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.