Saturday, August 30, 2014

A Tragedy of Shakespearian Pretentiousness

I'm pretty sure that the people on this blog know about Ellery Queen, but if not, let me elaborate.
 
Ellery Queen is the creation of Manfred B. Lee (the writer) and Fredric Dannay (the plotter). Ellery Queen also served as their pen name, which probably led to people assuming that this was some early form of self-insert fanfiction. The books are known for twisty plotting, serious attempts at making more psychological mystery novels. and for being hilariously overwritten. To me anyways.

The Tragedy of Errors and Others' main feature is an unpublished novel, the outline of which was sent to Lee before he died. Crippen and Landru got their hands on it and published it, along with a few other stories and essays, for the 70th anniversary of the first book, The Roman Hat Mystery. Does this novel live up to Queen's standards, as much as I can judge as I've never read one of their novels so I'm probably completely unqualified and I'll stop now.


The Tragedy of Errors

Morna Richmond could've been a star. She was great in the silent films, but when she actually had to act, things fell apart. Now she spends her days in a castle estate, waiting for her big break, which she will receive. Posthumously, of course. She is found dead on her estate, murdered by someone who did a terrible job of making it look like suicide. The murderer is obvious, but Ellery can't shake the feeling that there's more to it...

Pros

+ Fairly clued, as far as I can see. Impressive, considering that this is just an outline.
+ The killer is hidden well.
+ The plot is good and twisty.
+ I enjoy what was done with the will. Unrealistic, but this is pointed out in-story, and I can still appreciate the effort.
+ I just love Dion Procter, because he just goes through the book with this "I don't give a crap" attitude. Considering how insane the plot gets...

Cons

- Let's start with the simple one; this thing feels overwritten. This is something I see in almost every novel snippet I see, these two just keep inserting unnecessary pretentiousness. But that's a matter of personal opinion.
- What was the point of (SPOLIERS Dion Procter? A red herring? If so, he worked on me, but I kind of wanted more to be done with him. END SPOILERS)
- This is probably more personal stupidity more than anything, but... what was the killer's motive again? I know they'd end up with enough money to buy at least two copies of Locked Room Murders, but their final conversation implied that there was more to it. Am I being dense? Was Dannay being too lofty?
- While the killer's plan mostly works, I do have one complaint. (SPOLIERS Why didn't Buck rat Rago out? Ellery says that he manipulated Buck, and unless he used subliminal messages, I don't see how Buck could be unaware of it. Why didn't he tell the police that "Oh by the way, Rago gave me this idea." For that matter, how would Rago be sure that he would off himself? END SPOLIERS)

This is a pretty good story. A complete judgment is impossible, due to it being an outline, but I believe that it would have been good if it had been completed. (Also, as a side note, Let me boast to TomCat that I did not fall into the same trap he did. I didn't solve it, but I take my victories where I can get them. Even if I achieved that victory through ignorance.)
 
Terror Town
 
Tommy Cooley walked away one October day. The town searched and searched but never could find him...until the spring rains turned up his body. And that was only the beginning of a series of murders that would shake the town to its core...
 
This story mocks me. It has good atmosphere, the clueing, while sparse, is fair, and I liked the motive for the murders. The main problem is the Dang. Romance. Plot! Look, I'm not like S.S. Van Dine, marching up the isles going "Harumph!" at romance plots. Heck, I don't mind when one is part of a story; it gives more emotional investment. But it's never done well in mysteries, as I learned here. It's annoying and gets in the way of the story. Heck, I could write a better romance! The rest of the story's good though.
 
Uncle From Australia
 
Ellery has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet a real uncle from Australia. Complete with fortune to be willed away! As well as a knife in his back, and the dying message "Hall". If only all the people with a motive to kill him didn't share the same last name...
 
A simple story, with a good dying message. Not much more to say.

Note: The next three stories all have the same device of Ellery receiving problems from the Puzzle Club, a group of smart and rich people with nothing better to do.

The Three Students

Take a valuable ring. Now give three students access to it. End result: one missing ring and one strange note...

Unfortunately, this is one of those stories where there's only one clue, and if you don't have the knowledge to decipher that clue, you're outta luck. It's ultimately a guessing game.

The Odd Man

An undercover agent is murdered while looking into drug trafficking. The only clue he leaves behind is the killer is the "odd" one of the three...

Better than the last story. There are three possible solutions, so you have a pretty good chance of being able to figure out at least one. The knowledge required is also less specialized.

The Honest Swindler

Old Pete said that he was looking for uranium, and that he needed money. He got $50,000, because he said that his investor would get their money back. He doesn't find a thing, but he lives up to his promise...

Probably the best of these three stories. The situation is clever, and the solution is obvious once it's pointed out.

The Reindeer Clue (by Edward D. Hoch)

A two-bit blackmailer is shot to death in a reindeer pen. Of course, this being an Ellery Queen story, he's able to leave behind a dying message... that accuses Santa's reindeer...?

This is a fun story. It's short, to the point, and the dying message is clever, with only the bare minimum of specialized knowledge required.


The rest of the book contains reminisces and essays, and those are a little out of my expertise. I will, however, recommend Robert Adey's "The Impossible Mr. Queen" for a look at the locked room mysteries in the novels and short stories.

I really like this collection. The stories are of almost consistently good quality, the essays and the like are interesting, and the unfinished Queen novel is bound to excite the Queen fan boys.

I give it a 7.5 out of 10

Next time, Ellery Queen: Radio Personality. Thanks for reading!
 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Please Lock The Door On Your Way Out

So, I decided on the anthology.
 
Death Locked In is an anthology revolving around locked rooms (I hear your mind being blown) and
is edited by Douglas G. Greene (author of John Dickson Carr's biography) and Robert Adey (who wrote the definitive guide to locked rooms that is now about two decades out of date and costs the GDP of Switzerland. I still want it.) The book starts with a historical mystery before moving on into locked room. Then, it goes into uncategorized impossible crimes. It then details some impossible disappearances before wrapping up with a soft science fiction story.

Needless to say, there's a lot of variety here, but variety does not make an anthology. Is this worth your time and money?
 
(Thanks to P.J. Bergman of The Locked Room for reviewing this first. Not because I'm ripping you off, but because I can just copy and paste the titles instead of typing them myself! And your picture too!)

The First Locked Room by Lillian de la Torre

Three women lie dead. Two have been strangled and one beaten. The door is locked. An innocent woman stands accused. and guess what? It all really happened...

This is more de la Torre showing off a historical curiosity rather than a straight mystery, but it's a good historical curiosity. de la Torre's research is to be applauded and while the solution is simple, I can't say that I cared in the face of the fact that we don't have enough real-life locked rooms. We take what we can get!

Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
 
A young woman finds herself in the care of her uncle. Genre conventions already establish this as a Bad Thing (TM) and it just gets worse when you consider the lecherous son and the fact that the uncle was accused of murdering a man in a locked room...

Why is this story here? It's a good suspense story, no doubt, but there really isn't a reason to have this in, considering the small role the locked room plays in the plot. Is it because (SPOLIER we get to see the locked room from the would-be victim's point of view? END SPOLIER) It's interesting, but not a story I would have chosen, personally.
 
I Can Find My Way Out by Ngaio Marsh
 
Theater's are hotbeds of murder and mayhem. Just ask Cann Cumberland, a drunken actor who steals the spotlight from his betters... until he gets gassed in a locked dressing room that is...

Well. This story. Ngaio Marsh is well-loved right? Because I didn't enjoy this story. At all. It's bizarrely paced, I don't even think that the solution was clearly stated (I just might not understand gas heaters though), and the story just has no life ,which ultimately killed it for me.

The Suicide of Kiaros by Frank Baum

Felix Marston needs money, and he needs it now. Rather than turn to J. G. Wentworth, he comes up with a better plan. Ask a Greek moneylender for some money, and when that fails, kill him, and make it look like a suicide...

Yes, this was written by the author of The Wizard Of Oz. And it's a good story too, even though the trick is simple. Though the idea of a reverse whodunit locked room holds quite an appeal...

The Spherical Ghoul by Fredric Brown

A part-time morgue worker is looking forward to an easy night's work. Then the unidentified body gets it's face eaten off, and he was sitting in front of the locked door the whole time. Could a ghoul have slipped in through a twelve inch vent...?

The set-up is creative, and the clueing is mostly fair. The solution is somewhat iffy, though it is executed better than some other mysteries that have used the same thing.

Out of His Head by Thomas Bailey Aldrich

A young woman is found with her throat slit in a room with the door locked and the windows too high up to allow escape. It doesn't help that the detective here is a lunatic...

This story is really only interesting for the detective who, it must be said, is interesting. The solution is a pure cheat though.

Murder by Proxy by M. McDinnell Bodkin

A man is shot to death while napping and the killer vanishes from the room in spite of witnesses. That is, unless the old "it-was-the-first-person-who-found-the-body" trick applies...

Obviously it doesn't, as Not-Sherlock-Holmes proves. The main trick isn't much better, but it works, and I would like to see it in a different context. (The fact that this is an older story might've left me without much confidence in a good solution.)

Out of This World by Peter Godfrey

I've reviewed this story already under Large And In Charge, so I'll just link that.

The Mystery of the Hotel de L'Orme by M. M. B.

A woman is smothered behind her locked bedroom door, and her jewels are stolen. The only one who could have done it was her servant, who claimed to see a face in a mirror in a locked room shorty before the murder...

Not that good. It's old, so the dread overwriting appears, and the solution (to me) makes no sense. (SPOLIERS Considering the distance, could a single board really support a man? END SPOLIERS) This could just be my ignorance though. (The solution still isn't particularly good anyhow though...)

The Magic Bullet by Edward D. Hoch

In the country of Beneu, trouble is brewing. It looks like a rebellion is brewing and tension are running high. Not that this is really important when you have a United States ambassador shot to death in his locked and bulletproof car...

Just when despair sets in, Hoch comes to spark this anthology's rise in quality with his usual near-perfection. The clues are well-laid, the solution is the best kind of simple solution (it's so simple and obvious that you kick yourself when you miss it) and it's just great all around. My sole complaint is the sheer "Wait, what?" in the interaction with the token female, and I'm sue you'll notice it when you see it. Also... I wonder how much the guy named Harry PONDER knows about magic... (Sorry)

A Terribly Strange Bed by Wilkie Collins

A young man, fresh from victory at the gambling tables, is invited to celebrate at an inn. Little does he know that he will soon find his life in mortal peril...

...I'm torn. On one hand, this is a good story, and a good example of the "room that kills" idea. On the other hand, It's really not a locked room except for a mention of the protagonist locking his door. It's good, I'm just wondering why it's here. (Also, I'm ashamed to admit that it took me a long while to recognize Wilkie Collins as the author of The Moonstone.)

The Room with Something Wrong by Cornell Woolrich

Room 913 has problems. Oh, it's a nice enough room on its own, it just has a nasty habit of throwing people out of it at random...

The longest story in this anthology, but well worth it. I has a few flaws (SPOLIERS We get no hints that the killer has a keycard, for example END SPOLIERS) but they're all pretty minor. This story actually makes me want to read more Woolrich...

Invisible Hands by John Dickson Carr

King's Arthur's Chair is a small natural rock formation that sits on a beach. Considering who the author is, it should come as no surprise that someone is strangled to death near that chair with only her footprints in sight...

My first exposure to Carr! And it could have been better! The set-up is good, but the characters seemed... off in a way that can't be justified by, "It's Carr." The solution never set right with me either (SPOLIERS I can't seem to wrap my head around the idea that a whip was used. You'd only have one shot, and your aim could get off too easily. I could buy it better if it was a lasso... END SPOLIERS) The irony in the killer's motive is good though.

The X Street Murders by Joseph Commings

Once again, already reviewed. Please check the above link.

The Mystery of Room No. 11 by Nicholas Carter

All Willie Gray wanted to do was find his mother. Instead, he finds himself caught in a police stakeout, faced with the possibility that his mother is dead, and having to explain how his mother, dead or alive, could have left a building surrounded by police...

Merely okay. The set-up is good, but the solution is too simple. (This may or not be because the editors say where the solution probably came from, which leads the mind in a certain direction.) As said, merely okay.

The Man Who Disappeared by L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace

After years at sea, Oscar Digby returns with the location of vast amounts of gold. Not that he'll be able to make use of it after he walks into an observed house and vanishes...

About the same as above. Clich├ęs run rampant, but the story is passible. The solution is merely okay. (SPOLIERS Would those chemicals really dissolve a body like that? END SPOILERS)

The Invisible Man by G.K. Chesterton

Years ago, Laura Hope promised two men that she would marry whoever made his way in the world. One became an inventor. The other seems to have found the power to turn invisible...

This is the Chesterton story everyone has heard of! If his name or Father Brown's name is mentioned, this is the story everyone thinks of. And I didn't care for it's solution. (SPOLIERS While I believe that this trick can work, both Carr and Christie have done it, it can't in this story. Everyone has been told to watch out for someone, whereas in the other stories, the people being fooled aren't paying attention. END SPOLIERS) It's a good story, just not as good as everyone says it is.

The Adventure of the Man Who Could Double the Size of Diamonds by Ellery Queen

Professor Lazarus, currently on leave from Doctor Who, claims that he can double the size of diamonds. Amazingly, people believe him and set him up in a tightly guarded lab where he can't leave without going through procedures that would make the TSA complain about invasions of privacy. Not this it stops him from spiriting the diamonds out of the lab...

This actually isn't a story, but a radio play, so it might take a bit to get used to the script format. But it's well worth it, as this is a good story. The solution is simple, yes, but it's designed to fly straight over your head. And hey, I didn't solve it, so clearly something was done right.

The Mystery of the Lost Special by Arthur Conan Doyle

A train carrying an important man with important papers leaves its station, and never arrives at its destination. With no other routes off, the only answer is that it vanished into thin air...

Ah, the "vanishing train" plot. Incredibly difficult to pull off, amazing if you do, and Doyle does and doesn't. The solution works (and is kind od terrifying when you think about it from the victim's point of view) but the idea that this would leave no evidence that the numerous authorities investigating this wouldn't notice is bizarre.

Off the Face of the Earth by Clayton Rawson

Bela Zyyzk is a lunatic. Who else but a lunatic would proclaim that a woman will vanish of the face of the earth? A correct one, for not only does she vanish, but a judge he makes a similar proclamation to vanishes as well, this time from an observed phone booth...

Excellent story. The solution is long, yes, but it's easily followed, and clever to boot. Not much more to say here, except that I believe that I saw through Merlini's trick when I first read it.

The Grinning God by May Futrelle/The House that Was by Jacques Futrelle

A young man gets messed up in a storm and drawn into a living nightmare. Ghostly women rising into the air, a man who seems to completely ignore him, and a mysterious grinning idol...

The first story is a ghost story, and the second is a solution presented by The Thinking Machine. It's a interesting concept, but it's clear that Futrelle's wife made this too difficult, as the answers really don't hold up to scrutiny. (SPOLIERS How didn't the protagonist notice that the woman was climbing? How does a blind, deaf, and mute man take care of himself and his insane sister? What was that fire all about? etc. END SPOLIERS)

Thin Air by Bill Pronzini

Pronzini's nameless gumshoe has a simple task ahead of him; follow some lady's husband, and gather proof that he's cheating on her. Then the husband vanishes from his locked car, which Nameless was watching at the time...

This is good. The story flows at a nice pace, there's a good reason for the disappearance, and the story seems more fairly clued than some of Pronzini's other stories.

Elsewhen by Anthony Boucher

Harrison Partridge has built a time machine. Sure, you can only go so far with it, but it's still a time machine! Too bad that he soon embarks upon the road of the comic book supervillian, and instead of making it public, he uses it to commit the perfect crime...

An excellent end to the collection. It's a well-done reverse whodunit, and a good example of how to incorporate soft- science fiction and mystery. My only two complaints are that time paradoxes are involved, and that means headaches (though they are done very well), and that I find it hard to believe that no one would be interested in a time machine! Even if you can't remember or explain exactly how it's done, you'd think that the science community would be all over this! This guy's sister is an idiot.

And that's Death Locked In for you. It's certainly better than the last anthology I reviewed, if just because their are more actual locked rooms here, but the quality just jumps around too much. It makes reviewing harder too.

I give this anthology a 6.5/10

Next time, we'll get to that lost Ellery Queen novel! Thanks for reading, and be sure to comment!

(Sorry for the long wait. The first picture I used caused this to glitch out a little, and then I got distracted. I'll try to have another entry this week.)

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Diagnosis: Somewhat Difficult


Hey, more Hoch! I know it seems a little quick to look at the next set of Dr. Sam Hawthorne stories already, but this was the next book I read in my epic quest to read locked room mysteries and I did say we were going roughly in my reading order.
 
More Things Impossible: The Second Casebook of Dr. Sam Hawthorne, is the second collection of Dr. Sam Hawthorne stories released by Crippen and Landru after which they proceeded to leave us hanging for years before they released the next one. For those who missed the last post and/or have the memory span of a goldfish, Dr. Sam Hawthorne was one of the creations of Edward D. "I've Written Over 950 Short Stories" Hoch. Dr. Sam practices his trade in the New England town of Northmont, which is like Cabot Cove, if Cabot Cove had people dying in impossible manners every week instead of just dying. Yep, just about every Dr. Sam story has a locked room mystery or an impossible crime. And they're all completely solvable! You can also count them as historical mysteries, as the stories start in the 1920s and go on to the 1940s.
 
Now that I've got the recap out of the way, it's time for some locked rooms!

The Problem of the Revival Tent

A man travelling with his wife and son comes to Northmont with the extraordinary claim that his son can heal people. Too bad his son can't heal him when he's stabbed to death in his revival tent. And too bad that Dr. Sam fought with the man before his death and saw no one else in the tent when the victim died...

A great start to the collection. The usual praises about fair clueing, interesting situation, and good solutions all apply here. The murderer is well-concealed even if the solution is a little obvious. Heck, I figured that part out (partly because I was kind-of-sort-of spoiled on it, but still!)

The Problem of the Whispering House

When ghost hunter Thaddeus Sloan comes to Northmont to look into the Bryer house, it has a reputation for ghostly whispers in the front room. By the time this case is over, it will have a reputation for the man seen walking into a room with one observed exit and vanishing, leaving only his corpse behind...

I'm a little torn on this story. On one hand, the killer is well-concealed. On the other, the solution makes me iffy. It works (and to be honest, makes sense) with the location, but it's not normally a solution I prefer. Still, that's more personal opinion more than anything else. (Incidentally, I came within a hair's breadth of the killer when I first read this story. It more because SPOLIERS I was getting better at recognizing important characters END SPOLIERS than any real skill, but hey, progress!)

The Problem of the Boston Common

Dr. Sam arrives in the big city of Boston just for a medical conference. He wants nothing to do with any crime at all. Obviously, he soon gets wrapped up in the hunt for the serial killer 'Cerberus". A man who poisons his victims with curare in the Boston Common even though no one sees anything...

First off, let me say that I solved this one. I didn't get the method, but I did get the killer. And not because it was a reverse whodunit! Sadly, while the killer is hidden well, I have to question why nether the police nor the doctor helping them tumbled to the method. It's still a good story though.

The Problem of the General Store

Maggie Murphy is talking about women's rights...in 1928. Needless to say, she's not getting far. In fact, she looks like she's making things worse when she turns up unconscious inside a completely locked general store with a dead man...

Once again, the killer is well-hidden, but the solution doesn't ring as true as it normally does. This seems to be a recurring thing. Nonetheless, the solution works, it just seems too simple and the cluing felt a liiiiiittle off.

The Problem of the Courthouse Gargoyle

Aaron Flavor stands trial for killing his employer and Dr. Sam is stuck on jury duty. Fortunately(?) the trial is interrupted when the judge kneels over on the stand form poison that could not have gotten into his cup, with the word gargoyle on his lips...

A neat story. The killer is well-hidden and the solution is also good. I do have to gripe about (SPOLIERS the dying message not having much to do with the murder END SPOLIERS) but that's a personal thing (and yes, I know that the outro says that someone dies when they don't. I chalk this up to Hoch not being done with the story.)

The Problem of the Pilgrims Windmill

A black doctor has taken up a job at Northmont's new hospital, which apparently is cause for much waling and gnashing of teeth. Soon, that waling and gnashing of teeth will turn into cries to God as the Devil starts setting people on fire in the old windmill with only the victim's footprints around it...

My favorite story in the collection hands down. Another well-hidden killer is on display here, and the solution is good (if technical) but the main reason I love it is that the concept is that the Devil is going around burning people! How can you write a bad mystery when that's your idea?!

The Problem of the Gingerbread Houseboat

Dr. Sam has found love in the form of Miranda Gray. The course of true love never has run smooth though, but whoever came up with that phrase probably never thought that it would apply to four people vanishing out of a houseboat...

Sadly, this is probably the worst in the collection. Just not enough is done with this idea, and the solution is too simple. Then again, motive was a bigger question throughout the story and there is a nice bit of tension near the end, so it's certainly not all bad.

The Problem of the Pink Post Office

The Great Depression is beginning to hit, but Northmont is blissfully unaffected. That is, unless you count the banker running in with a $10,000 bond and having it vanish under everyone's noses in spite of thorough searches...

Huh, no murder this time. Anyway, this is another good story that manages to strike a balance between the culprit and the clever solution. It is a little easy though. How easy? I solved it! This story's main problem isn't the mystery but the character of Miranda Gray. After this, I find myself wondering, "Why was she here again?" (Yes, it's possible that Hoch just changed his mind about having her as a love interest, but he could have ended it better.)

The Problem of the Octagon Room

Sheriff Lens and Vera are tying the knot and Dr. Sam is looking forward to the wedding, which is supposed to take place in a octagon room. Unfortunately, Dr. Sam is the best man, making it inevitable that his Detective Curse (TM) will kick in and leave the dead body of a tramp in the looked room as a greeting for the happy couple...

This is a pretty even story. the killer is well-hid and the solution, for once, comes without any complaints, even my nitpicky ones! It should be noted that, as Mike Grost points out, (SPOLIERS that this is primarily a physical trick as opposed to the psychological tricks that are more often used END SPOLIERS) Just an interesting fact.

The Problem of the Gypsy Camp
 
Dem dirty gypsies have returned to Northmont (fine, they're a different group) and they're bringing more trouble with them as demonstrated by the man who runs into the hospital screaming about being cursed...and then kneeling over with a bullet in his heart in spite of his unbroken skin. And that's before a whole camp pulls a vanishing act...

This was the story I looking forward to this whole book. I actually save this one for last! And it... mostly lived up to expectations. It wasn't exactly what I thought it would be, but it was still good (and isn't the mystery author supposed to defy your expectations?) I do have to wonder if the vanishing act was completely clued, but the rest of the story (including it's clever reversal at the end) make up for it.
 
The Problem of the Bootlegger's Car

Dr. Sam is not having a good day. First, he gets kidnapped by gangsters so he can look at their boss. Then he finds out that said boss his exaggerating his injuries in order to find a mole. Then he gets to witness of an illegal transaction. Then the seller of said illegal goods vanishes from his car...

Probably my second favorite story in the collection. It's all very tightly held together with the usual praises that make up a Hoch work. I honestly have no real complaints.

The Problem of the Tin Goose

The barnstorming pilots have come to Northmont, and with them, murder. Very extravagant murder to as their star isn't just stabbed to death in his cockpit, he's stabbed to death in his cockpit while it's in midair... 

I... don't have much to say here. This is probably the blandest story in the collection. It's good but... there's not much to say. Err...the solution seemed simple but I didn't get it anyway so maybe it isn't that simple?

The Problem of the Hunting Lodge

Dr. Sam's parents are in town and they're looking forward to seeing their  son again and his father is ready to shoot some animals. Unfortunately, Dr. Sam never told them about the Detective Curse (TM) so they're surprised when the leader on a hunt is found dead in his cabin with only the footprints of Dr. Sam's father leading to it...

A pretty good story. The solution is good and the killer well-hidden  (yes, I know I'm repeating myself), but not much was made of the whole "Dr. Sam's father looks like the killer" thing. I also have to wonder at some bizarre line the narration makes earlier in the story about Dr. Sam's mother. It has noting to do with the story and doesn't really add much so I have to wonder why it's in (It's the last line while Dr. Sam's parents are staying over.)

The Problem of the Body in the Haystack
 
There's a bear running around Northmont and a few concerned citizens, Dr. Sam among them, are ready to kill it to death. The bear however, is the least of their worries, especially when a dead body turns up on top of a tarp-covered haystack, one that was nailed down earlier...
 
This is a good one. The premise is neat and the solution is simple, yet almost bound to give you the slip. Of course, it has to be simpler than normal, otherwise we might have a hard time believing that Sheriff Lens solved it first! (Again, I kid. I like Sheriff Lens.)
 
The Problem of Santa's Lighthouse
 
Dr. Sam is travelling and notices an advertisement for Santa's Lighthouse... and sees that it originally read Satan's Lighthouse. His investigation into this drags him into a murder committed when no one was near the victim and into a direct confrontation with some vicious gangsters...
 
This...wasn't the best story to end on. It's merely okay with both the murderer and the solution being a little to obvious. (though this might be because of the way other reviews and summaries I read beforehand discussed this story.) It's decent, but not much else.
 
Well, there's our second round of Dr. Sam. All in all, this could have been better. The stories are still top-notch, but they seem to have more flaws than the ones in the last collection, mainly in regard to solutions.
 
Despite these flaws, this collection in more than worthy of your time. I give it a 7.5 out of 10. Next time, either a lost Ellery Queen novel, or another locked room anthology. Be sure to comment! But first, a question. Should I continue doing short story collections? I've got about five or six more before we start hitting any novels, and I want to know if you all would mind that. If not, I have a few Monk novels I can insert in. Thanks for reading and thank you Ho-ling for linking me (I'd do the same if I knew how) on your blog! It's official, I'm popular!
 
(Also, I know I said I would look at Dr. Sam's justice bending here, but that will probably be a separate post.)

Friday, August 8, 2014

Diagnosis: Improbable

Let's make one thing clear: I utterly fanboy Edward D. Hoch. I do not admire him. I do not respect him. I fanboy him. He's one of my literary idols. One of pipe dreams is to write the man's biography. I want to read everything he's written. I can only hope that I'll be as good at mystery writing as he was. I mean, the man wrote over 950 short stories. He had talent. And, with all those stories came many different series detectives. Today, we're going to look at my personal favorite, (though Simon Ark might replace him if I ever get around to reading his stories) Dr. Sam Hawthorne, the star of Diagnosis Impossible, The Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne.

Dr. Sam has his office in the New England town of Northmont circa 1922 and, interestingly enough, continuing on into the 1940s. Yep, we also get to follow the march of history in this series and in just about every other long series Hoch has written, which just makes me love him more.

Now why Dr. Sam? Because this was the third random book I decided to start my mystery reading with. A wise choice, as almost every story in the series is some sort of locked room mystery/ impossible crime. (The one exception I know of I've reviewed already.) But can Hoch keep delivering consistent quality?

Yes. He can.

The Problem of the Covered Bridge

By March of 1922, the only thing Dr. Sam is known for around Northmont is his Pierce-Arrow car. That all changes when his Detective Curse(TM) kicks in leading him to investigate the bizarre disappearance of Hank Bringlow. Hank was delivering applesauce and was being followed by Dr. Sam when Hank sped ahead. The tracks show that he went into the covered bridge, and never came out the other side...

An excellent start to the collection. The problem is intriguing and the solution is fair (even though SPOLIERS the people responsible were kind of operating on crunch time/ banking on no one else coming through END SPOLIERS). My main complaint is that the story feels slightly disjointed or maybe just a little slow. It's not pronounced or anything though and doesn't majorly damage the story.

The Problem of the Old Gristmill

Henry Cordwainer has come to Northmont for a year so that he can write a book on the nature there. Then, in July 1923, the gristmill he's staying in burns to the ground, with Cordwainer inside. That's not the impossibility though. The true impossibility is how his notes and journals vanished from a locked strongbox en route to Boston...

Another good story with a fine solution. The main semi-gripe one can have with this story is that the killer is harder to spot than normal (not bad normally, but it's how they appear that might irritate a reader). The main gripe I have with this story was the truth serum business. It felt like pointless padding. Also, why doesn't this story have the little outro the other stories have?

The Problem of the Lobster Shack

Dr. Felix Dory is a well-respected surgeon and an idol of Dr. Sam...who thinks enough of him to invite him to his daughter's wedding party complete with magician! A magician who's escape act goes awry, leaving him with a slashed throat in a boarded-up lobster shack watched by countless witnesses...

An interesting story with another good solution and well-concealed killer, marred only by some mild...(SPOLIERS homophobia? I mean the victim is called out for doing forcing a suspect when that suspect said he did it of his own free will! Am I misreading the line? Was he worse than a blackmailer in the same way Charles Augustus Milverton was? Or is this just 1920s attitudes at work? SPOLIERS) It just seems bizarre.

The Problem of the Haunted Bandstand

It's time for Northmont's 4th of July Festival, complete with fireworks, music, and a crazy hooded guy stabbing the mayor to death before vanishing in a flash of light! Wait, what was that last one...?

Hey, another good story! Once again, the solution works (there's bare minimum of technical knowledge, but barely enough to note) the killer is fairly hinted at, and the motive is honestly interesting. It's good example of how to use the time your story's set in to show different motives.

The Problem of the Locked Caboose

Dr. Sam hits the rails to replace a doctor in Boughville, only to find caught up in a jewel theft and a brutal murder, both committed in a locked caboose. And what's with the dying message implicating an elf...?

The collection finally hits a (very small) hiccup with this story. It's by no means bad. The solution is still good and all, but the clueing feels...off (SPOLIERS This story shows a gripe I have with dying messages; sometimes they hinge on the reader having specialized knowledge-in this case, the German language. I believe that dying messages should be solvable based in-story information, extremely common knowledge, be one of those clues that makes perfect sense when you looks at it right, or merely be one clue among many, where the reader can fail to deduce it, but still solve the mystery. END SPOLIERS) That being said, there is enough for you to at least get the solution even if the murderer escapes you. Besides, I still enjoy it and I can have very high standards about clueing.

The Problem of the Little Red Schoolhouse

It is the fall of 1925. Leopold and Leob is still fresh in the minds of many, especially after Tommy Belmont is kidnapped and held for ransom. Of course, the more interesting part is how he vanished from an active schoolyard when the teacher looked away for a few seconds...

For once, no murder! That doesn't stop the central problem from being interesting through. It's simple, the red herrings (and clues!) abound, and the obligatory "Detective Figures Out Case Because Of Chance Remark Or Action" is well done.

The Problem of the Christmas Steeple

It's Christmas Day in Northmont; a time of peace on earth and goodwill toward men...unless you count dem dirty gypsies. Thankfully, they have an ally in Parson Wigger... until he's found stabbed to death in his steeple and only the gypsy leader is in there with him. Oh, and there's no other way out except the entrance that Dr. Sam and Sheriff Lens followed the parson up...

Routine sets in once again. Not only with the murder but with the fair cluing and the neat solution. It's a little more obvious than normal (not that I solved it my first time through...) but that really doesn't impede things. Oh, and Dr. Sam bends the law. Again. (He did it in the third story.) I'll talk more about this in the next collection.

The Problem of Cell 16

Georges Reme is the Eel, a master criminal known for his daring escapes. And then he goes and gets caught by Sheriff Lens. Good show there, buddy. (I kid. I like Sheriff Lens.) He's eager to gain some pride back, and gain back pride he will when he vanishes from the new jail cells...

Once again, no murder! Guess the Detective Curse(TM) is slipping. This is another good story, with more of a focus on the "how" for obvious reasons. I don't have much to say other than that I gathered that some don't like this story. Could someone explain that to me.

The Problem of the Country Inn

Early summer, 1926. A masked man shoots and kills William Stokes, owner of the Ferry House, the titular county inn. The man then fled down the hall...and vanished, leaving the door bolted behind him. Dr. Sam already has his hands full with dealing with the fallout form an unfortunate duel and things just get worse when the robber fires on him before repeating his vanishing act...

I'm running out of mindless praise here, I'm sorry to say. Thankfully, this is probably my least favorite story in the collection, mainly because of the solution. (SPOLIERS It's one of those technical ones that I have to be able to see in action before I can full believe it. I'm probably just being petty though. END SPOLIERS) This is contrasted by a clever motive for creating the locked room, something which authors tend to lack. (Though Hoch is much better about it than others.)

The Problem of the Voting Booth

It's election time in Northmont and Sheriff Lens has tough competition in the form of Henry G. Oatis. The good news is that his victory is soon guaranteed. The bad news is that this is because Oatis is stabbed to death while alone in a watched voting booth..

This story leaves me torn. On one hand, it's well played and clued, and the ending is honestly pretty somber. It's that the solution makes me iffy. It's fairly clued, but it's not a solution I approve of in mysteries like this. But that's the thing, "what I approve of" and my standards can be very exact at times. It's not as technical as the previous story though, which is why it edges out over the other.

The Problem of the County Fair

Max McNear was always trouble in Northmont, doing things like punching the mayor's son through a window. Then he calls and says he's coming back after a year's absence and come back he does. As a corpse in the county fair's time capsule...

Probably my favorite story in the collection. Unique situation, neat solution that goes with the situation, fair clueing, a semi-interesting motivation this story has it all! I only have one gripe. (SPOLIERS What was the point of Dr. Sam's conversation with Emma Thane? Yes, there were elements of a red herring, but the conversation makes little sense. Especially that whole "blunt instrument" thing. He knows she's not the killer, why is he saying that? END SPOILERS) Still a great story.

The Problem of the Old Oak Tree

The talkies are taking Hollywood by storm and one about barnstorming pilots is going to be filmed in Northmont. Too bad the crew didn't pay enough attention the legends about the old haunted oak tree. Nor did they consider that Dr. Sam was on the set. If they had maybe one of them could have prevented the star's double from being strangled by said tree. That is, unless they're willing to believe that he was strangled in midair...

A great finish to the collection. All of my previous praise applies here. I simply can't say anything more than what I've already said. I guess that you could argue that there's technical knowledge in the solution, but it's very minor, and you can figure out the main trick without that knowledge.

All in all, this is an excellent collection. Each story here is a high quality mystery and while some have minor flaws, they're just that, minor. In fact, these stories have so few flaws, that I can't give any pros or cons that I haven't already mentioned! About the only other gripe one could have is that Hoch doesn't create a lot of complex characters. Thing is, he doesn't need to. These are short stories with more focus on the puzzle, that's not to say his characters don't have personalities, but it is something to note. (Of course, most won't read Hoch for character complexity. The man had one story in every issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine for a little under 35 years!. He's allowed a few liberties with characterization!)

I give this collection an 8 out of 10.

Next up, more Hoch! Be sure to comment!

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Large And In Charge

Anthologies are like a pair of dice. Albeit a very large pair of dice with more than six sides a piece and that make you feel empowered to beat Chihuahuas to death whenever you hold them, but a pair of dice nonetheless. This is because anthologies, a collection of stories with the same theme, are very hit and miss. The editor's definition of quality is probably very different from yours (and as such is wrong) and the sheer amount of stories generally means that there will be a few clunkers. So why did I pick something so risky (and long) for my second foray into mysteries? Because it was one of three books that I picked from a list at random.

The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries is actually the second locked room anthology (though there are some regular "perfect" crimes for variety) that Mike Ashley has edited (the first being The Mammoth Book of Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes) and one of many anthologies he's edited. But does that mean that this is worth your time? (Before we start, I want to say that descriptions and reviews will be shorter than normal. This is because I want to keep this from getting bloated and the stories aren't connected except in theme, so it's hard to keep a thread going.)

An Almost Perfect Crime by William F. Smith

A man enters an all-glass phone booth and, in full view of witness, kneels over from a curare-tainted icepick. An icepick that somehow ended up in his back despite the fact that no one was inside, or even near the booth, and the glass was undamaged...

A good start to the collection, with a neat problem and a neat solution. It was a little more technical than I would have liked, but it works as far as I can tell. (SPOLIER Unless there's a problem with the location of the tube and the phone itself. There might've been, but I wasn't sure. SPOLIER) It's neatly clued too.

The X Street Murders by Joseph Commings.

An envelope arrives for Kermit Gosling on X Street. It contains a gun, a gun that can fire three shots on its own and not tear the envelope...

One of Commings' excellent Senator Banner stories, this has everything: good clueing, a unique situation, and an excellent solution. The killer can be rather easy to spot though.

Locked in Death by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer

Nikolai Zubov was a cruel man and an incompetent ringmaster and it was only a matter of time before someone got tired of him. It's just that no one thought that it would be the lion tamer's corpse in a locked trailer...

Don't let my synopsis fool you; this story is awful. Or, to be more precise, it's solution is awful. I knew when I read it that that solution didn't work. (SPOLIERS SNAKES DO NOT WORK THAT WAY! SPOLIERS) Disappointing, considering the situation.

Wingless Pegasus by Gillian Linscott

A nobleman is found on an island, his head bashed in. That is not the impossible crime. The true impossibility is why a horse is on the island with him...

Once again, neat problem, terrible solution. (SPOLIERS It's pretty much "the horse swam there". SPOLIERS) The narration is entertaining enough, but the story is a let down as a whole.

Duel of Shadows by Vincent Cornier

Henry Westmacott sits down to listen to the radio...and is shot. And this time, the fact that no one could have left the room is a minor problem compared to the fact that the bullet was fired over 200 years ago...

Quality! Glorious quality! Not only do we have an intriguing problem, but the solution isn't a let down! Admittedly, the solution does require scientific knowledge, but there are enough hints for you to at least see where the author is going, even if you can't figure out the specifics.

The 45 Steps by Peter Crowther

At dinner, Arthur Clark gets up to use the restroom. Minutes later, he is dead in a locked stall due to acute nicotine poisoning. And there was no poison in his food or drink...

Well. This is a thing. This is... I really don't know. I mean, the solution is fine (and kind of creepy when you think about it) but the quality is buried under ANGST!!! It just felt too surreal for me to truly get into it. Disappointing.

Contrary to the Evidence by Douglas Newton

Stanley Park is dead. Of natural causes. He simply kneeled over from a heart attack at the sight of his worthless nephew. But Barbra Tabard insists it was foul play even though Gerald Park was seen to have never gotten near his uncle...

This story is hard to judge, because while I can't say that I care for the solution (SPOLIERS Random mechanical device and strange poison! SPOLIERS) I did enjoy seeing the gradual revelation of the killer's activities. The idea of a psychic detective is also interesting.

The Impossible Footprint by William Brittan

A pair of hunters stumble on a gruesome sight; a corpse with one foot hacked off. It looks like the man cut his foot off to escape from a bear trap, but a footprint made by the cut-off foot casts doubt on that...

A good story with a nice sense of humor, but one that never really felt impossible to me. It's hard to explain, but even when I read it the first time, it felt like there were too many obvious answers to really make it impossible. Still a good story though.

Three Blind Rats by Laird Long

Lenny "The Rat" Laymon is killed in his house. Not exactly an awe-inspiring problem, but the case gets interesting when it looks like he's been robbing jewelry stores while dead...

Peter Lovesey did this story already, and I'm pretty sure that he did it better. It's not bad and the use of technology is interesting but it also, in some ways, cheapens the solution. I do find the idea of the older detective embracing technology with the younger rejecting it to be funny though.

Death and the Rope Trick by John Bayse Price

A man and his nephew travel to meet a man who claims that he can preform the famous Indian Rope Trick (in which a rope levitates, someone climbs the rope, and the person vanishes). All goes
according to plan, until the vanished person turns up drowned...

This story is stupid. The solution is indecipherable, it probably doesn't even work in real life, the protagonists are completely gullible and I love this story. None of this occurred to me on my first read-through and I blissfully went along, unaware that anyone hated it until TomCat ripped into it. I thought about and I still think that the story's good, just in a stupid way. Turn your brain off and enjoy.

The Problem of the Black Cloister by Edward D. Hoch.

The year is 1942 and the small town of Northmont is preparing for a war bond drive. A noble cause, but one that grinds to a halt when the hired actor drops dead from a heart attack. Could it have something to do with a strange death at the titular cloister...?

At first I was wondering what this was doing in the collection until I realized that it fit a different party of the title. The story clicked a lot better and now my compliant is that Hoch uses a clue where (SPOLIERS you have to have knowledge of another language SPOILIERS) but it is but one clue among many and you can still figure out most of what's going on. EDIT: I forgot to mention how interesting it is that the detective actually starts wondering if they're the cause of all the murders. He was so close to understanding the Detective's Curse(TM)...

A Shower of Daggers by Edward D. Hoch

All Susan Holt wanted to do was meet a contact for a department store. She definitely wasn't planning on being arrested, getting caught up in counterfeiting, or having her contact stabbed to death in the contact's shower while Susan was sitting right outside it...

Now this is an impossible crime! Hoch's skill gets a better showing with a clever crime, a simple and ingenious solution, and clues scattered throughout to make you hit yourself when you fail to solve it. (Yes, I am a Hoch fan, can you tell?)

The Hook by Robert Randisi

A serial killer is stalking the streets and he's got a strange way of killing. Most serial killers just cut you up; this one will take the organs right out of your body...

Why is this story here? There's an impossible element, but it's easily resolved and there's no mystery surrounding the killer. It's not bad per se, it just has no business being in this collection.

The Mystery of the Sevenoaks Tunnel by Max Rittenberg

A man hurls himself out of a passing train car. The footprints in the dust show that he was alone. However, the man's niece and the lawyer who wants her hand, are convinced that it was murder...

An entertaining story. The solution is perfectly fine and while the clueing may be sparse, it's made up for by the characters. This story is funny, maybe not laugh-out-loud funny, but funny nonetheless. Also, would I be crossing a line if I said that Magnum (who names their kid that?) might be a predecessor of a certain Sir Henry Merrivale?

The Red Ring by Willaim Le Queux

An agent of the British Secret Service is found dead in his locked hotel room. The verdict is suicide by poison, but what explanation is there for the strange red ring on the man's neck...?

Why is this story here? Once again, it's not a bad story, it just has little business being here. Heck, you can't solve any of it, since the method for locking the room only shows up at the end! And the detective only mentions it as he's explaining it!

Observable Justice by Will Murray

A man named JOHN DOOM is found in a hotel room. His death looks like it's from natural causes, but soon it looks like JOHN DOOM may have used remote viewing to get a glimpse into Hell itself...

Why. Is. This. Story. Here. There really isn't an impossible crime from what I could see. The whole "and if you look down you'll see Hell" is unique and all, but it isn't really treated like an impossible crime. Is this one of the "perfect crime" stories? It doesn't feel like it. Also, the victim's name is JOHN DOOM. I still find that hilarious.

On the Rocks by J.A. Konrath

A young woman is found on her apartment floor, her wrist slit. It looks like a suicide, and how can it be anything but, when the door is not only chained on the inside but blocked with a couch...?

An okay story. The solution isn't anything to write home about, but it works considering the context and the interactions between the characters are good. (That Houdini thing at the beginning was funny.)

Eternally Yours by H. Edward Hunsburger

Jeff Winsor believes in the scarcity of good New York apartments. He doesn't believe in ghosts. This belief is challenged when he starts receiving letters in response to a dead man, a dead man who died behind the locked door of his apartment...

A much better story, with good narration, an interesting problem, and a simple but effective solution. One of the better stories in this collection. (Even if the killer's motive is ridiculous.)

Murder in Monkeyland by Lois Gresh and Robert Wienberg

A scientist dies in his lab in a secret government building known as The Slab. The place is secured tighter than Alcatraz with keycard sensors, a lack of windows, and huge hunks of stone blocking the labs at night...

This story is awful. It's pure dross. It starts interesting , has some good dialogue and narration... and then the solution rears it's ugly head. It...just...no. You can't solve it and it doesn't work. The opening blurb mentions that the authors mainly write science-fiction and it shows. Probably the worst in the collection.

No Killer Has Wings by Arthur Porges

A man stands accuses of murdering his uncle and it falls to Dr. Joel Hoffman, coroner to prove his innocence. Quite the task, considering only the victim's footprints and the main suspect's footprints are near the body...

Definitely an improvement over the last story (though anything would've been) this story has both an ingenious solution and fair play clueing. You have no room to object if you can't figure it out! (Also, does anyone know where I can find more of this man's stories?)

Benning's School for Boys by Richard A. Lupoff

A military clerk is found dead in a locked safe room with the money he was guarding joining his killer in vanishing into thin air. Now Nick Train will have to explain how someone can get in and out of a room locked on both sides...

A simple, inoffensive story. It's not bad, but nothing about it really stands out except for some of the dialogue.

The Episode of the Nail and the Requiem by C. Daly King

A model is found dead in the apartment of mad (mad!, MAD!!!) artist Michael Salti. He's obviously the killer, but how did he leave his locked, high-rise apartment...?

A pretty good story. It flows at a nice pace, the solution isn't too out there, and it features something that you normally don't see in stories with Great Detectives (TM). Just try to ignore the racism. (And be thankful that it was this story instead of some of the other Tarrant stories.)

The Impossible Murder of Dr. Satanus by William Krohn

Dr. Satanus aka Charles Kimball is a professional magician who's apparently scared for his life and trying to divorce his wife. The latter means that there's a hired private investigator who sees him lying dead in an elevator with a knife in his back, even though his wife saw him get in and head straight down...

The best story in the collection, hands down. the clues are well-placed, the solution is unique, and it's just a fun story.

The Stuart Sapphire by Peter Tremayne

A century ago, James II fled England to live in exile. Now, his only surviving descendent is having his own troubles as valuable jewels belonging to him family have vanished from a locked safe...

Firmly average. While the historical setting is interesting (and the overly-long title of the protagonist funny) there really isn't much here. The solution is fine, and shows that not every locked room needs to be an elaborate affair, but the story just isn't memorable.

The Flung-Back Lid by Peter Godfrey

A man takes his cable car to the bottom of a mountain. He is alone, but that does not stop someone from plunging a knife into his back...

This story is hard to judge. On one hand, it has a nice solution and, as far as I can tell, it's fairly clued but... something about it did not click the first time I read it, and it makes rereading harder. Nonetheless, I do appreciate what it was trying to do.

The Poisoned Bowl by Forrest Rosaire

A delivery of an acid-filled tube leads to a story of conspiracy, a man being poisoned despite not eating or drinking, and one of those tongue-cutting ebil Chinese guys...

Pure pulp. That's this story in a nutshell. Some parts, such as the culprit's identity, are pulled off well but most of this can only be enjoyed with a shut-off brain. I also have to wonder at how viable the solution to the impossible crime is...

Proof of Guilt by Bill Pronzini

George Dillon enters the office of lawyer Adam Chillingham to confront him about Chillingham's abuse of Dillon's father's estate. Obviously, this ends with Chillingham dead and with Dillon the only one capable of committing the crime if it weren't for the slight matter of the missing murder weapon...

This story is built mainly on it's twist which, while well executed, leaves me feeling cheated. How are you supposed to be able to figure this out! Still a good story in spite of that though.

Slaughterhouse by Barry Longyear

They are known as the Slaughterhouse. They are composed of people who have committed murder...and got away with it. Now they are preparing to introduce a new member, who shot his wife in her locked bedroom...

An ok story (for me anyways). While I like the idea of just flat out deconstructing a locked room, I have a hard time getting behind the more technical solution. The ending is good though.

The Birdman of Tonypandy by Bernard Knight

Lewis Lloyd wants to kill his wife. He plans on making it an ingenious crime, a crime that will leave the police shaking their fists in fury. You might even say that it will be the perfect crime...

No locked rooms here. Just a reverse whodunit, and a lovely game of cat and mouse between our culprit and the police. A decent end to the collection.

All in all, this collection really could have been better. When it's good, it's good but there are just too many clunkers and average stories for me to tell you to go and buy it. it's fine as a collection of crime stories, but the impossible crimes fall flat.  Thankfully, it's pretty cheap on Amazon, so you might be able to buy it and feel satisfied.

As a collection of crime stories, it gets a 7 out of 10, as these are relatively good. As a collection of locked rooms? 6 out of 10.

Next time, we'll look at a man who could've out-told Scheherazade. Be sure to comment!