2/20/17

The Bigger Picture

"To Hollywood, city of screwballs! Drink 'er down."
 - Ellery Queen (Ellery Queen's The Four of Hearts, 1938)
My previous blog-post was a review of John Russell Fearn's Death in Silhouette (1950), which was the last entry in his series about Miss Maria Black, who I compared to Stuart Palmer's Miss Hildegarde Withers and thought reviewing a title from the Withers series would be a nice follow-up. So I airlifted The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan (1941) from the desolate, snow-capped peaks of Mt. To-be-Read.

Palmer was a Hollywood screenwriter and one of my favorite American mystery writers from the genre's Golden Age. A first-rate writer whose bibliography consists of fourteen Miss Withers novels, a handful of short story collections and non-series mysteries as well as numerous credits as a screenwriter – penning scripts for such famous B-movies series Bulldog Drummond and The Falcon. However, the books about his beloved series-character, Miss Withers, usually are top-drawer stuff and counts such classics as The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (1934) and Nipped in the Bud (1952).

The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan is not one of Palmer's masterpieces, but it's a pleasant, mildly humorous detective story with a plot and setting that draws on his background as a Hollywood screenwriter.

Miss Hildegarde Withers is on a six-month sabbatical from her job as a third-grade teacher at Jefferson School and she was looking forward to a Mediterranean cruise, but then Hitler started blitzkrieging across the European continent – which required rescheduling her vacation and she ended up exploring the West Coast of the United States. She's in Hollywood to be precise and an unusual meeting at a restaurant landed her consulting gig.

A talent agent, by the name of Harry Wagman, recognized the schoolteacher from her picture in the newspaper and asked her, accusingly, whether she was "the Murder Lady." He also asked if she was interested in a well-paid job as a technical adviser on a movie about the infamous Lizzie Borden case. One of the big Hollywood producers, Thorwald L. Nincom, plans to make a film epic in technicolor based on the case and Wagman wants to sell her expertise in criminology to the producer, which would net her three-hundred dollars a week. Wagman only wants "a measly ten per cent."

Usually, Miss Withers' presence, as an amateur criminologist, was neither requested or wanted. It always was "in spite of hell and high water" that her "insatiable curiosity had managed to get her into a case," which made her go along with her new agent and meet the famous producer. Even though this was far from a proper murder case. However, she soon finds herself in her familiar role of an unwanted snoop when an inexplicable death occurs on the premises of Mammoth Studio.

Saul Stafford and Virgil Dobie are "one of the highest-paid writing teams in the business," who also garnered a well-earned reputation as the biggest pranksters in Hollywood, but, when Miss Withers meets Stafford, the self-styled comedian suffers from "a mild case of paranoia" - plagued by strange accidents and funny-tasting drinks. Two hours later, she found him sprawled on the floor of his office with a broken neck, next to an overturned chair, with a giant poster on the ceiling hanging from a single thumbtack. It has all the hallmarks of a freak accident, but Miss Withers is convinced she has stumbled across, what she called, an "impossible murder."

Sadly, this is not an impossible crime story and the way in which Palmer handled this angle of the plot is, somewhat, incomprehensible.

There are several broken necks throughout the story and a big deal is made about the apparent impossibility of these deaths. A police-surgeon even mentions he doesn't believe "it physically possible for any person to break another's neck," because "the neck muscles are too strong." So, since there were no signs of a struggle or any noise was heard coming from the office, I began to suspect the victims died by the hangman's drop and the poster on the ceiling and the location of the offices gave me that idea – because, I suppose, offices on a studio plot aren't as solid constructed as a brownstone building.

I figured that, perhaps, panels or parts of the ceiling could be removed and create an improvised trapdoor to drop someone through with a (padded) rope around his neck. This would explain why nobody heard a thing, because the victim was dropped into his office from the floor above and reeled back in, to cut the rope, and then dropped back again in his office – which would also explain the New York victim who was found beneath a window in a soft flower bed. The hangman's drop seemed to be the obvious explanation, but, when the method was revealed, I was baffled that Palmer made such a big deal about the cause of death. Even trying to make it seem like an impossible crime.

It's akin to writing a story in which someone is found murdered inside a locked room and the key to the door was found in the victim's pocket, which is made a focal point of the plot, but then explain it away that the murderer used a spare key. Why bother dressing up the crime as a seemingly impossible murder if that's the angle you're taking? Simply baffling!

On top of that, the murderer was fairly obvious. So this could have easily translated into a rare disappointment in the series, but the book still had some solid, well-done plot-threads and moments. First of all, there's the plot-thread about a mysterious individual, known as Derek or Dick Laval, who appears to have been neck-deep in the New York murder, which was skillfully tied to the overall plot and was a high-note of the book – showing that Palmer could do better than the business about the broken necks. I also loved the touching and sad scenes that placed Miss Withers in genuine danger and had her friend, Inspector Oscar Piper, rushing down from New York to help. I think fans of these two characters will particular appreciate this portion of the story.

Befitting a movie-themed mystery novel, the plot has several fun Easter eggs, nods and winks. At one point in the book, Inspector Piper describes Miss Withers suitcase to a cabdriver and mentions it has labels from London and Mexico City on it, which are subtle references to The Puzzle of the Silver Persian (1935) and The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla (1937). Miss Withers is also mistaken for Edna May Oliver who played her character in the movies based on the earlier books in the series (e.g. The Penguin Pool Murder, 1932).

So, all in all, the overall plot was not one of Palmer's strongest, but the writing and characters were up to his usual standards and made for a fun, fast-paced read. However, I would recommend new readers to start somewhere else and save this one for later, because I think fans of the series will be able to appreciate it more than new readers.

2/18/17

Death's Shadow

"We can't say for certain this is murder. Not at the present stage of the game."
- Superintendent Hadley (John Dickson Carr's Till Death Do Us Part, 1944)
Last year, I began to exhume the work of an incredibly prolific British pulp author, John Russell Fearn, whose legacy consists of an enormous pile of science-fiction, westerns and detective stories, which were published in various magazines under a number of different pennames – such as "Thornton Ayre," "Frank Russell" and "John Slate."

A good, sizable chunk of Fearn's detective stories are locked room mysteries and this should come as no surprise, because he was a self-admitted fanboy of John Dickson Carr. However, Fearn never really played in the same league as the great master himself and was very much a second-tier mystery writer, but he has become a personal favorite among the second stringers. One of his series, saturated with impossible crime material, managed to touch the ceiling that separated the second stringers from the top-tier writers. Only one of the books from that series seems to have managed to break through that ceiling (i.e. Thy Arm Alone, 1947).

I'm talking about the Maria Black series, which sadly, covered only five books and commenced with Black Maria, M.A. (1944), in which the Principal of Roseway College for Young Ladies, Miss Maria Black, got an opportunity to put her knowledge as an amateur criminologist into practice by solving the murder of her own brother – who was shot to death inside his locked library. The book can best be described as what would have happened if Carr had written one of Stuart Palmer's Miss Hildegarde Withers mysteries.

It was an auspicious and promising start of a series that appears to have peaked with the previously mentioned Thy Arm Alone, but, luckily, there are still three titles left to enjoy. Well, now that I'm writing this review, there are actually only two left.

Death in Silhouette (1950) is the fifth and last entry in the Maria Black series, which has a weird whiff of realism lingering in its opening chapters. The story introduces the reader to a young working class couple, Patricia "Pat" Taylor and Keith Robinson, who respectively work modest jobs as a restaurant cashier and a costings clerk at the railway goods station, which does not allow for a lavish wedding or lifestyle, but they sealed engagement before the end of the first chapter – running off to their families to spread the happy news. Pat's parents could not be happier, but her brother, Gregory, was less enthusiastic with congratulating his sister and future brother-in-law. But the father of the groom-to-be was even less celebratory.

Ambrose Robinson is a religious fanatic, who spouts "yards of memorized scripture," but his objections fall on deaf ears. So he eventually finds himself attending an engagement party at the home of his future in-laws and one of the invitees is Pat's old head mistress, Miss Maria Black, but car troubles delayed her arrival and when she finally pulled up on the curb of the Taylor home "she felt an old-fire horse" which "has heard the bell" - as there was a police-car outside the house. 
 
During the party, Keith went missing and he was not found until someone noticed the door to the cellar was not only locked, but it was locked from the inside. Nobody responded to the knocking. So the door was broken down and they Keith hanging from a rope tied to the staple in a beam that crossed the ceiling.

According to the evidence, Keith went down to the cellar, lock himself in, and then hanged himself. Right in "the middle of celebrating his engagement to Pat."

Maria Black's "singular gift of walking into tragedies" has not deserted her and, initially, does not want to get involved, but Pat wants to know what was behind her fiances sudden death. Naturally, this quickly turns into a full-fledged murder inquiry and one that has some interesting aspects. One part of the investigation concerns Keith's character and background. Keith had some jealously issues and was prone to mood swings, who could be "up in spirits one minute" and "down in the dumps the next," which is a mental complexion he might have inherited from his mother – who died in a rest-home were she was staying for mental problems.

However, the most intriguing part of the plot is the step-by-step reconstruction of what happened in the sealed cellar and how a potential murderer could have been involved.

Slowly, Miss Black gathered the pieces of the intricate jigsaw puzzle around the Taylor home, which consist of a shadow cast on a whitewashed wall, traces of candle grease and a torn cover from an American pulp magazine (Super Crime Stories). She also calls on her hardboiled legman/bodyguard from the States, "Pulp" Martin, who tasked with tracking down a lamp that was thrown in the trash, but also has to use his fist on a couple of occasions. I guess his presence is one of the reasons why this series always feels like reading an American-style mystery, but the role the pulp magazines played in the murder also helped and recalled some of Bill Pronzini's impossible crime stories (e.g. "The Pulp Connection" from Casefile, 1983).

So the plot of Death in Silhouette offers a genuine detective problem, but where the book really excels is the double-barreled solution that manage to co-exist simultaneously. One part of the solution is very clever and complex, which might not even have worked. Something that is fully acknowledged, but then the Merrivalean cussedness of all things general intervenes and throws an alternative explanation into the works. A solution that is simpler and far more elegant than the previous one, which may disappoint some readers, but it works.

How this solution can simultaneously exist is something you should discover for yourself, but the how of the crime gelled marvelously with the who. Fearn had me playing ring-around-the-rosies with the small pool of suspects and still missed the actual murderer. I came very close to the correct murderer, but not quite close enough.

So Death in Silhouette demonstrates why Fearn is becoming one of my favorite mystery writers among the second-stringers and why this particular series deserves to be better known among mystery readers. They're pure detective stories that are tremendously fun to read with plots that always try to give the reader its absolute best. I might pick off another one of Fearn's mysteries from the big pile before too long, but whether it's going to be another Maria Black novel or one of his locked room standalone is something I still have to decide on. So stay tuned!

2/16/17

Putting Down the Dog

"The impossible, the possible, and the probable were sorted into groups, and from the kaleidoscopic jumble of evidence was formed a pattern."
- Ngaio Marsh (Death at the Bar, 1940)
Joanna Cannan came from a family with a high concentration of published authors and took her first, tentative steps in the world of literature at age ten, when she helped her sister edit The Tripled Crown: A Book of English, Scotch and Irish Verse for the Age of Six to Sixteen (1908), but, as a novelist, she would garner success as a writer of children books and detective fiction.

Cannan is perhaps not one of the best remembered figures in the world of detective fiction, however, she has enjoyed a longer print-run than many of her contemporaries. Several of her mystery novels, such as Body in the Beck (1952), were reissued as large print editions in the Linford Mystery Library and she rode the first wave of the current Renaissance Era when the Rue Morgue Press reprinted two of her books in 1999 – namely They Rang Up the Police (1939) and Death at the Dog (1940). They must have been eagerly picked up at the time, because they were both out-of-print again halfway through the previous decade.

I guess that's why she, sort of, receded into the background again, but something put her back on the top of my list. I don't actually remember what, but some comment here or a blog-post there made me move her to the top of the pile.

Death at the Dog takes place in the countryside village of Witheridge Green during the first months of the so-called "Phoney War," which began with the British and French declaring war on Germany and ended with the invasion of the Low Countries – which took place between September 1939 and May 1940. The opening chapter mentions "it was only six weeks since the beginning of the war" and this places the events of the story in the second and third week of October.

So only six weeks since war was declared, but so far, the only noticeable effects were the rigidly enforced blackouts, the mobilization of the army, petrol shortages and Londoners who were fleeing to the safety of the countryside. All of these problems did not bypass Witheridge Green and in particular Eve Hennisty, licensee of the local pub, called "The Dog," who worries about the black paper that has already began to warp, tear and split. As well as the disastrous effect it has on the amount of visitors who enter the more exclusive lounge bar of the pub, but they also have lingering, old-world problem hanging out in the bar.

Old Mathew Scaife is the local squire and the largest landowner in the county, but, during his stewardship of the ancient estate, the family home had "decayed into a ruin" and "thistles and nettles advanced like armies" on the surrounding grounds – constantly appearing in court for his neglectfulness and ignoring regulations. He was also an unpleasant character who has been called "that begotten old reptile" and "foul old beast." And his latest scheme involved evicting long-standing tenants from their cottages and let them to London evacuees at a much higher price.

So there are more than enough suspects when Mathew Scaife is found slumped over his table in the lounge bar. Dead as mutton. One of the pub's patrons had jabbed the old man in the back of the neck and injected him with a deadly dose of nicotine!

I've to point out here that Death at the Dog was published in the same year as Ngiao Marsh's Death at the Bar (1940), which also concerned a very unusual poisoning of a prominent person at a bar and a game of darts played a role in both murders. However, it's unlikely that one influenced the other, because they must have been written around the same time, which is what makes the resemblances all the more amazing.

Secondly, isn't it baffling that there are so few mysteries with a pub-setting? You'd think it would figure more prominently in detective stories from the British Isles, but I could not think of any other example. Anyhow...

Detective-Inspector Guy Northeast is put in charge of the case and quickly comes to the realization that "two-thirds of the population of Witheridge Green" had a motive to murder the unpopular squire, but only a handful of them patronized the lounge bar on the night of the murder. And this gallery of suspects includes the victim's two sons, Edward and Mark Scaife. An architect, by the name of Adam Day, who "had been too young to fight in the Great War" and was now, frustratingly, "too old to fight in Hitler's War." He was in the lounge bar at the time of the murder with his wife, Valentine. There are also the Franklands: David is on the staff of a struggling newspaper, while Bridget is a fervent farmer and naturally came into contact with Scaife. But the most likely suspect of the lot is "a lady novelist," Crescy Hardwick.

Crescy Hardwick is an unpredictable, somewhat eccentric woman you either liked or disliked, who lived in a rented cottage with several dogs, cats and a one-eyed pony, but Old Scaife has given her a month's notice to vacate the premise she has come to regard as home – which lead to a confrontation in the pub. Hardwick called him an a "bloody old profiteer" and confessed she had been "planning murder" ever since she received his letter. But there's also physical evidence pointing in her direction: she possesses a book on toxicology with the page about nicotine poisoning dog-eared, possessed the poison and she used powdered pumice to clean the harnass of her pony. There were traces of powdered pumice found inside the needle-wound in Scaife's neck.

However, Northeast is reluctant to take the easy route and tag her as the murderer of the old man. So he has to piece together an alternative explanation from such clues as an electric fan, a dud dart and a stolen bicycle, which reveals a well-hidden murderer. But this explanation has also one notable weakness: it's too clever for its own good and a trick that simply might not have worked. For one thing, Northeast admitted, in the final chapter, that the murderer probably had tried to kill Scaife before, because the method was depended on the right set of circumstances and (as it turned out) even sheer chance. So this puts a strain on the believability of the overall solution and you can't help but wonder if it had not been easier for the murderer to engineer an accident in the dangerous, rundown surroundings of his own home.

That being said, Death at the Dog was still a fairly competent and interesting detective novel in the vein of such literary Crime Queens as Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy Bowers, which comes recommended to readers who love that particular mode of crime-fiction and those who are fascinated by mysteries that take place during World War II.

2/12/17

Magnum Opus

"Something terrible lay that way. It was my business to find out what it was."
- Professor Challenger (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, 1912)
Max Rittenberg was an Australian-born author of German-Lithuanian extraction who studied science and medicine in Cambridge, England, which briefly secured him a teaching post in South Africa – before returning and settling down in England.

In 1907, Rittenberg launched a magazine, titled The Organizing, aimed "at advising businesses how to operate more efficiently." Several of his earliest published work, such as How to Compose Business Letters (1909), concern this very subject, but what's of interest to us is the period between 1911 and 1915. A brief period in Rittenberg's career when he tried his hands at writing fiction and created a pair of consulting detectives of a scientific bend, Dr. Xavier Wycherley and Professor Magnum.

Some of the short stories about Dr. Wycherley were reworked and published as a full-length novel, The Mind-Reader (1913), but the seventeen recorded cases about Professor Magnum were all but forgotten after their initial magazine appearances – even Rittenberg's children were completely unaware of their existence. This series may have continued to languish in literary limbo if it weren't for the efforts of anthologist extraordinaire, Mike Ashley.

Ashley has done a lot to bring these transitional detective stories, between the Doylean Era and the Golden Age, back under everyone's attention. One of the earliest stories from the Prof. Magnum series, "The Mystery of the Sevenoaks Tunnel," was republished in The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries (2006) and he contributed a piece, entitled "The Strange Case of Max Rittenberg," to Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas A. Greene (2014). So this put Rittenberg and his work back on the radar of many mystery enthusiasts, which lead to the inevitable reprint of all his work.

A small, independent publishing outfit, Coachwhip Books, republished The Mind-Reader back in 2011 as a twofer volume with Gelett Burgess' Astro, the Master of Mysteries (2012). Last year, they gathered all of the Professor Magnum and published them as The Invisible Bullet and Other Strange Cases of Magnum, Scientific Consultant (2016). Of course, Ashley introduced this volume of short stories and gives a lot of background information on both Rittenberg's (family) life and short-lived career as a crime-writer. So, I recommend you read his introduction if you want to learn more about the author of these stories.

Before plunging into this volume, I should describe the protagonist of these stories, Professor Magnum, who's basically a Professor Challenger-type of character (see cover illustration) that took a stab at Sherlock Holmes' profession. A bearded, scientific consultant, whose "manner was brusque and rough-edged to the point of boorishness," which often results in him yelling "rubbish" at people who uttered something he deemed nonsensical – which is only accepted because he gets results. They also accept his steep fees for this very reason. Magnum is assisted by a young Welshman and analytical genius, Ivor Meredith, who suffers from a crippling shyness where the opposite sex is concerned. He plays a vital role in one of the stories, but more about that latter.

Max Rittenberg's comeback
I'll try to keep the descriptions and commentary on the stories as short and concise as possible, because, as you probably know by now, my reviews of short story collections tend to expand faster than German territory during the 1930s.

The first story, "The Mystery of the Sevenoaks Tunnel," was originally published in The London Magazine in October 1913, which concerns the questionable circumstances surrounding the death of Mr. Abel Jonasson. Apparently, he had fallen, or jumped, from a speeding train when he was all alone in a second-class compartment, but trouble arises for a family member when the insurance company flatly refuses to cough up the insurance money – claiming their client took his own life and they fell back on the suicide clause. Magnum wrangles a very Doylean explanation from such clues "a phial of atoxyl" found in the dead man's pocket and gives a delightful demonstration to the representative of the insurance company how a man could have been driven from a closed railway compartment.

Note: this story only deals with the how of the crime and leaves as the questions, of the who and why, dangling in the wind. It's (strongly) hinted at, but not resolved.

"The Queer Case of the Cyanogen Poisoning" appeared as "The Cyanogen Affair" in Blue Book, October 1913, and has Professor Magnum and Meredith investigating a mass poisoning at the family residence of Sir Julian Boyd. All of the family members suffer from severe gastric pains, but every means of administrating poison to the family has been eliminated and nothing was found to be contaminated or laced with poison. So the family temporarily abandon the house as Magnum, while helping himself to "a brace of fat and moneyed-looking cigars," grapples with the problem in the library. It's an OK story that the observant reader can partially solve with some semi-educated guesswork.

The third story of the lot, "The Bond Street Poisoning Bureau," was published simultaneously in The London Magazine and Blue Book of December 1913, which is a fairly typical pulp-ish, melodramatic thriller that were common at the time – coming with a lurid illustration of the gun-toting villain with a miner's helmet. The villain in question is Kahmos, "the poison-merchant," who presents himself as a crystal-gazer and clairvoyant, but his actual profession is selling instructions for murder. A formidable opponent for someone like Magnum, but, personally, I do not really care for these kind of stories.

Next up, "The Mystery of the Vanishing Gold" originally appeared in the January, 1914 issue of The London Magazine and concerns the impossible disappearance of "about twenty thousand pounds' worth of gold," but not in the way you might think. A two-horse lorry, accompanied by several bank detectives, accompanied a cargo of gold ingots from the docks to the Bank of England. The gold was weighted at the docks, but, upon their arrival at the bank, they had lost in both weight and value! Magnum figures out this trick was accomplished by combining modern science with some old-fashioned skullduggery.

"The Secret of the Radium Maker" was published in Blue Book in January, 1914 and deals with a subject that often turns up in the work of the scientific mystery writers from the early years of the previous century – namely the valuable chemical element of the story-title. Rittenberg brings the element back in a later story and Jacques Futrelle also has story revolving around it, "The Last Radium," which I reviewed here. Anyhow, in this outing, Magnum is engaged by Mr. J. Warren Fennimore as a scientific consultant in the purchase of "an entirely new process for extracting radium from pitchblende." This would make him a lot of money, but he wants to be sure before signing any large checks. What Magnum finds is both an honest inventor and clever kind of fraud.

The following entry, "The Invisible Bullet," came from the March, 1914 issue of Blue Book and is one of my three favorite stories from this collection, which is a locked room mystery that showed the genre was slowly moving away from the shopworn bag of tricks of the nineteenth century – one that was filled with secret passages, unknown poisons and deadly animals slipped through cracks or keyholes of sealed rooms. As a matter of fact, it's the kind of locked room trick one would expect from a Golden Age practitioner, such as John Dickson Carr or Clayton Rawson, which may mean this trick was the first example of this particular type of impossible crime. Strangely, the solution also reveals the story to be ancestor of Alan Green's massively underrated What a Body! (1949). But not in the way you might think.

Anyway, the story opens with the shooting of Barclay Walsh, two bullets in the back, while he was exercising in Sergeant McIntosh's Gymnastic and Fencing Academy, which is situated on the top story of a tall, pleasant-looking stone building. One of the first person's on the scene is Magnum and he confirms to the police that nobody could have left the premise unseen. However, that's exactly what seems to have happened, but there's an additional mystery: what happened to the bullet that left the body? The entire floor of the fencing school is meticulously searched without result.

As I noted before, the solution is very cunning and ahead of its time for an impossible crime tale from just before the First World War. Recommended for everyone interested in locked room mysteries and the history of this beloved sub-genre.

My second favorite from this collection is "The Rough Fist of Reason," simultaneously published in Blue Book and The Novel Magazine of April, 1914, which delves into a popular fad of the period – spiritualism and spirit-photography. Magnum is asked by Miss Cicely Cotterell to wrench her aunt, Miss Dallas, away from the influence of Mr. Slivinski. A man who claims to be able to photograph astral bodies of (enlightened) people and his especial effects does not relay any of the well-known tricks, but on something completely new. So you can qualify this story as a semi-impossible crime story, which is always a plus, but the punch of this story is in sad and tragic ending. It shows that the presence of a meddlesome detective can have dire consequences.

"The Three Ends of a Thread" was first published in the May, 1914 issue of Blue Book and reprinted in the July, 1914 installment of Short Stories Illustrated, which derives its interest from Magnum nearly being outsmarted by the criminal – who came really, really close to beating him. A very important piece of paper vanished from the steel safe of an American businessman, William H. Cleveland, but he rules out a burglary. Cleveland only wants to know if the paper could have been dipped "in some chemical which would eat it up silently into vapor during the night," but Magnum would come close to regretting taking what looked like an easily earned fee.

"The Empty Flask" first appeared in print in Blue Book of June, 1914, which confronts Detective-Inspector Callaghan of Scotland Yard and Magnum with a chilling poisoning mystery: an Austrian Baron was poisoned in his London hotel-room, but the problem is that both the hotel-room and the corpse showed no traces of any deadly toxins. Curiously, the bedside flask of the baron, usually filled with orange-flower water, was empty and bone dry. What caused the death of the Baron is quite ingenious. Absolutely horrifying and cruel, but ingenious nonetheless.

"The Secret Analyses" appeared in the July, 1914 issues of Blue Book and Short Story Illustrated, but did not particular care about this one. Magnum's right-hand man, Meredith, gets kidnapped and his captors want a copy from Magnum of a highly confidential report he has been working on for the Admiralty – relating to "a certain new torpedo charge explosive." Not really my kind of crime story.

The next story in line, "The Mystery of Box 218," originally published July, 1914, as "The Virgin Vault" in Short Story Illustrated, which tells of a seemingly impossible theft from a locked strong-box inside a sealed and guarded bank vault. Holborn Safe Deposit has a vault surrounded by foundations "of steel and concrete." The single entrance to the vault goes through "a steel grille" and the opening of the lattice-work allowed a clear view of the whole interior, which is constantly being watched by "a uniformed commissionaire" - who's in possession of the sole key of the grill and he watches as valuables are transferred to or from a strong-box. However, this did not prevent a string of pearls mysteriously vanishing from the strong-box of a diamond merchant.

Max Rittenberg (1880-1963)
Magnum immediately came up with a simple, but elegant, explanation for the problem: a criminal might have gotten an impression of the key of the diamond merchant, "rented a box near to 218," and opened 218 as it were his own with the duplicate key. However, this immediately rejected and the actual explanation is far more involved, but also less impressive. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see a Berkeley-Queen style false solution in such an early story.

The following story, "The Mystery of the Tide," is another kidnap story and was lifted from the pages of the March, 1915 issue of Blue Book. A message in a bottle is fished from the murky waters of London's waterways and the author of the letter is Lester Oakeshott of Vancouver, Canada. For the past three years, he has been having a good time in Europe after a financial windfall, but his relatives have not received any personal communications. However, he has been cashing checks all over the continent. So he seemed to be doing well. But now it turns out he has been the victim of kidnappers and the police asks Magnum to help them pinpoint the location where he's being held captive. A good story for what it is, but kidnap plots are largely wasted on me. There is, however, one semi-exception at the end of this collection.

My third favorite from this collection, "The Secret of the Tower House," first appeared in the September 1914 issue of Blue Book, but was also published that very same month in The Novel Magazine as "The Hidden Menace," which brings Magnum and Meredith to the home of Mr. Anstruther – who has recently lost two of his highly prized Aberdeen terriers. All of a sudden, they were died and the veterinary who examined the cadavers to determine an exact cause of death, but Anstruther is convinced they had been deliberately poisoned. Rittenberg wrote here what is, essentially, a medical mystery with deep, dark shades of the historical mystery, because the solution takes a look at one of blackest pages in English and London history. I suspect devoted readers of Christopher Fowler will love the everlasting hell out of this particular story.

"Dead Leaves" was originally published in Blue Book, November, 1914, and republished in the April, 1915, in The Novel Magazine, in which Magnum is tasked with finding the missing will of a dead man. A pretty meh story.

"The Three Henry Clarks" came from the December, 1915 publication of Blue Book and shows the kind of plot-ingenuity that would become the standard during that luminous period known as the Golden Age. During a short period of time, three man, all named Henry Clark, succumbed to the effects of a deadly poison and one of them collapsed at Scotland Yard. The method for administrating the poison may very well be the cleverest aspect of the plot, but the whole scheme and the whodunit-angle showed a new era of detective-fiction was looming on the horizon.

The penultimate story from this collection, "Cleansing Fire," comes from the February, 1915 issue of Blue Book and has Magnum investigating a suspicious fire at the factory of a fur-merchant on behalf of Sir George Herries of the Imperial Fire, Life and Accident Insurance Co., Ltd. - who wants to put "the fear of God into these shifty-eyed little manufacturers." Magnum finds himself among the immigrant workers of the fur-merchant and is fleeced for some ten pounds by Polish workers with "hard-luck stories," but what is really interesting is the who-and why behind the fire. It anticipates a famously obscure story by a full decade. I won't exactly say which story, but you can find it in this anthology.

Finally, there's "Red Herrings," also published as "The Disappearance of Mr. Holsworthy" in Blue Book of January 1915, which is another one of Rittenberg's kidnap tales, but this particular story has some interesting aspects that even I found fascinating. Mr. Holsworthy is the Home Secretary and his captors snatch from the streets of London in broad daylight, but what is really astounding are the ransom demands and instructions from his captors – which are both startling and ingenious. They don't want cash money, gold, silver or diamonds, but "a hundred thousand pounds' worth of radium" that "could be comfortably carried in a waistcoat pocket" and "disposed of in driblets in any part of the civilized world." But the true genius is in the delivery method: the radium was to be attached to four carrier pigeons that were to be released in a flock of fifty others. The pigeons would be delivered to the office of a leading newspaper and the method is basically full-proof.

Unfortunately, Magnum never had to proof how smart he really is by figuring out a way to tail the bird, because the government refused to pay the ransom. It would set a dangerous precedent. So the only way out for him was being found before the kidnappers decided to get rid of him. A story with a lot of promise, but Rittenberg took the easy way out. Nevertheless, still an interesting story and in particular how they snatched the Home Secretary from a busy street.

So, all in all, The Invisible Bullet and Other Strange Cases of Magnum, Scientific Consultant is a solid and historically interesting collection of detective stories from the period between the Doylean Era and the Golden Age. Naturally, not every single story within its pages is a paradigm of fair play, but, as said before, these stories fell between eras. A time when the rules and concept of fair play were not yet clearly defines. However, that makes some of the entries all the more impressive, because they took the first steps on that new path the genre was taking. Steps that were, at the time, also taken by likes of R. Austin Freeman, G.K. Chesterton, Edwin Balmer and Arthur B. Reeve. I think many would consider that to be excellent company to find yourself in.

I also want to point out that the stories within this collection can easily be placed alongside those in similar themed-volumes of short stories, which include L.T. Meade's A Master of Mysteries (1898), Arthur Porges' The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey (2009) and Vincent Cornier's The Duel of Shadows: The Extraordinary Cases of Barnabas Hildreth (2011).

Well, so far another bloated review of a short story collection. I tried to keep it short, but there you go. I might have something shorter for my next blog-post. Maybe.

2/9/17

The Mills of God Grind Slowly...

"Mills of the devil, more likely!"
 - Superintendent Sugden (Agatha Christie's A Holiday for Murder, 1938)
William Underhill was the man behind the nom de guerre of "Francis Duncan," a pen name he used for twenty-some, long-forgotten detective novels, published between the late 1930s and early 50s, but his work garnered renewed interest when a major publisher reissued Murder for Christmas (1949) in 2015 – followed a year later by four additional titles. I reviewed two of them, So Pretty a Problem (1950) and In at the Death (1952), which showed how undeserved his decades-long spell in obscurity was. A talented novelist who knew how to construct intricate and clever plots!

So, I decided to snatch up the remaining two titles that were released last year. Both of them star Duncan's warmhearted series-detective, Mordecai Tremaine.

The titles in question, Murder Has a Motive (1947) and Behold a Fair Woman (1954), were commented on by John Norris, from Pretty Sinister Books, in the comments of my review of So Pretty a Problem – which proved to be very helpful in picking between the two. According to Norris, the former "leans heavily on shock factor with a high body count" and "a truly bizarre motivation for all the deaths," while the latter was described as "the best of the lot" with complex plot and "a somewhat tragic climax." Obviously, I went for the reportedly best one of the lot.

Behold a Fair Woman brings the retired tobacconist and hobby detective, Mordecai Tremaine, to the picturesque, sun-drenched island of Moulin d'Or to spend a fortnight with friends, Mark and Janet Belmore. The idea, or hope, is to escape from his detective's curse that always brings a body or two on his path and the island seems to be an ideal place for such a purpose.

Moulin d'Or appears to be a harbor of tranquility with a modest tourism industry and most of the money is made by growing tomatoes in green houses, which form "a sea of glass" on the landscape, where the only serious crime took place a hundred years ago – when a wealthy, gold hoarding miller had his throat cut. The sole reminder of this unsolved murder is an old, dilapidated mill reputedly haunted by the murdered miller. Unfortunately, this brief back-story about the ruined windmill only dabbed some local color on the canvas of the overall plot.

Anyhow, upon his arrival, Tremaine encounters a host of characters who are either living on the island or spending their holiday there.

As a passionate reader of Romantic Stories, Tremaine approves of "a cheerful, pleasant little crowd" consisting of four young people having fun on the beach, but soon notices undercurrents between Geoffrey Bendall, Nicola Paston, Ivan Holt and Ruth Latinam. Tremaine is also introduced to a married couple, Alan and Valerie Creed, who have become semi-permanent residents of the island, but why did he feel like having met Valerie before? He also makes acquaintance with Major Ayres and Mrs. Burres, resident guests at the Rohane Hotel, which is run by Ruth's brother, Hedley Latinam, but he seems to have given his most loyal customers a notice – as they'll be out of the place by the end of the month. Finally, Tremaine struck up a friendship with a local tomato grower, Ralph Exenley, who shares his interest in amateur criminology ("Tomatoes and crime! They make an odd pair").

Well, these character-introductions, conversations and basic setup of the plot gobbles up the first half of the book. A portion that also consists of Tremaine exploring the island and finding crumbs of food in the deserted windmill, seeing lights out at sea and accidentally overhearing a conversation. He was on holiday "to forget that such a thing as crime existed," but, when a body turns up inside a water-tank of one of the green houses, he realized he had been "attempting the impossible."

The first half of the book is well-written and does a fine job in conveying a holiday atmosphere with something dark and evil lurking beneath the surface, but, as said, it takes a while to get there and this may frustrate readers who prefer a neat corpse in the first quarter of a mystery novel – or even in the first chapters or pages. However, my main objection to this is that the first half only showed the treacherous surface of the case and, as a consequence, Duncan had to cram all of the meat of the plot into the second half of the story. And the problem with that is the plot is not exactly waver-thin. On the contrary!

Behold a Fair Woman is made up of an intricate, maze-like web of hidden relationships, double identities and numerous potential motives, which makes the plot a tight-rope affair when it comes to fair play. Granted, all of the information is fairly shared with the reader, but some of that information came very, very late into the game. Because most of the important plot-points had to be crammed in this second half. It often came just in the nick of time, but late enough to seriously hamper the armchair detective in arriving at the correct solution. However, Tremaine himself does not arrive there until the very last moment, during the tragic finale, when the sudden rush of events allows him to connect all of the puzzle pieces inside his head. So, I'm probably needlessly nitpicking here again. Let's just say some of the information arrived a bit late.

In any case, I still very much enjoyed Behold a Fair Woman. The backdrop of the plot was as beautiful and tranquil as the illustration on the front-cover suggests, which proved to be an excellent stage for the intricate detective story Duncan imagined. Some readers might be annoyed at the leisure pace of the first half, but the reward comes after the murder is committed and Duncan reveals the webwork of a plot he craftily spun around the seemingly innocent events from the first hundred pages.

However, I recommend readers who are new to Duncan and Tremaine to start with the excellent So Pretty a Problem, which has a fascinating premise and is a locked room mystery to boot! A locked room novel that never seemed to have been acknowledged as one. Even the late Robert Adey overlooked when he compiled Locked Room Murders (1991)!

So, let me close this review by saying that I might pry Duncan's Murder Has a Motive from my TBR-pile sooner rather than later. Stay tuned!