much opportunity for a send-up of the traditional detective novel or an intriguing homage to the works of John Dickson Carr. Why then is Darkest Death (1964) such a dreadful mess? It’s a greater mystery than the one Ralph Stephenson presents us in the pages of his alternately boring and quirky detective novel.

A group of British ex-pats have settled themselves into a cozy unnamed village outside of Accra in the Gold Coast colony of West Africa. Stephenson for some reason sets his story in an unspecified year in the 1950s, but it must be before 1957 when the colony became the independent nation of Ghana. Within the first couple of pages I knew I was probably in for trouble when I noticed that the characters’ names were taken from a box of crayons. Harry and Sally Gray, Jimmy and Heather Brown, Hetty and Tweeny (!) Green, Robert Gold, Dennis and Mona Silver, Mr. and Mrs. Blue… You get the picture. There’s Miss Scarlett, too! Yes, Ann Scarlett with two Ts who instantly made me think that Stephenson was trying to pull off a parody of Clue. Or for Stephenson, I guess, Cluedo is more accurate. No such luck. In fact not one person in the story ever comments on the ridiculousness of everyone having a rainbow array of surnames.

The story begins with a New Year’s Eve party with lots of drinking and dancing and transparent exposition clumsily handled. The cast of characters are introduced in dizzying (but colorful) succession. The women chit chat endlessly about clothes, gossip about characters we never meet, and indulge in other pointless banter. The men practically slap each other on the back while tossing off cocktails and speaking like the worst sort of British stereotypes. “The war” is mentioned repeatedly. I’m guessing they are all WW2 veterans, but no one is ever very specific about which war they are talking about. Only Dennis Silver’s entrance brings any kind of interest and mystery to these opening chapters when he begins an info dump monologue on African witchcraft. This seems to be taken verbatim from the two books Stephenson felt it necessary to acknowledge in the “Author’s Note” that precedes the first chapter. Those books are Sir James George Frazer’s seminal study on symbology, rites and rituals in religion The Golden Bough and Religion and Art in Ashanti by R. S. Rattray. In an offhand comment that concludes an early chapter (not cleverly hidden among the rest of the chit chat) we get the tantalizing tidbit that Sally Gray and Hetty Green look remarkably similar from the back in their striking black gowns. An alarm bell couldn’t have sounded any louder to signal an imminent mistaken identity murder.

Sure enough a day later Sally Gray is found murdered in the locked and barred sitting room of the Green’s jungle bungalow. Entry to the house is only via French windows serving as doors that line a veranda extending alongside the entire perimeter. The veranda is covered with a fine mesh of mosquito netting and all the windows and doors are faced in burglar bars. (see the map below) But the front door is locked from the inside as is the rear entry to the house. Summoned by terrifying screams three men run to the house and break down the door. But it’s too late. Sally has died from a fatal strike to the chest from a tribal bow and arrow. How on earth did the murder use the weapon and escape from a locked and barred house? No holes are found in the netting outside the veranda and the bow is nowhere to be found.

Plan of the Green’s Bungalow (click to enlarge)

 When the police arrive the story starts to become interesting. But I immediately noticed more funny business with the names: Supt. Stalky Heron, James Raven, and Charles Finch. Apparently having tired of his Crayola muse Stephenson resorted to a Peterson Field Guide for the rest of his characters’ names. Only the local doctor escaped the bird dubbing. His name is MacGregor. No real relief though for MacGregor is saddled with a cartoon Scottish dialect. Six of one, half a dozen of the other as my mother used to carp.

Nothing is made of these names. To a mystery fan like me this was more than troubling. Such an obvious choice is rife for possibility in a detective novel and was completely ignored. Not even a joke mentioned in passing by any of the characters. Nothing! A writer like Ellery Queen for example would have made a choice like this and run with it planting red herrings all over the place related to the surnames, maybe even reserving an entire chapter to what seems like a coincidence but in fact a sinister design. Not so with Stephenson. It must’ve been a case of the writer chuckling privately to himself. I kept rolling my eyes.

Ashanti warrior

The detective work leaves a lot to be desired. An obsession with fingerprints and police photography mixes with the usual endless parade of suspects being interrogated in Q&A sessions. In an effort to avoid revealing the dirty secrets among the many adulterous men who were keeping company with the trampy Hetty Green the Europeans accuse the African servants and obfuscate the police work with gossip of witchcraft. Silver, the anthropology expert, points out Green’s missing black cat is a sure sign of some local having kidnapped and slaughtered it for an essential ingredient used in an invisibility spell. Isn’t it possible Sally Gray’s murder actually involves supernatural methods? When Silver fails to convince the police the rest of the men (and a few women) offer more accusations against the African servants because, you know, they’re just plain shifty and some of them have filched spare change and food from their employers.

In one of the most patronizing parts of the book Finch (the primary detective) talks in Pidgin English to the servants. They also reply in pidgin English making it seem as if the book has been transplanted to the Limehouse district of a Sax Rohmer novel and the Africans transformed into the worst kind of Yellow Peril novel supporting cast. It doesn’t help that all of the Africans refer to all of the European characters as Master or Missy. Sometimes you just can’t overlook this kind of petty racism.

Darkest Death would’ve been a much better book with its promising plot and exotic setting in the hands of a much more talented writer. I can imagine how gasp inducing the finale would have been had this been a John Rhode book or one by Carr or Queen. In the hands of this mediocre writer the locked room mystery is a fizzle with a borderline preposterous solution, the revelation of the murderer comes with a lame forced confession, and the climactic pursuit of the villain on the run  leads to the beach and ends in a swimming race with half naked policemen trying their best to prevent a suicide by drowning. Stephenson tacks on a happy ending coda in which our detective heroes raise glasses in a champagne toast commending themselves on a job well done while simultaneously congratulating Stalky Heron for snagging Ann Scarlett as his wife to be.

Well gang, they can’t all be winners.

* * *

READING CHALLENGE update: My first book on the Silver Age bingo card. It covers S2 – “Book set anywhere except the US or England”

 Posted by at 6:50 am
Oct 242014

Howard Haycraft, noted detective fiction historian and critic, called Victor Luhrs’ debut mystery novel The Longbow Murder (1941) a curiosity. At the time of its original publication the subgenre of the historical mystery was relatively new. Agatha Christie’s famous contribution set in ancient Egypt, Death Comes as the End (1944), had yet to see the light of day. The use of a genuine historical figure such as Richard the Lionhearted as the detective protagonist was so unique in detective fiction and perhaps a bit too strange that no other writers followed suit. Now we are fairly inundated with real historical people solving fictional murders. Kings, queens, U. S. presidents and senators, even detective novelists all show up as amateur sleuths in historical mysteries these days. Victor Luhrs, if not the first to do so, was certainly one of the first and sadly completely forgotten as well. Turns out that Coeur de Lion makes quite the clever detective in this novel.

Richard faces a series of murders by poison arrow while at the same time trying to fend off assassination attempts on his own life. With the aid of a simple-minded scribe named Peter of Caen who serves as the Watson of the piece, he ferrets out two separate conspiracies all with traditional detective novel puzzle elements. Two murders are committed in locked and guarded rooms but only incidentally appear to be locked room murders. Some of the evidence and the eventual revelation of collusion by a guard reduce the cleverness of the impossibility Luhrs presents and I have to disqualify it from being considered a genuine “locked room” or impossible crime. Nonetheless, Luhrs is rather ingenious in coming up with a murder method and assassination plot that Richard also uncovers and prevents that rivals the main plot of the actual murder victims.

Richard I, ace detective

Luhrs is noted as being an avid medievalist. According to the informative bio sketch on the rear DJ panel he was obsessed with all things of the middle ages from his boyhood and has read extensively about the period in both fiction and non-fiction. That he is a devotee of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe is never in doubt. The plot of The Longbow Murders is heavily influenced by Scott’s classic novel of Richard I. Robin of Locksley (aka Dickon Bendbow, aka Robin Hood) even makes a cameo appearance. A custom made arrow stolen from his quiver turns out to be one of the murder weapons. Luhrs’ love for the period is also quaintly depicted in his frequent use of archaic language. Some may find it quaint. For me the mix of modern day language and speech peppered with a plethora of methinks, yclept, mayhap, and prithee elicited more eyeball rolling than smiling.

There are other touches of quaintness as well as some troublesome anachronisms. One of Luhr’s more notable atmospheric period touches is the character of John Star, a wizard who acts as coroner in the investigation. He determines time of death and then retreats to his alchemical lab where he distills the poison from the arrows and identifies it by name. Star often falls into a spell Richard calls “being in the mist”, meaning Star can go into a trance-like state. While in this state the wizard seemingly confused confesses to the murders. His “in the mist” state leads to much confusion and an inabilit for Star to distinguish reality from fancy. This “misty” trance seems to be a form of fugue state and he suffers from temporary bouts of amnesia. Star is one of the most original characters in the supporting cast. I only wish he had a larger onstage role. Most of his activity is reported second and third hand. It would have been a lot more interesting to see him interacting with others while in this state rather than hearing of it afterwards.

The solution of the murder, however, while surprising in revealing the murderer’s identity is too dependent on a couple of vainglorious notes left by the murderer. The main question is whether they are meant as taunts or intended to frame another person. Both notes teasingly refer to the six letters in the murderer’s first and family names. This is the kind of plot gimmick you find in novels by Edgar Wallace or Johnston McCulley who both created a slew of egomaniacal master criminals prone to leaving signature cards, with or without riddles, at the scene of the crime. It seems like a far too contemporary idea for a medieval criminal to contemplate; it bothered me. There are other subtle signs of modern crime solving leaking into this middle age world like trying to determine the exact time of death, alibi breaking, and intermittent use of contemporary phrases and idioms. But I have to say I liked the way Richard swore in medieval style. One of his commonly used oaths is “Holy Virgin!” There are a fair share of “Zounds! and “Gramercy!” exclamations as well and you learn the origin of the word “Good-bye” to boot. Some lapses in medieval verisimilitude were easier to excuse than others. Originality in plotting notwithstanding, the murderer’s notes and the evidence of how the medieval alphabet is used in spelling was a bit too much for me to swallow.

Victor Luhrs, from the 1st edition DJ
 (photo uncredited)

Luhrs is also noted in his bio as being a detective novel aficionado. The numerous puzzles he incorporates into the plot make that quite clear. And I can only guess that he read a lot of stories in the pulp magazines. Richard at times adopts the brash and brutal manner of a tough guy private eye beating his witnesses (some of whom are also loyal knights in service to him) by boxing their ears, slapping their faces repeatedly, and once literally kicking ass. He’s kind of a Carroll John Daly character of the Middle Ages but also shares qualities of the logical and rational crime solving methods of Ellery Queen and Philo Vance.

The bio hints that Luhrs hoped to write more adventures using Richard I as a detective, but unfortunately this is the only one. My guess is that despite the book’s cleverness, its colorful medieval setting, and a larger than life Richard I as the lead, the book probably did not sell well. Luhrs never wrote another novel that I know of, certainly not another detective novel set in the Middle Ages. The only other book I find listed with Victor Luhrs as author is a history of the “Black Sox” scandal during the 1919 World Series. Copies of The Longbow Murder are out there — many of them have the attractive DJ with medieval inspired artwork — but most of them are priced too high for the average reader. Check your local library though. Anyone who enjoys historical mysteries, and those set in the Middle Ages especially, will discover a wealth of entertainment in this well written and cleverly constructed mystery.

 Posted by at 3:15 pm
Oct 172014

Since I’ve returned to the original purpose of this blog — reporting on obscure and utterly forgotten writers of popular genre fiction — I’ve been combing my shelves for books I’ve owned for years but never gotten around to reading. Charles Forsyte is one of those writers. Often these long overdue yield multiple rewards. In the case of Forsyte both the books and the discovery of who he really was made for some fascinating reading. I initially purchased two of his books because they fall into the “impossible crime” category. I’m glad to report that both can hold their own against the best of John Dickson Carr and other practitioners of this favorite subgenre. Forsyte it turns out was not one but two people — a husband and wife writing team. Gordon Philo, the husband, was not only a mystery writer but a former spy, diplomat in the Far East, and an amateur magician and sleight of hand practitioner. All of which are skills and talents that he puts to good use in his ingenious detective novels.

Forsyte’s series character is Inspector Richard Left, one of the humanist policeman detectives of fiction who knows his police procedure but is more apt to rely on his keen understanding of human nature to help him solve the baffling murders he encounters. In his first adventure, Diplomatic Death (1961) he is sent by Scotland Yard to the British embassy in Istanbul to help sort out the puzzling murder and eventual disappearance of the British consul stationed there. He was found in his locked office and only minutes later the corpse vanished without a trace. Left must discover who killed the man and why and how the body disappeared from a locked office without anyone seeing it done. Like Ellery Queen’s infamous The Greek Coffin Mystery, a classic detective novel with multiple solutions and one egregious error on the part of Queen, Left comes up with a variety of solutions to the crime and makes an assumption that proves to be his biggest mistake. The solution to this impossible crime is simple and surprising and perhaps obvious to the most astute reader. But the story is told with elegance and wit and carried off with panache. It’s a fine debut which made me want to read more by Forsyte.

This debut novel has a lot in common with many of the great writers of the Golden Age. When Diplomatic Death was first published Forsyte was compared to Queen and Christie. A more apt comparison would be Clayton Rawson whose impossible crime mysteries are inspired by stage illusionist’s bag of tricks. The murder victim Left learns had an eclectic taste in reading and finds among the books in his office library a copy of The Life of Houdini and a few books by Agatha Christie. Left himself is fascinated with magic since he was a boy, a hobby he shares with his creator Gordon Philo. Similarly, the skill with which the plot is developed and the sprinkling of unusual clues harkens back to the old-fashioned puzzle mysteries of days gone by. Left will finally come to the final and actual solution to the mystery based on three bizarre elements — a golf ball left on the victims’ desk, the Houdini book, and one witness’ remembering at the eleventh hour the rigidity in the murder victim’s right arm as they checked him for signs of life.

Left appears again in Dive into Danger (1962), originally published in the UK as Diving Death. This time we find Left on vacation in the south of France where he meets his old archeologist pal Sir Paul Pallet. They catch up on old times and Left inquires of Pallet about a yacht called the Knossos that has been moored close to his hotel. Pallet tells him on board are a group of amateur underwater archeologists digging around the ocean floor. He scoffs at the idea of “underwater archeology” as his life’s work is one of precision and meticulous time consuming labor. With no real control in an underwater dig site the potential for disaster is far greater. Dermot Wilson, a millionaire playboy with a lot of money to throw around, is nothing more than a treasure hunter. Wilson is looking for proof that an ancient Greek shipwreck will turn up valuable antiquities, statues and artwork. Pallet ridicules the idea. After all these years they’ll be lucky to turn up a couple of broken amphora let alone a “valuable statue.”

Left manages to get invited to tag along with the next day’s dive. He meets the crew made up of Wilson and his girlfriend, a former military frogman, two professional archeologists, and a secretary on holiday who befriended one of the archeologists. The day goes horrible wrong however, when one of the team seems to have lost consciousness underwater. They drag the body clad in its scuba gear out of the water only to discover that it’s the millionaire; a harpoon from a speargun is impaled in his chest. Left sees it as a sort of underwater locked room murder. Soon his vacation has turned into a policeman’s holiday as Left finds himself teaming up with local French inspector Philipp Lapointe, learning the fundamentals of scuba diving, and uncovering a murder plot that reveals three previous attempts on Dermot Wilson’s life. Why was he so hated and why kill him underwater? As the investigation progresses Left learns that Wilson was a blackmailer of the worst sort who made a lot of enemies and that everyone on board the Knossos had a reason to want Wilson dead.

Forstye’s other books include a third detective novel with Inspector Left Double Death (which I have so far been unable to find) and one non-series pursuit thriller with detective novel elements called Murder with Minarets in which the authors return to Turkey. Perhaps the most interesting of all his crime fiction books is The Decoding of Edwin Drood (1980). Primarily a literary analysis and history of the numerous writers’ attempts from late Victorian era to the 20th century to complete Dicken’s unfinished last novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Philo puts his novelists skills to test in the end by adding his own solution. It is this book for which Philo is best known overshadowing his earlier fine work as a novelist. These first examples of modern day impossible crime mysteries should earn him a place in the Detective Novelist Hall of Fame. They really are that good.

Gordon Philo and his wife Vicky Galsworthy (distant relation to writer John Galsworthy whose “Forsyte Saga” novels inspired their pseudonym) wrote only four murder mysteries in tandem. For a brief overview of Philo’s life as an amateur magician and an encapsulation of his life as World War 2 veteran, ex-secret agent in the British intelligence service, and his life as a diplomat in Viet Nam see this fascinating post at the blog “The Ephemeral Collector”. Devotees of the use of stage magic in detective novels and locked room fans will find a lot to enjoy and admire in these books about Inspector Left, one of mysterydom’s decidedly Neglected Detectives from an undeservedly forgotten but damned good writer.

The Detective Novels of Charles Forstye (AKA Gordon Philo & Vicky Galsworthy Philo)
Diplomatic Death (1961)
Diving Death (1962) aka Dive into Danger
Double Death (1965)
Murder with Minarets (1968)

 Posted by at 4:03 pm
May 022014

Australian 1st edition,
(Invincible Press, 1950)

Sometimes the discovery of a forgotten writer yields such a surprising variety of interesting work it’s both a blessing and a curse. Exhibit A: Sidney Hobson Courtier who later was published more simply as S.H. Courtier. With the exception of two books reissued by the independent Australian publisher Wakefield Press none of his books are in print and many of them are near impossible to get a hold of. As usual when a writer’s books go out of print and copies are hard to come by the prices being charged in the rapidly vanishing used book market are way off base. Why I wonder does someone charge over $50 for a beat up paperback by a relatively obscure writer whose books have been out of print for decades? What is the point? Can the seller tell you anything about the writer? Usually not. Does he even care? “Oh it’s scarce,” you’ll be told. Scarcity does not automatically make a book valuable. Plain and simple. Good books that deserve to be read cannot be had by the general public when avaricious booksellers make these books unaffordable by charging absurdly exorbitant prices. But more to the point why when a writer is as good as Courtier aren’t more of his books in print?

Take for instance Courtier’s very first mystery novel. Unique in concept, told with suspense and excitement, an original work both as a fine example of detective fiction and a good novel. In the guise of a confounding murder mystery The Glass Spear (1950) explores the relationship between aboriginal Australian people and the dominating white man. It’s a fascinating blend of the traditional country house mystery spiced up with a generous amount of Gothic atmosphere and Australian tribal mysticism. Imagine if you can a detective novel written by Arthur Upfield in collaboration with Charlotte Bronte and Tony Hillerman and you are on your way to understanding how unusual and bewitching The Glass Spear can be.

Dick Thewan fresh out of the Australian army is summoned back to Kinie Ger, the Australian sheep ranch where he grew up. His boyhood friend Jacqueline (Jay to her friends) has appealed to him to help out with the mismanagement of the ranch and some other troubles brewing in the household. A few miles short of the entrance to the ranch a falling tree branch causes a near car wreck almost crushing Dick inside. He can’t help but think of it as an omen. Oddly, in his tortured imagination he thinks it might have been a murder attempt. Does someone want him to stay away so much that they would resort to murder?

The homestead at Kinie Ger is in turmoil. Dick’s childhood friend and one of the current ranch hands Steve and Jay are odds. Steve, a former prisoner of war, is a volatile personality causing more trouble than he’s worth at the ranch. And the reclusive matriarch Huldah seems to have powerful control over everyone as she makes her demands and orders heard through the internal phone system that works as a sort of intercom. For the past several years Huldah has remained in a self-imposed exile at Kinie Ger, never leaving her bedroom suite at the front of the house. She allows only two people to enter her private domain — Lucy Danes, who acts as cook and housekeeper for her; and Burton Lensell “nominal head of Kinie Ger, intense anthropologist, reluctant sheepman, and bewildered guardian to a set of children who stood in various degrees of relationship to him.” Huldah’s presence adds a Jane Eyre Gothicism to the story, a mysterious and imperious woman whose motives for shutting herself up remain hidden to all.

US 1st Edition (A. A. Wyn, 1950)

 Burton is busy with preparations for the upcoming Easter corroboree — a ceremonial ritual involving tribal costumes and masks, dance and acting. Several members of the ranch are involved in the theatrical presentation to take place on a sacred island accessible only by boat. At the climactic moment of the play the participants dance around a tribal mound. Burton notices that the mound so painstakingly created and placed dead center has moved several feet from its original spot. During the dance the actors stab at the mound as part of an aboriginal ritual and in doing so uncover a dead body. It is Henry Carpenty, a depised local rancher and troublemaker. His throat is cut. An autopsy reveals the fatal wound to have been caused by the glass arrowhead of a spear kept in a private museum back at Kinie Ger.

There are hints of the supernatural, too. A prowler has been seen around the grounds. Dick finds footprints that indicate the use of footwear woven of bark, feathers,and fur and believed by natives to render the wearer invisible. This is a work of kurdaitcha — a kind of aboriginal magic usually with evil intent. When a second murder occurs, this time in the locked museum at Kinie Ger, Superintendent Ambrose Mahon begins to think that a clever murderer is exploiting the fearful aspects of tribal culture to confound the police and frighten the locals.

The Glass Spear is an excellent example of an anthropological detective novel. Courtier includes a glossary of tribal words and Australian flora and fauna to help non-Aussies in understanding the often alien world of the aborigines. The detective work is top notch with plenty of puzzling mysteries surrounding the two deaths not the least of which is the mystery surrounding the intimidating Huldah. The story culminates in a shocking surprise and a revelation of a family secret that has shamed Kinie Ger for decades.

I’ve read many mystery novels by Australian writers using their country’s rich culture and distinctive landscape, but I’ve never encountered a book like The Glass Spear which is so entirely Australian. Here is a story that can only have taken place Down Under. And I’ll say no more for fear of giving away the best parts. If you come across a copy of this book I’d advise you to snap it up and read it. It’s one of the most unique novels I’ve read this year.

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Reading Challenge Update: Golden Age Bingo Card, space O4 – “An Author You’ve Never Read Before”

 Posted by at 2:56 pm

IN BRIEF: It Was Locked – John Hawk

 Canada, locked room mystery, obscure writers  Comments Off on IN BRIEF: It Was Locked – John Hawk
Dec 082013

Ready for another weekend house party gone wrong? The myriad guest list includes an world renowned explorer, a Russian prince, a woman violinist, four titled aristocrats and a young British poet. Who’d turn down that party? You’ll even be greeted by a suspicious butler of French extraction. Add one locked room, one murder victim, a curious weapon and the familiar motif of the “wrong man accused” and you have It Was Locked (1930), yet another formulaic detective novel drawing upon tropes already getting cliche as we enter the third decade of the twentieth century. Why then did I accept the invitation to this party? Well, there were enough oddities to keep me turning the pages. Too bad nothing really paid off.

An overly sensitive poet allows his wounded pride to get the better of him and he flees a weekend house party after being humiliated by a beautiful woman, her fiancée and a couple of other guests. Rather than subject himself to further embarrassment by reading his flowery love poetry to the guests as requested by Lady Dorothy, his hostess, Robin packs his bag, locks the door to his room, pockets the key unknowingly, and escapes via his bedroom window. Minutes later Lord Edward Winston goes missing. The search is on for both the missing earl and the mysteriously absent poet who was expected to entertain the guests. Lord Edward is found stabbed in the locked bedroom and Robin is immediately suspected of the murder.

An involved inquest that reads more like a very biased criminal trial further implicates Robin when the coroner’s jury finds a verdict of murder and names Robin as the evil deed doer. He is arrested, jailed, and spends most of the book pining over his rash decision to run away. Meanwhile, the police inspector and all of Robin’s friends believe wholeheartedly in the poet’s innocence and do their best to find the true culprit. How could such a docile childish young man ever kill anyone, they variously muse? The solution to the crime hinges on the murder weapon, a hunting knife of French Canadian manufacture bearing some incriminating initials. Assiduous detective work reveals the weapon is tied to a long hidden blood feud having its origins in the forests of Canada where trappers do a lot of heavy drinking and carry life long grudges.

This is supposedly a locked room puzzle as suggested by the bland title. The puzzle in this one — how did the body get in the room if Robin had the key and no duplicate key existed? That part of the story offered so many interesting possibilities but the reason is explained, not so believably, in a very offhand manner. Hawk apparently didn’t care how the body got there and none of his characters questioned how it mysteriously moved from its hiding place to its position when the door was broken down. Sloppy writing and careless plotting fairly ruins an intermittently entertaining detective novel that turns into a thriller in the final chapters.

It Was Locked, a rather hard to find book with only two editions in hardcover and no paperback reprints available, is barely worth tracking down unless you are interested in the author’s very strange ideas of Canada of the 1920s. Hawk would have us believe French Canada is as stereotypically savage and violent as a pulp writer’s idea of Italy being populated with nothing but Mafioso thugs.

 Posted by at 3:12 pm
Sep 202013

James Ronald received quite a bit of praise with his first few detective novels from writer August Derleth to novelist and book reviewer Harriette Ashbrook all pointing out his ingenuity and freshness.  Of course you have to take this kind of enthusiastic praise with a grain of salt and maybe a dash of sugar, too.  Book hype has been with us for decades though it has skyrocketed in the past 15 years or so with the kind of gimmicky stunts some P.R. people are pulling.  When I learned that Ronald started out as a bargain basement pulp writer for the British digest publisher Garmol who published his early novels sporting such lurid titles as The Green Ghost Murder, The Man Who Made Monsters, and The Sundial Drug Mystery I was very wary of the blurbs Ronald received for his books. Was it just a fluke or did he really rival the kind of clever plots of a John Rhode or Carr?

They Can’t Hang Me (1938), listed in Adey’s Locked Room Murders, also offers the added bonus of an impossible crime. Actually, two impossible crimes. Ronald had a lot to live up to. I’m glad to report that despite his background in pulp digests James Ronald does indeed merit all the praise lavished upon him. They Can’t Hang Me is a corker of a mystery novel. Ingenious murder methods call to mind the brilliant John Rhode; two impossible crimes, one of which is worthy of Carr; and witty dialogue reminiscent of Clifford Witting. All are on colorful display in this page-turner of a story.

The plot is familiar to any crime fiction fan and seems lifted from the cliffhanger serials of the 1930s. Lucius Marplay, an inmate from a mental institution, escapes with the intent of carrying out a plan of murderous revenge, threats of which sent him to the asylum in the first place. Each murder is announced in the obituary section of The Echo, the newspaper where the victims work, on the very day of the death leading the police to believe the killer is hiding out in the building. A thorough search of The Echo building and its environs turns up no one who shouldn’t already be there. Though the police are fairly certain the escaped lunatic is the culprit somehow he manages to elude capture with each baffling crime. The title comes from Marplay’s claim that his plan is as close to a perfect crime as one can dream up for even if he is caught he can’t be hanged as he has already been declared insane. He will just be thrown back into the asylum.

Perhaps what makes the book work so well is Ronald’s sharp sense of humor. Even amidst the terror Ronald still finds ample opportunity to lighten the tone. The book is very funny with handful of well drawn colorful characters who serve as the author’s comic voice. Some of the best wisecracks come from a scene between Agatha Trimm, the guardian of Joan Marplay, daughter to the escaped lunatic and the offbeat private investigator Alastair McNab. Some of my favorites are:

Agatha Trimm: “Cocoa is a perverted taste for a man. I’d be careful of him, Joan.”

Alastair McNab: “There’s two things I like naked and whiskey’s one of them.”

Sir John Digby (a psychiatrist fed up with the Freudian imaginings of his female clients): What he longed to say to them was “What you need is more fat here”–slapping them where a woman should be comfortably rounded– “and then you’d have less fat here” –smacking them on the head.

Later UK edition, circa 1940s

The characters, too, are a lively bunch who hold the reader’s interest and keep the story moving at brisk pace:

Mark Peters — managing editor ready to fire anyone whose actions threaten to ruin the already tarnished reputation of his dying newspaper.

The aptly named Ambrose Craven — an overweight skirt chaser whose cowardice and fear has him fainting in every other chapter.

Flinders — an ex-reporter gone to seed and drink, who’ll risk his life when he turns to blackmail in order to feed his alcoholic cravings.

Alastair McNab — the odd and rambunctious private investigator determined to unmask the murderer and sell his story to a rival newspaper.

Agatha Trimm — guardian to the plucky heroine Joan Marplay. Agatha is a tough as nails, no nonsense woman distrusting of nearly every man Joan sets eyes on.

The detective work is shared by two characters. Joan Marplay who acts a sort of girl sleuth trying to prove her father is not the madman the police and newspapermen think he is. She is sure he was sent to the asylum wrongfully and that his sworn revenge was only a reaction to his furor at being thought mad. Then there is McNab who arrives with a letter in of introduction from the asylum announcing he has been hired to track down the escaped Marplay. With his pronounced Scottish brogue, rendered in a typical 1930s phonetic dialect, and his oddball tastes and habits (like carrying his lunch around in a wicker basket wherever he goes), McNab is the most unusual of the cast. So unusual that he arouses the suspicions of Superintendent Wrenn who has his sergeant investigate McNab’s background. McNab is shrewd yet enigmatic. One never knows if he is out for himself or if he really wants to solve the case and apprehend Marplay.

They Can’t Hang Me is an excellent example of a crime novel that mixes elements of the detective novel with that of the pulp thriller. So good was this first outing I had to read the other easily accessible crime books of James Ronald. I found most of his other books lean towards psychological crime novels that foreshadow the work of Patricia Highsmith and Julian Symons. I’ll be reviewing three more later in the fall. Stay tuned.

 Posted by at 3:00 pm
Mar 222013

Looking at the table of contents and reading the chapter titles I learned that Vanishing Men (1927) promised five disappearances and a laboratory explosion. Good enough for me. I plunked down my money and bought the book. I was hoping for something along the lines of the scientific impossible crime novels of Nigel Morland under his many pseudonyms. Would this one involve esoteric chemistry experiments like the books featuring Johnny Lamb? Would I learn of mechanical or engineering problems as in the novels Morland wrote as Neal Shepard? Perhaps physics or biology would be featured. I was surprised when the story hinted at invisibility, matter disintegration and experiments with radioactive elements. The solution to the crimes seemed to be heading toward science fiction and fantasy rather than real hard science.

Prosaically titled The Mysterious Disappearances in the original UK edition the story takes the form of a detective novel opening with the theft of diamonds and gems from a jeweler’s office and several apparent murders. The biggest mystery that plagues the several policemen from Scotland yard tackling the various crimes, accidents and vanishings is the fact that the victims’ bodies cannot be found. Among the many baffling and inexplicable events the police face:

  • A jeweler disappears from his locked office. There is only one door watched by two clerks who saw only a single visitor enter and exit during the work day.
  • The body of a Maharajah disappears from a plane crash site with no sign of footprints or any other disturbances surrounding the wreckage.
  • A policeman enters a building in full view of his colleagues but never returns. A search of the house reveals it to be completely empty of inhabitants.

The primary suspect is Arthur Seymour, a reclusive misanthropic amateur scientist who lives next door to narrator Sir Henry Fordyce. Seymour has been conducting strange experiments with uranium and radium but will not go into details about the specifics of his work. Fordyce happens to be privy to Seymour’s personal life and relates how a broken engagement and his one time fiancée’s marriage to another man drove Seymour to the brink of madness. The man who stole Seymour’s bride-to-be is also the jeweler who disappears at the start of the book. The police are determined to find a connection between all the vanished men and Seymour and thus prove a case of elaborate revenge. They, however, need some vital information from Miss Arnold, the adopted daughter of the jeweler’s widow. Inspector Gilmour turns to Fordyce who he believes might more skillfully obtain Miss Arnold’s cooperation. She has refused to talk with Gilmour who she finds a boor and Inspector Glynn who she found inappropriately friendly. Fordyce, a dignified middle-aged gentleman, is shocked when in the course of his sly interrogation he finds himself falling in love with the woman, fifteen years his junior.

The book has a somber often humorless tone thanks in large part to the extremely uptight Henry Fordyce as narrator. But the adventures and multiple puzzles keep the reader engaged. Only the introduction of the at times sappy love story subplot periodically detract from what otherwise is an intriguing mystery that soon becomes a science fiction adventure. In the final chapters Seymour’s experimental work is revealed to be an early form of quantum mechanics and particle physics. Fordyce finds himself rendering those experiments in very basic layman’s terms in an attempt to convey the often difficult mathematics involved which he confesses he does not understand at all.

George McLeod Winsor, apart from sounding like a character found in the pages of a Stevenson novel, was a little known scientific romance writer from the early part of the 20th century. His best known work — thanks to its inclusion in 333, a bibliography of fantasy, science fiction, lost race and supernatural fiction — is his novel Station X (1919). The book is a bizarre tale of interplanetary warfare between Mars and Earth. I have not read the book but the plot summary in 333 certainly makes it seem like a War of the Worlds knock-off with the added bonus of alien mind control. But then there are dozens of books published between 1890 and 1920 about evil Martians invading Earth taking all sorts of forms from bat winged humanoids to metal encased tentacled machines. Though no aliens are involved in the mysterious events in Vanishing Men the solution depends on something just as fantastical as Martians or Venusians.

 Posted by at 12:17 pm
Jan 112013

From This Dark Stairway (1931) is Eberhart’s fourth book to feature the sleuthing team of Nurse Sarah Keate and policeman Lance O’Leary. It follows her bravura locked room detective novel The Mystery of Hunting’s End and nearly surpasses that book with yet another impossible crime. A physician enters an elevator with his patient on a hospital gurney headed for an operating theater. The elevator seems to malfunction or stall. When the elevator opens the physician is dead and patient and gurney are gone. But no one saw anyone get off or on at any of the other floors. The only explanation seems to be that patient killed doctor and fled. But how did he get away without anyone seeing him leave the elevator?

As is usual with Eberhart she sets the scene with a moody descriptive section that gives us a perfect rendition of the creepy stairway that the hospital employees are forced to use due to the mechanical problems of the only elevator that serves the four floors of Melady Memorial Hospital.  Sarah Keate tells us out of expediency she finds the stairway a better option even if it is dimly lit and rickety and spooky. There is a fair amount of HIBK type of narration in the opening chapters but this soon gives way to a tale of a motley group of nurses, doctors and eccentric patients all of whom become suspects in the murder of Dr. Harrigan.

There are cleverly placed clues, a few red herrings (remember them?), and an impressive show of misdirection especially in the final chapter. In addition to the puzzling and nearly impossible murder and disappearance in the elevator there is also the theft of an antique Chinese snuff bottle, the desire to find the formula for a new anesthetic drug called Slaepan, a missing surgical knife, the discovery of chewing gum on the doctor’s body, and perhaps most significant of all the death of an unnamed Negro patient. In fact, in the penultimate chapter Lance tells Sarah that if the Negro patient had not died on that very night there would have been no murder.

I have read other reviews and criticism of the Sarah Keate novels which all seem to play up the HIBK elements and dismiss the detective novel portions as being middling to absent. Not so here. Keate does real detection even if much of it comes by accidental discoveries and coincidence. She seems to be present more often than is necessary during police interviews. Eberhart, however, gets away with this by making nearly all of the patients hysterics and oddballs who require a nurse present (at least according to head physician Dr. Kunce) so that the interrogation does not overly upset them.

I liked Eberhart’s use of humor in this book, too. Sarah can often come across as a stuffy, old-fashioned spinster with Edwardian views about everyone’s behavior, but here she shows off a modern self-effacement. There is a running gag about the mispronunciation of Dr. Kunce’s name that wears thin by the midpoint of the book, but other nice touches include some digs at Sarah’s spinsterhood, specifically her lack of sex appeal that she sarcastically acknowledges in her reporting of Sgt. Lamb’s veiled insults.

Eberhart was known to me primarily as a suspense novelist and this is my first encounter with one of her true detective novels. She does an admirable job here. The characters are lively and strange. The action is well paced, the atmosphere grows increasingly eerie as the story approaches the denouement. I was never bored. The hospital setting even if set in the 1930s still felt modern to me with its staff adhering to stringent administrative protocol and the references to patient by their room number rather than their name. Three of the minor characters are called 301, 302 and 303, for example. This happens all the time in the real world of hospitals no matter how often nurses and residents are told to call a patient by their name. I know since I’ve worked in hospitals all my life.

What impressed me most of all was that From This Dark Stairway is one of the uncommon examples of a Golden Age detective novel in which the murderer’s name is not revealed until the final sentence. This book is well worth seeking out for that tour de force bit of mystery writing alone.

 Posted by at 1:53 pm
Sep 282012

Another installment in my continuing series on alternative genre mystery writers — those oddballs who try their damnedest to stump their readers with legitimate detective novels or try to spook and scare their readers with terrifying horror but often bungle in their attempts. Yet they persevere! And amazingly continue to be published, more often than not by second or third string publishing houses. Today I honor Robert Portner Koehler, one of the many writers from that diehard house of unintentional detective story hilarity — Phoenix Press.

A more boring title could not have been slapped on this intriguing effort than The Doctor’s Murder Case (1939). And it cheats the reader, too. The doctor is merely the narrator; it’s not his case to solve. The subject matter rather than the narrator should’ve been celebrated in the title. The chapter titles are far more evocative of the true content of this typically convoluted Phoenix Press mystery. Try these on for size: “The Poltergeist”, “The Devil Comes to Leams”, “Death of a Witch”, “Dark Necromancy”, “The Passing of the Witch’s Devil”, and “Wizardry’s Last Stroke.” Any of those chapter titles would’ve been deserving for the book’s title. You’d think that this book has all the makings of a John Dickson Carr or Gladys Mitchell mystery. Well, not quite.

Narrated by the fairly colorless Dr. Garrison who is treating an invalid spinster in the rural Massachusetts town of Leams the story is about the freakish bludgeoning death of Judy Priest (I know!), a local woman thought to be a witch. There are a few elements to the unusual murder that almost make it a true impossible crime novel. Arnold Grant, the crazed sexton, has been holding secret meetings of his cult group in a nearby barn. He’s been whipping up some of the weak-minded ignoramuses of the town into a religious hysteria. Among his several pet topics is Judy Priest who he denounces as a witch because she happens to practice herbal medicine.

One night he gets his group so riled up that they head to Judy’s house and start shouting at her and throwing stones at her house. She won’t come out. Would you? Then a hysterical maid curses Judy and they hear a horrible scream inside the house. When they break into the house through a window they find that Judy has been struck down and killed. Was it a supernaturally caused death? Or did someone from the group manage to find a way into the locked house? Police questioning reveals that no one seemed to have left the group throughout their taunting.

Lieutenant Carson is the police detective who handles the case. He has a few odd detection methods (a Phoenix Press detective novel staple), one of which is paying close attention to slips in grammar:

“I warn you now, Lieutenant, wild horses won’t drag that person’s name out of me.”
“Oh, it’s a woman, is it?”
I showed my surprise.
“Don’t avoid a pronoun, if you want to hide a person’s sex. If it had been a man, you would have said his name without hesitating. Now, wouldn’t you?”

As the investigation proceeds all manner of the supernatural, whether it be witchcraft or curses or poltergeist behavior, evaporates. The story focuses on Judy’s long dead child and a possible connection with a kidnapping of years ago. What starts out as a creepy tale with Gothic atmosphere, freaky characters, madness and paranoia, ghoulish graveyard scenes, and talk of the criminal mind that reminded me of similar lectures in the work of Charles Dutton devolves into a pedestrian mystery with a kooky, “deep dark secret” lifted from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. That is, if the Grimms had been writing while under the influence of a hallucinogenic drug. A second murder involving a bottle of beer that was somehow poisoned while remaining capped offers a second near impossible problem until the solution is propounded, one that is even more lame than the puzzle of how Judy was killed in her locked house.

The detection is mostly good, but towards the end it becomes laborious and confusing.  It’s a shame that the story begins with such promise and ends up where it does. Koehler tries his best but just can’t deliver a smashing ending without resorting to implausible motivations and moronic actions that only come from the minds of bad characters in hastily written detective novels.

The Doctor’s Murder Case is Koehler’s third novel.  He would go on to write an even dozen more mystery novels even branching out to create three series characters who appear in a trilogy of books each.  I have one more Koehler novel to try out, his sixth with series character Pecos Appleby and set in New Mexico.  I’ll be reporting back on whether he manages to improve. I’m not too hopeful.

 Posted by at 1:20 am
Aug 102012

While the first book the French writing team calling themselves Jacquemard-Sénécal wrote was in fact the second book they had published (Le onzième petit nègre, 1977), their first published book was apparently considered to be more conventional by the publisher though no less ingenious. It won for them the coveted Prix du Quai des Orfevres, the French mystery writer’s prize, in 1977. While The Eleventh Little Indian (as it was published in the US) was considered “too daring” I think Le Crime de la Maison Grün or, as the English publishers redubbed the book, The Body Vanishes (1976) is far more daring. The trickery employed in this debut (yet really their second book) and the gasp inducing solution surpass what the two men did in their Agatha Christie tribute.

A drowned woman’s body disappears from a river bank. It reappears in the locked and burglarized workshop of Wotan Grün, an antiquarian bookseller. The only thing noted to be missing is a rare 15th century incunabulum, the envy of several collectors and the bookseller’s competitors. The woman is soon identified as the lover of Wotan’s son Denis, the morose and cynical black sheep of the Grün household. As the intriguing investigation proceeds the entire household is enveloped in a world of treachery and thievery, murder attempts and suicide, and — believe it or not — the search for an alchemy formula for turning lead into gold.

The book introduces their series character Lancelot Dullac (cute name, huh?), a police detective who works alongside another policeman named Holz. The detection in this book is mostly of the Q&A type, though there are several instances of Golden Age type originality and cleverness in the few scenes that involve physical evidence. Most notable among those portions is a second impossible murder disguised as a suicide that involves some rigged machinery that John Dickson Carr might have dreamed up.

Once again on display a plethora of plot devices and motifs found in the work of their idol Agatha Christie. There are allusions to Evil Under the Sun, Peril at End House, Murder at the Vicarage and the many stage related mysteries she wrote. The two writers come from a theater background and once again dig into their trunk of stage tricks and illusions to bamboozle the reader with dazzling misdirection. There is even some dizzying business with rifles and bullets that reminded me of Erle Stanley Gardner’s gun crazy plots. All in all plenty of wizardry and plot machinations to appeal to any fan of the puzzle driven detective novel.

 Posted by at 3:29 pm