2019-07-09

Challenge the Impossible - Edward D. Hoch

Things have been a bit sporadic here on the blog the last few weeks, mainly because it's summer. And after this post, I will take a longer summer holiday, which means that you should not expect new posts here during at least July and August. Cue Cliff Richard song from 1963 here.

However, before this well-deserved time off, I will leave off with the final collection of stories in the Dr. Sam Hawthorne saga by short story maestro Edward D. Hoch. "Challenge the Impossible" collects the final fifteen Hawthorne tales, all published in the 00s and now collected by the always reliable Crippen & Landru. As always, all stories are called "The Problem of..."


We start off with "... Annabel's Ark", wherein a new veterinarian has moved to Dr. Sam's corner of the world, and one night someone kills a cat in her establishment - even though there was no way of entering the building.

A slight-ish tale to begin with, which mainly seems to exist so Dr. Sam can meet his future wife Annabel. Of course Hoch tries to inject the story with a bit more so we're not just stuck with the impossible killing of a siamese cat, but I don't think he really succeeds with this one. A bit of a disappointment, to be honest.

"... the Potting Shed" follows. In this story, a man is killed in his potting shed and the only means of entry and escape is a small window. Most suspects can alibi each other, and the only other suspect is a pregnant woman...

This is definitely a bit better, though I'm not convinced by Hoch's solution here. It's audacious and will make the reader's eyes bulge, but I don't think it works, because it assumes that Dr. Sam is rather stupid.

In "... the Yellow Wallpaper", Dr. Sam has lost his previous nurse, Mary, who goes off to join the war effort, but is saved by the return of old nurse April. In this tale Dr. Sam comes across a woman who's been locked into her attic by her husband because she is mentally not all there. However, as he comes for another visit, the woman has suddenly disappeared from the locked attic.

We haven't had the best of starts to this collection, and this tale is not entirely convincing either. The trick played to explain the vanishing... I just don't think that it would fool two reasonably clever people. I'm not going to say that it's a total loss - I think we're on an upwards trajectory here - but it would have been a lesser effort in any of the previous Hawthorne collections.

In "... the Haunted Hospital", a patient is complaining about seeing a ghost in her room for two nights running. Then, a little later, another woman is found dead inside the same room - even though it was under watch during the entire night.

Now we're getting somewhere. The culprit is easily found, and the subplot about the robber is a bit hokey, but this had a working solution. Not one of the greatest Hawthorne tales, but an entertaining read.

"... the Traveler's Tale" gives us a story where a hiker reports having seen a man and a woman dead in a house somewhere off in the woods. When sheriff Lens and Dr. Sam come to investigate, it turns out that the entire house is locked and sealed.

This is clearly the best tale so far, giving us a true locked room mystery (or even a "locked house"). Again, I don't think the villain is very well hidden, but the solution to the impossibility makes up for that.

Dr. Sam and Annabel are newly married in "... Bailey's Buzzard", and are visiting on a ranch belonging to a friend of Annabel's. When Annabel and her friend are out riding, the latter suddenly vanishes into thin air - only to turn up murdered some distance away.

I liked the setup of the problem here, but felt some disappointment with the solution. I'm sure it was just me, but it felt to me that Hoch obfuscated some information that would have helped the reader in solving the crime. Mind you, it's not a total loss, I just have some reservations about parts of the narrative.

"... the Interrupted Séance" gives us a married couple are trying to come into contact with their son who's gone missing after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor - well, it's mainly the wife who wants to - and have engaged a medium to conduct a séance. But even though Dr. Sam and Sheriff Lens are right outside the room where the séance takes place, the medium is somehow killed and no weapon can be found inside the room.

So, not a whole lot of suspects here, and I think the motive is almost impossible for the reader to work out. And yet this is a very entertaining tale with some fine misdirection by Hoch. He introduces a couple of extra characters just to keep the reader guessing, and the explanation of the impossibility isn't bad either.

In "... the Candidate's Cabin", Sheriff Lens is about to contest his last election. His competition is fighting a bit dirty, and one morning the sheriff gets a distress call from the campaign manager. When Sheriff Lens arrives he is lying dead in his cabin, and all signs point to Lens being the murderer...

Another really good story here where everything looks very black for Sheriff Lens until Dr. Sam comes to a late rescue. The motive is perhaps a little bit too obscure, but that doesn't really stop this from begin the highlight so far.

Northmont's having a war-bond rally to support the military efforts in "... the Black Cloister", and an actor with ties to the town has been invited by the mayor. However, as the event begins, a man comes at him with a gun - loaded with blanks - and the actor falls over, dead.

This is structured a bit differently than other Hawthorne stories. There's hardly a crime in it - there's a subplot where Dr. Sam becomes interested in a fire that killed a young man, and this subplot is where the impossibilites come in. However, that being said, it's still a very good story, very entertaining and also perhaps a bit more plausible than several other stories in the Hawthorne saga. Also, the mayor survives this tale, so that's gotta count for something too, right?

In "... the Secret Passage", Dr. Sam is pressured into taking on the role of "Unlock Homes", collecting scrap metal as another initiative for the war effort. Along with some newspaper reporters, he visits an old man who has a secret passage between his study and his bedroom. However, just a little later, the old man is found dead in his study, which is locked and seal - even the secret passage!

The solution is so easy and yet satisfying. The main drawback here is that the motive is entirely hidden and just revealed during the denouement which makes it incredibly hard for the reader who wants to play along and find the murderer. But a very clever story nonetheless.

A young man is despondent because he is about to be drafted, and this at the same time as his girlfriend has found out that he is pregnant. So, after a night on the town, he is driven home by Dr. Sam when he escapes from the car and dives into "... the Devil's Orchard". And even though the exits are being watched and there are no tracks leading to the wall surrounding the orchard, he simply cannot be found the next day when the whole place is searched.

The solution felt just a tad like a cheat, to be honest. I don't think the clueing gives the reader much chance to find out how the miracle was worked. It's a fine problem and a fine story, I just feel that Hoch could have done better with his misdirection here.

A man with delusions and a leg in a cast claims that "... the Shepherd's Ring" can make him invisible. And as he has a major grudge towards a neighbour, there's some worry that something might befall the latter. So Dr. Sam and Sheriff Lens are guarding the neighbour's house when one night they see the delusional man outside the door - and when they enter, the neighbour is dead...

This was fun. Perhaps it's a bit too easy to find the culprit - the cast of characters is a bit too skimpy to hide the villain in - and I don't think this scheme could have worked in a million years, but the explanation to the impossibility is nevertheless not bad.

Dr. Sam and Annabel take a bit of a holiday in "... the Suicide Cottage", a building where at least two people have been found dead after taking their own lives. Unfortunately, Sam and Annabel go out for dinner, but as they return one of their neighbours is hanging dead from the ceiling in their living room, even though the house was locked and no one could have entered.

This is another highlight of the collection. The only drawback is the killer hiding where they did, which stretches plausibility too far. The rest of the story, the setup, the impossibility, the characters, the explanation, etc. is very good indeed.

In "... the Summer Snowman", a young man is found killed in his own house. Dr. Sam is one of the first on the scene, but he cannot find any weapon in the house, where the doors were locked and bolted.

Another fine story, with yet another motive that is much too hidden from the reader who wants to play along. However, the culprit stands out somewhat, because I think Hoch is a bit obvious in some of his clueing.

And then we get to the final Hawthorne story, "... the Secret Patient", in which a war prisoner is placed in Northmont's hospital, with Dr. Sam being responsible for his well-being. However, the prisoner is killed one night by poisoning, even though he was not given anything that was not tasted by any of the guards.

Yeah... Unfortunately, Dr. Sam didn't really get to go out on a high. Everything here is much too obvious - I don't know, is there really anyone who won't realise who the prisoner is? Or for that matter, who the culprit is? The only good bit is how the poison was administered, which is clever. I only wish it was married to a better tale.

Conclusion

This is perhaps the weakest of the Hawthorne collections - it starts off  badly and finishes with one of the stories that are easiest to see through. That doesn't mean that this is a total washout - not by any means! There are a number of very fine stories (everything from "... the Interrupted Séance" to "... the Suicide Cottage" is a very entertaining read), and it's obvious that Hoch's imagination was flowing freely even in his later years. If you liked the earlier collections, there's absolutely no reason why you shouldn't get this one as well.

It's been a privilege to follow along with the Hawthorne saga, and it's with some sadness and melancholy that I finished the final tale here. But Crippen & Landru have promised further collections from Hoch - there's at least three in the pipeline - and even though they won't feature exclusively impossible crimes, I am 100 % certain that they will give us a lot of entertaining and puzzling mysteries.

As usual, TomCat likes all the wrong stories - and dislikes all the wrong ones as well - but he seems to have enjoyed this volume just as much as I did, over on Beneath the Stains of Time. The Puzzle Doctor over at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel is much more correct in his evaluations of the individual stories. :)

Let me wish you all a wonderful summer, and I'll see you again here when we reach the autumn months!

2019-06-28

The Man Who Read Mysteries - William Brittain

Another collection from specialist publisher Crippen & Landru, this one collecting all the "Man Who Read" stories by William Brittain, and also featuring a selection of stories from the same author's Mr. Strang series.

It's a bit unfortunate that we only get a sample from the latter series, but as editor Josh Pachter tells us in his informative introduction, otherwise we would have had a collection with forty-three tales, which is a bit unwieldy. But I certainly hope that sales of this volume were promising and that we'll see a second collection with the rest of the Mr. Strang stories.

From that you'll probably infer that I liked this collection, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. As always, we'll take a look at the individual stories first and then return to my overall assessment.


The first half of the book is dedicated to Brittain's "The Man Who Read" stories - a bit of a misnomer since it's not just men reading... Anyway, first out is "The Man Who Read John Dickson Carr". This is the story of a young man who wants to get rid of his uncle, and because he idolises all our favourite impossible crime writer, he decides to commit the murder in a completely locked room.

So what we get is an inverted tale with a funny ending. Not generally my thing, as you all know, but at least it's quite amusing and it's also interesting to follow the protagonist as he plans his impossible crime.

Things pick up a lot with the second instalment of the series, "The Man Who Read Ellery Queen". Unlike the first story, which was sort of a parody, this is much more of a regular mystery story, written as an homage to the great cousins. In it, a man who's recently been admitted to a house for the elderly gets a case to investigate when a neighbour has a valuable coin stolen.

This is a fine mystery with good clueing, but to be honest, I don't feel it has a whole lot of Ellery Queen about it. There's no challenge to the reader - though Brittain makes a nod to this staple of EQ's early novels - nor is there any dying message or a collection of items where one thing happens to be different in some way. It's just simply a fine mystery, well worth reading, like most Ellery Queen tales.

Next comes "The Man Who Didn't Read", and what he didn't read was Edgar Allan Poe. Here we have two men, one of whom has killed the other's wife in a car accident. And then the former agrees to help the latter with building a new room in his house...

Yeah, you all know where this is heading. This isn't really a mystery, it's a suspense story building to a climax. And when the climax is obvious, it does take away most of my enjoyment.

"The Woman Who Read Rex Stout" is an interesting inversion of genders - both in title and content - where a circus lady investigates who killed her protegé/surrogate daughter.

This story does in fact have a dying message of sorts, so at least finally we got one here. I think Brittain does a bit better in his evocation of an author here, and this is really a fine mystery. A good surprise ending to boot.

It's interesting that it's only with story no. 5 in this series that we arrive at Agatha Christie - in "The Boy Who Read Agatha Christie". This is another winner of the series, where several high school boys go into different shops in a small town and do more or less crazy things, and a young exchange student from Belgium manages to deduce the reason for this behaviour.

I think this has some Chestertonian traits as well - "where is it best to hide a tree? In a forest" - but Christie did the same thing here and there, and as a story the whole thing works pretty well. I'm not sure it's wholly fairly clued, but a good read nonetheless.

And the other household name of the genre gets his pastiche in "The Man Who Read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle". A man in a small town receives a letter from an old acquaintance which obliquely refers to the great detective, and then suddenly he is approached by people from an intelligence agency who want to find the hidden message in the letter.

To be honest, this isn't much like anything Doyle wrote. It's really just an amusing story with some Holmesian references and some code cracking that seems rather far-fetched. Not a total loss, but it's not a particular highlight either.

I mentioned Chesterton before, and of course Brittain writes his own Chesterton take-off. "The Man Who Read G. K. Chesterton" is a Roman Catholic pastor named Charles Kenney, and when one of his flock is found dead from a presumed suicide, he is not so sure and manages to get his superior to agree to an investigation of the case.

This was another fine story with a simple but easily acceptable solution to how the murder could be jigged into looking like a suicide. Isn't Father Kenney's last remark a bit un-Christian?

"The Man Who Read Dashiell Hammett" should move us into more hard-boiled territory, but instead we get a story with an old librarian who is asked by his superior and a prospective financial backer to use his mystery reading skills to find a valuable first edition volume that the latter has hidden somewhere in the library.

So what we get is actually a pure fair play mystery with our protagonist applying his reasoning to clues supplied by the financial backer. It's another good story, where the clues are perhaps just a tad too far-fetched for the reader to solve them, but nevertheless a good read.

Two delivery men have come with a load of valuable art pieces to a rich man's house in "The Man Who Read Georges Simenon". But as they unload the paintings they become somewhat suspicious of the man who met them claiming to be the security guard.

Now, I haven't read much Simenon, but I didn't really get a "Maigret feeling" from this one. Others who are more well-versed in Simenon's oeuvre may disagree, but to me this was a fairly slight tale with not too much happening in the way of plot. A bit of a disappointment, to be honest.

The previous stories have all referenced pretty big names in the mystery field, but for a reader today the subject matter of "The Girl Who Read John Creasey" feels rather more obscure. In this tale, a police officer tells his family about a case where a man was killed in a hotel room, just managing to breathe out a few words before passing away.

So, this is another dying message story. The culprit felt rather obvious to me, but the clues are pretty good and I thought the story fairly amusing on the whole. I did get annoyed with the mother's constant admonitions of her husband. "Not at the table, dear..." Bah.

The final story in this set is "The Men Who Read Isaac Asimov", a pastiche of the great doctor's Black Widowers stories. At a dinner party, a journalist tells a story of an entrepreneur who's created a grand competition for his customers to try to find out the combination to a safe where he has put a thousand-dollar bill.

This might be the one story in this series that best evokes its subject matter, because this is pretty much a Black Widowers story in everything but some of the window dressing. There are clues based on words and numbers, the characters are pretty much non-entities and everything is just really lovely. It's not a story where I'd manage to find the solution in a million years, but I really liked this one.

Moving on to the Mr. Strang half of the book, which begins with "Mr. Strang Gives a Lecture". Our protagonist is a high school teacher who solves crimes of different varieties. In this case one of Mr. Strang's pupils is accused of having committed a robbery, using Mr. Strang's car. Still, the teacher is not convinced that his adept was the true culprit.

A fairly good introduction to a new series. I'd have to say that the policeman in charge is a bit obtuse in his observation of the car's odometer. But it's a fun little story with some good conclusions drawn by Mr. Strang before we reach the end.

"Mr. Strang Performs an Experiment" is fairly topical with a female pupil accusing one of Mr. Strang's colleagues of improper advances, and so Mr. Strang designs an experiment to find out whether she is telling the truth or not.

A story that fits perfectly in our modern world. There's not much of a mystery in this one, it's simply a story of Mr. Strang's experiment where he attempts to catch the accuser out in a lie. Clever, but not the strongest story here.

"Mr. Strang Takes a Field Trip" was previously discussed in this post. It's a great little impossible crime tale.

Our next story sees Mr. Strang take on the drug trade in "Mr. Strang Versus the Snowman". One of Mr. Strang's pupils is living with his uncle, and the latter is suspected of being one of the key people in the drug trade. So Mr. Strang manages to get himself invited into their home...

A nice, fairly clued story with some fine misdirection by Brittain, though the main clue only arises due to a mistake by the bad guy.

In "Mr. Strang, Armchair Detective", our protagonist is challenged by a big city cop that he won't be able to solve a case that the latter is in the middle of right now, simply by sitting back in his restaurant chair and draw conclusions.

So, another fine story with Mr. Strang reasoning himself to a probable solution by picking up on clues in the cop's story. To be honest, this should have been the "The Man Who Read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle" story instead.

Mr. Strang visits an old teacher friend in "Mr. Strang Interprets a Picture", and notices a drawing made by a young boy whose later been hospitalized. And when he manages to connect the drawing with a bank robbery, surely the villains cannot hope to get away?

This is perhaps just a bit too far-fetched to be entirely successful. I guess it could work like that, but the conclusions drawn by Mr. Strang stretch incredulity just a bit. An enjoyable read, nonetheless.

The final story in this series is "Mr. Strang Takes a Tour", where the elderly teacher is on a bus trip from the US to Canada and then back again. When a wooden cross is stolen from a fellow passenger, Mr. Strang gets suspicious.

And manages to build a chain of deductions that leads to the arrest of a fugitive. A fun story, and perhaps especially interesting as a study of American tourists going to a foreign country...

Conclusion

This was a rather wonderful collection. There are a couple of misfires - two of the stories in the "The Man Who Read" series are only so-so - but the average quality of the tales in this volume is very high indeed. This is particularly recommended for folks who like Edward D. Hoch's stories - the Mr. Strang series is very Hoch-ian, both because of Brittain's writing style and because of their content.

It's worth noting that the stories in the "The Man Who Read" series aren't particularly uniform. A couple of them are parodies while others are homages. And the Asimov one could almost have been a pastiche, had Brittain just changed the names a bit.

Being the impossible crime nerd that I am, that's really the only complaint I can come up with - too few impossible crimes! Though the one that is in this collection is really very good. It's just that it's been featured elsewhere and so wasn't new to me.

As I said above, I really hope that C&L can find a way to get the rest of the Mr. Strang stories published, they are very good indeed.

2019-06-19

The Christmas Card Crime (ed. Martin Edwards)

With this volume we're now up to the third Christmas related anthology in the British Library Crime Classics series. Is this a story of diminishing returns, or has Edwards found a couple of bonafide winter classics for this new book?

What is obvious from the table of contents is that most of the authors here have not been featured (much) in previous anthologies, so that should mean that we can't draw much of a conclusion just from the author list. But even though these are relative newcomers to this anthology series, there are still some heavy-hitters here. The main draw has to be John Dickson Carr, who finally gets a story selected for these anthologies, but names like Cyril Hare, Baroness Orczy, Ronald Knox and Julian Symons are nothing to sneeze at either.


Baroness Orczy - A Christmas Tragedy

Lady Molly and her companion are visiting with the disagreeable Major Ceely and his daughter Margaret over the winter holidays. One night, the major is found dead in the gardens, having received a gunshot wound in his back. As he had lately quarreled with a suitor of his daughter's, that young man is suspected of the crime.

For a story from the turn of the century (the old one), this wasn't half bad. I mean, there's not much fair play and a whole lot of melodrama and admiration of the "dear lady", and the callousness of a certain character is obvious, but the story zips along quite nicely and doesn't overstay its welcome. And there's actually a bit of a surprise in that the obvious suspect is not the guilty party!

Selwyn Jepson - By the Sword

A young-ish ne'er-do-well is staying with his benefactor cousin and his family over the Christmas. Unfortunately, not only is he skint and trying to finagle some money from his wealthy cousin, but he has also fallen for his cousin's wife. And when he is denied a loan, he takes the fateful decision to get rid of the person standing between him and a fortune (and a woman).

Yeah, we've seen this plot before... Lots and lots of times. This really is the first plot you'll think of when someone mentions the words "inverted mystery". There's not all that much to distinguish it from other stories of its ilk, either. The only thing that differentiates these stories from each other is what in the end leads to the miscreant being apprehended, and I can't say that that bit excited me much either. So a bit of a dud, to be honest.

Donald Stuart - The Christmas Card Crime

Trevor Lowe, a famous dramatist (and our detective) is travelling with some companions on the train towards Cornwall, but when the train gets stuck in the snow the passengers decide to wander along the track to an inn to spend the night there. But along the way a fellow passenger, a young woman, is attacked and nearly hanged from a bridge, and when they reach the inn, she vanishes during the night and another passenger is found killed.

I thought this had a pretty exciting set-up and enjoyed the beginning quite a bit. But unfortunately it soon descends into silliness and melodrama, and unfortunately Stuart leaves a couple of huge plot holes unexplained when he tries to tie everything up at the end. (For example, how on earth could the party of passengers fail to notice that one of them was missing while the female passenger was attacked?) I was sorry to see that the promising beginning was not realised by what followed.

Ronald Knox - The Motive

A famous lawyer relates the tale of a case that somewhat stumped him. A man first made an attempt at another man's life by tricking him into swimming blindfolded in a pool and slowly letting out the water so he couldn't climb out again. And then some time later the same man is accused of having killed a fellow train passenger who vanished completely during the night.

This was much more like it. I like Knox's humour, and though I can't say that this is his best story, it still grabbed my attention. I'm sure I've read it before somewhere, but I didn't remember much about it, which perhaps doesn't sound like ringing endorsement, but as I said, this appealed to me quite a bit.

Carter Dickson - Blind Man's Hood

Already discussed in this post.

Francis Durbridge - Paul Temple's White Christmas

Paul Temple is given an assignment in Switzerland to identify a criminal who's being held there.

This is a short short, so the description will necessarily also have to be short. It's not much of a story, and there's not much detection available either. But it is quite short and gets in and out before the reader has had time to register his disappointment...

Cyril Hare - Sister Bessie or Your Old Leech

A young man is being blackmailed by someone in his adopted family, and he is now quite certain that he's identified who it is.

Bleh, I really don't like this type of stories. Nasty people doing nasty things to each other. Yuck. If I remember correctly, Hare's short stories were often of this type, unlike his novels which are generally much better.

E. C. R. Lorac - A Bit of Wire-Pulling

An old industrialist has been receiving threatening letters, and requests the company of a police officer during the New Year's celebrations when he's visiting with his daugher and son-in-law. During the night's festivities, the son-in-law sees someone through the window, and the industrialist is shot. But the culprit manages to get away, with tracks in the snow being the only traces left behind.

Kind of an impossible story, and it could have been so much better. Unfortunately, it's dead easy to see through the villain's plot. It really doesn't bode well when the reader can foresee the solution to each unexplained phenomenon as soon as they are presented. In the hands of a more experienced impossible mystery writer, I think this could have been an outstanding story, because there's a lot to recommend it otherwise. I definitely liked reading it, it was just a disappointment to see that Lorac didn't once manage to offer any surprising resolutions.

John Bude - Pattern of Revenge

Two men are rivals for a woman's affections, and then one day she is found killed in her cottage. The tracks leading to the crime scene look like those of a man with a wooden leg, and of course one of the rivals has just that.

Well, I thought the explanation for how the tracks were obfuscated - if you didn't realise from the description that they would be, well, then I'm sorry - was pretty good, but that doesn't really rescue this story from mediocrity.

John Bingham - Crime at Lark Cottage

A man arrives at the titular cottage, where a woman and young girl are living. It is soon obvious that the woman is very fearful of something, and rather quickly the visiting man begins to reason out why.

From the outset, there are really only two explanations that are possible, and it doesn't take long before it's obvious which one it will be. The surprises are fairly well telegraphed in advance as well. Not a particularly strong story.

Julian Symons - 'Twixt the Cup and the Lip

The bookseller Mr. Payne is leading a double life where he is also a robber. In this case he is out to rob a department store of some Russian jewels that are on display there. He recruits a gang of helpers to carry out his plan...

This is a typical Symons story of a crime, where we follow along more or less in real time, but fortunately, this is from early in his career, before he turned to psychological crime stories and that kind of drek. So this actually managed to hold my interest for the main part of the story. The final twist is quite amusing, though it may be the most obvious example of the "Chekhov's Gun" trope I've come across in a while.

Conclusion

Well, obviously there are quite a lot of stories with winter settings - though in some of the cases here, that particular setting isn't a huge part of the story - and Edwards has managed to ferret out a couple of worthy ones here. The obvious highlight is the Carr story, but that is available elsewhere in better collections. But Knox and to some extent Orczy and Lorac also bring the goods.

There's also nothing that is horribly bad here. There's just a couple of disappointments or stories where the plot didn't appeal much to me - as usual!

1. Miraculous Mysteries - no surprise there, this is an impossible crime anthology, so it has lots of things going for it that elevate it above all the other collections.
2. Silent Nights - the quality of the collections from here on is fairly uniform, but I think this one just manages to go to the top. A good variety of stories and a few really good ones.
3. Blood on the Tracks - a collection with few standouts and some truly bewildering inclusions, but on the whole it was still a worthwhile read.
4. The Long Arm of the Law - starts off spottily, but gets better and better, and even though it finishes with one of the worst stories I've ever read it's still distinctly above average.
5. Serpents in Eden - the very definition of average with two highlights and no real disappointments.
6. The Christmas Card Crime - even more average than the previous anthology, with just one highlight and a couple of disappointments as well. 
7. Crimson Snow - a rough start and ending to this anthology belies the fact that it collects a solid bunch of stories, perhaps only marred by the fact that there is no true highlight here.
8. Continental Crimes - a disappointing read on the whole where the great stories are few and far between.
9. Resorting to Murder - there's a bunch of easily forgotten stuff here. But also one awesome story that means that it manages to avoid being placed last.
10. Murder at the Manor - I was thoroughly disappointed that this didn't feature any true country house mysteries. I think there was one fair play mystery among the whole bunch of stories.

The Puzzle Doctor seems to have enjoyed this collection quite a bit over at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, and Kate had many good words for it over at CrossexaminingCrime. And of course inverted mystery fan Aidan over at Mysteries Ahoy liked all the stories I had a hard time with...

2019-06-12

The Zanzibar Shirt Mystery - James Holding

Here we have another collection of short stories from specialist publisher Crippen & Landru. In this volume, we get the complete output of Leroy King stories by author James Holding. The entire series, consisting of ten tales, is included.

All the stories of this series use the same naming convention - The Nationality Thing Mystery. As the savvy mystery reader will know, this is the very same convention used by Ellery Queen in their early novels. And this series is very much a homage to Queen. The lead characters are a pair of cousins, writing mysteries as a team under the pseudonym Leroy King.

These ten tales all take place on a round-the-world cruise, where the cousins - King Danforth and Martin Leroy - and their wives are seeing the sights around our pale blue dot (though it has to be said that the ship seems to be taking a somewhat circuitous route). The stories were mainly written during the 60s (with one straggling tale from '72), and even though there is an obvious homage to Ellery Queen - though these stories are nowhere near as formal as Queen's early novels, I'd actually say that this is closer to what EQ was writing in the 50s - they stand on their own feet as mysteries.

Most of the stories are a bit dissimilar from regular mysteries insofar as they are not really murder (or crime) investigations per se. Instead, our protagonists run into or are told about some peculiar situation, apply their reasoning skills and often find a criminal perpetrator behind the situation in question.


The first story here is "The Norwegian Apple Mystery", where a female passenger is found dead in her bed one morning with a piece of apple stuck in her throat. There are some anomalies, though, and Leroy King - let's call our cousins that - suspect that foul play may have been involved.

A fine introduction to the series which is representative of the series as a whole. The reasoning is sound and though I'm hesitant to call this fair play (the culprit is pulled out of a hat towards the end), I was greatly entertained.

"The African Fish Mystery" takes place off the cruise ship, in South Africa where the cousins and their wives have decided to take a trip through the wildlife. Their chauffeur tells them the tale of a man who had previously hired him simply to drive along the river so he could go fishing from time to time. The cousins get a hunch that perhaps fishing was not the ultimate goal of that trip...

Again, a story where our detectives simply build up a case from something that seems fairly innocuous at first glance. A fun story, though there's hardly any crime in it.

Next time we meet our travellers, in "The Italian Tile Mystery", we find ourselves in Positano on the Italian Amalfi coast. They are staying at a guest house, and the hostess tells them of an extraordinary tiled table that she was given by a guest before he passed away.

And so our friends Leroy King can start building up an interesting plot with a code cracking exercise that is perhaps just a tad too far-fetched. But codes and ciphers are fun, so I forgive Holding.

In "The Hong Kong Jewel Mystery", we're - more or less - back on the ship. It's moored in Hong Kong harbour, and a gang of painters are touching up the outside of the hull. But during the stop someone breaks in and steals valuables from several cabins - including those belonging to Leroy King!

And so our friends the authors have to help the Hong Kong police with first finding the culprit and later where he hid the valuables. The police are awfully magnanimous in taking help from a pair of mystery authors, I have to say. A nice enough story, though perhaps the least successful so far.

Our heroes spot someone is emptying out some kind of toiletries through a cabin window in "The Tahitian Powder Mystery", and when they later spot one of their fellow passengers acting somewhat suspiciously, could there be something criminal brewing?

With a bit of a twist at the end, this is perhaps the most frivolous of the stories. Fun, but mainly if you read it in the context of the whole series. I don't think it'd work as well as a standalone.

Back in Africa, the intrepid world travellers have once again gotten off their ship and are travelling around in "The Zanzibar Shirt Mystery", where they run across a drunkard in a bar who is wearing a very distinctive shirt - in fact, it's so distinctive that they are certain that the shirt actually belongs to one of their fellow cruise companions.

And from such mundane beginnings, Leroy King build up a case where a potential heir is being discredited by another one. Fun, but a tad inconsequential again.

"The Japanese Card Mystery" features another co-traveller, this time a Japanese business man who happens to have a niece who is a mindreader - at least she is able to tell anyone who phones her which card they have picked from a deck of cards.

This really is rather slight - the whole premise rests on one single thing, and it's not very hard to figure the whole thing out. But Holding still manages to give his stories a certain something that elevate them above the ordinary.

And in "The New Zealand Bird Mystery" we are introduced to yet another cruise passenger, but this time it's a dead one! Someone has killed him in the harbour of Hobart, Tasmania. And when some time later Leroy King find a mysterious message to the victim, they begin unravelling the plot behind the murder.

This is rather more substantial than the last few stories. One of the better stories here.

"The Philippine Key Mystery" takes place off the cruise ship, in the harbour of Zamboanga, where our four protagonists have met some of the locals, and during dinner in a seaside restaurant they notice that one of the local kids is wearing a loincloth that seems to be made out of prison clothes.

And from such humble beginnings we get the story of a prison escapee and how Leroy King reasons out how he escaped and alerts the authorities to his whereabouts. This whole story is more or less a flashback which sets up what we got to read about on the first few pages and is then solved in another few paragraphs towards the end. This might be the least successful tale here - it really feels padded.

Our final adventure with Leroy King is "The Borneo Snapshot Mystery, where one of the cousins cannot sleep and so is wandering about the ship at night. He comes across a dead body, lying battered at the bottom of a flight of stairs. And even though the ships crew thinks it might be a simple accident, the cousins have a different take on things.

This story is more or less two halves - the first one gives us an explanation of the mysterious death, and then there is a follow-up which solves why everything happened as it did. A good ending to a lovely set of stories.

Conclusion

This really is right up my alley. I feel that there is some similarity between the way these stories are set-up and the stories of the Black Widowers by Isaac Asimov. Unlike most mysteries, in several of these stories we are not sure that there is actually a crime committed. Sometimes it turns out that way, but not always. And it's certainly mostly a cerebral experience, there's hardly any real time action. I think the fairest way to describe them is that they are true armchair detective stories (even though there are hardly any armchairs featured). And all that fits the Asimov series as well.So if you like the Black Widowers, you will most probably like this series as well.

However, these are not really stories for anyone who enjoys modern mysteries or craves characterisations and/or psychology. These are straight up puzzles for the reader to exercise their brain with. But that's the stuff I like, as you probably all know by now, and therefore this is wholeheartedly recommended. One of the most entertaining mystery collections I've read. It's amazing that I hadn't heard much about them before being alerted to Crippen & Landru's publication.

TomCat was equally impressed with the collection over on Beneath the Stains of Time, and I see that he made the same Black Widowers comparison as I did. :)

2019-06-05

Bodies from the Library (ed. Tony Medawar)

Another recent anthology, this time from Tony Medawar, a major genre aficionado and generally excellent att discovering unknown and forgotten stories by authors in the mystery field. This book collects a number of such discoveries, all from major names in the genre.

Most of the stories are from the 20s and 30s, with a couple of exceptions, and were written in the respective author's heyday. So, even though these stories had been forgotten by history, there should be some hope that their quality is up to snuff.


J. J. Connington - Before Insulin

Sir Clinton Driffield is visiting his old friend Squire Wendover over the weekend. Wendover reveals an ulterior motive to his invitation when he tells Sir Clinton that he is expecting a visit from a nurse who's suspiciously been named as the heir of a young man who'd been nursed at a nursing-home in France but died recently.

This is a fairly run-of-the-mill 20s mystery story, but Sir Clinton is a nice enough character and the story moves along at a fair clip. It's not really fair play, but the explanation towards the end gives the reader a good surprise. In all, not bad at all.

Leo Bruce - The Inverness Cape

Sergeant Beef tells the story of one of the bloodiest murders he came across - a case where an elderly lady was bludgeoned to death in full view of her crippled sister. She is adamant that the killer, clad in the titular cape, was their ne'er-do-well nephew, but it turns out that his cape was being mended at precisely the time when the murder occurred.

A clever tale by Bruce with a kinda, sorta impossible slant. The explanation isn't the most surprising I've ever read, but it's a solid tale by a recent favourite of mine.

Freeman Wills Crofts - Dark Waters

A solicitor decides to murder one of his clients when the latter decides to realise some of the assets that the solicitor was handling for him. The murder takes place on the river, in a rowboat, after the victim had been visiting him, and the solicitor takes great pains to avoid leaving any clues to the murderer's identity.

A very short inverted tale by Crofts, where Inspector French only appears for a handful of paragraphs towards the very end. Another one of those where the murderer overlooks a simple thing. Not really what I want to read, but when the story's so short I don't mind its inclusion.

Georgette Heyer - Linckes' Great Case

A young police officer, Roger Linckes, is sent to investigate how the contents of some important government papers managed to escape into the hands of a foreign power. He is sent to interview several of the respectable officials that had been handling the papers.

More of an adventure thriller than a mystery, and very typical of the twenties. The "surprise" of the solution isn't much of one, and disappointing to boot. Luckily, Heyer has a writing style I enjoy, so it wasn't all a complete disappointment.

Nicholas Blake - 'Calling James Braithwaite'

A shipowner has invited a detective - Nigel Strangeways - to his yacht for a family trip, without really telling him what it is he is supposed to investigate. Once they are on their way, a message comes over the radio that an escaped convict may have stowed away on the ship, and when the shipowner is found dead the next morning, Strangeways needs to find out what actually happened.

This is a play, not a prose story, and there are some impossible elements to the situation as well. This was a story I really enjoyed. I can't say that the solution is particularly surprising, but it's told well.

John Rhode - The Elusive Bullet

Dr. Priestley is alerted to a case where a man has been found dead on a train as it arrived at its final destination. The victim was struck by the ubiquitous blunt instrument. As his nephew was travelling on the same train and also had motive to kill his older relative, the police are wont to suspect him, but Dr. Priestley has other ideas...

Hm. If you noticed the title above, you'll probably guess that the wound from the "blunt instrument" was in fact a gunshot wound. The police investigation can't have been very impressive... Anyhoo, this was a bit of a disappointment. There's just a bit too much coincidence in the whole thing, and yet I never really felt any sort of surprise along the way.

Cyril Hare - The Euthanasia of Hilary's Aunt

Young Hilary Smyth has run through his entire fortune and has taken residence with his elderly aunt. And as she is rather poorly and has no valid will, Hilary has decided to help her along the way to her final resting place.

One of those all too common inverted stories with a sting in its tail at the end. Not my thing at all.

Vincent Cornier - The Girdle of Dreams

An old woman has come to Mr. Lionel Blayne's jeweller's firm to sell a precious girdle, created by famous artist Benvenuto Cellini. She is not willing to divulge any information on how it came in her possession, but convinces him to store it in the store's safe. But as he opens it to put the precious girdle inside, he is overcome by a lightness. And when he comes to his senses again, the safe has been emptied...

A typical Cornier plot with a typical Cornier poisoning and a typical Cornier villain. I'm not his biggest fan, and so this story fell a bit flat for me.

Arthur Upfield - The Fool and the Perfect Murder

Australian Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte is investigating a case where an outback rider has vanished from his post, with no traces of him left.

Medawar sees fit to warn us readers about some of the language and descriptions in this story, but I think that warning says more about our times than about those when the story was written, because I felt there was very little to hurt my sensitive nerves here. As for the plot and the story itself, it's a bit so-so. It's an inverted mystery, so that's immediately a minus for me. Otherwise, it's an interesting setting to read about and Bony is a nice enough character to follow.

A. A. Milne - Bread upon the Waters

This is the story of a young ne'er-do-well who wants to get rid of his rich uncle, and concocts a plot in order to succeed (and still inherit).

This is really plot template 2B of the inverted mystery, but it has one excellent thing that makes it stand out a bit, and that is the breezy style in which it's written. The plot hatched by the young miscreant is quite clever, and the final twist is at least a bit amusing. So, probably the inverted mystery I've enjoyed the most for quite some time.

Anthony Berkeley - The Man with the Twisted Thumb

A young lady who's come into a bit of money and has some leisure time travels to Monte Carlo where she runs into a young man who tells her a similar story of his own. And then they bump into a couple of shady characters outside the casino, who are after a handbag that the young lady seems to have come into possession of by mistake.

This is very much not a typical Berkeley story - it's another twenties style romantic adventure (though published in the early 30s, it seems), even more so than the Heyer story above. It really is quite entertaining, but don't go in expecting any of Berkeley's tricksier plotting.

Christianna Brand - The Rum Punch

A police sergeant is supposed to take his family on a seaside holiday during the weekend, but as the week begins he is thrown into work on a case where a man was poisoned in front of a whole party of people as he was going to propose a toast to his step daughter's engagement.

Speaking of tricksy writers... Unlike the Berkeley story, this is much more typical of its author's works. It doesn't feature any of Brand's more well-known detectives, but Sergeant Troot is a pleasant character and he is just as clever at solving these mysteries as those other guys. The highlight of the collection, and an impossible mystery story at that!

Ernest Bramah - Blind Man's Bluff

Max Carrados is accompanying an acquaintance to a hotel room where a bunch of con artists are plotting to steal some important government papers from him.

This is another playscript, and not all that good. Bramah could do some fair play plotting when he wanted to, but this is not at all that type of story. It's more of an adventure thriller, and not the most engaging one I've read.

H. C. Bailey - Victoria Pumphrey

A young lady, whose family fortunes have dwindled to nothing, is engaged by an old servant to investigate whether a young man he is fond of is being swindled out of his future inheritance by an impostor, or if that person is actually the true heir of that fortune.

No Reggie Fortune here, but Miss Pumphrey holds her own in this story which actually came with a pretty good twist towards the end. Before that everything seemed to go in exactly the direction anyone would suppose, but Bailey really fooled me. So I was pleasantly surprised by this one. I can't say that it's particularly fair play in its plotting, but it's still very entertainingly told.

Roy Vickers - The Starting-Handle Murder

A young gentleman is driven to kill his friend because he is behaving more and more erratically, putting the friend's wife - whom he later marries - in more and more embarrassing situations. And to begin with everything seems to go swimmingly, the police cannot find anyone who could be responsible for the murder.

A typical Vickers Department of Dead Ends ending, and thus I thoroughly disliked it. Man, he really could be nasty to his characters.

Agatha Christie - The Wife of the Kenite

A wounded German soldier in South Africa is taken in by a couple, but it doesn't take long before he is feeling increasingly disconcerted by his hosts.

Not one of Christie's mysteries, this is instead similar to her 20s romantic adventures, though this is rather less romantic and more unpleasant. This will obviously never be seen as a classic, but a new Christie story is always worth reading.

Conclusion

Okay, this anthology has no business being as entertaining and good as it is, seeing as it consists of flotsam and jetsam and things that fell by the wayside. I'm not going to say that every story here is a classic, or even near classic, but these stories were almost all entertaining. As usual, I may sound quite negative in my assessment of some of these stories, but there is not a single one that I would rather have wanted to remain buried. And also as usual, if you're more tolerant of inverted mysteries than I am, you might actually find everything here valuable.

There are two stories that stand out for me - the Bruce and Brand ones - but again, not a single one is a story where you read it and then go "okay, yes, I see why this one was left undiscovered for so long". If I were to compare this anthology to the Martin Edwards curated anthologies in the British Library Crime Classics series, I would actually recommend this above all of them except for the one collecting impossible mysteries.

And as there is a second volume coming in July, here's hoping that it retains the quality of this one!

2019-05-29

Serpents in Eden (ed. Martin Edwards)

Yet another post on a BLCC anthology. Hey, they're the ones that are easiest available featuring old-timey stories, so it's not that strange that they feature heavily on this blog. This was published in 2016, so it's one of the older ones, which means that Edwards had a full range of stories to choose from in producing this volume.

This one is subtitled "Countryside crimes", which also means that I am less inclined to be annoyed that the stories aren't mysteries... As you can probably gather, this means that the theme of this anthology is stories with a rural setting. We get the usual assortment of authors, some very famous, some who have fallen out of favour, and some who never became household names at all. To be honest, this probably has the highest rate of heavy hitters compared with unknowns of all the BLCC anthologies I've read so far.


Arthur Conan Doyle - The Black Doctor

A doctor with an unknown past has moved into the small village Bishop's Crossing, and soon he is engaged to be married to a young lady from the nearby Leigh Hall. But late one night, he seems to have received a visitor, since several witnesses have heard him arguing and calling loudly. And the next morning, he is found dead in his study...

I'm in two minds about this one. The solution involves something that is generally looked upon as a bit of a cheat, but Doyle writes deftly and keeps the story going. There's no Sherlock Holmes in this one (since it was written while he was temporarily "dead"), and it's even less of a mystery than those stories. On the whole, I suppose it's passable.

M. McDonnell Bodkin - Murder by Proxy

Already discussed in this post.

G. K. Chesterton - The Fad of the Fisherman

Sir Isaac is found murdered after having been in a secluded spot, fishing away.

Another heavy-hitter with a story not featuring his most well-known detective. This one instead uses Horne Fisher, but this might as well have been a Brown tale, there's very little to distinguish it. The first few pages are quite bewildering, and there's no detection - Fisher just tells us what happened, without us really getting to know how he would know that.

E. C. Bentley - The Genuine Tabard

Philip Trent meets two visiting Americans, and is told about the fortunate find they made while having a drive in the country. They came across a quaint old church and its vicar, and while there managed to acquire a mediaeval tabard that is quite unique. But Trent is not so sure.

So, this one at least features the author's most famous creation. Bentley wrote a couple of fine short stories, but this one only ranks somewhere in the middle. It's an all right read, but there's not much detection, things just unfold as the story meanders along.

Herbert Jenkins - The Gylston Slander

This story tells the tale of Malcolm Sage who's investigating a case where a curate in a local church is being suspected of being a poison-pen letter writer.

I have to wonder if this tale is actually just an excerpt from a novel, because some of the writing here is very hard to follow otherwise. The first six or seven paragraphs have no bearing at all on what follows, and there are some things that are implicitly understood as if they've been explained elsewhere. That doesn't matter much though, because the story isn't much to talk about anyway. It's quite run of the mill with a fairly obvious culprit. More melodrama than mystery.

H. C. Bailey - The Long Barrow

Reggie Fortune investigates a case where two scientists - man and woman - have moved out into the countryside and are being followed in different creepy ways. But as Fortune immerses himself more into the mystery, he becomes convinced that there is more to the story than just a simple case of persecution.

This story - as usual with Bailey, it's a fairly long one - is really a tale in two parts. The above description only applies to the first half, but then the whole thing veers off in a different direction (though Fortune seems to have had his suspicions from the very start). It's not a fair play story in any sense, not one of Bailey's better efforts.

R. Austin Freeman - The Naturalist at Law

Dr. John Thorndyke has been approached by the brother of a man who's been found drowned in a ditch. The question now is if the whole thing is really a suicide, as it appears, or something more sinister...

A very typical Freeman story where we follow Thorndyke's scientific findings which slowly but surely unveil the whole picture for us. It's only tangentially a fair play story, because while (some of) the clues are signalled, there's really no way that we readers can solve this thing along with Thorndyke. An okay-ish read, on the whole.

Margery Allingham - A Proper Mystery

Farmer Mr. Light put his cows out to graze, but somehow they managed to get through the enclosing and destroyed a whole set-up of lots that were intended to be judged on at the following day's Flower Show.

A misnomer, because this ain't no mystery at all. It's just an amusing countryside vignette. Fun, but very inconsequential. (No, there's no Albert Campion in this one.)

Anthony Berkeley - Direct Evidence

As Roger Sheringham is bringing forth his wisdom on evidence, he is called on by a young lady whose brother has been arrested on suspicion of murder. It seems that the brother was having a sort of dalliance with a married woman, and several witnesses saw him drive up in his car and beat the woman to death.

This is yet another Berkeley winner. As Edwards points out in his foreword, Berkeley wrote a variant of this story which was published elsewhere as "Double Bluff" (in the collection "The Avenging Chanee"). I've read both, and I think both are very worthwhile. The entire setup is the same in both stories, "Double Bluff" only differs in introducing another character. In both cases we get very fine examples of fair play mystery writing. Do seek out the alternative variant if you have the opportunity, just to compare the two.

Loel Yeo (Leonora Wodehouse) - Inquest

A man has been killed in his manor, and his nephew becomes the chief suspect as he was on the premises at the time and it was well known that there had been words between the two before. But at the inquest, new evidence is introduced...

The obscurest of writers here (since she only wrote this one story), I had actually read this before - it was published in a Swedish anthology from the forties. It's not a fair play mystery by any means, but I sort of liked it anyway. This is more of a courtside mystery (or an inquest, as the title tells us), but unlike many of its ilk it has no negativity, no pessimism, no nasty sting in its tail. It's as cheery as a story about a murder can be, really. And I like that.

Ethel Lina White - The Scarecrow

A woman was terrorized by a man who attempted to kill her and was put in a mental institution. Now, he has escaped, and the woman who lives with her mother on a remote farm is alerted to the danger. As the suspense rises, the scarecrow she built just days before takes on a more sinister appearance...

You know my opinion on White's stories by now - they're well written and all, but I have no time at all for this type of story. Psychological suspense may be my least favourite mystery subgenre.

Leo Bruce - Clue in the Mustard

Sergeant Beef relates the first important case he worked on, where an elderly lady has been found dead in her garden. Everything points to death of natural causes, but Beef has noticed one or two things that makes him suspicious.

This isn't completely fair play, because the most important clue - the one in the title - isn't really shown to the reader. Otherwise, this is a perfectly fine short short. Bruce is quickly becoming a favourite of mine.

Gladys Mitchell - Our Pageant

A man is killed during the morris dancing segment of a pageant in a quaint English village. There is an obvious suspect, but he was not a part of that segment, so how could he have done it?

There are some similarities between this and Allingham's contribution to this collection. It's a bit of silly fluff, very short and ends before overstaying its welcome.

Conclusion

This starts off quite lackluster, but picks up a bit towards the end. The Berkeley and Bruce stories are the two standouts, and there was nothing that was truly bad here. There's only the White story that didn't work for me at all, and that's simply because of my preferences, not because White wrote a bad story.

So, distinctly average in nature, but nevertheless not disappointing, and as I said, a couple of tales to make the collection a worthwhile purchase. If this is because it contains a higher concentration of stories by more celebrated writers or not is hard to say. Out of the two truly obscure stories, one was better than average and the other was worse...

1. Miraculous Mysteries - no surprise there, this is an impossible crime anthology, so it has lots of things going for it that elevate it above all the other collections.
2. Silent Nights - the quality of the collections from here on is fairly uniform, but I think this one just manages to go to the top. A good variety of stories and a few really good ones.
3. Blood on the Tracks - a collection with few standouts and some truly bewildering inclusions, but on the whole it was still a worthwhile read.
4. The Long Arm of the Law - starts off spottily, but gets better and better, and even though it finishes with one of the worst stories I've ever read it's still distinctly above average.
5. Serpents in Eden - the very definition of average with two highlights and no real disappointments.
6. Crimson Snow - a rough start and ending to this anthology belies the fact that it collects a solid bunch of stories, perhaps only marred by the fact that there is no true highlight here.
7. Continental Crimes - a disappointing read on the whole where the great stories are few and far between.
8. Resorting to Murder - there's a bunch of easily forgotten stuff here. But also one awesome story that means that it manages to avoid being placed last.
9. Murder at the Manor - I was thoroughly disappointed that this didn't feature any true country house mysteries. I think there was one fair play mystery among the whole bunch of stories.

Over at Mysteries Ahoy, Aidan had a bit more time for this collection than I did. And both the Puzzle Doctor and Kate at crossexaminingcrime really seemed to like it a lot.

2019-05-22

These Daisies Told - Arthur Porges

Fairly recently (this is written in early 2019), we impossible crime fiends got another lovely gift, a collection of impossible crime stories by Arthur Porges, featuring the third of his impossible crime solvers, Professor Ulysses Price Middlebie. This handy collection, with eleven stories, is heartily recommended to all who enjoy impossible crimes.

A couple of words of warning though: There's one drawback to Porges's impossible crime stories, and that's the fact that they are fairly formulaic. I wouldn't recommend anyone to sit down and read all the three impossible collections we have with Porges stories (this one, The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey, and No Killer Has Wings) in one sitting.

The formula is the following: We have a problem solver who is a bit quirky who is approached by a policeman who is conscientious and by-the-book but not as imaginative as the protagonist (in both the Grey and Middlebie stories, the policeman is a former student of the problem solver). The case presented to our hero generally does not necessitate finding a culprit (he or she is almost always known beforehand), instead focusing on needing an impossible situation solved. The problem solver is told about the case by his policeman acquaintance, and receives meticulous notes on the case, sometimes accompanied by photographs, and then the cop shuffles off-stage, leaving our hero to ponder the whole situation. Sometimes he (or in Grey's case, his proxy of a son) needs to see the crime scene to confirm certain conclusions, and then the problem solver gives us a possible explanation that is generally based on one specific scientific fact, some of these more esoteric than others.

With that said, I'd argue that the Grey and Middlebie stories are the most similar, while Hoffman's cases can divert a bit from the formula, mainly by being longer and offering us a deeper view of the whole affair. But it would take very little to change a Cyriack Skinner Grey story into a Middlebie one, or vice versa.

However, that caveat doesn't really affect the quality of the individual stories. And let's find out what they are like...


The first story here is the one giving the collection its name, "These Daisies Told". All the pieces of the board are already in place here: Professor Middlebie is approached by Detective Sergeant Black who relates the story of a woman who's vanished. The police are sure that she's been murdered by her husband - they were known to have had a rocky relationship, and she was the one with all the money. The only problem is that they can find no body, and since they've had the entire area under observation and searched the premises with no luck, this presents a problem for them.

The formula is already in place, as I said, so we're told the story along with the professor. This is one of the stories where Middlebie needs to visit the scene in order to confirm a suspicion. The explanation rests on a single fact which I thought was a bit hard to glean from the story itself, but in all I liked this one. It really is a clever hiding place.

"The Unguarded Path" follows next. This offers some variation, since the crime has not been committed yet. A man who is going to be a witness against a criminal syndicate is placed in an isolated house with police guarding every square inch of the premise and the roads surrounding it. But they know that a very clever assassin is coming for the witness, and he's already announced the exact time when the murder is going to take place.

I liked the variation here, but the impossibility (how is the murderer planning to do his deed?) felt almost impossible to solve. It's clever, but I didn't see how it was possible to solve it with the facts we're given. But maybe that's just me.

In "The Missing Bow", a man has been killed by an arrow through an open window while he was shaving in the bathroom. The police are certain they know who did it - a man with an old grievance towards the victim, who was placed in the alley outside the window. But the man didn't have a bow, and the distance between the ground level and the window where the victim was shaving was ten feet, so how could he have committed the crime?

Again, the formula is in full play here: everything is already known by the police, they only need Middlebie to explain the "how". I liked this explanation better - it's very simple, and unlike for example the previous one, the solution is mainly based on false assumptions that the reader should have avoided. The ending also has some variation from the usual Porges fare.

There's a French visitor in "Small, Round Man from Texas", and it's a policeman following a famous robber only known as "The Chameleon", because no one knows what he looks like - though he's known to be quite tall. And since DS Black is also on the case, both policemen come to visit Professor Middlebie and get his opinion on how the robber could have escaped from their very tight security net.

And of course Middlebie focuses on the salient points, finding the person who is most probably the robber. I do think this story underestimates the police quite a bit. In reality, there's no way they'd have missed the bad guy, because they had to be fairly stupid to let him through their fingers. A bit disappointing.

A serial wife killer has been a bit sloppy and left some of his blood behind on the latest crime scene in "Blood Will Tell". However, there's this pesky thing called the Fifth Amendment in the US, and that means that the police cannot take a blood sample from their suspect to compare it with the blood on the scene. So Sergeant Black comes to Middlebie, hoping for a suggestion on how to proceed.

It's a fun and imaginative solution that Middlebie comes up with, but I have to wonder if it would really work in reality. First, would that really be admissible, and second, if it were, wouldn't there still be "reasonable doubt"? But like I said, it's a fun idea, though just a bit slight.

I've already discussed "Coffee Break" in this post. It really is a top story, and it's the only true locked-room mystery here. All other stories are a bit narrower in scope, focusing on a single impossibility that needs to be solved.

"A Model Crime" is rather inverted from the previous stories. Here we have an impossible situation where one person of a small group has somehow managed to smuggle out very small transistors from an electronics company, even though the security measures are very rigorous.

So, this time the professor has to find a possible way for someone to transport these transistors from within the company to the outside. The explanation he comes up with is again quite imaginative and fun, and again I find myself wondering whether this would really work in the real world. One would think that someone would be suspicious about what the culprit was doing...

Professor Middlebie has acted as an armchair detective in the last two stories due to an injury, and continues to do so in "To Barbecue a White Elephant". This time, DS Black comes with a case where a man is suspected of having committed arson, even though he was thousands of miles away at the time.

The explanation that Middlebie comes up with here is based on a very simple thing, something that most of us will have in the back of our minds and should be able to work out. However, I also think that this method would leave behind certain evidence that should be interpreted by the firemen and/or the police after the fire. So I'm in two minds about this - it's creative and very easy, but I'd have liked it more if Porges had managed to explain how they didn't find this corroborating evidence.

In "The Puny Giant", a woman has been killed by being hit with a very big rock, and next to her body is found a very large footprint. The police are suspicious towards her adopted son, but he's a small sixteen year old kid, so how could he have committed such a crime?

This might have the most imaginative solution of all the stories in this collection. It really is fantastic, and all the clues are there. I think perhaps the giant footprint is a bit of a weakness here, because I think that the police should have been able to recognise how it was made (or at least how it wasn't made), but the explanation for how the murder was committed - wow! A great one.

"The Symmetrical Murder" gives us a case where a man has been killed by a blunt instrument while out on a balcony in the fog. The hotel where he resided is built as a symmetrical structure with two wings of three floors each. The apartments below and above the one where the man was do not offer any means of allowing the crime to happen, and so Professor Middlebie needs to come up with an explanation for how someone could have killed him from the opposite wing.

Which he does, in a fairly clever way. I'm not quite sure of the science here, would the weapon really return to the killer as Middlebie explains it? It probably would, my mind just can't really see how it works.

This collection ends with "Fire for Peace", where someone is setting small fires in a chemical warfare company by somehow smuggling in incendiaries.

Hey, I gotta agree with Middlebie, I don't really see a reason for trying to catch the culprit here. The explanation offered by the good professor is a bit out there - I don't really feel that there was enough cluing here to give the reader a chance to match his wits with Middlebie. Clever, but not Porges's best tale.

Conclusion

I haven't been gushing about these stories in the individual reviews, but I want to make it absolutely clear: The general quality here is much higher than for example in the BLCC anthologies I've reviewed lately. I'm reviewing these stories against each other, not against the stories in those collections.

The type of stories Porges writes is the kind that generally suits me to a T. His tales are very focused on providing a clear problem, with a solution that's just as clear. The characterisation is almost non-existent and what there is is just there to provide some context. It's probably as far from a modern "mystery" as you can come while still remaining in the genre.

If the rumours are true that there will be a fourth and final volume of Porges's uncollected impossible stories, this reader will be very happy indeed.

The best stories here, and the ones I'd like to include in my impossible project, are: "The Missing Bow", "Coffee Break", "To Barbecue a White Elephant" and "The Puny Giant".

TomCat was also very happy with this release when he reviewed it at "Beneath the Stains of Time".