Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The Madman's Room (1990/2017) by Paul Halter

That cover is- I mean, it looks like a horror B-movie poster; a movie about Satanic manuscripts, evil rooms, and psychics. Actually, that describes this book pretty well.

Paul Halter hasn’t had a good time on this blog! It’s a shame, because I enjoy the man. I think he’s certainly imaginative, and personally I’d rather have someone who aims big and fails than someone just churning out average dreck (the former, for one, makes for more entertaining reviews). But usually there’s a false note in his books that make it hard for me to rec them for non-mystery fans. Which is why The Madman’s Room pleases me greatly.

There’s a bit more build up this time around. The first two chapters introduce us to Patrick Nolan and Paula Lyle two young would-be lovers, except for the slight complication that Paula is getting married to Francis Hilton...whose sister Sarah is also getting married to Harris Thorne. Obviously, Patrick and Paula only realized they’re in love right as it’s too late, and the romance (and relevant dialogue) doesn’t get any better from here.

Thankfully, the focus is instead on the plot, and it’s a twisty one. The story goes down at Hatton Manor, the Thorne ancestral home, which has a cursed room that is associated with death and insanity. The original inhabitant was Harvey Thorne, a quiet man who preferred to spend his days in his study writing his manuscript. But when he finally showed it to his father, the man soon fell ill and died (an experience I subject my proofreader to with every post!). Harvey’s response was to further isolate himself, and his room started to give visitors a strange sense of unease. Eventually things reached a climax when Harvey died of a heart attack, apparently in front of an inexplicable water stain in front of his fireplace, proclaiming that his family would pay for their sins in fire. And indeed, the house caught fire and the sole survivor ordered the room sealed.

Back in the modern day, Harris wants to unseal the room to make it his personal study, but the project is opposed by his brother Brian, a supposed psychic who is well-known for his uncanny ability to predict the future. This time he predicts doom when Harris unseals the room, and indeed, doom comes some months later. Harris takes a plunge out the window, and while the evidence seems to indicate it was a jealously-induced suicide, suspicious behavior at the time of the death makes Inspector Hurst suspicious. Not to mention the minor matter of the water stain on the floor…

The Madman’s Room differs from Halter’s normal fare. Normally, a Halter novel has a seemingly endless load of twists and turns that don’t always end somewhere good. This time, the flow is more focused and the tone slightly more somber. We really don’t start getting the usual Halter twists until near the end, and there they come off forced, like Halter realized that things weren’t bizarre enough. The first part of the book is a little slower, due to the needed set-up, but once Harris dies things begin to move at a steadier pace, as the cursed room continues to cause people to become terrified when they pass the threshold. Halter’s explanation for this, as well as the water stains that keep popping up, are excellent.

I enjoyed the character of Brian. Most psychics in mysteries tend to be almost self-consciously fake and malicious, so it was interesting to see one who seemed to not only believe in his own powers but is actually treated with a level of respect. I admit, the explanation for his “predictions” is a little weak, but he was actually my favorite character in the book, although spoilers prevent me from saying if my respect was misplaced.

I remain unsure if this is totally fair-play. I enjoyed the final summing up, but I admit there are few firm clues. It is more an example of “this is the only chain of events that makes sense.” But it’s a complex chain, and I’d be surprised if anyone figured this out all the way. Some of the explanations are slightly weak, but the central murder plot is ingenious, a near-perfect and honestly creepy crime that I can see John Dickson Carr grinning at. There is one alibi that I have seen a couple of reviewers (Sergio and TomCat, whose link I cannot grab at this moment) note was done poorly, but I wasn't bothered by it (probably because I had spotted the clue and drawn the completely wrong conclusion from it so it was in my head!)

The atmosphere of dread is much better than in The Vampire Tree. Halter's actual writing remains dry, but having read two other works that felt so dry the books cracked when I opened them, this is refreshing by contrast. There are a few clunky lines of exposition, including this (paraphrased) bombshell:

“I looked forward and saw them. Doing that! Clearly, before my eyes was that person doing that thing. I fell back in horror as I saw sights unimaginable. Why were they doing that? Could it mean that...Yes. It did. All was clear now. The entire case made perfect sense. What I had seen...but no, I shuddered to think about it. It was very clear to me that I should say nothing about it on-page until that pompous windbag of a detective wore himself out jabbering.”

But I exaggerate. This is honestly a very good book, and I was surprised to learn that it was written so early in Halter’s career. It read like a Halter that had been around the block a few times, had gotten some of the excesses out, learned a little bit more about pacing and cluing, etc. But I’m not objecting. If it weren’t for the lack of a “true” locked room (only an assault later in the book qualifies, as the attacker seems to vanish into thin air, but it is a minor part of the plot) I would probably say it was the most Halter-like Halter. But as it is, it’s just a very good mystery. Recommended, particularly for those new to Halter.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Silent Nights (2015) by Martin Edwards

This isn’t late. It’s actually very early.

For years now, the British Library has been republishing older mysteries and helping to fuel a public interest in this esteemed genre and its history. Martin Edwards has been consulting them in this, and has edited a number of short story collections. This is one of them. Silent Nights is a collection of Christmas mysteries by a variety of authors from the Golden Age. Now, I’ve reviewed anthologies before and they tend to be pretty hit or miss, since you have a bunch of separate stories linked by a vague theme and little else. Thankfully, this one is actually good.

We kick off with “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” by Arthur Conan Doyle, a requirement in any Christmas mystery anthology. Blah blah man’s dinner is stolen, blah blah there’s a jewel in it, you know how this goes. Reading over it, it’s pretty slight; Holmes knows most of what happened from early on, it’s just a matter of tracking down where the goose came from, and he and Watson stumble into the thief by accident. It's more notable for the ending, which plays with an idea you see a lot of in mystery fiction but with a pure pragmatic humanitarian motive rather than sympathy.

Next up is the little known “Parlor Tricks” by Ralph Plummer. From the intro I assumed it would be a locked room story, but it’s not, really. It's about a magician and his audience as they try and challenge him, so more of an expose of magic tricks with a twist at the end. It’s simple and well-done, not much more to say (although I doubt at least one of the explanations).

Raymond Allen’s “A Happy Solution” is just that, the most Christmassy story in the collection. A young woman finds herself accused of trying to swipe some money and pass it off in a love letter, and the usual coincidences make it look bad for her. Luckily, the rat responsible is obvious, but he claims he was watching a chess game, which apparently was so engrossing that no one would notice him getting up and walking away. He was able to give an account of the game, but could he have deduced what happened?

Obviously, yes. This is one of those “reverse chess” problems (where you have a position and have to figure out how it ended up that way) and while I’m sure it’s very interesting to those who like chess, it didn’t do much for me.

Next up is G.K. Chesterton's “The Flying Stars.” This one takes its sweet time getting to the crime, with both it and the resolution happening one after the other. But the build-up to the inevitable theft of the titular stars by the thief Flambeau is easy and well-done, and there’s even an excellent theological and moral point made that doesn’t feel forced or shoehorned, always a risk with these types of stories. Is it fair? I’m not sure. Is the reveal of what you just witnessed fun? Very much so. Must check more of these stories out.

Edgar Wallace's “Stuffing” is more or less “The Blue Carbuncle,” just with stupider names. Seriously, where did he come up with half of them? It moves quickly and has some good description, but was the main disappointment of this collection.

Next up is an anticipated one, H.C. Bailey's “The Unknown Murderer.” This is actually oddly grim for a Christmas story. It opens happily with Reggie Fortune (reluctantly and with much griping) being dragged to a charity event for orphans, but things get dark when a doctor has her throat slashed during the event. And then a child is poisoned….

I’m not sure what I think. On the one hand, it flowed well, there was tension, etc. Yet I’m not sure. Reggie pulls together a connection between events not because the facts point to it, but because this is a mystery so they have to be connected. Nick Fuller claims it’s fairly clued, you just aren't walked step-by-step through the logic.I believe him, but I think I’m still iffy on Mr. Fortune.

J. Jefferson Farjeon, the man who started this British Library crime craze with Mystery in White, is up next with “The Absconding Treasure” in which the creatively named Detective Crook investigates theft done by an apparently loyal toyshop employee. The man is found murdered in the woods, and the identity of the killer is no great shock. A nice, simple story.

Dorothy L. Sayers comes next with “The Necklace of Pearls” which goes down at the estate of a traditional man who likes playing traditional games, but someone took advantage of the fun to swipe his daughter’s pearl necklace. And to make matters more interesting, it can’t be found on the guests or on the grounds. Yes, it’s an impossible theft!

Well, a minor one, but I appreciate it. The answer to where the pearls are hidden is good, and I think Sayers could have clued it a bit more and been fine. The whodunit element is weak, there are too many suspects for a story this short, and Whimsey doesn’t even figure out who was responsible via some genius detection, but just setting up a trap. But it’s still good, on the whole.

Next up is another reread, Margery Allingham’s “The Case is Altered.” Albert Campion is invited to a large Christmas party, but is distracted when his womanizing friend Lance thinks he’s got a letter asking for a meeting from that cute girl in the train on the way in. Even Campion can’t deny that she looked afraid, but why Lance? And why does she want to meet with him?

Like “The Flying Stars,” this one takes some time before getting to any crime, but unlike that story which made clear what was going to happen early, this one takes a tad too long to get to the point. I read this story once already in another Christmas mystery collection and didn’t care much for it, and while this re-read improved my opinion a bit it’s still a tad too slow, and with an obvious culprit. Even Campion admits that the first real clue only comes about five pages from the end! I’ll acknowledge that the reason for the note is clever, however.

Next up is more of a suspense story. “Waxworks” by Ethel Lina White stars a reporter who decides to write an piece about the power of superstition and fear by spending the night in the titular waxworks, where two people have already been found dead. This can in no way go wrong, especially with a possibly murderous coworker lurking in the wings…

Not mystery, but suspense. I freely admit I read this story in a crowded restaurant which may have killed some of the atmosphere, but it was still a good, suspenseful story that didn’t go the way I thought it would, which is always a pleasant surprise. Good story, on the whole.

Next up is Marjorie Bowen’s “Cambric Tea.” Like before, this is more suspense than mystery, as a doctor is called in to the house of a minor lord who’s convinced his wife is poisoning him with her tea. The problem? Said wife was the doctor’s fiancee way back when, so even if she’s responsible (which he isn’t sure of) he may not know what to do about it…

This is actually a pretty good Gothic, with good tension throughout. Where it falls short is in pacing; the plot behind the scenes is revealed too early, and while there is still some mystery about the identity of who’s giving the poison, it becomes too obvious. The resolution also falls a bit flat, being resolved not through the ingenuity of the protagonists, but because a character has a change of heart when he has given no indication that he would have one. But I enjoyed it.

Next up is Joseph Shearing...better known as Marjorie Bowen. Yes, she’s back, this time with “The Chinese Apple.” By all appearances, this is more of a somber story, as a woman makes the painful trek back to her childhood home to pick up her niece. This sparks a rather emotional and honest conversation between the two women, and while this an interesting and tense in its own way, it reveals the game too early. I think that once that element comes in, the reader can see what’s coming. But the ending twist remains good, nonetheless.

We get back into mystery with a good three-story send-off. The first is Nicholas Blake’s “A Problem in White.” The set-up is almost mockingly classic: A snowbound train filled with total strangers--or are they?-- sit around griping and clashing, and when one rebellious soul decides to just walk away he’s found suffocated in the snow. And it’s all very fair too, to the point that the end of the collection details the solution with labeled clues. Which is to the story’s benefit and detriment.

On the one hand, the clues aren't generic, simple things; you do have to read the story and actually pay attention to events and make inferences if you want to solve it, but it is possible to just stumble on something that you know is a clue and solve the whole thing because it only points to one person. I would know because that’s how I solved it. Admittedly not the whole thing, because there are more twists than just whodunit, but it’s an irritating short-circuit.

Next up is Edmund Crispin’s “The Name on the Window.” I read “Beware of the Trains” a while back and while it didn’t suit me for one reason or another, this was much better, combining the dying message with the impossible crime!

The victim this time is an architect who takes a bet to spend some time in the pavilion on his estate, rumored to be haunted by ghosts, because of course it is. He’s barely in there a few minutes when the alarm bell rings, promoting the guests to head out there, where they discover him lying the floor with a stiletto in his back! Unlike most victims of murder, he was kind enough to scrawl the name of his killer,  an ex-Luftwaffe man his daughter is in love with, on a dust-covered window. He’s even nice enough to confirm that yes, he wrote it and yes he meant it before dying. But the issue that brings Inspector Humbleby to Fen is the fact that the floor was coated in dust, and only the victim’s footprints were there!

Needless to say it doesn’t take Fen long to see through the illusion, chiding Humbleby (and the reader!) that he has “Locked rooms on the brain.” The solution is simple and elegant, and the twist behind the dying message well-handled. The only issue is that the motive is only spelled out on the last page, but unlike “The Necklace of Pearls,” the suspect list is short enough so that it doesn’t matter.

The collection wraps up with Leo Bruce’s “Beef for Christmas,” which left me wanting more of a taste of these stories. Beef, a private detective, is invited to the home of a rich man who’s been receiving threatening letters. It seems that like most Golden Age patriarchs, he’s threatening to leave his children with no money, but it’s not because he’s a spendthrift; he’s a major spender who might blow through all of his wealth long before his family can even get a taste of it. It’s a cruel form of torment, and it’s no surprise that a couple of days after the arrival of Beef and his Watson that someone is found hanging in an upstairs room, an apparent suicide.

It’s not, as Beef quickly demonstrates. He also quickly brings the crime home to a cruel killer, and shows Bruce’s skill at cluing in the process. Multiple parts of the story combine to bring the story to a close in a way that reminded me of the best Hoch stores and I loved every moment of it. Only a slight lack of fair-play keeps it down, but it inspired me to seek out more of these.

All in all, this is an excellent little collection of winter murders. They don’t all show their authors at the top of their game, but there are only a few clunkers and many excellent brainteasers. Recommended.