The Dream Walker by Charlotte Armstrong

Book Details

Originally published in 1955

The Blurb

Olivia Hudson, a drama teacher at a Manhattan girl’s school, refuses to let her uncle John Paul Marcus play the role of dupe in a real-life revenge story. Uncle John is a beloved war veteran, a New York institution, and a hard-working philanthropist with an unimpeachable reputation. His mistake—an honorable one, at that—was disclosing the financial chicanery of industrial heir Raymond Pankerman, and it could cost John his life.
 
Raymond has staged the perfect crime, and the perfect frame-up, to destroy the old man. He has everything he needs: a failed and penniless playwright who’d sell his soul if the price was right, a budding television starlet looking for a breakout role, and a susceptible public suckered into believing a supernatural swindle that’s making headlines.
 
As a good man is taken down by the outlandish claims of an “otherworldly” publicity-seeking beauty nicknamed the Dream Walker, Olivia refuses to stand idly by—especially since she has the talent to outwit and outplay an actress at her own duplicitous game.
 
Inspired by the mob mentality of the postwar McCarthy hearings, Charlotte Armstrong’s The Dream Walker (also published as Alibi for Murder) is both an ingeniously clever mystery of double-crosses and triple-twists, and a still-relevant cautionary tale about the irreversible consequences of tabloid journalism and the gullibility of the masses.

The Verdict

A fascinating and creative play at blending the inverted and impossible crime sub-genres. Amazingly it works pretty well!

When Kent Shaw left the apartment that evening, his head was full, I’ll warrant, of his masterpiece. He would pull off the biggest show he had ever staged and no one would ever know it.

My Thoughts

A few years ago I read a novel called The Medbury Fort Murder. It was a novel that excited me a lot as the style and plot summary seemed to suggest that it was a blend of two of my favorite types of mystery fiction – the impossible crime and the inverted mystery. Unfortunately I was left disappointed that it didn’t meet those expectations and I was left to wonder whether it would even be possible to write an inverted impossible crime story. Having now read Charlotte Armstrong’s The Dream Walker I am happy to confirm that it is and that it works incredibly well. It blends the two forms without compromising on either, delivering a tight and compelling scenario.

The book begins by the narrator, a former school teacher, revealing that she will tell us the real story of a plot aimed to bring down John Paul Marcus, a wealthy and highly influential public servant with an impeccable reputation. In the first few pages we learn who is behind that plot, what their goal is and even some details of how they planned to go about it. Yet in spite of knowing all that general information, Armstrong manages to create a sense of mystery about exactly how it will be achieved and we are left to wonder how the villains might get caught.

So, how does an inverted impossible crime story actually work? Armstrong structures her story so that we understand a few basic points about what they were planning but avoids giving us firm details. We know, for instance, that it will involve two women, that the plan involves a ‘supernatural element’ and that their goal is to implicate John Marcus in improper dealings with foreign nationals. As one of the villains remarks, ‘No sensible person is going to believe it. But he won’t be able to explain it…’. That doubt will be enough to taint him.

After introducing us to the personalities and describing the general gist of the plan, we are then taken through the sequence of apparently strange and supernatural events by the narrator. Knowing that they are a sham and who is responsible does not make them any the less interesting, even if it is quite clear early in the novel how the trick is being worked. Instead the focus becomes on whether and how the method being used will be detected.

The plan is a rather imaginative one and Armstrong has it build steadily, gradually bringing in new elements. In addition to the interest in discovering exactly what Kent Shaw has planned, there is added interest in seeing how he will be forced to respond to some unexpected elements and developments along the way. This not only illustrates the character’s resourcefulness and quick wits, it also helps establish him clearly as an antagonist as he shows himself to be quite ruthless in pursuit of his goal.

One question that I think needs to be addressed when a book deviates from an established structure is why the author chose to approach it in that way. After all, the impossibility Kent Shaw creates is quite clever. While the supernatural explanation clearly will not be the correct one, if we read an account of the events in a purely chronological order without any insight into the villain’s motives I think it would be quite puzzling.

There are a couple of things that I think this unusual structural approach adds to the story and one problem that it avoids. Let’s start with the latter because it’s the simplest: by quickly laying out the cause of the villain’s grievance, Armstrong avoids having to establish John Paul Marcus as a character. This is just as well because he is really there to be a type – a loyal, patriotic American statesman who will be targetted on baseless accusations made against him, evoking a sense of the McCarthy anti-communist hearings of this period.

In terms of what it adds, I think having the narrator be able to highlight aspects of the story as significant based on what they know of events to come helps to build anticipation of those developments. It also adds a sense of mystery about how something might prove important.

The other major advantage is that Olivia Hudson is a fine and rather heroic protagonist with strong and credible emotions. By contrast while I have little difficulty believing in the source of the grudge or that it might be the cause of some type of vengence, the pair of schemers are not particularly compelling or dimensional characters in their own rights. The things they do are interesting but their personalities are not a focus of the story.

In contrast, Olivia comes off as quite dimensional. While she has no direct knowledge of what has been planned, Olivia quickly grows suspicious. We are left to wonder at what point she will gain the awareness of the plot that we already know she has deduced based on references in the earliest chapters. When will be the moment that she is able to give voice to her suspicions and explain how it was done?

The book builds to a very solid conclusion that I think tackles those questions and answers them very neatly, wrapping up each of the key plot strands pretty well. I would suggest that readers should not expect to be surprised – they will have a strong sense of the destination from early in the novel – but the path to that point is interesting and entertaining.

It made for a solid cap to a very enjoyable novel. Yes, it can get a little melodramatic at points and the prose is occassionally a little heavy-handed but the book is often very clever and creative, offering plenty to interest fans of inverted and impossible crime stories alike.

Jonathan Creek: The Tailor’s Dummy (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast March 15, 2003
Season Four, Episode Three
Preceded by Angel Hair
Followed by The Seer of the Sands

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Christine Gernon

Familiar Faces

Maureen Lipman has had a celebrated and varied career, making it hard to point to just one or two standout roles. Audiences will perhaps be most familiar with her for her role as Evelyn Plummer in Coronation Street over the past few years while Doctor Who fans will remember her playing the Wire in The Idiot’s Lantern, an early David Tennant episode.

Nicholas Jones is best known to my kid for playing the Grand Wizard in The Worst Witch but he has made a lot of appearances in mystery-themed shows including Lewis, A Touch of Frost, Silent Witness, Rebus, Foyle’s War and two appearances in Midsomer Murders.

The Verdict

The core impossibility is very cleverly worked but other aspects of the episode feel quite heavily padded.


Episode Summary

Fashion designer Marco Bergman has enjoyed enormous success as a fashion designer, running his own celebrated fashion label which employs his children. Those children are returning to the house they share with him one evening when they are startled to see him stood in the window of his upper story bedroom, preparing to jump. Moments later he takes the leap and when they reach him they find him already dead.

Meanwhile a critic who has savaged Marco in a recent newspaper article is staying in a hotel room when she is threatened by an attacker who when briefly removing his mask can be seen to be Marco’s son Claude. When the manager knocks on the hotel room door the attacker hides behind a shower curtain but when the manager picks up on her signals and investigates they are shocked to find a completely different man than the one she expects to find there…

My Thoughts

When I first watched Jonathan Creek I was not as focused on the idea of the impossible crime as I am these days. To my less trained eye most of the show’s plots were utterly baffling and startlingly original, so it was hard for a teenaged and inexperienced Aidan to distinguish a great impossibility from a good one. As long as a story didn’t contain an obviously barmy or flawed plot (yes, I am talking about you – The Curious Case of Mr. Spearfish), my best metric for judging an episode was how much it entertained me.

Prior to revisiting it for this post, I remembered quite a lot about The Tailor’s Dummy from earlier viewings, including the solution to its impossibility. Those memories were of a fairly average story – certainly not an episode that stood out to me at the time. That may go some way toward explaining why I was so surprised to read a comment from TomCat, an expert in the locked room and impossible crime story whose taste and judgment I really trust, in response to my previous Creek post that praised this particular episode in strong terms. This made me all the more interested to revisit and reassess it.

We should begin with the core impossibility which is the business in the hotel room with the attacker who appears to have two completely different faces. While this is not the central problem of the episode, that would be the business about the curious circumstances surrounding the death of the fashion designer, it is this part of the story that provides the strongest sense of wonder.

The scenario is a striking one, in part because Renwick is so good at clearly defining the space and the circumstances around it. As in many of the best impossible scenarios, every aspect of the situation appears carefully accounted for. The manager of the hotel can serve as a witness while the physical conditions are very precisely established and can be easily checked. In short, we have a situation that feels genuinely inexplicable.

The solution to the impossibility is quite audacious for reasons that I will address in the Aidan Spoils Everything section below but while Renwick clearly dreams big, rather than being frustrated by its audacity, I can appreciate the clever construction of that solution. As with many of the best impossibilities, once you find the right questions to ask everything becomes quite clear and the problem can be broken apart by thinking it through logically.

The bigger mystery of the circumstances that caused a fashion mogul to jump to his death is similarly audacious in its conception. In some respects it may even be cleverer than the impossibility but as much as I appreciate the basic idea for how this might be achieved, I simply could not believe that it would work in practice. I will say however that I did like the clue of the bird cage which is a really good one and is perhaps wasted on the

Putting to one side the question of how it was done, the question of who did it is not much more satisfying. The villain’s identity can be inferred quite simply from the circumstances surrounding it, particularly given that there is not much going on when the event first takes place to misdirect the viewer.

On a more positive note, I do think that there are aspects of the story leading up to the big reveal that do work quite well. There is a moment in which a character is placed in peril that is created quite effectively that does show the villain in quite a brutal light and while the killer’s reaction following their unmasking felt a little too big to me, I had enjoyed their performance a lot up until that point.

It should be said that were I purely basing my enjoyment of this story on those mystery elements I would still be ranking this in the top half of my list. The bigger issues I have with the story lie in its secondary plots.

Let’s start with the return of terrible magician Kenny Starkiss played once again by Bill Bailey. The character had previously appeared in Satan’s Chimney and looking back on my review of that special I note that I never actually commented on the character – at least, not in the spoiler-free section of that post. Given that this is his second and last appearance (at least at the time of writing), I probably ought to pass some spoiler-free comment on him.

I come to the character as someone who enjoys Bill Bailey a lot outside of Jonathan Creek. While I watch fewer panel-type TV shows these days after living in the US for over a decade, at the time this was broadcast I always enjoyed seeing him crop up on a show. I actually think he is well suited to play this character of Kenny and I think that the character is used pretty thoughtfully within the grander scope of both episodes he appears in.

I am less enamored with his own subplot however, not for the initial scene in which we see his terrible act (which amuse you if you enjoyed the joke that he is a magician who doesn’t do magic) but the more serious scenes that follow it. I recognize that if you’re going to bring Bailey back you need something for him to do but I think that the story, like several others that attempt to represent the more realistic world of organized crime, doesn’t convince.

Another running theme throughout this episode is the way Jonathan and Carla keep getting thrust into awkward and intimate situations together. It’s not that the scenes are inherently bad – in fact I would suggest that they are better than many of the comparable scenes we had with Maddy in the first few seasons – but I think it leans into that dynamic too quickly and without much sense of resolution in this episode (it gets picked up again in the following one but that’s a story for another day).

My bigger issue though is with the awkward use of Brendan within the episode. Now, I have been relatively positive about the character and the way he is used to comment on the television industry in my previous Season Four posts. We get a little more of that here with the discussion of the Japanese reality show he is attempting to bring to British screens and the idea that television producers are more interested in creating dynamic situations than being responsible towards the people they involve in creating that programming. While I wouldn’t call those observations particularly challenging, they feel pretty relevant to some of the issues we have seen in recent years with participants in reality TV shows.

The material with Brendan pushing Carla into positions where she should get close to Jonathan, though it clearly is making her uncomfortable, is pretty painful to watch. More problematically, it also makes the character seem ludicrously disconnected with reality. I recognize that airy-headedness is an aspect of Brendan’s character but it makes him seem almost cartoonish (and while I don’t want to get ahead of myself too much, it will get worse).

Thinking back to how I felt about this episode before I revisited it, I find that my opinions have shifted. I do recognize the appeal and the cleverness of the impossibility which definitely appealed to my imagination and I appreciate how carefully it is constructed. On the other hand, I feel that my dislike of the Brendan material and Kenny’s subplot has probably increased and I am more conscious that it feels like padding. It’s still one of the better episodes in this fourth season but I think it doesn’t really compare to the best stories from the first two seasons.

Death from a Top Hat by Clayton Rawson

Book Details

Originally published in 1938
The Great Merlini #1
Followed by The Footprints on the Ceiling

The Blurb

Master magician The Great Merlini has hung up his top hat and white gloves, and now spends his days running a magic shop in New York and his nights moonlighting as a consultant for the NYPD. When the crimes seem impossible, it is his magician’s mind they need. 

So when two occultists are discovered dead in locked rooms, one spread out on a pentagram, both appearing to have been murdered under similar circumstances, Merlini is immediately called in. The list of suspects includes an escape artist, a professional medium, and a ventriloquist – and it is only too clear that this is a world Merlini knows rather too well…

The Verdict

This offers up several intriguing impossibilities but I found the pace slow and did not care much for Merlini.

The locked room is your cue. All you have to do is find someone who could have gotten out of this apartment, leaving it with the doors locked on the inside as found.

My Thoughts

With my track history I should have known better than to plan a weekly feature…

Back when I announced that Mondays would be impossible I had a list of titles I was very keen to read and review. This book was right at the top of that list for a couple of pretty good reasons. The first was its wide availability thanks to a reprint a few years ago as part of the American Mystery Classics range. I always appreciate being able to talk about books that there is at least a pretty good chance others have read. The other reason was that this book is pretty widely celebrated and was voted seventh best locked room mystery of all time by experts in the genre. In short I was hoping for a guaranteed positive review. As you have probably surmised, that is not what you’re getting here…

Ross Harte is working on an article about detective stories when he hears a commotion coming from outside his neighbor’s apartment. Upon investigating he finds a group of magicians trying to rouse his neighbor, Dr. Sabbat, who they had apparently arranged to meet. They are concerned to find that he cannot be roused and that there are no signs he has left the apartment that day as there is milk still on the doorstep. Fearing something may have happened they break in only to discover his corpse.

On close examination it seems that Dr. Sabbat has been stranged and his body has been arranged atop a drawn pentagram, his limbs arranged to touch each of its points. The body is surrounded by occult objects including a book detailing a ritual to summon a demon. Each of the doors to the room had been locked and bolted from the inside, the keys within Sabbat’s pocket, while the door locks have been stuffed with fabric from the inside. None of the windows appear to have been disturbed. In short, there does not seem to be any way that the killer could have escaped yet a thorough search does not find anyone inside the room either.

The police are baffled and recognizing that all of the suspects come from the world of magic they decide to send for an expert magician of their own, the Great Merlini. Their hope is that he will be able to offer some simple technical explanation of how the trick was worked but instead their investigation expands as we encounter further impossibilities including a second murder along the same lines and a suspect’s disappearance from within an observed taxi cab.

Rawson stuffs the first half of his novel full of ideas, many of which are quite intriguing. I think he does a particularly good job of laying out the various features and points of interest in the first crime scene, giving the reader plenty of information to work with. I also really enjoyed the suggestion, however brief, of the crime’s connection to the occult and wished that he had leant a little more heavily into that idea (as Paul Halter would do working half a century later).

The subsequent impossibilities are similarly quite well set up and described, particularly the disappearance. While simpler than either of the locked rooms, the idea is visually quite appealing and serves a really useful role in the story as it allows the reader to see evidence of Merlini’s abilities and deductive reasoning early in the novel. The locked rooms, by comparison, are much more challenging with solid solutions and will likely please those who are primarily interested in the puzzle.

While I am focusing on the positives, I should also highlight the cast of suspects that Rawson creates. The idea of having each of them be professionals within the magic world is pretty inspired, not only because it means we have multiple experts of misdirection at hand but because they are all pretty colorful and eccentric characters. I enjoyed exploring their personalities and learning more about their acts.

As pleasing as the puzzle and many of the supporting characters were, I found the experience of reading this to be a real slog. The problems begin with the use of Harte as the narrator. While the choice of having an expert in detective fiction narrate the story adds a playful self-awareness that Rawson makes use of to expand upon Carr’s famous locked room lecture, I found Harte’s presence largely distracting.

Harte does not really offer up much in the way of contributions to the plot beyond his witnessing the initial discovery of the body and so becomes an extra body whose presence during the investigation feels odd (which given that it stands out in a book that features the police consulting a magician is quite remarkable). While I understand the need to keep us distant from a genius like Merlini so we do not learn the identity of the person he suspects until close to the end, I think this character could have been folded into one of the policemen and it would have made for a much neater story.

I was actually pretty lukewarm towards Merlini himself. His expertise on elements of magic is certainly interesting but other aspects of his personality, particularly his smug attitude towards the authorities, put me in mind of Phase One Ellery Queen. On another day I may well have reacted more charitably towards this but I felt thoroughly worn out by him by the end of the novel.

One of the stranger ideas in the novel is the choice to have him deliver his own version of a locked room lecture, a la Dr. Gideon Fell who he references as though he were a real person. While I quite liked that conceit of the character being real and merely chronicled by Carr, the delivery of the lecture felt dry and its inclusion rather contrived, as though it was there to reference something the author loved rather than because it was necessary as a structure to explore the crime scene.

This brings me to my final complaint which concerns the novel’s pacing. While the careful exploration of the details of a crime scene is quite desirable, the back and forth discussions with the police detective handling the case felt repetitive and really slow the novel down. These appear to have been intended to be a source of humor as we see the detective become frustrated with Merlini but they weren’t funny enough to justify the time given over to them, nor did they significantly advance our understanding of the plot.

All of which is a shame because the parts of this story that worked are really fun and clever. Rawson clearly had some superb ideas and he creates several really strong impossibilities with fair play solutions. I personally didn’t care too much for the investigation itself but I know I am in the minority on this one and would certainly encourage you to seek out other views if you haven’t already read this yourself.

Further Reading

Ben @ The Green Capsule suggests that the book is a ‘must read’ and praises the slew of impossibilities it offers.

JJ @ The Impossible Event similarly appreciated the author’s creativity and praises the bold challenge to the reader Rawson issues just a few pages into the novel. I had meant to do that too – that’s one of the more charming features of the novel.

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime appreciated the puzzles but had similar feelings about the book’s pace and characterization.

The Forbidden House by Michel Herbert and Eugène Wyl, translated by John Pugmire

Book Details

Originally published in 1932 as La Maison Interdite
English translation first published in 2021

The Blurb

Regarded as a masterpiece by 1000 Chambres Closes, the central puzzle is one of the most baffling in impossible crime fiction: a mysterious stranger, whose face cannot be seen by the several witnesses outside the house, is introduced inside, where he murders the owner and vanishes without trace.

The several witnesses inside cannot explain what happened. A search of the house fails to find him, and the witnesses watching the outside say he could not have left.

The authorities—examining magistrate, state prosecution, and police—trying to make sense of the clues, cannot agree amongst themselves as to the identity of the murderer…

The Verdict

This highly engaging impossible crime story offers an intriguing scenario, a memorable victim and a clever solution.

MARCHENOIRE, THIS AUGUST 28 IF YOU WANT TO LIVE, LEAVE MARCHENOIRE MANOR IMMEDIATELY AND FOREVER. DO NOT PURCHASE THE FORBIDDIN HOUSE.

My Thoughts

Monsieur Verdinage has accumulated a fortune and decides to purchase a house fitting of his new status. The home he has set his mind on buying is Marchenoire Manor, a beautiful three story building within a private park that is curiously affordable. He tours the property and after making his decision he requests to sign the paperwork in the house’s library. When they enter they discover the threatening note quoted above (yes, the spelling is accurate) addressed to the new owner. Verdinage reads the note but scoffs at it, suggesting it is a prank, and he decides to move his household in immediately.

A short while later he learns from one of the locals about the story of the Forbidden House and why it was available so cheaply. He still does not take the threat seriously and remains skeptical even when a second letter turns up exactly a month after the first, vowing that there will be no further warnings and that the next letter received will be an announcement of his death. Verdinage takes some precautions against the author of the note but in spite of his efforts his murder takes place as announced with the killer seeming to vanish into thin air…

I really love the opening to this novel in which the authors not only do a great job of setting out the nature of the threat and building up the strange history of the house but also of establishing the stubborn (and rather gauche) nature of the victim. Monsieur Verdinage is a superb creation, poking fun at some behaviors of the nouveau riche such as his order to have the library furnished with a huge number of books but not caring what any of them actually are. He is far from self-aware and yet for all his bluster he is quite practical, devising a reasonably sensible plan to protect himself (even if the smarter thing to do would be to call the police).

Herbert and Wyl pace these early chapters really well, providing the reader with important information that will be needed to understand various characters’ backgrounds and to eventually solve the crime without lingering over them for too long. Even before the murder we have an apparent impossibility as the second letter is found behind the locked and bolted door to the house’s cellar although that will not receive serious scrutiny until after the murder.

I enjoyed the series of letters as a device for building tension. Not only does this help to establish Monsieur Verdinage’s character as we see how he responds to each threat, we also learn that each of the previous owners of the home had received similar threats, answering them in different ways. This provides an interesting background to the case and I was certainly curious to learn what was prompting them.

The sequence in which the murder takes place is, once again, very tidily written. The authors smartly use the perspectives of several servants to describe what happens which not only helps to build the tension as we await the moment of the murder, it also provides the reader with at least some detail of the characters’ movements on the night in question. It is very smart, economical writing that keeps things moving well.

The novel’s impossibility concerns the disappearance of the murderer from the mansion moments after the killing shot is fired. The killer had been observed entering the building, though their face was in shadow, but the observers did not see them leave in spite of being positioned near the only exit (in a piece of crazily dangerous architecture, the building only has one exterior door). The police arrive and search the building thoroughly, finding no one, which begs the question of what happened to the figure who was seen entering a short time after midnight?

It’s a very neat problem and one that proves surprisingly tricky to solve in spite of the efforts of several detective figures, each of whom adopt different theories as to the person they believe responsible. There are quite a few characters who take turns at positing theories so I was pleasantly surprised to find that several of them stood out quite well in terms of their personalities. I also enjoyed seeing how their approaches differed from each other and the various ideas each brought to the case.

One character in particular made a pretty big impact almost immediately both in the way he deals with other figures including those who are investigating the case and those who might be interested in its outcome. I felt he was a pretty entertaining creation. I similarly appreciated the ingenuity of the character who finally solves the whole thing.

I felt that the solution to the puzzle was very clever. If there is a problem with it I would suggest that while the explanation is thorough and convincing, I cannot say that it is proved. There is not much physical evidence that would demonstrate the case. Instead the authors rely on the killer admitting the truth themselves at the presentation of the correct solution which feels a little underwhelming, perhaps not helped by the somewhat abrupt way the novel concludes moments afterwards.

Still, while I think that the ending may have been a little rushed, I was very happy with the novel overall. While the central problem of The Forbidden House may not be the most colorful example of an impossible crime, it is all the more puzzling for its apparent simplicity and always engaging.

Further Reading

Santosh Iyer also enjoyed the book and highly recommends it, appreciating its logical solution.

Jonathan Creek: Angel Hair (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast March 8, 2003
Season Four, Episode Two
Preceded by The Coonskip Cap
Followed by The Tailor’s Dummy

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Christine Gernon

Familiar Faces

Jack Dee was well established as a stand-up comic with a famously deadpan delivery by this point and had starred in a much-loved series of ads for John Smith’s beer and a few years earlier been the winner of the first season of Celebrity Big Brother. He is a fixture on panel games and has chaired the iconic radio series I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue since 2009.

Sophie Thompson has several genre credits for appearances in Death in Paradise, Midsomer Murders and the adaptation of Hallowe’en Party for Poirot. I remember her most as Miss Bates though in the Paltrow version of Emma.

Trevor Peacock, playing the creator of the ventriloquist’s dummy, is best known for his role as Jim Trott in the BBC sitcom The Vicar of Dibley.

Tamsin Greig is probably most widely known for her performance as Maggie in the film Shaun of the Dead but UK audiences will also be familiar with her from comedy shows such as Green Wing and Black Books.

The Verdict

An intriguing and pretty original impossibility but it’s hard to route for the client here…


Episode Summary

Composer Dudley Houseman had thought himself the luckiest man alive when he got married to pop star Sally Ellen Oakley but soon he began to wonder if he had fallen in love with her showbiz persona, not the real woman. He meets Maria, an air hostess, and the pair seem to click and start a short and reckless affair, seeing each other frequently over the course of a few weeks.

During a lunch before Maria leaves for a trip overseas, Dudley’s P.A. voices her concerns that Maria may be after his money and calls his attention to a strange package addressed to him in her travel bag. He dismisses the idea and continues their date but as they are about to part his wife returns home prompting a violent exchange between the two women.

Sally soon spots the package and opens it to find a video tape and some hair. Putting it in the player they are shocked to see Maria tied up to a chair with a masked man by her side. She reads a statement which demands a ransom of a hundred thousand pounds for her safe return and proceeds to cut her hair. He even holds up a copy of that week’s Radio Times to show the date.

Dudley approaches Jonathan to seek his help understanding what happened. Having looked carefully at the tape it is clear that her hair is really being cut off and he knows she was not wearing a wig, so how could her hair have grown back in just two days?

My Thoughts

It can be difficult to come up with a truly novel impossibility but Angel Hair certainly makes a decent stab at it, centering a mystery around a woman’s apparent ability to regrow her hair in just two days. I haven’t studied my Adey well enough to be able to say with certainty that this is an original idea but I have certainly never encountered it elsewhere.

One slight problem that this episode has to confront from the start is that this impossibility could well be possible thanks to some movie magic. Care has to be taken to definitively rule out a really well-fitted bald cap or wig as well as the possibility of some kind of video manipulation. Renwick’s script does manage to do that but it does mean that the setup for this story feels a little slow.

It doesn’t help much that I didn’t find Dudley at all likeable. He fits into a fairly common theme for the show of lousy men being portrayed sympathetically in spite of the faults in a situation largely being of their own making. It seems like he almost blames her for not matching his image of her. There is no suggestion that Sally has behaved particularly badly and yet this will be another one of those situations where the impetus seems to fall on the woman to understand and make allowances for her man.

Dee ought to be well cast in the part, which he plays straight. He certainly handles the explanation of the situation well and I do enjoy his interactions with Trevor Peacock who played his father. Unfortunately though Dee amplifies his character’s unpleasant, selfish traits in his performance to the point where I was left to wonder just why she ought to go back to him and give him another chance. Much as in The Curious Tale of Mr Spearfish, I struggle to see just why I ought to want a reconciliation, even though it is clear that the script thinks we should.

This is unfortunate because I do quite like the core puzzle itself and I think it works better in performance than it does in description. Perhaps more importantly, at least for those of us who like to play along with these, it can be unpicked quite logically from quite early in the episode just from reviewing the core facts of the case. Proving that explanation can be a bit trickier but this case felt pretty fair to me.

That is not to say that everything about the solution was convincing. I do have some issues with some aspects of the explanation, particularly those relating to the identity of the masked figure in the video, but I think I will have to save those for the spoiler section below. None of them were significant enough though to significantly alter my enjoyment of that resolution.

I am a little less forgiving of a B-plot in which Carla becomes offended at her gynaecologist’s choice of music after spotting a CD in his briefcase. My issue here isn’t with whether it is funny or not (though for what it’s worth, the payoff is really weak) as much as that this plot thread feels completely tacked on to the episode, having little relationship to anything else going on. This makes it feel like padding rather than something to actively look forward to seeing more of.

Brendan gets some better material to work with as we get to hear about how viewers had responded to the events depicted in the previous episode. While I know the character isn’t to everyone’s taste, I quite enjoy the little swipes at the way that broadcasting works and the focus grouping.

There are two other comedic subplot on offers. One involving the commissioning of a ventriloquist’s dummy for Adam’s act from Henry Houseman, Dudley’s father. The gag here is an old one but I think it still has some impact and is played pretty well by everyone involved. The other involves Jonathan getting into a romantic relationship with a make-up artist and which leads to a very silly montage that is one of my favorite little comedy sequences the show ever did.

It all leaves me with rather mixed feelings about this episode. I think that the central concept feels original and the impossibility (and aspects of its solution) are pretty clever but I find it difficult to get past my issues with Dudley. I wonder if instead of creating a new character whether this was a scenario that Adam Klaus should have been used for instead. The scenario would take a little tweaking to reflect his single status but I think it would be easier to think sympathetically of that character if they hadn’t been cheating on their partner.

I can only judge the episode in front of me though and so while this has some interesting ideas, I couldn’t get over my dislike of Dudley. Others may well feel differently though!

The Island of Coffins by John Dickson Carr, edited by Tony Medawar and Douglas Greene

Book Details

This collection, published by Landru and Crippen, contains radio play scripts that were produced for The Casebook of Cabin B-13 and broadcast between 1948 and 1949.

A limited cloth-bound edition included an additional script for Secret Radio as a pamphlet. As this limited edition is now sold out I will not be discussing this story in the review below.

The Blurb

John Dickson Carr, the grand master of locked room mysteries and impossible disappearances, was also the master of the creepy radio play.

For the first time, all the scripts for the classic 1948 radio series, Cabin B-13, are printed in this volume, and they are classic Carr.

The Verdict

Almost all of the Cabin B-13 stories offer intriguing impossibilities to explore and showcase Carr’s imagination and versatility as a writer.

More than 70 years after the series was first broadcast, it is possible to see Cabin B-13 as the final flowering of the truly great days of radio.

From the introduction by Tony Medawar

My Thoughts

The Island of Coffins is a collection of radio play scripts that were written by John Dickson Carr for a CBS series Cabin B-13. The show was designed to be an anthology in which a different story with elements of mystery and adventure would be introduced each week by Dr. Fabian, the ship’s surgeon aboard the Maurevania, a liner that travels the world. Each adventure would supposedly relate in some way to the destination that the ship was visiting and draw upon Fabian’s experiences, though he does not directly feature in all of the plays.

Nearly all of the recordings appear to have been lost and so this collection will be the first chance for many fans to experience these stories. As an experiment I listened to one of the stories after reading the script and I am happy to report I found it just as involving to read as it was to listen to which I think is a testament both to Carr’s engrossing storytelling style and to the care taken in the limited directions he provides.

The show ran for two series, both produced in 1948 though the broadcasts continued until early 1949. The scripts for all twenty-three episodes are collected here and each are presented with illuminating notes that provide background on the story and the way elements were reused in other Carr stories or radio plays. These are excellent and certainly enhanced my enjoyment of the stories, though readers may want to exercise a little caution as they may inadvertantly spoil themselves for other stories.

Almost every story in the collection features some element that could be considered an impossibility, though some are stronger than others. The exception is Death in the Desert, a story from the show’s second series, which is a sort of adventure yarn and has no mystery elements at all to speak of. The notes to that story do at least help explain why it is part of this series, though I think that story does feel a little out of place and was probably the one I enjoyed least in the collection.

The other twenty-two stories though present some wonderfully varied and imaginative situations. I think this is particularly true of the eleven stories that constitute the program’s first series which feature some of the program’s most intriguing problems and impossibilities.

One of my favorites is The Blind-Folded Knife Thrower, the first story in which Dr. Fabian plays a really central part beyond introducing the adventure. In this story a young woman returns to visit a house where her mother had committed suicide years before by drinking acid and receives a message to expect to be visited by her ghost. Carr does a brilliant job of creating an unsettling atmosphere with the use of some very chilling imagery and I thought the solution was quite clever.

I similarly really enjoyed the story that followed it, No Useless Coffin, which is set on the island of Gibraltar a short time before the outbreak of World War II. Dr. Fabian is part of a group who visit a cottage which had been the setting for a miraculous disappearance when one of the party had been a child. She had disappeared from the cottage when all of the doors and windows were locked and fastened from the inside, reappearing several days later without explanation. When she disappears again Dr. Fabian has to work out where she has vanished to and how it was done. I thought it was an interesting concept and enjoyed the explanation of what happened.

Perhaps the most baffling of the stories though is the second, The Man Who Couldn’t Be Photographed. In this story a conceited actor throws over his girlfriend causing her to curse him that he will never be able to be photographed again before committing suicide. Several days later he visits a number of photographers in Paris, each of whom tells him that his photographs have not developed and refuse to allow him to visit again. This one is very clever, if perhaps requiring a specialized knowledge that few will have, but I thought it was done very well.

Among the other mysterious offerings from this first series are locked room murders, a murder in the steam room at a Turkish bath, a strangling in an untouched expanse of sand and the activities of a strange jewel thief who always carries a heavy iron box with them when committing their crimes. Most of these stories possessed some point that intrigued me and the only one that didn’t work for me at all was Death Has Four Faces, a story about a former pilot who struggles to deal with a nervous condition. I found the action in that story a little hard to follow.

Apparently Carr was struggling to generate enough material by the time he got to series two which means that several stories rework previous scripts for Appointment with Fear and Suspense. Reworking is not a problem of course if you’ve never encountered the material before which would no doubt be the case for almost all of Carr’s audience but in some cases the revised scripts do not feel quite like the scripts around them.

Still, this second series is quite varied in its impossibilities and I appreciate the greater variety of geographic settings (there are several stories set in parts of Africa and the Middle East). Where I have problems with these stories, other than Death in the Desert, it is because those ideas can feel a little rushed or cramped. One examples would be Lair of the Devil-Fish, a story about a diving expedition, which has some clever ideas but seems to rush through some key moments, not giving them enough time to have their full impact.

The other issue that I had with quite a few of this batch of stories is the reliance on the instant love trope. This had been present in the first run of episodes too but by this stage it feels overused and sometimes a little unnecessary – as though Carr is adding it out of an expectation rather than because it is necessary to the plot. This is an issue I have with some of his novels too but it is more noticeable here given the shorter format of the stories. Still, in spite of these grumbles there is still plenty to enjoy here.

One of my favorite stories from this second batch is The Most Respectable Murder, a story about a murder that takes place in a locked room. Dr. Fabian tells the listener in a rather overenthused way that it is a totally new solution to a locked room – possibly hyperbole – but I liked the other aspects of the crime and appreciated the consideration of characters’ motives.

Another favorite is the story that opens the series, The Street of the Seven Daggers, in which an American businessman who is keen on debunking superstitutions learns of a street that kills anyone who walks down it after midnight and decides he will walk it himself. The villain’s identity will likely jump out at readers but I enjoyed the simplicity and the clarity of the setup as well as a few of the clues that Carr provides.

The other story I really liked was the very last one, The Sleep of Death, which feels rather like a love letter to Poe. While it is perhaps a little out of place in the series – we may question exactly how Dr. Fabian could have heard this story – I really enjoyed the atmosphere and the tone of the piece.

Overall then I thought that this was a really enjoyable collection that read far more easily than I expected it to. While the script format may be daunting to some, Carr does a superb job of setting up intriguing situations and providing the reader with just enough detail to imagine a scene without getting too bogged down in detailled directions. It all makes for an engaging read that I think speaks to the writer’s imagination and versatility.

Jonathan Creek: The Coonskin Cap (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast March 1, 2003
Season Four, Episode One
Preceded by Satan’s Chimney
Followed by Angel Hair

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Christine Gernon

Familiar Faces

Anna Wilson-Jones has appeared on several other crime-themed shows, making several guest appearances on Midsomer Murders as well as Inspector Lewis, Inspector Morse and Agatha Raisin. She is probably best known to international viewers though for her appearances in the first episode of Black Mirror (as the Prime Minister’s wife) and a recurring role in Victoria.

Adrian Edmondson was one of the most familiar faces from Britain’s alternative comedy scene. After appearing in The Young Ones he worked with Rik Mayall, also a Creek alum, on Bottom. While he doesn’t have a lot of crime and mystery credits beyond Creek, he did recently appear on an episode of Death in Paradise.

The Verdict

While it may not be a classic, this episode offers two very solid takes on the impossible disappearance.


Episode Summary

A serial killer has strangled several women and the only thing that seems to be known about them is that they are described as wearing some rather distinctive headgear – a Davy Crockett hat. Carla Borrego, now the host of a true crime show, is working with the police on a reenactment at the scene of the most recent murder when shots are fired at the reenactors. The police quickly identify the position of the gun and converge on the location within moments only to find the door locked from the inside and the gunman vanished.

My Thoughts

The Coonskip Cap feels quite strikingly different from all of the episodes of Jonathan Creek that preceded it. Some of that is visual as the episode sports a darker, richer look with moodier lighting and considerable amounts of night-shooting but it is also noticeable in the script itself. This is a story about a serial killer who preys on women, a scenario that seems to have far more in common with news headlines than most Jonathan Creek episodes which usually seem to feature the sort of crime scenarios you might find in golden age detective fiction.

The result is quite jarring when watched shortly after the Maddy Magelan era though of course there was a gap of several years between them. Personally I think it helps to define and separate this next phase in the show’s development from what has come before and while not every change is wholly successful, I am happy that this episode is structured around a couple of pretty solid impossibilities.

The first impossibility involves the disappearance of a suspect from within a room moments after gun shots are fired. When the police arrive they find that the door is locked from the inside and have to break it down to get access. Meanwhile the window, the only other exit to the room, is under observation from several other officers. When the bullets are retrieved they match the sniper rifle found inside the room so how did the suspect manage to escape?

This impossible disappearance is a fine appetizer though I think that it would disappoint if it were the main meal. There is a logical solution to the situation that I think becomes all the more obvious when the viewer sees what Jonathan is interested in at the crime scene. It’s still a good idea though and executed well and there are some very solid questions about who did it and why that are left to linger for much of the episode.

The second impossibility is the meatier one as it once again involves an apparent disappearance but this time the killer has struck successfully, strangling a police officer in a gym in a really effective sequence that plays out in near pitch black. There is nowhere to hide in the gym and only the one locked exit which Inspector Ted Parnevik and other officers have under observation. Furthermore the moments leading up to her death are captured in a rather grim radio recording so how did the killer strike and then get away?

There are a couple of reasons that I think that this is more effective than the first impossibility. For one thing, a character has actually died which raises the stakes. For another, we are given clearer physical confirmation about characters’ movements around the moment that the situation occurs and the narrow window in which it takes place. The trick, worked in tighter constraints, seems all the more baffling and even Jonathan appears to be struggling at first to solve it.

Of course Jonathan does eventually figure out how the various elements relate to each other and I have to say that I was pretty satisfied with his explanations of how and why these two impossibilities occurred. The only thing that disappointed me a little was a visual clue which I’ll describe in my Aidan Spoils Everything section after the page break. I think that is the least important part of the denouement though and so it didn’t spoil my enjoyment too much.

Looking at various online episode rankings though it does seem that I am a bit of an outlier in feeling that way. In several posts I read this episode tends to place towards the bottom. I suspect that the reasons for this lack of popularity lie with the character of Carla and the adjustments made to her background to enable her to become a viable on-going assistant for Jonathan.

Back when Carla was introduced she was a theatrical agent. That made sense as a rationale for that story but clearly she could not keep encountering Jonathan in that guise. The true crime TV show, while being a little reminiscent of Maddy’s true crime books, feels like a further updating of that idea and provides a much stronger reason to keep bringing them together – particularly as the collaboration is essentially forced on her.

The idea that the show would be produced by her husband seems to be a common source of annoyance with this era. He is certainly another smarmy showbiz type though nowhere near as obnoxious as Adam Klaus, but I think that this episode does use him to make some interesting observations about the philosophy of television programming. Some of those observations specific to true crime programming feel even more relevant today than they would have been back then because of the glut of such shows being produced now both through traditional media and online.

There are two other reasons I quite like him, at least in the context of this episode. Firstly, I think Adrian Edmondson is well cast in the part, giving him a strong (if sometimes pretty frustrating) personality. The other reason is that Carla being married gives our investigators a more obvious obstacle to their being together romantically. This was welcome after three seasons in which I frequently wondered just what the problem was that stopped Jonathan and Maddy getting together when they both clearly wanted it at points. Now, I’m not foolish enough to claim that it would always be so – just I don’t hate it here.

Overall then, I think that this one is better than its reputation would suggest. While it is clearly not on the level of some of the classic stories in the show’s second season, I’d take this over almost any from the third. Whether I will be as generous of the next story… Well, you’ll have to wait to next week to find out.

Black Aura by John Sladek

Book Details

Originally published in 1974
Thackery Phin #1
Followed by Invisible Green

The Blurb

Thackery Phin, the delightfully eccentric American University philosopher turned detective, is attracted to the headquarters of a spiritualistic group and the beginning of his second case.

When a rock star is killed after trying to levitate from a fourth story window, and another member disappears behind a locked door while demonstrating astral projection, Phin begins to suspect that the members of the society may be involved in something far blacker than seances.

The curse of an Egyptian amulet, a dark seance parlor, lurking death in an orgone box, psychic poison and live burial–Sladek’s brainteaser fairly creeps with fiendish happenings.

The Verdict

A really strong story with two excellent impossibilities, this is an often whimsical and fourth wall-breaking delight.

“There is a black aura emanating within these walls. Love and trust have left this house, the light has gone out of it.”

My Thoughts

Black Aura is the first of two impossible crime novels written by John Sladek, a writer better known for his efforts in the realm of speculative fiction. The books feature his sleuth Thackery Phin, a philosopher who dropped out from a think tank to turn sleuth, advertising in the newspapers for cases promising ‘Anything irrational considered’. When he learns of an occult group called the Aetheric Mandala Society he is intrigued and after hearing about a supposed cursed amulet connected with the death of a young member of the community he decides to investigate further.

The main focus of the novel however are a series of impossible events that take place once Phin arrives at the rooms in Caversham Gardens. The first impossibility is that the father of the young man who died vanishes from within a locked lavatory. Then shortly afterwards another member of the community, a rock musician, is witnessed levitating feet away from the building through one of the fourth floor windows before he appears to fall, dying impaled on the spiked railings below. Finally, and this one is not listed in Adey’s Locked Room Murders, a member of the order disappears after entering a building which is observed on all sides.

Three impossibilities is a generous helping for any mystery novel and while I would agree with other reviewers that they are not all of equal quality, each is treated pretty seriously within the text being described carefully and each plays fairly with the reader. As interesting as the two disappearances are, the most striking impossibility is the apparent feat of astral projection. The image of a mediating rock musician hovering in the air is quite wonderfully imaginative and certainly feels very of its moment and Sladek builds up to that reveal carefully, building a strong sense of atmosphere and tension as we wait for that feat to take place. What I think caps it off so nicely is that Sladek takes great care to carefully outline the details of the scene and follows the moment with a very thorough search of the building, looking for many of the tools that the reader may assume would have been used to bring about this amazing feat.

The other two puzzles, both inexplicable disappearances, are a little less eye-catching though each offers its points of interest. One has a stronger solution than the other but given that is not clear until the end of the novel the reader will likely not perceive a difference in the quality of the setup – just the satisfaction of the answers given.

Individually these three puzzles are interesting and entertaining but what makes Black Aura a special read is the exploration of the ways in which they are connected. The element that seems to bind all three strange events together is that the victims were each in the possession of that strange scarab beetle amulet. This is a lovely device that helps add to the book’s strange sense of atmosphere and its occult themes as some suggest that there may be a curse of some kind on the amulet that brings doom to its owners – a wonderful hook for a mystery which is used thoughtfully here.

In the process of trying to find the answers to these strange occurrences, Phin gets to know each of the members of the commune as well as some of their followers. They are predictably quite a striking and colorful bunch which certainly helps to make the community feel like a vibrant and bustling one and also to keep their roles within the group straight. I was pleasantly surprised to find that these characters were not as broadly drawn as they first appear and that Sladek, while clearly cynical about their practices, does take the time to explore why they are part of the movement and reflect on why those beliefs have a power for them.

The issue I have with the characterization of members of the group came in the form of a retired air pilot who is, we quickly learn, a white supremacist and identified directly as such in the text. It should be said that this is presented as something rather idiotic that the character believes and voices rather than anything admirable so I think it is pretty clear that Sladek is not condoning those views. On the other hand, it does feel rather odd to see hatred for an entire race of people treated as a lightly comical character trait rather than something more insidious though this book is hardly unique for handling it in that way – it has shades of Alf Garnet or Archie Bunker.

Sladek’s writing style is wonderfully flippant and witty, reminding me a little of the tiny bit of Edmund Crispin I have read so far. One favorite moment was when Phin is asked about his method of solving crimes and he confesses that he doesn’t have one – ‘I usually just hope the killer blurts out his guilt in front of witnesses’. A very cute remarkable that instantly won me over to him.

Similarly I really enjoyed the little moments where Phin appears to acknowledge that he is a character in a detective story, effectively breaking the fourth wall. The first time that happens – where we are told that an event that normally happens at a particular juncture in a detective story hasn’t happened – it feels a little odd but I quickly got used to it and rather anticipated those little reflections by the end. It is wonderfully self-conscious and seems to fit the tone and themes of the work well, even if it means that readers are unlikely to take Phin seriously. Like Crispin’s Gervase Fen though I am pretty sure we’re not meant to.

The piece builds very nicely with Sladek spacing out the clues and discoveries well ensuring that the story never seems to stagnate. The final few chapters are particularly striking with the author finding a pretty dramatic way to bring his story to a close and I have to say that I think the manner in which the killer is caught is quite brilliant. The explanation Sladek provides is convincing and the only disappointment is that one of the two inexplicable disappearances is a little diminished for its explanation. Personally though I feel that is offset but my greater appreciation for the skill involved in the crafting of the other and my general delight about how well Sladek connects the three events together in his description of what happened.

Overall then I was delighted with my first experience of Sladek’s work, even though I know that the tragedy is that not much else remains. While the book feels very of its period in terms of the setting it conjures and the people we encounter, the careful approach to crafting the puzzles is pure golden age. It makes for a truly striking read and one I am glad I made the effort to seek out.

Now to try and track down a copy of Invisible Green

Second Opinions

Ben @ The Green Capsule writes a very fair review of this title praising Sladek’s wit.

Jonathan Creek: Satan’s Chimney (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast on December 26, 2001
Christmas Special 2001
Preceded by The Three Gamblers
Followed by The Coonskin Cap

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson

Familiar Faces

Perhaps the most recognizable face for international audiences will be Steven Berkoff. A frequent villain in Hollywood films, Berkoff is probably best known for his role as the unhinged General Orlov in the Bond film Octopussy or as a murderous art dealer in Beverly Hills Cop.

There are lots of connections between Jonathan Creek and Doctor Who but this special features offers one of my favorites. The victim in this story is played by Mary Tamm who had played the first incarnation of Romana opposite Tom Baker in the Key to Time series.

Finally comic Bill Bailey, best known at the time for his role in the relatively new comedy Black Books, makes his first appearance as terrible magician Kenny Starkiss.

The Verdict

An entertaining feature-length episode with two very solid impossibilities that are cleverly linked to each other. Sure, it’s not on the level of the previous special, Black Canary, but I liked it a lot more than any story from Season Three.


Episode Summary

Actress Vivian Brodie is the star of Black Snow, a big budget film being made by her friend Herman Grole. The set is becoming a rather strained one as her big name co-star refusing to shoot their scenes together, fearing he will catch her throat infection. Away from the shooting she also seems to be concerned about being harrassed by someone as we see the clothes in her wardrobe have been shredded and overhear her making a somewhat distraught phone call in response to someone who is not identified.

Shooting continues on location where a scene is to be filmed in which several characters break down a door with an axe. As the door is being broken through the actors react in horror to see Vivian has really been shot and on the point of death. The cast rush inside and Vivian appears to point at the window which is still in tact and completely sealed. All of the cast and crew seem to be accounted for on the other side of the door so how was Vivian shot dead without the glass of the window being broken?

As it happens Vivian’s ex-husband, escapologist Alan Kalanak, is working with Adam Klaus on a routine when he receives news of Vivian’s death. His agent Carla wants to do something to help and Alan suggests that she work with Jonathan…

My Thoughts

Before I embarked on my current project to rewatch all of Jonathan Creek in order I used to dip into the series from time to time, picking out episodes at random. The result was it never struck me until a month or so ago that this special, the story that introduces Jonathan’s second companion, Carla Borrego, was missing on the service. As a result I can say with near-certainty that I hadn’t seen this since the day it was first broadcast; the few memories I had of the story were all to do with being excited to see Mary Tamm (this was the year I had become a Doctor Who fan so her appearance was particularly exciting for me). In short, this would be almost like watching the story for the first time – an exciting proposition!

Satan’s Chimney was created as a Christmas special and benefits from an extended running time. As with the previous special, Black Canary, Renwick takes advantage of the extra time to incorporate additional plot elements and craft a rather more elaborate story featuring multiple impossibilities. The result is a story that at times can seem overstuffed with elements, though everything is ultimately connected to tell a single cohesive (if incredible) story.

Let’s start with the way that the episode builds up the details concerning the murder of Vivian Brodie. The expanded running time allows for us to get a sense of the dynamics between her and several other members of the film’s cast and crew, allowing us to have a pretty good idea of the points of tension both spoken and unspoken prior to the murder taking place.

When that murder does occur, great care is taken to carefully demonstrate that there is no one present in the locked room. What’s more, almost all of the suspects are clearly shown as being located outside the room. This only makes the scenario seem more puzzling, as does the addition of a wordless dying message from Vivian.

One of the things I appreciate about these longer specials is that Renwick often disposes of a few of the small points about the crime scene quite quickly. In this case Jonathan is able to explain the relevance of the dying message, if not decipher who it actually refers to. This has two effects. For one thing, it builds up Jonathan’s powers by acknowledging he can see the significance of some apparently confusing points quickly – not dissimilar to the Sherlock Holmes deducing a number of personal details from someone’s appearance. Anything that may remain seems even more mysterious by contrast. The other is that it helps consolidate our interest around a few aspects of the mystery allowing room for further impossibilities.

In the episode summary above I have chosen to only outline the first of the story’s impossibilities. There are a couple of reasons for this but primarily it is that the second impossibility occurs relatively late in the story and is rather hard to explain without a lot of context. What I can say though is that it involves some historical (and horrific) elements established in the episode’s opening montage – a technique I have found to be quite effective in previous Creek stories such as Mother Redcap. While the historical background itself is rather inaccurate, the idea behind the second puzzle is quite striking and I appreciate that it shifts the story in quite a different direction.

The solutions to each of the impossibilities, while clearly wild, are also pretty entertaining and I particularly liked how the two problems relate to each other. I do question an aspect of the murder of Vivian but given that is getting into heavy spoiler territory I’ll save that for the Aidan Spoils Everything section that follows this post. I certainly enjoyed the craziness of what happens and felt that some key aspects of the case were clued well. My issues with the solution really only struck me in the aftermath of the story.

The guest cast here is quite strong and features a few striking performances, particularly from Steven Berkoff. I think he does a good job of making his character, a genius-level movie director who decides to live in a medieval torture castle, feel surprisingly credible. Mary Tamm is also great in her performance and I appreciate that we are given a little more time with the victim here, making her murder all the more affecting, and I think she played wonderfully with Berkoff whenever they were on screen together.

Finally, I probably ought to take a moment to acknowledge one of the most significant elements of the episode: that it introduces us to a new companion for Jonathan. I should begin by acknowledging that the episode does provide an explanation of sorts for why Maddy is not present that clearly leaves the door open for a return. While Carla does get an ending that clearly suggests she might have further adventures with Jonathan, it is possible that this could have been intended to be a one-off (and I do think that Carla’s next story presents her as occupying a role that feels like a more natural fit for Maddy).

I really like the casting of Julia Sawalha in the part and think that however the character would be developed in the episodes to come that she makes a really strong impression in this story. Part of the reason for that is that she gets a clear reason for being somewhat antagonistic and frustrated in her dealings with Jonathan. Unlike Maddy her priority is not selling a good story and she is not thrilled to be working with him. Also, while there are hints of romantic tension these are not quite so overt and they are not the main source of that comedic tension – rather it is her frustration at some of the things she is called upon to do in order to distract witnesses and learn the truth.

The most notable difference in the role is that Carla is clearly designed to be a sidekick rather than a co-investigator with many of her actions being directed by Jonathan. I would suggest that this is a continuation of a trend from the previous seasons of Creek which had slowly minimized Maddy’s role as an investigator and rarely relied on her professional skills. I can understand why some miss Maddy’s greater independence though, even if I don’t particularly miss the will they, won’t they dynamic she has with Jonathan.

Overall then I think that this is a pretty solid special that may not quite match the heights of Black Canary but I think it holds up better than almost all of the previous season. I am looking forward to getting started on revisiting a whole new era of Creek in the next few months.

The Red Locked Room by Tetsuya Ayukawa, translated by Ho-Ling Wong

Book Details

Stories were collected and published in English in 2020

The Blurb

Few writers of detective fiction can match both John Dickson Carr and Freeman Wills Crofts at their own game. Included in this superb collection by Tetsuya Ayukawa, recognized as the doyen of the honkaku mystery, are four impossible crime stories and three unbreakable alibi tales. The final story “The Red Locked Room” can lay claim to be one of the finest ever written in the genre. Judge for yourself.

The Verdict

A very strong collection of locked room and unbreakable alibi stories. Based on this sampler let’s hope more Ayukawa will follow!

“It can be confidently stated that there is not one writer belonging to the shin honkaku movement who does not hold Tetsuya Ayukawa in the utmost regard.”

Taku Ashibe, Introduction

My Thoughts

For the first three months of the year I have tried to post a weekly review of a Japanese crime or mystery novel as part of my participation in the Japanese Literature Challenge. This week’s post will be the final one in that series, though of course my TBR pile still contains plenty more Japanese mystery books to read. It is also something of a transition to my next weekly post theme but there will be more on that in a moment!

An excellent introduction from Taku Ashibe provides some background both about Ayukawa and how the stories he wrote fit into the general development of the honkaku mystery. It discusses his two series detectives Chief Inspector Onitsura and the gifted amateur Ryūzō Hoshikage, both represented in this collection, and outlines the differences between them. Essentially the latter’s stories tended to be howdunnit tales while the former blends elements of the police procedural and the puzzle plot, typically focusing on breaking alibis.

There were seven stories selected for this collection – four featuring Hoshikage and three Onitsura and they are alternated which does help to make the stories here feel more balanced between the different styles which is to be welcomed.

The quality of the stories on offer is generally very high and there is no failure in the collection. Even the weakest stories (which I felt were The White Locked Room and The Five Clocks) still had points of interest and each story felt well clued with solid and detailed explanations.

The best stories on the other hand are quite exceptional. The Clown in the Tunnel is a wonderfully worked story where a killer appears to have disappeared while escaping in a short tunnel that was observed at either end. The author is meticulous in charting out the various movements of the characters throughout the house and I appreciated the clever solution.

The other story that really grabbed me was the preceding one – Death in Early Spring. This story about a man found murdered in a construction site is similarly very cleverly timed, presenting a wonderful unbreakable alibi scenario. Ayukawa’s plotting here is really quite ingenious and everything is very fairly clued.

It is a really strong collection that I think should be of interest to anyone who enjoys Japanese puzzle plot mysteries. I hope that further Ayukawa follows in translation as I was very impressed with this sampler of his work. For those interested in more detailed thoughts on the stories contained in this collection be sure to read the second page of this review!

Finally, as I trailed at the start of this post my Monday posts will have a different theme for at least the next two months. After throwing out some suggestions for themes to that small but brave band of folk who follow me on Twitter I can announce that in April and May #mondaysareimpossible as I post about locked room and impossible crime novels. Is there a better way to start the week?

Second Opinions

I strongly recommend checking out this review from TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time who was similarly very impressed with the collection but has some different preferences as to what he considers the best stories.

Also check out Nick’s review @ The Grandest Game in the World for his thoughts on each of the stories here.