Monday, May 18, 2020

The Man Who Read Mysteries (2018) by William Brittain (edited by Josh Pachter)

And there goes the name of my future autobiography...

While lurking among mystery fans, one name that I noticed coming up a bit in regards to the mystery short story was William Brittain. Brittain was a teacher, a writer of Young Adult novels (including The Wish Giver, which is apparently pretty well-known and also a book I’d only vaguely heard of), and writer of mystery short stories. I had only read one story of his before this, “The Impossible Footprint” in The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries by Mike Ashley. This was far from his only story, but there was no place to find them beyond anthologies and digging your way through old mystery magazines. Now, this has changed.

The Man Who Read Mysteries is a collection of Brittain’s stories edited by Josh Pachter. It collects all of his “The X Who Read” stories, as well as a few of his stories starring Leonard Strang, a teacher. While I admit that I hoped to see more of the Mr. Strang stories here, what we have is excellent. The collection opens with “The X Who Read” stories, stories based on other mystery authors, running the gamut from whodunits to code cracking stories to reverse whodunits like “The Man Who Read John Dickson Carr.”

Edgar Gault is a young man who also, much to his uncle’s future sorrow, happens to be a fan of the great John Dickson Carr. Edgar is filled with love both for Carr and for his uncle’s money, meaning that when the latter is going to be cut off, he takes action to kill his uncle. He comes up with a simple, but workable locked room trick...And I won’t spoil how it works out. It’s a very amusing little story.

“The Man Who Read Ellery Queen” takes place in a nursing home where one of the new residents expresses his desire to solve a crime just like Ellery Queen does...and gets his chance when one resident accuses the other of stealing his coin. The other man agrees to be strip-searched and no trace of the coin is found, but our hero is able to use logic to find the coin. I’m not sure that the hiding place would have been undiscovered, but the logic is solid. It’s a little less fair today than it would have been back then, but it’s still good.

“The Man Who Couldn’t Read” has two men, Monty and Ford, out in the woods doing some repair work on the former’s house, since the darkroom he wanted constructed has an extra door to the outside on it. The two get to work bricking the door up, and Ford is happy that Monty is willing to call on him. After all, Ford did accidentally kill Monty’s wife sometime back while driving, but it was ruled an accident and Monty believes in letting bygones be bygones…although you can probably tell where this story will end up. I do think that Brittain had to make Ford a little more repulsive than hinted at the last second to make his fate feel fitting as opposed to disproportionate, considering how vicious it is.

“The Woman Who Read Rex Stout” is set among a traveling carnival sideshow and stars the fat woman of the show. Gert Jellison was given one of the Nero Wolfe books as a joke by the show’s owner, but she’s become a big fan of the obese detective since. The skills she’s learned reading the books come in handy when the snake charmer is found strangled to death. The story is good, but there’s one moment that screams “I AM THE KILLER,” and it isn’t well integrated into the story at all.

“The Boy Who Read Agatha Christie” is more of a “what is going on” story than anything else. A group of college students invade a small town and begin doing bizarre good deeds or just things that irritate and annoy but that aren’t actually illegal. The local police chief is baffled, but the exchange student he’s housing sees what’s happening. While it’s not fully fair play, since some of the information is learned offstage, there’s still a clever scheme going on here. And kudos to Brittain for using a similar plot to an Agatha Christie novel without showing off and spoiling by name-dropping said novel.

“The Man Who Read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle” opens with the editor of a small-town newspaper receiving a mysterious letter purporting to be from an old college friend...but that’s only one of the many bizarre and incorrect details in the letter. He tries to call the woman mentioned in the letter, but she hangs up on him and later he gets a visit from a government agent, dragging this small-town man into an international incident.

The U.S. government has been dealing with an unnamed country to ensure their support in the Cold War. However, certain agents are intending to pass on a list of American spies to their country's government as a public relations coup. The U.S. government knows that the list is being transported in a box on a ship, but they will only have two minutes to take the list and the box is locked with a lettered combination lock that will set off a smoke bomb if the wrong code is imputed. The only thing that the government knows is that the code is consecutive (ABC, DEF, etc.). The letter writer was an American mole in the group, but he was unable to include the code, but did give a hint of it in the letter. The solution is perfect; excellent, totally fair, and groan-inducing. Full credit to Brittian for this one.

“The Man Who Read G. K. Chesterton” is about a priest who has concerns about the death of a local citizen. Tim Harrington apparently shot himself in his office with a discarded piece of hardcore pornography providing the motive. The monsignor at St. Bartholomew has no interest in providing last rites to a suicide victim, meaning that Father Kenny will have to prove murder if they are to be done. The story is another solid one, as Father Kenny struggles with finding any evidence to prove murder, and Brittian does a good job of getting you to sympathize with him. I do think that the clue is a little too bluntly delivered, but it’s still well done. Should the police have realized it? Probably. But I can believe they would write it off as a suicide and not look closer. The who is a little clunky, but it’s not the focus of the story.

“The Man Who Read Dashiell Hammett” is another code-cracking story. A lover of classical detective fiction is debating donating his collection of mysteries to a library, but he’s also a fan of games and has a feud going with the head librarian, a lover of hard-boiled mysteries. As a result, the classical fan comes up with a challenge: a copy of The Maltese Falcon is concealed in the library, he provides three clues to its location, and the book must be found in an hour to ensure the rest are donated. The sixty-five year old “stack boy” is pulled out to help find the book. I don’t know if this is perfectly fair, so the enjoyment comes from seeing a seemingly impossible scenario taken down and solved in time.

I admit that “The Man Who Read Georges Simenon” is my least favorite of these opening stories, in part because I’m not really familiar with the author. (Although I’m not familiar with Hammett’s work either, but that story has so little to do with Hammett’s actual work that it’s easier to overlook.) Two men arrive at a mansion to deliver some art. One of the men likes to read the works of Georges Simenon. The plot won’t be too hard for a reader to figure out, and I found it a little disappointing.

“The Girl Who Read John Creasey” is another story about an author I know almost nothing about, but this time the story is a little more solid. A police officer limps home in despair from hitting dead ends in a recent murder case. Thankfully for him, his daughter has been reading John Creasey’s Gideon novels and wants to know more. Fred Dawkins was a British man who won a football pool and decided to take a trip to the States. There, he converted his money into American dollars, played poker with a few people, and then was stabbed to death. Bizarrely, his dying words were “Twas Ol’ Fishin’ as done me in.” Three men knew about the money, and the officer’s daughter must interpret the clue to figure out the killer. I don’t deny the logic behind the clue, but I found it a little hard to follow along with since the topic was something totally unfamiliar to me. The killer also seemed a little obvious.

The final story of this segment is “The Men Who Read Issac Asimov” which thankfully for me is based on his Black Widowers stories rather than his science fiction. Davey Lotus was a local ne’er-do-well who after winning money at a poker game opened up a department store known for its various gimmicks, such as a creative way of price haggling. The current gimmick is a safe with a hundred (Is that even possible!?) different numbers on it that contains a thousand dollars. A reporter is in town to report on the store, and he ends up meeting up with a group of local men, fans of Issac Asimov, who have gathered together to break the code. The story feels like one of those Black Widowers tales, with all of the men providing their own interpretation on the same facts to come up with wrong solutions, before the waiter swoops in to provide the correct one. I do think that perhaps someone should have come up with it beforehand, but that’s a minor gripe.

It’s at this point that I’ll stop and mention something that leapt out at me: Maybe it’s just because I read so much Porges before this, but I liked how these stories all felt different from each other. After so many stories that had the same characters talking about some abstract situations, albeit ingenious ones, it felt nice to be shifting genres every story, seeing new characters and more grounded and solvable mysteries.

And with that, we move on to the Leonard Strang stories. Mr. Strang is a science teacher at Aldershot High School who solves a variety of cases. Some are related to school, some are not. The first story, “Mr. Strang Gives a Lecture,” opens with Mr. Strang being informed by Detective Paul Roberts that Mr. Strang’s car was used by a student as a getaway car in a diner robbery. While said student is a troublemaker, Mr. Strang is doubtful...and demonstrates his doubts via a lecture. I found the story a little hard to follow the first time around, since I had a hard time visualizing the layout of the locations, but it’s a solid story with some good logic, although there is one element thrown in at the last minute that makes the culprit obvious.

“Mr. Strang Performs an Experiment” is a much different story. Russell Donato is an up-and-coming chemistry teacher at Aldershot who has been accused of coming on to one of his students. However, Mr. Strang is confident enough in Denato’s character and skeptical enough of the story to dig further. This is more of a “howtoproveit” story, since everything hinges on the “experiment” Mr. Strang performs. The issue is that unless you have the same knowledge that he does to pick up on the main clue, you’re just going to have to sit back and watch Mr. Strang solve it all. There’s none of the chains of logic that you see in the other stories, and it feels a little weaker as a result.

The next story, “Mr. Strang Takes a Field Trip,” is an impossible crime story. Mr. Strang takes his students on a field trip to a natural history museum, with the only issue being a prankster student. Unfortunately, said student and his friend slip away from the group, and ten minutes later one of the employees is grabbing the boys, accusing them of stealing a golden mask. However, neither of the boys have the mask on them, and a search of the room turns up nothing. Even a search of the museum itself doesn’t turn up any evidence of the mask. If the boys had stolen it, what did they do with it? And if they didn’t do it, who was it, and where did they hide it? The hiding place of the mask is fair, you can figure out where it’s hidden from the evidence, and I was a little annoyed that I missed it. I admit that I’m not sure that the robbery would have stood up to an actual police investigation. On a final note, I admit I appreciated Mr. Strang getting called out on one of his assumptions, since I don’t care for infallible detectives.

“Mr. Strang Versus the Snowman,” is an excellent episode in detection. Detective Roberts tips Mr. Strang off that the grandfather of one of his students, one Simon Barasch, is a drug dealer known as “the Snowman,” whose drugs are finding their way into the hands of Aldershot High School's students. Mr. Strang is the tutor of the man’s grandson, Arthur, so Roberts wants him to investigate. And on one snowy day, he gets his chance. A snowstorm results in Mr. Strang driving Arthur back home, where he gets his chance to search...but finds no evidence of cocaine. But that same night, he and Roberts sit outside the house on a stake-out and manage to catch Simon with two blocks of cocaine. It’s an excellent example of deduction, since Mr. Strang manages to piece everything together from one piece of evidence and a few other observations. For the record, this isn’t an impossible crime story...

But “Mr. Strang, Armchair Detective” is, in my opinion, and if so it was one missed by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders and by Brian Skupin in Locked Room Murders: Supplement. Mr. Strang and Roberts are eating dinner with Holbeck, a New York man who’s been down to talk homicide with the Aldershot police department. Unfortunately, Holbeck has a “patronizing manner about everything outside the city limits” and has managed to drive Mr. Strang and Detective Roberts insane. The final straw comes when he refers to Mr. Strang’s teaching job as “restful,” causing Roberts to defend Mr. Strang and offer him up a good detective. Holbeck puts that to the test with a problem in detection that has baffled New York’s finest.

A man named James Phillimore Earnshaw went to an apartment complex and asked a tenant for his ex-wife’s apartment and was seen going upstairs. Shortly after, a loud argument broke out, necessitating summoning the police. The argument seemingly stopped, before the ex-wife yelled for her ex-husband to come back, and the apartment door slammed. The police go upstairs to get more information, but Rachel Earnshaw answers the door alone and denies her ex-husband ever being there. A painted wall and a discarded knife in the apartment tell a violent story, but there’s no trace of James Earnshaw in the apartment. I don’t think that a fan of locked room mysteries will have too much trouble figuring out the gist of what happened, but I think that there are enough moving parts to make it fun to see everything fall into place. The motive is somewhat weak, and to be oblique, the story is told in such a way that something is mentioned very indirectly so that Mr. Strang can look smart by deducing that it exists. These are pretty minor gripes however, and I do like the deductions surrounding the latter point. Brittain also gets due credit for a very clever clue. I think that most people will see it, but dismiss it. I mean, I did, and I’d hate to be the only one who didn’t figure it out.

“Mr. Strang Interprets a Picture” is a more disappointing story, especially compared to the former story. Mr. Strang pops in on the art class of a colleague and notices a strange picture drawn by the “Mnemonic Kid,” a Vietnamese immigrant who has an infallible memory. Mr. Strang is so confused by the picture that he takes it home to think on it...but it’s obvious to the reader that the picture has something to do with the bank robbery that opens the story, and it’s just a matter of figuring out what. I don’t think that most readers will have trouble with this one. (Although I didn’t piece it together, so what do I know?)

The collection ends with “Mr. Strang Takes a Tour,” the last Mr. Strang story written. It’s not a sequel to “Mr. Strang Takes a Field Trip,” but a story that has Mr. Strang going on a trip to Canada. As the trip begins, he befriends a nun named Sister “Gerry” Geraldine, who purchases a souvenir cross. However, after one leg of the trip, she realizes that the cross is missing. She assumes that it’s simply been misplaced in someone else’s bag, but Mr. Strang sees that as unlikely and thinks that someone has stolen it. But who would steal a five-dollar souvenir cross? The solution is pretty smart, but the reader has no chance of figuring everything out; you can piece together a bit of the solution, but most of the backstory is told to Mr. Strang offscreen. The ending, while touching, felt a little out of place to me, since the two characters involved didn’t really interact in the story.

All in all, this is another excellent collection from Crippen and Landru. There’s plenty of variety among the stories, and even if they all don’t reach the heights of fair-play cluing, they bring up interesting problems. They are all well-written, although the choice of font for the book was hard to read at first. I’d like to see the rest of the Mr. Strang stories collected, personally. Highly Recommended.

Brad and Christian also gave their opinions on this book. We all agree on the overall quality, although me and Christian disagree on some of the individual stories.

Monday, April 20, 2020

These Daisies Told (2018) by Arthur Porges (edited by Richard Simms)

Yes, more Arthur Porges. Perhaps I should have split these up more, but I got this and the previous Porges that I reviewed at the same time and I try to review books in the order that I read them.

These Daisies Told: The Casebook of Professor Ulysses Price Middlebie is another short story collection from Richard Simms Publications, this time collecting the Porges stories starring the titular professor. Professor Middlebie is a retired professor, specifically Professor (Emeritus) of the Philosophy and History of Science. The Professor Middlebie stories are similar to the Cyriack Skinner Grey stories, in that they both feature scientific geniuses being consulted by a police officer on seemingly impossible crimes, which they then solve through scientific knowledge unknown to the average man. Before long, Porges even gives Professor Middlebie a sprained ankle to make him even more like Grey!

I saved this collection for “last” (I don’t know what other Porges collections are out there/what I might get in the future), since the stories had what sounded like the most interesting premises. Fires set inside locked houses, vanishing bodies, slightly built teenagers committing murder with concrete blocks...Fascinating, all of it. And while I do have some issues with this collection, on the whole it’s very solid.

We open with the titular story, where Detective Sergeant Black meets with his one-time professor, hoping to use the man’s observational skills to help determine where a body is. Dale Corsi is a farmer whose fights with his wife have possibly escalated into murder. Said wife has not been seen for a week and Corsi is suspected of having concealed or disposed of her body somewhere on their property. However, the ranch is surrounded by both a tall fence and cultivated land where a grave would be easily found, and Corsi himself cannot drive to any other location. The ranch itself has been searched with no results, not even disturbed ground. This is the only story where Professor Middlebie takes the drastic step of actually going to the scene to investigate, where he solves it in minutes. There is some cluing as to where the body is hidden, but you simply aren’t able to solve this before Professor Middlebie does, although it is a clever solution. On a final note, Robert Adey’s Locked Room Murders says that the story “makes no attempt to create atmosphere” which I disagree with. But maybe I was influenced by the cover, which is very pretty looking.

Next, Professor Middlebie isn’t solving a murder, but preventing one in “The Unguarded Path.” Franklin Devoe was the lawyer for the Syndicate, a group of mustache twirlers. Now he’s turned state’s evidence against them, and they’ve sent their best assassin, Joe Vasta, to shut him up. The assassin is remarkably confident about his success, even predicting the day and time that Devoe will lose his life. In fact, he’s so confident that Detective Sergeant Black contacts Professor Middlebie to see if there’s a problem with the security measures.

The problem is that the house is like a fortress with seemingly no security flaws. It’s surrounded by a thick wall with barbed wire, police guard every possible entrance and the surrounding area, food is selected at random from a random supermarket every day, and the house itself is so sturdy that, “A grenade wouldn’t do more than chip the bricks.” Nevertheless, Professor Middlebie is able to find a way to penetrate the defenses, although I think that the police should have caught this.

“The Missing Bow” is a vanishing weapon story. Victor Borden, a man who killed a woman and child in a drunk driving incident gets an arrow to the neck in his bathroom. The only other survivor of the crash, one Howard Cole, has been paying visits to the alley under the man’s window for the past week, apparently to get evidence of his guilt (as Borden claimed the accident was due to brake failure), but Sergeant Black believes he was getting ready for murder. Cole’s arm and legs were crippled in the accident, but he’s still capable of walking, and in theory firing a bow with his feet, meaning that his injuries don’t prevent him from firing the arrow. But there’s one problem: Cole was seen entering the alleyway by the taxi driver that brought him there, he swears that Cole didn’t bring a bow with him, and there was no place he could have concealed it in the alley. Obviously, Professor Middlebie produces an answer, but I wasn’t fully satisfied with it. Not because I think it’s wrong or anything, but it’s hard to visualize and I didn’t fully understand it. (ROT13: V qba’g trg jung Zvqqyrovr zrnaf jura ur fnlf gung neebj-guebjref jbhyq “gevc” bar raq bs gur fgevat va gurve unaq. V gubhtug gung vg zvtug zrna fcvaavat gur fgevat yvxr n ynffb, ohg gura gur vffhr, gb zr naljnl, orpbzrf bar bs nvzvat/trggvat vg bss gur fgevat.)

“Small, Round Man From Texas” pits Professor Middlebie against Cauchy Fourier Boussinesq, a professional jewel thief and master of disguise (barring his tall height) known as The Chameleon. The investigator pursuing The Chameleon, one Paul Hermite Rameau, tells his tale of woe to Professor Middlebie, explaining how The Chameleon died during his final robbery. He stole an emerald necklace, and the titular man saw someone escaping into the sea in an inflatable raft. The next night, the raft was found upturned in the open sea...but someone has still sold one of the emeralds. Obviously, Professor Middlebie figures out what exactly happened. I partially agree with JJ, the trick doesn’t seem like it would work, but it’s so audacious that I’m willing to give it a pass.

The next story, “Blood Will Tell,” is a “howtocatchem” story with no impossible crime. Carleton Chambers Dell is a serial wife killer who’s managed to make all their deaths look like accidents, until wife number four went down swinging and managed to give him a bloody nose. The traces of his blood found at the scene are the only decisive evidence tying him to the crime, and the Fifth Amendment means that Sergeant Black can’t get his blood without Dell’s consent. Professor Middlebie obviously finds a way around this, but no, there’s no way this would pass in a court of law, especially when Middlebie flat-out says what he did instead of making up some lie.

“Coffee Break” is probably the most famous Professor Middlebie story. The good professor is downed with a gimp ankle, meaning he has nothing better to do than listen to Sergeant Black tell him about the impossible murder of one Cyrus Denning, a wannabe scientist who apparently took a big swallow of cyanide-laced coffee. Sergeant Black suspects the man’s nephew Jerry Doss, but that’s just a cop’s instinct, as all of the evidence points to suicide.

Denning was found dead in his locked cabin. The door was bolted on the inside. The window was nailed shut. The front door was under observation. And finally, both a lit cigarette and the piping hot coffee point to the death taking place after Doss left. Sergeant Black goes to Professor Middleble to help come up with an answer, and he comes with a very simple and solid solution to the locked room. It’s technically in two parts, and I think that the second part, or at least the general gist of it, is actually pretty fair, if just because I stumbled to it myself the first time I read this story. It’s a very well-done story and deserving of it’s classic status.

Next up is “A Model Crime,” which does not in fact involve supermodels like most mystery stories with titles like that, but stolen transistors. The transistors are custom-made and kept in a secure building under tight security, but someone is making off with them. Professor Middlebie again produces an answer, but while it’s certainly unique, I’m not sure how workable it would be. The story feels clunkier than the others in this collection, which I think is because a lot of information about who the thief is and what they’re capable of is clumsily exposited.

“To Barbecue a White Elephant” has Professor Middleble solving a seemingly impossible arson. Francis Raymond IV is a playboy who was left a house by his elderly mother, but the house is a “white elephant” which can’t be sold or maintained and has already proven to be a money sink for the owner, who can’t even get rid of it without forfeiting annuity. In other words, “Taxes are high; income, nil.” So when the house suddenly burns down, Sergeant Black suspects arson, but there are multiple problems. For one, Raymond has been on vacation for the past six weeks. For another, the house is locked up like a fortress, and Raymond had hired a top security firm to watch the house. The whole thing screams set-up to Sergeant Black, but without evidence, Raymond will collect $100,000 in insurance payments. The solution is clever of course, even if there is some handwaving about the specifics. I wish that there had been a bit more detail.

“The Puny Giant” has probably the most interesting situation in the collection. A woman is beaten to death with a concrete block, and the police only have a single giant footprint to go on for clues. They do find a giant of a man who could have wielded the weapon, but he’s mentally ill and non-violent, it seems impossible for him to have approached the victim undetected, and the footprint doesn’t match him. The only other plausible suspect is the dead woman’s adoptive son, Julian. He had violently fought with his mother about getting an expensive sports car and has the artistic talent to fake the footprint, but he’s a scrawny little kid who seemingly couldn’t have wielded the murder weapon. Professor Middlebie’s answer this time, while I didn’t grasp it fully on my first read, is a very clever and ingenious one.

“The Symmetrical Murder” was a favorite of TomCat’s and I can see why. Howard Davis Valind, a “cancer-quack” is found bludgeoned to death at the hotel he’s staying at. He was found dead on the balcony, his apartment door locked from the inside. No weapon was found on the balcony, meaning that the weapon wasn’t launched, and even if the killer tried to pull it back with a string, there are no traces on the sandy beach below. Varnished floors and witnesses make it impossible for anyone to have left via going from the balcony to a lower one. The obvious killer is a man named Crosby Franklin, whose sister was one of Valind’s victims. But how was it done?

The story is very focused on the architecture of the hotel, and I admit I found it harder than intended to visualize how everything was laid out. I admit that this is a personal problem, but did impact my ability to follow the story. But Professor Middlebie’s solution is very good, and I think that just about anyone can solve it, or at least have a general understanding of what happened. Sadly, a vital clue is withheld until near the end of the story, knocking it down a point. But just a point.

The collection wraps up with “Fire For Peace” which was first published in Ed McBain’s Mystery Magazine of all places. This time, Professor Middlebie is asked to look into another bizarre case of arson, this time at a chemical plant. An unknown person is trying an unconventional method of peacemaking; setting multiple fires in the plant, even though the place is under tight guard and there seems to be no way of setting the fires. Again, the solution is ingenious, and I got the same feeling I got while reading The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey of Porges seeing...something and thinking, “I can use that.” Although in this case, I suspect that he took his cue from history. There is one aspect of the solution that I’m a little skeptical on, but it’s a minor part and I might simply be misunderstanding.

All in all, this was a very good collection of stories. The stories were all varied, having different situations and more importantly, different solutions. Porges has a knack for these dialogue-driven stories and they all flowed well, with only “A Model Crime” feeling artificial. The stories felt a little less repetitive than the Grey collection, but I admit a preference for the Dr. Hoffman stories overall. But these stories still proved to be some excellent examples of the mystery short story. But they shouldn’t all be read in quick succession; I admit that reading so many of these types of stories at once actually drained me a bit. I’m not 100% what it was, and might have been down to personal life circumstances, but I was a little happy when I finished and knew I’d have a break from Porges for a bit. I’m planning a big read through of Edward D. Hoch’s Dr. Sam stories soon, and I’m hoping I don’t have the same issue. Thankfully, the next collection I read managed to bring some life back to me.

But that’s for next time. In the meantime, Highly Recommended, but be sure to space them out a bit.

Also check out JJ’s, TomCat’s, and Christian Henriksson’s reviews.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Man Who Loved Clouds (1999/2018) by Paul Halter (translated by John Pugmire)

The Man Who Loved Clouds is yet another novel from Paul Halter, this time presenting his take on the fairy tale. The book almost reminded me of the earlier Halter novel The Vampire Tree. Both books, as Nick Fuller notes, are more reactionary, as the detectives are more responding to events rather than actively investigating. However, while The Vampire Tree was almost more of a horror novel than a mystery, The Man Who Loved Clouds aims more to be “charming.” Also, it’s much better than The Vampire Tree.

The first half of The Man Who Loved Clouds focuses on Mark Reeder, a reporter who is forced to go on vacation. A lover of clouds, Reeder follows them to the small village of Pickering, a quiet, peaceful seaside town whose only real feature is the constant wind. On the mountain roads, the winds can easily send someone over the edge, and eventually shift from “light music” to “the mournful screeching of a demented violin.” The winds are already considered responsible for various tragedies at a house at the top of the hill, ranging from mental breakdown to suicides, including that of John Deverell, a well-liked local. However, Pickering also has another little secret that Reeder is much more interested in.

Stella Deverell is John’s daughter and a young, fairy-like woman who wins Reeder’s affections after retrieving his blown-away hat. Stella proves to have more abilities than retrieving hats, she has more abilities than your average X-Men team. Stella spends much of her time in a copse called Fairy Wood, where she seems to be able to disappear at will, even when followed by a witness or when the wood is surrounded by police. She also seems to be able to turn rocks into gold and to predict the future, whether that be madness for one man or a good catch for the fisherman. The first half of the book is about Reeder attempting to find out more about Stella’s abilities, and this part admittedly drags a bit. As JJ notes, there’s a lot of “telling” and not much “showing.” We only hear about Stella’s feats off-page, and this means that the opening lacks a certain energy. It’s not until she successfully predicts the death of a local citizen that the police get involved.

The second half of the book moves at a faster pace, with Halter’s trademark rapid-fire twists and impossible crimes, such as a man who is pushed from a path while walking alone in high winds, implying that the wind itself was responsible. However, the impossibilities in this book aren’t among Halter’s best.

I don’t think that I’ll shock anyone when I say that a mystery is dependent on detail. In many mysteries, the whole thing turns on some seemingly minor or insignificant point. This is especially applicable in impossible crimes stories, where the solutions can also easily be hinted at by some small detail. In my opinion, the issue is that Halter doesn’t give the reader the detail they need. I’ve already mentioned how we don’t get to see Stella’s feats, we’re almost always told about them in retrospect, but this also applies to the “present day” crimes as well. For example, I liked the idea behind the second murder in theory (in fact in my original draft of this review I said it was the only one I really liked), but you don’t get the needed detail about what the witness saw to really know what happened. I had a similar issue with the final death, since it was hard for me to get a grasp of where everything was in relation to each other. Said final crime was also what led me to re-reading the book. I didn’t like it the first time I read it, but when I skimmed it while working on this review and saw that I misunderstood what happened, I decided to give the book itself another chance. I still don’t think that the final murder works, but now I understand what Halter thought would happen.

All of this is disappointing, since the setting and atmosphere of the book are some of Halter’s best. The village is sparse, but I found the idea of Stella being a personal secret of this isolated village believable and interesting. The descriptions of the howling wind that seems to be killing at will create an atmosphere of unease. As someone who likes the sound of the wind myself, I found myself imagining Halter listening to wind, thinking about how it could be used in a mystery. The explanation Halter gives for how the house at the top of the village mountain is “cursed” is a good example of setting in my opinion, tying in the “supernatural” in a way that doesn’t take away from the mystery plot, instead serving as a backdrop to it.

The same can’t be said for the suspects in the book, who are pretty two-dimensional. Beyond Reeder and Stella (and Stella is quite well done, walking the tightrope between naivete and cunning), only Usher, the man who owns the old Deverell home, gets any real development. The village reverend, the jolly fisherman, the village eccentric…they just don’t stand out that well. Only the Fishes, a tense couple, stayed in my mind when the story closed. This results in a rather weak whodunit aspect, and I have to question how fairly clued it is. It’s hard to discuss without spoilers, but while there are some clues pointing at the killer, one piece of information is never really given, or if it is it’s given so indirectly that it’s easy to miss (ROT13: Anzryl, gur onggrerq pbaqvgvba bs gur obql gung nyybjf Wbua gb xvyy Hfure naq gnxr uvf cynpr. Nf sne nf V xabj jr trg bayl gur inthrfg zragvba bs gur onggrerq pbaqvgvbaf bs obqvrf, naq nobhg rirel gvzr jr qb jr’er gbyq, “Bu ohg jr pbhyq vqragvsl vg.”).

There’s another clue given near the end, (ROT13: gur pbagragf bs gur yrggre) but again, the clue itself is so vague that it’s hard to draw conclusions from it. It works as one of those clues that make sense once you know the solution, but you can’t really use it to reach the solution, in my opinion. Finally, the motive for one of the crimes is either wrong, or I badly misunderstood something. (ROT13: Qe. Gjvfg fnlf gung Jvyqre jnf xvyyrq orpnhfr ur ernq Gerag’f yrggre naq gevrq gb oynpxznvy “Hfure”...ohg gur aneengvba jura Jvyqre cnffrf gur yrggre gb vgf erpvcvrag vf irel pyrne gung Jvyqre qvqa’g ernq gur yrggre! Lbh pbhyq nethr, naq guvf vf jung V nffhzrq jura V ernq guvf, gung Gjvfg jnf whfg nffhzvat gung Jvyqre ernq vg. Ubjrire, frrvat nf Jvyqre’f orunivbe ba gur avtug bs gur zheqre vf nggevohgrq gb zrrgvat jvgu “Hfure”, V’z thrffvat gung ur neenatrq gb zrrg Jvyqre va fbzr bgure pbagrkg. Vg fgvyy ohtf zr n ovg, fvapr V’z abg fher vs guvf jnf jung Unygre jnf tbvat sbe.)

All in all, I find this book hard to recommend. On the one hand, the cluing is imperfect, the solutions don’t really impress, and there are some honestly sloppy flaws in it, such as John’s death being described as a “disappearance” part of the time. On the other hand, the atmosphere is good, the book is charming, and the story is honestly unique. I’m not sure that that’s enough of a selling point, for me at least. I can’t say that this should be anyone’s introduction to Halter, but someone with a few books under their belt would get some enjoyment out of this. On the whole, the flaws don’t quite outweigh the benefits for me. I enjoyed some elements of this, but the plotting was just a bit too loose for my sake. Not Recommended.

That being said, check out these positive reviews from TomCat, JJ, the Puzzle Doctor, and Suddenly at His Residence. They might convince you to check this out.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey (2009/20??) by Arthur Porges (edited by Richard Simms)

A quick explanation of that second date in the title: There are two editions of this collection floating around. See this review from TomCat and this one from Christian Henricksson; the latter reviews two additional stories, “The Scientist and the Missing Pistol” and “The Scientist and the Impassible Gulf.” The one on Amazon is the full collection, but it’s something to keep in mind if you’re looking for it used or something similar. I’m reviewing the updated collection.

I need a list of science jokes or something for short story collections like this.

Some time back, I looked at No Killer Has Wings, a collection of short mysteries by Arthur Porges. I enjoyed the collection, but felt that it was a tad too short. Thankfully, I also had two other Porges collections by the time I read it. This is one of them.

The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey is a collection of short stories dealing with the investigations of the titular scientist, who was crippled in a mountaineering accident (except in “The Scientist and the Impassible Gulf,” where it gets retconned into a car accident that also killed his wife), but who still uses his brain to solve the variety of impossible problems brought to him by Lieutenant Trask. Grey often makes use of his son Edgar, a teenage genius who serves as Grey’s eyes, ears, and legs when crime scenes need to be investigated. Unlike No Killer Has Wings, the stories here are mostly reverse whodunits; there’s very rarely questions about who, the question is how. The stories are much shorter than in the previous (actually published later) collection, but there are more of them.

“The Scientist and the Bagful of Water” is more of a “howtoproveit” than anything. A man murders his business partner and tries to pass it off as a freak accident caused by a bag of water being dropped on the victim’s head from a hotel. The question is simply how Grey can prove his guilt. The solution is okay, but you the reader probably won’t solve it.

“The Scientist and the Wife Killer” is more interesting. Samuel Clayton is a fox who has already disposed of two wives in “accidents” and has decided to up the ante for his third wife. He rings her up on the phone, but when she doesn’t respond, he summons the police to investigate. They break down her locked bathroom door to find her dead of electrocution…but there are no electrical appliances in the room to shock her. Once one gets around the question of asking why Clayton would make this third death an obvious murder instead of just going the accident route again, the story itself is solid. Once again, not much of a chance of solving this on your own, but it’s fascinating to sit back and watch Grey unravel it all.

“The Scientist and the Vanished Weapon” begins a story type that will be seen many more times in this collection: A killer makes a weapon vanish. This time the weapon is a .38 that a delinquent unloaded into a police officer before fleeing into an apartment. The killer was cornered, but the pistol has vanished. Once again, the explanation is based on something that you might not know about, but is honestly pretty cool anyway. One gets the impression when reading these stories that Porges would read about or see these interesting phenomena and try to find ways to work them into a story.

“The Scientist and the Obscene Crime” is more in line with “...Bagful of Water.” Grey is brought in to help a woman receiving obscene phone calls from a stalker who is just clever enough to evade police attention. The way that Grey deals with him is expected, especially since the clue is given a little bluntly.

The next story is both the longest in the collection and also the most gruesome. “The Scientist and the Multiple Murder” opens with the discovery of eight executives floating dead in a rooftop pool. The doors were either locked or watched, and the roof could not be accessed from other roofs. The solution to this one is vaguely guessable, but still requires some technical knowledge to fully piece together.

“The Scientist and the Invisible Safe” pits Grey against a clever jewel thief who is always able to conceal his stolen goods in his hotel room in spite of police searches. The hiding place is clever, although a key piece of information about the thief that might have made it a more fair mystery isn’t given until near the end. This is the case for most of the mysteries in this collection; they’re similar to No Killer Has Wings in that they’re more like problems to observe being solved than a straightforward mystery with clues to be pieced together, and that means that the clues are often withheld.

“The Scientist and the Two Thieves” is more of the same. A religious fanatic makes off with a small fortune in diamonds and is cornered in a blind alley. When the police move in for the arrest, they find that the diamonds have vanished. Grey actually manages to pull out two solutions for this one, and it’s even possible to deduce the second method, in my opinion. I do feel that the first one could have been better hinted at. Considering what I said about the last story and the collection as a whole, this might seem like an annoying and persistent complaint, but when the author can clue something fairly and doesn’t, I get frustrated.

The most unique story in the collection is “The Scientist and the Time Bomb.” Fifteen years ago, the home of Horace Colman, which his grandfather had planned to leave as a public museum, was effectively stolen from the family by the city and turned into a paying exhibit. Cut to the present day when a letter from Colman turns up, in which he claims to have planted a bomb before his death to blow the house up…with a fifteen year fuse. The main question is how he could set up a bomb with a fuse like that. The solution is certainly...unique, and again shows Porges’ knack for taking seemingly irrelevant facts and making them the centerpiece of his mysteries.

“The Scientist and the Platinum Chain” is another vanishing weapon story. The killer murdered his employer, an aggressive and short-tempered man, with a platinum chain, but somehow the chain vanished from a closed and watched room. Another good problem, although when I first read it, I felt that the police should have found the hiding spot. This feeling mostly faded on later re-reads, and I’m willing to admit it was probably down to me misunderstanding what the solution was trying to say.

“The Scientist and the Exterminator” feels like “Dead Drunk” from No Killer Has Wings. Another unpleasant man, this time an unrepentant warlord in the States for medical treatment, is gassed in his locked and guarded hotel room. The hotel itself was filled with guards and was being monitored from the outside, not that it stopped the killer from delivering a dose of cyanide gas into the room and leaving no trace behind. This time the solution feels clunky; the stories before and after this might have solutions that incorporate unfamiliar scientific principles, but they were explained in a way that was clear and understandable. With this one, I found the solution somewhat hard to visualize and understand, since there are a few moving parts around what is admittedly a simple idea.

“The Scientist and the Missing Pistol” is yet another vanishing weapon story. Two men meet in an office, and one claims that the other was shot by a sniper while writing a confession to embezzlement. Trask is suspicious of the story, but no weapon is found in the room, and the other man had no opportunity to dispose of it or pass it off to someone else. This story annoyed me a bit, since, once again, I felt that Porges could have very easily hinted at this one, but the solution itself is satisfying.

The next story breaks from the murder pattern, but still has an object vanishing from an enclosed space. “The Scientist and the Stolen Rembrandt” has Grey putting his brain to work explaining how a fence, cornered on his fancy yacht after a sea chase, can make the titular painting disappear. Another story with a good solution that could have been excellently clued if it were were adapted to a visual medium. The “The Purloined Letter” references aren’t quite 1:1 with this story, but I see what Porges was going for.

The final officially published story is a good finale for the series as a whole. “The Scientist and the Impassible Gulf” opens with Bryan Jennings Latimer (real subtle there Porges), a gentle if henpecked man, murdering his wife in a rage after she sends one of his model cannons into a gulch. Latimer knows he’ll be blamed but comes up with a plan, unseen by the reader, that leaves his wife’s body on the other side of a canyon, the surrounding ground unmarked by any footprints. This is a personal favorite of mine. For one, I like how Porges shows the build-up to the murder, which has always been offscreen until this point. This time he gives us an interesting murderer and victim, showing a murder that is both unjustified but understandable. I also like the “how”; this is one of the few stories where I feel that the average reader can solve the crime, or at least grasp the broad strokes about what happened. There is a little bit of luck that the murderer’s plan hinges on, but it’s pointed out in the story, so I can forgive it.

The next three stories were never published until now. “The Scientist and the Poisoner” opens with the poisoning of a nice old man in a crowded restaurant. Trask is angered by the death, but the death seems impossible. Not only was no poison found in the food, but no one approached the victim beyond an old waiter who has no motive for the murder (and no, he didn’t do it). The solution is clever enough, but the cluing doesn’t work for a very odd reason; it is partly based on a cultural reference that I do not think that most readers today would get. I didn’t, at least.

“The Scientist and the Heavenly Alibi” is a story that doesn’t match up to its awesome title. Trask suspects a rancher of murdering his business partner, but the man has a picture showing him two hundred miles away from the crime scene, and the sunlight in the picture seems to verify the time it was taken. It doesn’t take Grey long to break the alibi, but something about this story just doesn’t click with me. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like this should have been seen through sooner. Also, we have another example of Porges withholding a vital fact until the end.

The final story ends the collection on a bit of a plop. “The Scientist and the One-Word Clue” has an investigative reporter being stabbed to death in his office. The office was ransacked, but the victim was able to leave a note with only one word on it: “Thais.” Grey is the only one who can solve the case...but really, Trask was phoning this one in. Considering how most of the stories up to this point made the point that Trask is a thorough cop who leaves no stone unturned, the fact that he missed this one is disappointing.

All and all, I actually did like this collection. While I do sound nitpicky, it’s because I saw more pure mystery potential that to me seemed squandered. Also, the stories do start to seem familiar when you read them all in a row; even the solutions can feel like variations on the same idea. But I liked the way that Porges managed to work science into these mysteries in a way that shows that he had a genuine love of science and had the ability to make it interesting to others. Like I said earlier, these are “problems” more than “mysteries.” Read them with that in mind and you’ll get more enjoyment out of them.

Recommended, but don’t read too many at once!

Friday, January 17, 2020

The 8 Mansion Murders (1989/2018) by Takumaru Abiko (translation by Ho-Ling Wong)

It’s an infinite Mobius loop.

After way too long, I’ve finally gotten around to reading Takemaru Abiko’s The 8 Mansion Murders, the most recent Japanese translation from Locked Room International at the time of this post. Like Yukito Ayatsuji’s The Decagon House Murders and Szu-Yen Lin’s Death in the House of Rain, there’s a heavy focus on the mansion the story takes place in. This mansion is the titular 8 Mansion, named because it looks like a figure 8 when viewed from above. It was the brainchild of Kikuo Hachisuka, current president of Hachisuka Construction. And it’s also the inspiration for a murder.

Kikuichiro Hachisuka, the above’s son, is woken in the night by a phone call telling him to come to the covered gallery over the house’s courtyard. His mute daughter, Yukie, and her sign language teacher, Mitsuko Kawamura, witness Kikuichiro enter the gallery from Yukie’s room. They notice someone standing in the room of Yusaku Yano, the son of the servants, before Kikuichiro is shot down...by a crossbow bolt.

The case is taken up by police inspector Kyozo Hayami, and it looks black against Yusaku. He claims to have been sleeping in his bedroom with the door locked, but Yukie and Mitsuko are clear that the killer was standing in his window. And he knows how to use a crossbow. And his personal one “disappeared” a few days before the murder. Thankfully for him, Yukie believes in his innocence and is a beautiful girl that causes Kyozo to fall in love at first sight. He can’t solve the murder alone however, and has to rely on his younger siblings, the realist Shinji and the more imaginative Ichio.

Unlike the other shin honkaku novels I’ve read up to this point, The 8 Mansion Murders tries to be funny. There’s more wit in the dialogue, the characters (especially Kyozo and his siblings) try and play off each other more, etc. It doesn’t fully work for me, I admit. I don’t know how much of this is due to the style of the comedy (a good bit of it is physical, especially the comedy surrounding Kyozo’s hapless assistant Kinoshita, who more or less is crippled over the course of the story) and how much of it is due to the relatively dry writing/translation. It’s certainly more entertaining to read than The Ginza Ghost, but I can see someone being annoyed at how “off” the writing can feel compared to English works. This extends to the characters, who don’t really come to life outside of the main cast. The only one who stood out to me at all was the victim’s younger brother. The pacing feels odd in places; the main example that stands out to me is the summation grinding to a halt so we can get a locked room lecture. I don’t mind locked room lectures normally, but not when they’re used to kill time.

It’s annoying, because honestly the mystery is very well done. Jack Hamm in the comments of this review from The Green Capsule put it well; there’s not one big surprise, more like a set of smaller surprises that link together. (Interestingly, Soji Shimada notes this trend among more recent shin honkaku writers in his introduction, although there it’s in the context of those writers freely taking ideas from previous authors and using them in different ways.) There’s a second impossible murder about halfway through the book, again committed in a locked room, and this time the evidence implies that the killer was standing outside the window in mid-air. I honestly feel that the “how” for both murders is very possible to solve. I got the general gist behind the first murder and had the best possible feeling about the second: the feeling that I could have solved it if I had been willing to think about it a bit more. There’s also a clever explanation about why the killer had to move the body, even though I thought it wasn’t used to its fullest potential. The killer is also a nice surprise, but their plan is utterly bonkers, I just don’t believe that it would work, and they never do the thing that would help their plan. The motive also boils down to “I was mad, mad, MAD!!!” which is disappointing.

But all in all, I enjoyed it. I had my issues, and I can see someone finding them to be a deal-breaker. But I still get a thrill when thinking about the simplicity of that second death, and I can see someone new to mysteries having a blast while someone familiar enjoys the in-jokes and the well-put together locked rooms. Ultimately, I’ll give it a Recommended, but the more critical can think of it as a Recommended, with Caveats.

Monday, December 16, 2019

No Killer Has Wings: The Casebook of Dr. Joel Hoffman (2017) by Arthur Porges (edited by Richard Simms)

Killers don’t drink Red Bull.*

Another blast from the past here. Back in The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries, I read a story by Arthur Porges, “No Killer Has Wings,” starring Dr. Joel Hoffman. I really liked it, but assumed that I would never get to read the rest of his stories, or at least that it would be a while before I could. But I hoped, and lo and behold Richard Simms Publications came out with a collection of the Dr. Hoffman stories, as well as many other collections of Porges’ work.

No Killer Has Wings contains all six of the Dr. Hoffman stories, and I admit I wish that there had been a little more here. I’m not at all blaming Richard Simms for not bringing Porges back from the dead to write more stories, but the length makes it harder for me to recommend this collection to my friends because of how short it is. I had the same issue with Edward D. Hoch’s The Spy Who Read Latin. But I’ll get back to Hoch later in this review.

Dr. Hoffman is a pathologist who’s often called in by Lieutenant Ader to fill in for the political hack of a local coroner (which Porges reminds you of once a story). The series kicks off with a gut-punch for Hoffman in “Dead Drunk.” He and Ader arrive at the scene of a brutal car accident that has left a child dead in the street. The reckless driver is a rich playboy, one Gordon Vance Whitman III, who’s quick to fall on the “diabetic coma!” excuse for his recklessness and whose father was smart enough to tie his son’s money up in such away that even suing him for damages is near-impossible. Needless to say, Hoffman isn’t shedding tears when the playboy turns up dead in his locked apartment, but Ader’s gut instinct makes him send the body to Hoffman for an autopsy. And what he discovers turns this into an impossible crime.

Whitman got a dose of phosgene gas in his modern, urban apartment. Phosgene gas is a gas used in World War I that gives the victim a coughing fit before turning into hydrochloric acid in their lungs. Not a pleasant way to die, and also a baffling one: the gas was only found in Whitman’s lungs and not in his apartment, meaning that the gas had to have been introduced directly into his lungs...which is impossible since the apartment was locked. The killer is obvious, but how was it done?

That “How was it done?” question fuels this collection, and is something that needs to be kept in mind if one wants to really enjoy these stories. I was under the impression that Porges was similar to one of my favorite mystery authors, Edward D. Hoch, but I think that there’s a difference: Hoch usually focus on a chain of logic in his mysteries, A--->B--->C, which in turn leads to D. etc. Or at least A+B+C=D. As JJ notes, Porges tends to focus more on a single problem, usually the “how,” and the other aspects of the mystery are secondary. That’s not to say that his stories aren’t as good as Hoch’s, but that they have a different focus. Once I got out of that mindset, I enjoyed these stories. “Dead Drunk”’s solution might not be solvable to the average person, but I enjoyed seeing it solved, and I felt like I learned something from it (contrast this with The Invisible Bullet, which I enjoyed but didn’t really feel more educated about science after finishing it.) And the ending brought a smile.

“Horse Collar Homicide” is more of the same. Another rich jerk dead, this one an old hidebound keeping his family under his thumb at all times and obsessing over the old days of gentlemen (who don’t work and are forbidden from doing so) and games, the latter of which proved fatal. The old man was sticking his head through a horse collar and making faces (it doesn’t make much more sense in context) when he suddenly had a seizure and died, right as the lights flickered. The death was not caused by electrocution, since the collar couldn't run a current anyway, and none of the victim’s relatives were anywhere near him at the time. So how was it done? This time, there’s a little more focus on the “who?” question, but it should be obvious long before the summation. The solution is more technical than “Dead Drunk,” and I found it harder to follow.

“Circle in the Dust” is an unusual story, and isn’t a locked room problem. An old woman is beaten to death in her home, and while it looks like a sordid everyday crime, a single circle in the dust indicates that the killer was after one of the woman’s many knick-knacks. But which one? Her nephew claims not to remember what was there, and the only clue is the circle. Once again, science is involved in figuring out what the object was, and once you know that the killer is obvious. While I will tentatively agree with JJ when he questions the science (I think I know what Porges was going for and it made sense while I was reading it) I will say that I really liked this. I enjoy these unusual problems that you can really only find in short stories.

“No Killer Has Wings” is the gem of this collection. A colonel is found battered to death on his private beach. The beach is surrounded by rocks, the tide is too rough for a killer to approach that way, and the only footprints on the beach are that of the dog...and the colonel’s hot-tempered nephew, who would lose his inheritance if he married. Said nephew’s walking stick was also the murder weapon, and things don’t look too good for him. Luckily, his fiancee is Ader’s niece, and she manages to pressure him into letting Hoffman investigate. This time, the solution doesn’t hinge upon science, but is simple and plausible. I want to say that it almost feels too simple, but I think there’s an elegance to it, and I can see someone who fails to solve it kicking themselves and grinning. A “fun” story, if that makes sense.

“A Puzzle in Sand” is a sequel of sorts. The family from the previous story has moved out and rented out their home, only for another impossible crime to take place on the same beach. This time, a well-regarded man is found shot to death on the beach. It turns out that he was far from a model citizen in the past and was being blackmailed by a rogue named Garrison. Garrison is now the main suspect in the murder, as his were the only other footprints on the beach. However, the case is so black that Ader is succumbing to fears that something else is going on (Porges is kind enough to point out how he was nowhere near this reluctant when it came to his niece’s fiance) and consults Hoffman.

Hoffman finds out that something is indeed going on, but it lacks the simple ingenuity of “No Killer Has Wings.” I still enjoyed it, and I might have been influenced because I caught the solution early on. Where the story stands out is in the ending. It’s surprisingly dark, and while one can say that justice is being done, I felt unsettled by it, so good work there. I think that Hoffman exaggerates how helpless he is though.

“Birds of a Feather” is the final story here, and a good one. This time the victim is a loan shark who apparently died of cyanide poisoning while changing a tire. Ordinarily it would be assumed that he was poisoned by food or aspirin, but there’s no trace of anything in his stomach...and there’s also the small matter of the poisoned canary at the victim’s side. This felt a little underwhelming compared to the previous two stories, but it was still a solid story. I do think that it is a little easy to tumble to what happened if just by process of elimination of the possibilities.

All in all, a really great one here. Excellent stories, and while they weren’t all winners, they were all satisfying to read, with some amusing narration. I have two more collections of his stories and you will see both of them on here soon, ideally, we’ll see. My track record on this is poor.

Obviously, Recommended, bordering on Highly.

*Sadly, not my joke.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

The Invisible Bullet (2016) by Max Rittenberg (edited by Mike Ashley)

A nostalgia trip this time.

Way back when I reviewed Mike Ashley’s The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries, a massive anthology of impossible crime (and a few perfect crime) stories. Sadly, the original review was lost since Blogspot interpreted my efforts to add tags as code for “Delete this post.” I could re-upload it, but frankly it was pretty poor so I might just rewrite it entirely. But I digress. One of the stories that I liked from that anthology was “The Mystery of Sevenoaks Tunnel” by Max Rittenberg. The story stared a scientist named Magnum investigating a suspicious “suicide,” and I really enjoyed it. It was well-written and somewhat humorous. But I think that many of us who liked that story didn’t think we would ever see anything more from this obscure author. Thankfully, Mike Ashley provided.

The Invisible Bullet & Other Strange Cases of Magnum, Scientific Consultant is a 2016 collection of all of the Magnum stories. (That’s just Magnum, by the way. Not Dr. Magnum, not Magnum P. I., not The Artist Formerly Known As Magnum, just Magnum. The fact that no one laughs in his face every story after hearing that name is a testament to his brilliance.) The stories are early mystery stories, so there’s less focus on the pure detection we’re used to, and more sitting back and watching Magnum solve the cases with science. Or by making his assistant Ivor Meredith do it, either way. The stories are actually a fair mix of thefts, scams, and other crimes and non-crimes in addition to murder. So let’s get started.

“The Mystery of Sevenoaks Tunnel” starts things off with Magnum brought in by Stacey, a lawyer, in order to demolish a suicide. The victim was in fear for his life and this fear might have led him to jump out of a moving train. His niece suspects that his death was engineered by whomever he was scared of, but the dust in the train car show that he was alone, meaning that the insurance company won’t pay out. The method of murder is semi-clever, and there’s even some vague cluing to that effect, but what elevates the story is the actual writing. It flows well and there’s an undercurrent of humor to it, especially when it comes to Magnum himself. He actually falls short and gets his ego bruised in this story, and it makes the character more entertaining to read about.

“The Queer Case of the Cyanogen Poisoning” is a mass poisoning story. The family of Sir Julian Boyd is suffering from gastric pain and other symptoms, but there seems to be no way for them to be taking poison, as all the food and drink is tested. Magnum ends up freeloading there for a week to solve it. A decent story, and I even think that the reader has a fair chance of figuring it out, even if they don’t understand the exact science involved.

“The Bond Street Poisoning Bureau” is more of a thriller than a mystery. This time Magnum is hired to match wits with “Kahmos,” a seeming mind reader and psychic whose advice to his clients in need tend to be “Poison.” Sadly, this is the modern era, where the police can’t just beat him and kick him out of the country, they need actual evidence of wrongdoing. It is fun to see Magnum match wits with this poisonous Moriarty, and I’m willing to overlook the lack of traditional detection because of it. There’s even a (basic) impossible crime near the end where Kahmos seems to escape his watched hideout, but the solution is nothing special (although I like how Magnum eliminates a false solution).

“The Mystery of the Vanishing Gold” has Magnum hired by the Bank of England itself to deal with a madman who claims to be able to disintegrate gold...and has already seemingly already done so with gold that was being transported and under constant watch. It’s a good story, but there’s really no chance of being able to “solve” it; the explanation as is feels a little under-explained and I’m not sure how one aspect of it is supposed to work. But the fun is in watching Magnum bluster his way past everyone, and his reaction to the culprit is amusing.

“The Secret of the Radium Maker” has Magnum matching wits with an inventor who claims to have developed a way of making radium. This one is harder to describe, since the actual scheme going on isn’t clear until the very end. I enjoyed it though.

“The Invisible Bullet” is the central gem of this collection, a story that, if was better known and/or was more focused on detection could have been a classic of the early impossible crime. Magnum is walking down the street when he hears a shot from a nearby gymnasium. The scene is inexplicable: a man is dead behind some curtains, and the witnesses in the room all attest to hearing the shots but not seeing the killer escape. Making matters worse, the scene implies that the sergeant in charge had some role in the death, either in helping the killer escape or in concealing a suicide on his premises. Thankfully. his bravery in charging towards the gunshots impresses Magnum enough to defend him.

Like I said, this could easily have been a minor classic had it been better known. The solution is not dependent on some obscure scientific principle and had there been a few tweaks here or there it could have been very fair play. As it is, we can lament what could have been. But the final page of the story gives me a chance to talk about something that I really liked about these stories: Magnum isn’t infallible. It would have been easy to have Magnum as an unstoppable force barreling over every obstacle, but instead he’s often baffled, often motivated by hurt ego, and sometimes he only solves the case by chance. I’m not a huge fan of arrogant detectives, so this made the whole collection much better and entertaining; the narration doesn’t let him off the hook, and sometimes he flat-out bungles the case….

Like he does in “The Rough Fist of Reason.” Magnum is hired by a young woman to help free her aunt from the influence of a psychic who claims to have photographed her astral projection. It’s a good story, although the explanation is based on science that you have no chance of grasping. What makes it good is the portrayal of the psychic at the center of the plot and how the story resolves itself. Like I said in my review of The Madman’s Room, I’m used to psychics that are mustache-twirlingly evil and fake, so it’s interesting to see one handled with a little more ambiguity. And the ending is powerful, showing how Magnum can badly misread and misunderstand a situation.

“The Three Ends of the Thread,” like “The Secret of the Radium Maker,” is a little hard to describe. A man calls upon Magnum to look into an inexplicable event: An important document in the client’s possession suddenly vanishes in spite of being locked inside a secure safe. It doesn’t take long for Magnum to produce a solution, but there’s a twist in the tail this time. All I’ll say is that it amused me.

“The Empty Flask” is a murder tale. A Baron is found dead in his hotel room, apparently due to poison. The only evidence is a broken flask, but bizarrely it’s completely empty, even though the victim’s chauffeur swears it was filled. Once again, the story hinges on science, but it feels more grounded and down-to-earth then in some of the earlier stories. My main issue is that we get the backstory to the crime info-dumped on us at the end.

Next, we have “The Secret Analysis,” one of three kidnapping stories in this collection. They’re all kinda meh. This time, Meredith is the target as the kidnappers want to get their hands on a report Magnum made to the Admiralty about a torpedo depth charge. While the story is interesting for showing us that Magnum does actually care about his assistant (and for the odd suggestion from the police when his disappearance is first reported that temporary memory loss is common!) other than that it’s not very interesting.

“The Mystery of Box 218” was one of the more memorable stories in this collection. So memorable in fact, that I lost all memory of it and had to re-read it again. This time, Magnum is called in to investigate the disappearance of a necklace from a secured and guarded safe. On the one hand, it is interesting to read a story where Magnum has very little to go on. This is present in some other stories, but in this one it honestly feels like Magnum has to struggle a bit here, which is refreshing. But the plot flat-out doesn’t work. It’s hard to explain without spoilers, but I’ll just say that while the theft itself might work, I cannot see how one person involved would not notice something amiss.

“The Message of the Tide” is another kidnapping story, and apparently the last Magnum story Rittenberg wrote which makes me wonder what it’s doing at this point in the collection. The victim is a Canadian businessman who manages to send out a desperate cry for help written on a bottle label: he has been held hostage for over a year and kept alive to sign checks for his captors. While the premise is horrific, and there is some joy to be found in watching Magnum resolve a seemingly insoluble problem, the story itself is a little bland.

“The Secret of the Tower House” has Magnum playing House, M.D. A man comes to Magnum to have him look into the mysterious poisoning of his dogs, but Magnum quickly realizes that the dogs have died of plague, forcing him to find out the source before word gets out during the Coronation. It’s certainly an unusual story, and could even be seen as an impossible problem (as the dogs were under quarantine after an overseas trip), but on the whole this isn’t defined well enough to be a solid problem, and the story itself is a little bit too short. However, I still enjoy the story, both for the creepy last line and for the unusual plot.

“Dead Leaves” is another unconventional story. A scientist writes a will in favor of his fiancee before he rudely gets run over by a motor-bus. The will has vanished and since his family opposed the marriage, there is concern that the fiancee might get cut out, much to the horror of the much-wed lawyer Stacey. He brings in Magnum under the logic that since all scientists think alike Magnum can find out where the will might have been hidden. Once again, not fair play, but it is nice to see Magnum in action when he has little to go on, and the ending shows a softer side to him.

Next up, we have a murder tale, “The Three Henry Clarks.” A man named Henry Clark drops dead of poison in front of Magnum and Inspector Callaghan, the second man named Henry Clark to die in as many days. When a third Henry Clark winds up dead, Magnum investigates. This is actually a pretty solid story, and I’d even go as far as to say that it’s almost fair play. I think that a careful reader can figure out the method of murder and roughly why and how the killer is targeting Henry Clarks, although the full backstory is infodumped at the end.

“Cleansing Fire” is a personal favorite, even though I admit that some of the other stores in this collection are better. Magnum is brought in to look at a suspicious fire that burned down a factory. The insurance is refusing to pay up, but since they lack anything like “evidence that the fire was deliberate,” they expect Magnum to show how it was done. Sadly, there’s not much suspense about whether the fire was deliberate or not, meaning that the rest of the story is Magnum figuring out who set the fire and why. Again, as a mystery it’s nothing impressive, but I enjoyed the story and the minor horror of the solution.

The collections ends with “Red Herrings,” yet another kidnapping story. This one is slightly more interesting, as the kidnapping of the Home Secretary looks like it could have only taken place in broad daylight on a busy London street. However, the problem is again too vaguely defined to really be solved, and the story spends a little too much time on the (admittedly clever) plan of the kidnappers to collect the ransom than on the investigation.

All in all, I liked this collection. For all my griping about fair play, I understand that this was written before mysteries were being held to that standard. I will say that I found the science somewhat vague at times, which is an issue when your collection is about a scientific consultant. But I enjoyed the unique stories on display here, and the writing and narration were well-done. Recommended.