Monday, December 16, 2019

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

Killers don’t drink Red Bull.*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obviously, Recommended, bordering on Highly.

*Sadly, not my joke.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

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

A nostalgia trip this time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Magpie Murders (2017) by Anthony Horowitz

This post is only half-finished.

Other than watching Operation: Stormbreaker when I was younger (apparently it was bad, not that I noticed), I never had any experience with Anthony Horowitz. I knew that he wrote the Alex Rider books, and later learned that he created Foyle’s War (which I haven’t seen) and did episodes of Poirot (ditto). But then he comes out with this book called Magpie Murders and everyone loves it. Now, I was reluctant. As a firm and irrational skeptic about modern attempts at mystery, I held off, but after seeing good things said about his two most recent mystery novels I decided to take the plunge.

The book takes place in the 1950s, in a little village called Saxby-on-Avon. It’s a quiet little town, with the only real excitement recently being the funeral of Mary Blakiston, a servant in the home of local lord Sir Magnus Pye. The village shows up for the funeral, but some are quite fine with her death, as she was an infamous busybody. However, her death was a tragic accident, falling down the stairs in Sir Pye’s locked house. But this is a traditional village mystery, and some are wondering, especially since her son Robert is known for stabbing a man…

These wagging tongues drive his fiancee Joy Sanderling to Atticus Pund, a survivor of the camps who is known as an amateur detective. She wants him to come and disprove the rumors and show that Mary’s death was an accident, but unbeknownst to her Pund is dying and has his own project to complete, and besides he can’t do much if the death really was just an accident. Joy goes away disappointed, but Pund finds himself in Saxby-on-Avon anyway when Sir Pye turns up dead in his home, his head chopped off with a sword…

I actually liked this one. I will say that I felt that Horowitz didn't have (or if he did he didn't show it here) Christie’s gift of being able to quickly give information about setting and characters and still keep things moving. It stood out to me because I just read The Mysterious Affair at Styles right before this, although in that book at least some of that brevity can be put down to Christie’s focus on the plot. Horowitz felt a little blunter about the exposition, but still does a good job at getting into the heads of the various suspects and giving them plausible and interesting reasons to go Highlander on Pye. Horowitz is also good at leading you into assuming you know some upcoming plot twists, only to have it be something else entirely--and I got caught once or twice by it. He does a good job of keeping the mystery complex yet clear. However, there is one huge issue with the book.

The last chapter is missing.

You see, Magpie Murders is also the most recent mystery novel by the eccentric Alan Conway. His agent Susan Ryeland is annoyed at the seeming mistake when she receives the first draft, but that annoyance turns to horror when Conway turns up dead, an apparent suicide. “Apparent” being the key word here, as Conway’s sister thinks that things don’t add up. And before long, she’s convinced Susan as well. But was does the missing chapter of Magpie Murders have to do with it?

Yes, there are two fully-fledged mystery novels in this book, and they’re both pretty good. Susan’s narrative is a little simpler than the Magpie narrative, and I’m not sure if that was intentional on Horowitz’s part or not. The tone is certainly different; the Magpie narrative is more late Golden Age with some more angst than might be expected (with Pund’s terminal illness), but not to the extent you might find in more modern works. The Susan narrative is more “modern” in tone, with Susan struggling personally (with her relationship issues) and as a detective (as no one believes that Conway was murdered and she has no obvious reason for investigating. There’s even a chapter which more or less consists of a police officer angrily complaining about mystery cliches like “the suicide is actually a murder.”) I found some of the Susan narrative to drag a bit because of that, but it was nothing severe. However, both narratives show a love of classic mysteries and both contain some very Christie-style cluing.

The Magpie narrative presents a more satisfying mystery, one with clues and plot twists and some good reveals. There is one part where you have to assume that something exists when you don’t know what it actually contains, but I feel that you can reasonably assume that this exists even if the content is more of a reasoned guess than an actual deduction. That being said, there are also some very good and subtle clues involved that can let you piece together the backstory behind the murder, and the identity of the killer themselves.

The Susan side of the narrative is a little simpler, but once again the clues are there, including a clever one that Horowitz waves in your face, totally convinced that you won’t get it. I didn’t, anyway. I don’t like how Susan solves the whole thing through more or less dumb luck, but again, the clues are there for you to notice and solve it before her. I will say that the suspects feel less developed than they do in the Magpie narrative, with the dead man standing out the most. Again, this is more due to the first-person narrative giving you less chances to get into the characters' heads, but it stood out to me. There was also a poor red herring thrown in that not only doesn’t do a good job of misdirecting, but feels poorly motivated in-story. You can argue that it was justified based on what the person involved knew (which I thought Horowitz was going for when I re-read the explanation), but it still rings a little false to me. However, this narrative also contains a certain clue that not only fits that favorite Christie clue of the overheard or misunderstood conversation, but also resolves it smartly with total fairness. This part of the story also has some interesting things to say about the creative process and how authors react to their creations, which I found interesting.

All in all, I really, really liked this book. I admit that perhaps I was just going into it with lowered expectations since it was a modern mystery, but I enjoyed seeing how everything played out. I somewhat wish that more had been done with the mixing of the two narratives, but in the end you have two well-done mystery novels for the price of one. It sold me on the rest of Horowitz’s mystery stuff, personally. Highly Recommended.

NOTE: Apparently there is version of the book, I'm assuming the hardcover, that contains an "interview" between Horowitz and Conway. I assume this since I've seen it mentioned, but it's not in my paperback copy.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) by Agatha Christie

And now, back to the beginning.

I really shouldn’t need to justify an Agatha Christie, especially one as well-known as this, to this audience, but you never know. There are some who might think that “Oh, this was her first book, so it wasn’t that good,” or “It’s probably totally different than anything she wrote after this.” As The Green Capsule notes in his review (linker below) neither of these things are true of The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

World War I is underway and Captain Arthur Hastings is staying at Styles after his convalescence with the blessings of his old friend, John Cavendish. The estate is peaceful, the weather is good, and there are even a few young ladies for Hastings to admire. Heck, his old friend Hercule Poirot is here as a refugee from Belgium, thanks to the charity of Emily Inglethorp. The only issue is that said matriarch has married the disreputable Alfred (who Hastings doesn’t like), who everyone knows is a gold digger just after her money. But other than that, things are peaceful.

Then one night, a scream awakens the household. Emily’s bedroom is locked, and when the doors are broken down she’s found in her death throes. At first, it is assumed that she died of natural causes. But Dr. Bauerstein (who Hastings also doesn’t like, get used to this), is suspicious, and further examination confirms his fears: strychnine. And of course, the disreputable husband is everyone’s first suspect, but why is Poirot doubtful?

Reading this book, I was honestly surprised at just how Christie-like it feels. You would think that an early book like this would at least feel different, and while it does differ in some key respects, such as in Poirot’s physicality and the focus on physical clues over psychological ones (but there are plenty of those as well), it honestly has so many elements that Christie would use again and again in her later books that if you were to tell me that this was a later book or some kind of Christie parody I would probably believe you. It has:
  • Death by poison
  • Complicated family relationships and wills
  • Disguise
  • Characters misinterpreting conversation
  • Characters giving looks that are not understood
  • A non-locked room mystery despite looking like a locked room mystery.
It’s all a little overwhelming. These elements aren’t pulled off with the skill that you’d see in later works and stood out as a little obvious to me, but I was honestly amazed at how well they’re done here. I know that Christie had written before this, but for a first mystery novel this is very good. It’s shorter than most of her work, and the characters aren’t as well-drawn as they could be, but I can forgive that. It mostly falls under fair play; there are a few clues (especially the final one) which aren’t given, but there are some valid deductions (the fireplace!) and I think that a reader can work out a good chunk of the plot.

There are a couple of issues with the work, such as some pacing and plot threads that don’t go anywhere: most of the stuff with Bauerstein peters out, the courtroom scene is good but somewhat unneeded, and in the end the solution requires you to know about how strychnine works and a certain aspect of British law. This aspect has been used in other murder mysteries, but considering how important it is to the plot I can’t blame someone for feeling a bit cheated, seeing as these elements are not hinted at. I admit that it would be difficult to do so, at least in regards to the law aspect, without giving the game away, but it still feels like a cheat.* Alfred Inglethorp is also a bit of a non-entity for most of the story, which is odd considering how important he is to events. This is somewhat justified by the fact that Hastings is narrating and has no interest in being near him, but nonetheless.

Reading this book has also convinced me that Christie was parodying ignorant Watsons. I never really got the general dislike I’ve seen for Hastings among other mystery fans: he seemed inoffensive to me, and his narration was the only thing that made Dumb Witness bearable. In this one, I get why people don’t like him. He acts like a dolt, makes the obvious mistakes, jumps to every wrong conclusion, etc. Now, I know that from an in-universe perspective he isn’t familiar with Poirot being right about everything, but from a reader’s perspective it gets tiring. That is more of a personal gripe than an actual flaw of the book though.

All in all, I really did like this book, more than I expected honestly. It’s a well-done mystery plot, only suffering more from the conventions of the era than serious flaws that break the book. I really, really enjoyed it, and since it’s free on Gutenberg thanks to the march of copyright you really don’t have an excuse for sitting down and reading it sometime. Recommended.

Check out The Green Capsule's review here for...pretty much the same opinion as mine! Yay!

*Note: After writing this review, I read the chapter on this book in John Goddard’s Agatha Christie’s Golden Age, an analysis of the puzzle elements of the first 21 Poirot’s (which is a very good read). He discusses the strychnine at length, and while he says that the reader will “still need a chemist’s knowledge” to correctly interpret it, he does show that another key part of the solution is fairly presented. I’ll give Christie a half point on this one, as someone might be able to figure out the outline of what happened if they can interpret this clue correctly.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

The Future is Ours (2015) by Edward D. Hoch (edited by Steven Steinbock)

I admit, I don’t really care for sci-fi that much.

At that. JJ suddenly sat up, bellowing in rage, but it’s true. Beyond watching The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron as a kid, science fiction has escaped my interest. I’ve never been able to understand why, beyond maybe thinking that the “soft” science is just space magic and the “hard” science is just a PhD thesis. But my friends, when Edward D. Hoch puts his name on something, I get it.

The subject of this review is The Future is Ours, a collection of Hoch’s sci-fi/horror/crime stories, edited by Steven Steinbock. There are only a few series’ stories here and they do not star the detectives I think that most Hoch fans would recognize. Very few of these stories are mysteries, and I’ll admit that the few that are mysteries aren’t among what I would consider Hoch’s best. But again, this is not my genre, and perhaps others will get more out of them than I did.

And it’s still a Hoch.

Since some of these stories aren’t crime, my comments might be briefer than normal.

We start off with some sci-fi stories in the "Strange Futures" segment. It is fair to note now that there is a fair bit of overlapping categories in these stories. “Zoo” is a quick, two-page story which involves a professor who brings in some aliens for a zoo. There’s a twist, but it’s a good, solid story that is even taught in schools.

Next up is “The Other Paradox,” which is also a bit of a horror story. A professor builds a time machine, albeit a limited one. It only sends people through their own personal timeline. Of course, something goes wrong.

“The Wolfram Hunters” is one of the longer stories in the collection. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where it seems the only survivors are the members of a Native American reservation. Hoch’s explanation for how they survived nuclear fallout is a little eyebrow raising, but I’ll chalk it up to the time period. This is actually one of the few stories in the collection that’s a mystery, as one of the guards of some executed criminals suddenly vanishes. It’s a neat idea, but comes too late in the story for it to really matter, and I honestly think that the killer is never mentioned before the reveal.* The story starts as a coming-of-age story with a young boy learning under a priest in the mountains, and I think Hoch should have stuck with that.

“The Times We Had” features a family man back from a year on the Moon getting ready for an interview with a reporter about his experience. The opening by editor Steinbock spoils the twist, but I thought it was done pretty well, even if the conspiracy theory at the heart of it isn’t as accepted nowadays as it might have been as the time of writing.

“God of the Playback” is one of the religious-themed stories in this collection. In a world where people have taken to literally recording prayers for their own convinces, a priest comes with a convert from an Amazon tribe, who’s talked into staying in the fast-paced modern city to record his tribe’s language for more auto-prayers. It’s an interesting idea and I agree with what (I think) Hoch is trying to get at with this, but it’s a little too shallow. The evil recorder man is too blinkered to make any good arguments for pre-recorded prayer (and I can think of a few), but not bad enough to deserve his fate.

“Cassidy's Saucer,” which is a story of a reporter’s investigation into strange balls of light seen in the night sky, shows my main issue with this collection: There are plenty of good ideas in this collection, like the one in this story, but a lot of them are just that: an idea thrown out there and then left with nothing else to work with. I haven’t read many speculative fiction stories, so maybe that’s common, but with this collection I did wish that some stories like this were a little longer or at least had some more build-up.

“Unnatural Act” is another alien story, although much better than the previous one. This time the aliens are happy to subject themselves to study, but the scientists can’t figure out how they reproduce. This hunt for alien sex organs and its resolution is hands down the weirdest version of the “hunting for the object in plain sight” that I have ever seen in a mystery. It’s actually handled well, but isn’t given enough focus for my tastes. My issue is that I don’t buy the worldbuilding. Essentially, we have an anti-sex group in the background who have so much influence that they can whip the people up into a frenzy in a day, but apparently have no issue with the aliens running around until the twist. I don’t buy it, frankly, either that they would be totally fine with the aliens up until the reveal or that they could whip people up into a frenzy about it all so quickly.

“The Boy That Brought Love” involves a vicious tyrant who is brought low by a young boy who deals with him via a very literal application of “love your enemies.” I like it, and the tyrant is well-drawn, but the plan is a little too based on his willing cooperation. But even so, it was very charming.

“Centaur Fielder for the Yankees” is honestly pretty good. It can be argued that it lacks structure, since the narrator is just an observer and the plot is just a series of events without a lot of flow, but I enjoyed reading about the trials and tribulations of a centaur playing for the Yankees.

We now move on to “Future Crimes” with “Co-Incidence,” the earliest published story in the collection. The unnamed narrator is an employee at Neptune Books fascinated with the methods of his coworker Rosemary, a woman who has an uncanny ability to know exactly when and where to sell books. Her secret is a strange form of math magic that seems perfectly harmless, until a jealous superior stands in the way of promotion. I actually really liked this one, if just because it feels like a complete story that uses the central plot point to the fullest.

“Versus” tells the story of a crime boss brought down by a wronged man, but it feels like the end of a longer story. There’s no real build-up, the boss doesn’t get to do much evil, and the way he’s taken down is simple and not really explained well enough.

“The Future is Ours” was read last due to my own tendencies, and it was actually pretty solid. A cop uses a time machine to go to the future and learn new crime-solving techniques and technologies in order to deal with the present rise in crime. It’s a bit of a joke, but a well-done one.

“The Forbidden Word” is a dystopia story, but one that doesn’t fully hang together for me. It’s a semi-chilling story of a man who accidentally utters the titular word while on a business trip. It rambles a bit, but it is effective. But the whole thing is really based on the main character being ignorant of something that he probably should have known about (and this is even worse with the ending!) and the wider world isn’t given enough detail, leaving the reading wondering why any of this is happening. Is that the point? Maybe, but I didn’t care for it.

“Computer Cops” is one of the longer stories in the collection, and a mystery to boot. The detectives are Earl Jazine and Carl Crader, the titular computer cops who investigate computer-based crimes. They’re also the protagonists of three of Hoch’s five novels, not that I’ve read them. The two are brought in by Nobel Kinsinger, a former war hero turned businessman who’s reporting a strange bit of sabotage. His computer, a bulky thing dedicated to stock exchange, has apparently been hijacked by someone using it to make stock exchanges. The computer is kept locked at all times, so how is the saboteur using it?

I admit that I didn't care for this story the first time through. It felt overlong, filled with too many details that went nowhere, and a somewhat muddled denountment. A re-read made me slightly more optimistic; with some decent world building and red herrings, but the culprit’s plan makes no sense. There is one bit of cluing that I liked, which is wrapped up in the very nature of the crime, but on the whole I thought this needed some work. The solution for the impossible crime is good if simple, but I don’t know how fair it is, since you'd need a little bit of computer/stock knowledge to figure it out.

The next story, “Night of the Millennium,” is one that I hoped I would like more than I actually did. A college student gets wrapped up in a conspiracy on the eve of a new millennium, and while the story looked like one of those guilty pleasure stories for me, it just didn’t work. The actual plot kicks off very late in the story and is on too small a scale for it to feel impactful. I guess I found some of the worldbuilding interesting, but the story is just too light.

The next two stories star Barnabas Rex, a detective who deals with minor scientific problems. “The Homesick Chicken” has Rex looking into a genetically-engineered chicken that suddenly escaped confinement to make a dangerous walk into an empty field. Yes, it’s Hoch’s take on “Why did the chicken cross the road?” and while it’s amusing, the solution relies a little too much on last minute science fiction for my tastes, and Rex makes (to me) a major deductive leap with no evidence.

“The Daltonic Fireman” is the better of the two. In this story, “firemen” are those who fire rockets into space like air traffic controllers (in space). They wear green suspenders as a comfort to the astronauts, but one man has come in occasionally wearing red suspenders, and while he always changes when asked he refuses to explain why he wears them in the first place. The answer as to why he wears red instead of green is pretty simple (the title gives it away), but there’s still another reveal about why this is happening. It reminds me of “Computer Cops,” in that the fact that the crime happens a certain way is a clue pointing to the culprit. If there were more stories in the collection like this (or even more Barnabas Rex stories like this) I would enjoy the collection a lot more!

Next up is “Tales of the Dark,” where Hoch goes for horror. “The Maze and the Monster” has a man shipwrecked on an island controlled by the descendant of Captain Cortes. The man is not fond of visitors and sentences our hero to a pitch black maze where he must find salvation...or a monster. A decent horror story.

“The Faceless Thing” is good but flawed. An old man returns to his family home to confront the creature that drowned his sister fifty years ago. It’s an interesting story with a good melancholy tone, but marred by Hoch going “THIS IS THE THEME DO YOU GET IT YET” every line.

“In the Straw” has a similar tone of rural horror, this time revolving around a farmer’s wife who seems to think that something in growing in a bale of straw. Very unsettling. My only real objection is that the monster has the superpower of, “Can do whatever the plot needs him to do,” but that’s a minor gripe.

“The Thing in the Lake” is more light-hearted fare, with a young boy getting to join a private detective in rooting out a monster in a lake. It’s split into two parts for some reason which really doesn’t make sense to me. I get that it was published serially, but I really can’t tell how it would be split. No matter which way I look at it “Part 1” would have to be nothing but set-up. Thankfully once the story gets going, it keeps a good, steady pace. Befitting the magazine it was published in it’s not as horrific as what we’ve had before, but the ending is fun.

“Exu” is weird but probably my favorite here. A man named Jennings goes south to Rio de Janeiro to learn about voodoo and the spirit cults. Fun times are had by all. This is one where Hoch’s slightly clipped style works very well, giving the story a surreal feeling of a world where the old gods are lurking beneath the veneer of civilization. The only false note for me is a last-second plot twist about our protagonist, which seemed to come somewhat out of nowhere.

“The Weekend Magus” was I assume the result of a bet to cram as many horror elements into one story as possible. It’s got everything; mummies, mad science, the Loch Ness Monster…

No really. The main plot has a reporter going to interview a scientist who’s doing dark science in Scotland. He finds out that the scientist is trying to reanimate the skeleton of a sea serpent that used to be the steed of an Egyptian general. You’d be forgiven for expecting Mulder and Scully right about now, or at least Kolchak. The whole thing is bizarre, and I enjoyed it as a pulpy story. But nothing can make the image the story ends on serious in any way.

The intro of "Just One More" promises a little more than it delivers. Art Muller is a photographer...of dogs for dog food promotion. His job makes him of interest to a professor who’s looking for a new kind of werewolf. It’s an interesting story, but the ending comes a bit out of nowhere.

“Bigfish” could have fit into the “crime” section, but fits easier in horror. A retired couple decides to see the titular Bigfish, a giant fish that serves as a tourist trap and sideshow. Then a young boy goes missing…

This is one of the few stories here to actually scare me. The story doesn’t go in the direction that you expect and manages to be all the more unsettling for it. It even has one of my favorite horror elements; the scenes and dialogue that makes perfect sense when you first read them but then take on a more disturbing light once the reveal lands. The only thing I don’t like is the last line; I get what Hoch was going for, but it can easily read as silly even with context. I would have maybe moved it just before the reveal.

“Remember My Name” is one of the longest stories in the collection, and sadly one that I forgot about after I first read it. It’s more of a slow burn, with a writer of mystery short stories meeting up with an old friend and the daughter of said old friend’s flame who bears an uncanny resemblance to her mother. I liked it on the re-read, but it feels very disjointed. My major issue with Hoch as a writer (at least in this collection, although it has cropped up in some of his other stories that I've read) is that some of his scenes don’t transition from one to the other very well and his characters sometimes do things for what feels like little reason. Such as our hero jumping into bed with a girl with what felt like to me very little set-up. I know that this is far from a Hoch-specific problem, but it stands out in these stories. The story itself is actually somewhat touching, although someone more familiar with the genre Hoch is writing in here will probably pick up on what’s going on sooner than I did.

We now move on to the last section, “History Retold,” a collection of historical stories. “The Last Unicorn” and “Who Rides With Santa Anna?” are quick stories with a twist. “The Maiden’s Sacrifice” proposes a different reason for the Aztec sacrifices, and while it’s interesting, the last line is a little too on-the-nose for me, blandly stating what will happen and ruining the implication that should be left to the reader to see.

“The Other Phantom” was the biggest disappointment for me in this collection, because it promises a Hoch-style mystery before fumbling it. Franz Vinding is a curmudgeon who hates this new-fangled Eiffel Tower that’s all the rage. He also hates being challenged, resulting in him taking a bet from a professional and romantic rival to spend the night in the Opera House, where it is rumored that the Phantom lurks in the tunnels below. He’s looking forward to using his prize money to continue his campaign against the Eiffel Tower, but he barely makes it five minutes before being stabbed to death by a mysterious figure.

This one got my hopes up: There’s a murder mystery at the center. There’s a dying message that implicates The Phantom of the Opera. There’s even the hint of a locked room, since all the theater doors were locked. But all of it amounts to nothing: the dying message can’t be solved unless you have very specific opera knowledge, the locked room doesn’t mean anything, and the killer is pretty easy to spot. Disappointing.

The collection ends with “Dracula 1944.” The story goes down in one of the Nazi work camps, where the commander is becoming unsettled by the fact that someone is going through and draining the guards of blood. Not to mention that some old woman is claiming that some irritating prisoner named Vlad can’t work in the sunlight for some reason. The story goes about how you would expect it to, but I found it enjoyable. The ending rings false for me though, if just because I don’t buy the main character’s actions with the presented logic.

All in all, this collection didn’t do it for me. I admit that part of it is just the fact that I read Hoch for his mystery plotting, and these stories just didn’t click with me. There were some good stories, good ideas even in the poorer stories, and if you’re a fan of more speculative horror/sci-fi, you might enjoy this collection more than I did. But otherwise, unless you’re a Hoch fan, I would skip.

Christian Henricksson has a more positive review here.

*EDIT: See Jack Hamm's comment below, I'm actually wrong on this. That being said, I do still hold that the killer gets so little mention that you're likely to forget about them, and there's no real evidence pointing to them until the reveal.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

The Realm of the Impossible (2017) by John Pugmire and Brian Skupin

And now, a long one.

For years now, Locked Room International has been delivering locked rooms from around the world, much to our greedy pleasure. While most of their works have been both novels and from specific countries such as France, The Realm of the Impossible takes a worldwide view and is a pretty solid short story collection. Since this post will be long, I’ll say right now that the collection is very much worth your time even if you don’t care one iota about the idea of foreign locked rooms; most of these stories have not been anthologized so you’re getting some original work from here.

Before I go on, it is fair to note that this collection also has a compilation of 12 real life impossibilities, ranging from the gruesome to the charming to the “I can’t believe that this wasn’t a mystery ploy dumped into reality.” For the sake of space (and because I honestly have little to say) I shall point the reader at JJ’s commentary here. And read his blog (although I can’t imagine someone knowing me but not him!).

First up, we have France’s Paul Halter with “Jacob’s Ladder.” The premise is excellent: a religious fanatic yells about seeing a golden ladder and is shortly after found dead from a high fall, but there’s no place for miles around for him to fall from. Like most of Halter’s short stories, it’s a brilliant problem with a simple yet elegant solution. However, while the problem and solution are solid, the story frays around the edges, with the killer’s frame-up plan betting on the police noticing a certain item and making a very specific leap from said item. Not to mention I can’t see when they could have planted it.

Next up is England, represented by Christianna Brand’s “Cyanide in the Sun.” This story has only been published once before this point, and I can’t really understand why; this is a good little work. A serial killer is operating near a seaside resort, poisoning people with cyanide seemingly at random. A group of guests receive a threatening note and attempt to take measures to ensure their safety, which is about as effective as you would think: a woman dies of cyanide poisoning in spite of every ingredient in her sandwich being fresh, under observation, and none of the suspects having the opportunity to poison them.

It’s honestly very good. Brand is skilled at taking small, seemingly irrelevant facts and making mysteries turn on them. It’s a little rough in places, such as the first note which is never fully motivated, but the story hangs together well. I did figure out the gist of the method, but was still caught off-guard by the ending and by the killer. Excellent story, and it reminds me that I need to (literally) dust off The Spotted Cat and re-read it sometime.

Next we have Ulf Durling representing Sweden with “Windfall.” A local lord dies from what seems to be natural causes and...that's it. I admit I don’t totally understand how this is an impossibility, but. The story is well-done, with a good method of murder and the reason for it, but the whole thing is short-circuited by a twist that, like the literal last-page twist of his novel Hard Cheese (also published by Locked Room International!), renders the whole thing moot. I suppose he’s going for a tragic bent, but it isn’t done with the needed pathos to pull it off.

Also, for some reason the text is larger in this story than in any of the others. Probably just a technical error, but it’s a little distracting.

Next up, the Czech Republic. Joseph Skvorecky gives us “The Case of the Horizontal Trajectory,” a story starring Lieutenant Boruvka. The good inspector investigates when an old woman is found stabbed in the eye (!) in her locked bedroom. The killer might have fired it through the open window, but the math doesn’t add up considering the force used. It’s an interesting story, but a little slow. The solution is clever but a bit unnecessarily technical for my tastes.

Next we have Freeman Wills Crofts representing Ireland with “The Mystery of the Sleeping Car Express.” This story is one of his earliest ones; it doesn’t even star Inspector French! The crime is a rather brutal double shooting in a locked train car (in which the door is partially “locked” by one of the bodies!), and the whole thing is quite painstakingly worked out so that every possible option for the killer’s escape is accounted for. It’s all quite fascinating, but marred by the minor fact that if you don’t know the details of train cars at that time you'll be completely lost. I’d like to think I’m not alone in this, since every other review I’ve seen of this story has gone, “Good, but it needed a map.” This is disappointing, since I can’t give a good judgment on if the solution works. But I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Australia’s story is Mary Fortune’s “Dead Man In the Scrub.” Sadly, this is more of a historical curiosity than a full-blown locked room. The opening, in which a highly decayed body is found in a padlocked tent, is effective, but the solution is simple and the killer discovered by dumb luck.

Melville Davisson Post’s “The Hidden Law” is also a curiosity, and also a desperate attempt to not put “The Doomdorf Mystery” into yet another locked room anthology. This is one of Post’s Uncle Abner stories, a preacher who serves as a sort of frontier Father Brown, only much more blunt. He’s been called in to help a miser whose gold is somehow vanishing from his locked house, and somehow and for some reason the thief is returning parts of it. The first half of the story is the best, with the atmosphere of a place on the boundaries of civilization, where belief in witches seems not only plausible, but wise. But the solution falls flat, with a solution that the paranoid miser should have hit on by himself. I did like the answer as to why he felt that he would plunge into Hell if he struck out against the thief after he nearly caught them in the night, and perhaps that aspect could have been drawn out more.

France returns with Alexandre Dumas’s “House Call.” Fans of this author might protest that he has no story by this title. That’s because this story is the result of mashing two chapters from one novel, Les Mohicans de Paris, into one. In fairness, it’s relatively seamless, and I couldn’t pin down any part that seemed out of place. The story itself is about the disappearance of a girl from her locked bedroom, and it’s all investigation. Pure, tedious investigation as the detective marches about with his hanger-ons looking at footprints. It’s quick and can be skimmed, but does fall into that “historical curiosity” category, especially when it comes to some of its conclusions about footprints. But it’s interesting, even if the solution is old hat.

We now move to Argentina for “The Twelve Figures of the World.” The authors are Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares, telling one of the tales of Don Isidro Parodi, a man who solves crimes from his prison cell where he’s been rotting since being falsely accused of murder. The “client” is a young man who recounts his being sucked into a cult obsessed with the titular figures, and the bizarre initiation ritual that ended in murder and arson. This was a good story that kept my interest and had a good explanation for everything, but if there was an impossibility I’m afraid I missed it entirely. I think it was something to do with the ritual? But that’s so broad that Parodi’s explanation for it can be argued to be one of many possible answers. Don’t get me wrong, I liked it and thought it was a good example of how to let the biases of a narrator cloud the story and obscure clues (the solitaire!), and I am almost tempted to seek out the other Parodi stories based on it. I just didn’t fully grasp why it was in this collection.

Herodotus’s “Rhampsinitos and the Thief” is Greece’s short, two-page entry. It’s not even really a mystery, more of an account of a young man who robs a “sealed” vault and just goes around outsmarting everyone. Short, but fun.

Next we skip this “Earth” business and head to outer space with Poul Anderson’s “The Martian Crown Jewels.” The titular jewels vanish from an unmanned, remote-controlled ship that’s been drifting in outer space for months. The disappearance threatens relations between Earth and Mars, meaning that the Martian Sherlock Holmes has to be called in. I recall TomCat not caring for this story even if I can’t remember why without checking the post, but I found it a good little story. The setting felt sufficiently “different,” and while my lack of familiarity with sci-fi prevents me from mentioning originality, the world building felt plausible and interesting. The solution is also good, although the key part of it only comes about a page from the solution. I understand the author worrying about giving the plot away early, but it should have been possible to explain what “that thing” was and what it did before the problem was defined.

Dudley Hoys gives us a Lebanese story with “Leaving no Evidence.” It’s not a mystery tale per se, more an adventure yarn where the arrogant Englishman blithely dismisses rumors about the nameless thing that makes men vanish in the snow, only for his travelling companions just to stop existing on a trek. Good story, actually somewhat clued as well. There could have been a little more build-up to the horror and tension, but that’s a minor flaw.

We now go to India with Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay’s “The Venom of the Tarantula.” In one of those coincidences that would never be accepted in fiction, the set-up resembles that of the real-life locked room mystery of actor Lewis Calhern, who managed to get himself drunk in a locked dressing room that had been searched and cleared beforehand. This time the “victim” is a crude old man who spends his days writing the most perverted of dreck while getting high off tarantula venom. But how is he getting access to it? A more minor mystery, but a good one. I suppose it’s not hard to figure out, and it is fairly clued, but I can believe that the family missed it. I liked it, perhaps I could check out more from this series.

We return to the United Kingdom once again for Victor L. Whitechurch’s “Sir Gilbert Murrell’s Picture.” The crime in question is one of the most interesting in mystery fiction: the disappearance of an entire train car from a train in motion. The car also contains the titular picture. It’s short but pleasant, with no real surprise in the game being played but a surprisingly good if mechanical solution. It’s hard to visualize, and you have to take it on faith that the train is moving slow enough to pull it off, but I bought it. On reflection I found it interesting to compare this to Crofts’s story, which should in theory be simpler but is much harder to understand than this.

Szu-Yen Lin cheats and gets to be counted as two countries, China and Taiwan, with “The Miracle on Christmas Eve.” The case at hand for once is not a crime, but a Christmas miracle. A man, Ko, comes to Lin’s detective Ruoping Ling for help in explaining a mysterious event that occurred when he was a child. After Ko is mocked by his classmates for his belief in Santa Claus, his father decides to prove his existence in the most dramatic way possible: Ko’s bedroom is searched; the window is locked and taped; the door is locked, taped, and the key is placed under the pillow of the leader of the bullies; everyone sleeps outside the room. And yet, in the night, the sound of a music box draws the children to the room, now with a tree and presents inside! And the shadow of Santa’s sleigh can be seen on the moon...

I like this one. It’s charming and light, and a good mystery besides. The solution is a little simple and might require too many moving parts (this might be due to the over-long explanation), but I liked it; it makes sense. The only bit I didn’t like was the sleigh on the moon; I don’t buy the explanation and it falls into the same trap that Death in the House of Rain did: great explanation at the beginning, then boring, flawed, last-minute impossibility. But more stories like this please!

Alexis Kivi comes to us from Finland with an excerpt from the novel Seven Brothers. This story, which isn’t even two pages, has a man stumble on footprints that turn into the footprints of a fox. A simple answer is provided, but it’s a charming thing. I wonder how the editors discovered it though.

We have a good one up next from Portugal. Afonso Carreiro’s “Lying Dead and Turning Cold” is a tale told by an uncle to his nephew, detailing a murder that occured one cold, snowy night, under the veil of old wives tales and a rumor of a witch. A group of citizens meet in the night to discuss the reappearance of a local cad who’s already left broken hearts in his wake and taken a fair bit of blackmail money. The meeting is tense and eventually one stomps out in fear and finds the body of the cad, strangled to death in the snow, with no other footprints surrounding the body. This is a good one, with good and subtle cluing and excellent atmosphere. It does suffer somewhat from there being a lack of plausible false solutions to the problem, but even then it would take a skilled reader to pick up on the clues, as opposed to just blind guessing.

Next we go to Canada for “The ‘Impossible’ Impossible Crime,” by the not-Canadian Edward D.
Hoch. But he lived in New England and set the story in Canada, so it’s all fine. The story is set in the Canadian wilderness, where two men are cooped up in an isolated cabin while they perform research. Things start well, but the isolation and the fact that one envies the life of the other makes things tense...and then, in the early morning, a gunshot.

One man is dead, the other isn’t the killer. Suicide is impossible, but how could anyone get out to the snow-bound cabin, much less deliver a perfect headshot through frosted glass? It’s a good set-up, but it’s a little dry, Hoch doesn’t really milk the potential horror of the set-up, and after the murder the tension falls a little flat. While I don’t agree with JJ’s idea that the protagonist realizes everything at once, there’s a little technical aspect to the solution and the explanation that dulls the horror of the scenario when the narrator realizes what happened. It’s good, but better is coming...

After the Egypt story! Elizabeth Peters gives us ”The Locked Tomb Mystery.” As the name implies, we have a case of tomb robbery here. When the tomb of an arrogant and emotionally cruel woman is robbed and her mummy is vandalized, it falls to an Egyptian Sherlock Holmes to unravel it, although he doesn’t have to do much; the case is easily resolved. I don’t mind this, since while the solution is in theory simple there are quite a few moving parts to it, and I enjoyed seeing it unfold. It somewhat reminds me of “The Miracle on Christmas Eve,” both in construction and in having a too-long summation. But that story was much more charming than this one I admit.

Next, back to the U.S. for “Deadfall,” Samuel L. Taylor’s contribution. And what a contribution! Two men, Vince and Jim, set off for the wilderness but a deadfall (a log trap) leaves Vince with a broken leg and the two men stranded in a hunter’s cabin. The story is told through diary entries in a journal that Jim discovers, chronicling the lonely days and nights in the cabin. He also talks about the strange, impossible footprints that appear in the snow...

This is very good, well-told and with an intriguing framing device that honestly could have been a tad longer. As is, the shift from penultimate to last entry has one character suddenly reveal things that they learned off-page, and it’s a little jarring. There is a good example of character in one entry, as the writer more or less confirms every negative impression of them without deliberately trying too. A very worthy addition, although one might argue that the plan is a little obscure.

We now move to Japan for Norizuki Rintaro’s “The Lure of the Green Door.” Rintaro’s detective Norizuki Rintaro (again I curse the name of Ellery Queen) is dragged along to negotiate the release of an occult author’s personal library. His wife is dragging her feet on the matter, and while she claims it’s due to her husband’s ghost asking her not to, Norizuki suspects something more sinister. Could it have something to do with the suicide of her husband in his study? Norizuki suspects murder, but one door was bolted from the inside, the window was nailed shut and blocked with a bookcase and the other entrance was the titular green door, which seemingly cannot be opened…

I admit, I wasn’t fond of this story when I first read it, but a re-read improved my opinion a bit. I do think it’s a little hard to fairly clue, but the how of the murder is honestly ingenious, probably original. It’s very well done, and actually manages to be a little light in the writing, as opposed to someone like Keikichi Osaka.

We now go to Italy for Pietro de Palma’s “The Barese Mystery,” which could also be re-titled “Every Locked Room Fan’s Personal Dream Yes Please I Want This.” It was actually written for this collection! The main character is a mystery fan recruited to look into the “suicide” of a count in his locked study, with the privilege of being able to read a lost C. Daly King manuscript as a reward. The mystery is short but good, and while I don’t care for “he shot himself with the wrong hand!” gambit, the rest makes up for it. JJ thinks it isn’t fairly clued, but I think it comes close. And the solution is well-done and concealed. Certainly more practical than the Joseph Commings story that I think it’s referencing.

Next up is another original story, this time from Germany. Jochen Fuseler’s “The Witch Doctor’s Revenge” is a neat little story. Thirteen years ago, two adventurers ran into a small tribe and managed to save the life of the chief’s daughter. The failure of the tribe’s witch doctor resulted in him being hung upside down, but not before he cursed the two adventures to meet their end in thirteen years, one by hanging upside down and the other by vanishing. Cut to the present day, and one calls upon an officer named Faust, as his partner has locked himself in his hotel room in fear and isn’t responding to phone calls. They look through the keyhole (after the key in there is knocked out) and see him hanging upside down. The door is broken down, but the body has vanished.

That was a lot of set-up, but the rest of the story is dedicated to explaining all of this, as well as the sudden disappearance of the other man when our hero turns his back (this part is disappointing). The whole explanation is long, but contains some interesting ideas, especially with how the body disappeared. I also enjoyed the contradiction of the Gregorian calendar, minor though it was. I have seen comments on JJ’s blog that point out a flaw, but it was minor enough that I missed it. Good all around, but the ending is abrupt. And the motive is…let’s just say my first response was something along the lines of, “But there are easier ways of doing that!” and leave it at that. But I’d like to see more from this author. When’s the novel John Pugmire?

Off to Iraq for Charles B. Child’s “All the Birds of the Air.” This time the victim is a judge who
suffered a blow to the head in his private chambers, which he retreated into to escape the heat. The judge had ruled against a fanatical Islamic sect and was under guard at the time, so how did the killer get in and out? The answer could have been “They got in when the guard was asleep because he totally was,” but instead we have a slightly more complex solution. It’s not much, and honestly was the first thing I thought of when reading. The killer is also a non-entity, I’m pretty sure they don’t even get a speaking part. But it was a light, entertaining read that got a good snapshot of Iraq (I assume anyway, and it was at the time that the author was writing), and I’d be interested in reading his other impossible crime stories (which frankly sound more interesting!)

And now, we move to Ireland once again for a story that was part of A Master of Mysteries, one of the first collections of locked room mysteries: L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace’s “The Warder of the Door.” The story revolves around a creepy underground cell containing a coffin. The father of our hero John Bell’s friend is terrified of old family legends which suggest that the first-born of each family will become the “warder of the door” on their death. It’s getting so bad that he starts telling his son not to bother with this “marriage” thing, while never really explaining why because that might make his son understand or something silly like that.

Turns out that father dear had a bizarre dream which confirmed where the old cell is. This is, oddly enough, not the impossibility of the story, but it does set it up. Bell and his friend track down the cell, and find that the door is one that seems to close on its own...until they remove the coffin inside, causing the door to stay open like the warder is holding it. I think I enjoyed this in spite of myself. It’s a very Victorian melodrama, but I honestly got sucked into things (I seem to enjoy the writing style), and the final sequence is quite tense. The secret behind the door isn't exactly what I was expecting. I don’t deny that it could work, but you kinda have to take it on faith here. But it was a fun story.

We now head back to Japan to wrap this up with Soji Shimada’s “The Locked House of Pythagoras.” An artist and his lover are brutally killed in his home. Oddly, the two are found lying on pictures that the artist was judging for a school competition, in a locked room in a locked house! The only footprints in the mud outside only walk around the house twice, but they belong to the husband of the artist’s lover, so he gets browbeaten into a confession, even though neither he nor the police know how the killings were done. Enter Kiyoshi Mitari, age 8.

Once again, there is little question of “who” but the focus is entirely on the “how.” It’s an interesting “how,” with the layout of the house playing a role in the construction of the crime (if not necessarily the locked room itself). But on the whole I’m a little disappointed. It’s a very technical crime, and the explanation is spread out over so many pages that it’s easy to miss details here and there, which can result in the final solution seeming very muddled. I almost wish that Pugmire and Skupin had gone with “The Executive Who Lost His Mind,” which while very reliant on coincidence and not a straight mystery, is certainly much more interesting!

Like I said at the beginning: this is very much worth your time. It’s a collection of locked room stories from around the world. What more can you want? Not all of them are winners, and some feel like they were just here for historical curiosities’ sake, but very few of these have been collected, and there are many hidden gems in here. It’s honestly great to see all of this here in one place, and I’m looking forward to what LRI does next. Here’s to locked rooms, no matter the nation!

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Locked Rooms and the Suspension of Disbelief

Warning: This post spoils Edward D. Hoch’s “The Problem of the Pilgrim’s Windmill.”

So I’ve been flipping through Robert Adey’s Locked Room Murders recently (and man it feels good to type those words), and seeing all the different types of locked rooms out there. It’s not a perfect book--I’ve noticed a few errors and the descriptions are a little more terse than I would like--but on the whole I’d rather have it than not have it. As part of my flipping, I’ve been seeing how Adey describes some of the locked room mysteries that I’ve actually read, such as Edward D. Hoch’s Dr. Sam stories. So I checked out “The Problem of the Pilgrim’s Windmill,” an excellent little story that has people apparently being set on fire by Satan in the titular windmill, with no footprints in the surrounding snow. The imagination is sparked at once, and the story is in my opinion quite good. How does Adey explain this?

“Both incidents occurred when gasoline-filled balloons were accidentally ignited.”

Well.

He’s not wrong. But I feel this does the story a disservice. The impression is that some madman is lighting gas-filled balloons and sicing them on the windmill, or a very odd comedy of errors. But the whole thing is played seriously, the motives for the burnings are very serious, and the one behind it all is one of the more repulsive killers in the Dr. Sam canon. While one aspect of the second burning is a tad weak (I do think he would have smelled the gas), the whole thing is actually well-done and put together.

This isn’t a criticism, more speculation. While reading Adey’s book, I was struck at how stupid some of these solutions sound out of context. While some of that is down to the book itself being bad, there are probably some well-regarded stories here that leave you going, “Well, yes, that is pretty silly when you put it like that.” This isn’t a knock against quality though, I’ve seen forum games where the entire point is to take well-regarded works and make them sound as boring/inane as possible. But that’s beside the point.

In some ways it makes me appreciate authors who manage to make these stories work all the better. Yes, yes, many mystery plots, if you just sum up the bare minimum, sound really stupid, cliche, or inane. Take Death in the House of Rain for example. If I just blandly stated the solution (and you can sum it up in a sentence), you would probably cry “That’s stupid!” But it’s the sign of a good mystery writer (or writer in general) who can sell you on this set-up, not so much so that you believe that it happened, but that it could have happened, or at least that in the story’s world it’s plausible. In Death in the House of Rain’s case, for all that I have issues with the rest of the book, it does do a good job of justifying why this solution, even if some parts seem shaky to me. I think Hoch does a good job of that justification in this story as well, personally.

No real final point to this. Just me musing about how absurd the things we like are and how creators take the most bizarre ideas and sell us on them. What are your thoughts?

Monday, July 29, 2019

Death in the House of Rain (2006/2017) by Szu-Yen Lin

Rain, rain, go away.

After going from France to Japan, we now continue my new multicultural focus with a Chinese mystery novel. Death in the House of Rain is author Szu-Yen Lin’s first English-language novel after having two short stories in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The intro for the book goes into detail about the history of the locked room mystery in China, showing both that that history is shorter than one would think, and that China has some of the battiest locked room ideas (a story from the point of view of a fly! Twenty tape tricks in one story! Teleporting locked rooms!). But on to the book at hand.

The story is set in the titular house, so named because it looks like the Chinese character for rain when seen from above. Some years ago, the house was the scene of a vicious family slaughter. A couple and their daughter were found dead in the house, and while the police determined that the wife was killed by the husband, he and their daughter were killed by an unknown, who they identify as Weiqun Yang. Yang admits to having an affair with the wife and raping the dead girl’s corpse(!!!) but denies actually killing anyone. This is about as convincing as it reads, and he kills himself in the detention center.

Cut to the present where Renze Bai, the brother of the husband of the murdered couple is sent a bizarre email containing photos of the crime scene, along with a string of numbers. Bai has concerns about Yang’s guilt and decides to invite philosopher Ruoping Lin to the House of Rain to investigate. His daughter, Lingsha, also has some classmates over at the house, completing the ensemble of victims. Because a lot of people die in this book.

Decapitation in a locked and watched room! Strangulation in a locked and watched room with no footprints in the mud outside! This is just the first two deaths, and it gives the book a nice pace to it, something is always happening. The problem is that this leaves us with little time to get to know the victims, who end up being cardboard at best, actively unlikable at worst. We’re in near-slasher movie territory here, which fits with the overall dark tone of the book, but makes it hard to get invested at times. It suffers from the same dryness that hampered The Ginza Ghost, mixed with a very terse style that makes it a little too easy to skim-read.

The pacing also suffers a bit. While the murders keep coming, Rupong doesn’t do much effective investigating until very late in the book. The actual murder method is absurd yet excellent, one of those solutions that sounds hilarious on paper but actually works well and is justified in the book. I do think that it is a little unlikely that no one would have stumbled onto it before now, but I accept it, even the desperate waving of Poe around as a shield for how everything unfolded. What I am less fond of is how the people responsible for the whole mess get let off rather lightly, considering what they did to cause it. The fourth death also breaks from the simplicity of the previous deaths for a more technically complex and less interesting solution, although the provided diagrams make the broad strokes of what happened clear. But the solution for the past murders is disappointing, very little cluing and it feels completely tacked on.

All in all I admit this is mainly of interest to pure locked room fans. There just isn’t a whole lot of meat here for fans of more “traditional” mysteries to chew on. The dark tone doesn’t make it a good intro to the genre either. If you’re a fan of locked rooms and don’t mind a bit of the Grand Guignol in your mysteries, then this is a good read. But if not, you’d be better off with something else from LRI’s catalog.

See TomCat, JJ, Brad, and Aiden for more positive takes.

Monday, July 8, 2019

The Ginza Ghost (2017) by Keikichi Osaka

I confess, I confess--I don’t have a good intro here.

Normally us mystery fans are familiar with the idea that Japan gets all the good stuff. They have the best mysteries, all our obscure authors get translated and end up there long before we ever get them, and we’re stuck reading about them in a form of literary torture. This time, we all get to share in an obscure and talented author with Keikichi Osaka’s The Ginza Ghost.

The opening by Taku Ashibe gives a good summary of the life and works of Osaka, from his first stories to his sadly premature death during World War II. He also looks at the works in this collection, and while he doesn’t trip the spoiler alert for all of them, he comes very close in a few cases, so you might want to read this one last.

I’ll also say that Osaka is as dry as the Sahara during a drought. This didn’t bother me too much, but I admit trying to read too many at once can be a little draining. It’s not bad writing, but it makes one skim a bit. But that’s enough of that. On to the stories.

We kick off with “The Hangman of the Department Store” the first of many stories starring Osaka’s detective Kyosuke Aoyama...and his first of two appearances here. The case at hand is about a department store employee who’s been strangled and hurled off the roof of the store with unnatural force, along with a robbery at said store. This is less a fair impossible crime to be solved and more a chance to sit back and watch Aoyama unravel everything in minutes, exposing one of the more creatively terrible deaths in mystery fiction.

Aoyama stars again in “The Phantasm of the Stone Wall.” A woman is found stabbed to death outside a small mansion, and two figures are seen walking away from the scene...but a witness at the other end of the road saw no one. The killers are identified as twins at the mansion, but that’s not the end of strange events on that quiet road. I can’t really call this “fair play,” and I find it unlikely that no one ever noticed this happening before, but it’s still a good story.

“The Mourning Locomotive” beyond having one of the better titles in the collection, presents one of its most unusual stories. The titular locomotive is a train that has become infamous for the accidents it’s been involved in, to the point that the drivers have gotten in the habit of hanging a wreath whenever someone dies. Now, it seems someone is setting up pigs to be run over by the locomotive, but why? The answer disappointed at first, but after musing on it, I’ve gained an appreciation for how simple it is.

Next up is the pulpy “The Monster of the Lighthouse.” This story has one of the most audacious murders in mystery fiction: a lighthouse keeper is crushed beneath a rock seemingly flung from the island below, as a “monster” is seen fleeing the scene. Again, this is more about discovery than deduction, since there are only so many ways to explain this type of situation. But it is well-done, and the explanation for what the “monster” is is suitably gross and yet tragic.

“The Phantom Wife” is, based on other reviews I’ve read, widely considered to be the weak link in the collection. I am glad to announce my conformity and agree. The story revolves around a schoolteacher with a seemingly happy marriage with his wife when the wife dies after sinking into a deep depression for reasons unknown. Soon after, the man becomes increasingly fearful and paranoid, and is found murdered in his home, the bars on the windows ripped off by an inhuman force. All well and good, but the solution is as flat as possible. When you better understand the context of the story, it works slightly better, but even then it’s flawed. We just don’t get enough details about the husband’s actions to feel like his fate was deserved.

Next up is “The Mesmerising Light,” which takes on that rare impossible problem: the vanishing car. Lawyer Otsuki and his driver are zooming down a winding and dark mountain road when they stumble on a man clinging to life after being hit by another car that broke through one of the road’s checkpoints. The two don’t recall seeing one, but ring the checkpoint at the other end of the road to keep an eye out for the reckless driver. Minutes pass and the guards confirm that no car went by, even though there’s nowhere for it to go.

On the one hand, I’m not overly fond of the solution here, which is pretty much the obvious answer with some window dressing. But the deductions Otsuki makes from a knife the reckless driver used in a murder begins to show a shift in the stories. Up until now, most of Osaka’s stories have been more about watching the detective unravel events you personally have very little chance of solving. But now, we see a simple but clever double-bluff that shows a shift towards more orthodox detection that will only become stronger as the collection goes on.

The next story, “The Cold’s Night’s Clearing,” was my introduction to Osaka in the Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine issue that published it. The titular clearing is a place which is often coated in snow in the winter months, and when the clouds clear, the moon and night sky can be clearly seen. It is over this field that a man escapes after murdering a woman and her bodyguard, taking the woman’s son with him. The tracks from his skis can clearly be seen...but fade away in the middle of the snowy field. The solution is simple in the best possible way: When you learn what exactly happened that night, you’ll probably be tempted to smack your forehead in frustration that you missed it (unless I’m just projecting). It’s an elegant, totally fair solution, and honestly probably made me hold this collection to a higher standard then I normally would. The only real sticking point is the rather somber ending, but I did not find it an issue.

Christian Henriksson did bring to my attention a “cheat” of sorts in the story. It’s in the comments (also read his review for a slightly less rosy view of this collection).

“The Three Madman” is even more orthodox, being a Queen-style “which of the three did it?” story. The three in question are the titular madmen, the last three patients of a cash-strapped asylum. Diva sings and dances endlessly, Knock-Knock kicks the wall with his foot, and the Injured picks at his face, but all three appear harmless...until the doctors show up to find the hospital’s director dead, his brains scooped out, and the patients gone.

This story sets itself up as more of a manhunt story than a mystery, but it’s pretty obvious where it’s going, especially to the experienced mystery fan. But it’s still a dark, tense, almost creepy story that continues to show Osaka’s move towards the orthodox.

Next on the list is “The Guardian of the Lighthouse,” which once again features the impossible occurring at a lighthouse. The keeper is forced to leave his son on the island alone during a raging storm, but is pleased to see the lighthouse working through the night. But when he returns to the island, his son has vanished into thin air.

This wasn’t published in a mystery magazine, so we have more of a return to the early stories, less deduction that you can solve in advance and more gradual discovery. The discovery is genuinely horrifying, and the whole story almost reminded me of one of those “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” collections, only slightly less mean-spirited and more touching. It also has one of my favorite types of horror, the type where things seem scary until the reveal, and then they get even worse.

“The Demon in the Mine” is the longest story in the collection, and one of the highlights (Sorry JJ!). The story is set in a mine, and Osaka's style can't blunt the brutal nature of life in the mines. I had to wonder while reading if Osaka wasn’t writing from personal experience. The mine is brutal to the workers and the only comfort workers O-Shina and the ironically named Minekeichi have is each other. Unfortunately, this tale of love ends in a massive explosion and fire that leaves Minekeichi sealed behind a massive door, doomed to die either from the flames or the toxic air. At least, that’s what people think before the murders begin.

The men involved in sealing Minekeichi behind the door start turning up bludgeoned to death. At first, suspicion falls on the dead man’s family, but that have alibis for the murders. The other miners have no reason to kill on the behalf of the dead man. Could Minekeichi have survived?

This is very well done, honestly. Perhaps a bit too long, but the atmosphere of desolation in the mine is brutal, and the mystery at the center is very well done. You honestly don’t know which direction Osaka will go here, or if he’ll pull out a third path. The trick is familiar but the misdirection will keep you (it did me) from suspecting it until it’s too late. I do think Osaka doesn’t play fair at an early part of the story, which is quite galling, as he could have played a genius deception that would have put this story on the level of “The Cold Night’s Clearing.” As it is, it falls a little short.

We now have a light comedy story, “The Hungry Letter-Box.” Toki is lovestruck man who posts a letter to his sweetheart, but is horrified to discover, while trying to get a stamp onto it, that the letter has vanished from the solidly locked letterbox. This is probably the lightest story in the collection, and good fun. I do think that the trick could have been better hinted at, but that’s a minor gripe.

The collection ends with “The Ginza Ghost,” which takes place on the modern (at the time of writing) streets of Ginza, a place of coffee shops and nightclubs, and a place where something anti-modern stalks in the alleys and under the bright lights. A young woman is seen being killed inside a tobacco shop, and the body of another woman is found strangled upstairs. At first the police assume that the latter killed the former before taking her own life, since she was wearing the same clothes as the killer, but the evidence shows that she died over an hour before “her” victim! And there is no way for an outsider Did a ghost do it?

No. Of course not. This is a good little story with a simple but plausible solution. TomCat compares it to a Hoch story and I agree...but Hoch would have trimmed the explanation by a few paragraphs, since as it is the whole thing gets bogged down in people repeating themselves.

All in all, an interesting but flawed collection of stories. The main issue is how stoic the narration is in the stories. In the early stories especially it makes for some tedious reading, but it soon picks up with more interesting situations and solutions. And reading it gives one a good overview of the development of the detective story in Japan. All in all, Recommended, with caveats.