1/22/18

The Vampire Tree (1996) by Paul Halter

John Pugmire of Locked Room International published an English translation of Paul Halter's L'arbe aux doigts tordus (The Vampire Tree, 1996) in December, 2016, but decided at the time to give the book a pass, because I remembered a damning review that was posted on the now erstwhile forum of the JDCarr website – lambasting everything from the weak plot to the illogical behavior of the cardboard characters. So even at the time, when Halter was still an inaccessible enigma behind the language barrier, I was not enticed by this particular title.

My initial plan to give The Vampire Tree a pass began to fell by the wayside shortly after reading La chambre du fou (The Madman's Room, 1990), which was a good take on the "room that kills" and actually left me wanting to read another Halter. And that left me with only one option.

So how bad could the book really be, I reasoned. After all, I also recall some negative reviews of Carter Dickson's Behind the Crimson Blind (1952) that suggested the entire plot consisted of H.M. chasing prostitutes and stabbing dodgy, low-life characters in the streets of Tangier – which you have to agree is an unfair assessment of the book. Sure, Behind the Crimson Blind is still at the bottom of the H.M. series, alongside with And So to Murder (1940) and Seeing is Believing (1941), but it was still very readable mystery. I had the hope that this much maligned title by Halter would turn out to have a similar upside.

Well, that was not the case and somewhat regret my decision. The Vampire Tree is almost as poor a detective story as Le roi du désordre (The Lord of Misrule, 1994). Yes... this is going to be one of those reviews.

The Vampire Tree does have all the necessary ingredients of an arch-typical Paul Halter detective novels, "legends, witches, ancient crimes, sadism, premonitory nightmares," while the past and present begin to inextricably intertwine. Naturally, one of the crimes is of the seemingly impossible variety and occurred a hundred years before the opening of the story. Unfortunately, Halter was unable here to produce the same result as he did in previously mentioned The Madman's Room or L'image trouble (The Picture from the Past, 1995). But let's begin at the beginning.

The main story-line takes place in the 1950s and concerns a newlywed couple, Roger and Patricia Sheridan, who were world's apart, but had one thing in common – neither of them had any close relatives. Patricia was orphaned during the London Blitz during the Second World War and Roger inherited "a comfortable future" from his wealthy parents. An inheritance that included the remnants of an ancestral mansion that stands in the village of Lightwood, in Suffolk, which Roger fixed up to serve as "the cosy nest of their dreams." However, the place has a peculiar history of its own that will come back to haunt them.

During the reign of Henry VIII or his son Edward, the village was plagued by "a series of child murders" and the person who was held responsible was an apparently young and beautiful woman. Liza Gribble had the face and body of a young woman, but the wrinkled hands of an old crone. So the villagers assumed she was not only witch, but a vampire as well and she had drank the blood of her victims to become a youthful-looking woman again. Gribble was hanged and buried beneath the titular tree. A tree that stands on the grounds of the Sheridan residence and played a role in another murder case that took place a hundred years ago.

One of Roger's great-grand-uncles, Eric, became engaged to the daughter of a neighboring landowner, Lavinia, who died mad when Eric was murdered under seemingly impossible circumstances. On a harsh winter evening, they threw a ball at the Sheridan home and it was a great success, but when Lavinia went to sleep that night she had a terrifying nightmare about the menacing, twisted tree coming alive and strangling her fiancé, which became reality when she found his body the following morning sprawled beneath the tree – strangled him to death. But the peculiar, inexplicable part is that there was only a single set of footprints in the virgin snow and they belonged to Eric!

Patricia had a similar nightmare the first time she slept in the house and decided to read Lavinia's diary, which becomes somewhat of an obsession and she's not the only one. Roger begins to develop a habit of calling her Lavinia. And then there's the present-day murder case. A serial killer who targets children, slits their throats and disposes of their drained bodies in the wooded area surrounding the village.

On paper, The Vampire Tree had all the potential to become a good, if not excellent, detective novel, but Halter evidently did not have his head in the game and was unable to bring any of the plot-threads to a satisfying conclusion. And this exemplified in the ineptitude of Dr. Alan Twist and Inspector Archibald Hurst. You've to wonder why Halter decided to include them, instead of making this a standalone novel, because they're completely useless here. Twist even admits towards the end that he considers "the case to have been one of my failures" and he only got "a glimpse of the truth."

Only contribution Twist made to the case was explaining Patricia's phobia of bright lights and why she had an "insurmountable fear of touching crosses," but it was Patricia who eventually hit upon an explanation for the impossible murder that occurred there over a century ago – which (alas) was an extremely poor one. I also loath this type of solution for any kind of locked room murder or impossible crime. I'd rather a writer use hidden passages, poisonous animals or a long-lost twin to explain a miraculous murder than spring this kind of explanation on me. An explanation that completely destroys the essence of an impossible crime. On top of that, it was also badly executed, poorly motivated and required some (natural) fortuity to work.

So I was not exactly impressed by the impossible crime element of The Vampire Tree and was even surprised that Pugmire, who specializes in publishing locked room mysteries, picked this one to translate. I'm sure it has something to do with publishing rights, but this is the kind of book that would chase away new readers who picked up because the title sounded intriguing.

Anyway, the plot-thread of the present-day serial killer proved only to be slightly better, but not much, which had an interesting motive that was actually foreshadowed and this allowed the reader to make an educated guess about the murderer's identity. Not exactly old-fashioned fair play, but Halter did drop a couple of good hints and (admittedly) the reason why the killer drained the children of their blood showed Halter could be clever and original. As did the double-alibi of the murderer. However, this was hardly enough to save the book and there's another thing about the solution that annoyed me more than anything else in the story.

Early on in the book, Patricia meets an elderly man on the train, Thomas Fielding, who travels to historical or haunted places in order to soak in the atmosphere and this personal interest helped him to "formally identify the perpetrator" – or, rather, he "sensed" the truth. However, Fielding only went around telling people he knew who was behind the child killings, but the only precaution he took was sending a letter to Dr. Twist. A letter that arrived too late, but here's the kicker: in the letter he told Twist he fully expected to be murdered by the man he had refused to tell everyone about. He actually suspected this person to silence him and he let it happen without lifting as much as a finger. And even worse, his death did nothing to help capture the murderer. What an idiot.

I believe the last time people vainly sacrificed themselves, like that, was when Aztec men mounted the steps of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan to voluntarily have their hearts cut of their chest in an attempt to stop the Spanish conquest.

So, to make a long story short, I very much disliked The Vampire Tree. Halter has always been an uneven mystery writer and plotter, who tends to divide opinions, but The Vampire Tree is far below the dozen, or so, titles that preceded it in translation. Halter can do so much better and hope the next one, which will probably be published later this year, is a return to that Halter. And I'll try to pick something better for my next post.

If you want a second-opinion on this book, "JJ" of The Invisible Event, wrote a more nuanced review.

1/19/18

The Man in the Moonlight (1940) by Helen McCloy

Helen Clarkson was the birth name of "Helen McCloy," an American mystery writer, who served as president of the Mystery Writers of America and they awarded her with an Edgar statuette, in 1953, for her literary criticism, but, more importantly, McCloy is remembered for her body of work – consisting of roughly thirty novels and a dusting of short stories. McCloy distinguished herself as a mystery novelist by incorporating elements of morbid psychology and (domestic) suspense into her otherwise traditional detective plots. And the result is usually outstanding!

I've only read a handful of her detective novels, but all but one were good to excellent reads with the late-period Mr. Splitfoot (1968) being the standout title of the lot. Regardless of McCloy's successful track record, I read her only very sporadically (only two since the inception of this blog) and decided to finally pick up her much lauded Dr. Basil Willing series again this year. My perusing eye fell upon one of her earlier titles, which is a period in her career that I have criminally overlooked.

The Man in the Moonlight (1940) is not a typical American college mystery, like Clifford Orr's The Dartmouth Murders (1929), Timothy Fuller's Harvard Has a Homicide (1936) and Patrick Quentin's Death and the Maiden (1939), because the plot is driven by the war that was brewing on the European continent at the time – which I say on the assumption that the book was written during the last days of peace. However, the book already deals with refugees from Austria and Germany who fled when the Nazis took over. And one of these refugees brought a deadly problem to a small, unassuming American college.

Assistant Chief Inspector Patrick Foyle is sitting in a park outside Yorkville University, where he plans to send his own boy to, pouring over college bulletins when he notices a piece of paper. A stray bit of paper that looked out of place in the clean, tidy park.

Out of curiosity, Foyle picks up the piece of paper and astonishing reads the following, "I take pleasure in informing you that you have been chosen as murderer for Group No. 1" and to "please follow these instructions with as great exactness as possible." An astonishing note for a policeman to find, but the surprises don't end there as he's addressed by Professor Franz Konradi, a research bio-chemist, who escaped from Austria. Konradi happened to be missing paperwork and assumed Foyle had found one sheet of it.

They discuss the murderous message of the note, but their conversation ends with Konradi telling Foyle that "no matter what happens" he shall "not commit suicide." An unsettling end of a conversation. Particularly, when "the academic peace was shattered by a pistol shot" emanating from Southerland Hall.

Raymond Prickett, Professor of Experimental Psychology, was conducting an experiment by firing blank pistol shots above his infant son and meticulously writing down the reactions – not believing in the "vulgar superstition" of the Freudian mythology that his experiments will saddle his son with complexes when he gets older. So not exactly father of the year material, but the stage was now properly set and Professor Konradi dies that same evening inside his laboratory at Southerland Hall. Apparently, he actually did take his own life. Or so the evidence suggests.

According to the evidence, Konradi placed the muzzle of a revolver between his teeth, in contact with the roof of his mouth, and simply pulled the trigger and blew out the top of his head.

There were no marks of violence on the body. The lips and teeth were uninjured, which is considered clear proof of suicide, because a murderer could not make such a clean shot with an unwilling victim. An assumption strengthened by the fact that there was no smell of chloroform or tell-tale symptoms of a narcotic drug, but Foyle had not forgotten about Konradi's assurance that would never commit suicide and decided to call in the help of an old friend, Dr. Basil Willing. A psychologist who acts as a medical assistant to the District Attorney and is often consulted whenever a case needed a psychologist. However, a seemingly perfect murder is not the only problem the detective-psychologist has to contend with.

At the time of the murder, Southerland Hall was used by Prickett to stage "a shame crime" as part of psychological test and he wanted to put everyone involved (willing or unwilling) through a lie-detector test, but now that Konradi has died nobody who was present wanted to be subjected to a lie-detector test – including Prickett! But that's not the only problem muddying the waters.

There's the titular man in the moonlight who was seen that night and three different witnesses gave three different descriptions of this elusive person. A policeman who was task with guarding the crime-scene swore he heard a typing machine rattling inside the empty building that was followed by an inhuman scream, which "sounded like a lost soul cursing' the devil" and "callin' on God to let him out of hell." There are two additional murders and (of course) the potential presence of Nazi spies. Even the identity of Konradi is put into question, because he only used his elaborate equipment for simple, routine experiments.

Plot-wise, I think the best part of The Man in the Moonlight is Willing separating the red herrings from the clues as he tries to figure out what happened that night and why everyone refused the lie-detector test. This part of the plot is also peppered with the kind of arcane medical, psychological and historical facts that John Norris touched upon in his review of the book, which make for interesting reading if you love these obscure tidbits of history. I never knew the preferred method of suicide for Austrians, at the time, was a bullet through the roof of the mouth or how a certain medical condition can influence the results of a word-association test.

Only downside is that, by the end of this, there's one (somewhat obvious) suspect left standing and this person is brought to heel by a psychological analyses of the various lies this person told throughout the story. I think Willing's analyses could have used a physical clue, or two, to backup his psychological analyses, but, on a whole, the plot fitted nicely together and the motive for these murders was an original one – which affected the decisions of several characters. So, when you take a step back to look at the overall story, you can see how this book could very well have been titled A Web of Lies and Willing cutting through those lies is the real attraction of The Man in the Moonlight. It's a clever, well-written detective novel with a pleasantly entangled plot.

All in all, I really enjoyed my time with The Man in the Moonlight, even if my reading of the book was plagued by interruptions, but it convinced me to return to McCloy's work more often. She genuinely was an American Crime Queen! I have already set my sights on such titles as Dance of Death (1938), Cue for Murder (1942) and The Further Side of Fear (1967), but I'll get to at least one or two of them later this year.

So... that brings this review to an end. The first blog-post since my inaugural review of Pat McGerr's Pick Your Victim (1946), back in 2011, which does not use one of those confusing post-titles and vaguely related opening quotes. Admittedly, I cranked out this review a lot quicker now those first hurdles of finding a quote and coming up with a post-title have been removed!

1/13/18

Humble Beginnings

"There are depths beneath depths in what happened last night—obscure fetid chambers of the human soul. Black hatreds, unnatural desires, hideous impulses, obscene ambitions are at the bottom of it..."
- Philo Vance (S.S. van Dine's The Greene Murder Case, 1927)
The Beacon Hill Murders (1930) is the first of five detective novels by "Roger Scarlett," a shared pseudonym of Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page, who were part of the flock of American mystery writers that followed in the footsteps of S.S. van Dine during the 1930s – a following that included such luminaries as Clyde B. Clason, Stuart Palmer, Rufus King and Ellery Queen. You can hardly miss the influence Van Dine had on their maiden novel.

Blair and Page had not yet found their own voice and the result is an emulation of Van Dine, which was not badly done, but lacked the originality of the later titles I read.

The Beacon Hill Murders takes place on Boston's Beacon Hill, an affluent neighborhood where the houses are as old as the money of its dignified residents, but the newest denizens of the neighborhood were definitely not a part of the old Bostonian aristocracy.

Frederick Sutton had started life at one of the bottom-rungs of society and accumulated a large fortune as "a stock exchange gambler." So now that he has money he wants to climb to the social ladder, which is why he moved his family to an old mansion in a respectable neighborhood and threw a dinner party for a small, but not unimportant, group of people – one of them being his prim lawyer, Mr. Underwood. Underwood is aware of the fact that Sutton is preparing to "break his way into society" and wanted to use him as "a rung in the social ladder," but he was not in a position to refuse the invitation from his client. And he's quite surprise to find a well-known socialite as one of his fellow guests.

Mrs. Anceney is "a woman of great charm," whose name frequently appeared in the social columns of the newspapers, which makes Underwood wonder why, of all people, she would accept to be a dinner guest of the Suttons. A surprise that becomes a shock when, at the end of the evening, Mrs. Anceney is found standing over the dead body of her host in his private sitting room. She appears to have been the only person who could have pulled the trigger of the gun that was found in the very same room.

So the police is immediately notified and Underwood calls his policeman friend, Inspector Norton Kane of the Boston Police, but, shortly after his arrival, this straightforward murder case morphs into a genuine conundrum when their primarily suspect is brutally murdered – while alone in room with a policeman at the door. I have to pause here to point out that nobody, who commented on this book, accurately described the locked room components of the plot.

Robert Adey listed The Beacon Hill Murders in Locked Room Murders (1991) and described only the second murder as a slaying in a room under police guard. Curt Evans wrote in his introduction that "both killings are essentially clever locked room problems" that should "severely test the acuity of the reader," while Ho-Ling Wong didn't even touch upon the impossible-element of the story in his double review of the first two Scarlet novels. So allow me to clarify: only the shooting of Sutton qualifies as a proper impossible crime.

Sutton was shot when he was alone in a room with Mrs. Anceney. The four windows in the room were locked tight, which means that a third person could have only entered, or left, the crime-scene through the door into the hallway – in which case this person would have been caught in the act. The answer as to how a third person could have a fired the fatal bullet into this room is a variation on a legitimate locked room trick I have seen before (several times, in fact). On the other hand, the room in which the second murder was committed was not constantly guarded and the murderer simply slipped in-and out of the room.

However, the murder of Mrs. Anceney does turn out to play a key role in the murderer's alibi, which was nicely done, if risky.

Japanese edition
So figuring out the murderer's movement, as well as the baiting of a failed trap, takes up the first half of the book. During the second half of the story, the reader is let in on all the potential motives of the family members and dinner guests, even Underwood is furnished with a motive, which is another aspect where this inaugural novel differed from the later ones – because the familial intricacies are far less pronounced here. And that's reflected in the relatively weak motive of the murderer.

The third and fourth title in this series, Cat's Paw (1931) and Murder Among the Angells (1932), had both very strong and even original motives, which were adequately clued and sprang from the (hidden) relationships between various characters that had been described in great detail.

The Beacon Hill Murders is slightly more muddled in that regard and the motive was obviously inspired by one of Van Dine's well-known detective novels. Evans called it "a surprisingly dark thread of Freudian psychology" that ran through the motive and explanation of the crimes. The thread in question is, without question, a dark one, but one that dented the fair play aspect of the story, because the murderer was not entirely sane. And a mentally unstable killer always makes it harder for the armchair detective to gauge the truth. I did had an inkling that the murderer may not have been entirely rational, but zeroed in on the wrong person based on something that happened very early on in the book and the circumstances of the second murder.

All of that being said, The Beacon Hill Murders is an imperfect, but promising, debut and could have been better had the authors not so closely imitated the plotting-style of Van Dine. Nevertheless, Blair and Page deserve credit for breaking out of that mold and finding a voice of their own, which resulted in the gem known as Murder Among the Angells. Not to mention that they would go on to exert influence of their own over the development of the Japanese detective story! So that alone makes their maiden voyage an interesting read, but, by itself, it's not that bad of a detective story. Undistinguished, perhaps, but definitely not a bad for a first try!

By the way, Ho-Ling ranks the second entry in this series, The Back Bay Murders (1930), right alongside the first one, on account of them being "quite similar in design," but everything I read about the plot reminds me of the work of Anita Blackmon. So that alone is tempting me to pick it up before In the First Degree (1933). But whichever one I'll pick next, it will not be the subject of my next blog-post. I've now reviewed three of them, back to back, which means there are only two of them left on the big pile and want to save them for the coming months. 

So I have to rummage through that big pile to find something good for my next review, but I can already tell you that, whatever I may find, I'll  be changing my blog-format beginning with that next review. No more cutesy blog-titles or opening quotes. Just the title of the book, name of the author and the usual rambling review, because finding quotes and coming up with blog-titles has become a real chore over the past year or so. Hey, it only took me about seven years to finally start blogging and reviewing like a normal person! :)

1/10/18

A Family Affair

"In tackling a criminal case... you look for motive and opportunity."
- Ellery Queen (Ellery Queen's The Player on the Other Side, 1963)
Previously, I reviewed Murder Among the Angells (1932) by Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page, who wrote under the shared penname of "Roger Scarlett," which used to be an overpriced rarity on the secondhand book market, but recently, it was reissued by Coachwhip Publications – together with the rest of the series. Murder Among the Angells proved itself to be an excellent detective novel and decided to follow it up with the second title contained within in that very same twofer volume.

Apparently, Cat's Paw (1931) is very different in structure and approach from the preceding two books, The Beacon Hill Murders (1930) and The Back Bay Murders (1930), which reportedly were entirely written in the spirit of S.S. van Dine. Obviously, Blair and Page took their cue from Ellery Queen here, but the structure of the book also differs from your standard, Van Dinean-era whodunit.

Cat's Paw is divided into four parts and begins with a short prologue, titled "The Question," in which Underwood receives a wireless message from Inspector Kane, who's vacationing abroad, asking to "get in touch with police on Greenough case" and "find out everything." The second part, "The Evidence," tells what happened leading up to the murder and "The Case" is a preliminary investigation by Kane's subordinate, Sergeant Moran. The fourth and last part, "The Solution," gives an explanation drawn from the preceding two parts and "the clues rejected by Sergeant Moran."

So the Boston inspector functions here purely as an armchair detective and reasons the truth from the information that has been brought to him by Underwood and Moran. It's only towards the end that he actually crosses the threshold of the huge, Gothic-style mansion where the murder took place.

The mansion in question was erected by a wealthy recluse, Martin Greenough, whose talebearers whisper that he made his money as a bootlegger or found "bushels of diamonds" in South Africa, but in reality he earned his money in the textile business and invested his earnings in sound stocks – which soared beyond "the wildest of wildcat ventures." So he could afford to buy a large piece of undeveloped land, within the city limits of Boston, where he erected an enormous gray-stone mansion with battlements, towers and ivy. And to complete the doom and gloom of the place, the estate was surrounded by a high wall topped with threatening "spikes of broken glass."

Greenough would have lived a withdrawn and unassuming life there, but his four, older siblings made him the legal guardian and custodian to their children. No doubt hoping that it would give them an opportunity to secure a fat inheritance and financially secure their future. However, Greenough is a capricious devil with three distinct personalities and "tyrannized over them all." He could be very kind, lavishing his relatives with expensive gifts, but often cut them a check in order to get them out of the house for an extended period of time and his word was always final – even on a very personal level. Such as his unwavering opposition to his nephews and niece making an independent living. Cousin Mart, as they called him, wanted to have control over them and the way to do that was money.

So when the family is brought together, to celebrate Greenough's birthday, things come to a head and not least of all by the bombshell he himself drops on his relatives.

However, his nephews also drag a pile of trouble into the mansion. Hutchinson has married a kleptomaniac, Amelia, who usually takes inexpensive scarves and powder-boxes from various department stores. The stores, who know of her character flaw, simply bill her husband for the things she take, but this time she has lifted a necklace worth thousands of dollars. Another nephew, Blackstone, brought a woman, Stella Irwin, who was engaged to his cousin, Francis, but Greenough had forbidden the marriage. So that made him very unhappy to have her under his roof.

Greenough has the last laugh as he drops the biggest bombshell by announcing his imminent marriage to his long-time companion and mistress, Mrs. Warden. A widow who has been with him since her husband was alive and this situation turned out to be deadly cocktail for the old miser. I know not everyone likes a long, drawn-out buildup to the murder, but the slow escalation to murder is very well done here and all of the events in this portion of the story play an important part in the plot – whether they turn out to be red herrings or actual clues. Blair and Page evidently knew how to plot a detective story!

Japanese edition
Anyway, to show their goodwill towards their guardian, the nephews put on a firework display on the lawn, while he watches from a second-floor window, but during this spectacle one of them show him through the head.

A note for the curious: during the firework-scene, Francis tells Hutchinson to be careful, because a spark from his match will put him "among the angels." So I wonder if this little scene gave Blair and Page the title for their next book.

Anyway, Sergeant Moran takes charge of the investigation, because Kane was still abroad at the time of the murder, but fails in separating the real clues from the red herrings. So this task comes down to Kane and his solution does, indeed, recall Ellery Queen's best work. Kane expertly maps out the movement of the various suspects and how they're involved, sometimes involuntarily, in the murder and explains the true meaning behind such clues as marked playing cards, a love-lorn note and the stolen necklace. And these clues work beautifully, because they play on assumptions.

There is, however, a smudge on the fair play element that should be mentioned. Ho-Ling already noted this in his review and concerns a clue that was unfairly withheld from the reader, which knocks this otherwise excellent detective story down a place or two. I really wanted to place Cat's Paw alongside Murder Among the Angells, because in every other aspect it was great.

Cat's Paw has a pleasing, labyrinthine plot with a policeman sleuth, who acts as an intuitive armchair detective, while sifting through a pile of physical clues, but the story cheated itself of a place in the first-ranks by pawning one of the vital clues and hiding up its sleeve. A real shame. However, the book is still a good read with enough twists, turns and clues to satisfy the pure, plot-driven readers, who love Van Dine and Queen, but will probably also be slightly annoyed that it (unnecessarily) withheld an important piece of information from them. So make of that what you will.

1/7/18

A House Divided

"Adding the element of impossibility only invites suspicion."
- Ruoping Lin (Szu-Yen Lin's Death in the House of Rain, 2006)
Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page were two American writers who met during their tenure, as editors, on the staff of a prominent publishing house and this meeting initiated a long, productive friendship which would bear the golden fruits of civilization – namely five detective novels written over "a short span of five years" during the Great Depression. All five novels appeared under a shared pseudonym, "Roger Scarlett," and are helmed by their series-characters, Inspector Kane of the Boston Police.

Until recently, the series was languishing in literary obscurity and secondhand copies tended to be as scarce as they were expensive. Some even came with triple digit price-tags! 

Coachwhip put an end to this intolerable, long-standing situation by republishing all five novels and our resident genre-historian, Curt Evans, wrote a lengthy introduction touching on the authors, their background and work – including how they became a victim of "the most glaring piece of plagiarism ever to exist." However, the most relevant part of Curt's introduction (for this blog-post) is the influence of Scarlett's Murder Among the Angells (1932) on the development of the Japanese detective story.

In the West, Scarlett had been completely expunged from popular memory, but in Japan their work made an ever-lasting impression and influenced their yakata-mono (mansion story). An influence that can still be seen today.

Edogawa Rampo, father of the Japanese mystery story, once recommended the Japanese edition of Murder Among the Angells to then very young Seishi Yokomizo, who wrote the superb Inugamike no ichizoku (The Inugami Clan, 1951), which inspired him to write (along side the writing of John Dickson Carr) to write Honjin satsujin jiken (The Murder in the Honjin, 1946). A locked room tale set in a mansion in rural Okayama and the narrator mentioned Murder Among the Angells in "his list of foreign locked room mysteries that might possibly have inspired the murderer." Rampo also recognized it as "the first novel of reasoning in the Anglo-American style in the world of Japanese detective fiction."

So while practically forgotten in the West, Scarlett continued to have a measure of name recognition in Japan and a good example of this can be found in Ho-Ling Wong's 2011 review of Murder Among the Angells, which he read in Japanese. A translation that, at the time, could be "purchased at any store for 900 yen + tax." At the same time, the book over here was only available on the secondhand market and copies were prized between 100-300 dollars!

Needless to say, that made me marginally envious of Ho-Ling, but all of that's in the past now as I was given four of the five Scarlett novels over Christmas. 
 
Coachwhip published those four books, The Beacon Hill Murders (1930), The Back Bay Murders (1930), Cat's Paw (1931) and Murder Among the Angell, as twofer volumes and reissued the last one, In the First Degree (1933), as a single volume – which will be absorbed into my TBR-pile at a later date. So I had to pick my first read from those four titles and, predictably, I went for the last one. What can I say? I'm an unoriginal hack.

Murder Among the Angells takes place within the curious walls of an L-shaped mansion, located on Boston's Beacon Street, which has been divided in two idenitical halves and the two sections are only connected by an elevator. The two halves are occupied by two elderly brothers, Carolus and Darius, who live their with their children, in-laws and servants, but a pale hangs over the household. Their father was obsessed with good health and his eccentric will placed an ever-widening wedge between his sons. He wanted his encourage his sons to live a clean, healthy life by leaving his entire estate to the son who outlives the other. A survival of the fittest where the winner takes all!

Unfortunately, Darius' health is declining and he has been tempting his brother to sign a "deed of gift," in which they agree to divide the estate equally among their four children. Darius contacted a Mr. Underwood, an attorney and close friend of Inspector Kane, to draw up the deed, but his reticent brother is not the only problem that's bothering him. Someone has been dipping his pilfering fingers into his money strong box and asks his son-in-law, Whitney Adams, how to catch this thief.

On the same day Darius decides to tackle these problems, the butler announces a visitor for Adams, but when he goes to the drawing room to see who wanted him there was nobody there – shortly followed by the first of two murders in this book. Carolus is shot to death in the dining room and the butler witnessed the shooting, but he's also the only person who has actually seen this homicidal visitor. And this would be repeated later on in the story.

Inspector Norton Kane observes that there's "a distinct element of time in this case" as if "something necessitated Mr. Angell's immediate death." He has to unsnarl such tangled clues as a fabricated track of (timed) footprints in the snow, outside of the mansion, as well as the theft of the deed of gift, but he also has to prevent Darius from signing over half of the estate to his cousins. Darius is determined, now that he has outlived his brother, to keep true to his original intentions and make sure they did not lost out on an inheritance now that their father was murdered. I think he was perhaps the only genuinely good, if flawed, soul residing in that austere mansion. And that makes his murder somewhat tragic.

Darius rolled his wheelchair into the elevator on the third floor and pushed the button, but when arrived at the bottom, where people were waiting for him, the doors remained closed and they had to pried open – which when they found him with a stab wound in the neck. The elevator cannot descend, or rise, when any of the doors of the three floors are open and the trapdoor in the ceiling opens on a thick carpet of unbroken dust. The elevator went straight down from the third floor without stopping and there wasn't even room in the elevator, entirely filled by the wheelchair, for a second person, but, somehow, someone still managed to murder the old man. Kane and Underwood do some pleasant theorizing as they eliminate the possibilities, one by one, before Kane eventually hits upon the solution. 

A solution that's pretty original and makes good use of the crime-scene, but it should be mentioned that this trick probably only works with a victim who has a very frail constitution. After all, the medical examiner mentioned that the blow was a weak one. So this particularly method would probably have only wounded Carolus.

Funnily enough, there were certain elements of this impossible murder that recalled a locked room trick from a novel that me and "JJ," of The Invisible Event, have a fondness for. The locked room situations and solutions are very different, but they share certain, uhm, principles that helped create the illusion of an impossible murder.

However, the most impressive aspect of Murder Among the Angells is not the identity of the murderer or the impossible stabbing inside a moving elevator, but the clever treatment of the ingenious, double-edged motive.

You would think this was merely a homage to the S.S. van Dine-style detective novel from the 1920s, in which murders are committed in gloomy mansions in order to secure a large sum of money, but you'll be sorely mistaken. The motive here cuts on two sides and provided a shrewd answer explaining why the brothers had to die in that specific order. An explanation that is far more satisfying than if the murders had been committed merely to secure the estate. The motive is the linchpin beautifully linking the who-and how together, which helped lift Murder Among the Angells above an average mansion murder story.

Long story short, I really liked my first encounter with Scarlett, Kane and Underwood. I tell you, it's long-lost gems like this one that remind me why I love detective stories. So you can look forward to reviews of the remaining titles in the not so distant future, because these former rarities aren't going to be permanent residents of my TBR-pile.

So only seven days into the New Year and already have an entry for my 2018 best-of list!