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.

The Double Alibi by Noël Vindry

DoubleAlibiOver the past year I have been slowly but surely working my way through the Locked Room International back catalogue in a rather haphazard way, picking titles based on positive reviews comments from blogging chums and on occasion because an element of the premise intrigued me. Though I own The Howling Beast and The House That Kills I decided I would skip over those titles after I read JJ’s review of this title.

There were a few aspects of the novel that appealed to me in advance but what caught my attention the most was the problem of a person appearing to have been in multiple places at once. As TomCat quite rightly points out, this is not really an impossible situation as there are perfectly clear explanations given for each of the sightings but the reader and M. Allou have to work out how these different threads are woven together.

The subject of those reported sightings is Gustave Allevaire, a thief who has been in prison several times to his cousins’ mortification. They are constantly trying to persuade their aunt who they care for and who expects to receive a sizeable inheritance whenever her brother passes away that he is a bad lot but she still sees him as a cheeky youngster rather than a career criminal.

They hear from a family friend that Gustave has been seen in the vicinity of their home so when they wake at one in the morning to discover that the silver and their life savings have been pilfered they instantly suspect him. Things are looking even bleaker for Gustave when his fingerprints are discovered on a few pieces of silver that were dropped in the house. The problem is that at precisely the same time he was supposedly stealing from their home he was also breaking into but not stealing money from his employer’s desk nine hours drive away and in a third location (I’m not spoiling that one for you – it is a great reveal).

Enter M. Allou, a juge d’instruction who takes charge of investigating these cases in spite of their occurring in separate jurisdictions. In the course of the novella he travels to each of the crime scenes, interviewing the witnesses and trying to make sense of how Gustave appears to have been in three places at once.

The novel is at its best in the opening and closing sections as it lays out the facts of the incidents and explains the links between them. I found the scenes with the Levalois sisters and their aunt to be entertaining and their relationship to be well observed. The characterization is strong and I appreciated the time Vindry spends explaining their living situation as it does help bring them to life rather than existing just to serve the puzzle.

Similarly I really responded well to the characters in the office where Gustave had been working and, in particular, to the uncertain interpersonal relationship between the witness who claims to have seen Gustave and the owner’s sister. Even the police officers that Allou works alongside prove interesting and colorful!

Unfortunately while I appreciated the strong character work, I did find that the novel seemed to drag a little for me in the middle. In this section we witness Allou and his colleagues mulling over the different theories about who may be at best incorrect or possibly lying about what they saw, a process that becomes a little repetitive as we wait for a breakthrough to happen.

Happily that does come along with a small locked room problem to liven things up as we get ready for Allou to have his breakthrough and work out what was done and how. Those explanations are quite clever and do make sense of the tangle of links between the three appearances. I certainly didn’t get close to solving this one and kicked myself about not picking up on a couple of points once the explanations were given which is really what I’m hoping to get out of reading an impossible crime story.

Overall, I am glad I finally got around to reading one of the Vindry books I have had sat on my to read pile for months and I certainly appreciated some of the interesting character choices the author made. The puzzle, while not impossible, is clever and stimulating and I did enjoy the way everything is brought together at the end. I will be curious to try the other Vindry novels in the future though I think my next Locked Room International stop will be a return to Halter.

The Ripper of Storyville and Other Ben Snow Stories by Ed Hoch

StoryvilleLast month I declared that Ed Hoch’s All But Impossible did the unthinkable and made me a believer in the short form mystery. Having enjoyed that one so thoroughly I was keen to jump straight back in and decided I would like to try one of his other characters this time.

Though I am no expert of this particular period of American history, I do find it to be quite fascinating and felt it made for an inspired backdrop for these mystery stories. Many of the stories are quite action-focused and I think Hoch mostly does a good job with those sections.

The collection’s protagonist, Ben Snow, is an interesting creation who frequently falls into the Western trope as a hired hand or because someone mistakes him for Billy the Kid who had died several years earlier. He doesn’t really look out for trouble but it always seems to find a way to him.

Christian Henriksson very kindly has acted as a sort of sherpa for my explorations of Hoch’s work, compiling a frankly amazing blog post where he discusses all of the Hoch short story collections currently available. His view on this particular one is that it is uneven though he thinks there is a standout impossible crime.

My own favorite stories within this collection were The Ripper of Storyville, The Vanished Steamboat and The Sacramento Waxworks. Each of those stories strikes a strong balance between historical details, characterization and scenario and I think the crimes in each of the three stories are interesting.

Some of the others stories hit home too but the overall impression I had of this collection was that it was inconsistent, particularly if you are only in this for the clues. For fans of historical mysteries or this particular time period, there is plenty to enjoy here and some great, striking concepts to puzzle out.

Continue reading “The Ripper of Storyville and Other Ben Snow Stories by Ed Hoch”

The Seventh Hypothesis by Paul Halter

SeventhHypoIn preparing this review I took a moment to go back and read what I had written about previous Halter novels and was shocked by what I found. Folks – it’s been nearly FOUR MONTHS since I last read a Paul Halter.

That was The Phantom Passage, a novel I found to be a little disappointing in the way it was resolved. In the comments JJ suggested that I may want to take a look at The Seventh Hypothesis and I decided, for once, to actually follow-up on a Halter suggestion. I am glad I did because this novel is, to date, my favorite of his works I have read.

The plot is, as can be quite typical of his work, overstuffed with elements which can make it a challenge to summarize. The best I can offer is that Halter presents us with two crimes that, because of some coincidences, appear to be linked.

The novel opens with a policeman having a strange encounter with a man dressed as a medieval plague doctor. Soon afterwards he encounters a man dressed in the manner of a very old-fashioned doctor who addresses him as a confederate worried about where they have hidden a body. The policeman investigates, searching the three bins in turn without finding anything. The doctor pronounces himself a doctor of crime and, upon leaving, directs the policeman to look in a bin again where he finds a corpse.

Later the private secretary of a playwright comes to see Dr. Alan Twist and Archibald Hurst to tell them about his concerns regarding a conversation he overheard between his employer and a visitor. He tells them that the pair have made a murder pact in which one will commit a crime and try to blame it on the other. If that wasn’t confusing enough, at a key moment in their conversation one of the pair picked up a doll that resembled a plague doctor, calling back the first case.

In the past I have complained about feeling Halter incorporates too many ideas into a single story, opting for style and theatrical moments rather than logical plot developments. For instance, I took issue with some of the deaths in The Demon of Dartmoor which I felt stretched credibility. The Seventh Hypothesis follows the same pattern of incorporating a lot of ideas and incident into a very short page count and yet here the mixture works with those elements seeming to support each other.

Part of the reason I think it works so well here is the central conceit of the challenge between the playwright and his rival, a renowned actor, into which all of the other elements are folded. Halter wastes no time trying to convince us that what we are seeing may be coincidences or misunderstandings but he establishes at least some points in the secretary’s story to be true. He does this both by having the investigators discover inconsistencies in stories but also by directly showing us conversations between the two suspects, making us aware of their responses to some developments.

JJ calls the interactions between those two characters as being ‘a sumptuous, insanely dizzying whirligig’ and I heartily concur. I found both the report of their conversation and the meetings between them to be thoroughly intriguing and while this apparent narrowing of our field of suspects should be limiting, the construction of the plot helps ensure that the reader can never entirely trust the evidence they have before them.

What creates that ‘whirligig’ feel he alludes to is Halter’s breathless plotting. It is rare for a chapter to pass without a small revelation or incident taking place which changes our understanding of what is happening or significantly moves the case forwards. For instance, there are several further murders that take place after the discovery of that first body, making an already complicated case even harder to unravel. Even the secretary’s report of the conversation he overhears contains two or three significant reversals and revelations.

Halter’s stylistic flourishes are also very well executed, creating an unsettling oddness that may initially seem a little forced and yet fit perfectly into this very theatrical plot Halter constructs. While I enjoyed those early passages in which the doctors in historical dress talk about plague in the city, I did wonder if these existed just to create a sense of atmosphere but I was pleasantly surprised by the way he incorporates those costumes into the plot and makes them feel necessary rather than an indulgence.

The solution to the story is cleverly constructed and quite audacious. Each of the explanations makes sense as logical and consistent with the evidence and I thought some of the ways clues were utilized were quite novel. Some may question whether Twist proves all of his case and I do take their point – the most questionable revelations occur in the epilogue and while I guessed at them I do not know that he could have proved them – but the logical process he describes in reducing his suspect pool in the run up to the accusation makes perfect sense to me and I do think he proves his case mechanically, if not convincingly when it comes to motivation.

 

Given my fairly glowing sentiments about this book I guess the question I am left with is why isn’t this picked as a highlight of Halter’s oeuvre? My feeling is that it probably comes down to how, unlike much of his translated work, the mystery is neither an impossible crime nor a locked room. Aspects of it are certainly incredible and audacious and may look impossible but it is fairly simple to work out how the disappearing and reappearing body may have taken place. The challenge is in knitting all of these elements together to understand why these things occurred.

I enjoyed that challenge a lot and found the book to be stimulating, imaginative and satisfying right up to the conclusion. After this experience I certainly don’t think it will take four months for me to pick up another Halter – the only challenge will be deciding which one. Fortunately I still have a fair amount of his back catalog to work through…

All But Impossible: The Impossible Files of Dr. Sam Hawthorne by Edward D Hoch

ABIA word of warning before you begin – this is easily my longest post on the blog to date and, if you follow the Read More link, it contains story-by-story commentary on each of the fifteen cases contained in this volume. I don’t spoil the solutions but I do describe the premise of each story so if you don’t want to know the problems then I’d stay clear of those comments.

All But Impossible first came onto my radar when I read a very positive review of the collection from Puzzle Doctor who is a fan of these short stories which first appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine between 1991 and 1999. I was excited and immediately went ahead and added all four volumes onto my wish list but, being an idiot, I wrote them down in reverse order and only realized my mistake when I was two stories into this collection.

Whoops.

I am happy to report though that I thoroughly enjoyed working my way through these stories. The various premises of the stories are varied and genuinely puzzling, almost all of them being impossible crimes or puzzles with an impossible element. There is no repetition between the stories here and many of the solutions are ingenious in their neatness and simplicity.

What particularly impressed me though are the handful of stories that are not only cleverly plotted but which pack an additional punch with a final paragraph revelation that may stick with you. I particularly recommend The Problem of the Country Mailbox and The Problem of the Enormous Owl in that regard.

As with any short story collection there are some weak points though only The Problem of the Missing Roadhouse and The Problem of the Unfound Door really disappointed me, each feeling less imaginative that the other stories in the collection. I would also add that the Kindle edition I read suffers from some issues with the formatting putting unexpected breaks in the middle of paragraphs which were initially quite distracting. Fortunately the quality of the stories here soon had me absorbed enough to overlook it but some may find this frustrating.

Overall I was very impressed with this first taste of Hoch’s work and I will look forward to exploring more of his work. If anyone has any recommendations beyond the Dr. Sam Hawthorne stories I would be glad to hear them!

Continue reading “All But Impossible: The Impossible Files of Dr. Sam Hawthorne by Edward D Hoch”

The Skull of the Waltzing Clown by Harry Stephen Keeler

SkulloftheWaltzingFor want of a better phrase, this stuff is bananas.

The Skull of the Waltzing Clown is a hard book to summarize because its plot takes a while to emerge and to point out its central theme will spoil several moments along the way. In short, the description I am about to offer really only scratches the surface of what this novel is about but it is probably the best I can do.

George Stannard, a shirt salesman, is returning from a business trip to Hawaii via the city of Chicago to answer a summons from his estranged uncle. He had only seen the said uncle once in his life as a five-year old as a falling out between uncle and father resulted in those ties being severed. His father, we learn, died recently and the uncle is looking to get George to do something for him. Precisely what that is will take most of the novel to uncover.

Much of The Skull of the Waltzing Clown unfolds in the form of a lengthy conversation between the two men in the course of a few hours. Once that conversation begins there are no third parties to distract or get in the way and the pair start to trade stories, asides and the occasional barb or pointed comment.

This lends the book something of a rambling and seemingly unfocused aspect that may be off-putting to some. If the reader hasn’t read a summary of the story they are likely to spend much of the novel wondering how these elements will connect and what the point of it all is. Then, in the ending, you should see how these apparent digressions still have a purpose and how there was unity of theme and concept all along.

Now, given that this is a mystery fiction blog, I do have to say that the mystery element here is similarly unfocused. There is no crime to investigate or murder to look into in spite of a strange challenge to the reader issued just before the halfway mark. Instead the reader’s task is to make sense of the conversations and work out what the point of the story is and how these ideas will fit together. I found this to be quite a fascinating process and loved the different elements that Keeler is able to explore such as the collection of old safes that the elder Stannard has bought and keeps in his basement or the strange drug Pau-Ho which knocks people out for over a month before acting as a truth serum for several days.

Those looking for a more conventional mystery may appreciate the short impossible crime story The Verdict which features in the narrative around two third of the way through. This comes about when George is asked to select a story to print in his Uncle’s pulp magazine off the slush pile and while this feels quite random and contrived at the time, I did appreciate the way that Keeler makes it relevant later in the text.

As an impossible crime story it is quite solid and entertaining in its own right. A man is found dead in a locked apartment, the only exit to which is a window with a ten story drop. The weapon, a Chinese knife, only has one set of fingerprints on – those of the person who packed the knife up to be shipped to the victim. The explanation of how it is done is quite wacky and not particularly convincing but I enjoyed reading the story anyway and felt it fit well with the overall tone of the whole novel.

While I did enjoy the way this story was plotted and, in particular, its unorthodox structure there were some elements, there were some aspects of the novel that were less successful or pleasing. The most prominent of these issues for me was the abundance of racist sentiments not only from a character who we are supposed to dislike for holding those views but also from George who is supposed to be a more sympathetic figure. Keeler also has him mimic Chinese dialect patterns for ‘humorous’ effect. These instances jarred with me, particularly in the earliest chapters of the novel where they feature most often.

A lesser frustration for me was the odd way that everyone seems to have in this story of writing letters as though they were being spoken out loud as they were being composed. There are little stumbles and errors that are left in for the reader and while that may make sense with some of the characters, in other cases the informality seems quite out-of-place. It’s a small thing but it did pull me out of things a bit at times.

My final issue with the novel is that there is an encounter which the book seems to trail and set up for the reader to anticipate that never happens. This seems odd because all of the other loose ends are tied up very efficiently and it is admittedly a very minor thing but I was waiting for some sort of payoff that never came.

Though the nature of this novel and some of the issues I had with the novel keep me from writing a broad recommendation, I did find this a fascinating and compelling read and admired how tightly it was constructed. Keeler’s story, characters and themes are powerful and while I had no idea where this was all headed until the last handful of pages, I enjoyed the experience of finding out how it was all connected. I am certainly curious to try some of his other work should any cross my path.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Out of Your Comfort Zone (Why)

Death in the House of Rain by Szu-Yen Lin

HouseofRainThe titular House of Rain is a striking three-story building in the shape of the Chinese character for Rain constructed on a mountain in Taiwan. It was designed for a wealthy car dealer who intended to retire there with his wife, daughter and father. The father died soon after they moved in however and some time later the others were murdered in horrific fashion.

Death in the House of Rain takes place around the time of the first anniversary of those tragic events. The house has now passed into the possession of that entrepreneur’s brother, an academic, who lives there with his daughter. The daughter invites her college friends to come and stay for the weekend while the professor asks Ruoping Lin, an assistant professor of philosophy and amateur detective, to help him work out the truth behind his brother’s murder.

Isolated when falling rocks block off the road, the residents of the house soon find that they are being picked off one by one as members of the party turn up dead in locked rooms. Ruoping Lin will not only need to solve that historical crime, he must also figure out how and why people are being murdered to prevent more deaths from occurring.

Death in the House of Rain is a very fast-paced read, managing to pack multiple locked room murders into a relatively brief page count while making each death seem quite striking and distinct. Several of these deaths feature some pretty macabre elements and a sense of doom seems to hang over the house, building anticipation of what is to come and that no one is truly safe.

It is those macabre touches that really stood out to me and give the novel much of its personality. The first death that happens in the present day was particularly effective as Lin does not show us the moment of death but rather the build up to it and then subsequently the bloody aftermath. I found this to be quite chilling and was happy that when an explanation for what happened is finally given that it didn’t diminish those feelings but rather that it lived up to this strange and grotesque scene.

Our primary sleuth, Ruoping Lin, does not make a particularly big impression either positively or negatively for much of the story. He is certainly not a showy figure, nor is he too closely involved with the events that take place. When the moment comes for him to explain what has happened he offers a very credible and ingenious account of what has happened and so I felt he fulfilled his role well. I will add that I loved the way he uses a landmark impossible crime text to support his reasoning.

We are given a pretty wide assortment of characters and it is not clear who are suspects and who are victims. Lin establishes the idea that any one of these characters might die early in the story and develops some interesting back stories for some of them that make them more than a stock set of types.

Perhaps the most striking character however is the house itself. I am growing more accustomed to the idea of peculiar architecture coinciding with impossible crimes but the house here is easily the most curious and foreboding of the ones I have encountered in impossible crime novels so far. Not only is the shape of the house genuinely eccentric, the building feels wonderfully detailed. There are multiple pages of plans (if you are reading the Kindle version be aware that these come before the table of contents so your device may skip over them) and I was struck by just how important the physical space was to establishing the tone and the events of the story.

While I was impressed by the book as a whole, I do have to note that there is an element of coincidence in several of the deaths. Any one of these deaths on their own would be unlikely but some may feel that it stretches credibility to have several such deaths all occurring in a short space of time. I appreciated that the author anticipates this complaint however and builds a rationale for his plot into his story that struck me as cleverly reasoned and sufficiently convincing for me to overlook it.

I was particularly pleased however by the coda to the book in which Lin takes us back to the initial murders from a year earlier and provides an explanation for what took place there. I felt that this made for a particularly satisfying and punchy ending that wrapped things up very tidily and provided a strong sense of closure.

Having read rave reviews of this novel when it first came out, I can only be sorry that it took me so long to get around to reading it for myself. This was my first experience of Szu-Yen Lin’s work and I can only hope that some other novels may eventually make it into English-language translation in the future as I found it to be a very exciting and compelling read.