11/20/17

Diary of a Jailbird

"Three blind mice, three blind mice.
See how they run, see how they run.
They all ran after the farmer's wife,
who cut off their tail with a carving knife.
Did you ever see such a sight in your life,
as three blind mice?"
- Nursery Rhyme
Joan Fleming was a British author who, according to her bio, was "one of the most original and literate crime writers of her generation." She embarked on her literary career with a handful of children's books, but swiftly moved on to crime-fiction and notably penned a pair of crime novels about a philosophical Turkish detective and the first one, When I Grow Rich (1962), earned her a CWA Gold Dagger – a prize she would win a second time with Young Man, I Think You're Dying (1970).

However, the lion's share of her output apparently consists of modern-day, character-driven crime novels with a decidedly noir-ish bend. So what the hell am I, a pious traditionalist, doing with this "genre-critter," you ask? You can blame John Norris from Pretty Sinister Books.

Back in 2015, John published an enticing review on his blog of Fleming's sole locked room detective novel, Polly Put the Kettle On (1952), which struck him as an homage to James M. Cain and called it "a very fine crime novel" that blended elements of the tradition detective story with aspects of the noir-ish thriller – resulting in a book that "would impress Cain and [Patricia] Highsmith." So my interest was aroused and placed the book on my never-ending wish list.

And I'll say this beforehand, while the book does not quite fit my personal preferences in (classical) crime-fiction, I can't deny that this well written, character-focused novel was cleverly conceived and executed. I would not be as adversarial towards contemporary crime-fiction had more of them been written along the lines of Polly Put the Kettle On. So let's take a peek at this noir-ish tale with a locked room sub-plot.

The narrator of Polly Put the Kettle On is an ex-jailbird, named George Sudley, who was released from Parkhurst prison, on the Isle of Wright, in the opening chapter and received parting advice from the chaplain to find a physically demanding (outdoor) job – one that makes immediately fall to sleep the moment his head hits the pillow. It's a tried-and-tested remedy to keep out of trouble. Sudley agrees that, what he needs, is an outdoors job and allowed to fate to decide where he would go by blindly stabbing a finger at a random page in a travel guide. This eventually brought him to Hill Farm, which stands in the tiny and out-of-the-way hamlet of Cloud.

Hill Farm is owned by a sixty-year-old farmer, Eli Edge, who has been running the worn, dilapidated farm in exactly the same way as his father, grand-father and great-grand father. Edge has stubbornly refused every piece of modern improvement that could be made to his farm. Such as milking-machines, mechanical separators and electric churns, but the upside of doing all the backbreaking work manually is that Edge did not had to invest capital in upgrading his farm. As Sudley observed, "it was all money pouring in and none going out." Recently, Edge has been laid up with sciatica and needs a farm hand to milk the cows and whatnot.

However, the existence of a 19th century farmboy does not exactly appeal to the ex-convict and had already turned around on his way, but on his way out his eyes came to rest on Edge's beautiful and much younger wife, Polly – who always seems to bask in attention of men. One of them is the lanky, twenty-two year old son of their next door neighbor, John Merry, who, at one point, gets into a physical altercation with Sudley. The other man is Sudley's German predecessor, Eyvind, who returns to the farm and he would become somewhat of a problem to Sudley.

I wonder whether Fleming had initially designed this story around the nursery rhyme of "Three Blind Mind," but changed it to the more innocuous "Polly Put the Kettle On" when she learned Agatha Christie was coming, in 1952, with a stage-play based on the title story from Three Blind Mice and Other Stories (1950).

Anyway, the first half of the book hardly reads like a crime or detective novel at all. You might easily mistake it for a literary mainstream novel about a stranger with a past getting injected into a small, peaceful community and how this introduction uproots the tranquility of the tiny hamlet, but that's exactly where the story slowly begins to snowball into a (impossible) crime story. During this slow buildup, the reader not only follows how the relationship between Polly and Sudley develops, but also the influence of the new farmhand on the household. Edge is very tightfisted when it comes to spending money, but Sudley convinces him to buy a Land Rover (with near fatal consequences) and a gas-stove, which will have fatal consequences.

Pass the halfway mark, Edge is found dead in the locked and bolted living room of the farmhouse. Edge lay, as he always did, on the mud-colored sofa with "a couple of dead cats beside him," which makes it abundantly clear that the cause of death was not a natural one. Edge appears to have been gassed to death and, somehow, his dog, Argo, escaped from the locked and bolted living room. But how did the dog managed to do that? The answer as to how the dog escaped from the room will also provide an answer to the problem of the locked living room, which is brazenly simple and audaciously clued.

Fleming briefly dangles the truth behind the locked room in front of the reader and then simply waits for those readers, who're observant enough, to put two-and-two together. So not really an impossible crime that bats in the same league as the best by John Dickson Carr or Edward D. Hoch, but the simplicity of the trick fitted the nature of this story – which went for a darker, grittier and more realistic tone than your average countryside mystery of the 1930-and 40s. So I did not dislike, or was disappointed, by this (minor) locked room sub-plot.


One interesting aspect about the overall plot, which is not acknowledged by Fleming, is how animals, dead or alive, play a guiding role in the story. The dead cats that were found besides the body immediately rule out a death by natural causes. Argo's escape from that room proves to be the key to solving the locked room problem and there's a "beastly little stuffed owl," encased in glass, standing on a big chest at the top of the stairs. And one of the characters realizes too late that the owl was trying to tell something.

The ruinous aftermath of Edge's murder truly is a tragic one and the ending of the book is the inevitable culmination of every decision, and move, taken during the first half. I half suspected the direction the ending was heading towards, but not that the author went for the darkest shade of gloom imaginable. I expected one particular revelation from the second half to be a small seed of hope, one that required a sacrifice to grow, but Fleming had no qualms about cruelly snuffing out that small flicker of hope. And she still took that final sacrifice! Nevertheless, I can't say I didn't enjoy the book, which was something different, and blazed through the pages like an enthusiatic forest fire.

Polly Put the Kettle On is not a crime novel for readers who dislike detective stories with a short fuse or bleak endings, but if you're a patient reader, who can take a stiff dose of doom and gloom, you will probably be able to appreciate this one for what it is – an intriguing blend of traditional detective elements with domestic suspense and pure noir. And the locked room was a nice little extra!

I'm not sure what will be next on this blog, but after my previous two or three reviews, I think I'll dig up something truly traditional. So don't touch that dial, folks!

11/17/17

Forty Fathoms Down

"Still water runs deep—and the devil lays at the bottom."
- Sheriff Ives (Joseph Commings' "Bones for Davy Jones," collected in The Locked Room Reader: Stories of Impossible Crimes and Escapes, 1968)

Captain Allan R. Bosworth served in the U.S. Navy (Reserve) for 38 years and had a secondary career as a journalist and newspaper editor in San Francisco, California, which he used as a springboard to the world of popular fiction – going on to write several novels and more than 500 short stories. Bosworth was "especially prolific in Western tales," but he also penned, at least, two novel-length detective stories. One of them was recently brought back into circulation by Coachwhip Publications.

Full Crash Dive (1942) was originally serialized under the title The Submarine Signaled... Murder in an unknown periodical and was re-serialized as Murder Goes to Sea in Argosy Weekly.

As you probably deduced from the various story titles, Bosworth drew on his Naval background for the plot and this resulted in a fairly original detective-cum-thriller novel. A story with a backdrop, cast-of-characters and a central problem that are almost as distinct and unique as those found in Franklyn Pell's Hangman's Hill (1947) and Michael Gilbert's The Danger Within (1952). Although the Second World War plays no role, whatsoever, in Full Crash Dive.

Full Crash Dive was partially written aboard "a rolling and pitching destroyer in the North Atlantic patrol service," but the book opens forty fathoms below the surface as a new, six-million-dollar submarine met with disaster when it made a trial crash dive – which left twenty-two crew members dead and thirty-three men "remained entombed alive on the sea's bottom." The Navy scrambles to rescue the surviving crew members of the Starfish, but after the rescue (diving) bell takes the first eight people back to the surface they lose the down haul cable. So the mission to extricate the remaining twenty-five crew members from the wrecked submarine has to be postponed. But with those eight people, they also scooped a boatload of trouble from the ocean floor.

A group that consists of the following people: Lt. Everett Brill II commanded the Starfish , whose career was "dogged by misfortune for several years," and it was supposed to be his "privilege to stay until the last," but he had a nasty cough and one of his subordinates knocked him out – so he could be send to the surface for medical treatment. And he may have been drinking before the accident occurred.

The crew members that were among those who were rescues are chief torpedoman and expert diver, Mike Way, whose ribs were painfully bruised during the disaster. An engineer officer, Lt. McQuaid, managed to get out of the flooding after-compartment and had shut a sealed door that prevented the entire submarine to be flooded. However, he had heard several men, who had reached the door too late, beating against it with their fist. One of these unfortunate souls was the brother of the machinist's mate, Cardoni, who assaults and seriously wounds McQuaid. There's also a sailor, Kowalski, and a jittery skipper, John Thorpe, who's a mere boy of seventeen. And the accident appears to have left him shell shocked. Lastly, there were two civilian observers from Westco Iron Works aboard the submarine: a chief engineer, Victor Melhorne, and a naval architect, Foster Bedell.

Coachwhip Edition
A problem that begins when Lt. McQuaid, recovering from surgery, was "clubbed to death in his bed." Before he was operated on, McQuaid had been muttering about a smell and how he had known that particular smell. McQuaid had also been overheard having an argument with Brill about his drinking. And this not only makes the commander a suspect, but also his 22-year-old daughter, Evelyn Brill, who's a Navy nurse. A bloodstained nurse's cap was found on the balcony outside of the murdered man's room.

There's always the possibility that the submarine builder, Martin West, silenced a witness to a potential mechanical failure in order to secure his government contracts to build more submarines.

Lt. Vincent "Vince" Ayres, a naval surgeon, is (for some reason) placed in charge of the investigation, but the person who eventually clears up the case is an "old sea dog," Admiral J.K. Wetherbee, who's laid up with a broken leg in the Sick Officer's Quarters – where he keeps a Captain's Log of the events as they unfold. And these log entries are peppered throughout the narrative. Anyway, the Starfish survivors, as well as everyone else tangibly related to the case, are "shanghaied" to sea aboard the hospital ship Consolation and they sail to the spot where the submarine had its mysterious accident. 

However, the events are further complicated by an additional murder, several attempts at murdering potential witnesses and someone goes inconveniently missing. All the while, rescue attempts continue in the background of the story.

On a (historical) side-note, I reviewed Vernon Loder's Death by the Gaff (1932) and pointed out in my post that it was one of the few classical mystery novels, or short stories, in which the old-school diver of the early part of the previous century played a role – with the only other examples being Max Murray's The Neat Little Corpse (1950-51) and the short story that provided the opening quote for this review. Less than a month later and I stumbled across a novel that gives a pretty sizable role to the bell-helmet diver with an surface air-pump. And the story gives considerable consideration to the dangers faced by these early divers.

One of them is that one of the divers is seen getting a serious case of decompression sickness ("the bends"), but Bosworth also used the danger known as "the squeeze." A failure in properly regulating the pressure inside the old-fashioned diving suit could result in the diver being compressed "to pulp and forced into the small globular space of their unyielding helmets" by such squeezes. Such a fate awaits one of the rescue divers in the last leg of the story.

There's also a very memorable, and haunting, scene in which a diver enters the flooded compartment of the Starfish and sees "men floating" overhead against "the maze of pipes and electrical conduits." And there's something else waiting for the diver in the flooded compartments of the submarine!

So, on a whole, Full Crash Dive is a very well written crime novel with the aftermath of a submarine disaster as a memorable background and the subsequent events that result in a number of (attempted) murders, but, it has to be said, the clues are thinly spread around and they're not enough to help you arrive at the same conclusion as Admiral Wetherbee – making this more of a crime novel with thriller-elements rather than a proper detective story. However, the lack of a fair play plot did, in this particular instance, not negatively impact my overall enjoyment of the book (too much). There was more than enough here to hold my interest and found the use of the bell-helmet divers in this story to be very interesting. Particularly towards the end of the book.

Sure, it would have been nice Full Crash Dive been a first-class, clue-stuffed detective novel, as well as an original naval crime-thriller, but what are you gonna do? So read this one without your thinking cap, or deerstalker, on and try to enjoy it for what it is: a damn good read!

Finally, I've selected a reputedly good and unusually-styled locked room novel for my next read, because it has been eons since I tackled an impossible crime story, right guys?

11/14/17

The Eternal Triangle

"I cannot agree with those who rank modesty among the virtues."
- Sherlock Holmes (Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter," collected in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, 1893)
Last week, I reviewed a Dutch collection of short stories, De geliefde die in het veen verdween en andere mysteries (The Lover Who Disappeared in the Bog and Other Mysteries, 2017) by Anne van Doorn, which was published by a small, independent, press called E-Pulp Publishers – who recently put out a book that beckoned my attention. A story that's perhaps best described as an infernally cheeky, ill-mannered, parody of the private-eye novel, but with a classically-styled plot and solution. And comes with a surprising amount of fair play towards the reader.

Eugenius M. Quak is not only the name of the author, prominently splashed across the book-cover of Gruwelijk is het huwelijk (Marriage is Gruesome, 2017), but also the narrator and protagonist of the story. As the main-character, Quak is something of an egoistical anti-hero who makes Philo Vance look like a someone you could spend a year with on a desert island.

Quak is a character described as a jack-of-all-trades with the ever-expanding ego of Zaphod Beeblebrox ("if there's anything more important than my ego around, I want it caught and shot now") and a career path as unusual as that of Eugène Vidocq. The opening chapter gives an overview of his life story and detailed how he became hopelessly "entangled in crime," but during one of his spells in prison he "got hooked on detective novels" and read all of the well-known classics – Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. These stories gave him a new calling in life: he wanted to become a privé detective himself.

However, I have to stop here and warn the reader that the opening chapter requires patience and a persevering attitude to get through, because the narrative style, tone and personality of the Quak takes time to get use to. I believe the author, whoever he is, also needed a chapter to find his grooves with this character and crank out some of the cringe. But there's a notable uptick towards the end of this chapter when Quak begins his own detective agency without the proper paperwork or license.

So Eugenius Quak Private Detecting (EQPD) lacked all of the legal paperwork, rubber stamps and official signatures, but this gave the one-man detective bureau an edge over its competitors. Quak did not have to observe the rules and ethics governing normal private-investigators. Only problem is that he also lacked clients and this threatened to sink his business.

Thankfully, a filthy rich client came out of nowhere to save the day. I think Quak would have urged his reader to use the words "filthy" and "rich" independently, because the man who stormed into his office was "a monstrous person" with "a fleshy face full of pimples" – whose repellent mouth-and body odor are referenced throughout the story by Quak. The name of this ugly giant is Lourens Rotting and he had been minister in "one of those acid green or deep purple cabinets." After which he had become a captain of industry and raked in a seven-figure paycheck every year. Evidently, the man who had appeared before Quak was a not looker, but that paycheck netted him an extremely beautiful wife, Pippilotta Buitelaar, who may have an extramarital affair. Rotting wants an unassuming, little-known, detective to figure out the identity of this secret lover.

This is where Marriage is Gruesome actually distinguishes itself from other detectives novels, new and old, because the plot concerns itself with the kind of problem that other fictional detectives, like Nero Wolfe, would never sully their reputation on – let alone actually touching it. But to be honest, Quak is primarily engaged with trying to figure out ways to extract as much money as possible from his rich client. He has a small army of completely imaginary field agents working for him and writes several "peppered bills" for their reported legwork. These bills are written with, what we mockingly refer to in my country as, a "double pen."

Nevertheless, it has to be admitted that the inflated personality and antics of Quak helped carry this part of the book. A simplistic case of infidelity would have had a hard time sustaining the reader's interest had the investigation been a straightforward one with a respectable, serious-minded detective-character at the helm.

A good portion of the first half of the book takes place at the remote home of Rotting, named Groot Beukenstein, where Quak passes himself off as a former study friend of his client and tests his "Miss Marple Methodiek" – making everyone believe his scatter-brained and harmless. But during his stay, Quak discovers that Rotting is extremely jealous and hellbent on revenge. So this culminates with the discovery of a body floating in the swimming pool, which occurs during the final quarter of the book, but during Quak's "Hercule Poirot Moment," my favorite part of the book, it is demonstrated that clues were planted throughout the story.

Quak mockingly challenges the reader at the start of the sixteenth chapter, titled "Hoe ik de moordenaar ontmaskerde" ("How I Unmasked the Murderer"), in which he claims that the murderer's identity can be deduced from all of the information he gave in his report. The clues he had scattered throughout his narrative, "sown thickly on the ground," that you could almost trip over them. And this solution is as fairly clues as it is classical. The only thing you can say against it is that it hardly turns over a new, unwritten leaf in the annals of crime-fiction, but it is a grand and novel play on Christie's favorite motif of the internal triangle.

I strongly suspected the game that was being played by the murderer, but there was one tiny aspect that prevented from putting all my money on this character as the murderer.

All in all, despite my initial reservations and a lead character who requires time to warm up to, I ended up liking Marriage is Gruesome more than I expected. During the opening pages, I began to fear I had picked my worst read of 2017, but the story pulled itself together in the subsequent chapters. And the fairly clued, classically-styled ending contributed hugely to definitively swinging my opinion to a positive one. I'm more than willing to forgive imperfections when plot, particularly how it sticks or comes together, is actually good or clever. I'm glad to report that happened to be case here.

A second novel has already been planned for next year and the book-title is a bit hard to translate, but this is what I was able to make of it: Hoteldebotel in een hotel (Pell-mell in a Hotel, 2018). So I have that to look forward to. And in the meantime, I'll try to dig up something good and obscure from the Golden Age for the next post. So stay tuned!

11/11/17

Talking to the Dead

"The ingenuity of the criminal upon whose track we find ourselves is really out of the ordinary."
- Dr. Lancelot Priestley (John Rhode's The House at Tollard Ridge, 1929)
Since the dawn of modern technology and electric communication, the technological innovations of the nineteenth and twentieth century were looked upon in spiritualist circles as potential conduits to the world beyond and experiments were made in an attempt to establish a line of communications with the dearly departed – beginning with the spirit photography craze of the late 1800s. An interest in real-time communication with the dead, using technology, began to emerge in the early 1900s.

Thomas Edison was reportedly asked by Scientific American, in 1920, whether the telephone could be used to talk to the dead and the inventor did not dismiss the possibility. 

However, it would not be until the 1950s and the introduction of the first generation of portable audio recorders that people began to record, what they believed and interpreted to be, the voices of the dead. These recordings are known as Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) and these sound recordings, as I learned, are still very popular today as the countless "Spirit Box Sessions" on YouTube can attest. And these innovations were eagerly adopted by fraudsters and con-artists as tools to prey on grief-stricken people.

However, our beloved, but duplicitous, detective story was perhaps the first medium to explore the criminal possibilities of EVP long before it became a popular tool of ghost-hunters and spiritual mediums. Some of these stories date as far back as the mid-and late 1920s. John Rhode's The House on Tollard Ridge (1929) has an elderly murder victim who lived alone in a desolate house, reputedly haunted, where he spent long evenings listening to voices from the spirit world on the wireless, but the best examples were penned by two of the genre's most celebrated mystery writers – namely John Dickson Carr and Agatha Christie.

The first of these two is a short story by Christie, titled "Where There's a Will," which was originally published as "Wireless" in the Sunday Chronicle Annual in December 1926 and collected in The Hound of Death and Other Stories (1933). The second tale is a dark, eerie radio-play, "The Dead Sleep Lightly," of which Carr wrote two versions. One of these versions is the well-known episode from the CBS radio-drama, Suspense, but Carr "lengthened the script by a third to include Dr. Fell and Superintendent Hadley" for the British broadcast of the story. And the script of this second version was collected in The Dead Sleep Lightly and Other Mysteries from Radio's Golden Age (1983).

These two stories work with very similar, almost identical, plot-material and ideas, which makes them interesting reads when taken back-to-back, because they beautifully mirror and even compliment one another. But the treatment of the ideas and resolution to both stories also demonstrate the differences, as mystery writers, between Carr and Christie. I think they are, aptly enough, soul revealing reads that showed that the respective writers had (slender) ties to respectively the horror and romance genre.

You can find three of Carr's short horror stories in The Door to Doom and Other Detections (1980) and Christie wrote six "bitter-sweet stories about love" under the penname of "Mary Westmacotts." I think these flirtations with the horror and romance genre are reflected in "Wireless" and "The Dead Sleep Lightly." So let's take a closer look at these stories.

Agatha Christie
The primary character in Christie's "Wireless" is an elderly lady, Mrs. Mary Hatter, who has a weak heart and her doctor pressed her to "avoid all undue exertion." As well as prescribing "plenty of distraction for the mind." An elevator was installed to prevent undue exertion and her beloved nephew, Charles, suggested the installation of a radio-set to provide the mental distraction. Initially, Mrs. Hatter was skeptical and convinced that these "newfangled notions were neither more nor less than unmitigated nuisances," but slowly she began to warm to the "repellent object" and enjoyed listening to a symphony concert or lectures – until, one evening, an unearthly, faraway voice spoke to her over the radio.

A voice that identified himself as Mrs. Hatter's late husband, Patrick, who announced that he would be coming for her soon and asked her to be ready for that moment.

Mrs. Hatter took this message from beyond the grave better than expected and muttered about all that money she wasted on putting in an elevator, but she became convinced when the voice spoke to her a second time. Once again, the voice identified himself as Patrick and announced that he would be coming "very soon now." On top of these ghostly radio-messages, Charles claims to have seen a figure in Victorian garb standing by the window of her late husband's dressing-room!

So Mrs. Hatter begins to put the final touches to the earthly matters she'll be presently be leaving behind. And then the voice comes through a third and final time. The ghostly voice of Patrick tells her to expect him on "Friday at half past nine." And the voice tells her not to be afraid and assures that "there will be no pain." However, when the time arrives her bravery and resolve deserts her as she suddenly realizes that Patrick had been died for twenty-five years and is practically a stranger to her now. But this realization came too late.

This story is a not who-dun-it, because the mind behind these supernatural phenomena is apparent from the beginning. And the why-and-how-dun-it aspects will hardly pose a challenge to the modern armchair detective. What this story does have to offer is a front-row seat to a perfect crime with a twist in the tail. The murderer was clever and devious enough to use the given circumstances as tools to commit an undetectable murder, but the final pages shows an unexpected hitch that undid all of the meticulous scheming – making the death of a Mrs. Hatter a perfect crime without a payoff. And this piece of cosmic justice made for a most delightful ending.

I always loved "Wireless." It's a criminally underrated and grossly overlooked story from Christie's legendary oeuvre that deserves to be better known.

The second story is the British version of Carr's most well-known radio-play, "The Dead Speak Slightly," which begins when Dr. Fell's manservant, Hoskins, wakes his dozing employer with the announcement that there's "a lunatic downstairs." The madman in question turns out to be a publisher, George Pendleton, who's considered to be "a very celebrated and successful man." However, the man seems to be badly shaken and deadly afraid of clay, or soil, of "the sort you often find in graveyards."

John Dickson Carr
On the previous day, Pendleton had attended a funeral of "a fellow club-member" with his secretary, Miss Pamela Bennett, but on their way out of the cemetery they passed a neglected grave with a little stone grave and the publisher recognized it as the final resting place of a person from his own past – a woman by the name of Mary Ellen Kimball. Pendleton briefly reflects on his past and it becomes evident that he had not treated the woman, who rested there, very well when she had been alive.

So his secretary suggested to have the grave tidied up and writes down the identifying number that is cut on the side of the gravestone, which is "Kensal Green 1-9-3-3." They remark how the number sounds like a telephone number and that will come back to haunt the publisher later that evening.

Pendleton returned to his home in St. John's Wood, but he was in process of moving to flat closer to the West End and everything was practically packed up. The house was all but empty. So he decided to give a friend a telephone call and ask him if he wanted to go out for a dinner, but when the switchboard operated asked for a number he blurted out the gravestone number, Kensal Green 1-9-3-3, without thinking and the voice of a woman answered – a woman who identified herself as Mary Ellen!

And when Pendleton screams that she's dead, the voice answers with one of my favorite lines in all of detective-fiction: "Yes, dear," but "the dead sleep lightly" and "they can be lonely too." I don't know why these lines have such an appeal to me, but they never fail to make my soul shiver in absolute delight. Anyway, the voice of Mary Ellen promises to leave her grave and visit him when at his home when "the clock strikes seven." Interestingly, this ghostly phone-call poses somewhat of an impossible problem, because the phone had been disconnected that morning. A man from the telephone company had disconnected all the wires and had taken "the metal box off the baseboard of the wall." It simply was not possible to have made that telephone call.

So the publisher left cartoon smoke, as he bolted out of there, but Dr. Fell refuses to help him as he was not told him the full story. Regardless, Dr. Fell decided to venture outside and follow Pendleton back home, which is where he bumps into Superintendent Hadley. And what they discover is the man lying on the floor of the library with the telephone besides him. His face has an awful color, as if he had a stroke, but even more disturbing is "the clay track across the floor." There's even wet clay on Pendleton "as though somebody covered with clay had tried to hold him."

A fantastic story with a shuddery atmosphere, but, once again, the technical aspect of this seemingly impossible and apparently supernatural problem won't pose too much of a problem to readers in the twenty-first century. But the effects created with the telephone gadget and the simple power of suggestion is absolutely superb! Typically, Dr. Fell sympathizes with the perpetrators of this ghostly plot and covers up the whole business right under Hadley's nose!

I simply can't recommend this radio-play enough, but, if you don't have copy of the previously mentioned The Dead Sleep Lightly knocking about, you can just as easily listen to the equally fantastic Suspense version. It lacks the presence of Dr. Fell and Hadley, but the play can be found all over the internet (like here) and the plot is exactly the same as the British version. And the upside is that you can listen to those marvelous, haunting lines being spoken and get an extra pound of goose-flesh out of it.

So, there you have it, two short detective stories that are, in some regards, mirror-images of one another. Stories with plots that were built and constructed with the same plot-ideas and material, but their respective authors each delivered a very different kind of yarn of haunted murder.

For example, the victim of Christie's "Wireless" is an elderly lady who, initially, faces the possibility of being reunited with her dead husband bravely. Only to crumble when realizing at the last moment she had lived a quarter of a century without him and had become estranged from the dead man who she expected to see any moment. This is the bitter that comes after the sweet that apparently can be found in her romance novels. On a whole, this is a domestic crime story. Carr, on the other hand, showed he sometimes could be very closely related to the ghost story and picked a harsh, cold-hearted businessman as his victim who immediately lost his cool when a skeleton from his past appeared to stir from her grave – with a promise to pay him a visit. And he gave a detective story spin the horror genre's avenger-from-the-grave motif.

There are also the similarities in tricks for the ghostly voices and the fact that the perpetrators are, legally, untouchable, but only Carr lets his perpetrators off the hook.

So these stories show that Christie and Carr, while known for their intricately plotted and fair-play detective stories, were very different mystery writers at heart. And yet, they beautifully compliment one another when read back-to-back. These stories ought to be reissued as a single booklet or anthologized together in some kind of themed anthology with other detective stories involving fraudulant mediums, reputedly haunted crime-scenes and supernormal creatures who belong on the pages of a horror story. Such an anthology would make a for a great read and these two would definitely be the main event of such a collection of short stories! 

11/9/17

Cold Cases

"I cannot understand how the police could have been so blind..."
- The Old Man (Baroness Orczy's "The York Mystery," collected in The Old Man in the Corner, 1908)
Back in May, I reviewed a Dutch short (locked room) story by Anne van Doorn, titled "De dichter die zichzelf opsloot" ("The Poet Who Locked Himself In"), which was offered at the time as a freebie by E-Pulp Publishers. A small, independent, publishing outfit that had turned its back on the drab, gloomy realism of the psychological school of modern crime-fiction and vowed to return to "the time of pulp fiction" when mystery and imagination would await all who would seek it – be it in a short story or a full-length novel. So you'll not find a single title in their catalog with the predicate "literary thriller" emblazoned on the front-cover.

Several months have passed since my previously mentioned blog-post and a number of potentially interesting titles were published during that period. One of these releases was Van Doorn's De geliefde die in het veen verdween en andere mysteries (The Lover Who Disappeared in the Bog and Other Mysteries, 2017), which is a rare, modern-day, collection of short stories and includes "The Poet Who Locked Himself In."

The Lover Who Disappeared in the Bog and Other Mysteries consists of five short stories about Van Doorn's series-characters, Robbie Corbijn and Lowina de Jong, who are particuliere onderzoekers (private investigators) specialized in oude zaken (old cases) that the police were unable to successfully bring to a close – which vary from long-standing missing person cases to unsolved murders. Corbijn is both the head and brains of Recherchebureau Corbijn – Research & Discover, while De Jong acts as his assistant, pupil and chronicler. She pretty much plays the Dr. Watson to his Sherlock Holmes. They work from an apartment in a residential tower, called the Kolos van Cronesteyn, standing on the outskirts of Leiden, South-Holland.

This compendium opens with a brief opmerking vooraf (comment in advance), in which Van Doorn laments the lack of room in today's literary landscape for the short story and professed an admiration for the short detective stories by Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Baroness Orczy. And told that the five stories that make up this collection were written in the tradition of those three classic mystery writers. Lastly, Van Doorn ended with the suggestion to read the stories in the order they appear and no more than a day, because "each story only comes into its own when you read no more than one per day."

Apparently, that's how Van Doorn learned to read and appreciate short stories. Well, I succeeded in reading them in order, but burned through them in less than five days. What can I say? I'm a wholesale consumer of detective fiction. So, let's take down these stories from the top.

The first story in this collection is the locked room yarn I reviewed back in May, "The Poet Who Locked Himself In," which is why I'm not going to discuss it here again, but, needless to say, it's always a special treat to come across an impossible crime story in my own language – particularly when the locked room trick is a good one. And it was this specific story that inspired me to compile a list of Dutch-language locked room novels and short stories, which you can find here.

The second story lends its name to this collection, "De geliefde die in het veen verdween" ("The Lover Who Disappeared in the Bog"), which begins as a modern-day crime story about a missing property developer, who had ties with the underworld, but ended in the most classical way imaginable.

Corbijn and De Jong are approached by the woman living next to the office, Letty Kreft, whose niece, Ingeborg Greshoff, has a boyfriend who has been missing for six-and-a-half years. Guido Eickhout was a project developer and an ardent hiker, but on his last hike in the Belgian Ardennes, in the Hoge Vennen, he simply vanished from the face of the Earth. Tragically, Greshoff learned that he had ordered golden engagement rings and planned to propose to her upon his return.

The local police believes Eickhout had been murdered by one of his criminal associates and the body had been hidden somewhere in "the outstretched forests, marshy peatlands, bogs" and the heathlands. Greshoff is well aware that the murderer might never be caught or has perhaps been killed himself in another criminal related shooting, which is why she now only wants to find the body and give her would-be-fiance a decent burial. Corbijn accepts the case and travels to the misty, boggy Ardennes and slowly begins to unravel the tapestry of a plot as clever and intricate as anything found in Ellery Queen or Edward D. Hoch. A plot that consists of such tricky puzzle-pieces as "a man with a red sports bag," the pealing of the warning bell at a small chapel, once used as a "beacon for wandering hikers," and a local story from the 19th century – about two lovers who got lost on the fens and perished in a snowstorm.

Plot-wise, "The Lover Who Disappeared in the Bog" is the strongest of the five stories in this collection and one of my two personal favorites, which goes to show that even in this country some form of shin honkaku detective fiction can exist.

The next story is titled "De arts die de weg kwijt was" ("The Doctor Who Got Lost On the Way") and is a departure from the cold case formula of the series, because the problem at hand is only a couple of days old. And consists of no less than two seemingly impossible situations!

A doctor from the Laakkwartier in Den Haag (The Hague), named Thomas van Ooijen, is in desperate need for an answer as to what has happened to him several days ago. One night, he was called on his smartphone by a patient, who needed special care, but when he arrived in the street where his patient lived he was waited upon by an unknown man and was ushered to a top-floor apartment – where he found a young woman strapped to a bed with an inflamed gunshot wound. A second man, who was present in the room, came across very threateningly and made it abundantly clear that it was in his best interest to help the girl without asking questions. This situation recalls the premise of R. Austin Freeman's The Mystery of 31, New Inn (1912), but what happens next takes the story in an entirely different direction.

When Van Ooijen finished working on the woman, he blacked out and was found later that night by two policemen inside his locked car that had been parked near the Kurhaus in Scheveningen. He had a splitting headache, the smell of alcohol clung to him and the keys, with remote control attached to it, lay on the dash board. Only he himself could have locked himself into his own car. So the police had a hard time believing his story, but what made Van Ooijen doubt himself is when the police accompanied him to the address and discovered that the place was a ground-floor house. The stairs and the entire top-floor apartment had disappeared!

The premise of the story and the explanation for the two impossibilities constitute the best aspects of this story. Corbijn practically solves the problem of the vanishing top-floor apartment from his armchair by consulting Google Maps, but the mystery of the locked car is a little bit more involved and requires a practical demonstration to show how it was done. I've seen the principle behind this particular trick before, but to apply this idea to a modern car with a remote control key is a new ripple.

However, I was not very impressed by the ending of the story or how an all-important plot-thread was left dangling in the wind. The story literally ended with “we will probably never know why [redacted] did so much to save her life.” What? That was, like, the entire mainspring of the plot and you leave it hanging in the air! Very, very disappointing. And the reason why this story ended up as the weakest entry in this collection. It began strong, but ended weakly.

Luckily, the next story in this collection, “Het joch dat grenzen overschreed” (“The Brat Who Went Too Far”), is my second favorite and is a good example of, what Bill Pronzini calls, humanist detective fiction. A sad and tragic murder case that would “never have become a case if there was no loneliness.” Or rather if the people involved had someone close to them to care about.

A lawyer, Elvira Guikema, calls in the help of Corbijn and De Jong on behalf of one of her clients, Geertruida Smelinck, who has been convicted for the premeditated murder of her neighbor's nine-year-old son, Ward Koehoorn – who was a regular Denis the Menace. The backdrop of this case is a glumly, dead-end side street with only three houses. It's a neglected neighborhood where people on one of the bottom rungs of society live a dismal, monotonous life. 

Smelinck was a recluse with a dark past and the mother of the victim, Debby, had begun to prostitute herself after she was abandoned by Ward's father. An elderly retiree, Mr. Van den Ham, lived in the third home and filled his days by taking care of his sick wife and was an important witness as to what happened that fateful day. The last person is their landlord, Dirk van Grijpskerk, who lives far more comfortable than his tenants in a brand new bungalow.

On this already gloomy, dismal existence, Ward was an additional burden and the boy had picked Smelinck as his favorite target. So there was no question about her guilt when the boy was found in her garden with a rusty rod sticking out of his body. A year before, Ward had stolen all of the apples from the tree in her garden and everyone assumed he was caught and killed when he tried to repeat it a second time. 

However, Smelinck maintained her innocence and Corbijn, alongside De Jong, travel to the province of Groningen to visit the desolate place where the murder took place three years ago. The plot is not overly complicated and the evidence, consisting of a key of the garden door, fingerprints and the witness statements, eventually bears out the simple truth. A simple truth I almost completely missed, because I was staring myself blind on my own pet hypothesis. I was only correct on a single technical aspect of the plot, but hey, being proven wrong can be as fun as completely solving the case. And really liked the background and story-telling of this one.

Finally, the last story of the lot, "De vluchteling die alles achterliet" ("The Refugee Who Left Everything Behind"), is yet another nail in the coffin of the ludicrous claim that the advance of forensic science, such as DNA, has made clever and classically-styled detective plots absolute – which is simply not true. This claim had already been shattered, decades before it was made, by Isaac Asimov in The Caves of Steel (1954) and again demonstrated to be false by Keigo Higashino's controversial Yogisha X no kenshin (The Devotion of Suspect X, 2005). Van Doorn approach to this is not as grand as those by Asimov and Higashino, but it nonetheless shows how DNA can be used as misdirection when manipulated and/or misinterpreted.

The background of the story has its roots in the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. A Bosnian refugee, Zlatko Hodzic, came to the Netherlands in 1994 and vanished from an asylum center in 1996 without a trace.

One day earlier, Susanne Westera, disappeared under equally inexplicable circumstances from her home on the Wadden Island of Terschelling. A thorough police investigation determined that Zlatko and Susanna were in secret relationship, which was confirmed by DNA found in her home, but nothing else materialized from this discovery and they were relegated to never-ending list of missing persons who were never found. And the case remained unresolved for more than twenty years. Now the father of Susanne is terminally ill and wants to make a last ditch effort to clear up the case, which brings Corbijn and De Jong into the picture.

This story is, structurally, similar to the title story of this collection as both begin as apparently modern-crime stories, with a problem rooted in contemporary times, but the resolutions to these two stories are classic examples of old-fashioned misdirection and craftsman-like plotting – topped, in this case, with a nifty trick to get rid of a pesky body. So not a bad story to close out this collection.

All in all, The Lover Who Disappeared in the Bog and Other Mysteries is a solid collection of contemporary detective stories in the classic mold and a fine showcase of the all-but-lost art form known as the short story format. A form preferred by the early Titans of the genre. So it does me great joy to see a mystery writer from my own country continuing this age-old tradition and a second short story collection has already been announced for next year, De bergen die geen vergetelheid kennen en andere mysteries (The Mountains That Do Not Forget and Other Mysteries, 2018).

Finally, I want to point out my own objectivity. There were two impossible crime stories in this volume, but my two favorites were "The Lover Who Disappeared in the Bog" and "The Brat Who Went Too Far." So maybe my obsession with locked room mysteries hasn't really gone all that far after all! But is that a good thing or have I just let down the spirit of John Dickson Carr?