Murder in a Peking Studio by Chin Shunshin, translated by Joshua A. Fogel

Book Details

Originally published in Japanese in 1976 as Pekin Yūyūkan
English language translation first published in 1986 as Occasional Paper No. 19 by the Center for Asian Studies, University of Arizona

The Verdict

The historical details are excellent and do a good job of conveying a sense of place and time. The locked room, while it takes a minute to arrive, is good enough to justify the read on that score alone.


My Thoughts

Doi Sakutarō, a young man who is about to finish his apprenticeship in selling art antiques, arrives in Peking with instructions to make contact with a Japanese Foreign Office agent. He is asked to renew his contact with Wen Pao-t’ai, a Chinese expert in inscription rubbings who Doi had studied under a few years earlier. It turns out that Wen has been operating as an intermediary in passing bribes to members of the government and Japan, fearing growing Russian influence, initially wants Doi to get close to him to monitor his old friend’s activities.

Doi’s contact, Nasu Keigo, explains how Japan and Russia each have an interest in steering Chinese policy in relation to Manchuria. Tensions are building between the two countries over the future of the region and war seems inevitable but each side wants it to happen on their terms. Japan favors a quick war to take advantage of Russia’s poor infrastructure while Russia wants to drag the conflict out to give them time to move troops and weapons into the region.

The early chapters of the book, while interesting, are extremely heavy in terms of historical content. Chin Shunshin does explain the most important aspects of the background and I think he does a fine job of explaining the complex political tensions. Personally I found the setting to be quite fascinating but I recognize that for those who have never heard of the Boxer Rebellion or the background to the Russo-Japanese War may find the first dozen pages rather dense and overwhelming.

Readers primarily interested in the mystery aspect of the novel, rather than espionage and political maneuverings, will have to wait until about a third of the way into the novel for those elements to be introduced, though readers will no doubt pay close attention when Wen’s studio is initially described. Access to this small building with its single entrance is restricted to just one servant and Wen routinely engages a heavy deadbolt when inside. In short, we have a promising location for a locked room murder.

Once Japan decides to act, Doi is sent in a small party to deliver the first installment of a bribe. When they come to deliver the second the scene plays out much as before. They leave $250,000 with Wen who locks the door behind them. They are being escorted to the gate when they realize they forgot to ask for a receipt and so return to find that Wen is not responding. Just a few minutes have passed and the lock is still engaged so they decide to look through the window only to see him lying on his inscriptions slab. Forcing the door they find him dead having been stabbed with a poisoned dagger and no sign of the bribe money inside.

I found there was a lot to like about this setup which feels extremely well thought-out. I particularly appreciated that the two strands of the puzzle – the question of what happened to the money and how the murder was done – are solved at quite different points in the novel and not viewed as equally important by each player in the drama.

Of the two questions, the one that appealed most to my imagination was the matter of the vanishing money. The interior of the studio is pretty empty while the incredibly short time frame between Doi leaving and returning makes it hard to see how Wen would have had time to hide it anywhere. While the possible explanations feel pretty limited, that is understandable given the extremely constraining circumstances in which this crime took place. Though the investigation is perhaps a little rushed, the explanation struck me as pretty satisfying.

The other question, the matter of the murder, is both simple and complex. Like the issue of the money, the circumstances are extremely constraining, particularly as suspects are thin on the ground. The question of how the crime was achieved is much tougher however. While I note that the author does take pains to reference all important elements needed for the solution before delivering that to us, I came nowhere near to the solution. On reflection, I think the author does enough for the reader to conclude that they played fair.

Chin does introduce us to a sleuth, Chang Shao-kuang, who has an interesting backstory that reflects some of the themes he is discussing more broadly in this novel. For instance, when he is introduced to us it is as a young man who feels like he belongs to the era to come rather than the one he happens to live in that prizes merit above all else. As it happens his professional qualifications, the law, are of less use to him than you might expect. Rather than feeling born for this type of work, it was the only one he could think of when he made his return to the country after many years away and we learn that he has come to be quite successful.

He is certainly a smart investigator and I did enjoy that he does not necessarily feel that he wishes to share his findings with everyone. This does help differentiate him from other genius sleuths and I enjoyed watching him handle the other investigators with more formal standing to investigate the case. I also really appreciated the epilogue in which, several years later, he explains the things he wouldn’t share with the investigators. That felt both satisfying and in keeping with the character while providing the reader with the appropriate sense of closure.

Of course, one of the disappointments in writing this review is that I know that not many people will get the opportunity to read it. It had been published by an academic press, albeit quite affordably, which does mean there are limited copies kicking about.

While Murder in a Peking Studio may seem a little intimidating, at least to begin with, it is built around a solid locked room puzzle. Though a little dense and dry in places, I enjoyed the exploration of a moment in history which felt pleasantly neutral and felt that the solutions to the puzzles were handled and explained well. With the minor caution that the locked room is not the focus until some way into the book, I would suggest that this is worth a look for fans of the locked room or of this era of history.

Constable Guard Thyself! by Henry Wade

Book Details

Originally published in 1935

Inspector Poole #5
Preceded by Mist on the Saltings
Followed by The High Sheriff

The Blurb

Two threats from a newly released convict – a poacher framed on a murder charge – put Captain Scole, Chief Constable of Brodshire, on his guard. Special men are assigned to protect him.

But four days later, Captain Scole is found shot through the head at his desk in Police Headquarters.

A full week later, young Inspector Poole of Scotland Yard is called in to follow a cold trail in the face of open hostility from the local police. And the further he explores the murder, the more baffling it becomes.

Could Scole’s First World War past be catching up with him – or something much closer to home? 

The Verdict

A thoroughly interesting (and thorough) procedural complete with a compelling impossible murder situation.


My Thoughts

Henry Wade is one of my favorite writers of the Golden Age so I cannot really explain why it has been well over a year since I last read one of his books. I had been intending to get back to him again for the past few months but got an extra little push when I noticed several of his books listed in Brian Skupin’s Locked Room Murders Supplement. After reading the descriptions of the impossibilities this seemed like the one that intrigued me most based on the apparent audacity of the crime committed.

That crime is the murder of a Chief Constable within his office in the police station. Junior officers are present in the corridor outside when they hear shots and dash inside. There they find Scole dead having been shot in the forehead, yet there is no sign of the murderer in the room. They could not have escaped through the only door without passing the officers, nor is it easy to see how they could have got in or out through the window given the office is on the first floor and there are no signs of anyone having touched the old drainpipe which seems to be the only thing an intruder could grip onto.

Suspicion quickly falls on Albert Hinde, a recently released prisoner who had made several threats of violence to Scole including once in person. Years earlier Scole had been responsible for sending Hinde to prison causing considerable resentment. What doesn’t make sense though is why Hinde waited to commit murder when he had already had the opportunity and how could he have got through the police station when officers had been placed on alert to look out for him.

Scole’s subordinates are keen to get to work and find his killer and initially resist calls to summon assistance from the Yard but when they are unable to track down Hinde and with their investigation stalled they reluctantly recognize that they need help. Inspector Poole is dispatched and decides to take the case back to the beginning to look at all their base assumptions, taking no fact for granted.

While this book does contain a solid impossible crime story, it is important to stress that it is first and foremost a police procedural. What this means is that we have lots of care taken to establish the critical points of the investigation, checking over important details, carefully comparing pieces of information to make sure that they fit together and ruling out other lines of inquiry. This type of storytelling will appeal to those who like to focus on the details of the investigation but may feel a little slow for those seeking action or big reveals. I enjoyed the story but I would accept that it is quite deliberate in its pacing, although I found the sensation of circling ever tighter around the killer to be quite compelling.

I have now read several stories featuring Inspector Poole and I am increasingly coming to appreciate him as a sleuth. He is a detective of the Inspector French school, albeit a little more fallible in his reasoning. At several points in this story we see him make well-reasoned but incorrect guesses about what might have happened, only to see his theories crumble around him. That fallibility only adds to the book’s strong sense of realism and makes me like him all the more.

Wade not only draws Poole well but also creates a convincing group of policemen to fill the station. While there is not a lot of diversity in the conceptions of those characters, I think each is portrayed quite thoughtfully and credibly. Their squabbles and resentments all feel well observed and I had little difficulty in believing that the reactions of those characters were realistic. Similarly those characters beyond the police station are also portrayed thoughtfully and manage to make significant impact, even when they only appear in a single sequence or phase of the novel.

I was also impressed by the rich themes Wade works into this book, some of which feel quite heavy. While I think this book works simply as a really engaging puzzle story, I think the author thoughtfully raises and tackles a number of challenging topics, some of which feel quite modern.

Reading this I was struck by the thought that this book must have been in the works at about the time a national debate was taking place around the future of policing. In 1932 Lord Trenchard, the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, had presented his white paper with recommendations to reform policing and in the same year that this book was published the Police College at Hendon accepted its first cohort of trainees. There was some quite strong reaction to these reforms at the time however, prompting some heated debate about the future of policing.

Given the themes of this novel, which discusses issues concerning police recruitment and heirarchies, the tension between the civilian and military mindsets of policing and issues of malpractice, I do wonder if Wade was intending this work to be supportive of the need to professionalize and reform the police. It does seem clear that Wade places much of the blame for the events of this story on Scole and his uncompromising military mindset.

I do continue to find Wade’s discussion of social and political issues to be quite fascinating, in large part because they seem so at odds with the way I often see them described. Typically Wade is portrayed as a conservative, establishment figure which certainly matches his own social background and yet I continue to find his works to offer support for a more progressive view of justice. This book is certainly no exception, discussing the way excessive punishment and a lack of support can lead to greater odds of the individual returning to a life of crime or violence. Add in the discussion of police malpractice and this work does feel quite progressive for its era and at odds with the general picture so often painted of Wade (four years later he wrote an even more pointed work addressing the causes of recidivism, Released for Death, which I have previously reviewed on this blog).

Having discussed the book as a procedural, I do want to take a moment to address the impossible crime elements of the story. Those were after all the reason I was inspired to pick up this Wade.

While I stand by my earlier comment that this book is first and foremost a procedural, the impossible element of the story is quite pleasing and handled pretty well. The physical circumstances of the crime scene are explained well, as is the forensic evidence left at the scene. Though the investigation does hit several dead ends early on, I enjoyed following Poole as he tried to reason through the difference ways someone might have gained access, only to stumble when he realized why that plan did not work. We do drift away from the circumstances of the crime scene in the middle of the novel but I had confidence that there would be a thorough explanation of what happened later on and I was not disappointed.

That explanation may not be particularly dramatic or imaginative but I think it is detailed and convincing. Unfortunately I have to concur with Martin Edwards and J. F. Norris (see his review linked below) that Wade is a little heavy-handed in some of the clues he drops to the murderer’s identity at the start of the novel. I suspect he was assuming that readers would read this as an inverted-style story (or else ROT13: Abg pbafvqre n cbyvprzna orpnhfr bs n gehfg va nhgubevgl) and fail to register their significance. Unfortunately though it did stand out just a little too much for me. Still, even if you recognize the killer it is still satisfying to piece the other parts of this puzzle together.

Overall I was really pleased I made the choice to pick this book for my return to Wade. While its slow and methodical pacing will not suit every reader, the author crafted an interesting scenario with an equally interesting conclusion.

Second Opinions

J. F. Norris at Pretty Sinister Books also enjoyed this, finding it “fascinating on all levels”. He does raise a good point about the need for a character directory!

Martin Edwards at Do You Write Under Your Own Name describes it as ‘an interesting portrait of Police work’ though he notes that a couple of early clues give the murderer’s identity away too easily.

Nick at The Grandest Game in the World also praises the book, saying it has all of Wade’s merits.

Jonathan Creek: Black Canary (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast 24 December, 1998
1998 Christmas Special
Preceded by Mother Redcap (Season Two)
Followed by The Curious Tale of Mr Spearfish (Season Three)

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson

Key Guest Cast

Rik Mayall makes his first appearance as DI Gideon Pryke, a Police Investigator who is every bit as brilliant as Jonathan. Mayall was one of the stars of Britain’s alternative comedy movement in the 80s, featuring in some of the decade’s most popular shows such as The Young Ones, Comic Strip Presents and The New Statesman. This was apparently his first acting role after he experienced a traumatic quad biking accident that had left him in a coma for five days. He would make a further appearance in show around fifteen years later in the episode The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb.

The Verdict

The first TV special feels deserving of that title, giving Jonathan a brilliant rival to spar with and a pretty challenging case to solve.


My Thoughts

Marella Carney was one of the stars of the magic circuit, performing as the Black Canary, before a tragic accident led to her early retirement. Marella’s daughter contacts Jonathan to ask for his help in explaining the strange circumstances surrounding her sudden suicide. We learn that Marella’s wheelchair-bound husband Jerry was dozing in the conservatory when he woke to see her standing in the snowy garden arguing with a limping man. Suddenly she brandishes a shotgun, causing the man to run away, before turning it on herself moments later and shooting herself. Distraught, Jerry tries to get outside and when he does he notices that the only footprints that have been left in the snow are Marella’s…

Throughout its first season and most of its second Jonathan Creek stories were about fifty minute, standalone stories. The exception to that was a two-part story in the second season (The Problems at Gallows Gate) which I regard as fundamentally misconceived with many of its problems arising from the change in running time and issues of pacing. Black Canary, the show’s first Christmas special, would also be essentially double-length and could very easily have fallen into many of the same traps that Gallows Gate had. Instead Renwick delivered a story that not only felt tailored to its running time but also actually deserving of the label “special”.

To describe why this works I think it is important to pose a question: What do we want from a Jonathan Creek TV special?

The answer couldn’t simply be more Jonathan Creek. The show had by this point established a pretty solid rhythm and formula with an impossibility mixed with some comedic material and some will they/won’t they banter between Jonathan and Maddy. The Gallows Gate two-parter had shown that simply adding more running time into a story doesn’t make it more baffling or compelling.

Instead I think the answer lies in using that extra time to create a story that is bigger and more complex than you can typically tell. That doesn’t necessarily mean bigger in terms of the stakes of the show but bigger in the sense of telling Black Canary takes just such an approach and goes a step further by introducing a character who is capable of disrupting the show’s typical pacing, allowing for a different tone and unsettling the usual dynamics within our investigative team.

Much of my love for this episode stems from this character, DI Gideon Pryke, who represents a brilliant challenge to Jonathan. Pryke is, like Jonathan, incredibly brilliant with an ability to quickly assess and process information and see small details that would pass others by. As a consequence of that he is frequently one step ahead of Jonathan meaning that he has genuine competition to solve this case. It is, for the most part, fairly cordial although Jonathan is clearly frustrated by Pryke’s initial patronizing dismissal of him as the amateur who must be tolerated. Yet by the end their deductions are feeding each other, spurring each other on to crack the case. It is a really fun dynamic and one that I think enhances rather than diminishes Jonathan as a sleuth.

Rik Mayall gives a superb performance in the part, managing to not only portray Pryke as a good rival to Jonathan but ultimately a very effective detective. While the character is certainly arrogant, an attribute found in many of Mayall’s most celebrated characters, he is also surprisingly charming and ultimately quite gracious. This friendly rivalry reminded me somewhat of the one between Poirot and Giraud found in Murder on the Links although there is less of a stylistic difference between Creek and Pryke.

Turning to the actual details of the case, Renwick also makes some very smart choices in the way he sets up this story. One of the reasons that I have been rather vague about the details of this story in this post is that at the start of the story he leaves us with a lot of intriguing threads and pieces of information to think about. The seasoned viewer is likely to make some solid deductions from some of these and may feel that they are far ahead of the sleuths, only to find that there are a number of early reveals, some of which actually spin the story off in different directions.

This is the real benefit of the expanded running time – Renwick has the option here to develop clues that lead to other clues or sometimes cause you to rethink the way you are looking at them. The result is a story that feels much more complex than any Creek has tackled up until this point, building a sense that this story is more complex than it appears.

That feeling is borne out by the solution which is, for the most part, quite clever and logical. While the means by which the impossibility is achieved is not directly clued, I feel the viewer can infer what happened from some of the other clues around the crime scene. I enjoyed the way in which the solution is revealed with the two sleuths working in tandem to deliver the explanation which felt a rather charming way to not only close out the mystery but to show that the two had come together and a respect had formed. It is a nice moment that made me wish he had been brought back sooner so we could see more of that tag-team sleuthing that I found so enjoyable to watch.

While I think most of the mystery plot works well there are a few elements that I think are less successful. One aspect of the storyline, Jonathan and Maddy’s betting about whether Pryke’s assistant is male or female, feels pretty inappropriate and does not reflect brilliantly on those characters. It is another instance of the comedic elements of the show feeling really dated, though unlike some of the other examples I have pointed to this would not have been unusual content for the era it was produced in.

The other element that I think wouldn’t be written in exactly the same way today is Adam Klaus’ misbehavior with a costume designer working on his show. In particular, his behavior with a small recording device without her knowledge. Clearly we are intended to view this as a boorish and sleazy behavior when it is more of a violation of her body. Aside from that initial scene however I think that story thread does have some very amusing moments that I do think serve as a nice balance to the much more serious mystery material while the eventual payoff to that thread stands up pretty well.

With the exception of those two issues, I think much of the rest of the episode holds together really very well and proves that the show could work in a longer format. I think the hook of the disappearing footprints is fun and handled pretty well and I do enjoy the sort of haunting, spooky quality the episode channels at several points with the camera often dwelling on that rather eerie statue of Marella by the stairs.

The biggest reason I hold this episode in such high regard though is Mayall’s performance as Pryke. The character fits alongside Creek perfectly and, revisiting this episode, I found myself wishing that we had seen him more often. It is, in my opinion, one of the best guest performances on the show and I think that difficult relationship is perhaps the episode’s most memorable elements.

Which brings me to the end of my current run of Jonathan Creek posts. I plan on taking a short break from writing about the show until after the New Year when I plan on offering up some thoughts on The Curious Tale of Mr Spearfish.

Jonathan Creek: Mother Redcap

Episode Details

Originally broadcast February 28, 1998

Season Two, Episode Six
Preceded by The Problems at Gallows Gate (Episodes Four and Five)
Followed by Black Canary (TV Movie)

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Keith Washington

Key Guest Cast

Brian Murphy is best remembered by this writer as George from the seventies sitcoms Man About the House and its spinoff, George and Mildred. While he has had a long career, this is one of his few crime credits.

This is one of Nicola Walker’s earlier TV performances. She had a long-running role on the BBC spy drama Spooks (MI-5 in the US) and, more recently, appeared as a lead in Unforgotten. She also gave a standout guest performance in an episode in the first season of Luther.

The Verdict

This story is excellently paced, doing a good job of balancing a cold case and a case in the present day. A strong ending to this second season.


My Thoughts

A judge involved in the sentencing of a gang of Chinese criminals is given police protection when a threat is made that he will be dead by the morning. The windows are barred and police are placed throughout the home and on the grounds to offer protection. The bedroom door, the only entrance to the room, is under observation from a pair of police officers at all times throughout the night.

At 6am a crash is heard from inside the bedroom and the police run inside. The judge is lying on the floor dead with a small wound in his chest which is covered in blood. As the doctor confirms the murder can only have occured moments earlier yet there is no sign of a weapon or a killer anywhere inside the room or on the grounds. The only thing that is found is a torn piece of fingernail.

Meanwhile Maddy is approached by an Estate Agent who asks her to collaborate with him in an investigation into a series of mysterious deaths that took place in a bedroom above a London hostelry, The Mother Redcap, in the 1940s. Seven men died after looking out of a window, each apparently being scared to death by what they saw. The pub has been on the market for decades but its reputation has made it impossible to find a buyer.

These two strange cases will inevitably overlap – the question is how and why.

The first thing to say about Mother Redcap is that it represents a quick return to form for the show after the messy two-part story that preceded it. This is noticeably tighter and much more focused on developing its core puzzle, with remarkably little padding. While I do have a couple of issues with a few details of the plot, I think this matches the quality of the first three episodes in the season very well and were it placed on the other side of The Problems at Gallows Gate I would clearly be talking about a run of four excellent stories.

Given that today’s Hallowe’en, let’s start by discussing the rather spooky events at the Mother Redcap pub. This represents a new sort of case for the show – the cold case – and it is introduced pretty effectively. There is a strong sense of atmosphere both in the recounting of what happened and in the subsequent visits to the derelict building, helped by some strong low-light cinematography. While I would suggest that this plotline skirts the edge of being fair play based on a piece of information being provided only a few moments before the solution, the viewer certainly is given enough to work out the general idea of what may have been done and the motive, even if the exact method or mechanism used can only be an educated guess.

While the episode in general is less comedic than any of the others in the season, this story thread is the source for the most overtly comedic aspects of the plot. Namely Maddy’s uncomfortable interactions with her estate agent source who she fails to listen closely to when he tells her he is a nudist. I have complained about several of the comedic subplots in this season but this one, while not exactly hilarious, at least feels in balance with the other elements of the story and nicely parallels Jonathan’s own disappointing interactions with a possible romantic interest later in the episode.

As for the main mystery, I think the episode is once again very effective in setting out the constraints in which the crime took place. This is done very economically in the opening with a montage that demonstrates that it should be impossible for someone to get in and out of that room undetected, particularly with the judge’s wife sleeping somewhat restlessly next to him. Even though I remembered much of the solution, I still found the puzzle to be compelling on repeat viewing with several points of interest for Jonathan to consider when he is pulled into the case.

In most respects I find the solution to this to be quite satisfying. The few issues I have all relate to small, spoilery points and none were significant enough to seriously impact my enjoyment of the story.

ROT-13: Gurer ner frireny nfcrpgf bs gur cybg gung vaibyir yhpx – obgu tbbq naq onq (qrcraqvat ba jurgure lbh ner Wbanguna be bhe xvyyre). Sbe vafgnapr, gur qebccvat bs gur svatreanvy vf rabezbhfyl hayhpxl sbe gur xvyyre naq vf gur bayl yvax Wbanguna unf orgjrra gur gjb ybpngvbaf. Fvzvyneyl, gur xvyyre unf n fgebxr bs yhpx va svaqvat bar bs gur srj crbcyr jub pna rkcynva gur xvyyvat zrgubq hfrq nyy gubfr lrnef ntb gubhtu V fhccbfr gung vf nppbhagrq sbe va gurve univat orra vaibyirq onpx gura.

With the exception of these small issues, I found Mother Redcap to be another strong entry in what I still regard as the show’s best season. I think it is very atmospheric, close to perfectly paced, features a strong secondary mystery and it does a fine job of integrating the comedic subplot into the main storyline so that they complement each other.

Both of the cases are clever and explained quite effectively. Indeed – I think I appreciate how well constructed this story is all the more on repeat viewing as I noticed some of the small details (ROT-13: Gur jnl bhe xvyyre vf njner bs gur gvzr gung gur nynez jvyy tb bss naq gvzrf gurve npgvbaf gb or ba gur fprar juvyr qrynlvat gur bgure cbyvpr gb znxr fher ab bar bofreirf gur fgnoovat).

The Man with the Black Cord by Auguste Groner, translated by Grace Isabel Colbron

Book Details

Originally published in 1908 as Die schwarze Schnur, English translation published in 1911.
Part of the Detective Muller series.

Author originally credited as Augusta Groner on English language translation.

The English language translation of this work is in the Public Domain and a digitized copy is available through Hathi Trust.

Plot Summary

A rich man disappears from within a suite of rooms that have been locked from the inside and no trace of him can be found except a half-melted candle and a short but cryptic note. The windows are barred and there are no secret passages into the room, stumping the police.

Frontispiece by Phil Sawyer from 1911 Duffield and Co. edition

The Verdict

Not exactly what I expected or hoped for but this adventure story is still quite readable, if a little slow.


My Thoughts

During the Summer I decided that my crime and mystery reference library needed some further development. To that end I purchased a number of reference books and guides including the recent Locked Room International reissue of Bob Adey’s Locked Room Murders (and Brian Skupin’s Locked Room Murders Supplement). I have made scant use of these tomes so far, perhaps because I have not read as many impossible crime stories as usual since purchasing them, but I found myself browsing them for ideas earlier this week as I tried to find inspiration for my next locked room read.

The Man with the Black Cord jumped out at me for a number of reasons. I was intrigued by its premise of a man disappearing from within a locked room, the nationality of its author (I had yet to review an Austrian crime novel) and its year of publication. Perhaps most of all though I was interested to discover that I seemed to be unable to find a review of the book on any of my favorite impossible crime speciality blogs. Always keen to fill in some of the blanks, I decided to track down a copy to see whether I had uncovered some lost classic.

Leopold Erlach is the miserly owner of the Green House, a small but imposing mansion in Austria. He lives alone in the house except for his housekeeper but maintains a rigid routine. When he fails to arrive for breakfast his housekeeper is worried and after waiting a short while, investigates only to find his bedroom door and study locked from the inside and no response from within. With the assistance of a locksmith they are able to enter the rooms but find them empty except for a half-burned candle on a desk near the barred window and an open work of ancient history with three words from the text underlined: He – was – here.

Leopold has only one close relative – Lt. Paul Erlach who lives in Vienna. While Paul will inherit the estate, it will take thirty years unless a body is found. That does not prevent him receiving a suggestive letter pointing out his good fortune which he takes to the police. Having reached a dead end, they suggest he hire Joseph Muller, a former policeman turned private investigator, to see if he can discover what has happened to Uncle Leopold.

I think the opening chapters to this book are very effective. Groner lays out the circumstances leading up to the discovery of the disappearance well and does a pretty good job of covering the different ways that the room was secure, although I was not clear on how they were certain that the room had been locked from the inside until the detective summarizes everything at the end (for the record: the only set of keys are inside the locked room).

I also enjoyed the chapter in which Muller is approached to accept the case. We quickly learn that he is both diligent and highly observant as well as seeing that he has some strong people skills, reassuring reluctant witnesses to share what they know. We also learn of his softness and empathy – traits that made it impossible for him to work within the stricter notions of justice pursued by the police force. The result is a character that combines the professional know-how of the formally-trained detective with the informality of the amateur detective. I liked Muller a lot and I would not object to trying other stories featuring the character in the future.

Unfortunately having established an interesting scenario in the first few chapters, the book then headed in a direction that I had not expected. Much of what follows plays out in the style of an adventure or thriller, albeit quite a gentle one, and there is next to no consideration of the locked room puzzle at all. In fact, I can only think of one sequence prior to the explanation in which the matter is looked at or discussed in any detail meaning that there is little sense of discovery. This was a disappointment given the impossibility was the aspect of the story that drew me to it.

I think that the explanation as to what happened seemed to make sense, although I am not sure that every aspect of the room was described in enough detail that the reader could recognize how it might work. I did guess it, though I think that was based on the relative simplicity of the crime scene and having encountered variations on this idea elsewhere. It is a solid, if pretty simple, early example of a locked room story. Just be aware that it does not feature much in the body of the work to avoid disappointment.

The bigger issue for me in the midsection of the novel was its pacing which struck me as quite slow. While I appreciated the way this part of the book seems to increase the scope and scale of the story, I felt that this section of the book lacked the sense of discovery found in the first few chapters of the investigation while I also felt that the decision to have Muller adopt a false identity to go undercover came a little too early for me, coming before I felt I really knew him fully.

The final few chapters of the novel are much tighter and contain much of the explanation of what took place. The clues are generally quite well distributed even if a very small number of physical attributes of the room in which the disappearance occurred could have been more thoroughly described. In most other respects however I think that the ending answered most of my questions and provided a solid explanation for the strange events.

Sadly The Man with the Black Cord was not the forgotten masterpiece I had hoped it would be but that does not mean it is without merit, particularly given the age of the work. The Austrian setting is interesting, as is the central problem at the heart of the story. If you come to this expecting a slower pace of storytelling along with the occasional sensational plot development, you probably won’t be disappointed.

Jonathan Creek: The Problems at Gallows Gate – Parts 1 & 2 (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast February 14 and 21, 1998

Season Two, Episodes Four and Five
Preceded by The Scented Room
Followed by Mother Redcap

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Keith Washington

Key Guest Cast

Clarke Peters plays the supposedly blind pianist Hewie Harper. Since filming this episode Peters has appeared in several crime-themed productions including the recent Partners in Crime adaptation, The Wire and season two of The Tunnel.

Perhaps the most famous face though in the production is Amanda Holden. She is probably best known now for her role as a judge on Britain’s Got Talent and, as an actress, for her role in Cutting It. Genre fans may also be familiar with her from the Marple episode What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw.

The Verdict

Heavily padded to make it a two-part story and easily my least favorite case up to this point in the show’s run.


Plot Summary

The story begins with a large party that takes place at a country house. Birthday boy Duncan greets Felicity, a late arrival, who gives him a gift. Later that night Duncan enters Felicity’s bedroom where he finds her in bed with his friend Neville. She tells him to get over her rejection of him but instead he walks towards the balcony, climbs on the stone fencing and jumps. His friends rush to the balcony where they see him lying bloodied on the ground below and when an ambulance is called he is pronounced dead and buried.

Later Felicity is found murdered in her cottage by Adam Klaus’ sister Kitty who was in the area along with Jonathan and Maddy. When she speaks to the police the man she describes a man exactly matching Duncan’s description as the murderer – something that clearly should be impossible.


My Thoughts

In my previous post about Jonathan Creek I shared my belief that the first three episodes of the second series represent the strongest run of episodes that the show ever pulled off. I did hedge that praise a little however by noting that I may find I like some of the later episodes much more than I remember on revisiting them. I feel far more certain of my ground with this story however in saying that I think it is one of the poorest stories the show ever did.

There are a number of problems with this story but I think the problems begin with the decision to structure this story as a two-parter. That is not because the show cannot work in a feature-length format – I am pretty confident that I will be singing the praises of such a story relatively soon – but because this particular plot is not substantial enough to justify that extra time and, as a consequence, the two episodes feel heavily padded.

One indication of this is that Jonathan and Maddy are not introduced to the central storyline or its cast of characters until the very end of the first episode. Instead they are engaged in a secondary plotline in which Adam Klaus tries to persuade Jonathan to keep his sister Kitty occupied during her visit so she will not interfere with his dating life or from getting in the way of their attempts to recruit the supposedly blind pianist Hewie Harper to take part in their next big show.

Putting aside the question of whether this comedic material is successful or not for the moment, it seems utterly bizarre to spend an entire episode of a detective show without any actual detection taking place. Instead this first forty five minutes is a mix of setup and padding with all of the serious sleuthing restricted to the second part. A problem that is only exacerbated by the apparent simplicity of the case leaving me wondering why this story was envisaged as a two parter at all.

The best episodes of Jonathan Creek present us with an impossibility that is structured like a magic trick. Several of the earliest stories directly reference that, having Jonathan work with a little set to demonstrate the deception. To be really successful however the story must engage in some sort of sleight of hand. Each of the previous three stories does this to some extent, framing the crime in such a way that our attention can be drawn to the wrong elements. I feel that this impossibility misses the mark because there is really only a single logical way to pick apart what has happened.

The central impossibility here is a variation of the person being seen in two places at once, albeit one of the two places here is six feet underground. It is also rather reminiscent of the problem we saw just two episodes earlier in Time Waits For Norman which presented it with a much cleverer twist. The difference however is that in that story we have actual observation in two places at once – here the corpse clearly cannot be observed and the episode has already demonstrated that a burial can be faked courtesy of a sequence involving Adam Klaus. In short, we can be pretty confident that for Duncan death was not the end – the only questions that are left to solve is how the trick was worked and why.

The question of why feels really insubstantial, the reason seeming quite clear from what we observed in the first few scenes of the first part. The mechanism by which it was done is more complex but more mechanical than intellectual. While perfectly serviceable as a solution to this type of story, it is nowhere near unusual or complex enough to justify it being told as a two part story.

ROT 13: Nethnoyl guvf fvzcyvpvgl vf, vgfrys, n gevpx qrfvtarq gb yhyy gur ivrjre vagb guvaxvat gurzfryirf pyrire naq srryvat fngvfsvrq bapr gurl ernpu guvf fbyhgvba. Gung zvtug jbex rkprcg gung V guvax vg orpbzrf pyrne gbb rneyl va cneg gjb gung fbyivat gur vzcbffvovyvgl jvyy abg erfbyir fbzr bs gur bqqvgvrf bs gur pbggntr zheqre, znxvat vg pyrne gung jr ner ybbxvat sbe fbzrbar ryfr gb or gur xvyyre.

Which brings us to the content of the story’s padding: the supposedly blind musician and Adam’s sister Kitty. Sometimes a comedic plotline in an episode doesn’t work for me but it can be easily ignored – here we get so much of it, particularly in that first episode, that it feels like the focus. And unfortunately this episode’s material really doesn’t work for me.

Part of the reason for this is that the tone of some of that material feels really quite unpleasant – when Adam Klaus womanizes it is clear that while he may objectify the women he pursues, they are consenting. Hewie’s ‘accidental’ groping however is on another level and I found those scenes very uncomfortable to watch. This is, of course, intentional to some extent but I think the nature of the ‘punishment’ he receives struck me as neither satisfying nor particularly funny. Once again I do find myself wondering if this story, made again today, would handle this plotline quite differently (or, more likely, omit it altogether).

The Problems at Gallows Gate could have been a decent story. The problem is entirely one of its pacing – having an extra forty five minutes only gives the viewer more time to recognize the trick that is being pulled on them. Stripped of its secondary plots, I think this could have been a pretty entertaining forty five minutes of television. Unfortunately I found my viewing experience was defined heavily by the story’s padding and viewed in the context of the previous three episodes, each of which was much tighter, did it no favors at all.

Jonathan Creek: Time Waits for Norman (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast January 31, 1998

Season Two, Episode Two
Preceded by Danse Macabre
Followed by The Scented Room

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson

Key Guest Cast

Dermot Crowley who plays the time-obsessed Norman in this episode has been a recurring character on Luther since its first season playing Martin Schenk.

Deborah Grant who plays Norman’s wife played a recurring part in the long-running crime show Bergerac.

The Verdict

I have some issues with aspects of the conclusion but the explanation of what happened is clever.


My Thoughts

The second season of Jonathan Creek opened with a really strong impossible murder and continued in a similarly impressive vein with this story which is a version of the person seen in two places at once impossibility. The titular Norman is a time-obsessed man who is so concerned with the idea that it is being wasted that he insists that all of the clocks in their home have their hands removed. His working time is split between two offices – one in Britain and the other in the United States – and he has worked at both locations long enough that everyone knows him well.

Norman has just returned to his home in the UK when he and his wife Antonia receive a visit from an employee at a Wimpy Burger. That man produces Norman’s wallet and insists that he had dropped it the previous morning while eating a burger – something that would be out of character for him. The wallet is definitely his but Norman claims that the man is talking nonsense and when she calls her husband’s office in the US Antonia is told that he had been in a meeting at exactly that time. Not knowing how to explain it, Antonia reaches out to Maddy for advice and she, in turn, solicits Jonathan’s help.

One of the things that appeals to me most about this story is that it seeks to broaden the scope of the show’s impossibilities. Each episode of the first season had involved a murder, as had the opener to this second season, so it made for a nice change to be dealing with something odd rather than deadly. It makes for a nice change of pace and tone as those somewhat lower stakes allow for a little more of a focus to fall on the will-they, won’t-they relationship between Maddy and Jonathan.

Renwick’s script does a very good job of laying out the details of the sightings and establishing that the US office genuinely exists (although the rather odd accent that the first person Antonia speaks with may have you doubting that fact) and that multiple individuals remember Norman being at the meeting that day. With lying excised as a possibility, we know that the answer to what happened has to be something more inventive than simply “they lied”.

When we get that explanation it does mostly satisfy me, although like most tricks there is always a sense of deflation when you realize how easily it is worked. While this went over my head when I first saw it I think anyone who approaches it logically may very well be able to work out what happened from just my summary above. For once I think the more interesting question here is not how but why and I think the answer given to that feels broadly credible.

I am less convinced by the episode’s secondary plot which features Jonathan finding himself entangled in an uncomfortable relationship with a woman he feels unable to break up with. While I recognize its purpose in being used as a reason to provoke jealousy and explore Jonathan’s discomfort, the actual content of those scenes falls flat for me and fails to make me laugh – hardly ideal for a plotline whose main purpose is comedic. I would also add that I don’t think those scenes ever really do a good enough job of exploring how the woman feels about the way she is seen and treated which ought to be a consideration.

The other characters fare better however and I think the reason that this episode works is because of the characters of Norman and Antonia Strangerson. These characters not only have interesting backgrounds and personalities, you also understand how the mistrust between them has begun to simmer and why Maddy and Jonathan need to uncover the truth.

Does that mean I love the ending? Not at all. In fact I think that once we get past the explanation of what happened, the episode really struggles to put forward a clear idea of how the viewer should be feeling or reacting to what they have seen. While I think that there is something realistic and honest in its conclusion, there is also something quite unsatisfying about how the episode ends.

ROT13 (SPOILERS): Gur rcvfbqr frrzf gb or fhttrfgvat gung jr bhtug gb flzcnguvmr jvgu Abezna’f fgehttyr gb yrg tb bs uvf cnfg snzvyl naq gung ur vf trahvar va uvf ybir sbe Nagbavn lrg uvf fhttrfgvba gung ur vf thvygl bs jnagvat gb ybir gbb zhpu srry frys-freivat naq vtaber gur jnagf bs gur bgure gjb crbcyr (naq gur puvyq) gung ner nssrpgrq. Guvf nyy fgevxrf zr nf qrrcyl hafngvfsnpgbel naq yrnirf zr srryvat fbzrjung bhg bs fgrc jvgu gur gbar bs gur raqvat.

In spite of those complaints, I do appreciate the cleverness of the problem’s solution and I think both Crowley and Grant are excellent guest stars. Is it quite as good as I remembered? Well, no. But the clever ideas are really clever and make this one of the better Jonathan Creek adventures.

Jonathan Creek: Danse Macabre (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast January 24, 1998

Season Two, Episode One
Preceded by The House of Monkeys (Season One)
Followed by Time Waits for Norman

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson

Key Guest Cast

Peter Davison is one of the most familiar faces on British television first becoming known for his role in All Creatures Great and Small before replacing Tom Baker in Doctor Who. He has also been a frequent face in genre productions, memorably playing Margery Allingham’s Campion, Peter Lovesey’s DC Davies and making several appearances as Inspector Christmas in The Mrs Bradley Mysteries.

The Verdict

This story was one of my favorites on original broadcast and remains my go-to pick when I am wanting to revisit the show. Great concept, explained well.


My Thoughts

As much as I enjoyed revisiting the first season of Jonathan Creek, my strongest memories of the show lie in its second season. I remember several of the stories in this season quite vividly and, of those, none sticks in my memory more than Danse Macabre.

The episode begins with Maddy receiving a visit from Stephen Claithorne, a priest who wants her help to understand a strange event that took place at his home. His mother-in-law, the famous horror novelist Emma Lazarus, was visiting along with her husband and bodyguard and while he had to attend a meeting, the rest of the family took part in a fancy dress party. They return to the house where an intruder takes her husband’s skeleton costume and shoots Lazarus dead in her bedroom.

Her daughter Lorna runs to the bedroom where she is knocked unconscious. Caught by surprise as the household stirs, the disguised figure picks up Lorna and carries her to the garage where she uses her unconscious body as a human shield, closing the garage door as the police pull up and surround the building. When they open the garage door they find Lorna stirring but no sign of the skeleton figure at all. This begs the question – who was in the skeleton costume and how did they escape?

This central problem fascinated me at fourteen and even now, knowing the solution, I continue to find it very appealing. Certainly a big part of that lies in the horror trappings, both literal – as in the corny costumes the characters are wearing for the party – but also the idea of the home invasion and a vanishing act that seems to suggest the figure was a ghost or spirit. I think the real reason though that this continues to delight me is that when you revisit it with an awareness of the solution you can admire just how effectively the trick has been worked.

One of the things that struck me watching this again was that had I paused frequently and made notes, I could have solved several aspects of the case early on. In a sense the episode acknowledges this by having Jonathan solve many aspects of the question of how it was worked without him ever setting foot in the house. Assuming that the camera is not lying to us, we should have a pretty good idea of who is in that garage as it closes. The reason I think it works is that this action plays out with a considerable sense of pace, never really allowing the viewer the time to pause and think the problem through.

How clever is the solution to what happened in that garage? Well, I think it is rather ingenious and explained quite effectively. Like many impossibilities you can see how it could all have gone horribly wrong and yet you can also understand exactly how the vanishing was achieved and appreciate the audacity of the idea.

The episode even includes a second mysterious and rather gruesome mystery concerning the disappearance of something from within a coffin. Here I feel the episode perhaps leans into its horror theming a little too much, particularly given its somewhat hokey explanation, though it does add an additional layer of complication at a moment in the story where everything might otherwise seem to be getting a little clearer.

The performances from the guest cast are fine with Peter Davison standing out as Claithorne from the moment he first appears. He not only recounts the strange events well, he also has to serve a sort of moral role in this episode as the one figure who is definitely outside of the whole affair. While Claithorne is a rather dry individual, Davison does at least draw out a little humor in his reactions to the characters around him and injects a role that might otherwise have seemed quite flat with life.

In addition to the main mystery plot, Jonathan is having to deal with the demands of his irresponsible, egotistical boss. This is the story that brings Adam Klaus back, now played by Stuart Milligan, and I was struck by some of the differences in the portrayal compared with Anthony Stewart Head’s performance. Where Head came off as cocky and suave, Milligan shows him as rather more inept and bragadocious. Still a pig, certainly, but one we can count on usually ending up on bottom when difficult situations arise.

His storyline here makes for a solid reintroduction to the character and while his bedroom behavior is hardly unexpected, those elements of the story are executed pretty well. It is hard to imagine how he thinks he can get away with it all however and it is nice to see another character really put him on the ropes in an episode.

Overall I am happy to say that this first episode of Season Two lived up to both my expectations and my memory. The answer as to how the trick is worked is really quite clever and visually I still find this to be one of the most convincing stories in the series. Do I entirely buy the motivations for what happens? Probably not though I think that reflects the imagination of the crime itself which is, in my opinion, this case’s biggest draw and one of the reasons this remains one of my favorite episodes.

The Bride of Newgate by John Dickson Carr

Book Details

Originally published in 1950

The Blurb

To inherit her family fortune, beautiful Miss Caroline Ross must marry before her twenty-fifth birthday. But she has found only two breeds of husband: violent drunks and irresponsible dandies. To evade wedded agony, she chooses a spouse not long for this world—a convicted murderer with just a few hours left until his date with the hangman. But clever, cold-hearted Caroline does not yet realize it is her neck around which the noose is tightening and that she risks facing a life sentence far grimmer than one at Newgate jail.

The Verdict

Attempts to blend romance and mystery but does neither well.


My Thoughts

It was recently pointed out to me that it has been a while since I last read and reviewed anything by John Dickson Carr on this blog. A quick look back through my posts shows that it has been almost exactly a year since I shared thoughts on The Mad Hatter Mystery and I have added quite a few books to my library since then thanks to the Polygon, British Library Crime Classics and American Mystery Classics reprints.

Unfortunately I chose to overlook all of those other Carr titles I owned in favor of The Bride of Newgate.

The book is a historical mystery set in Georgian England. It opens with a young woman, Miss Caroline Ross, traveling to Newgate Prison to marry a convicted murderer about to be hanged. She is not seeking this marriage for love but rather to fulfil the terms of a will that requires her to marry by her next birthday to inherit a fortune. By marrying Dick Darwent, a condemned man, she hopes to get the fortune without losing her independence. Unfortunately for her Dick’s sentence will soon after be quashed and he will turn out to be a rather longer-term investment than she had presumed.

In the process of securing his release, we learn Dick’s own story which introduces us to the mystery elements of the story. We hear how he found himself blamed for a murder he did not commit after waking up in a room that subsequently vanishes and we follow as he attempts to find the real guilty party and bring them to justice.

The best bit about the book for me is its opening. While Caroline’s complaints about the idea of being married are clearly intended to read rather comically (and establish her as a Katherina-type), her scheme is rather novel and explained well. Similarly the reasons for how Dick comes to escape the noose, however far-fetched they may be, are also extremely easy to follow. Were this a straightforward romance story I could see this as being quite a promising starting point.

The problem is that Carr is writing a murder mystery and those elements of the story never feel quite so clearly explained or defined. There is a reason that the Open Road Media blurb quoted above makes absolutely no mention of the mystery elements of the story – they are much harder to describe consicely. There is a sort of impossibility, in terms of a crime scene that vanishes, and yet that too feels rather vague. The best aspect of it, the idea that the room could not have been disturbed because it is covered in cobwebs, is appealing as an idea and yet feels underutilized as the investigation gets underway.

Not that there is much of an investigation, at least in a structured way. The Bride of Newgate strikes me as a story cut in the adventure mold as there is a heavy focus on the idea of duelling. There are multiple duel scenes laced throughout the story, each featuring different adversaries and all of which left me quite cold. They are neither particularly thrilling, nor are they witty or interesting in some other way, particularly as they feel rather repetitive. Instead they just seem to get in the way of the mystery itself, distracting you from the puzzle that is presumably intended as the story’s focus.

Carr’s protagonist, Dick Darwent, is neither particularly interesting or relatable. While we may initially sympathize with him as having been convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, his aggression towards Caroline, herself not a sympathetic character, comes off as quite bitter and unpleasant. Particularly when he does things like threaten her with exercising his husbandly rights. Caroline’s own feelings in the matter are particularly confusing and I never felt I understood exactly why she was drawn to him.

As for the historical details, they’re fine. I appreciated the author’s note at the end in which Carr outlines his sources and it is clear that he enjoyed that aspect of putting together the novel. Some historical details are integrated well into the text, others have a tendency to feel like an author cramming that research onto the page somehow, but I did feel that there was an attempt to evoke a sense of time and place, albeit in a way that felt rather literary in style.

I will say that I appreciated that the details of Dick and Caroline’s respective backstories are quite specific to this period of time, meaning that this is an instance where a historical mystery’s plot arises out of the period rather than simply transposing a whodunnit onto a historical setting. Given that Carr is one of the earliest authors to play with the idea of writing a historical mystery, I think it is to his credit that he seems to be interested in the storytelling possibilities offered by setting his story in a different time rather than treating it as a novelty.

For all my complaints though, I do have to acknowledge that Carr does at least conclude his story quite tidily. The explanations given do pull all of the various threads of the story together and I was convinced that the trick, although quite a simple one, could have been managed. The problem was that by that point I was all too eager to be done with the book to care…

Sherlock Holmes and Chinese Junk Affair by Roy Templeman

Book Details

Originally published in 1998

The Blurb

In Sherlock Holmes and The Chinese Junk Affair, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are called upon once again to save Queen and Country. 

Upon receiving a card from Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, the duo are debriefed by the Prime Minister on an astounding fact: a man named Rodger Hardy claims to be able to transport matter from one place to another through electricity, in what he calls transposition.

As the threat of Hardy selling his discovery to other countries weighs on the Prime Minister, he enlists Holmes to find out whether such a feat is possible, and whether or not Britain has anything to worry about.

Can Sherlock solve what seems to be an unsolvable mystery in time, and help Britain?

This book also contains Sherlock Holmes and the Tick Tock Man and Sherlock Holmes and the Trophy Room.

The Verdict

A mediocre collection of stories featuring Holmes but little of his genius. The idea behind The Chinese Junk Affair, the most original of the three plots, is clever but it unfolds much too slowly.


My Thoughts

I had not expected to be writing about any of the many, many Holmes pastiches until I had completed rereading the original canon but a recent review of this title by Tomcat on Beneath the Stains of Time caught my eye. In that review Tomcat praised some of the ideas in the stories but suggests that the Holmesian elements hold those stories back.

As you will see in the thoughts that follow I have a lot of sympathy with that view. Indeed I think it is telling that the story I enjoyed most, Sherlock Holmes and the Trophy Room, is the one that reads least like Doyle in terms of the narration yet because of its question of motive and resolution it manages to feel closest in spirit. Each of the other two stories would have benefitted from being shorter and more tightly focused on finding the solution to their central problems.

Thoughts on the three stories contained follow:

Sherlock Holmes and the Chinese Junk Affair

A British government minister visits a friend from university who shows him that he is having a full-sized ocean-going wooden junk constructed in his home’s underground ballroom. The ship is much larger than any of the exits making it impossible to move the vessel once it is finished so the minister is puzzled why he is undertaking this strange project. He agrees to come back regularly to check on the progress.

On the day that the junk is completed, the minister visits to check its progress, dines with his friend and then they return to the ballroom only to find it has vanished. A short while later it is seen nearby on the river. The friend tells him that he has a method for transmitting matter that could revolutionize warfare. He is willing to sell it to Britain for a fee though he will keep the method secret until war comes, fearing that the technology could devastate a peacetime economy.

The minister is sent by the British government to consult with Sherlock Holmes to seek his opinion on whether the technology is real or if it represents some sort of trick.

One way that any pastiche will differ from the original works is that almost all are presented as historical pieces. While there are certainly some that incorporate elements of the supernatural or crossover with other literary universes, many works attempt to fit into our understanding of our own history. That means that when someone claims to have made a device that can transport a sailing vessel miles in a matter of seconds, we can dismiss the possibility that it really works. In other words, we can approach this story with certainty that the friend is performing some sort of confidence trick. The question is how the trick is worked.

The most impressive part of the story is the clarity of its central idea and of the circumstances in which the trick is worked. The image of the junk in the ballroom is a really striking one. Similarly, the passages in which the minister explains the situation are really very effective and do a good job of reassuring the reader that we are not looking at a secret door, false floor or removable ceiling.

Holmes’ explanation is clever and credible and the sequence in which he demonstrates how the trick was worked has a similar visual appeal. I was also struck by how satisfying the ending is in terms of its resolution. In other words, the basic structure of the plot is really quite solid.

So, why am I not in love with it? I think the problems begin with the lengthy investigation, most of which takes place in Watson’s absence. While that is practical in terms of streamlining the account, it leads to the investigation feeling strikingly sedentary. Holmes, it seems, does not really work out how it was done so much as figure out who he should ask to explain it. This is rather disappointing as it seems to diminish rather than reinforce his genius as a detective.

I was also rather disappointed in the presentation of its Chinese characters given at a few points in the story where Watson describes them as sounding like young children and moving like monkeys. While I recognize that these are intended to pastiche the attitudes found in Doyle’s own work, they are completely unnecessary to the story and so feel more like incidental affectation than an attempt to provide serious commentary or criticism of those attitudes.

Still, the case is the most intriguing of the three and a pretty solid example of an impossibility.

Sherlock Holmes and the Tick Tock Man

In which Holmes and Watson take a walking holiday, attend a church service and hear the story of the village’s German watchmaker who was found dead with a head wound. The old man supposedly was going to leave a small fortune to establish almshouses but when his home was searched no money could be found leading some to suspect that the watchmaker was robbed. That the watchmaker’s pet raven had escaped the home and would not return, repeatedly screaming a German word seems to confirm that idea for many of the village’s inhabitants.

This story is decidedly in the adventure mode, offering surprisingly little for Holmes to actually do. There is really just one clue that stands out and that can really only be interpreted in one way. We are left to follow Holmes as he connects those dots but given how elementary those connections are, I don’t think readers will feel particularly impressed.

Sherlock Holmes and the Trophy Room

The final story is also its shortest. Holmes receives a visit from a Viscount who recently returned from India with trophies including a collection of Japanese armor. He decides to house his collection in a building on his estate but is dismayed to find that a piece is stolen. This prompts him to establish an elaborate series of defences around the building including trip-wire activated shotguns, man traps and a flock of geese. Having once owned geese myself I can confirm that they are pretty loud and aggressive, making for excellent watchdogs. In spite of these precautions two further pieces are stolen raising the question of how this was done.

As setups go this is really rather interesting, particularly when the reader considers that the value of the armor is a fraction of that of pieces found within the main home itself. So far, so good.

Unlike the other two cases, here we get a small selection of suspects to consider. Holmes sets out to figure out how the trick was worked and why – two questions that are really equally important.

Unfortunately they are not equally interesting. The solution to why the crime was done is really rather good, being both clued pretty effectively and resolved in a way that feels authentic to many of the resolutions in other Holmes stories. The question of how it was managed however is rather underwhelming though it is explained quite logically.

Earlier I described the first case as the most intriguing of the three and I would obviously stand by that assessment but I will say that in spite of that I probably found this the most enjoyable of the three as a story. Its brevity is a big plus with little space feeling wasted and while its solution is a little too simple, I appreciated the question of the thief’s motives.