Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The Madman's Room (1990/2017) by Paul Halter

That cover is- I mean, it looks like a horror B-movie poster; a movie about Satanic manuscripts, evil rooms, and psychics. Actually, that describes this book pretty well.

Paul Halter hasn’t had a good time on this blog! It’s a shame, because I enjoy the man. I think he’s certainly imaginative, and personally I’d rather have someone who aims big and fails than someone just churning out average dreck (the former, for one, makes for more entertaining reviews). But usually there’s a false note in his books that make it hard for me to rec them for non-mystery fans. Which is why The Madman’s Room pleases me greatly.

There’s a bit more build up this time around. The first two chapters introduce us to Patrick Nolan and Paula Lyle two young would-be lovers, except for the slight complication that Paula is getting married to Francis Hilton...whose sister Sarah is also getting married to Harris Thorne. Obviously, Patrick and Paula only realized they’re in love right as it’s too late, and the romance (and relevant dialogue) doesn’t get any better from here.

Thankfully, the focus is instead on the plot, and it’s a twisty one. The story goes down at Hatton Manor, the Thorne ancestral home, which has a cursed room that is associated with death and insanity. The original inhabitant was Harvey Thorne, a quiet man who preferred to spend his days in his study writing his manuscript. But when he finally showed it to his father, the man soon fell ill and died (an experience I subject my proofreader to with every post!). Harvey’s response was to further isolate himself, and his room started to give visitors a strange sense of unease. Eventually things reached a climax when Harvey died of a heart attack, apparently in front of an inexplicable water stain in front of his fireplace, proclaiming that his family would pay for their sins in fire. And indeed, the house caught fire and the sole survivor ordered the room sealed.

Back in the modern day, Harris wants to unseal the room to make it his personal study, but the project is opposed by his brother Brian, a supposed psychic who is well-known for his uncanny ability to predict the future. This time he predicts doom when Harris unseals the room, and indeed, doom comes some months later. Harris takes a plunge out the window, and while the evidence seems to indicate it was a jealously-induced suicide, suspicious behavior at the time of the death makes Inspector Hurst suspicious. Not to mention the minor matter of the water stain on the floor…

The Madman’s Room differs from Halter’s normal fare. Normally, a Halter novel has a seemingly endless load of twists and turns that don’t always end somewhere good. This time, the flow is more focused and the tone slightly more somber. We really don’t start getting the usual Halter twists until near the end, and there they come off forced, like Halter realized that things weren’t bizarre enough. The first part of the book is a little slower, due to the needed set-up, but once Harris dies things begin to move at a steadier pace, as the cursed room continues to cause people to become terrified when they pass the threshold. Halter’s explanation for this, as well as the water stains that keep popping up, are excellent.

I enjoyed the character of Brian. Most psychics in mysteries tend to be almost self-consciously fake and malicious, so it was interesting to see one who seemed to not only believe in his own powers but is actually treated with a level of respect. I admit, the explanation for his “predictions” is a little weak, but he was actually my favorite character in the book, although spoilers prevent me from saying if my respect was misplaced.

I remain unsure if this is totally fair-play. I enjoyed the final summing up, but I admit there are few firm clues. It is more an example of “this is the only chain of events that makes sense.” But it’s a complex chain, and I’d be surprised if anyone figured this out all the way. Some of the explanations are slightly weak, but the central murder plot is ingenious, a near-perfect and honestly creepy crime that I can see John Dickson Carr grinning at. There is one alibi that I have seen a couple of reviewers (Sergio and TomCat, whose link I cannot grab at this moment) note was done poorly, but I wasn't bothered by it (probably because I had spotted the clue and drawn the completely wrong conclusion from it so it was in my head!)

The atmosphere of dread is much better than in The Vampire Tree. Halter's actual writing remains dry, but having read two other works that felt so dry the books cracked when I opened them, this is refreshing by contrast. There are a few clunky lines of exposition, including this (paraphrased) bombshell:

“I looked forward and saw them. Doing that! Clearly, before my eyes was that person doing that thing. I fell back in horror as I saw sights unimaginable. Why were they doing that? Could it mean that...Yes. It did. All was clear now. The entire case made perfect sense. What I had seen...but no, I shuddered to think about it. It was very clear to me that I should say nothing about it on-page until that pompous windbag of a detective wore himself out jabbering.”

But I exaggerate. This is honestly a very good book, and I was surprised to learn that it was written so early in Halter’s career. It read like a Halter that had been around the block a few times, had gotten some of the excesses out, learned a little bit more about pacing and cluing, etc. But I’m not objecting. If it weren’t for the lack of a “true” locked room (only an assault later in the book qualifies, as the attacker seems to vanish into thin air, but it is a minor part of the plot) I would probably say it was the most Halter-like Halter. But as it is, it’s just a very good mystery. Recommended, particularly for those new to Halter.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Silent Nights (2015) by Martin Edwards

This isn’t late. It’s actually very early.

For years now, the British Library has been republishing older mysteries and helping to fuel a public interest in this esteemed genre and its history. Martin Edwards has been consulting them in this, and has edited a number of short story collections. This is one of them. Silent Nights is a collection of Christmas mysteries by a variety of authors from the Golden Age. Now, I’ve reviewed anthologies before and they tend to be pretty hit or miss, since you have a bunch of separate stories linked by a vague theme and little else. Thankfully, this one is actually good.

We kick off with “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” by Arthur Conan Doyle, a requirement in any Christmas mystery anthology. Blah blah man’s dinner is stolen, blah blah there’s a jewel in it, you know how this goes. Reading over it, it’s pretty slight; Holmes knows most of what happened from early on, it’s just a matter of tracking down where the goose came from, and he and Watson stumble into the thief by accident. It's more notable for the ending, which plays with an idea you see a lot of in mystery fiction but with a pure pragmatic humanitarian motive rather than sympathy.

Next up is the little known “Parlor Tricks” by Ralph Plummer. From the intro I assumed it would be a locked room story, but it’s not, really. It's about a magician and his audience as they try and challenge him, so more of an expose of magic tricks with a twist at the end. It’s simple and well-done, not much more to say (although I doubt at least one of the explanations).

Raymond Allen’s “A Happy Solution” is just that, the most Christmassy story in the collection. A young woman finds herself accused of trying to swipe some money and pass it off in a love letter, and the usual coincidences make it look bad for her. Luckily, the rat responsible is obvious, but he claims he was watching a chess game, which apparently was so engrossing that no one would notice him getting up and walking away. He was able to give an account of the game, but could he have deduced what happened?

Obviously, yes. This is one of those “reverse chess” problems (where you have a position and have to figure out how it ended up that way) and while I’m sure it’s very interesting to those who like chess, it didn’t do much for me.

Next up is G.K. Chesterton's “The Flying Stars.” This one takes its sweet time getting to the crime, with both it and the resolution happening one after the other. But the build-up to the inevitable theft of the titular stars by the thief Flambeau is easy and well-done, and there’s even an excellent theological and moral point made that doesn’t feel forced or shoehorned, always a risk with these types of stories. Is it fair? I’m not sure. Is the reveal of what you just witnessed fun? Very much so. Must check more of these stories out.

Edgar Wallace's “Stuffing” is more or less “The Blue Carbuncle,” just with stupider names. Seriously, where did he come up with half of them? It moves quickly and has some good description, but was the main disappointment of this collection.

Next up is an anticipated one, H.C. Bailey's “The Unknown Murderer.” This is actually oddly grim for a Christmas story. It opens happily with Reggie Fortune (reluctantly and with much griping) being dragged to a charity event for orphans, but things get dark when a doctor has her throat slashed during the event. And then a child is poisoned….

I’m not sure what I think. On the one hand, it flowed well, there was tension, etc. Yet I’m not sure. Reggie pulls together a connection between events not because the facts point to it, but because this is a mystery so they have to be connected. Nick Fuller claims it’s fairly clued, you just aren't walked step-by-step through the logic.I believe him, but I think I’m still iffy on Mr. Fortune.

J. Jefferson Farjeon, the man who started this British Library crime craze with Mystery in White, is up next with “The Absconding Treasure” in which the creatively named Detective Crook investigates theft done by an apparently loyal toyshop employee. The man is found murdered in the woods, and the identity of the killer is no great shock. A nice, simple story.

Dorothy L. Sayers comes next with “The Necklace of Pearls” which goes down at the estate of a traditional man who likes playing traditional games, but someone took advantage of the fun to swipe his daughter’s pearl necklace. And to make matters more interesting, it can’t be found on the guests or on the grounds. Yes, it’s an impossible theft!

Well, a minor one, but I appreciate it. The answer to where the pearls are hidden is good, and I think Sayers could have clued it a bit more and been fine. The whodunit element is weak, there are too many suspects for a story this short, and Whimsey doesn’t even figure out who was responsible via some genius detection, but just setting up a trap. But it’s still good, on the whole.

Next up is another reread, Margery Allingham’s “The Case is Altered.” Albert Campion is invited to a large Christmas party, but is distracted when his womanizing friend Lance thinks he’s got a letter asking for a meeting from that cute girl in the train on the way in. Even Campion can’t deny that she looked afraid, but why Lance? And why does she want to meet with him?

Like “The Flying Stars,” this one takes some time before getting to any crime, but unlike that story which made clear what was going to happen early, this one takes a tad too long to get to the point. I read this story once already in another Christmas mystery collection and didn’t care much for it, and while this re-read improved my opinion a bit it’s still a tad too slow, and with an obvious culprit. Even Campion admits that the first real clue only comes about five pages from the end! I’ll acknowledge that the reason for the note is clever, however.

Next up is more of a suspense story. “Waxworks” by Ethel Lina White stars a reporter who decides to write an piece about the power of superstition and fear by spending the night in the titular waxworks, where two people have already been found dead. This can in no way go wrong, especially with a possibly murderous coworker lurking in the wings…

Not mystery, but suspense. I freely admit I read this story in a crowded restaurant which may have killed some of the atmosphere, but it was still a good, suspenseful story that didn’t go the way I thought it would, which is always a pleasant surprise. Good story, on the whole.

Next up is Marjorie Bowen’s “Cambric Tea.” Like before, this is more suspense than mystery, as a doctor is called in to the house of a minor lord who’s convinced his wife is poisoning him with her tea. The problem? Said wife was the doctor’s fiancee way back when, so even if she’s responsible (which he isn’t sure of) he may not know what to do about it…

This is actually a pretty good Gothic, with good tension throughout. Where it falls short is in pacing; the plot behind the scenes is revealed too early, and while there is still some mystery about the identity of who’s giving the poison, it becomes too obvious. The resolution also falls a bit flat, being resolved not through the ingenuity of the protagonists, but because a character has a change of heart when he has given no indication that he would have one. But I enjoyed it.

Next up is Joseph Shearing...better known as Marjorie Bowen. Yes, she’s back, this time with “The Chinese Apple.” By all appearances, this is more of a somber story, as a woman makes the painful trek back to her childhood home to pick up her niece. This sparks a rather emotional and honest conversation between the two women, and while this an interesting and tense in its own way, it reveals the game too early. I think that once that element comes in, the reader can see what’s coming. But the ending twist remains good, nonetheless.

We get back into mystery with a good three-story send-off. The first is Nicholas Blake’s “A Problem in White.” The set-up is almost mockingly classic: A snowbound train filled with total strangers--or are they?-- sit around griping and clashing, and when one rebellious soul decides to just walk away he’s found suffocated in the snow. And it’s all very fair too, to the point that the end of the collection details the solution with labeled clues. Which is to the story’s benefit and detriment.

On the one hand, the clues aren't generic, simple things; you do have to read the story and actually pay attention to events and make inferences if you want to solve it, but it is possible to just stumble on something that you know is a clue and solve the whole thing because it only points to one person. I would know because that’s how I solved it. Admittedly not the whole thing, because there are more twists than just whodunit, but it’s an irritating short-circuit.

Next up is Edmund Crispin’s “The Name on the Window.” I read “Beware of the Trains” a while back and while it didn’t suit me for one reason or another, this was much better, combining the dying message with the impossible crime!

The victim this time is an architect who takes a bet to spend some time in the pavilion on his estate, rumored to be haunted by ghosts, because of course it is. He’s barely in there a few minutes when the alarm bell rings, promoting the guests to head out there, where they discover him lying the floor with a stiletto in his back! Unlike most victims of murder, he was kind enough to scrawl the name of his killer,  an ex-Luftwaffe man his daughter is in love with, on a dust-covered window. He’s even nice enough to confirm that yes, he wrote it and yes he meant it before dying. But the issue that brings Inspector Humbleby to Fen is the fact that the floor was coated in dust, and only the victim’s footprints were there!

Needless to say it doesn’t take Fen long to see through the illusion, chiding Humbleby (and the reader!) that he has “Locked rooms on the brain.” The solution is simple and elegant, and the twist behind the dying message well-handled. The only issue is that the motive is only spelled out on the last page, but unlike “The Necklace of Pearls,” the suspect list is short enough so that it doesn’t matter.

The collection wraps up with Leo Bruce’s “Beef for Christmas,” which left me wanting more of a taste of these stories. Beef, a private detective, is invited to the home of a rich man who’s been receiving threatening letters. It seems that like most Golden Age patriarchs, he’s threatening to leave his children with no money, but it’s not because he’s a spendthrift; he’s a major spender who might blow through all of his wealth long before his family can even get a taste of it. It’s a cruel form of torment, and it’s no surprise that a couple of days after the arrival of Beef and his Watson that someone is found hanging in an upstairs room, an apparent suicide.

It’s not, as Beef quickly demonstrates. He also quickly brings the crime home to a cruel killer, and shows Bruce’s skill at cluing in the process. Multiple parts of the story combine to bring the story to a close in a way that reminded me of the best Hoch stores and I loved every moment of it. Only a slight lack of fair-play keeps it down, but it inspired me to seek out more of these.

All in all, this is an excellent little collection of winter murders. They don’t all show their authors at the top of their game, but there are only a few clunkers and many excellent brainteasers. Recommended.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Favorite Sleuths (1965) by John Ernest

At last, a mystery anthology that isn’t terrible.

I’m not sure of the background behind Favorite Sleuths, other than that it was composed by someone named John Ernest. The book is a collection of numerous classic sleuths. Ellery Queen. Miss Marple. The Saint. Tommy Hambledon.

Yeah I don’t know who he is either. But let’s not waste any more time.

First up is Ellery Queen with “Object Lesson.” The setup is almost too mundane for a Great Detective, as he’s been invited to a classroom to give a lecture on the futility of crime in hopes of scaring straight a trio of juvenile delinquents responsible for petty robberies. Of course, he arrives to find that there’s been another robbery from the teacher herself, namely that of an envelope with money for another teacher. So the lecture becomes a demonstration of crime solving techniques, but one where Ellery nearly ends up the fool, as the envelope containing the money vanishes, in spite of a search.

While an impossibility is always fun, this one is a little weak. The location of the money is clever, yes, but we’re never really granted a chance to see when the hiding occurs, and it’s all based on Ellery not doing a very specific thing. Considering how the thief was operating on a strict time limit, this makes sense, but even so. The “whodunit” aspect is also a little arbitrary. But the story is quick fun.

Next up is Philip MacDonald not with Colonel Anthony Gethryn but with Doctor Alcazar“who had no right to the name and even less to the title.” The good doctor is a fortune teller who one day gets a nervous client who refuses to give her answer in detail, even after some cold reading, but does admit her sister is at risk of being betrayed. But with no further info, the good doctor takes her pay and watches her leave...and reads in the newspaper later that she was murdered.

Not much of a mystery here, admittedly: the killer soon becomes obvious, with the only real twist being the cruelty of their plan. The main joy of this story is watching Alcazar unleash a never ending stream of bull to get what he wants. He strikes a good balance between scammer and charming rogue: He’s solving this case for the reward money, but doesn’t exploit the loved ones of the victim to do it. My main issue is that he never runs into an actual obstacle, he just blows over everything in his way with little effort. I’d like to read more of him, but apparently he only starred in one other story.

Next up is Dorothy L. Sayers with “The Adventurous Exploit of the Cave of Ali Baba.” Oddly, this isn’t much of a mystery, more revolving around the exploits of a secret society of thieves and how Whimsey (presumed dead at the beginning but I highly doubt that’s a spoiler) takes them down. It’s good, but like the other Sayers story I’ve reviewed, very arch and polite and British, beyond vague implications of the group’s tortures. And the fate of the leader, geez. Maybe Jigsaw read this story for inspiration?

“A Window for Death” is Rex Stout’s entry, and it plays the whodunit game….and the howdunit one. David Fife comes to Wolfe with a case of maybe-maybe-not murder. His estranged brother had returned, now a rich man thanks to a uranium discovery, but soon expired from a bad case of pneumonia. Nothing major, but another brother has become convinced it was murder, based on some empty hot water bags, but how can one arrange death by pneumonia in a New York apartment?

I’ve read one Wolfe story before this, but this worked quite a bit better. Considering how much of the story is taken up with people saying “This isn’t murder.” over and over, it flows well. The whodunit aspect is a bit weaker however, with what I almost swear is a contradiction is Wolfe’s reasoning.

“The Case of the Perfect Maid” is Christie’s contribution, and is one of the later Miss Marple stories. This time, the problem is a purely domestic one for the old maid of fiction, as her maid notes that a relative has been fired from her job due to a minor issue requiring Marple to go in and preserve her job. The employers have little interest, as they’ve found a wonderful new maid, perfect in every way….

Obviously, this is a simple enough story, with a solution that will seem familiar to the Christie fan, but it's still nice, relaxed piece of detection. Which of course just makes it all the more irritating when the back cover gives the crime away. Not the solution, but the crime itself, which considering how much of the story is build-up to said crime, is quite an offense.

Leslie Charteris with Simon “The Saint” Templar is up next with mostly unexplored territory in mystery fiction: The Loch Ness Monster. The Saint finds himself drawn into this old Scottish mystery when animals start turning up mutilated, resulting in him rooming with a pair of Nessie enthusiasts. Of course, there’s a human hand behind it all, and while the story is well-told, the solution won’t bring any surprises (and in fact, in the height of my arrogance, I'll state that my solution was much more unexpected!)

The next two stories have one thing in common: They both have premises that John Dickson Carr would drool at and they’re both disappointing. Mannings Coles’ “Handcuffs Don’t Hold Ghosts” has a group of ghost hunters vanish during a live radio broadcast of their investigation of a seemingly haunted estate. Sadly, the explanation is simple, lacking any real deduction.

Albert Campion stars in Margery Allingham’s “The Man in the Window.” The titular man is an actor, well-known for sitting in the same chair at the same window at the same club for years. He practically lives in the chair...and then dies in it, of totally natural causes. A time of sadness for all, but the body is barely removed and the papers have barely been circulated when he shows up again, alive and well.

Again, an interesting premise, and there’s more deductions than in the previous story, but the story is a little too simple for my tastes.

Next up is Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason in “The Case of the Crying Swallow.” The longest story in the collection kicks off with a colonel coming to Mason to set up a defense for his wife. It seems that valuable jewelry was stolen, shortly after said wife insisted on cutting off the insurance. Now she’s vanished, leaving only a cryptic message behind, cuing Mason’s investigation.

This is actually my first experience with a Perry Mason story, and man, it was fun. No courtroom drama here, just Mason investigating and trying to decipher a cryptic note with the help of the small army he apparently has on call to investigate every lead that comes up. Not to mention beholding his probably unlawyery behaviors. You see, when most men stumble on a dead body that their client might be implicated in, they call the police and go from there. Perry Mason is not most men. Perry Mason wipes his fingerprints (and when called out on destroying evidence just hand waves and says, “Eh, I’m sure the killer did it already.”), then finds his client, and only then does he report anything.

Considering how fun the the story is, it disappoints me somewhat to note that the detection isn’t as good as it could be. It's more about watching the gradual unraveling of events then true detection, with the final summation coming out in a rush, and with the killer barely getting any page time. But it was so much fun that I’m hoping the rest of the novels are like that.

The final story of the collection is also my first encounter with H. C. Bailey, “The Little Dog.” Bailey's Reggie Fortune is called in to give his opinion of the death of the black sheep of a family who was found drowned in a boathouse, although the victim was kind enough to tie his legs beforehand (in fairness, the idea is that he did so in order to avoid instinctively swimming to the surface, but still). While Fortune can’t officially say it was murder, he was reason to think so, especially the matter of the dog he found near-death outside the boathouse…

After hearing so much about Bailey (thank you Nick Fuller), I was worried that he had been overhyped for me. This story actually worked well, with plenty of logical deduction...in the first bit. At the three-quarters mark we suddenly take a hard right into Victorian melodrama land, with shootings and suicide as our finale. It’s never even explained how Fortune came to his conclusions. But I still enjoyed it, and am cautiously optimistic for more.

On the whole, an enjoyable little anthology. Sadly, while the stories are of even quality, nothing really excels or stands out, and it’s not a must get. But if you can find it cheaply or in a library, it’s Recommended, with caveats.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Chapter and Hearse (1985) by Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller

One of these days, I’ll learn to skip mystery anthologies. And there's a few books with this exact title, which shouldn't surprise me.

Chapter and Hearse is a collection of mystery stories by Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller revolving around books. Normally I wouldn’t bother with these sorts of things, as experience has taught me that these sort of multi-author anthologies aren’t usually worth my time, but I’m a bibliomaniac and there were a few authors I recognized in it. Sadly, it wasn’t to my taste as will be shown by the quick and to the point review.

The collection opens with “The Missing Shakespeare Manuscript” by Lillian de la Torre, part of a series starring Dr. Sam: Johnson (I swear the colon is there), the guy who made the dictionary and Sherlock Holmes before there was Sherlock Holmes (he even has someone who follows him around and writes about everything he does). The plot revolves around a lost Shakespeare manuscript, which is stolen and ransomed back to the owner. The plot is exactly what you would expect from that summary.

“The Man Who Collected Poe” by Robert Bloch (of Psycho fame) is more of a horror story than anything, as a nameless narrator is invited to the home of the latest in a family of Poe fanatics. The collection is vast indeed, from little known stories to letters from Poe, to a dark, dreadful secret in the family vault. It’s well-done, and a very Poe-esque tale.

“The Penny-a-Worder” is a Cornell Woolrich story that forgoes his usual DOOM GLOOM DOOM in favor of a light-hearted story about a pulp writer who has a night to write up a story and make it (comparatively) big. It’s more of a comedy than anything, and even the twist is played for laughs instead of NEVERENDING DESPAIR which is what you normally get in Woolrich. Good fun, I just wish he’d gone into a little more detail about the process, because I get the impression he knew it very well.

But did couples talk like that? In any era?

“Clerical Error” by James Gould Cozzens is a short-short about a bookseller who’s confronted by an angry colonel, who wants to question why the family of his reverend brother are getting a bill for pornographic books. It’s a simple story, but it needed a few more pages to set up the twist and resolution.

“Murder Walks In Marble Halls” by Lawrence G. Blochman (he of  Dr. Coffee fame) is the longest story in the collection.  This stars a worker at the New York Public Library who ends up digging into the murder of one of the trustees. Also, the flap lies about this story, saying that the victim was shot to death, in truth he’s shot at but is actually stabbed to death. Poor form. It’s an interesting story, but a tad too long for my tastes, and the cluing is weak. The description of the library is neat, however, though I had trouble visualizing everything (which may have been why I thought it was weak, I had a hard time figuring out where everything was).

Nedra Tyre’s “Reflections on Murder” is the story that must be included in every anthology: The one that makes you wonder why it’s in the anthology. It’s a short tale, about a narrator who befriends an old woman and the fallout from it, but everything happens too fast and with little warning, such as the protagonist’s actions. And barring the opening monologue and the protagonist’s love of books, it doesn’t even really fit the theme.

“The Adventure of the Spurious Tamerlane” is an August Derleth story starring Solor Pons, who’s totally not inspired by Sherlock Holmes no sir. This time, Pons is called to a bookseller who wants to report someone who left a collection of Poe stories at his bookshop (forged, as Pons discovers). It’s in the tradition of the Holmes stories, in that it’s not so much a fair mystery, so much as it is a chance to watch Pons show his stuff. It’s good. (Also, the back flap gives things away again.)

Lawrence Block steps up with “One Thousand Dollars A Word," a story about an underpaid magazine writer who becomes fascinated with the phrase, “One thousand dollars a word.” A decent short, not much else.

Anthony Boucher steps up next with “QL.696," one of his stories starring the alcoholic ex-cop Nick Nobel, who contributes his wisdom to the unraveling of the shooting of a librarian who left the title behind as a dying message. Sadly, if you don’t have the information on hand, you have no chance of figuring it out.

And then the heavens part and Edward D. Hoch presents “Murder at the Bouchercon,” a refreshing puzzle story that takes place at Bouchercon XIV, where the topic of discussion is the works of the late Conrad Kazer. His works have been tied up for years, but an agent thinks she might be able to get her hands on them. Cue Hoch’s mystery writer protagonist stumbling on her stabbed body in her hotel room, with only the dying message “Kazer con” to go on.

Like I said, this is a pretty solid puzzle plot, fairly presented. One of these days, I should do a post on why I like Hoch so much, but I think it’s because he does solid puzzle plots, and pretty consistently as well. Admittedly, there are perhaps one too many twists, but it’s all done quite well. And all those cameos!

Next up is “Seven Degrees of Ambiguity” by Shirley Jackson. This is a more toned-down story than what’s come before, with a young boy hanging out in a basement bookshop when a couple come to look at books. The preface says that this story is quite ambiguous, and indeed it was, so ambiguous that I had no idea what had just happened, mainly because I expected more of a climax. A re-read (and some double checking on Google) confirmed that what I thought just happened had happened, but I had expected more from the author of “The Lottery”. But that’s on me.

Dorothy L. Sayers comes next with “The Dragon’s Head”, in which Lord Peter’s nephew, who has one of the most disgustingly British names ever, Viscount St. George, buys a book which seems to be the target of unknown parties. It’s a fun little story, even if it was so British that I felt a monocle growing out of my skull while reading.

Also: The part where the nephew elevates Lord Peter from “Quite Decent Uncle” to “Glorified Uncle” when he whips out a gun is both accurate to ten-twelve year old boys and got a chuckle out of me.

Next up is “The Great American Novel” by R.L. Stevens, a penname of...Edward D. Hoch! Yes, he gets two stories in this collection, and I’m quite happy about that. This time, the protagonist is an editor digging through slush piles, which from what I gather are unsolicited manuscripts, in hopes of finding the next great novel. Then he stumbles across one, but the author is more of a recluse than Thomas Pynchon and willing to go to great lengths to keep his identity secret….

This isn’t as much of a traditional mystery as “Murder at the Bouchercon”, but still fun, with a neat plan and not only a least-likely-culprit, but a least-likely detective. Sadly, the cluing is weak, with the main clue being vague and delivered about two pages from the reveal.

Ellery Queen steps up next with “Mystery at the Library of Congress” which I kept reading as “Murder” for some reason. This time, Ellery is called in to help break up a drug ring, whose member are passing along contact information via book titles. It’s a pure logic puzzle, as Ellery has to figure out who the intended contact is, and unlike some stories of this ilk the amount of special knowledge needed is very small.

One of our editors, Bill Pronzini, steps up with “A Craving for Originality”. It stars the aptly-named Hackman, an author without an ounce of originality in him, whose realization of this and the “hack life” he’s living triggers a bout of writer’s block...and an obsession with originality. It’s a decent story, almost sad, though the climax perhaps comes a bit too quickly.

The collection wraps up with “Chapter and Verse” by Ngaio Marsh, a story which holds the honor of being the only Marsh short I’ve read (out of three) that I’ve actually liked. A man comes to see Inspector Alleyn's wife, Troy, to show a Bible off to her husband. There are dates indicating the deaths of previous owner, and the each has a verse that implies that they died through some kind of judgement. Sadly, before he can get his audience he gets shoved off a church tower.

Compared to the other Marsh’s I’ve read, this flows at a pretty brisk pace, no bogging the story down with interviews or taking forever to get to the action. The cluing is a little weak, but there, and the killer is a surprise. Full marks all around.

Sadly I can’t really rec this collection on the whole. It never really breaks beyond “good”, and most of the stores probably wouldn’t appeal to the fan of classic mysteries. That said, if you find it cheap or in a library, give a try. Not Recommended.

Monday, September 24, 2018

The Vampire Tree (1996/2016) by Paul Halter

I’m a little unsure of this one, honestly.

The Vampire Tree is Locked Room International’s twelfth translation of Paul Halter’s work. The first mistake they made was naming it that instead of naming it by its far superior French title, The Tree With The Twisted Fingers.

The book is less of a whodunit, and more of a Gothic thriller. Patricia Squibby, a nurse, has just married Roger Sheridan, presumably to escape her horrible name. While on the way to her husband's house, Patricia is left stranded at a train station due to a conversation with the weird horror movie victim (this part comes later) Thomas Fleming. During her wait, she learns from a kid about a child killer stalking the town, a killer that leaves shockingly little blood at his crime scenes.

Adding to the general creepiness of her stay is the Sheridan ancestral home she’s living in, which has a vicious, gnarled tree dragging against the window. Not to mention the fact that it was the hanging site and burial ground of an unfortunately named witch, Liza Gribble, who was rumored to keep herself young via a steady diet of children’s blood (which as wee all know, is quite rich in protein). Also not helping the atmosphere is the mysterious death that took place under that tree, many moons ago…

Patricia is shown a diary that belonged to Lavina, a woman who lived in the house years ago. One night after a party, her fiance Eric made some ambiguous comments about someone not liking him, before Lavina went to bed. After having a nightmare of the creepy tree right outside her window, she awoke to find him strangled outside under the tree, with no footprints in the snow. Patricia decides to look deeper into the case, and finds herself drawn more and more into Lavina's mind...

The first part of the novel mainly focuses on Patricia, Roger, and their circle of friends and acquaintances, such as David, a sculptor who is assigned the task of sculpting a wood carving of Patricia, Maude, a painter and friend of Roger (who may or may not harbor feelings of jealousy towards Patricia) and even the obligatory sin-hating reverend who creeps in people’s yards, crucifix in hand. They’re all idiots to one degree or another.

In fairness, not every single one of them are fools. One or two escape the plot unscathed, but the vast majority of the plot is driven by people being stupid. One person jokingly tells the police of their suspicions of another person, and are surprised when the police actually take the claim seriously. Another flat-out knows, or at least heavily suspects, the killer’s identity, but refuses to say for….reasons. As JJ points out in his own review, there are some good moments between the cast, such as the confrontation of Patricia and Maude, but the effect is rather diminished when the rest of the plot is driven by madness.

The mystery, sadly, isn’t all that redeeming. The resolution of the past narrative is a bit perfunctory, and while it works it’s a tad bit of an anti-climax. Not to mention the idea that you can make an accurate diagnosis of someone from a few snippets from a diary of an outside observer. The modern day as well is...weak. It’s clued, I suppose, but only really in retrospect: Once you know what happened and why, you can look back and see the clues, but I would be impressed if anyone was able to piece it together from what we’re shown in the book.

It annoys me, because the ending made me want to like the book. It edges into disturbing territory that I don’t object to seeing explored, and the reveal of what that circle in the snow near the bodies was and what it was used for is certainly creepy. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that some director of Italian giallo movies had lifted this particular plot point. It touches on elements that I find both creepy and fascinating. Even the bleak ending didn’t shake me, partially because I knew it was coming and partially because I don’t mind the occasional dark ending in my fiction, as long as it isn’t spiteful. This ending avoided that.

But in the end I can't find myself able to recommend this. Again, I got the impression that Halter was going for more of a Gothic horror tale in this one, but the tale is weak and lacks even the over-the-top melodrama of such tales. Heck, no one has much response to a child killer running around the village! I would expect police to be scattered on every corner, but no one has a response. Not even the parents of the cruelly murdered children have much, if any, screentime. I don’t expect Halter to play to his weaknesses in characterization, but I would expect an acknowledgement of the pain and agony that these parents must be going through.

All in all, there are better Halter’s out there that are much more worth your time. Not recommended.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

A Midsummer's Equation (2016) by Keigo Higashino

Finally, a Higsahino book review!
 
Like I mentioned in my review of Galileo, I like Higashino, and it isn’t just because I’m a Japanophile. I do think he makes an honest effort at blending the traditional fair-play mystery novel with the more character focused and driving style so popular today, and I enjoy it, even if some people can’t appreciate it. (Just kidding JJ, we all love you, or will when you apologize for what happened in Vegas. :P ) So when A Midsummer's Equation came out I was looking forward to another round of Higashino, but sadly this one rattles a tad too much.
 
The story takes place at Hari Cove, a seaside resort town on the verge of plunging into an economic black hole due to lack of tourism. Hope has come in the form of DESMEC, a company that wants to drill for the abundant natural resources in the area, which could give Japan a much needed boost in that area. While many are happy for the possible economic boost, there are others who oppose the environmental destruction it will bring. One of these is Natsuki, a young woman helping out at her parent’s inn. While attending an informational meeting hosted by DESMEC, she witnesses an old man nod at her...and unknown to her, that man is our novel’s victim of the week.
 
During the night, the body is discovered, smashed against the rocks on the other side of a seawall. The local police assume he got drunk and fell, but they discover that the victim was an ex-cop, meaning that his colleagues will have to be contacted. But when they take a look at the scene, they come to a different conclusion and demand an autopsy. The result leaves no doubt: Carbon monoxide poisoning.
 
From here, the narrative begins dividing itself between multiple parties. There’s the local investigation into the victim’s death, which is frustrated by the lack of any place where the poisoning could have been done. There’s also an investigation into the background of the victim, carried out by detectives Kusanagi and Utsumi (who both appeared in the previous novel, Salvation of a Saint), sparked by the fact that, among other information the victim payed a visit to the former home of a convicted murderer at Hari Cove in the past. There’s also Yukawa’s investigation at the town itself, and the narrative of Kouhei, a young boy sent to live with his aunt and uncle, owners of a local inn, and who Yukawa befriends.* Not to mention all the other characters.
 
This does cause problems for the narrative, as the whole thing gets a bit bogged down in all these plotlines. The characters are often keeping information from one another, and this results in a slightly bogged down story, especially when dealing with both investigations and more Japanese names I can’t seem to keep apart. This sounds like a petty complaint, and if the plot were more engaging it would be, but compared to what else I’ve read it’s a bit of a let down.
 
The problem is that the plot is too telegraphed. Most of the twists were, to me, quite obvious and easy to see coming. Even the final set of twists fell flat, at least compared to the wham-bang of books like Malice. In fairness, the cluing is there, and you can figure out what happened on the night of the murder, but the path to it is simply blah. The background also isn’t made use of, with the DESMEC idea fading by around the halfway mark. While I’m happy that Higashino didn’t take this chance to soapbox (too much, but he’s quite even-handed), I still wished that this played more of a role in the mystery.
 
All and all, this was one of the more disappointing reads. I admit, part of it was because of the expectations I had since this was a Higashino novel, but it does fall a little flat. It’s technically competent and well-written, but a tad too obvious and sadly, that results in a bit of a slog. Not Recommended.
 
*Oddly, this isn't the case in the show, where Yukawa hates kids. This has nothing to with anything, as the idea that a TV show will emulate the books is madness, but even so, this surprised me.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Spy Who Read Latin, and Other Stories (1990/2013) by Edward D Hoch

You know, I’ve had this collection and others on my Kindle for years. I should really actually bother
to use it.
 
Edward D. Hoch has been mentioned here before, many moons ago, but almost always in the context of his Dr. Sam Hawthorne series. Considering his large output, it should surprise no one that Hoch also had many other series characters, dabbling in other genres. Such as Westerns with Ben Snow, capers with Nick Velvet, and the target of this review, espionage with C. Jeffrey Rand.
 
(Notice how TomCat has reviewed the former two but not the latter. I’m catching up.)
 
The Spy Who Read Latin, and Other Stories is a short collection of Rand stories, with the common thread being the clashes between Rand, of Concealed Communications under the British government, and his Russian counterpart, Taz. The Rand stories are a mix of spy story and mystery story, with the spy aspect sometimes having a firmer grip on the story, but I personally didn’t mind, because Hoch did a good job at balancing the two.
 
The first story, "The Spy Who Came to the Brink" is more of a spy story. Rand is tipped off that a two-bit actor was witnessed making a wax copy of a lock to a room containing British codebooks. A quick investigation confirms that he’s a suspected Commie, so Rand goes to intercept...but is beaten to the punch by an assassin, who guns the would-be thief down. All well and good, but the issue arrives when the assassin is found to have Russian connections. Why would the Russians kill a freelancer offering them access to British codebooks? As I stated, this is more of a spy story than a flat-out mystery. You’ll either grasp the solution or you won’t, but it’s a clever solution that can be reached with a fair bit of thinking.
 
It should be noted that Taz doesn’t show up in person in this story, but is mentioned.
 
“The Spy Who Read Latin” has the first true meeting between Taz and Rand, but it’s as reluctant allies. A missionary priest has composed a document detailing the inner workings of China’s Communist Party, which is of great interest to Britain and Russia alike. However, the priest was murdered and now his manuscript is in the possession of an associate who’s willing to sell it to the highest bidder. Rand accepts, but can he trust Taz?
 
This is more of a mystery than the previous entry, with a hit-and-run thrown in near the end, and with a few good plot twists. The risk of trusting Taz is well-done, and it works as an espionage story.
 
“The Spy Who Travelled with a Coffin” is the most densely plotted story in the collection. Rand is being brought in to negotiate the release of an American who has found himself in Russian custody under suspicion of espionage. The man's wife insists that he’s been out of the Army for some time, but he confesses to trying to transmit information about a missile to Russian enemies. But that’s not the only plot thread.
 
The story opens with a Turkish assassin gunning down a Japanese reporter, but by dumb luck another man took the fatal bullet. Said reporter becomes part of an entourage of Rand, the wife of the captive man, a CIA man, and a woman and her companion...who are travelling with a coffin. And it doesn’t contain what you think it does. There is a corpse involved, as the reporter is shot to death in mid-flight!
 
I admit, this story feels a tad crowded. The plot threads are all resolved in a bit of a jumble at the conclusion, with Taz’s agenda thrown in for good measure. But in fairness everything is clear, it’s just all delivered at once. The explanation for the espionage is fair, and even those who don’t know the needed information can at least guess at the broad picture of what happened. The murder of the week is also well-done, with a clever double bluff, as well as a good motive for murder. But those are some of the worst Japanese names I’ve ever heard/read.
 
Interesting note: Rand mentions two previous meetings with Taz, one in East Berlin, another in Paris. When did that first one happen?
 
“The Spy Who Collected Lapel Pins” is a hard story to summarize, because it’s almost a pure espionage story. A retired Taz is semi-forcibly recruited by government agents to help deal with an author who has defected from the Soviet Union. Their method involves pretending to have Taz offer microdots in a collection of lapel pins that contain the author’s manuscripts...but of course, there’s more to it than that, and I shall not spoil it. Hoch isn’t the best at wringing pathos out of his stories, but this is a good effort, with an excellent finale.
 
The collection wraps up with “The Spy Who Came Back From the Dead”. Taz has been MIA after the events of the previous story, and Rand has assumed that the two would never meet again...but it seems that Taz has resurfaced for Taz II: The Revenge.
 
Members of the “Tsar Network," a group of Russian spies whose code names were based on the Tsars of Russia, are being systematically murdered one by one, their throats slit. The first victim left the dying message “Taz,” and since Rand is the man who knew Taz best, he’s dragged in to stop the murders.
 
This is a straight murder mystery story, with little espionage elements. It’s good, and the dying message is clever and simple, but Hoch is a little too obvious with the meaning. It’s not a thud, but it is a bit of thump. But a poor Hoch is still worth your time, if just to observe the construction of his stories.
 
This isn’t a poor Hoch however. My main complaint is that it’s a tad short, the five stories are good, but some might not think it worth it. However, I do think that it’s a solid collection, and if you’re a fan of Hoch it’s Recommended. Even if you’re not, I’d still say it’s a good way to get into Hoch.