The End of Andrew Harrison by Freeman Wills Crofts

AndrewHarrisonFreeman Wills Crofts is perhaps not the first name that will spring to mind if you are asked to list Locked Room mystery novelists and with some good reason. Out of the dozens of novels he wrote, just two are locked room mysteries and neither of these are currently available in print.

It seems strange though that he did not write more widely in the subgenre because based on this and my previous experiences reading his work it seems like a natural fit for his methodical, reasoned approach to detective fiction. Certainly the locked room devised here is of a high quality and I thoroughly enjoyed following how it was solved.

The prominent financier Andrew Harrison disappears after arriving back in England following a business trip to Paris. This prompts speculation in the papers that his company was in financial trouble and he has absconded. After waiting in the hope that he would send a message, the family contact Scotland Yard who task French to the case.

Everyone is surprised when Harrison suddenly sends word a few days later that he is fine and that a message he sent had failed to arrive. A short while later however Harrison throws a small party on his houseboat and when he cannot be roused in the morning he is discovered dead in his locked cabin of an apparent suicide. French is back on the case and suspects foul play!

The locked room element of the story is very cleverly conceived and explained with superb clarity. The murder takes place in Harrison’s cabin which is deadbolted from the inside. Testing demonstrates that there is no way to pull the deadbolt closed from outside the room. The only other physical entrance to the room would be the porthole but this presents its own difficulties as it has been tightly closed. The porthole which only opens inwardly is designed to prevent it being swung shut and has to be pushed securely into place with force as there is no handle on the outside of the glass.

The physical boundaries to this room are clearly established and I will admit that I was thoroughly stumped as to how Crofts would explain this murder. I was curious how Inspector French would handle a locked room mystery but I should not have been surprised that it would be with methodical, careful experimentation and testing of different theories. In just forty pages the detective is able to work through this puzzle with impressive reasoning to reach a very neat explanation that proves both that it was murder and also how the crime was worked.

Once French knows how the crime was done he proceeds to focus his efforts on understanding who could have carried out the crime. Certainly there are plenty of suspects on hand as Harrison, while not monstrous, is a cold, hard man who has fractious relationships with all of his family. On top of those suspects we must also consider business rivals and disgruntled investors.

The question of whodunit is far from an afterthought and I would suggest it is just as cleverly devised as the locked room itself. French believes that there must be some link between Harrison’s strange disappearance and the financier’s subsequent murder yet the timeline makes the nature of that connection are hard to understand.

Here Crofts’ plotting is quite sublime and, much like I found with The Sea Mystery, the case steadily evolves throughout the novel to become something quite different from  what seemed likely at the outset. If you are not a fan of the author’s style then this is not likely to convert you to the cause but those who appreciate his incremental, detail-driven approach will find a lot to enjoy here.

Sometimes I have been frustrated by the pacing of a French investigation, feeling that the logical path he follows means that the alert reader may be far ahead of the detective but here I feel Crofts sets his pace perfectly. There are regular discoveries of information as French tests new theories and once Crofts provides the reader with all they need to solve the case he moves quickly to the conclusion. Against expectations based on those previous experiences, this is one of the most tightly plotted Crofts novels I have read to date.

That is not to say that every aspect of this works perfectly. One problem I have with the novel is that a character who is introduced to us as a character we are meant to relate to at the start of the story is essentially dropped at about the halfway point, apparently being forgotten.

In one sense this is understandable as the character has little else to contribute but does serve a role as the outsider who is needed to start things in motion by reporting the disappearance to the Yard. The frustration for me is that the character is one of the more interesting and likable in the book and having been encouraged to care about him, we are left wondering what would have become of him. It did strike me that, if this were a Carr novel, he would almost certainly be ending the novel married off and while I can grumble about that happy-couple finish, it does at least provide some closure.

The other significant complaint would be that French is given rather a large piece of help from a character as we enter the concluding portion of the novel that helps him identify the killer. Some may feel that this in some way suggests that the detective doesn’t really solve the case himself. I would argue that he works out all of the most important features of what happened and he is responsible for figuring out what had happened, even if he needs a little help in identifying the culprit.

Overall I found The End of Andrew Harrison to be a thoroughly engaging read, both as a detective story and also, more specifically, as an example of a locked room. Crofts engineers his problem well, coming up with a striking and credible solution, and working a strong mystery around it. I came away feeling impressed by Crofts’ approach to the subgenre and wishing that he had returned to it more frequently. Sadly he wrote just one other locked room novel, Sudden Death, and given the prices of that one and the lack of library copies available I doubt I will be getting around to it any time soon. Maybe some day, though..

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: On a mode of transportation (Where)

This book was released in the United States as The Futile Alibi.

Death Knocks Three Times by Anthony Gilbert

DeathKnocksI cannot say that Anthony Gilbert is a new author to me. After all, I did love Portrait of a Murderer (written as Anne Meredith, another of her pseudonyms) enough to make it a Book of the Month last year and I knew that I wanted to return to her writing sooner rather than later to get a taste of her other types of work.

The selection of this particular title however was entirely as a result of reading a fantastic review of this title that Kate at CrossExaminingCrime wrote for her blog. I cannot say exactly what elements of the story grabbed my attention – perhaps it was the promise of a dark and biting conclusion – but I decided to go in search of a copy and found, to my delight, that this seems to be one of the few GAD novels I had no difficulty finding in a public library. Hurrah!

The novel opens with our sleuth, the thoroughly disreputable lawyer Arthur Crook arriving at a country house in the middle of a storm seeking shelter. The house is owned by an elderly colonel who refuses to move with the times and never has much company except his novelist nephew who visits several times a year in the hope it may lead to an inheritance at some future point.

During his stay Crook notices that the antique bathtub seems to be a deathtrap and comments on this fact to said Colonel. Several days later, after a visit from his nephew, the man is found dead in said bath with his neck broken.

A short while later an aunt of the novelist dies in a strange accident, just after he had paid a visit to see her. That leaves him with one surviving relative and when she starts receiving death threats she sends for a friendly advisor to help her figure out who may be behind it and what she should do. We are forced to wonder if said nephew’s family going through a run of misfortune or is someone giving fate a helping hand?

Death Knocks Three Times is not an inverted mystery although you may be forgiven for thinking you know who the killer is the whole time you are reading it. This is because Gilbert structures this book cleverly to lead the reader at all times to feel that they know where this is headed but because we are never definitively told what happened we have to remain open-minded to other possibilities.

This should be a limiting, narrow approach but I found it to be quite the opposite as instead of looking to eliminate suspects we are forced to consider who else might have a motive for committing these crimes to make a sense of each death. The story is very cleverly plotted and had me doubting my own (as it happens, quite correct) theory of what happened almost the whole way through.

I also really appreciated the blend of characters that Gilbert introduces to this story. Most of them may be described as unsympathetic but it is fascinating learning their stories and discovering their histories. My feelings about characters shifted at points in the novel as new information came to light about them, making them feel very human.

Readers who enjoy historical details will appreciate the references to petrol and sugar rationing that feature at points in this novel while others may appreciate some of the satirical comments about ‘artistic’ writers. Though this is a serious story, parts of the novel can be quite amusing and well-observed while the tension generated by the arrival of the anonymous letters is quite gripping.

If I were looking for criticisms, I do think that Crook is perhaps not effectively introduced for readers like myself who are new to the character. When I picked up the book I didn’t initially realize that he would be the sleuth in this story. In fact with his grim comments about how the Colonel’s bathtub could be used to murder someone, I was half expecting him to turn out to be the killer.

These are quite small complaints however in the scheme of things. Death Knocks Three Times is a clever, engaging story that contains some wonderful ideas, moments and revelations. I had little problem getting excited by the story and even though I thought I had identified the killer and their motive, the episodic structure of this mystery had me wondering if I had missed something.

Overall, I think this is a very exciting tale containing some wonderful ideas. The plot is complex but not convoluted and I think the author stitches the incidents in her story together in a convincing and compelling way to build to a great conclusion. I certainly expect that I will be returning to Gilbert again in the future so if anyone has any suggestions for stories to prioritize I’d be glad to hear them!

And, once again, thank you Kate for your review. I enjoyed this one enormously!

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Won an award of any sort (Why) – Book of the Month: Cross Examining Crime

Resorting to Murder edited by Martin Edwards

HolidayMysteriesThe idea of the detective on holiday is a rather wonderful one and, as Martin Edwards points out in his introduction, has been a rich source of inspiration for mystery novels. This collection is concerned however with much shorter works and features a variety of stories in which the detective or victim is travelling away from home.

In some cases the travel is incidental to the story, used to place the mystery against an exotic backdrop whereas in others the idea of being in an unfamiliar environment is critical to the story’s themes and plot. The stories that Edwards selects draw on a variety of styles and approaches and demonstrate how a basic concept can be taken in many different directions and used for inspiration in many different ways.

There are, of course, some stories from writers who are widely known and remembered such as Arthur Conan Doyle and G. K. Chesterton but there are also a number of stories from lesser-known figures. Of those I particularly enjoyed the contributions from E. W. Hornung, Phyllis Bentley and Gerald Findler while there are some excellent stories from the better-known Michael Gilbert and Leo Bruce here too.

As with any anthology, there are a handful of disappointments in the collection but in most cases those stories fit and illustrate the theme well and their inclusion makes sense. I would certainly say that this is one of the strongest British Library Crime Classics anthologies that I have read and would put this up with The Long Arm of the Law in terms of the general quality of the stories collected.

Continue reading “Resorting to Murder edited by Martin Edwards”

The Arsenal Stadium Mystery by Leonard Gribble

ArsenalStadiumThe Arsenal Stadium Mystery is a novel set against the backdrop of a sporting event but that does not mean that it is a sports novel. Indeed, with the exception of a few pages of action prior to the murder you will not need to worry about positions, the offside rule or cups of steaming Bovril (unless that is your beverage of choice while reading Golden Age crime novels).

I would say that the author, Leonard Gribble, is entirely new to me but I realized when tagging this post that I had read one of his short stories in The Long Arm of the Law, a collection of police tales also issued as part of the British Library Crime Classics range. That had been a largely forgettable affair lacking in any distinctive incident or character – certainly not a complaint I would level against this book.

The murder takes place during a football match between Arsenal and an amateur team, the Trojans, watched by some 70,000 people. One-nil down at half time, the Trojans take the game to Arsenal in the second half and are awarded a penalty. John Doyce steps up and converts the kick but a few moments later he collapses and enters a coma from which he does not wake up. It turns out that he was poisoned but how was it administered during a soccer game being so watched so intently?

As the excellent introduction from Martin Edwards points out, this book is novel for several reasons but chief among them is the inclusion of real life footballers and Arsenal manager George Allison in the cast of characters. It is a neat touch that certainly helps to sell the story’s background though I am not sure that the Police would be quite so quick to dismiss the idea that any of the Arsenal players or staff could have been involved!

Inspector Slade’s focus instead falls squarely on the players and staff of the Trojans who, being amateurs, come from an interesting variety of backgrounds. Doyce was a newcomer to the team and does not seem to have been popular but he shared a business with a teammate and had played alongside several members of the squad on other amateur teams.

Slade is a relatively straightforward sleuth, lacking in any strong defining characteristics. Whether that reflects that the character had already been around for some time prior to this book’s publication or whether that was simply Gribble’s preferred writing style it is hard to say from this alone but I appreciated that he has a methodical, calm approach to solving this case which is entertaining and easy to follow.

There are several characters with strong motives to kill Doyce but one in particular stands out early in the proceedings. Everything seems to be pointing in that one suspect’s direction but rather than making Slade feel comfortable making an arrest, he feels it is almost too tidy to be natural, asking his superiors for permission to extend his inquiries for a few days before making his arrest.

Looking beyond the most obvious suspect, Gribble creates an interesting cast of characters for us to consider as killers. In an interesting twist on the whodunit formula, the means and a possible motive becomes clear relatively early in the case but we cannot tell which of the characters that motive would belong to. In addition, Gribble also allows us to listen in on a few conversations between those characters after Slade leaves the room so we are aware of ways in which they are attempting to manipulate the situation.

For the most part the mystery is fairly clued although there is an element of the solution that Slade reveals that helped him identify the killer that the reader has no real way of knowing. In other respects though I think it plays fair and while the solution is relatively simple, I do think that the explanation given is quite satisfying and I did enjoy the use of a trap element that is set near the end of the novel.

As much as I enjoyed the novel I cannot claim it is entirely successful. While the reveal of the killer’s identity may surprise some readers, the methodical analysis of the case means that there are few surprises for the alert reader in the second half of the novel. I would also add that the striking premise of a player being murdered in a stadium full of tens of thousands of witnesses is not entirely realized or referred to.

The positives however far outweigh those negatives and make this a novel that I think works whether you are a fan of the sport or not. I would certainly suggest that those who do not care for the beautiful game should not be put off by the subject matter – there is a strong and entertaining mystery novel to be found here and though not perfect, it is an entertaining and colorful read. It certainly makes me feel more excited about the prospect of reading other works by Leonard Gribble and if anyone has any experience with this author and can make any recommendations for other titles to try I would be grateful!

Review copy provided by the publisher. This book is already available in the UK but will be published in the United States on August 10.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

AdventuresThis is a revisitation for me as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was the first mystery book I ever bought. I was on a class field trip to a National Trust house and saw one of those cheap paperback copies in the gift shop and, remembering that my Dad likes mysteries thought he might enjoy it. Yes, I was one of those relatives though in my defence I was only eight years old.

It turns out that Dad, who had been a member of the Sherlockian society for years, already had read it but he read some of the stories to me and I worked through the others myself. I have frequently revisited them over the years though normally I pick at them rather than taking them in bulk as a collection.

Individual comments on each story will follow but I do appreciate the variety to be found in this collection. Most of these stories work because they are centered on very simple ideas and while the reader will have no chance of working out the solutions to many of them, they generally satisfy because of their creativity.

The best stories, in my view, are those which focus on a small, simple puzzle in which Holmes has to make sense of seemingly disconnected ideas. The Red-Headed League is a wonderfully imaginative story while The Copper Beeches boasts a very clever premise. The standard is pretty universally strong and while I think many of these stories are not fair play detective stories, most are excellent adventure yarns.

Of course, revisiting mystery stories does present problems in that it is hard to know just how well structured and clued a story is. In this case I read the book for the first time close to twenty years ago and many of the solutions stick clearly in my mind. Regardless I had fun revisiting these and think several of the plots are quite ingenious.

Continue reading “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle”

The Egyptian Cross Mystery by Ellery Queen

EgyptianCrossBack in the fledgling days of this blog when I was trying to come up with regular features I made a foolish pledge that each month I would read a novel from the Ellery Queen canon. I was going to work through them in order to take in the evolution of the series. How could this possibly go wrong?

Well, I discovered fairly quickly that early Ellery can be a grind with both The Roman Hat Mystery and The Dutch Shoe Mystery striking me as frustrating reads. In spite of those disappointments I always intended to return to the project but my first few attempts to tackle The Egyptian Cross Mystery resulted in my falling asleep listening to the audiobook version. Not a great sign.

Several months passed and I decided to take another stab at it taking the high-risk strategy of listening while operating my vehicle. It turned out that this was exactly what I needed to get past the coroner’s sequence at the beginning of the book and to begin to feel engrossed in the mystery. Once that began to happen I found my interest in the scenario building as the bodies begin to pile up.

The story begins with Ellery hearing about a strange murder taking place in Arroyo, West Virginia where a school master’s decapitated and crucified body is found at a crossroads. Ellery attends the inquest and after offering some thoughts proceeds to forget about the affair until six months later an identical murder happens in a different state. Ellery believes there is obviously a connection between these two murders but it is hard to see what could link these two victims.

The first observation to make about this novel is that it is the first to break Ellery out of New York and the cosy set-up with his father and servant Djuna. While I miss Richard Queen’s sensible, earthy presence at points in the novel I think it does a lot to make Ellery seem a more likable and independent figure. He is still capable of arrogant statements designed to prove his intelligence but he accepts his mistakes far more easily here than in some of his previous adventures.

The change of scene also works nicely because it gives this story a much grander sense of scale. While Dannay and Lee would win no awards for the quality of their travel writing, the delays caused by different types of transportation play an important role in several crucial sequences towards the end of the novel as does the geographic spread of figures who play a role in this investigation. It helps gives a sense that this story takes place in something approaching our world and proves to be a strong source of tension at key points in the novel.

As I mentioned in my introduction, I struggled a little to get through the details of the first death. While I certainly thought the use of the crucifixion was intriguing, the Arroyo setting is somewhat drab and the mystery about the victim’s origins seemed to offer no unexpected moment or twist. It is only when it is combined with the second death that the story really captured my imagination and engaged me in trying to work out ways in which those two deaths could overlap.

It turns out that there are more links between the victims than the reader may initially expect and one of these is the presence of a man Ellery had previously encountered in Arroyo who believes himself to be a reincarnated Egyptian figure. In one of the book’s more lurid elements he runs a nudist camp which has been set up on an island near the home where the second death occurs. This element feels surprisingly brazen for the period and taken along with the crucifixions gives the book a far more colorful feel than any of the other Queens I have read so far but while it is clearly there to draw readers in, I didn’t feel it detracted from the mystery.

I do think it is fair to say though that the book can feel a little sprawling and unfocused in its sense of scale and scope. While I appreciate what it does for the character of Ellery in that it opens him up and makes his world feel larger, it does mean that the reader has fewer defined suspects to consider and this may lead to a little disappointment if you approach this story purely as a whodunnit.

Instead the reader’s task is to make sense of the order of events and draw inferences from them. This process of detailed, logical deduction is Ellery’s strength as a detective and I think this book is particularly successful in the way it works through information, reframing it at times to produce different inferences. The reader can absolutely follow along with Ellery as each of the key logical deductions at the end are clearly clued and seem well thought out, though I was a little unsure about the motivation behind the very final killing other than making for an exciting moment in the race towards the conclusion.

It is also noticeable that the book adopts a far more action-focused conclusion than I have found in the previous Ellery stories with the final chapters setting up a race against time for the detectives to catch their suspect. These sequences are exciting and help keep the reader engaged in the run up to the moment where Ellery reveals what happened.

It is in these final chapters that I think the book encounters its biggest problem, that of the killer’s motivation. The authors provide us with a reason of sorts but it feels rather ill-defined and lazy. Certainly I think that the reader deserves something a little more solid and thought-out, particularly when explaining their actions with their final murder.

In spite of my issues with that part of the plot I think that the novel as a whole holds together very well and provides the reader with several striking moments. Some of the plot elements may feel a little lurid and cheap but I admire and appreciate the thoroughly logical plot structure and that, rather than making the reader wait for Ellery to explain everything, the writers try to keep readers engaged through action and by periodically providing additional developments in the story.

While it may not be perfect and I have to admit that the first tenth of the book underwhelmed me, I was more entertained by this than I have been with any of its predecessors. It is a clever story that plays fair, that works to keep the reader engaged throughout the whole novel and that builds to an exciting conclusion. It leaves me hopeful that this project may be back on course and that better things may be in store…

It Might Lead Anywhere by E R Punshon

ItMightLeadAnywhereAs I noted in my review of another E R Punshon novel, Diabolic Candelabra, I have been guilty of taking advantage of introductory pricing and sales from Dean Street Press, amassing a large digital library I have barely started to read. While it has taken me nearly half a year to get around to giving another book in the series a try, I came to It Might Lead Anywhere feeling quite intrigued by its premise.

Policeman Bobby Owen hears word of a religious riot taking place in a nearby village and, though it is not in his jurisdiction, he heads over to try to break it up. He discovers that among the villagers is Duke Dell, a former boxer who now passionately preaches what he calls The Vision. His views frustrate many within the community but one of the villagers, Alfred Brown, seems to have been drawn to him. In the course of the riot that Bobby witnesses Dell thrown Brown into the river with such force that his head begins to bleed.

The next day Brown is discovered dead in his cottage by a police officer who happens to be passing the home and notices the wireless playing and the door ajar. Entering the home he sees that Brown has been brutally beaten to death with a poker. Though he has no authority in the area, Bobby decides he will consult the area’s Chief Constable and share the information he has. In the course of that conversation he manages to manipulate the Chief into asking Bobby to assist in their investigations.

The sequence in which Bobby subtly convinces Chief Constable Spencer to invite him onto the case is one of my favorites in the whole novel, in part because it brilliantly captures the fragile egos and concern for status that exists in many forms of local government. The tentative negotiations that take place are superbly observed and I liked the working relationship that is established between the two men in the first part of the book.

One of my biggest complaints about Diabolic Candelabra was that I felt I hardly knew Bobby Owen by the end of the novel. While It Might Lead Anywhere still places its focus on the mystery and adventure, I think the novel takes more time to develop the character and showcase his personality. Here we see his method at work, particularly in the way he interacts with the various suspects. Though he is not a large personality here, I think his methodical approach works well and his actions seem logical and clear even if he seems to be making little progress with his investigation for much of the novel.

I continue to enjoy his interactions with his wife, Olive, though she only features in a few short sections of the novel. Their interactions do feel like those of a couple who know each other well and I appreciate that Olive does have some input into the investigation, although there is no decisive contribution here. I did find Bobby’s apparent lack of awareness of why his wife was not thrilled to hear that an attractive young woman had flirted with him to be quite entertaining and I do hope that the next Punshon I read features her more prominently.

I have been quite sparing with my description of the plot because this is not a story with a lot of incident or development and so I do not want to reveal too many of this book’s secrets. In spite of the simplicity of this case, I did enjoy the way the story unfolded and I think the case is certainly intriguing, if not particularly dynamic. I would agree with TomCat’s assessment in his excellent review that the plotting is ‘slender’ and just focused on a single problem.

I would add that the cast of suspects is relatively thin and one character can be quickly identified as the likely party. While questions of motive and means remain, this does mean that those approaching this in the hope of a good puzzle may feel a little disappointed in what they find.

In spite of the quite simple plot, I still found that there was plenty to interest me here. While this was published a year after World War Two ended, it is set during the final months of the conflict and it reads like a wartime novel. Having followed PuzzleDoctor’s Do Mention The War series of blog posts about novels written during the conflict I found myself paying more attention than I would normally do to details relating to blackout regulations (lifted in the later days of the war), petrol rationing, fears of invasion as well as a very spam-heavy dinner menu (spam jardiniere, omlette au spam and spam pie all feature – yum!).

Another aspect of the book that pleased me was the characterization which I felt was pretty strong. While one character did stand out to me as the likely murderer, the other suspects were each interesting in their own way and I enjoyed discovering their stories and seeing how they interacted with each other.

While It Might Lead Anywhere is not a classic mystery novel, I did find it to be an enjoyable read and a more satisfying and coherent experience than Diabolic Candelabra. My hope is that when I next return to Punshon I will find a slightly more complex and satisfying mystery along with the atmosphere and the characterization.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Set in a small village (Where)