More Crippen and Landru, more locked rooms. Such fun.
This is not, has not been, and hopefully never will be a political blog, aside from the jabs that I feel is every person's noble responsibility. But that's neither here nor there. What is both here and there is the subject of this review: Banner Deadlines: The Impossible Files of Senator Brooks U. Banner, written by one of the most underappreciated mystery authors out there, Joseph Commings.
The book stars the titular Senator Banner, who seems to be Dr. Gideon Fell after his attempt at a weight-loss program. He seems to do very little politicking, focusing more on getting involved in bizarre impossible crimes (not that I object). But he does not merely look at locked and bolted doors, oh no! Too mundane. Why not a sword wielded by a giant? Or a delivered gun that kills without even damaging the envelope? ...Yes, it's obvious that I like this collection already....
Murder Under Glass
Despite my earlier rant, this story does indeed begins with a murder committed behind a locked door...to a room made of glass. A famous glass manufacturer is stabbed in his greatest creation, and only Banner can uncover the truth...even if said truth is semi-flawed. (SPOLIERS Wouldn't the witnesses have heard two crashes and not one? And looking back, the one who mentions this...is the killer. Why? And could a jack really lift the room up that high? END SPOLERS) The concept is very good, but the execution...yeah.
A séance is held to uncover the truth in a past death. To the surprise of no one, it's organizer is stabbed to death. While everyone is straightjacketed. And they're linked by touching feet. Just for fun. the story is far better than the previous, with the best kind of "Well, duh." solution. The kind that makes you feel a little dumb for not catching it immediately. Though I do have wonder both at the killer's motivations, and Banner's actions at the end. It's not like he was short of evidence...
The Specter on the Lake
There's a legend on Mad Moon Lake. Two lovers drowned themselves because forbidden love, and now the tragedy receives a new spin when two parts of a love triangle are shot to death on the lake...even though no one approached. I'm actually a little reluctant to critique...mainly because I don't know how much of this me or Commings. I think that he reversed (SPOLIERS the victims' positions) which completely changes the story. I don't know for sure, but the story is broken if he did.
The Black Friar Murders
Eric Bayne is on the prowl. No one knows his face, but he seems to have wormed his way into a group stranded in a cloister. Oh, and there's a ghostly friar stabbing people in barred cells before running through the wall. The story is well told, with a fairly hinted at killer, but the solution to the impossible crime isn't hinted at all. Also, Banner's plan is.. odd, to say the least. Why would the killer decide that something a petty as that was somehow going to expose everything?
Ghost in the Gallery
Linda Carewe poisoned her husband with five grams of arsenic. It what will go down as one of history's greatest murder fails, not only does he live, but he also gains the superpower of vanishing from an observed room after stabbing a woman to death. Kinda useless all thing considered, unless you're a serial killer. The actual solution is well done, and the story itself moves at a nice pace.
Death by Black Magic
Fifteen years ago, Simmonds, playing Othello, actually strangled his wife, playing Desdemona, before vanishing from the stge. The theater that it all went down in seems like a great place to test a magic trick, so thinks the magician who will be strangled in his own cabinet in full view of his daughter and Banner. The murderer is fairly hinted at, but the solution is nearly impossible to figure out. The past crime is interesting though.
A bunch of smart people with nothing better to do all decide to come up with some ingenious ways to make Banner look dumb. It'd be a doomed plan from the start, but then one comes up with the idea to arrange a nice impossible vanishing....that ends with both participant dead. A nice, multi-layered story, who's only real flaw is a slight lack of cluing about the solution.
Castanets, Canaries, and Murder
Kean Smith has some problems. He seems to have won the affections of a woman who's kinda crazy to him. Oh, and she has a problem with some dead canaires. Thankfully, Banner's happy to look into it...and he uncovers blackmail, and a murder almost committed almost in front of a running camera. And no, the killer wasn't seen. How silly would that be! The problem is that you will either instantly see the trick, or miss it with no in between. The clueing for the killer is at least semi-fair. The leading lady is a tad on the over-the-top side though.
The X Street Murders
Already done. Twice. Large And In Charge
During a storm, Banner finds himself stranded with a bunch of people in a mansion cut off by a flood. They all survive and go home happy. The end.
Hah. The original owner is found hanging by an insanely high chandelier over a floor of almost unbroken dust. It's a well-done and grand solution, that's marred by the fact that there are only two clues to the killer's identity. One is small and without context, the other is slammed in your face. Also, why does the killer need to do all of this? Just dump the body in the raging flood surrounding the house. Also, the motivation is...very weak at best. At worst, you'd think that the victim and killer would be reversed. Fremantle did threaten them...
The Giant's Sword
Estelle Whitelake is not happy. That nice painting that she bought? A forgery. The dealer that she bought it from? Dead, impaled on an overly large sword better suited for a giant. Probably the most creative of the stories, and another with a perfect, "Well, duh." solution. The killer is a little obvious though.
Stairway to Nowhere (co-written by Edward D. Hoch)
Jim Newman is not having the best day. His girlfriend vanished about halfway up a staircase. She might have been running around with a valuable diamond. Nope. Not a good day. Good thing that Banner is around to offer insight! This is one of two stories that follow a different character, and it's done well here, with Banner being inscrutable. The solution is well-done, and the story itself is also very good.
The Vampire in the Iron Mask
Colonel Hope Seven is trying to give Guy St. Hilaire a medal for his work in Nazi killing, but he's being a stubborn old jerk. Throw in a beautiful woman, and you have nice tension going. And this is before the iron-masked vampire starts strangling kids and writing names in a locked tomb. Because those are the things you see at creepy French boarding schools. All joking aside, the story is quite good, with a nice solution and motive for the locked room. Though I do have to wonder how the reader is supposed to know that (SPOLIERS the first death was accidental. No really, how? END SPOLIERS) The story also could've done with more suspects.
The Whispering Gallery
An evil magician. An upside-down killer. A man vanishing from his house. Stolen Egyptian papyrus. All of these are interesting plot elements...individually. Unfortunately, it feels like Commings wrote a few lines for each idea, then crammed then together into a story. It's a mess. What was the point of that tarot lady, for example? Even the solution manages to be underwhelming, mainly because there was no reason for the killer to do that!
All in all, a very good collection. The stories, while flawed in places, are well-told. Banner himself is also entertaining to watch in action, which is good because the stories would be a little bland otherwise. I still think that some of the solutions are near-impossible to figure out without specialized knowledge, they're at least interesting. Out of fourteen stories, I only didn't care for two. That's good, right?
I'm giving this a recommendation. If just so we can get more of these stories.
Next time, the French John Dickson Carr. And werewolves.