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".

2019-05-15

Resorting to Murder (ed. Martin Edwards)

Aaaaand... I'm back! And to start things off, a look at yet another British Library Crime Classics anthology, this time one subtitled "Holiday mysteries". And it has to be said, the connection to this theme is quite tenuous in some of the stories featured here. In fact, once I had finished this collection, I had to check once again what the title was, because I couldn't really recall any unifying theme.

So, I guess that's not the best sign, but on the other hand, that won't matter much if the stories are good anyway. To me, it felt as though this collection was a bit more slanted towards the early 1900s than some of the other anthologies I've discussed, but I haven't done a scientific study - it may just be a feeling I have.

There are several famous faces here - Doyle, Berkeley, Freeman, Gilbert to name but a few - and also a smattering of less well-known writers. Let's get stuck in, shall we?


Arthur Conan Doyle - The Adventure of the Devil's Foot

Holmes and Watson are taking a restive break in Cornwall, but while there they are approached by two men. One of these two men has a family of two brothers and a sister, where the brothers have been killed and the sister rendered mad because of some kind of horrible crime or accident. Holmes decides to begin investigating to find out the cause of this misfortune.

The well-versed mystery reader will probably immediately send his suspicions in one direction. It's not the hardest Holmes tale to see through. Still, Doyle conjures up a thrilling atmosphere and it's still well worth a read.

E. W. Hornung - A Schoolmaster Abroad

Dr. Dollar has come to Switzerland for a winter holiday, but as soon as he arrives he is told of a mysterious change that has befallen one of the other visitors, who used to be a cheerful fellow previously but has showed himself to be more haughty during this visit. And to top it all off, he recently survived a poisoning - accidental or not!

This was a bit less successful. We're still in early 1900s melodrama territory and the author holds off from telling the reader several things that could be useful in trying to solve the mystery. Not a fair play story by any means. Hornung is not a bad writer, though, so it's still a brisk read.

Arnold Bennett - Murder!

The tale of two men, one with a history of maltreating his wife and the other with a healthy affection for said wife. When the former buys a gun, the latter somehow contrives to leave the gunsmith's shop with another one in his pocket.

I had some hope for this story, since I had rather enjoyed Bennett's offering in Continental Crimes, but this was a bit of a letdown. There's no mystery here, it's just the story of a crime. Meh. The more I think about it, the more annoyed I get.

M. McDonnell Bodkin - The Murder on the Golf Links

Mr Hawkins is killed on the golf links, murdered by the traditional "blunt weapon". As he had recently quarrelled with a rival in a romantic entanglement, suspicion naturally veers towards this rival. But Paul Beck, son of Paul Beck, steps in to investigate...

Okay, this is definitely a mystery, so steps in the right direction. Though not all the way, because this was very, very easily seen through. I think the best thing I can say about this tale is that I don't regret reading it.

G. K. Chesterton - The Finger of Stone

Three men discuss a recent event, where local celebrity Professor Boyg has disappeared and is believed dead, though no body has been found. It seems he just vanished from view when walking along a mountain path, while his assistant looked away for a moment.

So no Father Brown here. This is more a Chestertonian parable where he attempts to explain his worldview than a mystery story, to be honest. If you generally like Chesterton, you'll probably like this. If you think that Chesterton is generally too skimpy on the mystery aspect, then you'll agree with me instead.

Basil Thomson - The Vanishing of Mrs. Fraser

A mother and daughter have arrived in Paris from Naples. They take a room at a hotel, but the mother falls ill and the daughter is sent away by the doctor to collect medicine. However, when she arrives at the address provided, there are no drugs to be found, and when she returns everyone denies having ever seen her or her mother before.

A fairly familiar plot, this one. I kind of liked this one, though mainly for the way it hinted at one character as the detective, just to flipflop everything. Otherwise, there's not too much in the way of fair play, so that bit was a letdown.

R. Austin Freeman - A Mystery of the Sand-Hills

While visiting friends, Dr. Thorndyke takes a walk along the beach, where first his party find a set of footprints leading from the sea, and then some distance away, a bunch of clothes with a set of footprints leading into the sea, though there are some indications that these footprints are not the same.

I'd read this one before, though it was a while ago. It's interesting to contrast the way Freeman handles Thorndyke's theorizing with how Doyle would do it in his Holmes stories. Both of them manage to draw very far-reaching conclusions from very little. Though Freeman has a reputation for writing about scientific detection, this is still quite rooted in early 1900s melodrama. It's not a great story, but still very readable.

H. C. Bailey - The Hazel Ice

Reggie Fortune is holidaying with his wife in Switzerland, along with his friend, Swiss police officer Herr Stein. They come across a mountaineer who has been in an accident while out walking along the mountain paths and lost his companion. Fortune takes an interest in the case, suspecting foul play.

Unlike many Bailey stories, this does not feature children in peril at all. But like many Bailey stories, it is very long. I think this would have benefitted from some judicious editing, because at the heart of it there's a pretty good story. It just feels quite padded when Bailey doesn't really bring any surprises or fireworks.

Anthony Berkeley - Razor Edge

Roger Sheringham is staying in Cornwall with his friend, the chief constable, when they come across a case where a woman has reported her husband and a common friend missing. When a body is found drowned, the wife identifies it as her husband. While the police are willing to write it off as an accident, Sheringham has his own suspicions.

Yeah, if you haven't already guessed what's going to happen here, then I daresay you'll be surprised when the sun rises tomorrow again. This story wasn't published during Berkeley's lifetime, only seeing publication several decades after. And I think it's easy to see why, it's really not his finest hour. It's a good read, don't get me wrong, but if you're looking at least for a tiny bit of surprising happenstances in a mystery, then you'd do better to look elsewhere.

Leo Bruce - Holiday Task

Sergeant Beef is in Normandy with his biographer Lionel Townsend, having a bit of a rest. While there, he hears of a case where a sadistic prison warden has disappeared from his job at the prison and somehow turned up dead in his car, having gone over a cliff's edge - without anyone seeing how he and the car managed to leave the prison!

This is, as you can see, an impossible mystery. And it's by far the best thing in this anthology - it's so far ahead of everything else that it's really sad. It is a very, very fine mystery with a great explanation for the impossibility, and I think that this story is really worth the whole price of admission.

Helen Simpson - A Posteriori

Miss Charters is holidaying in Paris, where rumours of spies are flying about, and when at night someone tosses a suspicious package through her hotel window, she decides not to report a thing, instead deciding to leave as quickly as she can.

Yeah, the best thing about this story is the title, the whole point of which I only got after checking back after I'd read the story. Otherwise, it really is a slight thing indeed.

Phyllis Bentley - Where is Mr. Manetot?

Mr. Manetot has written a letter to his friend, describing a number of suspicious events that he ran into while on his way to Lancashire where he was supposed to hold a speech. Since we've been told in the very beginning of this tale that Mr. Manetot has disappeared, these descriptions take on a more sinister meaning...

To a large extent, this is an epistolary story. I thought this one of the better efforts of this anthology, though mainly because of the discovery at a very late stage of the story. Where it suffers is in its explanations, because there are lots of things that go unexplained.

Gerald Findler - The House of Screams

Previously discussed in this post.

Michael Gilbert - Cousin Once Removed

Arthur Alworthy has managed to convince his cousin Kenneth to take a holiday near Howorth Farm, a perfect place for fishing and spelunking, with another advantage that there are deep holes in the ground where you can get rid of cousins that stand between you and a fortune...

So, inverted mystery plot #1A, with twist #1B. A disappointing ending to this collection, particularly so since Gilbert usually ends the BLCC anthologies on a good note.

Conclusion

As you've probably managed to glean from my descriptions there really is very little to the theme of this anthology. Another thing you've probably managed to glean is that this was a disappointing read. There's one colossal highlight that almost mitigates that fact (Leo Bruce, I salute you), and there's a bunch of generally readable stories, but also a whole lot of lackluster, unimaginative stuff. It's easy to see why some of these names managed to fall into obscurity. On the other hand, that might be something to count in this collections favour - it features a lot of stories you probably won't have read before, not just the usual suspects.

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 here in the middle of the list 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. 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.
6. Continental Crimes - a disappointing read on the whole where the great stories are few and far between.
7. 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.
8. 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.

TomCat was much kinder to this anthology when he reviewed it over at Beneath the Stains of Time. Mysteries Ahoy's Adrian ended up somewhere between us in his opinions. But I think we all agree on the Bruce story, at least!

2019-03-20

Continental Crimes (ed. Martin Edwards)

And we return with yet another BLCC anthology, this time one featuring stories set on the continent. Which I guess is only a theme that could occur to a Briton... "Fog in channel, continent isolated." To be honest, we Scandinavians often use the same term, even though we have even less of a reason to do so - seeing as we are actually part of the continent. Ah well, that's just a short diversion.

By now we all know what a BLCC anthology is about: the theme is a bit loose, more or less just an excuse to feature a smattering of stories by British authors from roughly the late 1800s to the mid 1900s. In this case, as mentioned, the theme is stories set in European places that are not Britain , which is as loose a theme as you could find, really. And to be honest, it might as well have been called French Fiends or something, because the tally is 9 stories set in France, 2 in Italy, 2 in Belgium and 1 in Germany. (OK, one of the "French" stories is set in Monaco and another is set on a train, which however departs from France, but still.)

That also means that it's hard to know what to expect when picking up the anthology. So, I guess it's advantageous that some of us Internet bloggers do it and give readers a better overview, he said, in as non-egotistical a way as possible. Bleh, I do go on a bit. Let's just get started on the stories instead.


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - The New Catacomb

Julius Burger and his friendly rival Kennedy are exploring the architectural delights of Rome. Burger claims to have found a new catacomb under Rome's streets, and the two decide to explore it further.

Yeah, this isn't much of a mystery, or even a crime story. Doyle as usual has a deft hand with his writing, so it's an easy read, but the plot is very easily seen through and the whole thing is a bit of a disappointment, to be honest.

Arnold Bennett - A Bracelet at Bruges

The young Kitty Sartorius, in Bruges with her friend Eve Fincastle, loses her bracelet when they run into an acquaintance, Madame Lawrence. And in their coterie are further suspicious characters...

Again, this isn't much of a mystery. There's a bit of an early 1900s adventure story in this, but events turn out mostly as the reader will assume. But I still enjoyed reading this one, Bennett writes with enthusiasm. If you don't have any high expectations of a fair play mystery, I think you'll find this a highlight.

G. K. Chesterton - The Secret Garden

Previously discussed in this post.

E. Phillips Oppenheim - The Secret of the Magnifique

Three men meet at a restaurant at Gare de Lyons in Paris, and during that evening they run across several interesting and suspcious characters, and as a result they decide to travel to the French riviera, where many of these characters are also present.

I had a strange experience reading this tale. During the read I thoroughly enjoyed myself, Oppenheim writes with verve and zest, and even though the plot is yet another early 1900s adventure story with very little mystery, the pages whizzed by (even though this is one of the two longest stories present here). But when I reflected on the story some time after, there are plot holes as large as the icebergs breaking off from the North Pole. There are characters introduced in that early part set at the railway station that then just disappear, and it's hard to see what the point of them were. So, like I said, a bit strange. A fun read, but adjust your expectations accordingly.

Ian Hay - Petit-Jean

During the WWI, part of the British army are ensconced at a Belgian farm, close to the trenches. The inhabitants at the farm intermingle with the soldiers, and the officers soon have to deal with a theft.

Here I started to get a bit impatient that we still don't get any true mysteries. The criminous connection is quite tenuous, it's more of a general wartime story. Interesting if that's what you're looking for, I guess, but it's not what I want to read.

F. Tennyson Jesse - The Lover of St Lys

Solange Fontaine and her father are travelling through the French riviera when they run into a couple and their ward. And then the wife in the family suddenly accuses her husband of having had intentions of poisoning their ward!

Another Solange Fontaine story from Jesse (see Blood on the Tracks), and happily this is much more of a mystery than that tale. However, it's not a true fair play mystery in any sense, brimming as it is with melodrama and surging emotions.

Marie Belloc Lowndes - Popeau Intervenes

Hercules Popeau overhears a candid conversation between Lord Waverton and his mistress while at a hotel in Paris, and decides to meddle when he realises that the mistress may have nefarious plans towards Lord Waverton's wife.

It's not only the name of Lowndes' detective that reminds you of a certain Belgian detective, there's quite a lot of his mannerisms in this story that brings that well-known egghead to mind. However, the story itself sadly doesn't remind you much of Christie's works. It's an all right story, but it's definitely not a fair play mystery, instead being more similar to those romantic suspense things. I was interested in reading it because of those similarities I mentioned, but I can't say that I'll rush out to discover more.

Stacy Aumonier - The Perfect Murder

Two ne'er-do-well brothers are more or less destitute and decide to finagle their way into their rich aunt's good graces, but as she grows wearier of them they soon come up with a plan to murder her.

This is story with a riff on the inverted mystery, and one I'd read before. As should be well-known by now, it's not really my thing, but I think those who enjoy the sub-genre should like this one.

J. Jefferson Farjeon - The Room in the Tower

A writer has decided to take lodgings with the Steinbaums, a father and daughter living in a German castle. It seems the castle is haunted by events that happened one generation ago when the wife of the family died together with the father's brother, and the writer, influenced by the ambiance in the castle, decides to investigate further.

I'd call this a horror story, or at least a Gothic melodrama, rather than a mystery. Sure, there are criminous happenings here, but there is no focus on detection or anything of the kind. Fine for what it is, but it should be clear by now that this is not the type of story I'm looking for in these anthologies.

H. de Vere Stacpoole - The Ten-Franc Counter

An elderly lady lets an apartment at the top floor of a building. One day she is found with her head bashed in and the jewels are gone. M. Henri of the Sûreté is on site in Monte Carlo and joins the investigation.

Stacpoole focuses more on the things surrounding a crime and what happens to the criminal than on the mystery itself, though I suppose that the investigation is serviceable enough. A perfectly all right story, but nothing that rises above the average.

Agatha Christie - Have You Got Everything You Want?

Previously discussed in this post (under the title "Express to Stamboul").

H. C. Bailey - The Long Dinner

Reggie Fortune is told of the case where an artist has vanished. There's some suspicion that the artist has been involved in the theft of some jewels from a French couple. But Fortune suspects that there is something more sinister behind the whole thing...

Not as successful as some of Bailey's other Fortune tales, this still manages to pack a bit of a punch. Bailey's stories are generally fairly long - I suppose they could be called novelettes - and in this case, I think the story would have fared better by being pared down a couple of pages. Still, a good read.

Josephine Bell - The Packet-Boat Murder

David Wintringham is told the story about a man who was recently guillotined for a murder on a ship. As the story is told, Wintringham begins to second-guess the police findings...

This was more or less exact the length the story required, no padding or extraneous material. I enjoyed it quite a bit, though it has an ending I'm not entirely enamoured with.

Michael Gilbert - Villa Almirante

Lieutenant Lucifero of the Italian police comes to visit a villa where a party of English guests are residing. He brings them the sad news that one of the party has been found dead on the beach. The lieutenant harbours certain suspicions that the death was not a natural one and begins an investigation that reaches farther and farther.

A rather lovely story that I thought used the least-likely suspect in a clever way. Probably the best story here.

Conclusion

As you've probably seen from my views on the individual stories, this was a bit underwhelming and lackluster. There were just a couple of highlights (the Christie and Gilbert stories, and possibly the Chesterton as well), accompanied by a few stories that were interesting or enjoyable to read but ultimately disappointed in some way. The best I can say about this anthology is that it was fairly varied and that most readers should find something they like here.

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 here in the middle of the list 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. 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.
6. Continental Crimes - a disappointing read on the whole where the great stories are few and far between. 
7. 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.

It's fair to say that Kate over at crossexaminingcrime enjoyed this a bit more than I did.

*****

Just a heads-up here: The blog will be taking a pause for a few weeks. My backlog of reviews has dwindled into non-existence, and I need to build it up again. Rest assured, I have several collections and anthologies waiting in my TBR pile, so it's just a matter of time before you'll see my opinions here again. Yay! (I guess?)

2019-03-13

The Future Is Ours - Edward D. Hoch

In a previous post here on the blog I discussed all the existing collections by Edward D. Hoch, and in it I mentioned that there was one collection that I had not yet read. Well, now I have! (Of course, since that post there has also been another collection released - the fifth and final Sam Hawthorne collection. I will return to that in due time.)

This isn't really a mystery collection, as it contains tales of the speculative fiction variety, focusing mainly on horror and SF/fantasy, though there are definitely a couple of stories that belong to the mystery genre as well. As you can see from the cover below, this collection contains 31 stories, and they have been grouped into four different sections: Strange Futures, Future Crimes, Tales of the Dark, and History Retold. The first of these groups features stories that are mainly SF/fantasy, the second is mystery stories set in the future, the third is horror stories, and the fourth contains stories set in the past with a supernatural slant.

From that you'll understand that our main focus will be on section two, but there are a couple of stories in the other sections that are of interest for the mystery fan, and let's begin with them.




In the first section, we find one story with a mystery plot, "The Wolfram Hunters". It has an underlying religious theme, and is set in a future after an atomic war has reduced the human survivors to tribes of relative savagery. The puzzle plot, concerning an impossible vanishing of one of the tribe's hunters, is very good indeed. I had read it before I came across it in this collection, and to be honest, I should probably have included it in my previous post on Hoch's impossible crimes.

"Bigfish" from the third section is much different. Although featured in the horror section, this does not contain any monsters or similar horrors that Hoch uses in the other stories in this section, instead focusing on the horrors that exist in the human race. This is nowhere near a puzzle plot mystery - I would probably characterise it as a psychological thriller with a twist. If you like that kind of stuff you would probably enjoy this quite a bit. It certainly is memorable.

And in the fourth and final section, there is the story "The Other Phantom". It's set in the Paris opera house, and you'll probably guess that it does feature our friend the Phantom of the Opera. The plot revolves around a journalist who's decided that he wants to reveal who the Phantom is, but during his night vigil he is stabbed to death. Unfortunately, there's not much of detection in this story, instead everything is just explained by one character towards the end. A disappointment, at least when looked on as a mystery.

So, let's get stuck into section two, consisting of eight mystery stories set in the future. Five of them are very short, close to flash fiction, often featuring a bit of a twist ending. There's not much room for plot or clueing, but since they are so short they generally get the job done. Those five stories are: "Co-Incidence", "Versus", "The Future Is Ours", "The Homesick Chicken" and "The Daltonic Fireman". But there are three stories that are a bit longer (though none of the stories in this collection are long - there's nothing here that could be described as even a novelette).

The first of these is "The Forbidden Word", set in a future US where the cultural difference between the East Coast and the West Coast has developed into a chasm. Mr. Gregory has come to a meeting at the Los Angeles branch office of his firm to discuss the declining sales figures when he is arrested for having mentioned the word "earthquake". This is an adventure thriller, and a somewhat amusing one at that, though based on a very chilling presumption. The ending packs a bit of a punch.

Following this is a more regular SF mystery, "Computer Cops", which features the recurring characters from Hoch's only novel series, Carl Crader and Earl Jazine, who work for something called the Computer Investigation Bureau. In this case, they investigate how someone could have accessed a business tycoon's private computer even though it was hidden behind several security measures. I have to say that Hoch's predictive abilities were pretty admirable. His view of the computer world is not all that far from what we have today - which is rather impressive, seeing that this story was written in 1969. The case is something of an impossible crime, though I can't say that that part of the story wowed me much.

The last one of these three somewhat longer stories is "Night of the Millennium". This is a conspiracy thriller story with a young student getting involved in a plot where revolution looms in a not too distant future. I found this the least successful of these three stories, it's a bit too light and I didn't find the plot too engaging. Readable, but not much more.

Conclusion

Considering that this is not touted as a mystery collection, I had adjusted my expectations accordingly and was therefore not particularly disappointed. It features a couple of very good stories - and the mystery based "The Wolfram Hunters" is certainly one of them - but I think a reader has to enjoy at least either science fiction or horror for this to be worthwhile.

But if you are, as I am, then I think you'll agree with me that this is a good collection. As mentioned it manages to collect 31 different stories, and though they all belong to the speculative fiction genre, there's still some variation here, with tales ranging from horror to SF to fantasy to thrillers and so on and so forth.

Though be forewarned that the stories range from very short to fairly short, so this is a collection for readers who are looking for great ideas, not for great characterisation.

2019-03-06

Crimson Snow (ed. Martin Edwards)

We return with yet another anthology from the BLCC series. This is the second Christmas mystery anthology in the series - though this one is actually subtitled "Winter mysteries", so the scope is a bit broader than "just" Christmas mysteries.

But winter is an excellent setting for mysteries, what with all those footprints in the snow that are missing or misleading and so on, so opening up that possibility should really be to the advantage of this collection.

Otherwise, by now you should be familiar with the general layout of a BLCC anthology. A varied bunch of stories, roughly chronologically ordered with household names mixed with more unknown ones.

Still, with the previous Christmas anthology Edwards exhausted his supply of good Sherlock Holmes winter mysteries, so how will he fare here? Let's move on to the individual stories and see.


Fergus Hume - The Ghost's Touch

Lascelles, a returned army doctor, runs into Percy Ringan, an old acquaintance who invites him home to his family manor. It seems that the estate is owned by Percy's brother Frank, who is poor, while the more affluent Percy helps support the upkeep of the estate. And that's the recipe for sinister events...

There are absolutely no surprises whatsoever here. Events unfold exactly as you would imagine. Not an auspicious start to this collection of stories.

Edgar Wallace - The Chopham Affair

We are told the story of a young man who is somewhat of a gigolo, living on wealthy women and blackmailing them after moving on from them. But one day the husband of one of those women happens to open one of his blackmail letters, and soon thereafter our gigolo is found dead in the snow. But there is a wrinkle, there's another corpse next to him!

This was rather better. There's some cluing here pointing towards the culprit and I liked the "surprise" ending.

Margery Allingham - The Man with the Sack

Albert Campion is invited to the Turretts over Christmas, as both mother and daughter are having misgivings about the party they are going to have - though for very different reasons. Once there, a diamond necklace belonging to one of the guests disappears, along with other knick-knacks.

A fine Christmas tale from Allingham. I don't think anyone will be very surprised when the culprit is revealed, but there are some interesting twists and turns on the way to the conclusion.

S. C. Roberts - Christmas Eve

Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from a young lady who tells a somewhat implausible story of the theft of a set of pearls.

This is a playscript with a touch of parody to it. It's light on deduction and heavy on Christmas sentimentality. All things said, not too bad, though not a highlight either.

Victor Gunn - Death in December

Chief Inspector "Ironsides" Cromwell is going, along with his well-born Sergeant Johnny Lister, to the latter's family home over the Christmas holidays. But outside the Lister's home they see a creepy figure stealing about in the snow. And inside the family manor is the "Death Room", where one of the guests has been put up for the night...

This is the longest story in this collection, by far - it takes up almost one quarter of the whole book - and it's to Gunn's credit that he makes the story work quite well from such a hoary set-up. Gunn piles up the melodrama and the ghosties and ghoulies. Again, I defy anyone to not spot the villain, but on the whole I liked this quite a bit.

Christopher Bush - Murder at Christmas

An old swindler has been strangled, and Ludovic Travers, who is in town for the holidays, begins investigating in concert with his old friend, Chief Constable Valence.

This is one of those unbreakable alibi type stories that Bush does so well. This is a short tale which quickly gets in and out and is all the better for it.

Ianthe Jerrold - Off the Tiles

An old woman has been killed by falling off the roof of her house. The police are originally willing to write it off as suicide, but her sister insists that they must investigate it as a suspicious death.

Not the most involved tale I've read. Jerrold has written what might be called a meat-and-potatoes mystery. It's a perfectly fine story with a perfectly fine solution, but there's not much to make it stand out.

Macdonald Hastings - Mr. Cork's Secret

A hotel manager and two electricians have to break into a hotel guest's room, and inside the guest is lying dead, horribly battered to death. At the same time, two famous film stars - owners of some fabulous jewels - have still not turned up at the hotel, despite having booked long beforehand, and to top it all up, insurance manager Mr. Cork is coming to stay at the hotel. He receives the dead man's room and begins investigating.

This was a rather good story, I thought. The plot is a bit run of the mill, but I thought the setting and characters made up for it. As long as you don't expect fireworks, this is a satisfying story.

Julian Symons - The Santa Claus Club

Francis Quarles has been asked by Lord Acrise to investigate the threatening letters the latter have been receiving. There's going to be a dinner at the Robert the Devil restaurant, where the threat is supposed to be fulfilled - and unfortunately the old man dies from poisoning during the meal.

The Quarles stories are Symons best work - he'd no doubt disagree with me most vehemently - as they are proper, clued mysteries. This story consists mainly of setup, but it still works nicely. A fine addition to this collection.

Michael Gilbert - Deep and Crisp and Even

Detective Sergeant Peter Petrella is out carolling in his sparetime, but then it turns out that one of the people their group was carolling for was not the owner of that particular house. So Petrella rushes back, only to realise that it must have been a burglar. Petrella begins investigating, but isn't helped by the fact that he is hampered by the flu.

This was on the amusing side, though I was almost as confused as Petrella was before re-reading the final pages a couple of extra times to understand exactly what had happened. But that was just me being obtuse. Another fine story.

Josephine Bell - The Carol Singers

Old Mrs. Fairlands is alone in her house at Christmas when a gang of burglars force entry by pretending to be carol singers. She refuses to tell them where she's put her money and jewels, and they tie her up and gag her and leave her alone in the house when they leave.

This is a horrible story. It's powerful and well-written, but I thoroughly hate this type of story. It doesn't help that I'd read it before either. For aficionados of suspense thrillers, probably a highlight though.

Conclusion

On the whole, I liked this winter collection quite a bit. Really, it's only two stories that really leave me cold. So it's a bit unfortunate that they are the first and last stories here. But the rest of the anthology is perfectly fine. The main drawback may be that there is no extreme highlight - instead the collection relies on stories of a uniform and constant standard. That might sound a bit lukewarm, but I think anyone who likes short stories should feel perfectly satisfied with reading the stories here.

TomCat over at Beneath the Stains of Time liked this anthology quite a lot, and the Puzzle Doctor even raved a bit at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel. And on Mysteries Ahoy, Aidan too liked it a bit more than I did.

And finally, the BLCC anthology ranking!

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 here in the middle of the list 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. 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.
6. 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.

2019-02-27

Blood on the Tracks (ed. Martin Edwards)

A railway anthology! Yay! There's no setting I enjoy more than a train setting, and there's nothing I enjoy more than a mystery. So railway mysteries are my very favourites of all time.

There's something organic about how a train becomes a closed off setting for mysteries, because as long as it's not a local train, there will be lots of time between stations and that naturally allows the detective some time to solve the crime. Snowed-in castles and boats can fulfil the same natural set-up, but there's just something about the rails...

Anyway, except for this anthology focussing on train settings, this is a standard British Library Crime Classics anthology set-up. Older authors in the beginning, newer ones towards the end, and a mix of a bit of everything.

But since this revolves around trains, surely it'll automatically place itself somewhere in the top of the rankings? Well, you'll just have to read on to find out.


Arthur Conan Doyle - The Man with the Watches

As a train is about to depart from Euston Station bound for Manchester, a pair of travellers - a middle-aged man and a young woman - arrive just in time to catch it. But a couple of stops later, attention is drawn to their compartment where the door is hanging open. When this compartment and the neighbouring one are searched, it turns out that the two, as well as a younger man from that neighbouring compartment, have gone missing. But instead, in their compartment there is the dead body of a man with six watches in his pockets.

This is one of the two apocrypha of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes canon - there is a "famous detective" referred to, though he is never named. To be honest, both Doyle's apocryphal stories are generally better mysteries than the Sherlock Holmes ones. They come as close to being fair play as Doyle ever got, and they show that Doyle could plot with the best of them. A fine start to this anthology.

L. T. Meade & Robert Eustace - The Mystery of Felwyn Tunnel

John Bell is an investigator of unexplainable phenomena, and in this story he is approached by Bainbridge, a man from a railroad company in Wales who wants him to investigate the death of a signalman just next to Felwyn Tunnel, where the dead man was surrounded on three sides by sheer cliffs (and the tunnel), and there were signs that he had tried to escape something by climbing one of the cliffs. And then when Bell and Bainbridge return to Wales, they receive news of a second death at the same spot.

Meade & Eustace wrote several impossible crimes, but this isn't one of them. I think it's a fairly clever tale, better than most of their impossible ones, to be honest. The solution to the mystery is well-grounded in science, and I'm sure it would work in real life as well.

Matthias McDonnell Bodkin - How He Cut His Stick

A man is tasked with carrying a bag of bank gold on the train from London to one of the bank's branch offices, and is attacked and robbed of the gold without seeing his assailant. Suspicion falls heavily on the carrier, but the bank manager enlists female investigator Dora Myrl to investigate the case.

Now we're getting closer to fair play mystery clueing, though I can't say I was all that impressed with the story as a whole. There's never any doubt about who the villain is. A bit disappointing.

Baroness Orczy - The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway

The Old Man in the Corner and Polly Burton discuss a case where a woman has been found dead on an underground railway carriage (first class - those were the days!), with suspicions first going towards suicide, though the Old Man has different thoughts.

This is on the whole a pleasant and good story. I can't say that the culprit comes as much of a surprise, and it has to be said that the police must have been dimmer than most not to be able to identify how the woman was killed. Still, as I said, a pleasant and nice read.

Victor L. Whitechurch - The Affair of the Corridor Express

A young boy disappears on board a train, and there's no sign of him when the train is searched from front to end. Thorpe Hazell, the railway detective, is put on the case to try to work out what could have happened to him.

An impossible crime on a train, no less! As awesome as it sounds, the whole thing didn't wholly satisfy me. I just think that the solution was a bit too far-fetched, even though it's very prosaic. It's still a very good tale, it just didn't fully live up to my expectations when I'd read the problem. I'll need to search out more stories from Whitechurch, I think.

R. Austin Freeman - The Case of Oscar Brodski

Jewel thief Silas Hickler meets an old acquaintance, Oscar Brodski. When it turns out that Brodski is in possession of several diamonds, Hickler decides to kill him and steal the jewels. He arranges things to look as if Brodski met his fate on the railway tracks, but then Dr. Thorndyke enters the scene and starts investigating the whole thing.

As you see, this is an inverted mystery story - possibly the first one ever - which is the main thing against it. Because otherwise, this is a very fine short story indeed. Well, "short" might be a misnomer, it's almost a novella in length. I've often said that I don't like inverted mysteries, but this makes the investigation quite interesting, and since the culprit is such a blackguard it's good to see how his comeuppance comes closer with every second.

Roy Vickers - The Eighth Lamp

Signalman George Raoul is haunted by an underground train that only he can hear nearing the station where he works. Each day the train is heard coming just a little bit nearer...

Yeah, so from that description you'll probably be able to guess that this is not a mystery, it's a ghost/horror story. There's some criminous elements on the fringes, but this story really shouldn't be in a mystery anthology. But is it any good? I don't know, I guess it's kind of effective. But since I'm no aficionado I find it hard to review it.

Ernest Bramah - The Knight's Cross Signal Problem

Max Carrados investigates a baffling event where a passenger train ran past a signal and crashed into another, resulting in several people killed. Could the experienced train driver really have missed the signal, or is something more sinister going on?

I've mentioned before that Bramah's stories are an early precursor into the Golden Age, and he often writes fair play stories. This is one of them, and features a very interesting motive on the part of the culprit. There's no mistaking the story being from the early 1900s, but it's still a good read.

Dorothy L. Sayers - The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face

A man has been found washed up on the beach with his face disfigured, and Lord Peter Wimsey gets interested in the case.

This isn't the best Sayers story I've read, that's for sure. It's a bit too steeped in melodrama, I feel, and compared with some of her better works this comes up a cropper. The railway connection is pretty tenuous, also.

F. Tennyson Jesse - The Railway Carriage

Solange Fontaine is travelling on a train which is derailed.

I said that the Vickers story didn't really belong in this collection, but this is even worse. I mean, I couldn't even come up with anything even remotely criminous to use in my short description of the story. This is not a mystery story, it's simply a story. A story with some supernatural elements, but it definitely is completely and thoroughly out of place here.

Sapper - Mystery of the Slip-Coach

An elderly bookmaker has been murdered in a train compartment. There was no way to get to the train car where the murder happened from the rest of the train, and there are only four other passengers present in that particular car. Now all Ronald Standish has to do is to find out which of them committed the murder...

This is, in a sense, an impossible crime, though I think the author could have made those aspects much more integrated into the case. But it's a good story, though it has to be said that there is a bit too much coincidence involved in how the crime was committed.

Freeman Wills Crofts - The Level Crossing

Dunstan Thwaite has made his mind up to kill his blackmailer, John Dunn. He plans everything meticulously, and then finally the fateful night has come...

So, an inverted tale, and no Inspector French either. This is not really the type of story I enjoy, as you will probably know by now. If you do, then you will probably like this story, for it is well-written.

Ronald Knox - The Adventure of the First-Class Carriage

Sherlock Holmes is approached by a caretaker, coming to report on her master, who has been coming with suicidal hints in the presence of his wife. Holmes and Watson sets out to follow him on the train, where they are surprised to find that he is throwing bits of paper through the window. They managed to get their hands on one, which again seem to be suicide notes.

Knox manages to craft a fairly Doyle-an tale, though that is rather to its detriment, because he emulates those bits in Doyle's writings that are the main problem with Holmes - it's simply not fair play at all. Otherwise, a pleasant enough read.

Michael Innes - Murder on the 7.16

Inspector John Appleby is in charge of investigating a case where movie director Lemuel Whale has been killed on the set of the film he was directing.

This is just a cute little story, there's no real investigating of any kind. The culprit confesses everything and that's when we find out everything that happened. Still, it was amusing and being as short as it was, I didn't mind it being here.

Michael Gilbert - The Coulman Handicap

The police have it on good authority that mrs Coulman is fencing stolen goods, and they set up an elaborate scheme to follow her to her contacts. Unfortunately, Sergeant Petrella manages to lose her when she goes into a pub and never appears again.

So, it's a bit of an impossible problem then. Unfortunately, the train connection is very tenuous, and there's not much of a mystery involved. There's never any focus on the impossible situation, it's just revealed as an aside as Petrella manages to get hold of the culprit. A bit disappointing.

Conclusion

I know that immediately after reading this collection, I felt fairly disappointed with it all. But going through it again now for this write-up, I find that I actually enjoyed it a bit more than I remembered. The main problems with the collection are that there are no true standouts among the stories, that it features two absolute non-mysteries, and that, unlike several others of the BLCC anthologies, it tapers off towards the end.

But there are many interesting stories here that are worth reading nonetheless. I liked the tales by Doyle, Bramah, Meade & Eustace, Sapper and Whitechurch, for example, and if you're more tolerant of inverted mysteries than I am, then there are a couple more to look forward to.

Kate agrees with me in praising this anthology at crossexaminingcrime, though we differ in which stories we highlight... And Aidan echoes us in enjoying the collection at Mysteries Ahoy.

Where does it go in my rankings of BLCC anthologies, you (probably don't) ask?

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 here in the middle of the list 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. 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.