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 down...by 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.