Monday, June 22, 2020

Diagnosis: Impossible: The Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (1996) by Edward D. Hoch

Disclaimer: The book cover image comes from In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel.

This has been a long time coming.

I’ve made no secret about my love of Edward D. Hoch. While the gleam of nostalgia has faded away some over the years, he remains one of my favorite mystery authors. He’s created many different characters, ranging from the spy C. Jeffery Rand to Billy the Kid look-alike Ben Snow to the master thief of the valueless Nick Velvet. However, the subject of this post will be that impossible crime expert Dr. Sam Hawthorne. A doctor in the New England town of Northmont circa 1920s-1940s, Dr. Sam enjoys entertaining guests with “a small libation” and tales of his crime-solving career. Crippen and Landru have been publishing collections of Dr. Sam’s adventures for a while now, and at long last they’ve collected all 60-some stories. This collection is the first of them.

Diagnosis: Impossible: The Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne holds a special place in my heart, since it was one of my first introductions to the impossible crime genre and older mystery fiction as a whole (a step beyond things like Encyclopedia Brown). I actually reviewed this collection way back in the early days of the blog, but it was lost to my efforts to add tags to it. However, this loss provided an opportunity for me. You see, I read (and reviewed) the second collection of Dr. Sam stories, read (and did not review) the third one...and then, by the time I got the fourth one, I had an idea in my head (or by the time I was going to get to it the fifth and final collection either came out or would be coming out soon and I decided on this idea): I’ve decided to read and review all five collections, although the reviews will not be in a row. I hope to break them up with some reviews of a little-known (as far as I know) mystery manga.

But that’s enough talking. Let’s review.

The series kicks off with “The Problem of the Covered Bridge.” Dr. Sam is new to the town of Northmont, but is already liked by the citizens, such as the Bringlow family. Hank, the family’s son, invites Dr. Sam to follow Hank to his home to check up on his father. Hank’s fiancee rides with Dr. Sam to make sure he doesn’t get lost. Hank speeds ahead, and when Dr. Sam and the fiancee catch up to the covered bridge that he had to have entered, they find that the tracks of his horse and buggy have come to a complete stop in the middle of the bridge, and the only remaining trace is a broken jar of applesauce that Hank was meant to deliver. At least until the horse and buggy turn up the next morning carrying Hank’s body, dead of a shotgun blast to the back of the head…

This is a pretty good introduction to the Dr. Sam stories. Hoch manages to quickly establish Northmont, Dr. Sam, and other details like Dr. Sam’s yellow Pierce-Arrow Runabout car. The central mystery is attention-getting, with a good solution, although one that I don’t totally like for minor reasons. I can see the experienced mystery reader seeing through it, but it is still well-done, and this re-read helped me to appreciate the extent of the misdirection that Hoch throws at you during this story, which was a common-theme during this re-read.

“The Problem of the Old Gristmill” brings naturalist Henry Cordwainer to Northmont to study the local wildlife and the seasons. He starts as a recluse, but soon becomes good friends with Dr. Sam and the son of the mill’s owner. However, all good things must come to an end and Cordwainer gets ready to return to teaching, sending his journals via train to Boston. However, that night a light is seen in the gristmill, and it proves to be a fire. The mill is almost destroyed, and Cordwainer’s body is pulled out...killed by a blow to the head. And to make matters more mysterious, when Cordwainer’s brother tries to retrieve the just-arrived journals, he and Dr. Sam find that the journals have vanished from the locked strongbox that they were sent in.

This is another solid mystery. Although I think that the impossible crime is a little simple, there’s a very good motive behind the disappearance. I think that some can argue that the whodunit pushes the fair play boundary a bit and I don’t disagree.

“The Problem of the Lobster Shack” has Dr. Sam making the acquaintance of Dr. Felix Dory, a famous brain surgeon who invites Dr. Sam to his daughter’s engagement party. The main entertainment is magician Julian Chabert, who promises an escape from a lobster shack. Chabert is tied and chained up to a post in the shack, the shack’s door is locked, and the windows are boarded up. A whole crowd of people surround the shack, but when Chabert doesn’t emerge, the shack is reveal that someone has slipped into the locked shack in full view of everyone and cut his throat. This time, the solution is a little more unexpected (though still fairly clued), and the killer is a little better hidden. There is one twist that made me wonder why Chabert would still be hired in the first place, but that’s it. And Dr. Sam gets some good characterization here in regards to Dr. Dory and how he handles the murderer.

“The Problem of the Haunted Bandstand” is one of my personal favorites of this series. During the Fourth of July celebration, the band is interrupted by a hooded figure with a noose around his neck stabbing the mayor in the chest (this is the start of Hoch’s hatred of mayors in this series). The figure vanishes in a flash of light, leaving only the hood and noose, even though the figure was rushed immediately, there was no place to hide on the bandstand, and the bandstand itself was surrounded. The solution is effective, although I think that the clues to the killer stand out a bit, since there aren’t a whole lot of good alternate solutions. That being said, I love the motive for why the crime is done in this way, since it’s rooted in the time period. I feel like that if you’re going to write a historical story, it should actually rely on that setting in some way, and this story fulfills that.

The next story, “The Problem of the Locked Caboose,” is a bit of a let-down. Dr. Sam is called to fill it for another doctor in another town and has to catch the train to make it. Said train is transporting a collection of jewelry, which is kept in a locked safe in a locked caboose containing a guard. Needless to say that before a few hours have passed the guard is found stabbed to death and the jewelry stolen, the caboose still solidly locked. And the only real clue is the victim’s dying message, “Elf”...

The problem is that that dying message is really the only clue you have. Up until now (and later in the collection), Hoch’s stories have been based on a tapestry of clues. I mentioned this in my review of No Killer Has Wings, but Hoch’s stories often operate on a chain of logic: A->B->C->D->E, or something like A+B+C+D=E. There are normally quite a few clues once all is said and done. In this one though, if you don’t know the meaning of the main clue, you can’t solve it. Hoch even introduces two more clues during the summation that in my opinion he could have easily slipped in earlier. (You can argue that he did with one of them, but it’s quite vague and a bit of a stretch in my opinion.)

Next up we have “The Problem of the Little Red Schoolhouse.” A young boy goes missing from the schoolyard after recess under the watchful eye of the teacher. She last saw little Tommy Belmont swinging on the swing, but after calling the children in, she finds that he’s vanished, even though there are no places for either him or a kidnaper to hide. When the family starts getting ransom calls, the police are brought in. It’s a good, tense story with an unsettling experience in the house of a suspected old man, but the mystery felt a little weak. I would think that the other students would notice something amiss, and one aspect of the culprit is barely hinted at. The story also has Dr. Sam forget to talk to a character who could clear everything up until near the end of the story. Still good, but not as solid as some of the others.

“The Problem of the Christmas Steeple” is the first Dr. Sam Christmas story. This time, Northmont’s white Christmas is being thrown off by a Roma encampment nearby, leading to much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the townsfolk. And to make matters worse for them, the local parson is inviting them to church. Dr. Sam isn’t impressed by the controversy, but things get interesting when Sheriff Lens goes to speak with the parson after the service. He and Dr. Sam see the parson run into the steeple, but after they break down the locked door and head up, they find the parson stabbed and the leader of the encampment saying he didn’t do it.

Needless to say, he didn’t. As Dr. Sam says, “...[H]ow could you have a locked room that wasn’t even a room--that was in fact open on all four sides?” But not only could no one have slipped out of the steeple past the locked door and Dr. Sam and Sheriff Lens, but the “open” sides of the steeple are blocked by chicken wire. That leads him to his next comment, “And how could you have a mystery when the obvious murderer was found right there with the weapon and the body?” The killer is more of a surprise this time, and while the “how” might be obvious, I was honestly impressed at how well-done the cluing is. I really think that this is one of the reasons why I like Hoch so much; his skill at having even seemingly-irrelevant details be an important part of or a hint to the solution.

But on a nitpicky note, Dr. Sam’s comment in the epilogue is wrong. This wasn't the first time he'd done this.

“The Problem of Cell 16” is another well-constructed story. While trying to get help for a man shot in what looks like a hunting accident, Dr. Sam accidentally crashes into a car driven by a rude Frenchman. When he causes a ruckus at the garage, Sheriff Lens is called in...and arrests the man on the spot. It turns out that the man is Georges Reme, a conman known as “The Eel” due to his skill in escaping police custody, a feat that he repeats in Northmont. He’s locked up in Sheriff Lens’ new jail, which sports barred windows and an unpickable door. Even if The Eel were to get around the cell door, if he wanted to leave the jail he’d have to get around another bolted door guarded by Sheriff Lens himself. It should come as no surprise that the cell is found empty less than twenty-four hours later. Another simple but solid solution, and Hoch does a good job of weaving the suspicious shooting into the plot as well. The cluing is once again very well done.

Next up is a sort-of sequel, “The Problem of the Country Inn.” Dr. Sam is called in when the owner of a local country inn is found shot to death, apparently by an armed robber. The clerk claims that the robber fled down a back hallway, but Sheriff Lens is suspicious since the back door is firmly bolted on the inside. Since this is the ninth impossible-looking crime Dr. Sam has seen in four years, he delays the arrest to look into the crime further. He also tries to soothe some bad blood between two townsfolk left over from the previous story...and catches the robber in another robbery at the inn, and then sees him run down the hallway and disappear...with the door solidly bolted. I’m not as fond of the solution here, since it’s hard to fully clue, but kudos to Hoch for coming up with two possible solutions to the impossibility...and using the fact that they would each only work once to make it seem even more impossible.

“The Problem of the Voting Booth” is set during the final day of the county elections, with Sheriff Lens facing a tough challenge from Henry G. Oatis. The two are supposed to meet at a barber shop serving as a temporary voting station for a photo op, but everyone involved forgot that this is Northmont and that Dr. Sam is cursed. Oatis goes into the booth to fill out his ballot, but stumbles out of it a couple minutes later, blood on his shirt and a stab wound in his chest. Eight people were surrounding the booth, and no one saw anything. As Dr. Sam puts it, “Our eyes had not deceived us. Henry G. Oatis had been stabbed to death while alone in the voting booth, with no less than eight people watching from outside, and with a knife that seemed to have vanished into thin air.”

However, I can see Hoch’s solution disappointing. It’s fair (although one major giveaway clue is only given right before the end--which is when Dr. Sam realizes what happened too, and the key clues are given before that), but I can see readers not approving of it. I accept it, because Hoch throws two twists into the mix that keeps the solution from being lazy. (Although I concede that one bit of information isn’t given until the summation, although it’s just the motive.)

“The Problem of the County Fair” presents us with probably the most ambitious impossible crime in the collection. Northmont is having it’s annual county fair, with the main attraction being the time capsule, set to be buried for one hundred years. The only shadow over the proceedings is the return of Max McNear, the old flame of Gert Friar. He was kicked out of Northmont after sending the current mayor’s son through a window, but told Gert that he was coming back. Dr. Sam is distracted with participating in the burying of the time capsule, but soon after is met by a distraught Gert who tells him that she found Max’s truck...with bloodstains on the front seat. When an arithmetic book that should have gone into the time capsule is found on the ground, stained with blood, Dr. Sam has the capsule dug back up...revealing, among all the items, Max McNear’s body.

“We looked at it logically. And logically it couldn’t have happened.” The capsule didn’t contain the body when it was put into the ground. The capsule was under constant observation while it was being buried. No one could have dug a tunnel to it, and the walls of the capsule are still intact. It’s a great premise, but I think Hoch recognized that there are only so many alternate solutions with this one, since this story wraps up pretty quickly after the discovery of the body. The cluing is good, but a little clunky, since the solution is such a specific one. Said solution is good, however. There’s one sequence though, right before Dr. Sam goes to confront the killer, where he says a really odd line to someone he knows isn’t involved in the crime, along with an odd piece of narration. It almost feels like Hoch is trying to pull a last-minute bluff on the reader. It’s the only real off bit in the story.

The collection wraps up with “The Problem of the Old Oak Tree.” The talkies have come to Northmont in the form of a movie about barnstorming pilots which Dr. Sam has been hired to provide medical assistance for if needed. However, as usual, it’s his detective skills that are needed as he once again is at the scene of an impossible crime. The star and his stunt double take off into the sky. The double jumps from the plane, opens his parachute...and careens into the titular tree, where it’s said a Revolutionary War traitor was hanged. The tree apparently has a thirst for blood now, as when the double proves unresponsive, Dr. Sam investigates and finds a wire wrapped tightly around the man’s neck. He was alive (Or was he?) when he jumped from the plane, and no one else approached him after he crashed, so how was he killed? It’s a good story, although it requires the victim to be a little credulous. Again, I don’t think that the experienced mystery reader will have too much trouble with this one since again there are only so many alternative solutions, but that could just be due to me reading the solution over and over again over the years.

And indeed, the fact that I've had this collection for years and read it on and off (though not in full like I did for this review) during that time makes it hard for me to be objective about it, even discounting the nostalgia factor. Yeah, the mysteries seem more obvious now, but is that because I’ve read this so much that I know them too well? Is it because I’ve read enough Hoch that I’ve gotten used to how he clues stories? (Although I will say that while re-reading this I noticed one way he manipulates the reader that I never noticed before, so make of that what you will.) Is it because they’re genuinely easy mystery stories?

I don’t know. But I do know I still love this collection and this re-read showed me that there was even more to love, even if there’s nostalgia poisoning involved. Highly Recommended.

Christian Henriksson has a positive review here, Ho-Ling has a brief but positive look here, and the late, lamented Noah Stewart has a more critical review here.

Next time, we’ll be looking at that murder mystery manga.

Monday, May 18, 2020

The Man Who Read Mysteries (2018) by William Brittain (edited by Josh Pachter)

And there goes the name of my future autobiography...

While lurking among mystery fans, one name that I noticed coming up a bit in regards to the mystery short story was William Brittain. Brittain was a teacher, a writer of Young Adult novels (including The Wish Giver, which is apparently pretty well-known and also a book I’d only vaguely heard of), and writer of mystery short stories. I had only read one story of his before this, “The Impossible Footprint” in The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries by Mike Ashley. This was far from his only story, but there was no place to find them beyond anthologies and digging your way through old mystery magazines. Now, this has changed.

The Man Who Read Mysteries is a collection of Brittain’s stories edited by Josh Pachter. It collects all of his “The X Who Read” stories, as well as a few of his stories starring Leonard Strang, a teacher. While I admit that I hoped to see more of the Mr. Strang stories here, what we have is excellent. The collection opens with “The X Who Read” stories, stories based on other mystery authors, running the gamut from whodunits to code cracking stories to reverse whodunits like “The Man Who Read John Dickson Carr.”

Edgar Gault is a young man who also, much to his uncle’s future sorrow, happens to be a fan of the great John Dickson Carr. Edgar is filled with love both for Carr and for his uncle’s money, meaning that when the latter is going to be cut off, he takes action to kill his uncle. He comes up with a simple, but workable locked room trick...And I won’t spoil how it works out. It’s a very amusing little story.

“The Man Who Read Ellery Queen” takes place in a nursing home where one of the new residents expresses his desire to solve a crime just like Ellery Queen does...and gets his chance when one resident accuses the other of stealing his coin. The other man agrees to be strip-searched and no trace of the coin is found, but our hero is able to use logic to find the coin. I’m not sure that the hiding place would have been undiscovered, but the logic is solid. It’s a little less fair today than it would have been back then, but it’s still good.

“The Man Who Couldn’t Read” has two men, Monty and Ford, out in the woods doing some repair work on the former’s house, since the darkroom he wanted constructed has an extra door to the outside on it. The two get to work bricking the door up, and Ford is happy that Monty is willing to call on him. After all, Ford did accidentally kill Monty’s wife sometime back while driving, but it was ruled an accident and Monty believes in letting bygones be bygones…although you can probably tell where this story will end up. I do think that Brittain had to make Ford a little more repulsive than hinted at the last second to make his fate feel fitting as opposed to disproportionate, considering how vicious it is.

“The Woman Who Read Rex Stout” is set among a traveling carnival sideshow and stars the fat woman of the show. Gert Jellison was given one of the Nero Wolfe books as a joke by the show’s owner, but she’s become a big fan of the obese detective since. The skills she’s learned reading the books come in handy when the snake charmer is found strangled to death. The story is good, but there’s one moment that screams “I AM THE KILLER,” and it isn’t well integrated into the story at all.

“The Boy Who Read Agatha Christie” is more of a “what is going on” story than anything else. A group of college students invade a small town and begin doing bizarre good deeds or just things that irritate and annoy but that aren’t actually illegal. The local police chief is baffled, but the exchange student he’s housing sees what’s happening. While it’s not fully fair play, since some of the information is learned offstage, there’s still a clever scheme going on here. And kudos to Brittain for using a similar plot to an Agatha Christie novel without showing off and spoiling by name-dropping said novel.

“The Man Who Read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle” opens with the editor of a small-town newspaper receiving a mysterious letter purporting to be from an old college friend...but that’s only one of the many bizarre and incorrect details in the letter. He tries to call the woman mentioned in the letter, but she hangs up on him and later he gets a visit from a government agent, dragging this small-town man into an international incident.

The U.S. government has been dealing with an unnamed country to ensure their support in the Cold War. However, certain agents are intending to pass on a list of American spies to their country's government as a public relations coup. The U.S. government knows that the list is being transported in a box on a ship, but they will only have two minutes to take the list and the box is locked with a lettered combination lock that will set off a smoke bomb if the wrong code is imputed. The only thing that the government knows is that the code is consecutive (ABC, DEF, etc.). The letter writer was an American mole in the group, but he was unable to include the code, but did give a hint of it in the letter. The solution is perfect; excellent, totally fair, and groan-inducing. Full credit to Brittian for this one.

“The Man Who Read G. K. Chesterton” is about a priest who has concerns about the death of a local citizen. Tim Harrington apparently shot himself in his office with a discarded piece of hardcore pornography providing the motive. The monsignor at St. Bartholomew has no interest in providing last rites to a suicide victim, meaning that Father Kenny will have to prove murder if they are to be done. The story is another solid one, as Father Kenny struggles with finding any evidence to prove murder, and Brittian does a good job of getting you to sympathize with him. I do think that the clue is a little too bluntly delivered, but it’s still well done. Should the police have realized it? Probably. But I can believe they would write it off as a suicide and not look closer. The who is a little clunky, but it’s not the focus of the story.

“The Man Who Read Dashiell Hammett” is another code-cracking story. A lover of classical detective fiction is debating donating his collection of mysteries to a library, but he’s also a fan of games and has a feud going with the head librarian, a lover of hard-boiled mysteries. As a result, the classical fan comes up with a challenge: a copy of The Maltese Falcon is concealed in the library, he provides three clues to its location, and the book must be found in an hour to ensure the rest are donated. The sixty-five year old “stack boy” is pulled out to help find the book. I don’t know if this is perfectly fair, so the enjoyment comes from seeing a seemingly impossible scenario taken down and solved in time.

I admit that “The Man Who Read Georges Simenon” is my least favorite of these opening stories, in part because I’m not really familiar with the author. (Although I’m not familiar with Hammett’s work either, but that story has so little to do with Hammett’s actual work that it’s easier to overlook.) Two men arrive at a mansion to deliver some art. One of the men likes to read the works of Georges Simenon. The plot won’t be too hard for a reader to figure out, and I found it a little disappointing.

“The Girl Who Read John Creasey” is another story about an author I know almost nothing about, but this time the story is a little more solid. A police officer limps home in despair from hitting dead ends in a recent murder case. Thankfully for him, his daughter has been reading John Creasey’s Gideon novels and wants to know more. Fred Dawkins was a British man who won a football pool and decided to take a trip to the States. There, he converted his money into American dollars, played poker with a few people, and then was stabbed to death. Bizarrely, his dying words were “Twas Ol’ Fishin’ as done me in.” Three men knew about the money, and the officer’s daughter must interpret the clue to figure out the killer. I don’t deny the logic behind the clue, but I found it a little hard to follow along with since the topic was something totally unfamiliar to me. The killer also seemed a little obvious.

The final story of this segment is “The Men Who Read Issac Asimov” which thankfully for me is based on his Black Widowers stories rather than his science fiction. Davey Lotus was a local ne’er-do-well who after winning money at a poker game opened up a department store known for its various gimmicks, such as a creative way of price haggling. The current gimmick is a safe with a hundred (Is that even possible!?) different numbers on it that contains a thousand dollars. A reporter is in town to report on the store, and he ends up meeting up with a group of local men, fans of Issac Asimov, who have gathered together to break the code. The story feels like one of those Black Widowers tales, with all of the men providing their own interpretation on the same facts to come up with wrong solutions, before the waiter swoops in to provide the correct one. I do think that perhaps someone should have come up with it beforehand, but that’s a minor gripe.

It’s at this point that I’ll stop and mention something that leapt out at me: Maybe it’s just because I read so much Porges before this, but I liked how these stories all felt different from each other. After so many stories that had the same characters talking about some abstract situations, albeit ingenious ones, it felt nice to be shifting genres every story, seeing new characters and more grounded and solvable mysteries.

And with that, we move on to the Leonard Strang stories. Mr. Strang is a science teacher at Aldershot High School who solves a variety of cases. Some are related to school, some are not. The first story, “Mr. Strang Gives a Lecture,” opens with Mr. Strang being informed by Detective Paul Roberts that Mr. Strang’s car was used by a student as a getaway car in a diner robbery. While said student is a troublemaker, Mr. Strang is doubtful...and demonstrates his doubts via a lecture. I found the story a little hard to follow the first time around, since I had a hard time visualizing the layout of the locations, but it’s a solid story with some good logic, although there is one element thrown in at the last minute that makes the culprit obvious.

“Mr. Strang Performs an Experiment” is a much different story. Russell Donato is an up-and-coming chemistry teacher at Aldershot who has been accused of coming on to one of his students. However, Mr. Strang is confident enough in Denato’s character and skeptical enough of the story to dig further. This is more of a “howtoproveit” story, since everything hinges on the “experiment” Mr. Strang performs. The issue is that unless you have the same knowledge that he does to pick up on the main clue, you’re just going to have to sit back and watch Mr. Strang solve it all. There’s none of the chains of logic that you see in the other stories, and it feels a little weaker as a result.

The next story, “Mr. Strang Takes a Field Trip,” is an impossible crime story. Mr. Strang takes his students on a field trip to a natural history museum, with the only issue being a prankster student. Unfortunately, said student and his friend slip away from the group, and ten minutes later one of the employees is grabbing the boys, accusing them of stealing a golden mask. However, neither of the boys have the mask on them, and a search of the room turns up nothing. Even a search of the museum itself doesn’t turn up any evidence of the mask. If the boys had stolen it, what did they do with it? And if they didn’t do it, who was it, and where did they hide it? The hiding place of the mask is fair, you can figure out where it’s hidden from the evidence, and I was a little annoyed that I missed it. I admit that I’m not sure that the robbery would have stood up to an actual police investigation. On a final note, I admit I appreciated Mr. Strang getting called out on one of his assumptions, since I don’t care for infallible detectives.

“Mr. Strang Versus the Snowman,” is an excellent episode in detection. Detective Roberts tips Mr. Strang off that the grandfather of one of his students, one Simon Barasch, is a drug dealer known as “the Snowman,” whose drugs are finding their way into the hands of Aldershot High School's students. Mr. Strang is the tutor of the man’s grandson, Arthur, so Roberts wants him to investigate. And on one snowy day, he gets his chance. A snowstorm results in Mr. Strang driving Arthur back home, where he gets his chance to search...but finds no evidence of cocaine. But that same night, he and Roberts sit outside the house on a stake-out and manage to catch Simon with two blocks of cocaine. It’s an excellent example of deduction, since Mr. Strang manages to piece everything together from one piece of evidence and a few other observations. For the record, this isn’t an impossible crime story...

But “Mr. Strang, Armchair Detective” is, in my opinion, and if so it was one missed by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders and by Brian Skupin in Locked Room Murders: Supplement. Mr. Strang and Roberts are eating dinner with Holbeck, a New York man who’s been down to talk homicide with the Aldershot police department. Unfortunately, Holbeck has a “patronizing manner about everything outside the city limits” and has managed to drive Mr. Strang and Detective Roberts insane. The final straw comes when he refers to Mr. Strang’s teaching job as “restful,” causing Roberts to defend Mr. Strang and offer him up a good detective. Holbeck puts that to the test with a problem in detection that has baffled New York’s finest.

A man named James Phillimore Earnshaw went to an apartment complex and asked a tenant for his ex-wife’s apartment and was seen going upstairs. Shortly after, a loud argument broke out, necessitating summoning the police. The argument seemingly stopped, before the ex-wife yelled for her ex-husband to come back, and the apartment door slammed. The police go upstairs to get more information, but Rachel Earnshaw answers the door alone and denies her ex-husband ever being there. A painted wall and a discarded knife in the apartment tell a violent story, but there’s no trace of James Earnshaw in the apartment. I don’t think that a fan of locked room mysteries will have too much trouble figuring out the gist of what happened, but I think that there are enough moving parts to make it fun to see everything fall into place. The motive is somewhat weak, and to be oblique, the story is told in such a way that something is mentioned very indirectly so that Mr. Strang can look smart by deducing that it exists. These are pretty minor gripes however, and I do like the deductions surrounding the latter point. Brittain also gets due credit for a very clever clue. I think that most people will see it, but dismiss it. I mean, I did, and I’d hate to be the only one who didn’t figure it out.

“Mr. Strang Interprets a Picture” is a more disappointing story, especially compared to the former story. Mr. Strang pops in on the art class of a colleague and notices a strange picture drawn by the “Mnemonic Kid,” a Vietnamese immigrant who has an infallible memory. Mr. Strang is so confused by the picture that he takes it home to think on it...but it’s obvious to the reader that the picture has something to do with the bank robbery that opens the story, and it’s just a matter of figuring out what. I don’t think that most readers will have trouble with this one. (Although I didn’t piece it together, so what do I know?)

The collection ends with “Mr. Strang Takes a Tour,” the last Mr. Strang story written. It’s not a sequel to “Mr. Strang Takes a Field Trip,” but a story that has Mr. Strang going on a trip to Canada. As the trip begins, he befriends a nun named Sister “Gerry” Geraldine, who purchases a souvenir cross. However, after one leg of the trip, she realizes that the cross is missing. She assumes that it’s simply been misplaced in someone else’s bag, but Mr. Strang sees that as unlikely and thinks that someone has stolen it. But who would steal a five-dollar souvenir cross? The solution is pretty smart, but the reader has no chance of figuring everything out; you can piece together a bit of the solution, but most of the backstory is told to Mr. Strang offscreen. The ending, while touching, felt a little out of place to me, since the two characters involved didn’t really interact in the story.

All in all, this is another excellent collection from Crippen and Landru. There’s plenty of variety among the stories, and even if they all don’t reach the heights of fair-play cluing, they bring up interesting problems. They are all well-written, although the choice of font for the book was hard to read at first. I’d like to see the rest of the Mr. Strang stories collected, personally. Highly Recommended.

Brad and Christian also gave their opinions on this book. We all agree on the overall quality, although me and Christian disagree on some of the individual stories.

Monday, April 20, 2020

These Daisies Told (2018) by Arthur Porges (edited by Richard Simms)

Yes, more Arthur Porges. Perhaps I should have split these up more, but I got this and the previous Porges that I reviewed at the same time and I try to review books in the order that I read them.

These Daisies Told: The Casebook of Professor Ulysses Price Middlebie is another short story collection from Richard Simms Publications, this time collecting the Porges stories starring the titular professor. Professor Middlebie is a retired professor, specifically Professor (Emeritus) of the Philosophy and History of Science. The Professor Middlebie stories are similar to the Cyriack Skinner Grey stories, in that they both feature scientific geniuses being consulted by a police officer on seemingly impossible crimes, which they then solve through scientific knowledge unknown to the average man. Before long, Porges even gives Professor Middlebie a sprained ankle to make him even more like Grey!

I saved this collection for “last” (I don’t know what other Porges collections are out there/what I might get in the future), since the stories had what sounded like the most interesting premises. Fires set inside locked houses, vanishing bodies, slightly built teenagers committing murder with concrete blocks...Fascinating, all of it. And while I do have some issues with this collection, on the whole it’s very solid.

We open with the titular story, where Detective Sergeant Black meets with his one-time professor, hoping to use the man’s observational skills to help determine where a body is. Dale Corsi is a farmer whose fights with his wife have possibly escalated into murder. Said wife has not been seen for a week and Corsi is suspected of having concealed or disposed of her body somewhere on their property. However, the ranch is surrounded by both a tall fence and cultivated land where a grave would be easily found, and Corsi himself cannot drive to any other location. The ranch itself has been searched with no results, not even disturbed ground. This is the only story where Professor Middlebie takes the drastic step of actually going to the scene to investigate, where he solves it in minutes. There is some cluing as to where the body is hidden, but you simply aren’t able to solve this before Professor Middlebie does, although it is a clever solution. On a final note, Robert Adey’s Locked Room Murders says that the story “makes no attempt to create atmosphere” which I disagree with. But maybe I was influenced by the cover, which is very pretty looking.

Next, Professor Middlebie isn’t solving a murder, but preventing one in “The Unguarded Path.” Franklin Devoe was the lawyer for the Syndicate, a group of mustache twirlers. Now he’s turned state’s evidence against them, and they’ve sent their best assassin, Joe Vasta, to shut him up. The assassin is remarkably confident about his success, even predicting the day and time that Devoe will lose his life. In fact, he’s so confident that Detective Sergeant Black contacts Professor Middlebie to see if there’s a problem with the security measures.

The problem is that the house is like a fortress with seemingly no security flaws. It’s surrounded by a thick wall with barbed wire, police guard every possible entrance and the surrounding area, food is selected at random from a random supermarket every day, and the house itself is so sturdy that, “A grenade wouldn’t do more than chip the bricks.” Nevertheless, Professor Middlebie is able to find a way to penetrate the defenses, although I think that the police should have caught this.

“The Missing Bow” is a vanishing weapon story. Victor Borden, a man who killed a woman and child in a drunk driving incident gets an arrow to the neck in his bathroom. The only other survivor of the crash, one Howard Cole, has been paying visits to the alley under the man’s window for the past week, apparently to get evidence of his guilt (as Borden claimed the accident was due to brake failure), but Sergeant Black believes he was getting ready for murder. Cole’s arm and legs were crippled in the accident, but he’s still capable of walking, and in theory firing a bow with his feet, meaning that his injuries don’t prevent him from firing the arrow. But there’s one problem: Cole was seen entering the alleyway by the taxi driver that brought him there, he swears that Cole didn’t bring a bow with him, and there was no place he could have concealed it in the alley. Obviously, Professor Middlebie produces an answer, but I wasn’t fully satisfied with it. Not because I think it’s wrong or anything, but it’s hard to visualize and I didn’t fully understand it. (ROT13: V qba’g trg jung Zvqqyrovr zrnaf jura ur fnlf gung neebj-guebjref jbhyq “gevc” bar raq bs gur fgevat va gurve unaq. V gubhtug gung vg zvtug zrna fcvaavat gur fgevat yvxr n ynffb, ohg gura gur vffhr, gb zr naljnl, orpbzrf bar bs nvzvat/trggvat vg bss gur fgevat.)

“Small, Round Man From Texas” pits Professor Middlebie against Cauchy Fourier Boussinesq, a professional jewel thief and master of disguise (barring his tall height) known as The Chameleon. The investigator pursuing The Chameleon, one Paul Hermite Rameau, tells his tale of woe to Professor Middlebie, explaining how The Chameleon died during his final robbery. He stole an emerald necklace, and the titular man saw someone escaping into the sea in an inflatable raft. The next night, the raft was found upturned in the open sea...but someone has still sold one of the emeralds. Obviously, Professor Middlebie figures out what exactly happened. I partially agree with JJ, the trick doesn’t seem like it would work, but it’s so audacious that I’m willing to give it a pass.

The next story, “Blood Will Tell,” is a “howtocatchem” story with no impossible crime. Carleton Chambers Dell is a serial wife killer who’s managed to make all their deaths look like accidents, until wife number four went down swinging and managed to give him a bloody nose. The traces of his blood found at the scene are the only decisive evidence tying him to the crime, and the Fifth Amendment means that Sergeant Black can’t get his blood without Dell’s consent. Professor Middlebie obviously finds a way around this, but no, there’s no way this would pass in a court of law, especially when Middlebie flat-out says what he did instead of making up some lie.

“Coffee Break” is probably the most famous Professor Middlebie story. The good professor is downed with a gimp ankle, meaning he has nothing better to do than listen to Sergeant Black tell him about the impossible murder of one Cyrus Denning, a wannabe scientist who apparently took a big swallow of cyanide-laced coffee. Sergeant Black suspects the man’s nephew Jerry Doss, but that’s just a cop’s instinct, as all of the evidence points to suicide.

Denning was found dead in his locked cabin. The door was bolted on the inside. The window was nailed shut. The front door was under observation. And finally, both a lit cigarette and the piping hot coffee point to the death taking place after Doss left. Sergeant Black goes to Professor Middleble to help come up with an answer, and he comes with a very simple and solid solution to the locked room. It’s technically in two parts, and I think that the second part, or at least the general gist of it, is actually pretty fair, if just because I stumbled to it myself the first time I read this story. It’s a very well-done story and deserving of it’s classic status.

Next up is “A Model Crime,” which does not in fact involve supermodels like most mystery stories with titles like that, but stolen transistors. The transistors are custom-made and kept in a secure building under tight security, but someone is making off with them. Professor Middlebie again produces an answer, but while it’s certainly unique, I’m not sure how workable it would be. The story feels clunkier than the others in this collection, which I think is because a lot of information about who the thief is and what they’re capable of is clumsily exposited.

“To Barbecue a White Elephant” has Professor Middleble solving a seemingly impossible arson. Francis Raymond IV is a playboy who was left a house by his elderly mother, but the house is a “white elephant” which can’t be sold or maintained and has already proven to be a money sink for the owner, who can’t even get rid of it without forfeiting annuity. In other words, “Taxes are high; income, nil.” So when the house suddenly burns down, Sergeant Black suspects arson, but there are multiple problems. For one, Raymond has been on vacation for the past six weeks. For another, the house is locked up like a fortress, and Raymond had hired a top security firm to watch the house. The whole thing screams set-up to Sergeant Black, but without evidence, Raymond will collect $100,000 in insurance payments. The solution is clever of course, even if there is some handwaving about the specifics. I wish that there had been a bit more detail.

“The Puny Giant” has probably the most interesting situation in the collection. A woman is beaten to death with a concrete block, and the police only have a single giant footprint to go on for clues. They do find a giant of a man who could have wielded the weapon, but he’s mentally ill and non-violent, it seems impossible for him to have approached the victim undetected, and the footprint doesn’t match him. The only other plausible suspect is the dead woman’s adoptive son, Julian. He had violently fought with his mother about getting an expensive sports car and has the artistic talent to fake the footprint, but he’s a scrawny little kid who seemingly couldn’t have wielded the murder weapon. Professor Middlebie’s answer this time, while I didn’t grasp it fully on my first read, is a very clever and ingenious one.

“The Symmetrical Murder” was a favorite of TomCat’s and I can see why. Howard Davis Valind, a “cancer-quack” is found bludgeoned to death at the hotel he’s staying at. He was found dead on the balcony, his apartment door locked from the inside. No weapon was found on the balcony, meaning that the weapon wasn’t launched, and even if the killer tried to pull it back with a string, there are no traces on the sandy beach below. Varnished floors and witnesses make it impossible for anyone to have left via going from the balcony to a lower one. The obvious killer is a man named Crosby Franklin, whose sister was one of Valind’s victims. But how was it done?

The story is very focused on the architecture of the hotel, and I admit I found it harder than intended to visualize how everything was laid out. I admit that this is a personal problem, but did impact my ability to follow the story. But Professor Middlebie’s solution is very good, and I think that just about anyone can solve it, or at least have a general understanding of what happened. Sadly, a vital clue is withheld until near the end of the story, knocking it down a point. But just a point.

The collection wraps up with “Fire For Peace” which was first published in Ed McBain’s Mystery Magazine of all places. This time, Professor Middlebie is asked to look into another bizarre case of arson, this time at a chemical plant. An unknown person is trying an unconventional method of peacemaking; setting multiple fires in the plant, even though the place is under tight guard and there seems to be no way of setting the fires. Again, the solution is ingenious, and I got the same feeling I got while reading The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey of Porges seeing...something and thinking, “I can use that.” Although in this case, I suspect that he took his cue from history. There is one aspect of the solution that I’m a little skeptical on, but it’s a minor part and I might simply be misunderstanding.

All in all, this was a very good collection of stories. The stories were all varied, having different situations and more importantly, different solutions. Porges has a knack for these dialogue-driven stories and they all flowed well, with only “A Model Crime” feeling artificial. The stories felt a little less repetitive than the Grey collection, but I admit a preference for the Dr. Hoffman stories overall. But these stories still proved to be some excellent examples of the mystery short story. But they shouldn’t all be read in quick succession; I admit that reading so many of these types of stories at once actually drained me a bit. I’m not 100% what it was, and might have been down to personal life circumstances, but I was a little happy when I finished and knew I’d have a break from Porges for a bit. I’m planning a big read through of Edward D. Hoch’s Dr. Sam stories soon, and I’m hoping I don’t have the same issue. Thankfully, the next collection I read managed to bring some life back to me.

But that’s for next time. In the meantime, Highly Recommended, but be sure to space them out a bit.

Also check out JJ’s, TomCat’s, and Christian Henriksson’s reviews.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Man Who Loved Clouds (1999/2018) by Paul Halter (translated by John Pugmire)

The Man Who Loved Clouds is yet another novel from Paul Halter, this time presenting his take on the fairy tale. The book almost reminded me of the earlier Halter novel The Vampire Tree. Both books, as Nick Fuller notes, are more reactionary, as the detectives are more responding to events rather than actively investigating. However, while The Vampire Tree was almost more of a horror novel than a mystery, The Man Who Loved Clouds aims more to be “charming.” Also, it’s much better than The Vampire Tree.

The first half of The Man Who Loved Clouds focuses on Mark Reeder, a reporter who is forced to go on vacation. A lover of clouds, Reeder follows them to the small village of Pickering, a quiet, peaceful seaside town whose only real feature is the constant wind. On the mountain roads, the winds can easily send someone over the edge, and eventually shift from “light music” to “the mournful screeching of a demented violin.” The winds are already considered responsible for various tragedies at a house at the top of the hill, ranging from mental breakdown to suicides, including that of John Deverell, a well-liked local. However, Pickering also has another little secret that Reeder is much more interested in.

Stella Deverell is John’s daughter and a young, fairy-like woman who wins Reeder’s affections after retrieving his blown-away hat. Stella proves to have more abilities than retrieving hats, she has more abilities than your average X-Men team. Stella spends much of her time in a copse called Fairy Wood, where she seems to be able to disappear at will, even when followed by a witness or when the wood is surrounded by police. She also seems to be able to turn rocks into gold and to predict the future, whether that be madness for one man or a good catch for the fisherman. The first half of the book is about Reeder attempting to find out more about Stella’s abilities, and this part admittedly drags a bit. As JJ notes, there’s a lot of “telling” and not much “showing.” We only hear about Stella’s feats off-page, and this means that the opening lacks a certain energy. It’s not until she successfully predicts the death of a local citizen that the police get involved.

The second half of the book moves at a faster pace, with Halter’s trademark rapid-fire twists and impossible crimes, such as a man who is pushed from a path while walking alone in high winds, implying that the wind itself was responsible. However, the impossibilities in this book aren’t among Halter’s best.

I don’t think that I’ll shock anyone when I say that a mystery is dependent on detail. In many mysteries, the whole thing turns on some seemingly minor or insignificant point. This is especially applicable in impossible crimes stories, where the solutions can also easily be hinted at by some small detail. In my opinion, the issue is that Halter doesn’t give the reader the detail they need. I’ve already mentioned how we don’t get to see Stella’s feats, we’re almost always told about them in retrospect, but this also applies to the “present day” crimes as well. For example, I liked the idea behind the second murder in theory (in fact in my original draft of this review I said it was the only one I really liked), but you don’t get the needed detail about what the witness saw to really know what happened. I had a similar issue with the final death, since it was hard for me to get a grasp of where everything was in relation to each other. Said final crime was also what led me to re-reading the book. I didn’t like it the first time I read it, but when I skimmed it while working on this review and saw that I misunderstood what happened, I decided to give the book itself another chance. I still don’t think that the final murder works, but now I understand what Halter thought would happen.

All of this is disappointing, since the setting and atmosphere of the book are some of Halter’s best. The village is sparse, but I found the idea of Stella being a personal secret of this isolated village believable and interesting. The descriptions of the howling wind that seems to be killing at will create an atmosphere of unease. As someone who likes the sound of the wind myself, I found myself imagining Halter listening to wind, thinking about how it could be used in a mystery. The explanation Halter gives for how the house at the top of the village mountain is “cursed” is a good example of setting in my opinion, tying in the “supernatural” in a way that doesn’t take away from the mystery plot, instead serving as a backdrop to it.

The same can’t be said for the suspects in the book, who are pretty two-dimensional. Beyond Reeder and Stella (and Stella is quite well done, walking the tightrope between naivete and cunning), only Usher, the man who owns the old Deverell home, gets any real development. The village reverend, the jolly fisherman, the village eccentric…they just don’t stand out that well. Only the Fishes, a tense couple, stayed in my mind when the story closed. This results in a rather weak whodunit aspect, and I have to question how fairly clued it is. It’s hard to discuss without spoilers, but while there are some clues pointing at the killer, one piece of information is never really given, or if it is it’s given so indirectly that it’s easy to miss (ROT13: Anzryl, gur onggrerq pbaqvgvba bs gur obql gung nyybjf Wbua gb xvyy Hfure naq gnxr uvf cynpr. Nf sne nf V xabj jr trg bayl gur inthrfg zragvba bs gur onggrerq pbaqvgvbaf bs obqvrf, naq nobhg rirel gvzr jr qb jr’er gbyq, “Bu ohg jr pbhyq vqragvsl vg.”).

There’s another clue given near the end, (ROT13: gur pbagragf bs gur yrggre) but again, the clue itself is so vague that it’s hard to draw conclusions from it. It works as one of those clues that make sense once you know the solution, but you can’t really use it to reach the solution, in my opinion. Finally, the motive for one of the crimes is either wrong, or I badly misunderstood something. (ROT13: Qe. Gjvfg fnlf gung Jvyqre jnf xvyyrq orpnhfr ur ernq Gerag’f yrggre naq gevrq gb oynpxznvy “Hfure”...ohg gur aneengvba jura Jvyqre cnffrf gur yrggre gb vgf erpvcvrag vf irel pyrne gung Jvyqre qvqa’g ernq gur yrggre! Lbh pbhyq nethr, naq guvf vf jung V nffhzrq jura V ernq guvf, gung Gjvfg jnf whfg nffhzvat gung Jvyqre ernq vg. Ubjrire, frrvat nf Jvyqre’f orunivbe ba gur avtug bs gur zheqre vf nggevohgrq gb zrrgvat jvgu “Hfure”, V’z thrffvat gung ur neenatrq gb zrrg Jvyqre va fbzr bgure pbagrkg. Vg fgvyy ohtf zr n ovg, fvapr V’z abg fher vs guvf jnf jung Unygre jnf tbvat sbe.)

All in all, I find this book hard to recommend. On the one hand, the cluing is imperfect, the solutions don’t really impress, and there are some honestly sloppy flaws in it, such as John’s death being described as a “disappearance” part of the time. On the other hand, the atmosphere is good, the book is charming, and the story is honestly unique. I’m not sure that that’s enough of a selling point, for me at least. I can’t say that this should be anyone’s introduction to Halter, but someone with a few books under their belt would get some enjoyment out of this. On the whole, the flaws don’t quite outweigh the benefits for me. I enjoyed some elements of this, but the plotting was just a bit too loose for my sake. Not Recommended.

That being said, check out these positive reviews from TomCat, JJ, the Puzzle Doctor, and Suddenly at His Residence. They might convince you to check this out.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey (2009/20??) by Arthur Porges (edited by Richard Simms)

A quick explanation of that second date in the title: There are two editions of this collection floating around. See this review from TomCat and this one from Christian Henricksson; the latter reviews two additional stories, “The Scientist and the Missing Pistol” and “The Scientist and the Impassible Gulf.” The one on Amazon is the full collection, but it’s something to keep in mind if you’re looking for it used or something similar. I’m reviewing the updated collection.

I need a list of science jokes or something for short story collections like this.

Some time back, I looked at No Killer Has Wings, a collection of short mysteries by Arthur Porges. I enjoyed the collection, but felt that it was a tad too short. Thankfully, I also had two other Porges collections by the time I read it. This is one of them.

The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey is a collection of short stories dealing with the investigations of the titular scientist, who was crippled in a mountaineering accident (except in “The Scientist and the Impassible Gulf,” where it gets retconned into a car accident that also killed his wife), but who still uses his brain to solve the variety of impossible problems brought to him by Lieutenant Trask. Grey often makes use of his son Edgar, a teenage genius who serves as Grey’s eyes, ears, and legs when crime scenes need to be investigated. Unlike No Killer Has Wings, the stories here are mostly reverse whodunits; there’s very rarely questions about who, the question is how. The stories are much shorter than in the previous (actually published later) collection, but there are more of them.

“The Scientist and the Bagful of Water” is more of a “howtoproveit” than anything. A man murders his business partner and tries to pass it off as a freak accident caused by a bag of water being dropped on the victim’s head from a hotel. The question is simply how Grey can prove his guilt. The solution is okay, but you the reader probably won’t solve it.

“The Scientist and the Wife Killer” is more interesting. Samuel Clayton is a fox who has already disposed of two wives in “accidents” and has decided to up the ante for his third wife. He rings her up on the phone, but when she doesn’t respond, he summons the police to investigate. They break down her locked bathroom door to find her dead of electrocution…but there are no electrical appliances in the room to shock her. Once one gets around the question of asking why Clayton would make this third death an obvious murder instead of just going the accident route again, the story itself is solid. Once again, not much of a chance of solving this on your own, but it’s fascinating to sit back and watch Grey unravel it all.

“The Scientist and the Vanished Weapon” begins a story type that will be seen many more times in this collection: A killer makes a weapon vanish. This time the weapon is a .38 that a delinquent unloaded into a police officer before fleeing into an apartment. The killer was cornered, but the pistol has vanished. Once again, the explanation is based on something that you might not know about, but is honestly pretty cool anyway. One gets the impression when reading these stories that Porges would read about or see these interesting phenomena and try to find ways to work them into a story.

“The Scientist and the Obscene Crime” is more in line with “...Bagful of Water.” Grey is brought in to help a woman receiving obscene phone calls from a stalker who is just clever enough to evade police attention. The way that Grey deals with him is expected, especially since the clue is given a little bluntly.

The next story is both the longest in the collection and also the most gruesome. “The Scientist and the Multiple Murder” opens with the discovery of eight executives floating dead in a rooftop pool. The doors were either locked or watched, and the roof could not be accessed from other roofs. The solution to this one is vaguely guessable, but still requires some technical knowledge to fully piece together.

“The Scientist and the Invisible Safe” pits Grey against a clever jewel thief who is always able to conceal his stolen goods in his hotel room in spite of police searches. The hiding place is clever, although a key piece of information about the thief that might have made it a more fair mystery isn’t given until near the end. This is the case for most of the mysteries in this collection; they’re similar to No Killer Has Wings in that they’re more like problems to observe being solved than a straightforward mystery with clues to be pieced together, and that means that the clues are often withheld.

“The Scientist and the Two Thieves” is more of the same. A religious fanatic makes off with a small fortune in diamonds and is cornered in a blind alley. When the police move in for the arrest, they find that the diamonds have vanished. Grey actually manages to pull out two solutions for this one, and it’s even possible to deduce the second method, in my opinion. I do feel that the first one could have been better hinted at. Considering what I said about the last story and the collection as a whole, this might seem like an annoying and persistent complaint, but when the author can clue something fairly and doesn’t, I get frustrated.

The most unique story in the collection is “The Scientist and the Time Bomb.” Fifteen years ago, the home of Horace Colman, which his grandfather had planned to leave as a public museum, was effectively stolen from the family by the city and turned into a paying exhibit. Cut to the present day when a letter from Colman turns up, in which he claims to have planted a bomb before his death to blow the house up…with a fifteen year fuse. The main question is how he could set up a bomb with a fuse like that. The solution is certainly...unique, and again shows Porges’ knack for taking seemingly irrelevant facts and making them the centerpiece of his mysteries.

“The Scientist and the Platinum Chain” is another vanishing weapon story. The killer murdered his employer, an aggressive and short-tempered man, with a platinum chain, but somehow the chain vanished from a closed and watched room. Another good problem, although when I first read it, I felt that the police should have found the hiding spot. This feeling mostly faded on later re-reads, and I’m willing to admit it was probably down to me misunderstanding what the solution was trying to say.

“The Scientist and the Exterminator” feels like “Dead Drunk” from No Killer Has Wings. Another unpleasant man, this time an unrepentant warlord in the States for medical treatment, is gassed in his locked and guarded hotel room. The hotel itself was filled with guards and was being monitored from the outside, not that it stopped the killer from delivering a dose of cyanide gas into the room and leaving no trace behind. This time the solution feels clunky; the stories before and after this might have solutions that incorporate unfamiliar scientific principles, but they were explained in a way that was clear and understandable. With this one, I found the solution somewhat hard to visualize and understand, since there are a few moving parts around what is admittedly a simple idea.

“The Scientist and the Missing Pistol” is yet another vanishing weapon story. Two men meet in an office, and one claims that the other was shot by a sniper while writing a confession to embezzlement. Trask is suspicious of the story, but no weapon is found in the room, and the other man had no opportunity to dispose of it or pass it off to someone else. This story annoyed me a bit, since, once again, I felt that Porges could have very easily hinted at this one, but the solution itself is satisfying.

The next story breaks from the murder pattern, but still has an object vanishing from an enclosed space. “The Scientist and the Stolen Rembrandt” has Grey putting his brain to work explaining how a fence, cornered on his fancy yacht after a sea chase, can make the titular painting disappear. Another story with a good solution that could have been excellently clued if it were were adapted to a visual medium. The “The Purloined Letter” references aren’t quite 1:1 with this story, but I see what Porges was going for.

The final officially published story is a good finale for the series as a whole. “The Scientist and the Impassible Gulf” opens with Bryan Jennings Latimer (real subtle there Porges), a gentle if henpecked man, murdering his wife in a rage after she sends one of his model cannons into a gulch. Latimer knows he’ll be blamed but comes up with a plan, unseen by the reader, that leaves his wife’s body on the other side of a canyon, the surrounding ground unmarked by any footprints. This is a personal favorite of mine. For one, I like how Porges shows the build-up to the murder, which has always been offscreen until this point. This time he gives us an interesting murderer and victim, showing a murder that is both unjustified but understandable. I also like the “how”; this is one of the few stories where I feel that the average reader can solve the crime, or at least grasp the broad strokes about what happened. There is a little bit of luck that the murderer’s plan hinges on, but it’s pointed out in the story, so I can forgive it.

The next three stories were never published until now. “The Scientist and the Poisoner” opens with the poisoning of a nice old man in a crowded restaurant. Trask is angered by the death, but the death seems impossible. Not only was no poison found in the food, but no one approached the victim beyond an old waiter who has no motive for the murder (and no, he didn’t do it). The solution is clever enough, but the cluing doesn’t work for a very odd reason; it is partly based on a cultural reference that I do not think that most readers today would get. I didn’t, at least.

“The Scientist and the Heavenly Alibi” is a story that doesn’t match up to its awesome title. Trask suspects a rancher of murdering his business partner, but the man has a picture showing him two hundred miles away from the crime scene, and the sunlight in the picture seems to verify the time it was taken. It doesn’t take Grey long to break the alibi, but something about this story just doesn’t click with me. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like this should have been seen through sooner. Also, we have another example of Porges withholding a vital fact until the end.

The final story ends the collection on a bit of a plop. “The Scientist and the One-Word Clue” has an investigative reporter being stabbed to death in his office. The office was ransacked, but the victim was able to leave a note with only one word on it: “Thais.” Grey is the only one who can solve the case...but really, Trask was phoning this one in. Considering how most of the stories up to this point made the point that Trask is a thorough cop who leaves no stone unturned, the fact that he missed this one is disappointing.

All and all, I actually did like this collection. While I do sound nitpicky, it’s because I saw more pure mystery potential that to me seemed squandered. Also, the stories do start to seem familiar when you read them all in a row; even the solutions can feel like variations on the same idea. But I liked the way that Porges managed to work science into these mysteries in a way that shows that he had a genuine love of science and had the ability to make it interesting to others. Like I said earlier, these are “problems” more than “mysteries.” Read them with that in mind and you’ll get more enjoyment out of them.

Recommended, but don’t read too many at once!

Friday, January 17, 2020

The 8 Mansion Murders (1989/2018) by Takumaru Abiko (translation by Ho-Ling Wong)

It’s an infinite Mobius loop.

After way too long, I’ve finally gotten around to reading Takemaru Abiko’s The 8 Mansion Murders, the most recent Japanese translation from Locked Room International at the time of this post. Like Yukito Ayatsuji’s The Decagon House Murders and Szu-Yen Lin’s Death in the House of Rain, there’s a heavy focus on the mansion the story takes place in. This mansion is the titular 8 Mansion, named because it looks like a figure 8 when viewed from above. It was the brainchild of Kikuo Hachisuka, current president of Hachisuka Construction. And it’s also the inspiration for a murder.

Kikuichiro Hachisuka, the above’s son, is woken in the night by a phone call telling him to come to the covered gallery over the house’s courtyard. His mute daughter, Yukie, and her sign language teacher, Mitsuko Kawamura, witness Kikuichiro enter the gallery from Yukie’s room. They notice someone standing in the room of Yusaku Yano, the son of the servants, before Kikuichiro is shot a crossbow bolt.

The case is taken up by police inspector Kyozo Hayami, and it looks black against Yusaku. He claims to have been sleeping in his bedroom with the door locked, but Yukie and Mitsuko are clear that the killer was standing in his window. And he knows how to use a crossbow. And his personal one “disappeared” a few days before the murder. Thankfully for him, Yukie believes in his innocence and is a beautiful girl that causes Kyozo to fall in love at first sight. He can’t solve the murder alone however, and has to rely on his younger siblings, the realist Shinji and the more imaginative Ichio.

Unlike the other shin honkaku novels I’ve read up to this point, The 8 Mansion Murders tries to be funny. There’s more wit in the dialogue, the characters (especially Kyozo and his siblings) try and play off each other more, etc. It doesn’t fully work for me, I admit. I don’t know how much of this is due to the style of the comedy (a good bit of it is physical, especially the comedy surrounding Kyozo’s hapless assistant Kinoshita, who more or less is crippled over the course of the story) and how much of it is due to the relatively dry writing/translation. It’s certainly more entertaining to read than The Ginza Ghost, but I can see someone being annoyed at how “off” the writing can feel compared to English works. This extends to the characters, who don’t really come to life outside of the main cast. The only one who stood out to me at all was the victim’s younger brother. The pacing feels odd in places; the main example that stands out to me is the summation grinding to a halt so we can get a locked room lecture. I don’t mind locked room lectures normally, but not when they’re used to kill time.

It’s annoying, because honestly the mystery is very well done. Jack Hamm in the comments of this review from The Green Capsule put it well; there’s not one big surprise, more like a set of smaller surprises that link together. (Interestingly, Soji Shimada notes this trend among more recent shin honkaku writers in his introduction, although there it’s in the context of those writers freely taking ideas from previous authors and using them in different ways.) There’s a second impossible murder about halfway through the book, again committed in a locked room, and this time the evidence implies that the killer was standing outside the window in mid-air. I honestly feel that the “how” for both murders is very possible to solve. I got the general gist behind the first murder and had the best possible feeling about the second: the feeling that I could have solved it if I had been willing to think about it a bit more. There’s also a clever explanation about why the killer had to move the body, even though I thought it wasn’t used to its fullest potential. The killer is also a nice surprise, but their plan is utterly bonkers, I just don’t believe that it would work, and they never do the thing that would help their plan. The motive also boils down to “I was mad, mad, MAD!!!” which is disappointing.

But all in all, I enjoyed it. I had my issues, and I can see someone finding them to be a deal-breaker. But I still get a thrill when thinking about the simplicity of that second death, and I can see someone new to mysteries having a blast while someone familiar enjoys the in-jokes and the well-put together locked rooms. Ultimately, I’ll give it a Recommended, but the more critical can think of it as a Recommended, with Caveats.