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.