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  • Have His Carcase by Dorothy L. Sayers (1932)


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    Have CarcaseHave His Carcase (1932) by Dorothy L. Sayers

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    It has been awhile since my last review. I have been far too busy building website pages and dealing with a few other life challenges, to get back into review mode! One of my projects at that time of my last review, was to complete a series on the Lord Peter Wimsey novels by Dorothy L. Sayers, so it is now past time to get back on track and take another step towards completing this ambitious project. This will be my third Sayers review, having already covered ‘Whose Body?’ (the first Lord Peter novel) and ‘Busman’s Honeymoon’ (the last Lord Peter novel). A rather odd approach, made necessary by my keen interest in locked room mysteries, a factor which also now motivates me to take on #7 of the 11 instalments in the Lord Peter series. I apologize for the order, but they will all get written as time permits.

    I have previously noted Sayers well known quote from a passage in the dedication to ‘Busman’s Honeymoon’: “It has been said, by myself and others, that a love-interest is only an intrusion upon a detective story. But to the characters involved, the detective-interest might well seem an irritating intrusion upon their love-story. This book deals with such a situation.” – and this point remains equally valid when reading ‘Have His Carcase’. 

    As usual, I must begin by noting that I am a huge fan of Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey series, especially those volumes featuring Harriet Vane. Though I would not be caught dead reading most romance novels, the romance in this case is so carefully crafted and woven into the tapestry of the characters, that it is completely irresistible. From the moment they meet in ‘Strong Poison’, you will find yourself cheering them along, through all the ups and downs of this complex relationship which began with Harriet standing trial for murder – only to be saved at the very last moment by Lord Peter. ‘Strong Poison’ is without a doubt one of the great classic mysteries of the Golden Age, as is ‘Gaudy Night’, but it is in the two locked room novels, ‘Busman’s Honeymoon’, and ‘Have His Carcase’, that we get the two real masterpieces of the Vane-Whimsey quartet – and, for my money, ‘Have His Carcase’ is by far the better mystery story, if not quite as appealing in the romance department! The TV version is quite well done – but the book clearly conveys far more of the wit and style that makes Sayer’s writing so enjoyable.

    ‘Have His Carcase’  employs a rather complex plot with several unexpected twists and some good bits of misdirection. The action begins with Harriet Vane on a solo hiking holiday near the spa town of Wilvercombe, shortly after her acquittal on murder charges in ‘Strong Poison’. Harriet discovers the body of a man, with his throat slashed, and lying in a pool of wet blood, atop an isolated rock along the shore. This is where the locked room element enters, as there are no footprints in the smooth sand, other than those made by the victim and Harriet. However, the tide is relentlessly rolling in, and all Harriet can do is take a few photos and secure some important bits of evidence, before going for help, but it is far too late for this carcase. Long before the authorities can arrive on scene – the corpse is washed out to sea!

    Lord Peter is alerted by the press, and arrives the following day to offer a hand, leaving Harriet in the awkward position of not wanting to incur yet another emotional debt, but reluctantly once again in need of assistance! The carcase (literally the body – a term now seldom used as my spell check keeps reminding me) proves to be quite elusive, starting a complex search confounded by tricky currents and shoals, but the dead man is quickly identified from Harriet’s evidence, as Paul Alexis, a professional dance partner at a nearby resort hotel. Alexis, a charming young Russian, believed he was a direct descendant of Czarist royalty, and was engaged to a much older (and richer) widow, Mrs. Weldon. His death had clearly been staged to look like suicide, but is soon revealed to be a complex murder plot. The widow’s son, Henry Weldon, clearly a bit of a brute, also arrives in the neighbourhood, initially quite appalled by his mother’s engagement to this gigolo and the pending loss of his much needed inheritance – then staying on to monitor the investigation and console his distraught mother.

    To reveal more would clearly require a spoiler alert, and threaten to ruin one of the best locked room puzzle plots of all time. I will therefore simply note that even if you have previously heard, or manage to figure out the central plot device (which is rather obvious to any history buff), that little piece of knowledge still leaves the would-be detective facing all that unblemished sand – marred only by Harriet and Alexis – completely surrounding the rock and the corpse on every side – even the side facing an incoming tide! Several different threads must eventually be gathered together, before Harriet and Lord Peter can finally explain this complex crime scene – and even then Wimsey doesn’t get rewarded with the hand of the fair damsel in distress! The wages of the amateur sleuth are truly quite depressingly thin in most of Sayer’s novels.

    It is also interesting to note that by the time the murder is solved, Mrs. Weldon has already moved on to another gigolo at the hotel, this time a French dancer named Antoine. It is a rather depressing commentary on life in a spa town like Wilvercombe. We are allowed a glimpse into this artificial social construct which necessarily draws out all the usual human anxieties over passing time and loneliness, but now further compounded by a very real fear of depression era poverty.

    How to rate ‘Have His Carcase’? Discussion is hardly necessary. I truly enjoy all the Sayer’s titles, but ‘Have His Carcase’ and ‘The Five Red Herrings’, are quite clearly the best titles in a very impressive classic mystery series! There is absolutely no doubt in my mind – anything less than five stars would be an insult to this great Sayer’s mystery masterpiece.

    *****

    I have previously noted that the Lord Peter Wimsey novels are generally good stand alone stories and it is not overly important that they be read in order. However, with the four Harriet Vane stories, order becomes critical. Even if I do not follow my own advice when writing reviews, I highly recommend that you start with ‘Strong Poison’, before tackling ‘Have His Carcase’, and then move on to ‘Gaudy Night’, and finally ‘Busman’s Holiday’. 


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     Locked Room Reviews:
    Dorothy L. Sayers:
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  • Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L Sayers (1937)


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     Sayers Busmans HoneymoonBusman’s Honeymoon (1937) by Dorothy L. Sayers

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    BBC (1947)  BBC (1957)

     

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    Note: Busman’s Honeymoon was never part of either Lord Peter TV Series, as the BBC was unable to obtain rights. Sayers was never happy with the 1940 film and disowned it. It was then done twice in live BBC TV productions in 1947 and 1957. Ironically, the 1940 film is an American import, only sold on Amazon UK!

    Over the next few weeks I will be reviewing several of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels by Dorothy L. Sayers. This the last novel of that series, but is one of the first reviewed, largely because it is also part of our classic locked room mystery series!

    The usual introduction to reviews of Dorothy Sayers ‘Busman’s Holiday’, include a quote from a passage in the dedication where Sayers notes: “It has been said, by myself and others, that a love-interest is only an intrusion upon a detective story. But to the characters involved, the detective-interest might well seem an irritating intrusion upon their love-story. This book deals with such a situation. It also provides some sort of answer to many kindly inquiries as to how Lord Peter and his Harriet solved their matrimonial problem. If there is but a ha’porth of detection to an intolerable deal of saccharine, let the occasion be the excuse.” A quite effective self-review, that has taken the thunder out of many critiques by hardcore mystery lovers.

    Still, one must agree that the romance does tend to steal the spotlight in this final instalment of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels, but let’s put matters into perspective. This is the last act of a four novel romance, and in the earlier works the mystery clearly stole the limelight from the slowly unfolding romantic narrative. If you are a diehard mystery fan, it therefore might be best to avoid reading this volume as your first Lord Peter murder! However, for those of us who read the series from the start, this quite excellent short mystery within a novel, is more of a literary device that allows Sayers to present the triumph of love over nasty murder trials, the endless terrors of war, and all those other horrid vagaries of life we must face in a rapidly changing world. Murder had it’s turn to dominate in ‘Strong Poison’, ‘Have His Carcase’, and the dark shadows of ‘Gaudy Night’, now it is time for the victory of love – and who are we to deny love it’s moment – especially when we are compensated with a great locked room mystery puzzle that still assures us we have not yet fallen victim to the dreaded romance novel?

    Another point, too often forgotten, is that ‘Busman’s Honeymoon’ was originally written as a play, co-authored by Muriel St. Clare Byrne in 1936. This play, much like Christie’s Mousetrap, which has been running continuously since 1952, is intended to be light theatre fare, not some dark police thriller, or deep psychological commentary on contemporary gender relations. In fact, in retrospect, it is really quite hard to rid oneself of the feeling that Sayers was tired of writing Wimsey novels, and that this play cum romance cum mystery, is her way of wrapping up the romantic adventures of Peter and Harriet for her many readers, with a light locked room puzzle, as a farewell gift from one of the great masters of the Golden Age. Comments made in the ‘Wimsey Papers’, a collection of fictional Wimsey family letters written as a commentary on early wartime England, suggest that Sayers found it impossible to continue making light of murder, when so many were being slaughtered by the dictators of Europe. It is therefore a quite reasonable conclusion that this was intended as Lord Peter’s farewell appearance. Sayers used ‘Busman’s Honeymoon’, and the later short story, ‘Talboys’, as a way of pensioning Peter off into domestic bliss, a much gentler solution than Conan Doyle’s attempt to toss Sherlock into Reichenbach Falls! By the way, in case anyone misses the meaning of the title, it refers to a bus driver who goes on a bus tour holiday, thereby hardly getting a break from his normal routine. A quite appropriate title for a novel about an amateur sleuth and a mystery novelist who spend their honeymoon investigating a baffling murder mystery!

    The mystery itself, sans romance and the struggle by Peter and Harriet to shift their lives into domestic harmony, is really quite simple, and an excellent puzzle that lays out all the clues quite fairly, though not many will work out the solution very long before it is explained by Lord Peter. Few authors have ever been as good at the craft of mystery plotting as Sayers, and this is another of her master plots. If not for the romance filling out the story, it would have made a truly excellent short story.

    The novel begins with the wedding of Peter and mystery novelist, Harriet Vane, in Oxford, followed by their escape from a slew of reporters, and finally their arrival at Talboys, a house coveted by Harriet since her childhood, and now a wedding gift from Lord Peter. Peter had secretly bought the property from its owner, a miserly old man named Noakes, on the understanding that the furniture would remain until after the honeymoon and that the house would be cleaned and made ready for their late arrival. The minor domestic problem of transporting Peter’s vintage port, prove quite inconsequential in comparison with the problems upon their arrival in Hertfordshire. Talboys is locked and bolted and completely unprepared for the couple’s wedding night. Bunter does his best to make things work, and their first night as man and wife is ironically spent in blissful innocence, in the relative comfort of a goose down bed. It is not until the next day, after the house has been partially cleaned and the chimney swept, that Noakes’ body is discovered in the cellar, with his head badly bashed. The only reasonable conclusion is that Noakes had locked and bolted his doors one evening, then managed to knock himself over the head, before, in some mysterious manner, tumbling dead into the cellar.

    Still, neither the police, nor the newlyweds, can accept that this was simply an accident. The medical report makes it clear that death occurred about a week earlier, caused by a tumble down the stairs, but it seems that Mr Noakes got knocked on the head at some earlier time, then awoke in a state of confusion, locked the doors, and finally fell down the cellar stairs – killing himself by hitting the bottom step forehead forward. This conclusion is supported by the fact that the cellar door had still been open upon the Wimsey arrival.

    Their are several candidates for the role of head basher. Noakes niece, the next neighbour, the local mechanic, the vicar, the handyman, and even the police constable on the local beat, all had reason to wish this arrogant old man dead, whether due to his habitual blackmail, ongoing disputes, or just his miserly manner. Noakes was a very unpopular character and few mourn his passing, though all are very surprised to discover that his supposed wealth was a fiction and that he was actually quite bankrupt.

    Peter and Harriet slowly grow into their new relationship, as they follow the clues and chase sold-off antique chimney pots across the countryside, but it isn’t until a chance comment by the vicar starts Lord Peter’s brain whirling, that the mystery is finally unravelled. And not a moment too soon – the movers have just arrived to seize Noakes possessions – which means the evidence is headed out the door. The entire ensemble then come on stage, in true mystery play fashion, for Lord Peter’s final denouement.

    This locked room puzzle is actually one of the better Golden Age creations in this sub-genre, though it is hardly surprising that the victim had to finish his own murder by falling down the stairs, in what must be considered as a rather foolhardy plot, that may well have turned out badly for the murderer, if the steps had not conveniently finished the job!

    This is a very hard mystery to rate, as it is more of a play and a no-nonsense love story, entwined with an excellent short story puzzler, than it is a typical murder mystery novel. For us staunch fans of Lord Peter, it will always be a full fledged five star mystery, well earned by its role as the final act of the Lord Peter story. Purely rated as a mystery it is probably only a solid four, but it is a great locked room tale and I am an unabashed fan – so five stars is awarded.

    One final note, the Lord Peter Wimsey novels are generally good stand alone stories and it is not overly important that they be read in order. However, with the four Harriet Vane stories, order becomes critical. Start with ‘Strong Poison’, follow it with the excellent ‘Have His Carcase’, then move on to ‘Gaudy Night’, and finally ‘Busman’s Holiday’. If you read them in order, chances are you will agree with my rating, if not, there is a strong possibility that ‘Busman’s Holiday’ will prove to be somewhat less enchanting.

    *****


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  • The Single Staircase by Matt Ingwalson (2013)


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    single staircaseThe Single Staircase (2013) by Matt Ingwalson
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    ‘The Single Staircase’ is the first of The Owl & The Raccoon locked room mysteries. It is not exactly new, but it is still new to me and many others, so we will bend the rules and call it a new release. To say the least, Ingwalson’s short novels are a very different type of locked room mystery than the traditional John Dickson Carr classics, but that is not intended as a negative critique. Ingwalson has created a style that is unique in my experience of reading countless mystery and crime novels – and somehow he manages to make this rather odd style work rather well!

    The Owl and The Raccoon are the nicknames of two cops, codes which originated during the time they spent on the local SWAT team, and these monikers are remarkably fitting. The Owl is the brooding watcher, always observing every little movement. He has the type of mind that dwells on detail and tends towards inductive reasoning. The Owl is also constantly engaged in a futile struggle to maintain his emotional distance and keep his work from turning his life completely upside down. The Raccoon is a very different story. He is highly energetic and physical, able to endure many hours of fast paced activity, including agile experiments designed to test the possibility of a second floor intruder. The Raccoon is more dependent on a basic deductive process, though he is always ready to follow a hunch or contest any simplistic intuitive conclusion. Together, The Owl And The Raccoon form a missing persons detective team, apparently in some unspecified, fairly large, modern day, North American city, and they certainly deal with some very odd disappearances! The Owl is the senior detective, and clearly the leader, yet it is the energy and perseverance of The Raccoon that makes this partnership so effective. We learn only the most basic facts about these two detectives; only what is strictly necessary to tell the story of the current task at hand. They are not a particularly likeable pair, nor entirely disagreeable – they are simply two cops trying to get through another day in an emotionally devastating job.

    Ingwalson himself notes in his blog – “Owl & Raccoon are barely human. They’re detectives defined by their hunt for missing children. And they know their mission is hollowing them out, stealing their evenings and ruining their relationships, but they can’t stop themselves” Another passage which makes this same point, comes in the middle of ‘wdyg’, the second Owl and Raccoon novel, but could just as easily have been part of “The Single Staircase’: “Back in the Explorer a few questions later, night fallen all around. “This is what I do,” Owl thought. “I get in and out of this car chasing shadows.” Yet, in reality, it is  Ingwalson who has us all chasing shadows right up to the final page.

    These tough police procedurals mainly consist of inner monologues and an often terse, rather gruff, working dialogue between the two primary characters, a few assistants, and, of course, the all important witnesses. The scenes Ingwalson sets are more than minimalist. In effect, the reader is treated to the script of a radio drama, cast in imagined shades of black and white – with only a few stark descriptive images tossed into the mix – and these tend to appear when least expected. At times these splashes of color rather remind me of the little girl in the redcoat in ‘Schindler’s List’ – if such an allusion can be applied to a written page? The entire storyline therefore rests on the quality of the dialogue and constantly focuses on the inherent difficulties of real communication across all those immense gaps drawn by age, class, profession, and a multitude of other cultural factors. I must admit that I would be hard pressed to explain exactly how Ingwalson works his magic – but it is quite clear that this odd style works exceptionally well in his talented hands!

    In this first novel, ‘The Single Staircase’, The Owl and The Racoon are called to investigate the disappearance of a three month old baby girl, Sarah Grey, from a closed third floor bedroom, while the parents watched TV within sight of the foot of the stairs. Any potential entrance via the roof, attic, or windows, is soon ruled out – the only possible access was quite clearly this ‘Single Staircase’! Given this dominant fact, it seems all but certain that both parents must have conspired to rid their marriage of this recent arrival. The new baby had brought about profound change, as babies tend to do; changes that had clearly disrupted the parents former singles lifestyle. It is also abundantly clear that the parents are not acting the part of the distraught grieving parents that one might expect to encounter under such circumstances. Besides, what other solution could be possible? Still, Owl and Raccoon must search half the possible dump sites in the city, and exhaust numerous potential leads, without finding any trace of the tiny body, before a chance comment finally leads them to a very inventive solution.

    This book may not appeal to all, but it is an excellent piece of crime fiction. Some reviewers object to the incredibly fast pace and the abbreviated size of the chapters, one is only two sentences long, but given the lack of extraneous detail, the pace is clearly set by the brusque dialogue of the detectives and the necessarily harried search for the missing child. Only near the end do all these patchy interviews and snatches of conversations begin to fall into place. This book was clearly never intended as a nicely flowing narrative, but rather as a series of snapshots that are slowly gathered together to form a panoramic montage. Still, the plot is extremely well developed and few are likely to see the end coming – though all the necessary clues are in place. The reader, like Owl and Raccoon, simply tends to become blinded by the obvious nature of the working hypothesis, which paints the parents as the killers, in what appears to be a forgone conclusion.

    Ingwalson’s books are more novella than novel, and the profits go to charity! A point worth consideration, but there can be no real doubt that they are well worth a couple of hours on a quiet winter’s eve! I give ‘The Single Staircase’ a firm four stars. Short one star for lack of descriptive content, but with three well earned stars for the quality of the inner monologues, and the strong concise dialogues which keep readers turning the pages at a furious pace. Finally, I must add one additional star for pure innovation!

    ****


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  • wdyg by Matt Ingwalson (2013)


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    wdygwdyg (2013) by Matt Ingwalson
    ebook

    Paperback not available in Canada 

     

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    Another Matt Ingwalson review, this time for a book that has received less critical applause – ‘wdyg’ is the next instalment in The Owl & The Raccoon locked room mysteries. Once again, it is not exactly new, but it is still new to me and many others, so we will slightly bend the rules and call it a new release.

    In ‘wdyg’ (‘where did you go’ in text language) The Owl and the Raccoon head to the local mall for another of Ingwalson’s new style of  locked room cases. This time, one of four girls on a weekend shopping spree walks down a narrow corridor leading to the bathroom while her three friends wait outside. Oddly, she never returns – and her friends are left standing in the only exit!

    The Owl and The Racoon soon find themselves dealing with a closely related homicide investigation, aggressive swat teams, and the possibility that a psychotic killer may be on the loose. However, their biggest single problem is that a clique of high school girls who are always texting, are not necessarily communicating the truth!

    In comparison to ‘The Single Staircase’, ‘wdyg’ is not as good, purely as a locked room mystery. The possibility that the girl intentionally disappeared is never far below the surface. Instead, the question is why would she leave her friends in the dark? A secret meeting with a boyfriend? Family problems – which soon loom large? Or just normal teenage girls living a complicated life? The possibilities are endless, and after running down all possible leads – even The Owl and The Raccoon begin to believe that the girl has vanished for good!

    On the other hand, the character development is much stronger in ‘wdyg’ and it feels a little less disconnected than ‘A Single Staircase’, where the victim could not have played a significant role in the disappearance. All things considered – the two Owl and Raccoon cases are essentially equal. ‘The Single Staircase’ gets my vote as the better locked room mystery – but ‘wdyg’ is clearly better written and perhaps even more intriguing. I will therefore refrain from dropping my extra star granted for pure innovation, which is less impressive the second time around, and call this another four star effort, but one that barely escapes a three star rating! 

    ****

    For those interested in a deeper look at these amazing ‘Owl and Raccoon’ novellas, I have adapted a few relevant comments from my review of ‘The Single Staircase’ and repeated them below. These same reflections apply equally to both novels, or for the full review of ‘A Single Staircase’ go to:

    Selections Locked Room Review: The Single Staircase

    To say the least, Ingwalson’s short novels are a very different type of locked room mystery than the traditional John Dickson Carr classics, but that is not intended as a negative critique. Ingwalson has created a style that is unique in my experience of reading countless mystery and crime novels – and somehow he manages to make this rather odd style work quite well!

    The Owl and The Raccoon are the nicknames of two cops, codes which originated during the time they spent on the SWAT team, and these monikers are remarkably fitting. The Owl is the brooding watcher, always observing every movement. He has the type of mind that dwells on detail and tends towards inductive reasoning. The Owl is also constantly engaged in a futile struggle to maintain his emotional distance and keep his work from turning his life completely upside down. The Raccoon is a very different story. He is highly energetic and physical, able to endure many hours of fast paced activity, including agile experiments designed to test the possibility of a second floor intruder. The Raccoon is more dependent on a clear cut deductive process, but is always ready to follow any hunch or contest simplistic intuitive conclusions. Together, The Owl And The Raccoon form a missing persons detective team, apparently in some large, modern day, American city, and they deal with some very odd disappearances! The Owl is the senior detective, and clearly the leader, yet it is the energy and perseverance of The Raccoon that makes this partnership work so well. We learn only the most basic facts about these two detectives; only what is strictly necessary to tell the story of the current task at hand. They are not a particularly likeable pair, nor entirely disagreeable – they are simply two cops trying to get through another day in an emotionally devastating job.

    Ingwalson himself notes in his blog – “Owl & Raccoon are barely human. They’re detectives defined by their hunt for missing children. And they know their mission is hollowing them out, stealing their evenings and ruining their relationships, but they can’t stop themselves” Another passage which makes this same point, comes in the middle of ‘wdyg’, the second Owl and Raccoon novel: “Back in the Explorer a few questions later, night fallen all around. “This is what I do,” Owl thought. “I get in and out of this car chasing shadows.” In reality, it is  Ingwalson who has us all chasing shadows right up to the final page.

    These tough police procedurals mainly consist of inner monologues and an often terse, rather gruff, working dialogue between the two primary characters, a few assistants, and, of course, the all important witnesses. The scenes Ingwalson sets are more than minimalist. In effect, the reader is treated to the script of a radio drama, cast in imagined shades of black and white – with only a few stark descriptive images tossed into the mix – and these appear only when least expected. At times these splashes of color rather remind me of the little girl in the redcoat in ‘Schindler’s List’ – if such an allusion can be applied to a written page? The entire storyline therefore rests on the quality of the dialogue and constantly focuses on the inherent difficulties of real communication across all those immense gaps drawn by age, class, profession, and a multitude of other cultural factors. I must admit that I would be hard pressed to explain exactly how Ingwalson works his magic – but it is quite clear that this odd style works exceptionally well in his talented hands!

    These book may not appeal to all, but they are excellent pieces of crime fiction. Some reviews object to the incredibly fast pace and the abbreviated size of the chapters, one chapter in ‘A Single Staircase’ is only two sentences long, but given the lack of extraneous descriptive detail, the pace must be set by the brusque dialogue of the detectives and the necessarily harried search for the missing child. Only near the end of these novels do all these patchy interviews and dialogue begin to fall into place. These books were clearly never intended as a nicely flowing narrative, but rather as a series of snapshots that are slowly gathered together to form a panoramic montage. Still, the plotting is extremely well managed and few are likely to see the end coming – though all the necessary clues are in place. 

    Ingwalson’s books are more novella than novel, and the profits go to charity! A point worth consideration, but there can be no real doubt that they are well worth a couple of hours on a quiet winter’s eve! 


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  • The Hollow Man (aka: The Three Coffins) by John Dickson Carr (1935)


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     hollow manThe Hollow Man (1935) by John Dickson Carr 

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    Also published as ‘The Three Coffins’ (US)

    The Hollow Man was voted the best locked-room mystery of all time in 1981, by seventeen well know authors and reviewers of this sub-genre – and not without good reason! * It is not just a great locked room story, it is quite clearly one of the best novels of that Golden Age of Mystery fiction between the two world wars, which has provided us with so many of our classic mysteries. Unfortunately, though many out-of-print Carr books have recently been re-issued as ebooks, this is not yet one of them. However, good second hand copies are available, and it can usually be found on-line at Scribd, or at your local library. We can only hope that it will soon be returned to the mystery bookshelves!

    The gist of the story begins with the arrival of Dr. Fell and his friends, Ted Rampole and Superintendent Hadley, at the house of Professor Charles Grimaud. They have been drawn out on this snowy winter night by Rampole’s tale of a strange occurrence at a local tavern. A discussion on magic and illusion, attended by Grimaud and his friends, had been interrupted by a mysterious stranger, later to be identified as the illusionist Pierre Fley, who made several extravagant claims about men arising from their graves and walking through walls. Fley had also informed the group that he had an even more dangerous brother who wanted to take Grimaud’s life, and that Grimaud must decide which brother is to pay him a visit. According to Rampole, Grimaud angrily told Fley to send his brother and be damned, and that odd visit was scheduled for this very night!

    Rampole’s story alarms Dr. Fell, but by the time they arrive at Grimaud’s house, it is already too late. Grimaud was in his upper floor study when an odd looking fellow, hidden behind a false face, pushed his way past the housekeeper and locked the door. A few minutes later a shot was heard, but by the time Hadley arrives and opens the door, Grimaud is quite alone and all but dead, leaving behind him a very puzzling situation. There is no sign of the odd stranger, or the gun that shot Grimaud, or the knife used to slash a painting of three coffins. Even worse, though the window is slightly open, there are no tracks in the newly fallen snow below, nor had their been any tracks to the front path when Fell and his companions had first arrived. A search of the grounds, the roof, and neighbouring yards proves useless, as does a search for secret passages. It appears that Fley has entered and exited without leaving the faintest physical trace.

    Hadley immediately interviews Mills, Grimaud’s secretary, and the housekeeper, Madame Dumont, who had both watched the study door from the time ‘The Hollow Man’ arrived, until the door was opened and the detectives entered, making it quite certain that no one passed in or out of the study. The only others in the house, were Grimaud’s daughter, and Boyd Mangan, another of the professor’s inner circle, and they had been quickly locked away in the front room by the stranger, while another old friend of Grimaud’s, named Drayman, had been dead asleep in his room after taking a powerful sleeping powder.

    The following morning, the situation becomes even more bizarre. Fley has also been shot to death in the middle of a nearby dead-end, called Cagliostro Street. Fley’s death, occurred a short time after Grimaud was discovered and was witnessed by a police officer and two sound men, who all heard a disembodied voice, followed by a shot, then watched Fley collapse in the middle of the unblemished snow that covered the street. To make matters worse, the gun carried by Fley matches the bullet found in Grimaud and the presence of powder burns make it quite certain that Fley was shot at close quarters, though the snow and the witnesses all suggest that this is quite impossible.

    Hadley goes on to interview Pettis, another member of Grimaud’s close circle, who had been heard calling out to Mangan, just after the Hollow Man rang the doorbell, but he has an unimpeachable alibi at the theatre. Meanwhile, Burnaby, the only other member of the group with close enough ties to pull off the crime, and the artist who painted the odd picture of three coffins, has an even better reason to be dismissed from suspicion. He was playing cards at his club with several others, including a prominent judge.

    These odd occurrences are all tied together by a story of three brothers who escaped from a prison at the salt mines in Transylvania, during an outbreak of plague many years earlier. They had faked their deaths, and once buried in a distant graveyard, had planned to escape from their coffins. Drayman confirms that Grimaud was one of the brothers, but had failed to rescue the other two from their graves. Still, it now seems quite clear that Fley also survived, and later hunted down his unfaithful brother, and with Fley dead, the detectives are now left to search for the elusive third brother he had invoked. The mysterious ‘Henri’, arbitrarily named by Fell, has the best motive for both of these inexplicable murders, but is not easily run to ground!

    Of course, with John Dickson Carr, things are never quite that simple! Fell eventually works out the solution to this impossible crime, though it takes all his analytical talents and his vast knowledge of crime and the mystery genre, to finally fit all the pieces into their proper place.

    One of the most tantalizing parts of this amazing novel, comes in Chapter 17, when Fell delivers a lengthy lecture on the locked room mystery, to Pettis, Rampole, and Hadley, during a late lunch. This lecture provides an extensive discussion on the various type of locked room mysteries, from simple secret passages to masterful illusions. Fell begins by simply asking how a murderer can create the impression of a hermetically sealed chamber, when we all know their must be some flaw? He finally provides seven basic scenarios, with many deviations, and five common tricks of the trade, in what must be viewed as the classic definition of the Locked Room mystery. Clayton Rawson, in ‘Death from a Top Hat’, and Anthony Boucher in ‘Nine Times Nine’, as well as Derek Smith in ‘Whistle Up the Devil’, all attempt to write the rules of this intriguing game, but none offer such an impressive analysis of locked-room methods.

    Fell also laments the ultimate fate of all illusionists, whether mystery novelist or stage magician. While mysterious tricks always inspire initial awe and wonder, there is certainly a down side to the business of illusion. Eventually, when the explanation is revealed, the mood inevitably shifts to one of bitter disappointment, and a strong feeling arises that the author has played a cheap trick on his audience. We all want to believe in magic, yet demand a logical solution, and then resent any answer that is short magical! Of course, Fley and Grimaud had both been fascinated by the art of illusion, and O’Rourke, a stage companion of Fley, also expounds on this art, all of which further reinforces Fell’s narrative. Every true fan of the locked room mystery simply must read this novel, if only for this highly entertaining conversation after the meal!

    The Hollow Man is right up there with all the other truly great mysteries of the Golden Age, like Christie’s ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’, Sayer’s ‘Strong Poison’, or the best Sherlock Holmes cases. It is definitely one of a select few of the best locked room mysteries, but I would further argue that Carr has long been underrated and that this is one of a handful of Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrrivale stories that deserve to be included in the library of every true mystery fan. Carr provides a truly ingenious plot, and though the solution may slightly stretch your incredulity, only the sharpest mystery fans will see the entire solution before Dr. Fell finally lays out his case. Clearly a five star read!

    *****

    * The Best reference on the locked room genre is ‘The Locked Room Library’ a website by John Pugmire, who is a an author and recognized authority on locked room mysteries. Go To Locked Room Library

    LR J D CarrJohn Dickson Carr – a few facts from Wikipedia:

    John Dickson Carr (November 30, 1906 – February 27, 1977) was an American author of detective stories, who also published under the pen names Carter Dickson, Carr Dickson and Roger Fairbairn.

    Carr is generally regarded as one of the greatest writers of so-called “Golden Age” mysteries, complex, plot-driven stories in which the puzzle is paramount. He was influenced in this regard by the works of Gaston Leroux and by the Father Brown stories of G. K. Chesterton. He was a master of the locked room mystery, in which a detective solves apparently impossible crimes. The Dr. Fell mystery The Hollow Man (1935), usually considered Carr’s masterpiece, was selected in 1981 as the best locked-room mystery of all time by a panel of 17 mystery authors and reviewers. He was also a pioneer of the historical mystery.

    A resident of England for a number of years, Carr is often grouped among “British-style” mystery writers. Most (though certainly not all) of his novels had English settings, especially country villages and estates, and English characters. His two best-known fictional detectives were English… Go to Wikipedia


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  • Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie (1936)


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    mesopotamiaMurder In Mesopotamia (1936) by Agatha Christie

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    ‘Murder in Mesopotamia’ is the 12th of Christie’s Poirot novels, though, in this instance, Poirot is a relatively minor character who only enters the case to provide the solution to a puzzle that is narrated by Nurse Amy Leatheran. Though it is never made entirely clear, the novel is apparently set at the Royal Cemetery at Ur, a site Christie visited, where she first met Sir Leonard Woolley and his team, a meeting which later led to her introduction to his second in command, and her second husband, archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan. Christie’s relatively new fascination with all things archeological is quite evident in this novel, and it even seems that her victim may have been drawn from real life. Louise Leidner is likely based on Katharine Woolley, Woolley’s wife, who was present at Christie’s first experience of an archeological dig. Christie later noted that Mrs Woolley “was a charming, creative, but imperious woman who ruled with an iron hand her husband and all his archeological associates.” (Agatha Christie: The Woman and her Mysteries, Gillian Giles, p123) Later, though she remained on good terms with the couple, as Mallowan was second in charge and good form was required, Christie may have expressed her true feelings in her own inimitable style, by killing off this apparent irritant to the archeological adventure.

    The protagonist, Amy Leatheran, enters the story when she is recommended to Dr. Eric Liedner, a famous Swedish archaeologist, by Dr Reilly, a British medic living in the area. Her initial interview with Leidner goes well, and Amy soon finds herself temporarily living at an archaeological dig near Hassanieh, Iraq, entrusted with the task of caring for Leidner’s nerve wracked wife. It must be remembered that after the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War, Iraq temporarily became a British protectorate, which accounts for the presence of the British legal system and colonial bureaucracy.

    Amy’s patient, Louise Leidner, is a beautiful and quite fascinating woman with an extremely difficult past. She had been briefly married during the war, to a German-American by the name of Frederick Bosner, who had worked for the US State Department, though he was eventually revealed as a spy for Germany and sentenced to death. However, before the sentence could be carried out, he was involved in a horrible train crash, and though an unrecognizable body bearing his identification was found in the wreckage, over the years Louise has received several communications from a man who claims to be her first husband, a situation which has significantly contributed to her current condition.

    Only a week after Nurse Leatheran arrives at the site, Mrs Leidner is found dead in her room by her husband. She had been violently struck in the head, by the proverbial ‘blunt object’, though no weapon is actually found within the room. Even worse, it is clearly an inside job, several witnesses attest that only members of the expedition entered the compound that afternoon, and even more to the point, the windows of the room were all barred and the only door, which fronted a central courtyard, had been directly in view of of one of the houseboys cleaning some ‘pots’ during the relevant time, with the exception of only a few minutes when he was called away. This short space of time allows some doubt, but the murder still seems all but impossible. It would have been extremely difficult for anyone to have entered and committed this crime during this brief window of opportunity, and all the members of the team are accounted for at this time. One member of the team believes she may have heard a cry, but the time does not match this opportunity and we soon learn that she could not have heard any sound from Mrs Leidner’s room if the windows had been closed – as they were when the body was discovered. There has also been a mysterious attempt to rob valuable antiquities from the dig, items carefully stored in a protected room, and it seems all too likely that these events are somehow connected to the murder. Though Christie allows for the barest possibility that someone might have slipped in and killed this complex woman, all the potential candidates are accounted for during those critical minutes, which turns this into a quite effective locked room mystery.

    Fortunately, Poirot is currently visiting Iraq and is a close friend of Dr Reilly. The events in this story are actually set three years before the date of publication, meaning that immediately following this case, Poirot left Mesopotamia to return to Europe on that infamous journey aboard the Orient Express. Poirot only arrives in this mystery well after the murder, as the excavation team finally return to work and Dr Leidner begins to arrange for his wife’s funeral. Poirot questions all the team, but is forced to admit that their alibis are sound. All were within sight of other team members at the only time when the murderer could have slipped into the room unnoticed. Later, during a lunch at Dr Reilly’s house, Poirot is told the story of Mrs Leidner’s life, and made aware of the existence of a younger brother-in-law, that the victim had not seen in at least fifteen years. Poirot clearly suspects that one of the team is either Frederick Bosner, resurrected from a false grave, or this younger brother, set on avenging his brother’s death. Poirot is also convinced that this is a crime of passion and that any solution must involve a clear understanding of the personality of Mrs Leidner. Amy is no longer required at the dig and Poirot warns her that she may still be in danger, but the nurse feels obliged to return for her patient’s funeral, before making plans to return to England. It is when she returns to the site that one of the team confess that they may have solved the puzzle, but this information arrives too late. The potential witness is poisoned in the middle of the night, and her dying words create only more confusion!

    This is clearly one of Christie’s best efforts, and one of the most ingenious locked room puzzles of the Golden Age, which is no small feat. Despite the lack of Dr. Fell’s hermetically sealed crime scene, there are few locked room mysteries with such an elegant and innovative solution. Purely as a locked room mystery it clearly deserves a full five stars! It is also a pretty good ‘Whodunnit’ – few will arrive at the solution before Poirot finally gathers the entire list of suspects at the house to reveal the results of his investigation, shortly after sending a flurry of cables all over the world.

    Reviews at the time this book was first released were generally positive, though many found the central premise of the plot to be rather incredible – and not without good reason! This is a point that every reader must carefully consider after reading this fascinating mystery, though it is not a subject we can even broach in this review, without issuing a total spoiler alert. I will therefore leave this point to the reader’s own good judgement. Most critics further agreed that the use of Amy Leatheran as the narrator is highly effective, and that the setting is both intriguing and technically well presented, clearly one of the best sets in any Christie novel. Unfortunately, this is not one of the better Poirot TV episodes. In this version, the intrusion of Hastings and the resulting reduction in the role of Amy Leatheran, was clearly an error that badly alters the all important narrative role, a device which is always central to any Christie story. in this case, Christie is again playing with the idea of the unreliable narrator, as she did with such stunning results in ‘Roger Ackroyd’, ‘Lord Edgware Dies’, and several other early novels. Nurse Leatheran quite clearly considers herself to be extremely observant and an excellent judge of character, both being essential parts of her professional training. Poirot realizes that her ability to observe may actually put her in danger, but casts some doubt on her claim to be able to make credible assessments of the other characters involved in this story – and the solution eventually puts the entire meaning of her observations in quite a different light, a point which the TV episode entirely ignores.

    How many stars overall? This is, once again, an extremely difficult novel to rate. It is clearly one of Christie’s best, yet it still entirely rests on that one premise that is very difficult to credit. Without this one problem, it would be a true five star good mystery – but this issue cannot be so easily ignored – it is simply far too improbable! I therefore reluctantly give it a high four star plus rating, even though it still remains one of my all time favourite Agatha Christie novels!

    ****


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