Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Detective Novels of Todd Downing

This is another deviation from my blog preamble – am doing something today which I’ve never done so far – that is to feature a post on the detective novel(s) rather than a short story or short story collection! This year, I’ve taken a lot of breaks in my pursuit of the short story to devote valuable time to some of the longer versions of the Golden Age of Detective fiction. In this regard, the latest detour took me on a path to read all the novels by Todd Downing back to back after being impressed by Vultures in the Sky which I read sometime last year after seeing a review of this book by Curtis Evans on his blog. It was a great pleasure to lay my hand on these Coachwhip reprints and read them. The stories in most of these books are set in Mexico and come in as a breath of fresh air amongst the myriad miasma of novels from the Golden Age of detective fiction. Having a customs agent as a detective protagonist is not only an ingenious idea but it serves as a wonderful framework to base his plots on. These books certainly stand out for their plots, atmosphere, fair-play clueing and the blending of the Mexican landscape and its legends (in a very superior way) in to the structure of the plot. The modern readers certainly owe their thanks to Curt and Coachwhip publications for bringing these titles back from oblivion. What follows below are my observations on all the 9 detective novels penned by Todd Downing in the order that I read them rather than the order in which they were published.

 Vultures in the Sky
Any mystery set on a train or a ship or a plane goes up to the very top of my To Be Read list immediately. And that is how I ended up reading this third mystery offering from Todd Downing as soon as I saw the review from Curtis Evans on his blog. It’s a terrific performance – the setting, the atmosphere and the chilling suspense that the author builds up to ratchet the tension is amazing. Arriving at the murderer wasn’t too difficult – it’s fairly clued and at the end with only 3 suspects surviving, it’s not much of a mystery as to whodunit but the way you get there is really one hell of a ride with 2 very memorable scenes. This book is right up there with the 2 books that I rank so highly in this category (mysteries set on trains) – Murder On The Orient Express & Obelists Enroute.
Murder On Tour
Senior Customs Agent Hugh Rennert travels with a party of American tourists to identify a killer whose first victim has been a customs agent. There could be more as they wait for the macabre Mexican holiday “Day of The Dead”. There are far too many suspects – handling 13 suspects in just 180 odd pages does not give the author much scope for fleshing out the characters. It’s fairly clued alright - one clue requires the reader to know the history of a particular event and the other clues are weak but the intention is there to play fair with the reader. The climax is on a train with Hugh Rennert grilling the suspects for one final time before he hands over the guilty party to the US authorities after crossing the border from Mexico. Blending of the mystery novel with an exotic location and a touring group exploring these locales of Mexico is the best part of this book. A good debut to the series.
Murder on the Tropics
The task for Rennert is to find out who is stealing water bottles and to buy back the shares from an old woman but he ends up unmasking a very clever multiple murderer. This one has a better plot with 8 interesting characters stranded in a lonely Hacienda in the middle of nowhere with no human habitation for miles. The blending of one of the Mexican superstitions of “Yellow Death” and the atmospheric tension (with a hurricane heading toward the hacienda adding to the tension) is handled meticulously to provide the reader with a good puzzle. Fairly clued and it’s not much of a problem to figure out the culprit before the detective.
Murder Under The Moonflower
The first Peter Bounty mystery. It has a very interesting premise – why would anyone want to murder all the blood donors when the person who is supposed to receive the blood transfusion doesn’t have an heir to whom the inheritance will be passed? If I’ve to just provide in one word the biggest problem I’ve with this book is that it is loquacious. On top of this, all the three deaths are caused not by the devious cleverness of the criminal but by the stupidity of the Sheriff’s department (each time a different individual) which is a bit of a drag. The last two deaths were totally unnecessary. It’s fairly clued though and I knew who the murderer was but I went hopelessly wrong with the motive. This book would have worked better had it ended 50 pages earlier but that doesn’t mean in any way that I didn’t enjoy reading this one.
The Case of the Unconquered Sisters
This is a daring attempt to have just three suspects (if we can take the word of the US authority that the Sisters family is in the clear) and yet aim to pull off a surprising conclusion to a well rounded mystery but the problem lies in the execution. The Sisters (2 sisters and a niece) have been hosting an archaeological group who are conducting an expedition in the black lava fields of Mexico’s Pedregal. Rennert is sent to this house to investigate the disappearance of one of the members of this expedition whose skeleton (with a gunshot hole in its skull) has turned up in a consignment headed to a US museum along with 2 other prehistoric skeletons. With very few suspects, there aren’t too many plot threads to juggle around with and being a small book, looks like the author was constricted to use his clues because when the two major events or clues does appear, it becomes too obvious as to who the culprit is and ends in a disappointing finish.
The Lazy Lawrence Murders
The final installment from this very entertaining author takes place on a train – the third time in as many as 9 novels – inspired by Rufus King’s 3 novels all set on a yatch or a ship as pointed out by Curt in Clues & Corpses. But it’s really nowhere close to the performance which we see in Vultures. An ex-Texas Governor is travelling in a Pullman with two of his family members and his secretary. When the Governor meets a violent death just minutes after Peter Bounty boards the train, he has a number of suspects to contend with including a Mexican police officer and a US customs official. The book takes a long time in eliminating one suspect after another and like its predecessor (Moonflower), it is wordy. But this one’s merit is that it hides the murderer in a much better way compared to some of his earlier novels.
The Last Trumpet
All the previous plots involved the closed group of suspects - enclosed in a stranded house or an enclosed space like a train. This is his first book which breaks away from this tradition and what you have here is a murder committed inside a bull ring arena in front of thousands of witnesses. By the end we have a total of 4 (or was it 5?) deaths – the only thing common to all of them being that the victims were all supposed to testify in a court against an insurance company so that a crippled man who met an accident continues to receive his monthly compensation. But the irony is that it was not mandatory for any of them to testify. The author is at the top of his form here and it would take a very careful reading to pinpoint the murderer – though I knew the answer to the other plot strand which is so crucial to the solution, I just couldn’t decide between two of the suspects and I finally had my answer just before the beginning of the final chapter. Also, I was helped by a spoiler from a comment which Peter Bounty makes in one of the novels. So I would suggest others to read it before they read the Bounty titles even though the spoiler is a trivial one and the reader wouldn’t realize it till the end of the book. All in all a wonderful effort and certainly one of his best books!
Night Over Mexico
Rennert takes a detour and takes shelter in a stranded house when the weather turns bad. There are 9 others who have more or less ended up in the house for the same reason and the caretaker of the house is already dead when Rennert makes his entry. 2 more mysterious deaths follow – with Rennert finding no sign of foul play on any of the bodies. It includes a very strange motive and a strange murder weapon but the reader may find it hard to figure them out even though it’s abundantly clued. It has a terrific start, a lame finish and a very interesting plot in between.
The Cat Screams
This is Downing’s second book and this is certainly an improvement over the first one. Rennert is on vacation in one of the hotels in an exotic location. There are 7 more guests, a servant who is suffering from some unknown ailment due to which the house is put under quarantine and a Cat which brings about a death every time its guests get to hear its scream! A terrific set up, interesting interplay between the guests, a well hidden motive all make for a breezy read. However as a whole it left me with mixed feelings: the murderer did come as a pleasant surprise (kudos to the author on this one) but the clues are so subtle and so indirect that it was hard for me to pinpoint the motive or the culprit, simple things which people would do under these circumstances are not seen here and some of the things which looked strange to me remained unexplained in the end and hence my equivocal stance on this where I was neither too thrilled nor was I too disappointed (to deem it as an average effort).
To conclude, it’s been a fascinating few weeks spent with these novels. All the novels are certainly worth reading with my nomination for the top 2 going towards Vultures in the Sky & The Last Trumpet. And I’ve no doubts in agreeing with Curt that Todd Downing is a far superior author to the average mystery writer.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Malice in Wonderland – Rufus King

This 1958 Queen’s Quorum title consists of 8 stories, all set in the fictional beach town of Halcyon in Florida. The crime club edition that I’ve categorizes this book as a classic puzzler but there’s really only one story which qualifies for this distinction and the remaining seven fall into the broad category of crime stories. The “wonderland of surprises, Rufus King style” as depicted in the introduction didn’t live up to its expectations for me.
Malice in Wonderland
This story involves the solving of a present day murder by a girl who tries to decode a message from a long-dead playmate.
Miami Papers Please Copy
Miss Violet is a feature writer for the Miami press. To get a good story and to be the heroine of the story, she comes up with a plan of dropping a movie ticket on the road and spring a devious plan on the person who would turn up at the cinema. But to her horror, the person who does turn up has his own devious plan and the hunter becomes the hunted.
The Body in the pool
Mrs. Waverley is a witness to a body being dumped in her pool by a rich & rogue millionaire. The prosecution keeps her under wraps till her testimony is due in court so as to protect her from the evil clutches of the accused. A year later, the daughter of the man who was sent to the chair comes to the house of Mrs. Waverley to seek revenge – to kill Mrs. Waverley in exactly the same manner as the murder which took place the previous year. And what follows is a maliciously clever twist.
To Remember you By
One of the best stories in this collection – Jane’s Father dies of a fatal illness when Jane is only 13. The police suspect that Jane’s step mother Aurelia killed her husband because this is the third husband who has died in a similar fashion leaving huge insurance bequeaths to her. Another common point – all of them were cremated and their ashes deposited in the river thereby leaving the police high and dry as they don’t have a body to exhume or for that matter any ash with which they could find traces of the poison. Well, in this case, Jane might just be able to help the police with the added bonus of a church pastor as an unimpeachable witness!
Let Her Kill Herself
A novella which starts off as good whodunit but the culprit is revealed midway and from then on it turns into a thriller.
Agree - or Die
A story with an uncertain ending – the author informs that this case, so simple on its surface – hid perhaps the most provocative question since Frank R. Stockton posed his famous one concerning the lady or the tiger and hence leaves the verdict to the reader.
The Body in the Rockpit
Another version of the love triangle crime story concerning a husband, the wife and her lover which can only end with murder – either of a single party or much worse.
The Pills of Lethe
The only genuine tale of detection and the best story in this collection. Jepson Carleton is the tyrannical family head, the absolute master of his wife, his spinster sister and the niece who was his ward. Dr. Maury receives a phone call from the wife saying that her husband is dying of an overdose of morphine which the doctor had prescribed. He enquires about the quantity of the medicine missing and orders her to give him loads of black coffee immediately – he consoles her that the black coffee would save him and keep him alive till he reaches their house.
When Dr. Maury reaches his patient’s home, he is surprised to find him dead. His instructions were carried out to perfection – the inmates of the house fed the dying man 6 to 7 cups of coffee and yet it seemed to have had no effect on him. The doctor has to not only figure out about this strange anomaly but he also needs to figure out who among the three killed his patient.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Exploits of The Chevalier Dupin - Michael Harrison

Edgar Alan Poe, the acknowledged Father of the Detective Story created the First fictional detective C. Auguste Dupin in the year 1841. Dupin featured in only three stories: Murders in The Rue Morgue (1841), The Mystery of Marie Roget (1843) & The Purloined Letter (1845). With just 4 detective stories (including Thou Art the Man – not featuring Dupin), Poe laid down, for all time, the major principles of the detective story.
It took more than 120 years for someone to dare to bring back Dupin – this feat was achieved by the British author Michael Harrison, a technical writer in the field of nucleonic and cybernetics, an historian of World War II, a cryptanalyst and archaeologist. This collection features 7 new Dupin stories – which were all published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine from 1965 to 1968.
It’s indeed a herculean task to get under the skin of Dupin but Harrison has done a tremendous job of bringing Dupin back to life – these 7 pastiches of Poe which includes 3 Locked Room or Impossible Crimes makes for a fascinating read and you can’t but agree with Ellery Queen when they say these stories are truly ‘tec tours de force!
In addition to the seven stories, the book features an introduction by Ellery Queen concerning Poe and his creation of Dupin, and an article by Harrison titled Dupin: The Reality Behind Fiction – which presents an article on how Poe could have been inspired to borrow the name Dupin from a real person by that same name who could have been one of his close friends when he was in France.
The Vanished Treasure
An interesting story to bring the great Chevalier back – the Gold treasure from the Cathedral of San Isidro has been stolen by one of the generals. It was loaded on many mules and transported into a naval ship and from that moment on the ship was under constant observation and when the ship lands on the other side – there’s no sign of the treasure. The only possible land which the ship could have touched on its journey is thoroughly searched but they find no sign of the treasure. Dupin then presents the most logical explanation for this simple problem.
The Mystery of The Fulton Documents
The Fulton Documents containing the secrets of a weapon of mass destruction is a byproduct of the French Revolution and is under locks in a safe – to which only 2 people have the access – the head of the department and a clerk. This sealed document has never been opened until the clerk confesses to the head that he opened it on his somnambulistic outing. But when the Head opens the safe, the envelope is still intact and when they open it, the documents are also intact. So how can the clerk be so confident that it was opened and yet it was sealed when it was opened for the second time? Further when Dupin asks the head to enact the whole scene; when the envelope is reopened, the documents are missing. How did the documents vanish when the head himself sealed it in the presence of the clerk? Dupin recounts a diabolic plan and shows how this clever conjuring trick was carried out.
The Man in The Blue Spectacles
This story about a man in the blue spectacles who visits a certain café every day at the same time is the only weak link in this book. The spectacles become darker & darker as the days progress. What kind of a man needs such dark glasses and why? What is his profession? What’s his motive in keeping an eye on Dupin and the Prefect of Police when they meet daily in the café? He turns out to be an archeologist involved in the digging of a recently discovered tunnel in the streets of Paris bordering the Bank of France. Ah! Do we see a pattern? Or is it a cleverly planned misdirection? Well, in any case, Dupin is equally up to the task.
The Mystery of the Gilded Cheval-Glass
This is an elegant dying message clue story, mastered to its greatness by the duo of Ellery Queen. The only story where Dupin is approached by a person of lower class to solve a problem: to exonerate her husband Timoleon Delacraye from the murder charge of killing a moneylender. The moneylender is found stabbed multiple times with a full size mirror resting on his body. When the gilded cheval-glass mirror is removed by the police, they realize that the man is still alive and he utters just one word “Delacraye” before he breathes his last. The moneylender’s clerk informs the police that Delacraye had an appointment that day to return his entire debt and the police promptly arrest him. The Chevalier says that there’s another meaning to the dying message: de-la-craye in French means a piece of chalk and one of the hands of the dead body has such a piece of chalk clutched in it.
People who dislike the stories with the theme of the dying message clue might have this objection, “why does the victim always has to write something which doesn’t make sense instead of just writing the murderer’s name? Surely the murderer won’t re-visit the murder scene to specifically check whether the victim has put the murderer’s name somewhere in the room before his death?” This is one of those stories where the victim has certainly written the murderer’s name and yet it is still invisible to the ordinary mortals and only the clever understanding of the scene of murder by Dupin helps shed light on what exactly the victim meant when he uttered the accusatory word.
The Fires in the Rue St. Honore
This is one of the best locked room mysteries that I’ve come across in the past two years. In fact it doesn’t involve a murder but its locked room arson! The Insurance Company has got a third claim within a year from the same claimant that his warehouse has been burned down with all the imported clothes inside destroyed. The first two claims have been honored. But now the insurance company wants the help of Dupin to figure out how exactly the fire was set. Here are the circumstances: the owner has built a fireproof warehouse with only one solid iron door, which is safely locked by a trusted guard after making sure that everyone has left the premises. The guard is the only one who has a key. To make sure that somebody else doesn’t use a duplicate key, the guard seals the keyhole with wax and a piece of paper with his signature – which just can’t be replicated if the seal is broken! But in spite of all these precautions, a fire was set inside the warehouse and the insurance agency has investigated all the three sites for all the known sources of starting a fire automatically (acid reactions, sponge bombs etc etc) and no such device was found.
For each of the three occasions, the owner has an iron tight alibi. The guard is in the clear. Who is the accomplice who could have triggered the fire? How did he set fire – if he was inside the warehouse, how did he escape? If he triggered it from outside, how could he do so when there is just one fireproof iron door with no windows or any other openings? A scintillating performance, a solution which tips it hat off to both G.K. Chesterton and John Dickson Carr!
The Murder in the Rue Royale
How did the murderer make his escape from a window on the second floor, literally within seconds of his having fired the one shot which killed the well known banker? Moreover, how had the assassin made his escape with such miraculous speed that those who forced open the door of the bedroom never caught a glimpse of him? The only possible person with a motive was outside the room in the presence of others when the shot was heard. It’s certainly not a suicide as it couldn’t have been self inflicted though it looks like a close shot wound and there’s no presence of a murder weapon inside the room. These are some of the questions which mystify the police and Dupin in this wonderful locked room mystery. The locked room enthusiasts could certainly guess about one part of the solution but the other ingenious idea, I guess, will elude most of us – as it looks like something which has never been tried before.
The Facts in the Case of the Missing Diplomat
An American diplomat on the way to the British Embassy disappears in an open courtyard which is under constant observation from both inside and outside – one of the clerks watches him walk all the way across the courtyard, pass the gate & turn left and when the same clerks tries to catch up with him to hand over a parcel which the diplomat has left behind, he is nowhere to be seen. The diplomat couldn’t have run as he has a wounded leg and there are no immediate gates or doors for him to enter in the near vicinity. Further, the man who was guarding the outside gate claims to have not seen the diplomat at all. This impossible crime tale is neatly clued and is the only tale by this author to find a mention in Robert Adey’s Locked Room Bibliography.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Waiting For Orders - Eric Ambler

Eric Ambler is famous for his spy classics like A Coffin for Dimitrios, Journey Into Fear, Cause For Alarm & Background To Danger. But not many might know that he also attempted a series of pure detective stories featuring Dr. Jan Czissar, a refugee from Czechoslovakia (late Prague Police), who indulges himself with London crime which the Scotland Yard might have closed prematurely. As against the thrills and excitements prevalent in his novels, these stories are highly mellowed down and are more of an intellectual exercise rather than the sensational. I got introduced to one of Dr. Jan’s adventures in the anthology To The Queen’s Taste – first supplement to 101 Years’ Entertainment. This led me to find the other stories of Jan Czissar, which are conveniently, collected in the Mysterious Press publication Waiting For Orders.

Waiting For Orders collects all of Ambler’s short stories: his earliest short story “The Army of the Shadows”, The Intrusions of Dr. Czissar – a collection of six detective stories and the final story “The Blood Bargain” written as late as 1970 after abandoning the short story form for 30 years. In the introduction, the author sheds light on how he ended up trying his hand at the pure detective story form when the magazine Sketch commissioned him to write a series of six very short detective stories. And how did go about coming up with his plots? He bought the 2 volume Taylor’s Principles and Practices of Medical Jurisprudence, the then general work on the science of forensic medicine. A couple of days’ browsing gave him the technical material for six murder mysteries whose solutions could be explained without elaborate dissection of alibis. It’s such a pity though that he restricted himself to these six stories – at the end it does leave you high and dry – pining for more.

The Case of the Pinchbeck Locket

Dr. Jan Czissar introduces himself to the Assistant-Commissioner Mercer of Scotland Yard in this inaugural story and explains that he can help the Yard solve a murder case which they have concluded as an accident. The body of a 60 year old woman had been washed up in Shingles bay with a bruise to her head after her disappearance for three days. The coroner’s verdict happens to be that the woman who used to go on regular walks by the Cliffside must have had an attack of giddiness and fallen to her death on the beach below. However according to Czissar, there are two anomalies which point to murder: the heating furnace malfunctioned in their house the day after she disappeared and the Pinchbeck locket which has been identified as that belonging to the deceased was found at the wrong place on the shore just below the cliff.

The Case of the Emerald Sky

One of the best stories with a daring clue and rightfully included in the anthology To The Queen’s Taste. Thomas Medley’s son is arrested for his Father’s death due to arsenic poisoning. The son is a Doctor and it was he who provided the medicine to his father on the night he died. But the Czech refugee, who has attended the inquest feels that the Yard has got the wrong man because of these observations: the arsenic was found inside the liver & kidneys but not in the stomach, the victim’s last meal included spinach and the victim’s young wife who is a painter has painted the fields blue and the sky emerald green in one her paintings!

The Case of the Cycling Chauffeur

Gregory, Mr. Wretford’s Chauffeur has taken his employer’s car to a garage for repairs. Since it’s gone take more than a day, the chauffer returns back on a bicycle which he has carried in the back of the car. But he never reaches home and is instead found dead with a .22 bullet in his head on the road. A 19 year old, who was firing at birds, is held responsible for Gregory’s death. The late Prague police detective says that there is a simple flaw with the evidence given by the police – if the boy was firing at a bird in the only tree in that vicinity, the bullet should have been fired some 18 feet above the cyclist’s head. He goes on to exacerbate the Assistant-Commissioner by providing his findings about how Gregory was a betting man and how he was purposefully murdered.

The Case of the Overheated Service Flat

An excellent story which could almost qualify for a locked room or an impossible crime. Thomas Jones has got away with murder twice before – both his earlier wives succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning. Mercer himself is present for the inquest when Thomas’s third wife is found dead in her bed – dead due to carbon monoxide poisoning from an open gas-fire tap in her room. The gas-fire is an old model and not the new type which is far safer, obviously a gas-fire was not needed in that centrally heated room and there’s an electric radiator in another room. All this points to the fact that it was a cleverly planned murder but the only problem is that the police can’t place the husband anywhere in the vicinity of the scene of murder for the desired duration. The clever knowledge of chemistry aids Dr. Czissaur to provide an alternate solution to this crime where the presence of the husband at the scene of crime was not required.

The Case of the Drunken Socrates

Captain Pawsey, a habitual drinker is found dead due to respiratory failure after a night of drinking binge with his friend Stenson. There were two unusual facts about his death the previous night – the maid notices him stumbling along which had never happened before due to his inebriated state and the utterance of the word ‘Socrates’ by the deceased. The next curious thing to come up is the marriage within three months between Mrs. Pawsey and Stenson, who also happens to be the Insurance agent who sold a life insurance policy to the captain. Czissaur has his hands full to prove that the Captain’s death was a very well planned murder.

The Case of the Gentleman Poet

Everything points to a case of suicide except for two facts: the dead man appeared to be in a cadaverous spasm and the single bullet lodged in his brain appeared to have been shot from a gun fixed with a silencer but there was no sign of the silencer inside the house and many people heard the shot that was fired. A simple but an elegant solution follows.

The Army of the Shadows

This was Ambler’s earliest published story and appeared in The Queen’s Book of the Red Cross in 1939. In the author’s own words, it’s a war story which makes a point that the actually enemy was not the German people but the Nazi tyranny which some people submitted to.

The Blood Bargain
The story has all the hallmark traits of his craft which he used so skillfully in his novels.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Locked Rooms and Open Spaces

Locked Room and Open Spaces is an anthology of 16 Swedish crime and mystery stories, spanning across 150 years from 1857 to 2002, each story written by a different author and belonging to the genre of Locked Room Murders and Impossible crimes. All these stories have been collected and translated by Bertil Falk with a preface by John Wopenka which gives a brief history of the detective story in Sweden. Though this book was published in 2007 by Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, I haven’t come across anybody mentioning this book when we talk about the locked room anthologies. There are some great stories in this collection and can certainly compete for attention with the other great anthologies that we adore so much. A must have and a must read for all locked room enthusiasts.
Lars Blom and his Disappearing Gun:
This story was first published in 1857 which would in all probability make it the second modern “into-thin-air” story after Edgar Allan Poe’s The Purloined Letter. The story involves the disappearance of a gun on two different occasions when the lowly paid gardener threatens his employer “The Colonel” with a gun. The Colonel calls in for reinforcement each time and by the time people come into the room and overpower the gardener, the gun has vanished – neither to be found on the person nor anywhere in the room. A minor story with an interesting solution nevertheless.
The Murder Of the “Swedish Anne”:
A story set in Chicago where the stingy house owner is found hanging inside her locked and bolted house. The only problem with the scene of the crime for a suicide verdict: 11 inches gap between the leg and the chair which would practically make it impossible for her to have hanged herself at such a height. This story was published in the year 1906 – the same year the Master of the Locked Room Mysteries John Dickson Carr was born. The introduction to this story also reveals that the great master himself has used the same solution in one of his ingenious stories – which makes this story a worthy candidate in the genre of Locked room murders.
The Invisible Sword:
A man is seen boarding his small motor-boat, there are many witnesses who can swear that nobody else was on the boat when it departed from its shores, the boat is met midway by another boat with three occupants and all three swear to the fact that the boat was manned by a single person. Yet when the boat reaches its destination without any scope for it to break its journey, people are puzzled to see an unmanned boat crash on to the shore. When they get on the boat, they find the man unconscious with a heavy blow to his head from a blunt weapon but with no sign of the weapon anywhere on the boat! Solution: Neat and a new variation to the gamut of open air impossible crimes.
The Speckled Cat:
A big crowd including several scientists has gathered to witness the opening of a coffin concealing the mortal remains of St. Olaf – a coffin whose seals have been unbroken for 167 years. And when they do open the coffin, out jumps a speckled cat and there are two skeletons instead of just one. The next day there is an ad in the newspaper that the mysterious speckled cat will make another appearance at the opening of the locked room for insured items of mail at the general post office and so it turns out to the delight of the waiting crowd. At this point of the story the culprit reveals how he achieved these two miracles and accepts a challenge to make the speckled cat appear for a third time – this time in the locked vaults of the Bank of Sweden in Stockholm!
The Murder on Promenade du Midi:
From Adey’s Locked Room Bibliography: “What do Nevil Monroe Hopkins, John Dickson Carr, Nigel Morland, J.E. Gourdon, Arthur Upfield have in common? They all have written an Impossible Crime Story where the theme or the problem concerned a car (or a helicopter or a plane) that was driven by a man who was then discovered to have been dead for some time! The latest author to attempt this theme with a different solution was none other than the modern master of locked room mysteries Edward D. Hoch.”
Well, now we need to add another author to the list: Frank Heller. In this story, the Dutch detective Dr. Zimmertur solves a similar problem in France when a car is stopped by a policeman on a no traffic road. The driver is found dead due to poisoning and his nephew is found asleep in the back seat. He is duly charged with his uncle’s murder. I though the story had some flaws and the solution is not as clever as some of the other stories with the same theme.
Sixten Hard Pulls off a Scoop:
A pianist is found shot dead inside the locked cabin of a ship. The gun is found attached to a contraption, a 10 inch string but the question is how was it held together by such a short string and how was it triggered? Surely there’s no way it could’ve been triggered from outside the cabin and if somebody manually handled it then how did the murderer escape the locked cabin? Hard, a reporter barges himself in on the investigation to solve this intriguing puzzle where his only clues are the glass powder and a gong found inside the cabin. Though the story doesn’t go about unraveling a murderer, it does present an ingenious set up for a locked room murder.
The Burglary at Hotel Esplanade:
This story is set in London – a jeweler’s shop is anticipating buyers for the famous Worwich necklace. When a buyer from another city confirms her willingness to buy it, the store sends out one of its trusted employees to present the necklace to the prospective buyer. He travels by first class compartment in a train and checks in at Hotel Esplanade. He checks the necklace before going to bed and to be super precautious, he puts the case below his pillow. Next day when he wakes up, he finds the case missing even though there is no disturbance in his room. A minor story in this collection.
Salute For The Dead:
This story has a combination of a locked room and an impossible situation – the victim is found shot dead inside a locked toilet, the solution to which is very simple and explained immediately. The impossible situation corresponds to the fact that the remaining guests were all ensconced in a single room when the shot was heard and hence none of them could have pulled the trigger. The solution wouldn’t come as a surprise to many.
The Closed Room:
A man found dead due to Cyanide poisoning inside a locked room with the key still inside would have led to a simple case of suicide if not for the fact that the cyanide bottle was neatly corked. The window catches are all intact, there’s no other entrance to the room and yet a murderer administered the poison and walked out of the room.
Murder in a Tightly Shut Room:
This author cites the solution from the previous story and discards it. He improves on the previous story with a solution where a man could be murdered inside a locked room where no other person other than the murdered is required to be in the room.
Reg. No. 94.028/72 Murder:
This story is by Jan Ekstrom and he is considered as the number one Swedish locked-room-writer and the introduction to this story further states that this story is considered as the best locked room murder story ever written in Swedish. It involves the murder of a scientist during a timed experiment in a hermetically sealed chamber. The room has only one door which can be opened only from the inside after the experiment has started, there are two observers watching a panel which would display a light if the door is opened. The only other entry to this room is a skylight which can be opened and closed only from the inside. The experiment is being conducted at a room temperature of minus 60 degree celsius and when the room is forced open, the scientist is found stabbed with a knife and the body totally immersed in a frozen water tub – which would take an hour to thaw. The solution has a pretty complicated explanation, certainly one of its kinds and makes for fascinating reading!
Death in The Balloon:
A story unique for its setting – a rookie flying with his instructor to earn his certificate for flying a hot air balloon encounter a problem in the air – the lines of the gondola are crossed – the instructor steps on to the rim to correct it and all of a sudden jumps out of the balloon to his death. All this is being watched by the controller who is also the instructor’s partner in the business and he feels that the instructor had done the same maneuver of fixing the lines many times and the only way from him to have come out of the balloon would be if somebody pushed him when he was standing on the rim, an accusation which the rookie denies vehemently. With such a constricted environment, there can only be one solution and it’s not hard to arrive at it.
The Man Who Read “The Man Who Read John Dickson Carr”:
This would be murderer has read the short story “The Man Who Read John Dickson Carr” by William Brittain and he believes he can use an alternative solution to his advantage to get rid of his nemesis which can only lead to hilarious consequences that too in just one and half pages.
The Locked Room:
Another story told from the point of a would be murderer in just 2 pages - to plot a perfect locked room murder.
The Curse of The Royal Prince:
Funniest piece of the collection. An elevator has been installed in the historic palace and the King has been invited to do the inauguration honors by riding the elevator from the ground floor to the third floor on his own. The king gets into the elevator on the ground floor; the technical supervisor presses the button for the 3rd floor and sends a message to the waiting crowd on the third floor to expect the king but when the door opens, the elevator is empty.
It’s a combination of science fiction and Open Space mystery.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Mortmain - Miriam Allen deFord

Story: Mortmain
Author: Miriam Allen deFord
Book: The Theme is Murder
A deputy sheriff is on his deathbed and he continues to live only through his will power and his ably supported doctor who visits him every day to treat him personally. He even has a resident nurse who caters to all his needs as he doesn’t even have the strength to get up from his bed. He is a wealthy man and he has no heirs – all his money is to be passed on to charities with a small allowance to the nurse. The nurse knows about the presence of ten thousand dollars in the wall safe which hasn’t been accounted in the will and she needs it badly. But she knows that the deputy sheriff is a wise man and it’ll not be possible to force him to part with that money. And she knows that he will not die in the very near future – this policeman is not the type who is gone take his own life to end the misery. The only way for him to die is for her to kill him – with poison! And the opportunity finally presents itself when the Doctor needs to go out of town for three days.
She knows that she needs to strike on the very first day that the doctor will not be visiting to provide herself the chance to escape the law. She decides to mix the poison along with the afternoon medicine so that the deputy is not suspicious. Once he takes his medicine, all that she needs to do is wash the container and the doctor on his return would have no grounds to suspect that his patient met an untimely death. Does it all end so smoothly? The reader knows that there’s some strange twist coming but no reader will be ready for the chilling and disturbing picture conjured up in the last two paragraphs of this story to leave a memorable impression in the reader’s mind!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Oleander - Miriam Allen deFord

Story: The Oleander
Author: Miriam Allen deFord
Book: The Theme is Murder
The tragic events of this story concern two brothers – the narrator of the story and his evil brother Gilbert. The story beings with the narrator reminiscing about his childhood days when he used to spend most of his time near the oleander tree which his mother has planted and goes on to reveal how the tree has been his only friend during the tragic events that follow his entire life. The first sign that his brother Gilbert is not an ordinary child comes to the fore when he kills a cat but the greatest harm comes in the chemistry lab when the two brothers are carrying out an experiment: a blast which renders the narrator blind while Gilbert escapes unscathed. Since he is blind, he decides not to marry his girlfriend – who eventually ends up as Gilbert’s wife. Then there is an embezzlement charge against Gilbert but it is quickly hushed up. Next comes the complaint from the maid that it was Gilbert who hit their Mother which was the result of her death - she is discharged quickly.
Tragedy after tragedy befalls our narrator but he always turns a blind eye (aha!) to his brother’s faults and takes solace under the oleander tree. The break point finally comes when Gilbert cuts down the Oleander tree to the root as he knows that this will cause the maximum grief to his blind brother. Well, what can our narrator do? Can a blind man seek revenge against all the injustice meted out to him? If so, what can he do to Gilbert to make him suffer and how can he achieve it? You’ll have to read the story to find out and you won’t be disappointed with the coup de grace which comes in the final sentence of the story!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Something To Do With Figures - Miriam Allen deFord

Story: Something To Do With Figures
Author: Miriam Allen deFord
Book: The Theme is Murder, To The Queen’s Taste
One of the finest stories that I’ve read in a long long time.
Lorina Brackett and her brother Willard stay in the Wyndham hotel in adjacent rooms and the usual residents of the hotel are fed up of the notorious quarrels which they indulge in on a day to day basis. One fine day, Eric Scholl, the other neighbor of Lorina’s calls in the police complaining that something extreme was going on in her room. When the pole break in, Lorina is found stabbed to death with her brother Willard standing over her dead body with the murder weapon in hand. Seems like an open and shut case and the brother is convicted even though he claims he is innocent.
The only person who is convinced that the murderer was Eric and not the brother is Wedderburn, the narrator and the detective in the story who also stays in the same hotel. He provides the reader with the set up, the clues, the timings, the evidence and the possible motives for both the brother and Eric. The brother has already appealed several times, his execution has been stopped in anticipation of some new facts or proof being presented but dismissed each time with no conclusive evidence to show that the murder was committed by a third party. With just a few days to go for the final execution (after the last appeal has been rejected), Wedderburn battles with his mind to find that one vital point, that one vital clue which would conclusively show that the wrong man was being executed. Wedderburn, being an accountant, knows that the clue lies somewhere with the figures involved – what was wrong with the figures present at the scene of the crime? Will Willard be saved in time? To say that the reader is in for a surprise would be an understatement – it is an ingenious twist, its cleverness surpassed only by the cunningness with which the author has played fair with the reader.
236 different stories of detection, crime and mystery were published in the first four years of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. 36 of the best out of these 236 were collected in To The Queen’s Taste, the first supplement to 101 Years’ Entertainment. Ellery Queen includes this story by Miriam Allen deFord in Queen’s Taste and instead of providing an introduction to this story (as he does for all the other stories), he provides a note after the story: If you anticipated Miss deFord’s surprise ending, chalk up a large point for your side. Your Editors confess that they were completely taken aback by the revelation in the last sentence …. If you were fooled as neatly and unexpectedly as your Editors were, don’t blame it on “unfairness to the reader.” At no stage did Miss deFord violate the canon of fair play. As clearly as the … (let’s just say somewhere in the 1st page), the author revealed the whole “trick” of the story – go back and read that sentence in the light of what you know now. True, she has deliberately and with malice aforethought tried to mislead you. But all’s fair in love, war & detective stories, and if you read the story again, you’ll find that strictly speaking, Miss deFord always told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Brava to Miss deFord for a remarkable performance in literary legerdemain!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Something To Hide - Philip MacDonald

This Queen’s Quorum title is from the creator of Colonel Anthony Gethryn and the author of such classic mystery novels as The Rasp & Warrant For X. His short stories (opines EQ) are seemingly quiet and restrained, but their understatement has terrifying implications and often the stories explore “offbeat themes, with the clashing forces of the normal and the abnormal.”
The most salient feature of this book is the ability of the author to set his stories in various atmospheres with different protagonists to handle multiple themes with equal dexterity and masterful storytelling. This collection boats of six stories: the first 2 featuring the wryly humorous escapades of Dr. Alcazar, the pure detective story featuring the debut of Colonel Gethryn (in the short story form) followed by two stories of stark brutality & absolute terror and rounding up with a novella featuring the investigation of a policeman whose innate fear is that he got the wrong man in his murder case.
The Green–and-Gold String
The “Clairvoyant extraordinary”, Dr. Alcazar, makes his debut in this story. He is one part sleuth ad one part rogue, he has a penchant for charming his way into wealthy ladies’ homes to solve their problems. Once ensconced in lavish surroundings, he goes to work on the problem at hand and by means fair or questionable usually leaves with a substantially large check made out to the substantially bogus organization known as ‘The Alcazar Foundation of Psychic Research’.
A young woman walks into Dr. Alcazar’s tent requesting him to help her but the charlatan soothsayer declines to help her and sends her away saying that she should come back at a later date with the truth and when she is more willing to reveal the details of her predicament. A few days later, he reads about her death in the newspaper - who happens to be a maid to one of the wealthiest ladies in California, Mrs. De Vries. As good soothsayers do, he convinces the wealthy lady that he can predict a lot of things by looking into his crystal ball and in turn gets the story about the maid. With the knowledge that he has on the maid and the information that she let slip during her visit, he is able to foil a murderer’s clever plot, save the intended victim and get away with a big check for his effort.
Something To Hide
The adventures of Dr.Alcazar continue in this novella. A year after the Green-and-Gold string case, when the check donated by the wealthy client is running out, he decides to makes a trip back to Mrs. De Vries abode in search of something new to work at. Mrs. De Vries does have a friend who is in trouble but that lady, Olga Galbraith, is an equal match to Dr. Alcazar in psychological mind games and dismisses him as a fake. To convince her, Dr. Alcazar goes about a devious plan of predicting a great calamity befalling her and following it up with a carefully planned execution of an accident involving her and her car. This somewhat mellows down Olga and she then agrees to take the help of this soothsayer. She invites him over to stay in her residence and solve the mysterious disappearance of her brother-in-law where there are a few guests to be tackled. The problem is, none of the guests know about this disappearance and none of them certainly know as to why Dr. Alcazar is present among them. This makes gathering information from them even more challenging and it is quite entertaining to see the devious schemes that he employs to ferret out information from these guests to solve this case, which in effect turns out to be a murder. To be fair, there is some genuine detection on the part of Dr. Alcazar to arrive at the secret hiding place of the body and the final unraveling the identity of the murderer.
The Wood-For-The-Tress
This story features Philip Macdonald’s most famous sleuth Colonel Anthony Gethryn. He has been dispatched to hand over a secret document to Sir Adrian LeFane in the village of Friar’s Wick in Downshire, England. Little does he know that a great sense of evil and a mass murderer await him in this small village. There have been two murders of young women in this locality and all the clues point to a serial killer. All the personnel involved in the investigation and the major citizens of the village (which round up to sixteen) have been invited to LeFane’s house for dinner which Gethryn joins after he completes his assignment of handing over the document. What follows is a detailed discussion between the great detective and the guests regarding his achievements, his insights about the art of detection before moving on to the details of the multiple murders plaguing the area. The characters are skillfully handled, the motive for the murder is introduced and the clues are all hidden in the various conversation pieces which the guests are involved in. The next morning, there is a third death and Gethryn is asked to join in the investigation. After a perfunctory attendance at the crime scene, he goes back to his house in the afternoon leaving the investigation in the hands of the local authorities. But not before taking a clue along with him from the crime scene. And all the other clues have already been given to him and the reader during the previous evening’s discussion and it’s just a matter of time before he is able to piece together the identity of a clever murderer. 
Malice Domestic
Unlike the previous story where there were too many characters, this story just has three: the husband, Carl, the wife, Annette and the family friend & Doctor, Tom. It starts with Carl getting sick on the road which he puts down to something he ate. But the Doctor has his doubts and he suspects arsenic poisoning. There is no doubt whatsoever the second time when Carl gets sick – it takes the Doctor all his talents to save Carl from a series case of arsenic poisoning. The Doctor wants to go to the police but Carl doesn’t think that his wife is out to kill him. High tension filled psychological interplay between the murderer and the victim ends in a dramatic climatic finish!
Loves Lies Bleeding
This story known for its spellbinding terror and strangeness won the Edgar award for the best short story and is another psychological tale in which a man has been arrested for murdering his wife and the only thing he is interested in is awaiting the return of his dear old friend Charles. Did he or didn’t he? Will his friend Charles be able to save him? The suspense is maintained throughout the story and ends with one of the best twist endings that could have been imagined for that time! A detailed review of this story can be found here 
The Fingers of Fear
Lt. Connor, a San Diego cop, is faced with the tough task of finding a child killer, which he does in meticulous fashion based on the clues and the evidence available in the case. But it somehow looks too neat – which the defense attorney is banking on and is super confident that his client will walk free. This inconveniences the detective to a great degree and makes him to wonder all along whether he got the wrong man! When he shares his doubts with his superiors, he is asked to take a week off from work. The vacation suits him well as it allows him to pursue his private investigation, he ropes in his wife to help him on the case and both tackle a clue which has been deemed as a red herring so far. When that clue materializes in the form of a car which the killer must have used, they are certain that there is more to the case than meets the eye and that the child killer is still on the loose. Lt. Connor has a tough battle on his hands - there is still no concrete proof and then there is the big task of making his superiors aware that the wrong man is being tried in court. It takes great skill on the part of the crusader to trap the murderer red-handed and relieve his mind of the fear that he didn’t send a wrong man to his death.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Dream Detective – Sax Rohmer

Just back from a two months vacation and have a lot of catching up to do in my pursuit of the short stories. In the meantime, I thought I'd try something different: for the first time since I started this blog a year ago, I intend to deviate from my routine template which I’ve adhered to diligently. All along, I’ve concentrated on featuring one good detective story in a blog post but here I include all the stories from a single collection!

Sax Rohmer, in this collection introduces us to the methods of Moris Klaw, an Occult detective whose description reads thus: an old antique dealer who wore an archaic bowler, gold-rimmed pince-nez, black silk muffler, and long-toed continental boots, who sprayed verbena on his high bald brow in the presence of the dead, and who carried with him a red silk cushion odically sterilized. Mr. Searles, who is a part of the staff in Menzies Museum, meets Moris Klaw in the tragedy of the Greek Room and becomes his friend and biographer of his investigations.
Most of the solutions to Moris Klaw’s investigations can be grouped into two themes which he advocates: The Circle of Crime – where each crime repeats itself as history repeats itself and one only has to know the history of the crime or the place or the antique piece involved in the crime to solve it & the Psychic Photograph method – where he spends a night in the room of the dead and gets a mental photograph of the very last image or emotion of either the slayer or the slain as a clue to solve the rest of the case. Well, Ellery Queen calls him the 'charlatan-criminologist' but I've a strong objection to this moniker of Moris Klaw. The three locked room or impossible crimes stories are obviously the best of the lot and the others certainly have a lot going to keep the reader glued to the book till he reaches the end of a fascinating journey. 
Case of the Greek Room
An impressive debut featuring two locked room deaths. Please refer this link for the detailed review.

Case of the Potsherd Anubis
Only story in the collection which doesn’t involve any detection. Halesowen has just returned from Egypt with a freshly unearthed pot or vase known as the Potsherd of Anubis – that too stolen from the person who doesn’t deem it necessary to inform the Egyptian authorities about its discovery. A third man Zeda who comes to know about this robbery tries to buy the pot from Halesowen but without success. The rest of the story deals with the elaborate scheme which Zeda undertakes to relieve Halesowen of his treasure.
Case of The Crusader’s Ax
Mr. Heidleberg has taken possession of the ‘Crespie House’ after the death of its owner and he wants to convert it to a hotel. The only one who has an objection to it is the Butler of the previous owner who has been kicked out the house by Heidelberg.  Heidleberg is found beheaded with a mighty looking axe beside him. Inspector Grimsby can’t believe that the frail and old butler had the strength to even lift that gigantic axe. Klaw believes that the crimes operate in cycles and it is this cycle of crime in relation to the history of the sacred Black Geoffrey’s ax which reveals the solution to this crime.
Case of The Ivory Statue
The best story of the lot with a neatly done impossible crime. Please refer this link for the detailed review.
Case of The Rajah’s Blue
The Rajah’s Blue is a big diamond which is being sold by the Nissam of Gaekwad to the London government. 8 men get into a room to carry out the transaction with Inspector Grimsby standing guard outside. The diamond gets passed from one to another before it’s placed on the desk. A distraction outside makes everyone to rush to the jammed window and when they turn back, there is no sign of the diamond. Each man is searched, each crevice is closely inspected, there is no window or door or any aperture through which it could have been discarded and yet the diamond is not to be found. The solution to this clever impossible disappearance is based solely on the psychic photograph which Klaw comes up with - which qualifies as a cheat in my opinion.
Case of the Whispering Poplars
Moris Klaw, as it is revealed, is the author of a book titled ‘Psychic Angles’ in which, he describes the history of the various haunted houses in England. One such house happens to be ‘The Grove’ which is known for its history of deaths due to supernatural causes. The new occupants – Mr. Haufman and his two daughters are plagued by the strange occurrences in this house. Klaw also recognizes that the second daughter is ‘mediumistic’ and hence is in danger in this kind of an atmosphere – a prophecy which comes true a few days later. An American detective hired to solve these strange phenomena dies in mysterious circumstances and it is left to Moris Klaw to explain them within the sphere of natural laws.
Case of the Chord in G
A portrait painter has been found strangled – the marks on his neck so deep and so strange that it could have been committed only by a person with extreme strength in his arms and shoulders. After spending a night in the room where he dies, his psychic photograph reveals just a ‘sound’. The case remains unsolved till a new tenant occupies the house, for whose house warming ceremony Klaw gets himself invited because he thinks that the murderer would be present. He solves the case after hearing the music played by a composer – a newly composed prelude in which he tries to express in music the lust of slaying!
Case of the Headless Mummies
Mr. Mark Pettigrew has been visited by a strange burglar. Even though Pettigrew’s house consisted of several rich Egyptian treasures which the thief could’ve helped himself to, all he did was to cut off the head of a valuable mummy! Next to face the same fate is one of the five mummies in Sotheby’s awaiting an auction. The burglar’s next strike is in the house of Moris Klaw – again just the decapitation of a mummy’s head. All Klaw has to do is to do some research from the infinite volumes which adores his bookshelves and he knows where the burglar is gone strike next. They lay a trap for him in the Egyptian room of the Menzies Museum. An unusual but a charming story where the reader can easily work out the reason for the epidemic of the decapitations but still would enjoy the thrill ride to its climatic ending!
Case of the Haunting of Grange
This story is kind of a copy of the Whispering Poplars – Klaw has been invited by the owner of 'The Grange' to find a solution to the supernatural events taking place on a pretty regular manner ever since he moved in to his new abode.
Case of the Veil of Isis
Moris Klaw methods were, if not supernatural, at any rate supernormal, and people always used to question the narrator if there was ever a case which proved insusceptible of a natural explanation – which fell within the province of that of the occult.  The narrator says that there were several but he hasn’t recorded any and instead sets out to record this case which falls between the provinces of the natural & supernatural in such a way that it might, with equal legitimacy, be included under either head.