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.