Thursday, December 26, 2019

The Honjin Murders, by Seishi Yokomizo

Pushkin Vertigo, 2019
originally published as Honjin satsujin jiken, 1946
translated by Louise Heal Kawai
182 pp


Pushkin Vertigo has done it again, this time with the classic Japanese mystery, The Honjin Murders, the first book to feature Yokomizo's "scruffy-looking" sleuth Kosuke Kindaichi.  Making his debut in 1946, he would go on to solve  a further 76 cases over the next thirty-plus years before his creator's death in 1981.  This edition is the first English translation of Honjin satsujin jiken; his The Inugami Clan has been available in English for some time,  but Pushkin Vertigo will soon be releasing a newer edition of that book with the title The Inugami Curse. 

The puzzle set before us in The Honjin Murders  falls under the heading of  locked-room/impossible crime.  I love these books (for the most part; sadly, I've read some pretty bad ones in my time), but for readers who aren't so familiar with what goes on in this sort of thing they can be pretty daunting and even disappointing.   As John Pugmire of Locked Room International notes, they are stories in which the purpose is "purely and simply to baffle while entertaining. It challenges the mind, not the heart or the spirit."  I've often felt that the locked-room/impossible crime really exists in its own sort of universe; although crime fiction it is, the major emphasis seems to be on unraveling the  solution as well as the cleverness of the villain of the piece in its design.   I don't mind that bit at all,  but other mystery readers who may expect major character development or in-depth backstory just might.

The back-cover blurb does a fine job of preparing the reader for what's to come:
"In the winter of 1937, the village of Okamura is abuzz with excitement over the forthcoming Ichiyanagi wedding. But, amid the gossip, there is also a worrying rumor -- it seems a sinister masked man has been asking questions around the village.  Then, on the night of the wedding, the Ichiyanagi household are woken by a terrible scream, followed by the sound of eerie music. Death has come to Okamura, leaving no trace but a bloody samurai sword, thrust into the pristine snow outside the house."
The police arrive on the scene, but while they are busy with scattered clues that make absolutely no sense and following up reports of the arrival in the village of a strange man with three fingers on his hand, the dead woman's uncle has his own ideas about getting this horrific crime solved.

one television version of  Kindaichi from Black Hole Reviews

Enter detective Kosuke Kindaichi, whom Uncle Ginzo had met while in San Francisco some years earlier on business.  Kindaichi had left university, finding it "boring," then went to America with "no particular purpose in mind."  He drifted around the country for a while, taking on jobs to support himself, eventually becoming hooked on narcotics.   As the narrator reveals, it was a long-unsolved murder in San Francisco that prevented him from becoming "one of those lost, drug-addicted Japanese immigrants"and turned him into a "hero"  --  Kindaichi solved it when others couldn't, using only "reason and logic in a focused attack on the case."   Returning to Japan, he found his calling and  set up a detective agency. With business somewhat slow at the beginning,  within six months Kindaichi was being honored in the newspapers for his service to the nation by solving a major case.   The question is, can he put his logic and reason together to solve this rather baffling mystery? 

 As it turns out, the plot was particularly ingenious and actually heinous when all is said and done, offering more than one unexpected twist that kept things lively and kept me guessing.  The first time through I was a bit annoyed when the narrator started pointing out  various items of "significance" as if telling his readers that these are things to pay attention to, or at least to keep in the back of their our minds for later.   And before the mystery is completely explained, he reveals the point in the case in which Kindaichi reaches his "aha" moment, which points the reader to a particular avenue of thought.  Again, I found this a bit annoying, but the truth is that this bit of Kindaichi's later insight (without giving the show away, thank goodness)  took the armchair detective in me in a direction I would never have considered.  I was still wrong, but after the second read I was kicking myself for not having figured it out the first time. 

Just one more thing before I finish up here, and that is that it's important to keep in mind when and where this book was written.  While there is not a lot of character development as you read along, there are cultural and social issues that rise to the surface that will become important later down the road.  There is also much to say about the locked-room/impossible crime genre within the story itself, which provides more than just a deft touch to the mysteries at hand, also reading as a bit of an homage to the genre.    My standard practice when reading this sort of thing is to read it twice, the second time to block out the noise of red herrings, etc.  and try to get to the point of  my own "aha" moment.  The story is so nicely plotted that I didn't, even after the second reading when I already knew what had happened.

 I hope that The Honjin Murders will gain a following, prompting Pushkin Vertigo to publish more of Yokomizo Seishi's work in the future.  Recommended, certainly for fans of the locked-room mystery, but for readers just testing the waters with this sort of thing, you couldn't go wrong by starting here.

Monday, November 4, 2019

back to the 20s and my happy place again: Inspector French's Greatest Case, by Freeman Wills Crofts

Collins Crime Club/Harper Collins, 2016
originally published 1924
297 pp


With the sun beginning to set earlier now, there is nothing like curling up with a good cup of tea and a mystery that  delivers a bit of a one-two punch of a twist before all is said and done.  The hero of the day is Inspector Joseph French, referred to (behind his back, of course) by his colleagues at the Yard as "Soapy Joe," a moniker based on his reputation as being "quite a good fellow at heart."   In an introduction to this particular edition in which we "Meet Chief-Inspector French" written by the author in 1935 (and also found here at Classic Crime Fiction) we also learn that "Politeness is an obsession with him," and that
"He's decent and he's as kindly as his job will allow.  He believes that if you treat people decently -- you'll be able to get more out of them; and he acts on his belief."  
As far as this particular case being his "greatest," well, I'll admit that I have no clue there, since there will be twenty-nine more cases for the Inspector to solve, the last published in 1957.  In this book, the series opener and the first French mystery I've read, he is brought in to solve the case of a murder of a Mr. Gething, the head clerk of diamond merchants Duke and Peabody.  The firm's safe is open, "three-and-thirty thousand pounds" worth of diamonds are gone, along with a thousand pounds in notes.  Despite a number of clues and a number of suspects, the case is anything but open and shut, and "days slipped by" without any progress, causing the Inspector no end of frustration.  It is a bafflement that will continue to dog French as the case takes him on a series of travels beginning in Switzerland, leading him eventually to a ship on its way to Brazil; he always seems to be close but at each step, just as he feels he's getting somewhere, he hits the proverbial wall as events transpire to put barriers between himself and a solution. 

original British cover, 1924, from The Passing Tramp

In Crofts' introduction he states that
"Anyone about to perpetrate a detective novel must first decide whether his detective is to be brilliant and a 'character' or a mere ordinary humdrum personality."
Speaking of "humdrum," in 1972, Julian Symons would write in his Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel that Crofts was
"not just a typical, but also the best, representative of what may be called the Humdrum school of detective novelists..."
of whom "most came late to writing fiction, and few had much talent for it."   His feeling was that they
"had some skill in constructing puzzles, nothing more, and ironically they fulfilled much better than Van Dine and his dictum that the detective story properly belonged in the category of riddles and crossword puzzles."  (118)
As Curt Evans explains in his book Masters of the "Humdrum"Mystery,   Symons was referring to a group of writers who "placed far greater emphasis on puzzle construction and adherence to fair play detection than on characterization and stylish writing," which he notes is "fair enough."   However,  Evans also notes that in his view, "Symons insufficiently values the great technical sophistication of the plots in the best works of these authors,"  and that
"this school of mystery fiction has been unjustly disparaged by Julian Symons and the many critics who have adopted his views."  (2012, Location 191).  
French may not be the most brilliant detective ever (and Crofts reveals in the introduction that "many people call him dull"), but he never lets go, remains completely methodical and detail oriented throughout, and he is not averse to listening to his wife's flashes of insight when she comes up with an idea that sparks the light bulb over his head that will move him another step along in his investigation.  "Thoroughness and perseverance" are qualities that the author has given his detective, and admittedly, French does not "leap to his conclusions by brilliant intuition."   In short, he's a regular guy, he gets things wrong, and keeps trying until he gets it right.   Personally, I found myself rooting for Inspector French along the way and actually feeling sorry for him as things continued to go wrong.  If you want dazzling detective, you won't find that here; Inspector French's Greatest Case has much more in common with police procedurals and Crofts had obviously spent a great deal of time meticulously plotting each step of this mystery. 

As far as the twist, I had actually figured this bit out but it was not too long before French himself did, so the experience was unlike when I read detective novels in which I guess things early on, which is a plus.  And "humdrum" or not, I quite enjoyed Inspector French and I quite enjoyed the book, enough so that  I've been slowly stockpiling these Harper editions so that I can look forward to more of Soapy Joe's cases in the future.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

'tis the season, part two: He Arrived at Dusk, by R.C. Ashby.

Valancourt Books, 2013
originally published 1933
218 pp


Another book I pulled off the shelf for October reading, He Arrived at Dusk gave me such immense pleasure that I actually applauded at the end.  I do that sometimes (little claps and a "bravo" here and there that no one but myself can hear) when I like a novel as much as I enjoyed this one.  It really is the perfect crime read for the Halloween season, as the author blends mystery and more than a hint of the supernatural, and does it in a rather ingenious fashion.  And what is there not to love about the cover art?

For a short blurb about the author, Ruby Constance Ashby (Ferguson), you can click on through to Valancourt's website. 

As is revealed at the outset,
"The story as here presented is in three parts; three stories in one, three points of view; in fact, murder through the eyes of three men of widely differing mentality and outlook."
The first of these is Mertoun's account, which begins as he is in his club.  Something he's heard has seriously distressed him, and he reveals to another gentleman that he is "haunted."  That man, a certain Mr. Ahrman, has him relate what's happened to him over the previous three weeks; Mertoun agrees, in the hope that Ahrman will believe what will turn out to be a rather bizarre story.    It seems that Mertoun had been engaged by a certain Colonel Barr  to "value the contents" of his remote house in the Northumberland moors, The Broch, which derived its name from a nearby ancient ruin of a tower said to be haunted.   On entering the house to begin his work he immediately experiences a "hideous feeling,"  a "coldness" that hit him like "an electric shock from an unearthly battery."  After waiting some time, he meets Charlie Barr, who reveals to him that his uncle is ill, confined to his room, and is under the charge of a nurse, and that nobody is allowed to see him, not even his nephew.   The next day he also learns that the house has its own resident poltergeist.  When he finally meets the nurse, Miss Goff, she offers him another job, to arrange and catalogue the books in the Colonel's library, a task which should take Mertoun about two weeks.   It is during that time that Charlie tells him the story of an ancient Roman soldier whose ghost haunts the area around the Broch.  The legend is well known by the locals of the nearby village, who refuse to go anywhere near it, except for a shepherd who has, it seems, taken his flock to the tower ruins.    It is also during this time that he begins to experience some strange experiences in the house, which culminate in a rather bizarre seance (!) held there at the behest of a local doctor who wishes to contact his wife; it is shortly after this event that a seemingly-impossible, ghostly murder occurs.  However, that's not the only shock that awaits the inhabitants of the house.

RC Ashby, from Persephone Books

As Mark Valentine notes in his introduction, He Arrived at Dusk  is a "chilling story of apparitions, uncanny incidents, and dark legends... " and clearly the author has laid the foundations for such a tale  in the way she evokes the atmosphere that permeates this entire story.  The house at the edge of Northern Sea, the moors that could swallow an unsuspecting person,  the periodic sweeping of the lighthouse beam across the landscape, and the superstition surrounding the old tower itself all combine to create the perfect backdrop for what takes place here.  Add to that Mertoun's own sense of something "hideous" on entering the house for the first time and his recounting of his own strange experiences there, the mysterious Nurse Goff, and the scene is more than set for the strangeness that follows in the next two accounts.   However, there is also a seriously good mystery at the heart of it all, and as a keen reader of these old novels, for me the solution was almost as satisfying as the journey. 

For devotees of these older books, or for people looking for something a wee bit different than your standard British mystery, you really can't do much better.  He Arrived at Dusk is one of those hidden gems I live to discover, and my serious thanks go to Valancourt for bringing it back into print. 

Monday, October 7, 2019

'tis the season, part one: A House of Ghosts, by W.C. Ryan

Arcade Publishing, first North American edition, 2019
384 pp


October reading is generally given over to the strange and the supernatural, so when I heard about A House of Ghosts, I picked it up and on the list it went. 

It's winter, 1917, and a group of people are gathering at Blackwater Abbey at the time of the winter solstice.   The house is on the "remote" Blackwater Island off the coast of Devon, and the guests  of the owners, the Highmounts, will be there to try to contact the dead, hopefully their sons who died during the war.    Two mediums will be in attendance, and the house is the perfect location for doing so, since it has a "reputation" for its ghostly inhabitants, "a mixed group, from several different centuries." Kate Cartwright is more than aware of their existence; she not only seems to have clairvoyant abilities, but has also actually seen these ghosts.  Kate had prevously been invited to Blackwater Abbey along with her parents but had declined;  her plans change however when she is given an assignment by the Intelligence Service -- she is to make her way to the island in the company of her ex-fiancé Captain Rolleston Miller-White, who in turn will be attended by his valet, an undercover Intelligence officer by the name of Donovan.  It will be Donovan's job there to investigate the leak of some plans that had ended up in the hands of the Germans and to discover exactly whoever it was that had passed the classified information.  Since the house is located on an island, the only way to and from there is by their hosts' boat,  making it even more of a closed-circle type mystery; a storm soon traps everyone on the island, but who among them is it? 

I ask you, how could anyone  not enjoy a novel with a  remote island setting, a storm that makes it impossible for anyone to leave, an old house where spirits roam freely, a mystery involving spies,  a murder, and best of all the promise of a seance to bring forth even more spirits (I am HUGE fangirl of novels where there is a seance or two)?  These are all elements that tick my mystery/supernatural-reading buttons, but I was left completely unfazed.   By page 85 I was ready to scream because nothing had happened; by page 155 I was rejoicing that something had finally happened; even the dustjacket blurb promise that "soon one of their number will die" doesn't happen until over one hundred pages after that.  Given the fact that blurbers for this book referred to it as a "chilling ghost story," "a multilayered, gothic masterpiece," or "unbearably creepy," I had high hopes, but I was seriously let down.  Even the ending was a big what??  and believe it or not, I had a huge chunk of this thing figured out long before getting there.  And let's not even go there with the ghosts that haunt Blackwater Abbey -- I don't even get why they were included.  Trust me, traditional ghost stories over the ages are part of my reading bread and butter, and  the blurber who said to "think Agatha Christie meets M.R. James"  may get it right on the Christie end, this is definitely NOT  M.R. James.   

That's me again, the red fish swimming the wrong way against the tide, since I seem to be in the minority of people that didn't care for this book.  Most readers are absolutely thrilled by this novel giving it very, very high ratings in the usual places; sadly I'm not one of them. 

Monday, September 30, 2019

Queen's Gambit, by Bradley Harper, new from Seventh Street Books

Seventh Street Books, 2019
282 pp


I'm reading more modern crime novels than I'd planned for this year, but in this case (and in another coming up shortly), it's all good. As with books from other genres I read,  I am all about supporting smaller indie presses whose work may go unnoticed in favor of the bigger guys  -- in this case it's Seventh Street Press, and I have another one of their books propped up on my bookstand waiting to be read.

Some time ago I read this author's A Knife in the Fog, and now he's back with book two in this historical crime series with Queen's Gambit.  In the meantime, Knife in the Fog was nominated as a finalist for the 2019 Edgar Award for best first novel. 

It's no secret (and I did say this when I posted about the author's earlier book) that I'm not in love with the idea of remaking historical figures into fictional ones, but I will say that in my case, at least Margaret Harkness is not so prominent a personage  that I can't live with her taking center stage in this novel.   Nine years have gone by since the case that introduced her in Knife in the Fog; during that time she's become a published author with books that are read widely.  It is in fact one woman's changed perception of Harkness that helps kick off this story. 

 In 1881, more than fifteen years prior to the time in which the bulk of the action takes place here, a young man found himself having to flee Imperial Russia after his mother was imprisoned for her role as a member of the group responsible for the assassination of Czar Alexander II.   Having been sent to Berlin to hide, young Viktor Zhelyabov became Herman Ott, married, and had a son.  He is living with his wife's family when he is offered electrical work that he can't refuse because the pay would be "a substantial increase" in his regular salary, needed for his "growing family." 

One month later, it seems that the "nest of traitors" that the German government has been trying to root out has somehow gotten wind about every plan made by  the Security Services, and government officials have no idea how this is happening.   An investigation is required, and it must be "someone from outside."   One official has just the right suggestion, to bring in Professor Joseph Bell, since he has helped the police in his own country a number of times.  Bell brings in Margaret Harkness because of her German language ability and because of their prior experiences together, and she is more than willing -- due to health reasons, she is planning to go to Australia for health reasons, and the fee and the bonus she would receive would allow her to pay for her passage.   The solution of the case will have a huge impact on both Ott and Margaret Harkness,  one that will play out on the streets of London. 

 Despite the subtitle that labels this "a mystery," it seems to read much more along the lines of a thriller, as time is ticking down here until the main event, the planned assassination of (as it says on the cover blurb so it's not a spoiler) "none other than Queen Victoria herself."  [As an aside, the front cover with her majesty's face in crosshairs also sort of gives away the plot even before you get to the back cover, but moving on...]    In fact, the only real mystery is solved early on by Bell and Harkness (and I will add that I figured it out long before they did); afterwards we already know the who, so as it turns out he's not really the "mysterious assassin" of the back cover blurb.    Let me also say that this story is what I call "thriller lite" as the author adds in various threads including a potential romance and a young female detective wannabe who is taken under Margaret's wing.   It's more the fare for readers of lighter crime, and to be very honest, my own feeling is that there is a lot of superfluous stuff that from time to time detracts from the suspense level -- for example, an entire chapter about Margaret's history with tarot cards as well as  reunions with Conan Doyle and Mark Twain (who were both in the first novel).  Then there's  Margaret herself -- while she's a very independent woman and has figured out that dressing like a man gets her into places a woman can't go, she seems a wee bit softer with less of an edge than she had in Knife in the Fog; she also makes some pretty bad mistakes during the course of the story that seem somewhat out of character.   Believe it or not, the character's point of view I cared about the most was that of the bad guy; the clue is in understanding how the titular "Queen's Gambit" works on the chessboard, and the author has explained all of that in the book. 

As I said in my post about Knife in the Fog, the author can definitely write, and I am very grateful to the powers that be at Seventh Street for my copy. While it was entertaining, and while I'll certainly be looking forward to book three,  I actually prefer  a more taut, edgy mystery, so I'm probably not the best or target audience for this book.   That is certainly not because of the author -- it's definitely a me thing.   At the same time,  that certainly doesn't mean that others aren't enjoying it, since reader ratings are for the most part consistently four and five stars both on Goodreads and Amazon.  I'd certainly recommend this novel to, as I said earlier, readers who like their crime on the lighter side and don't mind a few excursions elsewhere outside of the main plot thread. 


An article about The Queen's Gambit by Tom Williams at Historical Novel Society

Thursday, September 19, 2019

back through the time tunnel again with a classic: The House of the Arrow, by A.E.W. Mason, 1924

House of Stratus, 2012
originally published 1924
263 pp


"Did I not tell you, Monsieur, that we are all the servants of Chance?" 

Fourteen years prior to publishing The House of the Arrow, writer A.E.W. Mason had first introduced to the mystery/crime-reading world his somewhat eccentric detective Inspector  Hanaud of the Sûreté in his At the Villa Rose.  That one I just liked on an "okay" sort of level, mainly because of  Mason's proclivities toward what Martin Edwards refers to in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books a "lop-sided story structure," in which all too soon the culprit is made known and readers sit patiently (or not, depending on your makeup) waiting for the rest of the story to play out.    House of the Arrow thankfully poses a bit more of a challenge for the reader, so at least for me there was not one iota of frustration here.  This one I quite enjoyed, spending an entire day entranced with it and then finishing off the experience by watching the 1953 film (more on that later) before going on to order the next Hanaud novel, The Prisoner in the Opal (1928). 

just as an aside and an FYI,  while my copy is a hold-in-your-hands reprint edition, House of the Arrow is also available at Project Gutenberg if you lean toward the e-variety of reading:

Before this story moves on to Dijon, France, it begins in the London office of the firm of Messrs. Frobisher and Haslitt, solicitors,  on the east side of Russell Square.  Among the other letters in that day's batch of mail is one written in an unfamiliar, "spidery, uncontrolled hand" postmarked Dijon.  Haslitt has a client there, a Mrs. Harlowe, a widow whose health is not so great.  The letter is not from her however, but from someone by the name of Boris Waberski,  Mrs. Harlowe's brother-in-law, who has a "great necessity" of part of the "large share" of the fortune he is certain he will inherit upon her death.  The letter is ignored, and three weeks later, Mrs. Harlowe's death is announced in The Times. Haslitt knows he'll hear from Waberski again, and sure enough he does, except that this time the news comes that Waberski has levelled a charge of murder against Mrs. Harlowe's "husband's niece and adopted daughter" Betty Harlowe.  It seems that Waberski's expectations were all for naught, since Betty has inherited the entire estate, and now he claims that she poisoned the widow on the night of August 27th.  The news does not come from Waberski directly, but via a letter from a friend of young Betty, Ann Upcott.  Frobisher and Haslitt are further upset by a telegram coming from Betty herself, which informs the two attorneys that she needs help right away -- it seems that "The Prefect of Police has called in Hanaud, "  and that she believes "They must think me guilty."   Haslitt sends Jim Frobisher to Dijon to look into their client's situation, but before Frobisher leaves, Haslitt says something to him that quite succinctly and tantalizingly  summarizes the rest of the story: 
"...remember, there's something at the back of this which we here don't know."
Truer words were never spoken, as Jim will come to discover as he makes his way to France and meets up with Inspector Hanaud, who accompanies him to Dijon to work on a case of some serious poisoned-pen letters in the area.   

original cover, from Project Gutenberg

The House of the Arrow is by no means your average murder mystery. First, there is some question as whether or not a murder has even been committed; when that issue is settled, the question of who may be guilty takes on a life of its own.  While Frobisher is somewhat in awe of Hanaud, his own feelings about the matter and his own particular personal interests often pit him against the Inspector, even as they work together to get to the truth and as Hanaud's discoveries lead to even bigger questions that need further answers.  In short,  Mason is not (thankfully) going to let his readers off the hook by making it easy this time as he did in At the Villa Rose.  I will say that after finishing this novel I read a couple of posts about this book in which a few people had figured it out, but for  me the solution was a surprise; even better than finding out the who  though was the path to the why and especially the how.   Pardon me for rambling here for a moment,  but I was just talking to someone  the other day about how old school I am with mystery stories, preferring the journey much more than the solution itself;  House of the Arrow affords that very pleasure.  

The blogger at Vintage Pop Fictions notes that 
"This novel includes just about every ingredient that critics of golden age detective fiction love to mock... On the other hand, the ingredients that cause critics to gnash their teeth are exactly the ingredients that fans of golden age detection (like myself) adore. To a true fan the more outlandish these elements are the better and in this instance they're delightfully outlandish." 
I couldn't have said it better.   Count me as "a true fan," who thrives on the "delightfully outlandish."  

movie poster, 1953, from Rare Film

The film, on the other hand, was a bit of a puzzler.  The way the film is shot gives it a noirish vibe,  but having read the novel, it lacks the elements that make the book both mysterious and suspenseful.  I get creative license and all that it encompasses, and I did enjoy the film for what it was, but I was left with the feeling that there could have been much more to it than what I saw.  I will say though that I immediately checked to see if Oscar Homolka had reprised his role as M. Hanaud; like Bruno Cremer is for me the Maigret, Homolka is the perfect Hanaud, capturing Mason's character's eccentricities so well.  I can only imagine he'd read the novel beforehand to do it so well.  

Holmoka as Hanaud, on the left, from Mystery*File

This book runs rings around its predecessor and I recommend it to readers of Golden Age detective fiction, for readers who like puzzle-style mysteries in general, and to people like myself who enjoy a good yarn that is cleverly constructed, one that takes a number of twists and turns along the way.     Remember, though, it is a product of the early 1920s, so perhaps it may be a bit verbose for modern readers getting to it for the first time.  Then there's Hanaud himself -- he can be both annoying twit and genius crime solver at the same time, so it takes a patient reader at times to get over his personality.  It is, however,  perfect for someone like me who, as noted earlier, enjoys the path much more than the end of the journey.   

Thursday, September 12, 2019

The Long Call, by Ann Cleeves

Minotaur/St. Martin's Press
375 pp


"We all need secrets, just to keep sane, to feel that the world doesn't own us." 

Let me just say this:  I did not particularly care for the one book I've read by this author, Raven Black, and I never went on to read any of her other novels,  but for some weird reason when I first heard about The Long Call, I preordered it.  To this day I can't think why, but as it turns out, it was a good call.  I spent all of yesterday reading it, unable to put it down.

"... the cry of a herring gull, ... the long call, which always sounded to him like an inarticulate howl of pain."

 And indeed, the long call sounds throughout this novel, which takes place in a  small town in North Devon, centering on the murder of a man with an albatross tattooed on his neck. Given the nature of the tattoo, I immediately figured out that this must have been a person suffering under the weight of some heavy burdens, and as things begin to unfold, it turns out that I was right.   Investigating the crime is Detective Matthew Venn, who had once lived in the area and had broken from a particular religious group to which he and his family had belonged, estranging him from his parents.   Working with his colleagues Jen Rafferty and Ross May, he discovers that the victim is one Simon Walden, a man whose past had left him completely broken.  Walden had been living at the home of Caroline Preece, where he had rented a room along with Caroline's friend Gaby Henry; he had also been  involved as a volunteer at the Day Centre at the Woodyard, a sort of artistic safe place for people with learning and other disabilities, managed by Venn's husband Jonathan.  When a woman with Downs Syndrome goes missing from the Woodyard, Venn begins to surmise that the two cases are somehow connected, and that there is something just a bit off -- there  is "too much coincidence. Too many people circling round each other, without quite touching."   He also realizes that it is  quite possibly the Woodyard itself that is the connection,  putting him in the uncomfortable position of having to decide whether or not to withdraw himself from the case because of his personal ties. Before he can make that decision however, little by little the investigation begins to uncover hidden secrets from the past that just may have a direct bearing on the present.   To say any more would be to spoil, but the story revolves around unraveling those secrets to get to a solution.

And what a solution it is, a complete surprise (for the most part),  but it is the getting there that really matters.  The Long Call is refreshingly free of gratuitous violence or sex, affords the armchair detective  a solid mystery, and the author spends quite a lot of time on the main characters in terms of thoughts and backstories.   She also manages to weave in a number of social issues without being in your face about it, and above all, takes her time in allowing the story to unfold, allowing the questions and the suspense to accumulate  on the way to solving the mysteries in this novel.  As I looked through reader reviews after finishing it, I noticed a lot of people found it too slow (??)  but for me it was absolutely on point.  My only negative is that most of an entire chapter  could have been left out here (chapter 29, in which Caroline and her father do a bit of emotional sparring and then come to terms with each other)  that to me added nothing whatsoever to this story.

This book begins another series, evidently, given the blurb on the front that says "Introducing Detective Matthew Venn."  I was so impressed with The Long Call that I will be definitely be in line to buy Venn's next adventure.    I'm still not sure what prompted me to preorder this book (Twilight Zone music playing in my head here), but I'm happy I did.

A bit dark for cozy readers, and not quite as edgy a story that might be enjoyed by noir fans, I can recommend it for those who enjoy a good mystery without the clutter that is all too often included in a lot of modern crime fiction these days. 

Thursday, August 22, 2019

The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith, by Patricia Wentworth

Dean Street Press, 2016
originally published 1923
208 pp


It's been eons since I've read a novel by Patricia Wentworth, and like most of her fans I spent many hours devouring her Miss Silver mysteries. The intro to that series, Grey Mask, was published in 1928, but Wentworth had already written and had published a number of mysteries beginning five years earlier.  The Astonishing Adventure of  Jane Smith is the first of these, but unlike the author's Miss Silver novels, the "impecunious and intrepid heroine" of this story is in her early twenties.   

Young Renata Molloy has been a sleepwalker since her childhood, and as this story begins, she has inadvertently and unfortunately made her way into a meeting being held in her father's London flat. She is discovered just as one of the members of this insidious anarchist organization  happens to mention "Annihilation of the whole human race!" and of course, they want to know what she's heard.  In another part of the city, Jane Smith is sitting on a park bench counting out all the money she has left in the world, some two shillings and eleven pence, when she is approached by a young man, Arnold Todhunter,  who has mistaken her for the woman he loves, Renata Molloy. The resemblance between the two is uncanny, but it turns out that Jane and Renata are cousins; they are not at all close,  but their mothers were twins and as Jane puts it, "I have always understood that we were very much alike."  They are enough alike that Todhunter tells her of his discovery of Renata being held prisoner in her father's flat, and that according to Renata, she can't leave because her captors will only track her down, "find her and kill her."   Todhunter is to leave for Bolivia within three days and would like to take Renata with him, so he comes up with a most bizarre idea.  Would Jane consent to taking Renata's place in the flat (he can sneak her in via the fire escape) so that Renata would be safe from her "position of deadly peril?"   Jane, who has visions of "the workhouse" once her money runs out, agrees to the plan.  Luckily, she has the foresight to call on an old friend, Henry Luttrell of Scotland Yard CID, before the switch is made.  Also fortunate for Jane, she is no coward, not averse to taking risks,  and she has an amazing ability to think on her feet when necessary.  She will definitely have to call on those skills once she is moved from London to a house in the country, where her "astonishing adventure" truly begins. 

from AbeBooks, first edition cover

 The novel is a combination of mystery and spy story, with some romance added in on top of the action. There are secret passages to be explored, lots of government and villainous intrigue, secret formulas, and  strange people coming and going.  Meanwhile Jane as Renata is still in the precarious position as to whether or not her captors plan to eliminate her for what she may have overheard, but  she's not about to just let it happen without doing something.  No timid rabbit here. 

I had absolutely no clue that this book was going to be as much fun as it was, truly what I'd call a rollicking adventure. As for the mystery (which for me came down to identifying a certain personage), well, as it turned out, I was patting myself on the back not too far into the story thinking "can it be any more obvious?" then feeling like a total dope when all was actually revealed.  Let's just say that I was right, but I was wrong all at the same time,  always a positive. Above all, it was great fun for a few hours, and I am eager to get hopping on all of the non-Miss Silver adventures I've missed. 

Definitely recommended for those fans of Golden Age mystery fiction who are looking for something quite outside the norm. 

Saturday, August 10, 2019

an Annie Haynes double feature: The Bungalow Mystery and The Abbey Court Murder

If you are asking yourself the question "who the hell is Annie Haynes," you're probably not alone. I had never even heard of this author prior to this year, when somehow I landed at the crime and mystery section of the website of Dean Street Press while looking up lesser-known women writers of the Golden Age period.  Oh lordy -- no one can imagine how excited I was to find not one, but several women whom I'd never heard of before.  Several clicks later and my library now has quite a few Dean Street Press paperback novels with more to be picked up in the future.  But as usual, I digress.

 In 1923 author Annie Haynes made her debut with The Bungalow Mystery; by 1929 after twelve novels  (one published posthumously and the last one completed by an unknown author and published in 1930), she died of heart failure, which as Lizzie Hayes wrote at her blog Promoting Crime Fiction, was quite possibly connected to the rheumatoid arthritis she had long suffered, a disease which ultimately caused her severe pain and left her crippled.  Three of her books featured Inspector Furnival, four more starred a certain Inspector Stoddart, and the remainder were written as nonseries mystery novels.   Hayes also notes that
"... in 1923 a major newspaper regarded Haynes as one of the two most significant British female crime writers, with only Christie to rival her.  Dorothy L. Sayers, whose first detective novel was also published in 1923, does not get a mention."

 These particular editions of The Bungalow Mystery and The Abbey Court Murder are, according to the back-cover blurb, "the first printed in over 80 years,"  so that already gives them a thumbs up as far as I'm concerned; having read both of them back to back, they get another thumbs up for sheer entertainment value. 

The Bungalow Mystery  begins  as Dr. Roger Lavington of Sutton Boldon,  already having a bad day, is summoned to the house next door, "The Bungalow."  When he arrives he finds the tenant, Maximilian von Rheinhart, who lives there in a "hermit-like preference for his own society," dead on the floor.  His pockets have been "rifled," so while the housekeeper believes it may have been suicide, Lavington is positive that the man has been murdered.  He sends her for the authorities, and in her absence, he is surprised to find a young girl hiding behind a curtain, who begs him for help and asks him to let her go.  As we're told, her "appeal had touched a soft place in his heart," so he takes pity on her and sends her over to his own house as he waits for the police.  It doesn't take the police too long until they realize that there is most definitely a woman in the case, based on clues left behind.

Back home again, Lavington hits on a safe way to get the woman away while the police are watching The Bungalow; she makes her escape but the good doctor is later stunned to hear that an unidentified  woman carrying "certain evidence" on her person related to Rheinhart has been killed in a horrific train accident that also made an invalid of one of his old friends, Sir James Courtenay.   The story picks up again two years later.  Lavington has moved away from Sutton Boldon to be nearer to Courtenay where he makes a startling discovery; in the meantime, the word is that the police have some new evidence in the Bungalow case. 

In the introduction, Curtis Evans states that Haynes' novels
"retain, in stripped-down form, the emotionally heady air of the nineteenth-century triple-decker sensation novel, with genteel settings, shocking secrets, stormy passions and eternal love all at the fore..."
and that description is completely spot on.   At the same time, underneath the secrets, passions and eternal love, and I'll add good old male chivalry to the mix, The Bungalow Mystery  is at its heart an intricate, well-plotted mystery that does not get resolved until the finish when all is revealed.  I will also say that there are a few surprises along the way, and that skimming should be totally out of the question while reading this novel since even small details are relevant.   I won't say why, but after a second read,  I had a greater appreciation for Haynes' ability to  pull off quite a nice sleight of hand here, a sort of literary misdirection definitely deserving of major kudos.

Speaking of sensation novel material,  The Abbey Court Murder was also published in 1923; it is the first of three novels to feature Inspector Furnival of Scotland Yard, and it's a definite page turner to the very end. 

It begins at a wedding, as happily-married Lady Judith Carew and her husband Lord Anthony are leaving the church after the ceremony.  There, she gets a nasty surprise on recognizing someone she had thought long dead, and her entire world changes in that moment.  The man demands that she meet him later that night at 42 Abbey Court; there is no way she can refuse because the man has information about her past that her husband Lord Anthony does not know and that she does not want him to know.  The Carews are scheduled to attend a dinner that evening; she tells Anthony to go on as she fakes a headache to keep her at home.  As soon as her husband leaves, Judith grabs one of her husband's revolvers and  makes her way to the appointed rendezvous, but things go tragically wrong and someone is killed.   Judith finds her way home, but lives in abject fear that her presence at the murder scene will be discovered;  her doctor suggests rest and quiet, so the Carew family makes its way to the family home, Heron's Carew.    And that's when things really start popping.  Not only does Judith have to worry about being found out, but there is also a matter of  young Peggy Carew's new admirer, a certain Lord Chesterham whom nobody but Peggy thinks will make a suitable match (and with good reason ...); Judith also has suspicions about Anthony's cousin Lady Sybil Palmer who has recently become a widow and goes digging around to find out any dirt on Lady Carew, and of course, the appearance of Inspector Furnival, whose superiors at the Yard are putting pressure on him to make an arrest in the matter of the Abbey Court Murder.

I couldn't turn these pages fast enough. I am a huge, huge fan of sensation novels, and I can't get enough of this stuff!    I will say that I guessed the who here once a major clue was revealed but it's okay ... I was actually more interested in getting to Lady Carew's secret and waiting to see how the good inspector was going to finish off his case. 

Both are fun vintage novels and I believe I'll have to go pick up the others here shortly.  If these two early books are indicative of her work, I'm in for a lot of serious entertainment.  While they won't be for everyone,  readers of these old mystery novels will enjoy them, as will anyone interested in the resurfacing of an obscure writer brought once again to the light.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Whose Body? by Dorothy Sayers

Bourbon Street Books, 2014
originally published 1923
213 pp


"Enter Sherlock Holmes disguised as a walking gentleman."

As much as I prefer the less unsung mystery/detective story/crime novels of the past, there comes that time when I just can't pass up the more well-known novels of this particular era, especially when the author's name is so familiar to nearly everyone, mystery reader or no.  And while I wouldn't call Whose Body the best in the series (that will come down the road a bit later), it is most certainly worth reading as it introduces one of the best-known characters of mystery's golden age, Lord Peter Wimsey. 

Just a wee bit about Sayers' creation before moving into the novel itself.  In his work on Sayers,  James Brabazon,  author of Dorothy L. Sayers: A Biography (Charles Scribner and Sons, 1981) picks up a quotation of hers from  "How I Came to Invent the Character of Lord Peter," from Harcourt Brace News (Vol. I, July 15 1936: 1-2) where she reveals in a sort of tongue-in-cheek fashion that she had been "thinking about writing a detective story," when in walked Lord Peter:
"complete with spats, and applied in an airy don't-care if-I-get-it way for the job of hero." (120)
 Martin Edwards, writing in The Golden Age of Murder (Harper Collins, 2015), says that Sayers "reasoned" that
"A detective who was not a professional police officer ... needed to be rich ... and to have plenty of leisure time to devote to solving mysteries.  She conceived Wimsey as a caricature of the gifted amateur sleuth, and found it amusing to soak herself in the lifestyle of someone for whom money was no object..."
She also
"endowed Wimsey with criminology, bibliophily, music and cricket as a favourite recreations. He is a Balliol man, equipped with a magnifying glass disguised as a monocle, a habit of literary quotation and an engaging, if often frivolous, demeanour." (19)
We also learn in Whose Body? that he  is also someone whose "young mind had been warped in its young growth by 'Raffles' and 'Sherlock Holmes'," and whose "career as a private detective"  was "hampered" by a public-school education. But there is much more to this "frivolous" man which doesn't crop up here until well into the story, when, as I remarked somewhere after finishing this novel, just as he's really getting on your nerves there comes that one moment when you suddenly realize just how very human Lord Peter Wimsey actually is. 

from OUPblog
A call from his mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver,  alerts Lord Peter to a most unusual crime.  A dead man, wearing nothing but a pair of pince-nez, was discovered in the bathtub of the mild-mannered architect Thipps of Battersea.  Later, after having a look at the flat in Queen Caroline Mansions and incurring the wrath of Inspector Sugg,  Wimsey returns home and is called upon by his friend and Scotland Yard detective Charles Parker, who tells him a story of the disappearance of financier Sir Reuben Levy.   As it happens, Levy had gone missing on the day he was slated to attend "a most important financial meeting and do some deal involving millions."  Parker had taken his own look at the man in the bath, thinking it might be Sir Reuben; on discovering that indeed it was not, Parker remains puzzled at the man's disappearance.  He welcomes Lord Peter's interest in the case, and it is not too long before our hero comes to realize that perhaps the two just might be related.  First, though, he and his almost Jeeves-like valet Bunter must wade through what will turn out to be a mess of red herrings before the case(s) can come to a successful close.

What absolutely has to be my favorite cover:  1948 Avon paperback edition; artwork by Anne Cantor from Moment

Most unfortunately, once you reach a certain point, the identity of the criminal is way too easy to figure out, but I think you have to consider the fact that,  as Edwards notes, the author was generally "more interested in describing the culprit's methods of carrying out and concealing the crime."  In this sense, I was actually more interested in Lord Peter and Bunter to actually mind too much, and despite knowing ahead of time the who, the how, I felt, was rather ingenious.  And also under the heading of most unfortunately (and I would add uncomfortably), I'd forgotten exactly how demeaning Sayers' descriptions of  Jewish people were at the time.   Otherwise, I'm quite happy to have read it again, and as I have the entire series here, I'm sure Lord Peter and I will meet once again in the near future.

Monday, July 22, 2019

The Black Jersey, by Jorge Zepeda Patterson

Random House, 2019
originally published as Maillot Negro
Translated by Achy Obejas
312 pp


The narrator of this account, Marc Moreau, says close to its beginning that
"We understood that every so often there would be an annus horribilus, a cursed year, for the Tour de France. By the time we finished the first four stages of the tour, we would start to suspect that this could be the worst of all." 
He's not joking -- the mystery within this novel centers around the attempts to discover who is responsible  for a string of horrific incidents, some deadly, among the cyclists competing in that year's Tour.  Moreau, a domestique for Team Fonar,  is asked by French police Commissioner Favre to assist him in trying to solve the case, since Favre believes that "the killer or killers belong to the circuit."  As he notes, those responsible have "struck with surgical precision to maximize their effect on the results of the race."  He's come to Marc not only because of his background in the military police, but because he's on the inside.  The executive director of the Tour is also hopeful that Marc will help since these accidents, as he puts it, are  "the most serious threat to the Tour de France in all its history."   Somewhat reluctantly he agrees to do as they ask. 

Had the author left it there, the mystery and its solution would have been satisfying enough, but this is definitely not your average crime novel, not by any stretch.  It is a very human story, and Marc is much more than an insider helping the police.  At the heart of this novel is the close relationship between Moreau and  Team Fonar's star cyclist Steve Panata,  with Marc destined over the years to be Steve's protector and domestique, doing anything and everything to ensure Steve's victories in the Tour.   As he and the police uncover evidence leading toward finding the "killer among you," Marc also comes to as the blurb notes, the "sickening realization" that everything that's happened has been to the benefit of his own team.  That's bad enough, but he also finds himself having to battle his own feelings for the good of the team, and he is under a huge amount of pressure to leave his role as second fiddle and go onto victory in his own right. 

I'm not a huge sports fan at all, I'm a ten-mile-ride-is-my-limit sort of cyclist so I can't speak to what he's  done right or not here as far as the Tour de France, but the decision made by the author to use this exacting competition as the milieu for his story turned out to be a good one.  As he says in this interview with The Spain Journal, the Tour
"takes the passions to the limit. Emotions are bare wires when competing for something that demands so many sacrifices.  Love, ambitions, loyalty or betrayals are over-dimensioned." 
 All of  what the author says in this short bit of quotation is made so vividly real in this novel, along with the intensity of the competition, to the point where, as also noted in that interview (although I'm thinking he meant "rider," not "runner'),
"If a runner is willing to kill himself, descending a mountain at 90 kilometers per hour on precarious roads and huge abysses, why would he not be willing to kill for it?"
The author did such a fine job here that even I had no idea who was trustworthy and who was not, and I never guessed the who.  I will say that I had to go back when all was revealed and read that part again (it's a little complicated and it was a wee bit on the murky side), but there was still one more  shocking and unexpected surprise in store even after all became known. 

The Washington Post featured this book in June as one of "9 Picks for Your Beach Bag," but I would consider this novel as way more than just a fun summer read.  The author's  intense focus on the people here made this a novel I won't soon forget. 

Monday, July 8, 2019

and we say goodbye to 1922 with The Lyttleton Case, by RAV Morris

Harper Collins
originally published 1922
212 pp


I know it will take some doing, but anyone who plans to read this book ought to skip the dustjacket blurb and move right on into the text.   Once again, and to my great dismay, whoever wrote it has given away one of the elements of the plot.  Seriously? Who does that?  For shame.

Ronald Arthur Vincent Morris, the author of The Lyttleton Case, never wrote another mystery novel after this book's publication; with no follow up, as Douglas A. Anderson notes in the introduction to this edition, the novel "lapsed into obscurity."   Indeed -- I'd never heard of it until I started collecting volumes of Harper Collins' reprinted Detective Club novels.  Trust me, the ending is a complete surprise which I didn't see coming.  When the editor of the original detective story club edition says "the secret is well kept and the reader is left guessing, almost to the last page," he or she was not exaggerating.

the collection, so far, with more on the way....

Two mysteries begin this novel.  First comes the disappearance of wealthy financier James Lyttleton, who goes off to work as usual one day and is never seen again.  Telegrams sent to his daughter Doris  from various locations keep her posted about where he is, but after a wire from New York, he is not heard from again.  Doris' fiancé, journalist Basil Dawson, decides to travel to the Big Apple to try to locate him, but he is presented with a set of baffling clues that lead nowhere.  Turning over what little he has to the NYPD, Dawson returns to England to give his information to Scotland Yard, and to wait along with Doris for Lyttleton's return.   The second mystery unfurls as James Candlish, Chief Inspector of the Yard's CID,  a man who has a "passion" for natural history, has started his annual vacation time, which he's spending in  "an exploration of the flora and fauna of the Southshire Downs."  After a "most satisfactory morning's work," he takes some time next to a stream to have lunch and to write down his observations in his notebook, but his idyllic moment is disturbed with the discovery of a man's body.  The Coroner observed that the dead man was between twenty-eight and thirty-five, he'd died of natural causes, and had been in the water most likely four to five days.  Even though there isn't much to go on, when Candlish returns from his holiday, his interest in the case never wanes.  He is also put in charge of the Lyttleton case, and as the investigation progresses, a few too many coincidences crop up for his liking.  There are so many coincidences, in fact, that after reaching the halfway mark, I thought that it was game over and that I had it completely sussed, but no.  So a word of advice -- when you think you know what's what, you may want to think again. 

Around the mysteries to be pondered in this novel, there are a number of interesting people who caught my attention, beginning with James Candlish.  He tends to take a Zen approach to solving crime:

"He had found by experience that by dismissing his work entirely from his mind for a while, he was able to return to it with renewed energy, clearer perception, and deeper insight. In fact, as he sometimes told his cronies, it was only when consciousness was wholly taken off a subject, that the subconscious mind was given a chance on working on it."  
Then there's Police Constable Hutchinson, "a diligent reader of detective fiction," who smokes "shag" like his idol Sherlock Holmes when contemplating a problem.  In his room he has a violin, a syringe ("that rather as a reminder of his great prototype than for actual use"), and a dressing gown, all in emulation of his idol. His current reading project is  Freeman Wills Crofts' The Cask (1920)  but he's also a huge fan of Gaboriau's Lecoq and of Poe's M. Dupin.  In the introduction to this novel, Anderson notes that the mentions of these various detectives exemplify the author's "familiarity with the detectve fiction genre," but it also gives the story a bit of a comic interlude.   Finally, Miss Doris Lyttleton made my favorite character list -- she is not only portrayed as a modern woman but for reasons I cannot divulge, she turns out to be a first-class heroine in her own right.

The themes that recur throughout the novel  are pretty obvious so I won't go into them, and there's more than one foray through London streets and environs which added to the story.  And while I genuinely enjoyed The Lyttleton Case, the mechanics of the solution seem to take forever in the telling at the end.  On the other hand,  it really is,  as Anderson notes, quoting Barzun and Taylor, a "well-written, slow, carefully plotted puzzle."  It's also highly entertaining which is never a bad thing.  Recommended for fans of vintage crime; cozy readers would enjoy it as well with the caveat that this book was written in 1922 so it's not nearly as fast paced as most modern cozies. It really is a shame that Morris never wrote another crime novel -- given how enjoyable is his one and only, a second one would have been more than likely top notch indeed.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Murder in the Crooked House, by Soji Shimada

Pushkin Vertigo, 2019
originally published as Naname Yashiki no Hanzai, 1982
translated by Louise Heal Kawai

345 pp

A few years ago I read and loved Shimada's The Tokyo Zodiac Murders so it was a no-brainer as to whether or not to buy his newest, Murder in the Crooked House.  As in The Tokyo Zodiac Murders,  at one point in the action, everything comes to a full stop as the author throws out a challenge to his readers, letting us know that at this point in the game we have everything that we know to solve the mystery.   The question is "Can you solve this case?"  The answer:  no, not I.  I did manage to figure out the who but not the why and not the how, and even that  small victory came only after making my way through a wriggling school of red herrings thrown in throughout the story.  To those of you who solved it by the time the "challenge to the reader" is thrown down,  I would love to have your brains, because I was kept in the dark pretty much throughout.

And small wonder.  I don't know how anyone could have possibly solved this while reading because the solution is so farfetched and so out there, well beyond the norm of many of the locked-room crime novels I've read.  In fact, whenever reading in this subgenre, I flip the switch in my brain to "suspend disbelief" mode so that I'm prepared when the denouement comes.  On the other hand, once I knew how Shimada made it all happen, I found myself going back to the diagrams scattered throughout the novel trying to put things together and doing the inner "aha" as I saw how it could have been pulled off (sort of).     I have to admire the author's creativity here, and  I have to wonder how many hours he must have given to setting up the entire story, not to mention how much fun he must have had in doing so.

from CDJapan
In the long run, this is a book where it is best to know next to nothing about the story.  What little I'm willing to spill here is that the action takes place in a house somewhat like the one pictured here on the Japanese cover.  As we learn,
"At the top of Japan's northernmost island, Hokkaido, on the very tip of Cape Soya, there's a high plain that overlooks the Okhotsk Sea. On this plain stands a peculiar-looking structure known by the locals as 'The Crooked House.' " 
At present it sits empty, on the market for many years, and "will probably stay that way."  One might think that it's because of its remote location, but in reality,
"it's far more likely the murder that keeps buyers away."
The house's actual name is the Ice Floe Mansion, built and owned by Kozaburo Hamamato, a somewhat eccentric industrialist who, at the time of the events that took place here, was in his late 60s.  He occupies the tower, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the leaning one in Pisa; his eccentricity even includes a drawbridge that connects with the rest of the house.  Hamamoto refers to it as "this old man's whimsical mansion," because, as the back blurb notes, it is a
"maze of sloping floors and strange staircases, full of bloodcurdling masks and uncanny dolls."
His daughter Eiko and three household staff also occupy the "crooked house," and as the story begins, the Hamamotos have opened their house to a number of guests for the Christmas holidays, 1983.  The first night of the guests' stay turns out to be anything but normal, but things become even more off-the-wall weird once daylight brings the discovery of a most bizarre murder.    Going back to the blurb once more, the victim has been "found murdered in seemingly impossible circumstances," in a locked room which is accessible only from the outside, the murderer having left no footprints in the snow either coming or going.  While a few of the houseguests take on the puzzle the killer has left behind, the local police are called in and do their best to try to put the limited (and strange) clues together to form a picture of what had happened.  When another death occurs, in circumstances that are perhaps even stranger than the first murder, they have their hands full and call to Tokyo for help, bringing Kiyoshi Mitarai and his friend/sidekick Kazumi Ishioka to Ice Floe Mansion.  But even then ....

[as an aside, Mitarai and Ishioka are names readers will recognize from Shimada's The Tokyo Zodiac Murders; I actually did a double take when I came across them here for the first time on recognition since I had no idea that this was their second adventure. ]

To say more would be to spoil and I don't want to do that at all because it would be wrong to take away someone's fun in trying to piece together exactly how these crimes were committed.  What I will say is that the use of masks in this story  is most appropriate as  it seems that most of the people staying in this house over the holidays have things they desire to keep hidden, each masking his or her inner self behind a very different public persona while in the company of others.   I could go on here, but it would also be a spoiler to do so.

I loved the eerieness of the setting  in this book, which added an atmospheric quality to the novel.  Combining such a remote location, the howling winds during a blizzard, the greyness of the sea during the winter with the fact that the people in the house are all pretty much trapped there until the mystery is solved gives the story a claustrophobic feel that only heightens the strange events that take place.

  In comparing Shimada's earlier book with the present one,  I have to say that Murder in the Crooked House is much more reader friendly, moving much more quickly through to the solution than was the case in Tokyo Zodiac Murders; I also felt that this time around, as I said earlier, I had to keep myself in the state of suspension of disbelief a bit longer than while reading the first book. When all is said and done, I had a lot of fun with this novel and certainly recommend it, most especially to people who find pleasure in reading locked-room/impossible crime novels, which are in many ways a very different breed than your average crime/mystery novel and may take a bit of getting used to.

 Once again, hats off and major applause to anyone who solved this crime before the answers were made known.  I was left completely in the dark. And that's okay.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

back in my mystery happy place once again with an Edgar Wallace double feature

Two books, both written by the same author in the same year, 1922.   An iffy proposition, running the risk of getting something same old same old with the second after reading the first.  Luckily, that was not the case here.

Edgar Wallace was a highly-prolific author; he wrote so much in fact that I didn't even bother to count the total number of works in his bibliography to give here because there are so many.  And given my penchant for crime/mystery fiction, one would think that I would have read one of his books by now, but no.  The Angel of Terror and The Crimson Circle are the only two of Wallace's novels I've read, although his books take up nearly one entire shelf in my British reading room.  

House of Stratus, 2001
originally published 1922
209 pp

Also known as The Destroying Angel,  The Angel of Terror begins in the courtroom at the end of the Berkeley Street Murder Trial as the judge is about to pass sentence on one James Meredith, who had been convicted of murder.   The jurors and the judge could not but believe the story told by Meredith's ex-fiancée and cousin Jean Briggerland, and ultimately the judge sentences him to death.  His sentence is commuted to a long prison stay, but his attorney and friend Jack Glover knows that Briggerland gave false testimony for what she would consider good reason.  As his cousin,  she will inherit the bulk of James' fortune, since according to Meredith's father's will, if James had not married by age thirty, the money  would go to his aunt and her "heirs and successsors," aka  Jean Briggerland and her father.  His 30th birthday is coming up quickly and   Glover comes up with a bizarre plan to keep the money out of Briggerland's hands:  he has selected a young woman named Lydia Beale,  who is deeply in debt and is struggling to survive to become Meredith's bride.  Seventy-five summons of judgment against her for her father's debts have overwhelmed her;  she will get a huge sum of  money up front, and never has to have any sort of dealings with Meredith.  As the book's back blurb notes, "it is a proposal she cannot afford to ignore."   Glover temporarily springs Meredith via a medical excuse allowing him to escape long enough for the nuptials to be performed.  Lydia becomes not only Mrs. Meredith but also the widow  Meredith all within a matter of moments.  Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, James had written his own will prior to the marriage, so on his death, Lydia receives his estate.  But now that she has Meredith's fortune, the Briggerlands become her heirs, and as Jack Glover so rightfully states, "--there's going to be hell!"   Truer words were never spoken.
In this story, there is absolutely no question of the identity of the "Angel of Terror."   We know from the outset that Jean Briggerland is  one of the most cold-blooded, evil-minded and absolutely mercenary women villains who has ever graced the pages of a crime novel. She is a woman who openly states that what she fears more than death is a "life without money."  However, because of her beauty and her great acting abilities, no one but Jack Glover believes she could possibly be guilty of anything, that she has no qualms about killing, and he will do what it takes to keep Lydia out of her clutches. 

The Angel of Terror was fun, but a bit farfetched considering that Lydia remains clueless for the duration of the novel.  I was looking at what readers said and time and time again they come back to Lydia being either hopelessly naive or absolutely stupid, and in all honesty her character can become a bit exasperating.  However,  I found the story to be more about whether or not justice will ever be served, a point on which the reader will have to make up his/her own mind at the end.

House of Stratus, 2001
originally published 1922
220 pp

    Of the two, The Crimson Circle was much more to my liking because it has that pulpy feel to it that I love so much.  Who wouldn't love a book about a secret crime organization and a detective that uses "psychometrics" to help his clients?  It also happens to have one of the most twisty endings, where not one but two surprises await the reader.   This one also got the silent "bravo" in my head after I'd finished it.

Private detective Derrick Yale is called into the home of James Beardmore, who has received four letters from "The Crimson Circle" demanding one hundred thousand pounds.  Beardmore has no fear of the Crimson Circle, but perhaps he should have heeded that fourth letter, since he later turns up dead.  But Beardmore is only one of many victims of this shady organization:  it seems that many members of the upper class have been blackmailed with the threat of death looming if they do not pay.  In each occurrence, something is left behind with the sign of a red circle, and the victims take the warning seriously enough to give the Crimson Circle exactly what is demanded.   Exactly who is the mastermind here is what Chief Inspector Parr has been tasked with discovering, but so far, his efforts have yielded few, if any, results.  Now his bosses have thrown down the gauntlet:  "if he cannot run the organization to earth he must send in his resignation."

Parr knows that the Crimson Circle  "had agents in all branches of life and in all classes."  None of them, however, knew the identities of the others nor their "chief," and each had his own "function to perform."  We, the readers know who some of these people are, including the beautiful Thalia Drummond, a known thief who eventually becomes Yale's secretary.   Time is ticking for Parr, so  he joins forces with Parr  to unmask the ringleader, while one man already knows who he is.  To say more is to spoil but jeez Louise, this was a lot of fun.

from IMDB
I liked it so much, in fact, that I watched the English-dubbed film from 1960 after finishing the novel.   The movie, of course, is not quite as good as the novel, but still manages to get the basics correct, although the shockers from the book don't play out as well on screen.  Of course, it could be that I already knew the ending, so there's that.

Overall, both books were fun reads, but I enjoyed The Crimson Circle a whole lot more than I did The Angel of Terror. One thing they both have in common besides the year in which they were written are strong women who take center stage.     Readers of old pulp fiction would certainly enjoy The Crimson Circle, or anyone who is exploring the work of Edgar Wallace certainly could not go wrong starting with this book which is definitely the better of these two.  I'm sure I'll be back for more Wallace novels in the future.