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.