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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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  • The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1917)


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    valley of fear coverThe Valley of Fear (1917) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 

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    ‘The Valley of Fear’ is the fourth and final Sherlock Holmes novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The story was first serialized in the Strand Magazine between September 1914 and May 1915.

    The first act of this tale begins when Holmes decodes a cipher, sent by Porlock, an informant, warning him about movements in the organization of his arch enemy, Professor Moriarty. The intercepted message had been sent to “Douglas” in “Birlstone”.

    Watson tells us: “The village of Birlstone is a small and very ancient cluster of half-timbered cottages on the northern border of the county of Sussex. For centuries it had remained unchanged; but within the last few years its picturesque appearance and situation have attracted a number of well-to-do residents, whose villas peep out from the woods around.”

    Unfortunately, by the time Holmes decodes the warning, Scotland Yard’s MacDonald is already on the case, and asks them to help investigate a corpse with the same circle-in-triangle brand on the forearm as John Douglas, the missing owner of a moated estate, known as ‘Birlstone’. Identification is made difficult, as the head has been blown off by an American-style sawed-off shotgun. It appears that an intruder gained entry, killed Douglas, then dropped a card with the inscription ‘VV341’, before leaving by wading across the shallow moat. Oddly, the victim’s wife and best friend seem to be taking this horrible murder in stride, until Holmes threatens to drain the moat, forcing the conspirators to retrieve a missing dumb-bell used to weigh down the intruder’s clothing. Douglas is then eventually forced to come out from hiding in a priest hole, and admits that he killed the would be assassin and attempted to disappear in order to save himself from further attacks by an American criminal organization in the Vermissa Valley.

    In the second act, as in ‘A Study in Scarlet’, the reader is transported back to events in America, many years earlier. A young John McMurdo, with a reputation as tough counterfeiter, is a Freemen Lodge member, fleeing murder charges in Chicago. He comes to the Vermissa coal mine area, where the boss, McGinty, rules the Scowrers of local Lodge 341, who run a vast criminal network of extortion and murder. All are branded by a circle in a triangle, and exchange favours with other nearby Lodges. Miss Ettie Shafter, the daughter of McMurdo’s landlord, prefers McMurdo to one of the senior lodge members, a nasty character known as Baldwin, but McMurdo soon proves no better. He gradually works his way into the lodge, and eventually becomes one of the most notorious members of this vicious criminal gang.

    Spoiler Alert! Like ‘A Study in Scarlet’, this novel is not a whodunnit – the real mystery is how Holmes manages to solve the case, but if you want to keep the surprise ending a mystery – skip the next paragraph.

    McMurdo may appear to be one of the worst, but all is not as it seems. McMurdo, is really a Pinkerton Detective, named Birdy Edwards, who had been undercover for years. When he finally sprang his trap, the entire lodge was taken down. Edwards goes on to marry Ellie, and makes a fortune in the California goldfields. All seems well, till Ellie tragically dies, taking the joy out of Edward’s new life. Then, though most of the Scowrers had been hanged, those who got off with jail terms are set free, and still seem determined on revenge. Edwards is chased out of California, and arrives in England as John Douglas, only to have them pick-up his trail again, after he has remarried and set up his residence at ‘Birlstone’.

    Holmes warns Douglas to flee England, as he is in the sites of Moriarty, but his advice apparently comes too late. The new Mrs. Douglas later telegrams that her husband has been “lost overboard” on his way to South Africa.

    ‘The Valley of Fear’ is a well plotted work, with great dialogue and powerful characters. It is well worth the read. Still, as noted in my review of a ‘A Study in Scarlet’, I am not a fan of these returns to the American wild west. The change of scene is jarring, and breaks the flow of an otherwise excellent piece of detection.

    The best I can do for ‘Valley of Fear” is a high four stars.

    ****

    This ‘Valley of Fear’, like the entire Sherlock canon, is in the public domain. Several versions are available for free or for less than a dollar, in attractive eBook formats.


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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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    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 Fourth Door by Paul Halter (1987)


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    Fourth DoorThe Fourth Door by Paul Halter (1987)
    (Aka: The Houdini Murders)
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    When John Dickson Carr died in 1977 it left a major gap in the mystery genre. Carr had ruled as the undisputed King of Locked Room mysteries since the early 1930’s – and died without an apparent heir to the title. In the English speaking world this title has laid unclaimed, but not for those who read French, and now not for those who can read a series of quite excellent translations of Paul Halter’s best known novels and short stories!

    Paul Halter burst into the French mystery genre in 1987, when he won the Prix de Cognac, a respected award for French detective fiction, with this first novel ‘La Quatrieme Porte’ (The Fourth Door). The next year, he gained the highest prize in the French mystery genre, with the Prix du Roman d’Aventures, for ‘Le Brouillard Rouge’ (The Red Fog). ‘The Fourth Door’ introduces us to his two primary detectives, Dr. Alan Twist, a pipe-smoking, whiskey drinking, thin, Englishman, who works with the energetic Chief Inspector Archibald Hurst of Scotland Yard. With nine of these works finally available in English, we can now add these fascinating titles to a part of the mystery genre that has been too long neglected.

    Oddly, though Paul Halter was born in 1956, in Haguenau, a part of Alsace in north-eastern France, and writes exclusively in French, almost all of his mystery novels are set in England. This is partly because he felt it provided a more appropriate atmosphere, and also partly to emulate John Dickson Carr, an American who set most of his novels in England, and was Halter’s primary inspiration from a very young age. It is often hard to miss the many nods to Carr found in his works, from simple plot devices to very similar detectives. The main difference between Dr Twist, and Carr’s Dr Gideon Fell, is that Fell clearly outweighs Twist by a substantial margin. Nods to other great masters of this sub-genre also abound in many of his stories – demonstrating Halter’s fascination with the literature of his Golden Age predecessors. Despite being a star in French mystery literature, with a huge following in several countries, apparently including India, it has not proved to be a very rewarding career at a financial level, with Halter still earning his bread and butter as an electrical engineer for the French company, Telecom. Things may have worked out quite differently, if his novels had been translated into English at an earlier date, but at least our patience has now been rewarded by this excellent series of translations by John Pugmire, the force behind Locked Room International, and a highly respected authority on the locked-room sub-genre. I think it is now fairly safe to assume that Carr’s title has finally been passed on to another generation!

    This first published novel, ‘The Fourth Door’, is set in a late 1940’s English village and is primarily concerned with three families who have long lived as close neighbours, with the pot now stirred by the arrival of two new tenants, who have come to share one of these grand old houses. The central roles are given to three young men who have grown up together in this rural area – a recurring theme of ‘lost years of innocence’, that is found in several of these Halter novels. One of these young men is the narrator, James Stevens, whose sister, Elizabeth, also plays a central role. The other two are Henry White and John Darnley. John sadly lost his mother in a rather horrid fashion some while before the novel begins. She had been found dead in a sealed attic room covered with slashes, which may or may not have been a rather gruesome form of suicide. Victor Darnley, John’s father, has never quite recovered from this loss. Lights are often seen in the isolated attic room where John’s mother died and local opinion is split between a haunted manor and Victor wandering around the house in search of his dead wife’s ghost. The story has barely begun, when Henry’s mother is also killed in a car crash, while driving home with his father from London. His father escapes unscathed, but the news arrives only moments after James has witnessed Henry talking in his sleep about the loss of his mother!

    Victor Darnley, with his life in tatters, has lost most of his income and is obliged to rent out a large portion of his house to make ends meet. Many have moved in and soon left, after hearing eerie footsteps in the attic in the middle of the night, but the latest tenants, Alice and Patrick Latimer, who dabble in spiritual matters, seem to find it the perfect place to live. Still, it is not long before their arranged seances with the dead wives and mothers, leave all convinced, except the gullible widowers, that the Latimer’s are making a lot of money out of these and other scams. In short, they are charlatans preying upon the sympathies of bereaved relatives.

    This situation inevitably leads to clashes between the sons and fathers, until one night Henry’s father is attacked after seeing a suspicious figure carrying what looks like a body. He recovers, but by the next morning Henry has disappeared. The police investigate, but find no body, and the Latimer’s claim to have seen Henry in a London train station. Since they are not yet suspects and there is no real evidence of a crime, it is assumed that Henry, who always held a fascination and an incredible talent for acrobatics and the art of illusion, has simply gone off to join the circus, after the numerous bitter arguments with his father. The only really jarring note in this early investigation occurs when James asserts that he saw and talked to Henry in Oxford, at almost the same moment as Henry was seen London, suggesting that Henry is either capable of being in two places at once – or someone is lying!

    Unfortunately, all these odd occurrences lead to no real conclusions. Arthur White and Victor Darnell grow ever closer to the Latimer’s as several years pass with no major incidents or sign of Henry. Finally, these four decide on an experiment designed to make Mrs Darnley reappear in the sealed attic room where she died long ago. It is the ‘fourth door’ down a narrow, and very dark, attic passage. Patrick Latimer agrees to be locked into the sealed room as part of the experiment, and all is made ready, including wax seals, designed to prove that no one could possibly have entered or left the sealed chamber. Patrick finally arrives and is locked inside, muffled in coat and scarf due to the bitter cold, but when the others are finally alerted and break the seal, it is not Patrick who lies stabbed on the floor, exactly where Mrs Darnley had died! Patrick claims to have been ambushed and put out of action, but that still does not explain how this new body was stabbed in the back while inside this perfect locked-room!

    The identity of the corpse is only the first of many twists, all of which Inspector Drew, aka ‘The Psychologist’, must unravel and finally draw to a conclusion. Nor is it the last impossible murder, yet another death occurs, this time in an isolated house with unblemished snow on all sides! Drew clearly botches the investigation, but all ‘appears’ to be finally unravelled, with ‘appears’ being the operative word in this novel which is all about appearances and illusions. The final denouement, with Drew and the remaining characters, is a masterpiece of literature which skirts that always fine line that separates the mystery and horror genres.

    It is not until much later that Dr Twist and Chief Inspector Hurst, with the invaluable help of mystery author, Ronald Bowers, realize that the whole truth never emerged. To tell you any more, would clearly require a spoiler alert, and this novel is far too good to ruin. I strongly urge every fan of the locked room genre to get ahold of a copy of this quite remarkable, extremely inventive, and entirely unique, award winning mystery novel. ‘The Fourth Door’ has long been considered one of the all time great locked room mysteries, holding down one of the top three spots ever since the list was first created by a panel of experts back in the early 1980’s.

    I almost guarantee that you will initially find all these impossible crimes to be piled on with too thick a trowel, but even this is finally justified by the solution. It is also quite certain that you won’t divine the final twists and turns of this very odd, yet extremely compelling tale.’The Fourth Door’ is not a long novel, maybe 150 pages on paper, and it runs at an incredible pace, with hardly any break in the action – though the events narrated are condensed from a period of several years. About three quarters of the way through, you are likely going to feel cheated, I know I did, but do not let this pause in the narrative let you put this book aside. It is, in reality, no break at all, just another brief glimpse behind the curtain that hides the real illusion. The spectre of Harry Houdini also haunts this novel (sometimes referred to as ‘The Houdini Murders’), both directly and indirectly, leading us to view this novel more as an act of illusion, than your usual mystery drama. Other reviewers have made a quite valid point, holding that ‘The Fourth Door’ is not only a gem of the locked-room sub-genre, but is really one of the best mysteries of all time and should be considered as simply a fascinating piece of literature that deserves much wider appreciation.

    There is not much to say on the negative side. Some critics find the translation to be a bit awkward. While my poor French does not allow me to make a valid comparison, I tend to accept that this rather odd style is a necessary part of the plot. If it was written with more polish and a stylish flair, that would actually raise a quite serious plotting issue. It can also be argued that some of Halter’s peripheral characters are rather shallow and under-developed, but the same argument applies, as this is clearly a requirement of the plot, a point most readers will likely acknowledge after finishing this amazing novel.

    To put it simply, this is one of the best books of any description, I have read in a very long time! It is a masterpiece of the locked room genre, and also a very good piece of modern literature. Reading it was not unlike my barely remembered responses, when I first read a few of Sherlock’s better adventures, or a couple of Christie’s classic endings! What higher praise can be offered? More of these Halter novels will be reviewed over the next few months! Unequivocally a full five star mystery read!

    *****


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  • The Case of The Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin (1944)


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    Gilded FlyThe Case of The Gilded Fly (1944) by Edmund Crispin
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    Also published as: Obsequies at Oxford (US)

    The novels of Edmund Crispin are not easy to review. Crispin continues the development of the sophisticated literary style of mystery that largely began with Dorothy Sayers, but takes this to a point that will leave many modern readers reaching for the reference shelf. At another level, Crispin also attempts to continue the device of a professorial detective investigating impossible locked room mysteries. Gervase Fen is essentially an Oxford edition of Gideon Fell, the main contribution of John Dickson Carr, though Crispin’s mysteries will never match the talent of that great master of the locked room genre.

    This first novel by ‘Edmund Crispin’ was originally released in the US under the title, ‘Obsequies at Oxford’. Edmund Crispin was actually the pseudonym of Robert Bruce Montgomery (1921 – 1978), who is remembered for both his Gervase Fen mystery novels and his musical compositions. Born in Chesham Bois, Buckinghamshire, Montgomery graduated from St John’s College, Oxford, in 1943, with a BA in modern languages. He also spent two years as this school’s organ scholar and choirmaster – a position which plays a central role in ‘The Gilded Fly’. He first became known for his mysteries and was only later recognized as a composer of vocal and choral music, including ‘An Oxford Requiem’ (1951). He eventually turned to film work, writing the scores for many British comedies, including the famous ‘Carry On’ series. Montgomery also authored the screenplay and score of ‘Raising the Wind’ (1961).

    ‘The Gilded Fly’ begins with the assembly of a company of actors in Oxford, several of which are in some manner connected to the ancient halls of St. Christopher’s, a fictional Oxford college, where Crispin’s detective, Gervase Fen, is a professor of English literature and avid amateur detective. This odd combination of talents is nicely offset by the Chief Constable, Sir Richard Freeman, whose chief interest is English literature.

    The novel is narrated by Nigel Blake, a former student of Gervase Fen and friend of several members of the theatrical cast. In each of the Fen mysteries, there is a different Watson – and here Nigel fills this critical role. Blake is on vacation from his job as a journalist and has come to Oxford to visit Fen and watch the single week of rehearsals that will lead to the debut of a new play. This new production is the work of an up and coming young playwright, Robert Warner, whose last play in the West End proved less than successful, leaving him to debut his latest effort, ‘Metromania’, in the provinces. He is accompanied by Rachel West, a famous London actress and his Jewish mistress, who is playing one of two central female roles. The other leading female role is to be played by Yseut Haskell, a mediocre actress who still harbours a grudge against Robert over a past affair. She also has a well deserved reputation for causing problems during the development of other productions. The wealthy Yseut is accompanied by her poor half-sister, Helen, also an actress and, in this instance, her understudy. The cast is filled out by various members of the local repertory theatre and their social circle, including Sheila McGaw, the local producer; Donald Fellowes, organ scholar at the college, who is enamoured with Yseut; Nicholas Barclay, a man about town who abandoned a promising career as a scholar; and Jeanne Whitelegge, an Oxford undergraduate in love with both Donald Fellowes and the glamour of theatrical life.

    No spoiler alert is necessary, as it is quite obvious from the first chapters that Yseut is the intended victim. Yet, Crispin takes his time carefully establishing motive for all the central characters. The first third of the novel is almost entirely dedicated to drawing a clear picture of the complex relationships that eventually lead, not only to the death of Yseut, but also to the murder of another member of this small ensemble.

    If you enjoy literary allusions, you will certainly not be disappointed by Crispin’s style. There are literally hundreds of references, most of which will be missethink of numerous additions) which notes some forty references ranging from Shakespeare to T S Eliot, Faust, and Horace. For those with an extensive literary background, this list is well worth perusing. (Go to Wiki Article). Chaucer is also quoted on several occasions, then one must add the odd and often seemingly irrelevant quotes which begin each chapter, drawn from such obscure English writers as Beroul – Dryden – Newman – Thomson – Campion – Marvell – Otway – Charles Churchill – Charles Williams – Crashaw – Ford – Maxwell – Webster – and you begin to get the idea!

    Some of these allusions are quite evident, but even though I was once an English Lit major, I must admit the better portion of these references went right over my head. I will always be one of the first to appreciate the literary style of authors such as Dorothy Sayers, and several other Golden Age writers, who were determined to lift the Penny Dreadfuls into respectable works of literature. Unfortunately, Crispin quite simply carries this to an extreme, leaving me headed for reference works at every turn – or feeling like I may have missed something important. Mysteries should not have to play to the Lowest Common Denominator, there is plenty of room for articulate plots aimed at well educated readers. Unfortunately, Crispin fails to draw a reasonable line – leaving his readers scrambling to catch each literary nuance.

    This sin would likely be granted a full pardon, if his mysteries were as well plotted as his literary allusions. Yseut is eventually shot to death in a room with closed windows and an honest worker in the passage who would have seen anyone enter the room during the period in question. In addition, someone has set the scene quite nicely, taking time to pose the corpse and wedge a copy of an ancient Egyptian ring on her swollen finger. The general idea of this staging was to suggest that Yseut’s death could only be a suicide, but this ‘Problem of the Egyptian Ring’ makes the entire situation fall a little flat. The ring is not only the Gilded Fly of the title, and a direct reference to King Lear, it is also apparently intended as a sign of the foolish dramatic instincts of the murderer. Why would the murderer bother with this ring? It entirely destroys the attempt to suggest suicide – with no real reason for this awkward intrusion. The ring is simply a senseless, irresistible, dramatic flourish – perhaps a symbol of the artistic temperament of the killer? Whatever the original intent, the ring is never fully explained and ultimately fails to serve any real purpose.

    The police inspector, Cordery, and Sir Richard, both argue that suicide is the only possible answer, as no one, except Robert, who was in an adjoining lavatory, could have entered the room during the time in question. Furthermore, Robert could not have committed the crime, due to the fact that he left Fen, Nigel, and Sir Richard, only moments before the shot and had no time to stage this elaborate scene. Of course, Fen disagrees with this official conclusion. He attempts to argue that suicide is equally impossible, and from the first is quite certain he knows the identity of the murderer – and consistently claims that the motive of this murder is not primarily of a sexual nature.

    Few tears are shed over the death of Yseut, which most consider a divine blessing. Her blatant use of sexual power has made her many enemies, and even her half-sister, who stands to inherit, seems to find it difficult to mourn her passing. In the end, of course, the show must go on. Fen coerces the police into waiting until after the opening of ‘Metromania’, before presenting his final denouement. The show proves to be a huge success and all are celebrating their theatrical achievement when the identity of the murderer is finally revealed. One brief clue to all readers – keep the room plan handy while reading this story! The rather good solution to the locked room mystery can only be fully appreciated if you have this plan firmly set in your mind! Some habitual mystery readers may uncover the identity of the murderer – it is not a truly great whodunnit. Instead, the real trick lies in divining the method, which very few will guess! Is this because it is so improbable? Perhaps, but improbable or not, the solution is not an entirely satisfying explanation of the locked-room illusionist’s art – but then again, we are seldom happy when we discover those simple tricks that make a staged illusion so tantalizingly mystifying!

    What truly saves this mystery is the quality of the prose, the depth of the characters, and the detailed scenes all woven together by Crispin. One example, of many, is this short descriptive passage: “Outside St. John’s, the trees began to creak and whisper, and the drops rattled with dull monotony from their branches, while a few solitary beams of pale sunlight rested on an architrave of the Taylorian, glanced off southwards down the Cornmarket, and were rapidly engulfed somewhere in the precincts of Brasenose.” These are many of these excellently crafted prose passages, which add an artistic dimension that few mystery writers can equal. Also of special note is the rather long discussion of murder between Sheila McGaw and Nicholas Barclay in Chapter 9, page 121 of some ebook editions. It is a true delight which no mystery fan should be deprived of reading.

    The character of Gervase Fen is another strength of the Crispin series. It is more fully developed in other stories, but is clearly set out by Nigel as he first approaches the murder scene: “Nigel reflected, as he turned into St. Christopher’s at twenty to six that evening, that there was something extraordinarily school-boyish about Gervase Fen. Cherubic, naive, volatile, and entirely delightful, he wandered the earth taking a genuine interest in things and people unfamiliar, while maintaining a proper sense of authority in connection with his own subject. On literature his comments were acute, penetrating, and extremely sophisticated; on any other topic he invariably pretended complete ignorance and an anxious willingness to be instructed, though it generally came out eventually that he knew more about it than his interlocutor, for his reading, in the forty-two years since his first appearance on this planet, had been systematic and enormous.”

    Fen is often extremely rude and abrasive, with little patience and an arrogance that can be quite astounding, but this is only a superficial vision. True, Gervase Fen is the very definition of eccentric, but the character is saved by his good-hearted nature as well as his sharp wit and his intellectual brilliance – which is not above being mocked by his own pretentious play acting. Those of us who are fans of John Dickson Carr will appreciate the line where he notes, “Lord, Lord what a fool I’ve been! And yes – it fits – absolutely characteristic. Heaven grant Gideon Fell never becomes privy to my lunacy; I should never hear the end of it.” This form of irony is a common touch of the Crispin style, with Fen referring to himself as “the only literary critic turned detective in fiction.” It is this ingenuousness and odd form of humility, as well as his romantic nature, that keeps Fen from becoming simply an irritating source of brilliant deductions. He is always logical, yet quite unable to see the moral issue, and it is this inability to stand in the shoes of others, that is ultimately responsible for his one failure in this case. Fen delays the unmasking of the murderer, just long enough to allow the play to open on a high note, but this respect for art over life soon proves fatal. The wait creates the opportunity for a second murder, and even then Fen will not allow his plans to be disrupted. Still, we can only admire his Lord Peter like compulsions against unmasking the murderer of this rather unpleasant young woman. Some reviews use this as a pretext for viewing his attitude towards women as mysogonistic, though this is more of a simple reflection on an era when women were all too often viewed as sexual objects. I would actually argue that Crispin’s attitude, as expressed through Fen, especially with respect to Helen, actually demonstrates an acceptance and respect for the finer intellectual qualities of his female characters, than is common in other similar works of this period.

    I also thoroughly enjoy another Carr touch adopted by Crispin, in his use of the spooky parallel ghost story. This clearly adds another dimension to the staged illusion of these seemingly impossible crimes, by offering the potential for a macabre ending. This device was quite common in the early days of the mystery genre, at least from the time of Edgar Allan Poe. It later became less popular, though it seems to be currently enjoying a revival as many independent authors experiment with various combinations of these two related genres.

    How many stars? Knock off half a star for Crispin’s addiction to literary references, and another half for the ease of identifying the murderer and the improbability of the method. Though I am not partial to mysteries set in the world of theatre, whether the product of Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Michael Innes, Ngaio Marsh – or many others – Crispin does manage to keep the story from being overwhelmed by the theatrical lights, by creating realistic characters and a less than glamorous backstage atmosphere. A high three stars would not be unfair – due to the faults mentioned above – but I will give it a very light four, primarily due to the complex character of Gervase Fen, and a prose style which has few rivals in the genre. A very young Crispin actually does quite a good job of extracting himself from a rather weak plot, and just barely saves this first novel from disaster, but better things would soon follow. Most reviewers tend to agree that the less famous ‘Moving Toyshop’ proved to be a far better mystery read.

    ****


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  • The Single Staircase by Matt Ingwalson (2013)


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    single staircaseThe Single Staircase (2013) by Matt Ingwalson
    ebook    Paperback not available in Canada 

     

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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

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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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  • The Chinese Orange Mystery by Ellery Queen (1934)


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    chinese orangeThe Chinese Orange Mystery (1934) by Ellery Queen
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    Most older mystery readers will be quite familiar with Ellery Queen, but for a new generation of readers it is necessary to provide a little background information. Ellery Queen is not only a fictional detective, one of the greatest figures in American detective fiction, he is also a pseudonym originally used by two American cousins from Brooklyn, Daniel Nathan, alias Frederic Dannay (1905 – 1982) and Manford Emanuel Lepofsky, alias Manfred Bennington Lee (1905 – 1971), who wrote, edited, and anthologized detective fiction, most notably in the famous Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, which was launched in 1941 and is still published today under the supervision of new ‘Ellery Queen’ editors. Even a brief review of the number of talented authors whose careers began with being published in this magazine is quite remarkable. The fictional Ellery Queen, as created by Dannay and Lee, was a man about town, a mystery writer, and an amateur sleuth who helped his father, New York City police inspector, Richard Queen, in solving many extremely baffling murders. This character was initially intended to compete with S. S. Van Dine’s, Philo Vance, only with ‘less exaggerated’ qualities, though he long outlasted the popularity of his famous competition.

    The early Ellery Queen novels are most famous for the ‘fair play’ statement, where the authors breaks the fourth wall to inform the reader, in this case: “I maintain that at this point in your reading of The Chinese Orange Mystery you have all the facts in your possession essential to a clear solution of the mystery.” A statement which is always factually true, though those clues may be quite unrecognizable and buried beneath a mountain of red herrings. Still, it does provide something of a challenge to the reader. This novel was later loosely adapted for a 1936 film ‘The Mandarin Mystery’, starring Eddie Quillan, in the role of Ellery Queen; while other elements were included in the 1941 film, ‘Ellery Queen’s Penthouse Mystery’.

    ‘The Chinese Orange Mystery’ (1934) is the eighth in the series, and one of the better known Ellery Queen novels, especially among those who are fans of the locked room sub-genre. In fact it has been near the top of nearly every list of great locked room mysteries since the basic list was first compiled by Edward D. Hoch and others back in the 1980’s – though why this should be the case is entirely another matter. Still, you simply have to love the Ellery Queen novels, they are classics works of American detective fiction that are a true joy to read.

    This novel begins with the wanderings of a young woman by the name of Miss Diversey, who takes us on a tour of the luxury suite and offices of the Kirk Family on the 22nd floor of ‘The Hotel Chancellor’ in midtown Manhattan. Miss Diversey is the nurse for Dr Hugh Kirk, an eccentric aging scholar and father of Donald Kirk, a wealthy New York publisher, owner of Mandarin Press, and collector of rare Chinese stamps, jewels and ‘trouble’ – as Queen notes in the cast of characters! In addition, the Kirk household consists of Donald’s sister, Marcella, a butler by the name of Hubell, and a recent guest, a Pearl Buck style novelist from China, the lovely Jo Temple. The 22nd floor is also subject to frequent visits by Glenn Macgowan, Donald’s closest friend, and Irene Llewes, another long term resident of the Chanchellor. Miss Diversey simply gives the reader a brief tour and sets the scene for one of the oddest crimes to ever be featured in a mystery novel. Donald Kirk is almost the last to be introduced, arriving only moments before the discovery of the body – conveniently with Ellery Queen in tow!

    Queen, Donald Kirk and Kirk’s assistant, James Osborne, congregate in the office, dealing with the afternoon’s business, and are about to leave for dinner when Osborne suddenly recalls that a visitor is in the waiting room. Kirk attempts to enter the room to greet this mysterious visitor, only to discover that the connecting door to the office has been bolted from the other side. Ellery takes a quick peep through the keyhole, then quickly leads the group towards a second entrance from the hallway, conveniently out of sight of the hotel floor clerk, where they discover a room that has been turned entirely backwards and a corpse that has been carefully redressed with each item of clothing turned front to back – and, for good measure, two decorative African spears inserted between the body and clothing – forming rather suggestive diabolical horns! To say the least it is a very odd and extremely puzzling crime scene!

    The list of who could have entered the waiting room is essentially limitless, as it may have been accessed via the back stairs without being observed by the floor clerk. However, once Inspector Queen arrives on the scene, it is generally assumed that the murderer must be a resident of the hotel, though why this assumption is made is never fully explained. The odd little man who had offered no name to Osborne, had arrived in the office while Donald was absent for the afternoon, then was ushered into the adjoining waiting room by Kirk’s assistant, after claiming he must see Kirk on urgent business. Now he is dead, whacked over the head with a handy poker, then redressed to match the now backwards motif that has been applied to the entire room. The first task of the police investigation is to determine the identity of the victim, he is not known by any of the central characters, or so they claim, and carries no form of identification. The police expend considerable time and effort trying to identify the corpse, all to no avail, even after giving the story to the press and enquiring with all the major American police forces, as well as those on the other side of the pond! It is quite naturally assumed that once the identity is revealed, the ‘whodunnit’ will be obvious – as this must be the reason for the murderer not only removing all obvious sources of identity, but even taking the time to get rid of all the labels and laundry marks! How could Inspector Queen be expected to solve the murder of an unknown man? Oddly, the name of the victim is never actually ascertained and is not even important to the solution of the mystery!

    While Inspector Queen takes care of the usual police investigation, Ellery is determined to understand the reason for this overwhelming backwardness. The next few chapters investigate a long list of things that might be considered backwards in western culture, especially Chinese and Hebrew writing and various contrary foreign customs. Ellery finds ‘backwardness’ in some form nearly everywhere he looks, but none that seems to form a sufficient motive that would lead the murderer to risk as much time and trouble as was required to rearrange the murder scene. The Chinese Orange, or Tangerine, of the title, is another point that initially puzzles Queen – especially after the autopsy reveals that the visitor ate one of the oranges, left in a fruit bowl in the waiting room, shortly before his violent death. Needless to say, there are many romantic currents and numerous secrets concerning jewels and stamps, and a troubled publishing house, which only serve to confuse the entire situation. In the end, it is not until they finally discover the victim’s rather odd missing luggage, that Ellery finally has his epiphany – but even then, understanding the reason for the backwardness, does not solve the ‘whodunnit’ – and though this novel clearly has its faults as a locked room story, it is still a very good mystery that few will solve before the final denouement.

    To explain all my problems with this novel as a locked room mystery, would require a spoiler alert, and this is too good a story to be ruined by critical dissection. I will therefore limit myself to three quite general observations, and the reader can later make up their own mind about the validity of each point.

    First, this is quite simply not a locked room mystery – and only an impossible crime novel because the final solution is virtually impossible! The room has two doors and only one was locked – though it is that one bolted door which has made this a favourite for generations of locked room fans. This door was immortalized by John Dickson Carr in the famous Chapter 17 lecture of ‘The Hollow Man’, and I can only imagine that this is the source of this quite obvious confusion. In almost every other way, ‘The Chinese Orange Mystery breaks just about every rule in Carr’s convenient handbook. Somehow, all of these ‘locked room experts’ have managed to ignore that unlocked second door, conveniently around the corner, quite near the stairs, and outside the line of vision of the floor clerk. Literally anyone in New York could have entered via the stairs – so where is the locked room puzzle? I must vote with Dr Fell (see Locked Room Review of ‘The Hollow Man’) and declare that this open door should quite simply knock this mystery off any locked room list – even though I love the Ellery Queen mysteries and this still remains a great ‘whodunnit’!

    Secondly, this murder scene was necessarily turned backwards within a very short time after the arrival of this visitor on the elevator at 5:44 pm, and after the consumption of that orange – say death occurred at 6pm at the earliest. Yet, the entire scene must have been set before a steady stream of visitors began to enter the hallway, headed for the office in search of the tardy Donald, beginning with Macgowan just before 6:25 pm. It would therefore be quite generous to grant the killer twenty minutes without some form of interruption. Turning the victims clothes around in this time, is perhaps acceptable. Turning the lampshades and pictures around, well maybe – but once the murderer begins turning the rugs, the clock, and the tables in different directions, it is now hardly credible! Still, we might give the author a pass, if the murderer did not also need to turn two necessarily tall and extremely heavy bookcases and invent and set up a complex illusion! Now we are quite simply talking about a truly impossible crime – and this point is never addressed in the solution! Call me picky, if you like, but this plot is busted!

    Thirdly, it is never explained how the murderer knew that Donald Kirk would be absent for such an extended period – or at what hour the victim would arrive – or how the murderer could be certain that he would not be discovered by another visitor during the lengthy time required to turn everything upside down. It brings in a ludicrous level of risk that would have been far more than foolhardy!

    Some critics have attempted to compare this book to Carr or Chesterton, but I suggest they need to carefully read the pages, before making unfounded statements. One review online even claims that Donald Kirk was beaten to death – the type of error that makes every reviewer cringe! Another is so determined that this is a locked room mystery that they claim the second door was always under observation by the floor clerk – a fact which both Ellery and the floor plan clearly contradict! Yet another dubious tribute, claims that the murderer left no clues, when it is difficult to imagine a case with more clues – though the identity of the victim would have helped the case! Quite a few others reviewers note that the motive is rather weak and improbable, which is fair comment – even though it may be the least improbable part of this mystery! Many, of course, also object to the racial stereotyping found in this novel, a point which enters into nearly every review of these classic mysteries, and the answer is always the same! The reader must either allow for cultural change or simply stop reading anything written before 1980 – give or take a decade or two! Others, who are better acquainted with the entire series than I am, hold that the writing in this novel puts it at the top of the Queen reading list, largely because it does not give way to ‘the verbal excesses’ found in some of the earlier works. This is a point I will keep in mind as I begin to reread some of these titles which are once again near the top of my list – forty odd years after I first discovered Ellery Queen! Overall, the best reviews, in my mind, are those that freely admit that this novel is bizarre and unrealistic, that the plot is horribly flawed, that you need to understand the rules of the 1930’s dress code to solve the crime, and then go on to openly and honestly admit that this is all part of the essential charm of the Ellery Queen formula – an assessment with which I am in full agreement!

    On the positive side, one must admit that the deductive method employed by Ellery demonstrates a rather remarkable understanding of the psychological process. The authors note: “The human brain is a curious instrument. It is remarkably like the sea, possessing deeps and shallows – cold dark profundities and sunny crests. It has its breakers dashing into shore, and its sullen backwashes. Swift currents race beneath a surface ruffled by minor winds. And there is a constant pulsing rhythm in it very like the tides. For it possesses periods of ebb, when all inspiration recedes into the blind spumy distance; and periods of flow, when strong thoughts come hurtling in, resistless and supreme.” This passage sums up the Ellery Queen style I have grown to know and love over the years – and this is the single best reason for reading this series. It quite simply defines the ebb and flow of the storyline, which leads readers of ‘The Chinese Orange Mystery’ back and forth, closer then more distant, but always slowly moving from that inconceivable crime scene to a solution that explains all those grotesque oddities which initially confound the mind. I will never be the biggest Ellery Queen fan, but I must admit that the character and method of Ellery Queen is one of the best inventions in the mystery universe. It is the horrid stereotyping of those omnipresent, rather soft-boiled, too brutish, too tough, wisecracking cops, and the far too extravagant plots, that tend to take the edge off these mysteries in my estimation. Some of the later Queen novels take a more psychological twist, and I feel more comfortable with these works, though the entire series is, without a doubt, one of the most important literary contributions of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.

    How to rate this book? It is so odd and improbable, and yet such great fun and a fantastic ‘whodunnit’, that any rating seems completely unfair. Why this book is #8 on the locked room mystery list, I simply cannot fathom, though there is that one quite good trick, that if set in a better plot, might actually have made this mystery a serious contender. In truth, purely as a locked room story – two stars is more than generous – though I know many will take issue with this statement. However, as a regular whodunnit mystery read, and simply an entertaining novel, ‘The Chinese Orange Mystery’ is a solid four star effort! I will therefore give it a very light four stars – accompanied by a strong warning to all Locked Room enthusiasts: ‘Don’t expect a locked room classic!’ It is time someone called the judges to account for placing this otherwise terrific mystery at the top of the locked room charts! I suspect there must have been a bad case of collective amnesia making the rounds, or perhaps they took the suggestion in the forward, which provides the alternative title of ‘The Crime That was Backwards’, as sufficient reason for putting this book on the list in a backwards order? Who knows? Stranger things have happened in the world of murder and mayhem!

    ****


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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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