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.