7/21/17

Trading Places

"Eh bien, Mademoiselle, all through my life I have observed one thing--'All one wants one gets!' Who knows... you may get more than you bargain for."
- Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie's The Mystery of the Blue Train, 1928) 
Last year, I reviewed A Most Immoral Murder (1935) by Harriete Ashbrook, who also wrote suspense fiction under the name of "Susannah Shane," which tend to be smart, lively and well-plotted detective-and thriller novels, but most book reviewers at the time gave her a short shrift – resulting in paperback publishers largely ignoring her work. So she has rarely been reprinted and this condemned her to almost complete obscurity. And the keyword there is almost.

One of the usual suspects, John Norris of Pretty Sinister Books, wrote a positive blog-post about her work, The Detective Novels of Harriete Ashbrook, drawing comparisons with S.S. van Dine, Ellery Queen, Mignon G. Eberhart and Craig Rice. That was enough to place Ashbrook on my radar and we ended up agreeing that she got the short, grubby end of the stick in life (as she also died at the age of 48).

After finishing A Most Immoral Murder, I really hoped some of Ashbrook's other detective novels would make it back into print and (sort of) got my wish.

Recently, one of Ashbrook's dames-in-danger suspense novels was reissued by Coachwhip and the book in question, Lady in Lilac (1941), was originally selected as "a $1,000 Red Badge Prize Mystery" – representing one of her scarce triumphs as a published authors.

Lady in Lilac has been called a Woolrichian suspense novel on account of a plot-device apparently closely associated with the Father of Noir, which involves two strangers exchanging their identities. An impulsive decision that will place two women in mortal peril.

Helen Varney is an aspiring actress, who moved to New York, but in the five weeks she has been in the Big City she "tried to see every manager in town" without result and is down to half a dollar. And she's already two weeks behind on her rent. So Helen is forced to put her dreams on hold and take a job as a waitress, but fate appears to intervene when she saves the life of a woman, named Joanna Starr, who attempted to end her own life in the adjacent apartment – which has far-reaching consequences. Helen tells Joanna about her dreams and how she, one day, will get hold of a famous manager, like Hugo Steinmark, and get her chance to prove herself.

Coincidentally, Joanna has an appointment with Steinmark, but also longs to escape from the complications of her own life. So she offers Helen her identity in exchange for a quiet, uncomplicated existence as a simple, unknown waitress in a New York Diner. In return, Helen receives an audience with Steinmark and an opportunity to experience untold luxury.

There's a lavish hotel room at the Waldorf in Joanna's name and she traded a fat roll of five-hundred dollar bills for the last fifty cents in Helen's pockets, which Joanna assured could be spend as she pleased. So their personal situations were completely reversed overnight and Helen experienced what it is like to shop for clothes without "the constraints of a budget," but she also learned that there's no such thing as a free lunch.

During her long-awaited meeting with the theatrical manager, Steinmark is fatally shot and the unseen murderer threw the pistol into Helen's lap. This has the unfortunate result that she was seen standing over the body with a gun in hand and she immediately high-tailed it out of there. However, everyone is now looking for the enigmatic woman in the lilac dress and bloodstained slippers. A woman who appears to have two identities!

The confusing caused by having assumed Joanna's identity is what allowed Helen to move through the city without being recognized by the public at large, but one of the people who knew Joanna intimately has catched up with her – a man named Paul Saniel and really wants to know what she has done to Joanna. Helen is not entirely convinced of Paul's good intentions and refuses to tell him the full story, which only complicated her personal predicament even further. And there are other stumbling blocks entering the picture in the background: a case of bigamy, an unsolved kidnapping/murder case obviously based on the Lindbergh affair, a suitcase with a secret and an Austrian actress who suddenly turned up in the United States.

There are two things I really appreciated about Lady in Lilac: one of them is the surprising complexity of the plot, full of twists and turns, which neatly tied all of its plot-threads together by the final chapter. You should not expect a plot à la Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr, but it was more than what I hoped to find between the covers of a woman-in-peril thriller. So that was a pleasant surprise. Secondly, I liked the use of newspaper headlines and excerpts that keeps both the reader and the characters in the story abreast of the latest developments in the case on the official end of the investigation.

It showed how the case captured the public imagination, but also explained to the reader why Helen continued to be unrecognized even when the police learned she was involved in the case under Joanna's name. Additionally, the story includes excerpts of an article penned by Lance Sheriton, an "ace detective story writer," who had been hired by the Gazette to write an exclusive reconstruction of the case with a final summation penned by the official sob sister of the paper. I liked how newspaper excerpts were used to tell parts of the story.

My sole complaint about the book is the sugary ending that was far too sweet. Ashbrook probably wrote the ending with a possible movie deal in mind, but she allowed a character to live who had been riddled by bullets. She should have allowed that character to be embraced by death, because it would have strengthened the sweet part of the ending. Granted, it would have made it a bitter sweet ending, but now it was one of those having your cake and eating it too endings.

Otherwise, Lady in Lilac is an excellent, fast-paced suspense novels and really hope more of her books reappear in print in the years ahead. Both her detective and suspense novels.

7/19/17

A Quartet of Detectives

"Cause and effect rule this world; they may be a mirage but they are a consistent mirage; everywhere, except possibly in subatomic physics, there is cause each effect, and that cause can be found."
- Trevis Tarrant (C. Daly King's "The Episode of the Nail and the Requiem," collected in The Complete Curious Mr. Tarrant, 2003)
Frederick Irving Anderson was an American newspaper reporter for the New York World and a premier writer of short stories, who regularly contributed to such periodicals as The Saturday Evening Post and The Popular Magazine, but only a fraction of his work has been collected since the early 1910s – resulting in four volumes in total. The Adventures of the Infallible Godahl (1914) was published over a hundred years ago, while The Purple Flame and Other Detective Stories (2016) appeared only last year.

Wedged between these volumes, there is the very obscure The Notorious Sophie Lang (1925) and a widely lauded collection of short stories selected as one of the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstone title of detective fiction.

Book of Murder (1930) consists of ten stories and has a peculiar, overarching structure. Six of the stories are about Deputy Parr of the New York Police Department and Oliver Armiston, "the extinct author," who had stopped writing detective and thriller stories years ago, "at the gentle request of the police," because criminals were plagiarizing his fictional schemes – which proved to be surprisingly successful outside of the printed page. So now the retired placed himself at the disposal of the police. However, it should be noted that the policemen in these stories are not clueless idiots or bunglers. On the contrary!

There are three further short stories with a different set of characters, farmer Jason Selfridge and Constable Orlo Sage, which take place somewhere in rustic New England. Regrettably, the rural backdrop turned out to be the only memorable aspect of these stories as the plots were severely lacking.

The tenth and final story is a crossover bringing all four characters together on the same pages. So that was an unusual, but great, ending to a collection of short stories about a pair of distinctly different series-characters and somewhat made up for the weakness of the Selfridge and Sage stories.

I can understand why Anderson is held in high regard by so many critics and readers, because he could write and was not devoid of imagination. Mike Grost placed him close to the scientific school of Arthur B. Reeve, but not Anderson distinguished himself from that movement by aspiring to "the irony, sophistication and wit" of "such writers as Saki and Oscar Wilde" - something that did not always allow for scientific accuracy or realism. Personally, the stories reminded me of those collected in J.E. Preston-Muddock's Dick Donovan: The Glasgow Detective (2005), which is both positive and negative.

On the upside, the stories collected in Book of Murder are mostly excellent specimens of the type of crime-and detective stories published during the early 1900s. When the genre was in a transitional period between the Doylean Era and the Golden Age. However, these stories were all originally published between 1925 and 1929, which almost makes them nostalgia acts during their own time and don't always translate in type of detective story common by the time the 1930s rolled around.

Some of the stories surely tried to aspire to the new standards, but my impression is that Anderson never fully emerged from that transitional period as a full-fledged Golden Age author. But I might be completely wrong about that. So let's take a look at the stories collected in Book of Murder.

This collections opens with one of its better entries, "Beyond All Conjecture," which was first published in the September, 1928 in The Saturday Evening Post and the victim is a wealthy Dutch-American from New York, Cornelius Vlemynck, whose ancestors came from "the delft banks of the Schie" - until an adventurous forebear began to wander and ended up within "the stockade known as Nieuw Amsterdam." Despite his fast wealth, Vlemynck has one simple ambition in life: to die in the house he was born in. A humble wish prevented by a furtive murderer, who administrated a dose of poison, which took hold of its victim when he had posted several letters. And the man died on his way back to his home in the gutter.

An alert medical examiner prevented the death from becoming "a perfect crime" and the two detectives, Deputy Parr and Armiston, expertly unravel the poisoning method. You should immediately know how the poison was ingested, but the details how it ended up in the victim's hand is very clever indeed. Something that made ingenious use of the Dead Letter Office. The relationship between the murderer and victim struck me as an attempt to imitate G.K. Chesterton.

The second story, "The Wedding Gift," was first published in a September, 1929 issue of The Saturday Evening Post and the plot shows strains of the scientific detective story.

A dead man was found on a stretch of beach, "as if it had been washed in by the tide with the wind behind it," but the wind wasn't behind the tide on the previous night. The body also lacks any evidence of immersion in salt water and nothing is ever washed up at the beach where the victim was discovered. Parr explains to Armiston that murderer's are usually unaware that "a drowned man has a route" and tries to impress his friend even more by deducing that the body belonged to a left-handed violinist. Startlingly, the victim is identified as Barron Wilkes, the Bull's-Head Bank Defaulter, which throws an entirely new light on the case. One that was satisfactorily resolved and the explanation completely vindicated Parr's deductions.

The third story, "The Japanese Parasol," originally appeared on July 3, 1926 in The Saturday Evening Post and Deputy Parr has a direct hand in an "accidental" coal-dust fire, which has the objective of gaining entrance to an abandoned house belonging to one of the landed families of the island of Manhattan.

A very unorthodox police procedure, but the covert operation yielded result when they find a lead box buried in the cellar, containing human remains, with a tin foot among the pile of bones – positively identifying the body as belonging to Barry Dilk. One of the most unfortunate members of the family, whose mind had "ceased expanding at the age of ten" and had lost a feet when he went "fishing with a stick of dynamite" at the age of twelve, but was nevertheless given "uncounted millions" to squander. So the background of the story is not without interest and the scene of putting out the coal-hole fire was well conceived, but the explanation was pretty common place.

The next three stories, "Dead End," "The Magician" and "A Start in Life," are the New England tales about Jason Selfridge and Orlo Sage, but, as previously noted, the plots of these stories were lacking and really nothing to say about them – except that they were (admittedly) very well written. So on the next story.

One of my two favorite stories from this collection is "Big Time," published in an October, 1927 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, which is a witty impossible crime story that was overlooked by Robert Adey when he compiled Locked Room Murders (1991). A well-known musical coach, named Hector Verblennes, was found pinned to the floor of his music room with an African assagai (spear) snatched from a wall decorated with ancient weaponry. There is, however, one problem: all of "the doors were locked on the inside" and "the transoms held accumulations of undisturbed dust."

Anderson wrote an amusing, but original, take on the locked room problem and the method is good for a fun mental image of the murderer working his magic. Something Edmund Crispin could have written (e.g. "The Name on the Window" from Beware of the Trains, 1935).

The next one, "The Recoil," was published on March 23, 1929 in The Saturday Evening Post and takes it cue from Conan Doyle's "The Problem of Thor Bridge" (collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, 1927). The story opens with Armiston playing armchair detective and (sort of) solving the theft of a harp, but the story then moves on to the shooting death of Culpepper Lea. A dueling pistol, "with its muzzle blown away," was found in the waters near the scene of the crime. So this gives rise to the question whether the shooting was a murder or a suicide made to look like murder, because the recoil on the gun could have been used for the latter. Some potentially good ideas here, but nothing of importance was done with any of them.

The next-to-last story, "Gulf Stream Green," was originally published in a June, 1929 issue of The Saturday Evening Post and is another one of Anderson's scientific detective stories, but the explanation also appears to be related to the science-fiction genre. A celebrated diva, Leocadie, has "an anonymous lover," or stalker, who threatens her life and seriousness of these threats are demonstrated when her maid, Berthe, is accidentally killed in her place – because she was wearing her employer's Gulf Stream green clothes. A gimmicky, semi-scientific mystery story reminiscent of those found in such collections as Vincent Cornier's The Duel of Shadows: The Extraordinary Cases of Barnabas Hildreth (2011) and Max Rittenberg's The Invisible Bullet and Other Strange Cases of Magnum, Scientific Consultant (2016).

Finally, we have "The Door Key," published in The Saturday Evening Post of December 28, 1929 and begins with a fishing trip up north, which brings Armiston and Parr into contact with Selfridge and Sage. During the first half, the story focuses on the strange behavior of Ensign Belding. Who appears to have suddenly vacated his country house and left a door key in the care of Selfridge, but when they poke around the place they find a lamp is still burning and a note on the kitchen table – ending with the request to "please blow out the lamp." The second part of the story takes place in the city and satisfyingly resolves the problem that had emerged from the first half, which concerns an empty car that was fished out of the river by Sage.

So the story was definitely successful in contrasting the rural setting of the Selfridge and Sage stories with the big city cases, and criminals, of the longer Parr and Armiston series. And a nifty way to tie otherwise unrelated material together in a single short story collection.

On a whole, Book of Murder is not a bad collection of short detective stories and loved two of them, "Beyond All Conjecture" and "Big Time," but personally, I do not consider them to be cornerstones of the genre. As a collective, the stories are simply not good or influential enough to attach such weight to them. However, I'm sure some of you will vehemently disagree with me on that point.

7/16/17

They Never Checked Out

"You're all too busy sticking your noses into every corner, poking about for things to complain about, aren't you? Well let me tell you something - this is exactly how Nazi Germany started!"
- Basil (Fawlty Towers, Episode: Waldorf Salad, 1979)
One year ago, I posted a review of Anita Blackmon's There is No Return (1938), who wrote over a thousand short stories for such publications as Love Story Magazine, Detective Tales and Weird Tales, but only published two full-length mystery novels during her lifetime – which were highly regarded by the eminent crime-fiction critic, Howard Haycraft. Nevertheless, they swiftly faded from popular memory and were completely forgotten about once their author passed away in 1943.

Back in 2010, Curt Evans began to blog about Blackmon's long-forgotten mystery novels and have since then reappeared in print as both paperback editions and e-books.

Murder à la Richelieu (1937) was the first of only two novels about Blackmon's short-lived series-character, Miss Adelaide Adams, who has a "crusty disposition" and has been referred to as "a nosy old maid," but she has a good and even generous heart – snappy as she may be at times. Miss Adams also has a traceable sense of humor and this makes her narrative a dark, grim and bloody parody of the "Had-I-But-Known" crime stories of Mary Roberts Rinehart and Dorothy Cameron Disney.

A good example of the nature of the book is this, often quoted, line from the opening page of the book: "had I suspected the orgy of bloodshed upon which we were about to embark, I should then and there, in spite of my bulk and an arthritic knee, have taken shrieking to my heels." So she immediately sets the tone and the old-fashioned battle-ax is actually a pleasant narrator of the dark events unfolding at the Hotel Richelieu.

The Richelieu is a quiet, respectable residential hotel in a southern town in the United States (Curt suggested Little Rock, Arkansan) and has its own social hierarchy consisting of several layers. One of them are the resident guests, or "the old guard," who make up the inner circle of hotel-life and rarely allow outsiders (i.e. temporary guests) to be admitted to their closed group – prompting the observation that it was easier "to enter the Kingdom of Heaven" than "to be admitted among the elect at the Richelieu Hotel." A third layer consists of the people working at the hotel, such as the waitresses and the droopy-eyed night clerk, but they're not socially involved with either group of guests.

So pretty much what you would expect from a place where human beings congregate for an extended period of time. It's like a pass-through village.

Recently, Miss Adams, who is described herself as "a close student of the human comedy," began to notice slight disturbances in the regular interactions between the people at the hotel. Even though she failed to foresee the significance of her mislaid spectacle case.
Anyway, she did noticed the hostile attitude of Kathleen Adair towards James Reid, of New Orleans, when he happened to step inside an elevator with her clumsy, scatter-brained mother. She also noticed how the niece of respectable widow and hotel guest, Polly Lawson, who, "practically overnight," began to behave in the most reckless manner – which came at the cost of her budding relationship with a promising young man, Howard Warren. So now Polly is flirting with a carefree, traveling salesman, Stephen Lansing, who loves to tease Miss Adams. Lansing also took a young wife, Lottie Mosby, on a whirlwind ride. She has a husband who has taken to drinking and she gambles away their money on the race track in the hope of hitting it big.

Finally, there's a professional gold-digger, Hilda Anthony, who had come to the town to make use of their new state law to procure a legal separation from her fourth husband. But why did she stick around in the small, quiet conservative town once she secured the divorce. After all, the town is not exactly rich in "gilded playboys."

Once again, you should probably expect entangled relationships, emotions and problems even in a small community such as a residential hotel, but when that community becomes the backdrop of a string of gruesome murders they might harbor a potential motive for a killer.

The first victim is found when Miss Adams entered her darkened suite and discovers the body of one of her fellow guests, namely James Reid, who is hanging by his suspenders from the cross-arm of a chandelier. Someone had slit his throat from ear to ear!

One observation that has to be made is that all of the murders are particular grisly and graphic in nature, which you would expect to see in a slasher movie from the 1980s. But here you have a murderer who choked the second victim to death and tossed her body out of a top-floor window to an ugly mess on the pavement below, while the third victim had her neck violently broken and biting acid poured over her face! A fourth murder by throat-cutting is revealed during the killer's feverish confession in the penultimate chapter of the book.

However, the grisly killings are not the only dark and disturbing aspects of Murder à la Richelieu, because the plot slowly reveals that the hotel was used for a particular kind of crime rarely, if ever, associated with detective novels of this vintage – making the book somewhat of an original and standout title within the genre. On top of that, the plot is serviceable enough and managed to be complex without becoming a horribly mangled mess of plot-threads. Blackmon nicely tied every plot-thread together to form a logical pattern and only the murderer's identity proved to be a slight letdown. You can say the hints to this person's guilt were present in the background, but they were a trifle weak and the revelation of this person, as the deranged killer, was a little underwhelming.

But then again, I just might have been disappointed because my murderer turned out to be pretty dead. After the acid-murder, it was revealed a minor side-character had gone missing from the hotel and immediately assumed I had solved the entire case there and then. As it turned out, I definitely had not solved the case there and then.

In any case, Murder à la Richelieu is a splendid compound of grisly murders, dark motives and rampant blackmail, which is told from the perspective of a delightful narrator who you can't help but like in spite of her crusty personality and imperfections. Miss Adams alone makes you wish Blackmon had continued the series pass the two titles she left behind, but she also knew how to write and was not entirely inept when it came to handling an intricate, multi-layered plot.

So, in closing, I would rank the book only slightly below the two best hotel-set detective stories ever written: Harriet Rutland's Bleeding Hooks (1940) and Cornell Woolrich's novella "The Room With Something Wrong" (collected in Death Locked In, 1994).

7/14/17

A Twenty Second Miracle

"As a general rule, in order to find the author of a crime or a theft, it is necessary to determine how that crime or theft was committed, or, at least, how it could have been committed."
Chevalier Floriani (Maurice Leblanc's "The Queen's Necklace," collected in The Extraordinary Adventures of Arsène Lupin, Gentleman-Burglar, 1907)
The 61th entry in Gosho Aoyama's voluminous series, known as either Case Closed or Detective Conan, opens with a first-rate Kaito KID story, showing the brightest pupil of the modern-day Rogue School at work, which offers a very cunning and original impossible problem – namely a teleportation trick!

In an earlier volume (44), Aoyama introduced an elderly relative of Serena Sebastian, Uncle Jirokichi.

During his first appearance, Jirokichi attempted to capture the dashing, white-clad thief by baiting a trap with a priceless artifact of history, but KID simply used this opportunity to showcase one of his most daring illusions: a miraculous mid-air walk. So the billionaire learned from his previous mistake and devised a new scheme to ensnare "the infamous thief known as the moonlight magician."

Jirokichi is in possession of "the legendary shoes worn by Maria Theresa," the Holy Roman Empress, which has a two large amethysts embedded in the toes. Something that should attract the attention of KID, because he always appeared to have "a thing for large jewels," but to be sure an open challenge was published in the newspaper.

However, the slippers weren't securely placed in a heavily guarded, inaccessible room on the top-floor of a closely observed building, but were simply put on display in the middle of the Ginza shopping district and surrounded by only four security guards – reasoning that KID is vulnerable when operating at ground level. After all, the street level display eliminated the possibility of KID fleeing the scene with the assistance of his beloved hang-glider. So, when he swooped down from the sky, Jirokichi gave the order to raise several large, tight nets that blocked every avenue of escape on the Ginza Crossing and it appeared as if the elusive thief had finally been captured. Or so everyone assumed.

KID simply turned to the rolling cameras and announces his impending escape from the enclosure by crossing dimensions, which is followed by a puff of smoke and twenty seconds later reappeared on the rooftop of an adjacent building – a stunning trick accomplished without the assistance of a body-double. Something that is confirmed when the TV footage is closely scrutinized. And the great magician promises a repeat performance the following day, because one of the slippers he snatched from the display proved to be a fake.

So this gives Conan, who had been watching in the crowd, one shot to stop his adversary from completing his criminal masterpiece, which also results in some nice interaction between Conan and KID when the latter becomes aware of the former's presence. The trick itself was also pretty nifty and more workable than the levitation/mid-air walk illusion from the previously mentioned 44th volume. I (roughly) worked out how the teleportation stunt was pulled off, but only because I remember a story that used the same principles for an entirely different kind of trick.

Nevertheless, this was a nice, well put-together impossible crime story with some great (visual) clues and Jirokichi is proving himself to be a better foil to KID than Conan. Sure, Conan has the brains and deductive abilities to shatter KID's illusions, but Jirokichi has the resources needed to pose a genuine challenge for the modern-day Arsène Lupin. I really hope these three characters cross paths again in the future.

The second story in this volume involves the Junior Detective League and takes place during one of their many camping trips, but this time they're stranded on a lonely stretch of mountain road – because Doc Agasa forgot to put enough gas in the car. Luckily, the spot a classic Rolls Royce heading their way, but the driver is incredible rude and leaves them without helping them. What's even more discouraging is that the car is headed to the only habitable place in sight: a large, sprawling and luxurious summerhouse at the top of the mountain. However, an explosion occurs at the place shortly after the car must have arrived at the top.

When they arrived at the summerhouse, they find that a fiery explosion had occurred in the garage and the driver has been burned to a cinder. The police is of the opinion that the death was an unfortunate accident: a tipped over gas can had filled the garage with vaporized gasoline and a burning cigarette ignited the gasoline that engulfed the car – causing the explosion. However, the police only found a cigarette butt, but not the remains of a pack of cigarettes. And this suggested murder to Conan.

This story is purely a howdunit, as the murderer's identity is pretty obvious, which instead concentrates on how this person created the fire that blew the victim sky-high. A clever method that's believable enough, because it was revealed that it had failed several times before and had to be tweaked. Some of the tweaks served as a clue. Only the motive was poorly handled.

The third story is one of those code crackers, but the problem mainly serves as a vehicle for a story-line that was introduced in the previous volume.

Someone has been littering the streets with paper airplanes, all with patterns on them, which is blamed on a prankster, but Conan recognizes an SOS in the patterns. However, he's stuck at school and can only communicate with Rachel over the phone, as Jimmy Kudo, while Subaru Okiya (who stays at the Kudo home) also tries to crack the code at their end of the phone. The case primarily shows that Okiya is not who he says he is and it is suggested that he may be the Black Organization agent known as "Bourbon," but, based on the Sherlock Holmes comments from the previous volume, I very much doubt that is the case.

Finally, the last chapter opens a story that will be concluded in the next installment in this series and concerns the missing brother of the waitress of Coffee Poirot, Azusa, who is suspected by the police of having shot and killed his employer with a hunting rifle – ending on a note implying that Azusa may be in grave danger. But more about that the next volume.

So, all in all, a pretty solid volume with some excellent plot-and character-driven content and the Kaito KID story served as a perfect headliner. Once again, I really loved this series and might pick up the next volume sooner rather than later.

7/11/17

Vanished from Their Midst

"No law-breaker... is shrewd enough to see all contingencies. Even the most trivial event has so many intimately related and serrated points of contact with other events which precede and follow, that it is a known fact that every criminal—however long and carefully he may plan—leaves some loose end to his preparations, which in the end betrays him."
- Dist. Atty. John F.X. Markham (S.S. van Dine's The Benson Murder Case, 1926)
Joan Sanger is one of those unsung, long-forgotten souls who's too obscure to have her own page on the Golden Age of Detection Wiki, but her ghost can lay claim to something most of the equally obscure names that are listed on that website cannot: she currently has her only known detective novel in print!

Back in 2014, Rowman & Littlefield reprinted Sanger's little-known mystery novel, The Case of the Missing Corpse (1936), complete with a replication of the original dust-jacket. I don't know what prompted them to reissue this specific, virtually unknown detective story, but the plot has several distinguishing features that makes it an item of interest for readers of this blog.

As the book-title suggests, The Case of the Missing Corpse concerns a search for a missing person, instead of a murder investigation, which largely takes place in pre-revolutionary Cuba and contains floor-plans, diagrams and the occasional footnote – punctuated by a genuine surprise twist in the tail of the story. A pleasant jolt of surprise that briefly transported me back in time to my first brush with Agatha Christie.

The missing person, or corpse, of the book-title is a sports icon, Stephen P. Wyndham, whose sudden disappearance made his "the days of his brilliant polo at Meadowbrook" and "yachting glory at Newport" the stuff of legend. But the circumstances surrounding his disappearance are equally legendary. During a high-stake poker game with a group of friends in his Havana hotel suite, the hotel experienced a blackout of several minutes and when the lights came back on Wyndham's seat was vacant!

Wyndham had "vanished as completely as though the earth had yawned open" and "engulfed him."

Back in the States, every club-room in New York was rife with gossip and reporters spread the latest developments in the case all over their front pages, which dragged on for nearly a full year and the public was still "panting for Wyndham news" - except that the police suddenly "clamped the lid down." They're instructed to stop giving out information to the media and it's suspected that the elder sister of the missing sportsman has a hand in this. So two reporters of the New York Globe decide to take a whack at cracking the case for themselves.

John Ellis is one of these reporters, who lends his voice to the narrative of the story, but his role is primarily that of playing the incredulous Dr. Watson to Peter Alcott's Sherlock Holmes.

Alcott writes a daily sports column in the Globe and is known for his unvarying nonchalance, since nothing ever seemed to phase him, but rarely does anything escape his Argus-eyed attention. During their investigation, Alcott revealed himself to be common-sense man with the instinct and bluffing ability of a professional poker player. Something that would prove to come in handy when they needed access to certain people who would otherwise not talk with representatives of the press. So I think you can place Alcott, as a detective-character, alongside Craig Rice's John J. Malone and Stuart Palmer's Miss Hildegarde Withers.


Where everyone sat at the poker table

The reader is given an early demonstration of Alcott's questionable methods when he uses an old python-skin cigarette case, which used to belong to Wyndham, to get access to the private residence of the sportsman older sister, Miss Isabella Wyndham – who had initially hoped to put "a stop to this public pillorying." She also told them to print what they liked, but then Alcott played, what Ellis called, one of his "damn fool hunches." However, the shot in the dark hit home and the reporters gained access to the family attorney, Mr. Elihu Stone. And this sets them on the trail of the family lawyers nephew, Charlie Stone, who is revealed to be one of people who was present in the hotel suit at the time of Wyndham's disappearance.

So, slowly, but surely, Alcott and Ellis snake towards a solution by "locating Wyndham's slippery friends," which brings the two newspaper reporters to the Havana hotel in pre-Castro Cuba. There they eventually track down the people who were present in the hotel suite on the night of the disappearance, which was a mixed crowd to say the least. Several of Wyndham's personal, long-time friends, but the other poker players were a judge, a movie director, a backstage politician and a Cuban planter. One of them played for stakes much higher than the pile of cash on the center of the poker table!

Alcott and Ellis gathered most of the poker crowd in the same suite and threw all of the cards on the table, but this resulted in a different, more chaotic, denouement than expected and the surprise waiting for the reader once the dust has settled on this scene is an authentic, old-fashioned rug-puller – one that caught me completely by surprise. Up to that revelation, The Case of the Missing Corpse had shaped up to be fairly regular detective story with a slightly different approach to the plot (a missing person instead of murder). And then, when you least expect it, Sanger knocks the ball right out of the park!

There is, however, one minor smudge on the overall quality of the solution that has to be mentioned. During those final, chaotic scenes, someone is found dead in a storeroom that was locked from the inside. The police assumed it was a simple suicide, but Sanger hints that it may have been a murder. Once you know the solution, you know who the potential murderer is and this persons motive, but it is never clarified whether this death really was a suicide or murder. Or how a murderer was able to escape from the locked storeroom. So I assume the death was indeed a suicide.

Otherwise, The Case of the Missing Corpse was a pleasant surprise in the truest sense of the word.

7/9/17

The Last Roman Standing

"These murders are not native to this place. They have been planted here by the devil, or some of his agents."
- Mrs. Bradley (Gladys Mitchell's Death and the Maiden, 1947)
Ruby Ferguson was a British writer of romance fiction and children's book, whose romantic novel Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary (1937) was reportedly a personal favorite of the Queen Mother and her books for girls have remained in print longer than any other pony series, but she also produced several obscure, long-forgotten detective stories – published under her maiden name of R.C. Ashby. Several of them received glowing reviews by John Norris and Nick Fuller.

Unfortunately, Ashby's detective novels are little-known rarities on the secondhand book market and the 2009 reprint of Death on Tiptoe (1931) blinked out-of-print almost immediately upon its release. So most of her detective stories are hard to find and probably come with a hefty prize-tag, but an independent publisher of ghost and horror novels reissued one of her supernatural-tinged mysteries in 2013. And this edition is still in print!

He Arrived at Dusk (1933) has been described as a head-on collision between Agatha Christie and Gladys Mitchell, which then, dazed and groggy, stumbled onto the pages of an M.R. Jamesian ghost story before finding its way back – since the story, unlike some comments suggests, is not a hybrid mystery. Personally, the book reminded me of Virgil Markham's Death in the Dusk (1929) as perceived by E.R. Punshon.

The narrative of the book is divided in three sections, all with a different narrator, which begins with "the inclusion of Mr. Mertoun's romance."

William Mertoun is an antiquarian who is commissioned by the reclusive Colonel Barr to value the content of his lonely house on the dark, wild moors of Northumberland in the North East of England. A desolate place where the very soil exhales its ancient history and the distant past is an integral part of the plot.

When the antiquarian arrives at his employers home, Mertoun discovers that his Colonel Barr is bedridden and the nurse, Miss Winifred Goff, has barred everyone from the Colonel's bedroom. Not even his nephew, Charlie, is allowed to see his uncle. Colonel Barr's health began to falter after his brother, Ian, fell over a cliff, which was ruled to be death by misadventure at the Coroner's Inquest, but the presence of sandal-prints at the scene has everyone whispering about a local legend, Vitellius Gracchus – a centurion's ghost who has wandered the region for over sixteen-hundred years!

A ghost with a historic tie to the grounds around the ancestral home of the Barr clan: a stone was uncovered in the cellar of the house and it showed "the traces of an inscription," which were "quite illegible," but over the years the words "ROMA" and "VITELLIUS GRACCHUS" began to form. According to the legend, the Roman soldier carved those words in a rock as he was dying from wounds sustained in his last battle with the Ottadeni. So does this restless spirit of the Roman soldier is out to kill the people who took possession of the place where he took his last breath as a living human being? Well, Mertoun slowly becomes convinced something malevolent is making its presence felt.

A painting is slashed to ribbons one night and a short, broad-bladed sword, "dark and corroded with age," materialized after a séance and was found driven into the wall of the library like King Arthur's sword. Only one of them managed to retrieve the sword from the wall with ease! However, the subsequent events is what pushed the poor antiquarian over the edge and explained his wrecked nerves at the opening of the book. One dark evening, when out on the moors, Mertoun gets a glimpse of the ghost when the beam of the distant lighthouse briefly illuminates the edge of the cliff. And, for a short moment, "the old, savage England raised its head" in the twentieth century.

On the following day, the body of a young shepherd, named James Blaik, was found by a two farm laborers on the moor with a Roman sword in his back. The shepherd had defied, "what he considered superstition," by sheltering his flock at night in the ruined and haunted tower on the hill. And all of these apparently supernatural phenomena and bloody murder culminates with the disappearance of Colonel Barr.

The second section of the book consists of diary entries written by Miss Goff's brother, Hamleth, who is one of the lighthouse keepers and his story is a departure from the ghost-ridden narrative by the antiquarian, which casts an entirely new and sobering light on the events that happened on the mainland – such as the role his sister plays in the Barr household. However, that all I can say about this part of the book without giving anything of vital importance away.

I can't tell too much about the last section, either, which is told from the perspective of a Scotland Yard detective and explains everything that had happened up to that point. This character does a fine and pleasant job in tying all of the plot-threads together and pointing out all of the foreshadowing that nodded in the direction of the eventual solution.

John Norris called He Arrived at Dusk "a little masterpiece of a book" and the material used by Ashby to construct the plot were absolutely first-rate, but the book (as a whole) failed (IMO) to reach the status of masterpiece, because there are anorexic ghosts less transparent than the final explanation. Don't get me wrong. The atmospheric and evocative writing was brilliant. The Northumbrian backdrop and suggestions of its haunted past stirring back to life were superbly conveyed to the reader. And some of the schemes, and counter schemes, were great. However, the identity of the murderer and the motive were pretty obvious from very early on. And that lessened the impact of the ending as it only confirmed what I suspected all along.

Still, He Arrived at Dusk is a pleasant, shuddery read that, not entirely unsuccessful, attempted to marry the ghost yarn to the detective story, which should also appeal to my fellow aficionados of John Dickson Carr. As matter of the fact, the book can be read as an interesting companion piece to the recently reviewed He Who Whispers (1946). Just keep in mind that Ashby, as a plotter, was not in the same league as Carr, but she sure knew how to write like him. So if you go into the book with that in mind, you'll probably walk away from it with an opinion that's probably closer to Norris' than mine.

Although, I should stress here that I really enjoyed the book. My complaint is merely a plot-technical one. Anyway, that my somewhat lukewarm report on this once extremely scarce mystery novel and probably have something equally rare for my next blog-post, but I might post something before that. I still have some things on my to-watch list and there several volumes of Case Closed on the pile. So we'll see what's next.