Sunday, December 16, 2018

Favorite Sleuths (1965) by John Ernest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

But did couples talk like that? In any era?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 24, 2018

The Vampire Tree (1996/2016) by Paul Halter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 2, 2018

A Midsummer's Equation (2016) by Keigo Higashino

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

Sunday, August 19, 2018

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

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

Thursday, August 2, 2018

The Moai Island Puzzle (1989) by Alice Arisugawa

I still blame Ellery Queen for starting the trend of self-insertion in mysteries.

After more or less being French Locked Room International for quite some time, LRI has been branching out to include impossibilities from the wider globe from Swedish to Chinese to Japanese--the latter of which is the target of this review. Alice Arisugawa’s The Moai Island Puzzle was translated by blogger Ho-Ling, who did an excellent job of bringing this classic-styled mystery over for the enjoyment of us lesser beings.

Narrator Alice is part of a five member mystery club that includes him; senior Jirou Egami, a brilliant man who’s still on his fourth year; and Maria Arima, the girl of the group. It’s the latter that kickstarts the plot, inviting Alice and Egami to a family reunion on an isolated, horseshoe-shaped island. Maria’s grandfather was a lover of puzzles who left behind a fortune in diamonds, and like all rich puzzle lovers in mysteries, willed that whoever could solve the puzzle could keep the diamonds. Maria’s cousin Hideo tried but ended up drowning, and she’s hoping that her friends will succeed.

Of course, Alice is nervous. After all, once they get on the island, the boat won’t be coming back for six days, and communication with the outside world will be limited. The mystery fan senses are tingling. Everyone assures him that nothing will go wrong. And indeed, it doesn’t.

Until the 80 page mark or so.
With most of the cast lying in a drunken stupor and distracted by the constant bangs of a loose door in a storm, no one hears the twin shots the leave a father and daughter dead behind the rusty-locked door of a bedroom. The blurb boasts of this locked room being worthy of Carr himself, but it’s not. It’s a small portion of the plot, and Egami’s attitude towards it will insult locked room purists, but his conclusions about what happened behind the door are plausible and unique.

Obviously, there’s more death to come, and we’re promised that we can deduce everything logically. I would argue that this is true; while there’s only one real clue, once you have that and realize what it means, it’s possible to follow the chain of deduction to see what the killer must have done, why they did it, and even to follow it back to who the killer must have been, thought this last part requires a small leap. I didn’t solve it (well, I correctly guessed the culprit, but that was a guess), but I didn’t feel like I had been bested because I didn’t have enough information, or because the author was writing something you’d need to be a genius to solve. I felt like that if I’d thought about it a tad more, I could have solved it. This mainly applies to the actual murders; the treasure hunt is nice and complex, and I'm sure it's quite solvable with enough effort, but most readers won't be able to puzzle it all out without some level of getting out a sheet of paper and writing it all out. It's not needed to solve the mystery per se, so the more intellectually lazy among us can consider it a bonus challenge.

Where the mystery suffers is in the cast. While Arisugawa is kind enough to bump a good chunk of them off over the course of the story, you’ll need the dramatis persona at the beginning to tell one name from another. I also have to gripe about the blurb on another point, as it commits the dread sin of “I know the summary is bad/cliché,” which is something that even fanfiction writers know/are warned to stay away from. It also makes mention of a dying message on par with Ellery Queen, but this too, means nothing. There is a dying message, but it has little impact on the plot.

But in the end, any complaints are minor. While it’s not as exciting and super fast as, say, Death Invites You, it’s more competent, more thoroughly thought out, and even manages to reach a bit of melodramatic pathos at the finale. Recommended.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Ace Attorney Retrospective : Locked Rooms and Other Impossibilites: Part 1

          "Why can't we have a normal, straightforward killing once in a while in this country!?"
                                                       "I'll pretend I didn't hear that."
This has been in the works for a bit, yes.
I’ve reviewed two cases from the long-running Ace Attorney series, one of which was a locked room mystery. Considering how the series deals with defending those falsely accused, locked rooms tend to appear quite frequently, about one per game. And considering how there are ten or so games total, that’s a fair few locked rooms to go through.
I’ve elaborated about the series in detail in other posts, so I’ll skip to the good stuff. The goal here is simply to give a brief overview of the locked room encountered throughout the course of the series. I’ll offer comments, certainly, but these aren’t in-depth reviews (since it’s been years since I played them in some cases!), more like a summary (as well as blatant bait to get TomCat and JJ and now Dan to check these games out).
We’ll take it from the top, with the first game in the series: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. While there are a few set-ups that can be described as “impossible” (Cases 3 and 5, if you must know), I don’t know enough to know if they would fall into spoiler territory. So I’ll just stick with the one unambiguous impossibility in the game: the fourth cases in the game: "Turnabout Goodbyes".
It’s Christmas. Two men who haven’t met in years take a boat out onto a foggy lake. Suddenly, two shots ring out. One man falls back into the water. Sometime later, the body of attorney Robert Hammond is pulled out of the water, shot from close range. The other man in the boat is swifty arrested.
He’s innocent, obviously.
This isn’t a complex impossibility by any means. You get told what happened on the second day of investigation, and it won’t exactly cause JDC to be revived in ecstasy, But the main fun of the case comes not from the mystery per se, but from how writer Shu Takumi does an excellent job of forcing the player into the position of underdog. The prosecutor for this case is a “god among prosecutors” Manfred von Karma, who’s gone undefeated for forty years! Much of the trial is desperately flailing about, trying to get momentum against a seemingly unstoppable force. This feeling of desperation would be used to good effect in the next game’s final case as well, but I digress.
Speaking of said next game, we can now move onto the black sheep of the series: Justice for All. A reputation it gained for a variety of reasons, such as weaker mysteries and a lack of a real overarching plot. But it was my first AA game, and will always hold a special place in my heart. Also, when you consider the sheer work Takumi put into it, (wrote the script in three months, then rewrote it to include a different prosecutor) I can give the flaws a pass.
I’ve already talked about "Reunion, and Turnabout," so I’ll move onto the game’s third case, "Turnabout Big Top"….which has a reputation as the worst case in the series!
The case this time takes place at a circus, which seemed to have pushed Takumi’s normal talent for making eccentric but grounded characters to their limit, resulted in a rather unlikable cast for Phoenix to contend with in his investigation.
The victim of the week is the ringmaster of the Berry Big Circus, Russell Berry. A much-loved ringmaster and surrogate father figure to some in the circus, but that didn’t stop someone from bashing him in the back of the head. The scene, however, raises questions. Such as the heavy box the victim was slumped over, which contained a small container of pepper. Or the the fact that the snow around him lacked any footprints besides his own.
Compared to the case before, this is a better impossibility, though the well-read mystery fan will see right through it. The main draw of the case is the backstory, and the events leading up to the murder, which results in one of the sadder cases in the series’ history. I'll admit that it’s far from perfect, but I do feel that it deserves a tad more credit than it gets.
The third game in the series, Trials and Tribulations, is the only one in the series without an explicit locked room. I do believe that one comes up in the last case, but for the sake of spoilers and my unsureness, I’ll just pass from that.
We now jump seven years ahead into the next game in the series, Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney. As the name implies, the protagonist role has shifted, this time to the titular Apollo, a bit of a loudmouthed rookie who has a magic bracelet that lets him see people’s nervous tics. But we don’t learn that until Case 2, whoops. The locked room in question appears in Case 3, "Turnabout Serenade."
This time, Apollo is on enemy ground, in a sense. He’s backstage at a concert by the Gavineers, a band run by rival prosecutor Klavier Gavin. Gavin is actually friendly and the backstage tickets are genuine, but Apollo’s dislike of rock leaves him covering his ears backstage. Of course, this leads to him being a near-witness to murder. While he’s chatting with a detective in the hallway, two shots ring out from a nearby dressing room. They run into the room, and find Romein LeTouse, manager for the singer Lamoir, dying on the floor, only able to cough up, “the siren” before expiring. The problem? There’s only one small window in the room, barely bigger than a head, and the only door had Apollo and Ema standing outside it. A ladder leading into an air vent points to a certain culprit, Lamoir’s pianist, Machi Tobaye, a young child….
This is far from a perfect mystery. The trick at the center of the mystery is simple enough, but the mystery plays well with different mystery tropes, such as the dying message * and a common set-up in Japanese mysteries: crimes following the pattern of a rhyme (or song in this case). Most of the gripes I’ve seen (and agree with) are about the contrived nature of why the defendant is even accused in the first place (Essentially: How likely is it that a waifish teenager could fire a heavy caliber gun twice, drag a heavy body, then knock himself unconscious?) There’s a reason for it, but one that isn’t directly stated.
There’s also a smaller impossibility mixed in, a magic trick in which the before-mentioned singer somehow travels all the way across the building in a matter of seconds, but that one isn’t a shocker either. But the unraveling of that proves to be a key part in the murder.
The fourth case, "Turnabout Succession," wraps up the game’s overarcing plot with a couple more impossibilities of its own. The first being the poisoning of a reclusive artist by his daughter, or so the police claim. After all, the coffee she served him was the only thing he ate or drank, and the poison used is a “unique” (read: fictional) type that kills in fifteen minutes, making other methods of poisoning impossible. The method again, is not complex, but the method ties back seven years, to a certain trial in the past, and points the finger at a particularly cruel murderer.
As part of the investigation, there’s a long-time flashback to the events of seven years ago, which continue to work their influence on the present. One of these is the disappearance from a defendant after his trial was postponed. He was spotting running into one of the defendant lobbies, but when a bailiff entered via the only entrance, only a young girl stood inside. Again, not complex, but clever, with the method waved in your face long before this.
After this, the series took a bit of a break, with more focus on spin-offs, before roaring back to life with the fifth game in the series, Dual Destinies. Meant as a game which new and old players could enjoy, the game introduces another new character to the cast, Athena Cykes, and her amazing power of Hollywood Psychology (™). This is also the first main series game directed by Takashi Yamazaki, who’d previously been working on the spin-offs. Yamazaki has a thing for more technically complex mysteries, which is clear from the first locked room in the game, "The Monstrous Turnabout."
Nine-Tails Vale is a small town started by Japanese immigrants to California, and one that carries its own legend: It’s said that the guardian of the town fought against the bird demon Tenma Taro, ultimately sealing it away. Thankfully, this age-old feud hasn’t had much of an impact on the present, with talks of a merger between the vale and Tenma Town. But a masked wrestler (this makes more sense in context) called “The Amazing Nine-Tails” firmly opposes the merger. And it seems the incident may have led to murder.
The alderman of Nine-Tails Vale, Rex Kyubi is found murdered in his home, apparently during a meeting with the mayor of Tenma Town, Damian Tenma. Obviously, Daimin has no memory of what occurred, due to being drugged, but when the locked room was opened, only he and the victim were inside. Not to mention the feathers and bloody footprints implying that a giant bird ran through the room, and the sighting of it flying through the sky not long after the murder...
This is a pretty solid locked room, and a clever variation on an old trick. Some might find it a bit of a stretch, but I enjoyed it, and it is set-up well. There’s also a very clever reversal of expectations that should make certain of you stand up and clap.
The last case, "Turnabout for Tomorrow," also has an impossible crime thrown into the mix, but to give the deep details would spoil the case. So I’ll merely say that a killer vanishes from a room where the doors were either under direct observation by witnesses or security cameras. It’s simple but well-done, and one of the only mysteries that I know of where only someone of a certain personality could pull it off. But I’ll leave it at that.
I know this post is long, but hold on!
Spirit of Justice is the sixth and most recent game in the main series, as well as a locked room banquet. The second case, "The Magical Turnabout," involving murder at a magic show, isn’t a straight impossible crime, but it soon becomes clear that the killer has an unbreakable alibi...and Apollo and Athena are only able to break it thanks to a minor error in the killer’s plan. The third case, "The Rite of Turnabout," is no-holds barred.
A good chunk of the game’s plot goes down in the Kingdom of Khura'in, a kingdom that has all but eliminated defense attorneys, courtesy of a law that forces them to suffer the same penalty of their clients, and a pool that lets the court see the last moments of victims of murder! It’s a great idea, and it’s played with quite well. But I digress. One of the major figures in Khura'in is Lady Kee’ra, a cloaked figure who’s been gaining attention recently, since she seems to be operating in the modern day, attacking members of a rebellion against the government. But more important is the ritual honoring her, in which Maya Fey, Phoenix’s former assistant, will play the role of Lady Kee’ra. She and the abbot make their way up the mountain to the ritual site...and murder is done.
The abbot is found stabbed to death and dumped into a spring at the ritual area. It’s an open air plateau, but the ritual took place in a tent, sealed off from the outside world. Yet someone was able to enter it, and discovering what took place that night will push Phoenix to his limit. Locked room purists will grumble at the solution, but it’s well-hidden and motivated, with a few good reversals along the way. There's also a fair bit of pathos at the ending.
The next case, "Turnabout Storyteller," dials down the tension with a pretty unambiguous filler case, that also gives weight to my theory that the game developers and translators are in a Cold War with each other, with the former making the cases as Japanese as possible to frustrate the translators.
The victim is one Taifu Toneido, a master of rakugo, a form of Japanese theater. Someone slipped into his room and smothered him to death, and the cards on the table point the finger at a young chef who has a fair bit of anger at the victim, since he was keeping a family recipe back from said chef. To make matters worse, the door to the room was being watched, and the defendant was the only one seen going in and out. Athena mostly plays solo act here to unravel the truth.
This is a filler case, but I liked it. The identity of the killer won’t shock most people, and the way it handles a certain mental disorder can be questioned, but as a mystery it works quite well, toying with the dying message and unbreakable alibi.
The final case, "Turnabout Revolution," is a true Yamazaki finale, in that it’s overly long and while it’s amazing you realize a day later that it’s really stuffed to the brim. Such as here, where the first day could almost be a case on it’s own, with Apollo hunting for a valuable treasure and getting involved in a civil trial that turns into clearing up the murder of an archeologist. The impossibility shows up in the second day.
Sadly, to give any more than the bare minimum of details would spoil too much, so I’m forced to merely say that the case hinges around a stabbing that took place while the murder site was surrounded by guards...and the only one seen to enter was the defendant. Like the previous cases in this game, the fundamental trick is simple, but what makes it unique is that it takes a form that could only happen in the madcap world of Ace Attorney. I shall say no more. (Other than that there’s also a fair and plausible false solution thrown in.)
And that’s the main series done, albeit in broad strokes and not as detailed as I might of wished. But nevermind that.

*I think this the only case in the series that plays the dying message trope straight. That’s a whole nother post though.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Death Invites You (1988) by Paul Halter

Death likes pizza.

A few years ago I reviewed Paul Halter’s The Night of the Wolf, a very good short story collection that I still think is worth your time. I planned to look at the novels, but whoops, that took a while. Since I’ve read most of LRI’s Halter translations (barring The Madman's Room), I figured I might as well do this long overdue review.
Death Invites You is Halter’s third novel, and the first to feature Dr. Alan Twist and Inspector Hurst in the same book. The book opens with these two sitting in a pub, musing on how good criminals are just so hard to find these days. Hurst is particular is feeling smug and boasting about the police need a new, meaty case, unaware that one is beginning just a few feet away.

Simon Cunningham was the officer who helped to bring an end to the Lonely Hearts Killer, who targeted and seduced widows, spinsters, and the like before killing them and taking their money. Cunningham’s pursuit led to the killer’s suicide, as well as the officer himself rising up in the ranks and prestige. Now he’s facing a task that made even Spider-Man struggle: telling his fiancé that he can’t make it to her show. What he doesn’t say is that this is because her father, Harold Vickers, a writer of locked room mysteries, has invited him over for reasons unknown (as well as telling him not to inform anyone.)

Cunningham arrives, only to find that Vickers has invited another man, a famous crime reviewer, as well. Also, according to his wife, Diane, Vickers hasn’t left his study in two days, as he sometimes does. A quick check confirms that the shutters are latched, and when the smell of roasting chicken is smelled within the choice is made to force open the bolted door, revealing one of the stranger crime scenes in fiction.

Harold Vickers is found shot to death at a large table with freshly cooked food on it. His hands and face have been dunked into boiling oil. A pair of gloves are found at the scene. A bowl of water sits beneath one of the windows. The scene suggests a bizarre suicide, but it's soon clear that this is a case of murder… And more than that, it’s a scene straight out of Vicker’s latest in production novel.
Death Invites You shows Halter’s greatest strength: He keeps the plot moving. There’s rarely a dull or unexciting moment, and almost every chapter has some form of complication or resolution, which combined with the short length makes for a quick read. The novel presents an interesting set-up, but doesn’t fully deliver. For example, the water in the bowl. There is an explanation for it, and it works, but everyone else is facepalming and going “How could I have been so blind!” over something that isn’t obvious in retrospect. The set-up is amazing, but it’s all hand waved to fit in with the killer’s over complicated scheme, which feels unneeded. Why not just kill who needs to be killed instead of complicating the issue? I understand that this is a mystery novel and every killer has to be Machiavelli, but at least have everything be relevant to what the killer actually wants.

I also have to question how fair this book is. It’s mentioned in the denountment that one of the things that tipped Dr. Twist off to the killer was their reaction to an event. We see this event, but never get the killer’s reaction, not even disguised. Admittedly, the killer isn’t hard to pin down, if just due to the limited number of suspects, but it feels less like a well-reasoned deduction and more like Twist going, “Well, they probably did it.” Even during the denountement, we get no real evidence of the killer’s guilt. It’s plausible, yes, but so was the case Twist made ten pages ago against someone else entirely!
That being said, Halter does do a good job working with a limited cast and managing to bounce suspicion between them all. He even does a good job playing with the "relative from Australia/twin" ideas in good, non-obvious way. I still think it ends up being a tad too tangled by the end, but fair points for making it workable in the first place!
Still, for all my griping, I found myself enjoying the book. Halter creates a maze of mirrors and quite successfully leads the reader down it, piling on complication after complication, and while the resolution isn’t near as grand as it should be, it’s far from a dud, and the locked room itself is simple and neat--leaving me annoyed that I missed it. I’m not sure I’d go with JJ’s suggestion that this be new people’s introduction to Halter, but fans will enjoy. Recommended.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

AAR : Turnabout Time Traveller

I took too long to get to this case, really.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice, is the sixth main game (not counting spin-offs) in the long-running Ace Attorney series. I already reviewed a case from this series, but that was a case I was recalling from the dark valley of memory. This is far more recent, I was just watching it a week ago!* (No 3DS. I have to make due.)

Turnabout Time Traveler is the DLC for the game, taking place directly after the events of the game (though without directly spoiling them). The previous main series game, Duel Destinies, had a pretty good DLC case in the form of Turnabout Reclaimed (the one where you defend an orca), but can this game match up?

The case opens with Phoenix in his office, watching his daughter Trucy and his co-worker Athena Cykes struggle over Trucy appointing Athena as the new assistant in her magic show. It’s a nice bit of domestic fun, but the day is derailed with the sudden arrival of Phoenix’s childhood friend, Larry Butz, who has a woman in a wedding dress in tow, and is claiming that they’re getting married

Needlessly to say, the childhood saying around Phoenix’s school “When something smells, it's usually the Butz.” holds true, with the woman identifying herself as Ellen Wyatt, the fiancée of Sorin Sprocket, soon to be CEO of Sprocket Aviation, a company specializing in flight. Oh, and she’s on the run for murder. And a time traveler.

According to Ellen, shortly after her wedding reception, she was attacked by Dumas Gloomsbury, the butler (insert jokes here). He forced her to the edge of the “Flying Chapel” the airship where the wedding was being held, but Ellen made a wish on her pendant to go back in time to her “blissful moment”, passing out just as a shadowy figure struck Dumas on the head. When she came too, it was time for the wedding reception again! This time, there was no attack, but while cleaning up, she knocked over a lantern, exposing Dumas’ battered body...and the situation points the finger of suspicion on her.

Needless to say, Phoenix finds himself taking up Ellen’s defense, and the case soon turns into another form of time travel for series fans in the pure nostalgia department. Not only is Phoenix reunited with his long-time assistant, Maya Fey, but standing across the courtroom is Phoenix’s old rival Miles Edgeworth as “the Prosecutor’s Office is full of cowards” who have been intimidated by the powerful Sprocket family. Not to mention that the murder weapon is once again an unusual clock.

It’s hard to judge this case in a pure mystery basis, as like Reunion, it’s not a fair play mystery in the normal sense. There are only two positions for murderer, and you aren’t exactly in a position to solve things in advance per se. The fun comes from having to adjust to the new information that gets tossed your way. Such as why the lanterns at the reception were mismatched or what the flower petals in the lantern with the body mean.

That being said, I can still judge this in the pure mystery sense. Sadly, the time travel gimmick isn't wholly satisfying, though the motivation behind it works. The case as a whole feels a tad shorter than it should. While some of the contradictions are difficult, I can’t imagine skilled players having much trouble with this. The killer is also bit too obvious, though to be fair Ace Attorney isn’t really a traditional whodunit. The cast is well done and distinct, though I feel that Edgeworth gets walked on a bit more than normal in this case.

Speaking of the killer, their big transformation is fun, but a little too over-the-top for my taste, thought maybe that’s because the main game spoiled me on those. Those who are new to the series will get a rush from it though. (Though as a fan, I hope they tone it down for the next game.)

All in all, a fun addition to Spirit of Justice, with plenty of enjoyment for older fans, but I wouldn’t say newcomers should start with it.
*At the time of writing. Now it's been like....a few months. A year. Maybe.