Hard Cheese by Ulf Durling, translated by Bertil Falk

Hard Cheese
Ulf Durling
Originally Published in 1971

A man is found dead with injuries to the back of his head in a locked room in a low-grade hotel. The owner of the hotel is adamant that no one could have entered the building during the night without his knowledge and the other residents seem to have been otherwise occupied yet there were three glasses set out in the man’s bedroom.

The book is broken into three unequal sections, each narrated by a different character. The first, narrated by Johan Lundgren who is a member of a crime fiction reading group is the most joyous. He tells us how the three members of the group go about taking the small amount of information they are given about the crime and start spinning fanciful theories about how it was done, all the while making little judgements and comments about the tropes of mystery fiction that will delight long-term readers of the genre.

I particularly enjoyed getting to know the three characters who made up the detective fiction club and seeing the ways they would interact with each other. These characters felt familiar to me and their excitement at encountering a puzzle like the ones they had read about in their own lives was rather infectious.

The second comes from the perspective of Gunnar, the policeman assigned to the case, and is pitched more in the PI mold. Where Johan span a solution in the Golden Age style, Gunnar seems set on a much simpler explanation and his investigation takes a different tack. Though less intellectual than that of the club members, he does uncover some interesting elements of the case and I enjoyed reading his thoughts about the three members of the club and their interference.

The final, shorter section comes from a third person and draws on elements of the other two investigations to present a solution. It is hard to go into much detail here, firstly because I want to avoid spoiling how the mystery is solved but also because this section is far more straightforward and less characterful than the two which preceded it. I did find it satisfying however and appreciated how well the solution is communicated.

This multiple narrative approach does mean that the book does feel a little disjointed though I enjoyed each part and saw the presentation to be an opportunity to comment on and pastiche two different forms of crime fiction, finding a middle ground with the last narrative. The book builds to a clever resolution of the mystery that struck me as being quite original.

But does it play fair? I have been struck in reading reviews of this how split reviewers are on this question. It is of course hard to answer without spoiling but in my opinion it meets the criteria of being fair because it does provide all of the information needed to successfully identify how the murder was achieved, even though it may require the reader to step away from the novel to piece everything together. I can see why some readers feel frustrated but I appreciated the tidiness and ingenuity of the method.

I think there might be more of a case to say that the novel isn’t playing fair with guessing the identity of the murderer and there I am less decided. All I can say is that I didn’t feel it was unfair when the revelation came although I was surprised by their identity.

I was a little less satisfied with the locked room aspect of the mystery and the relative simplicity of its solution. It did occur to me upon finishing the book that while I have really enjoyed several of the books I have read from Locked Room International, I have yet to actually find a book where the Locked Room aspect was really satisfying. If anyone has any recommendations I would be happy to entertain them!

Where Hard Cheese succeeded most for me was in its characters and its appealing structure. I found it to be frequently very funny and I thought Durling had some creative and interesting ideas. Unfortunately while Durling seems to have written quite a few mysteries following this, Hard Cheese is the only one currently available in English translation. Were more to appear though I would certainly want to give them a try.

Death Invites You by Paul Halter, translated by John Pugmire

Death Invites You
Paul Halter
Originally Published 1988
Dr Twist #2
Preceded by The Fourth Door
Followed by La mort derrière les rideaux

Death Invites You is my first encounter with the works of Paul Halter and I have to admit that I came to it with a certain nervousness. Halter seems to engender very strong and often quite divisive opinions in many of the bloggers whose reviews I follow with the some reviews loving some of his work while hating other stories. I just didn’t know what I was going to get.

I recently learned that a certain book subscription service had many of Halter’s novels available and I decided I’d give him a try. It turns out that my selection, Death Invites You, seems to be about as safe a choice for a first Halter as it’s possible to find. In fact, JJ recommends it as a first choice for new Halter readers while Brad entitled his review ‘Eureka! Found a Halter I Like’ which seems to say it all. All I can say is that I didn’t plan to play it safe when I made my selection…

Death Invites You is a locked room mystery in which a famous author is discovered in a locked room, bolted from the inside, sitting in front of a freshly prepared meal with his face and hands down on a hot pan that has badly burned them. There is also a bowl of water under a window. And, if that is not enough, it turns out that the body is not fresh but has been dead for over twenty-four hours while the tableau happens to mimic the setup for the murder in the author’s forthcoming book.

That already would seem like a lot of elements for a single case and do keep in mind that my summary doesn’t include any of the details that are revealed once the investigation really gets underway. This is a complicated crime with a number of developments that cause the detectives to reconsider their theories, keeping the reader guessing in spite of the book’s limited cast of suspects.

The investigation unfolds at a sharp pace with small revelations spread out throughout the novel and I was surprised when I realized that at the end of a sitting I was already two-thirds of the way through. I found that the book possessed a natural momentum that kept me going and that created a very effective sense of atmosphere. When I returned to pick it up the next day a little of the spell had been broken but I remain impressed and certainly think that few would guess that this was a work in translation.

As with many locked room stories the reader is required to accept the artificiality of the crime as well as a number of coincidences and unlikely events yet I felt that the solution was fair and logical. There were a few aspects of the killer’s plan and their actions later in the story that struck me at the time as being convoluted choices yet I felt that they made sense when considered from the murderer’s perspective and once you learn what they were intending to do.

Halter’s strong focus on developing the novel’s puzzles arguably comes at the expense of complex characterization but while it would be impossible to call Death Invites You a character-driven book, I do think that the characters work well within the context of the novel. In particular, I found the character of Henrietta, who is an artist, to be an interesting figure and I was entertained by Halter’s conceit of making the victim a mystery novelist whose work has fallen out of vogue. For the record, I failed to guess the identity of the murderer and was left kicking myself when they were revealed.

Contrary to my fears, I rather enjoyed my first taste of Paul Halter’s work although I am a little concerned that this may just mean that the novel is far from typical of his output. This story may not be the most outlandish or ingeniously plotted story ever written (in spite of beating me) but it was atmospheric and the scenario created is certainly imaginative and intriguing. I will definitely be trying out some more of his work soon.

The Moai Island Puzzle by Alice Arisugawa, translated by Ho-Ling Wong

The Moai Island Puzzle
Alice Arisugawa
Originally Published 1989

Three students from a university mystery club travel to an island where a cache of diamonds had been hidden several years before. Wooden moai statues were placed around the island, seemingly at random, and may be linked in some way to the location of the loot.

Alice intends to set his mind to solving this puzzle but before he and his friends can get to work a terrible storm strikes the island. After the storm passes, two bodies are found in a locked room and the group soon realizes that someone in their number is a killer.

The Moai Island Puzzle is a novel that I have been eagerly anticipating reading since it was published in translation last year by Locked Room International. The Moai statue element of the story appealed to my imagination and I will admit to being a sucker for stories where groups of people are stranded on an island together, slowly being picked off. Throw in a locked room and this really seemed to be my deal.

No doubt the word ‘seemed’ will have tipped you off that the novel did not quite match my sky high hopes for it, although I still had a very good time with it. Before I tackle the meat of the story I will say that I felt that the locked room element really was less of a factor in the story than it is built up to be by the blurb on the back cover. Those expecting Carrian ingenuity are more likely to be struck with incredulity about some aspects of the proposed solution and I certainly would not suggest reading the novel just for the locked room.

Nor was the Moai statue puzzle, or at least the part of it that the reader is capable of solving, so challenging that you could imagine it stumping these characters for as long as it does. It is certainly fun to work through though and I felt the section of the book dealing with solving the puzzle made for an enjoyable interlude from the murder mystery parts of the story.

These murders are in fact the meat of the story and here the book is on much more solid ground. Arisugawa crafts an intriguing adventure in which there does not seem to be anything approaching a solid motive for the killings and where our suspects all lack alibis and all had the capability of acquiring the means.

Towards the end of the story in Ellery Queen style, the author issues a challenge to the reader informing them that they have all of the information they need to deduce the killer. I was stumped and, upon reading the solution, really quite impressed by the meticulous reasoning of the sleuth and how neatly everything fit together. I felt it played fair and although I had to reread a couple of points to make sure I was grasping the reasoning, I thought it made excellent sense.

So, if I was entertained by the Moai puzzle and thought the solution to the murders was quite good, why was I also a little underwhelmed?

I think a large part of the answer to that lies in the question of style and here I will fully acknowledge that what may not have worked for me could be entirely your cup of tea! While I found the mystery itself interesting, the manner in which we go through characters’ movements and try to pin down the details of each crime felt dry and became quite tedious to work through. As the crimes mount up, this process seems to become more and more repetitive.

The other significant issue is that Alice is just not a particularly dynamic protagonist. The part of his story that I was most interested in, his relationship with Maria, is barely broached except to be met by immediate denials.

Though not perfect, I think if you are able to look past its sometimes dull protagonist and investigative procedure, there is some excellent material here. While I was not wowed by this book the way I was when I finally put down the excellent Decagon House Murder, I did find this quite enjoyable in parts.

The Problem of the Green Capsule by John Dickson Carr

The Green Capsule (aka. The Black Spectacles)
John Dickson Carr
Originally Published 1939
Dr. Gideon Fell #10
Preceded by To Wake the Dead
Followed by The Problem of the Wire Cage

The Problem of the Green Capsule is the first book I have read by John Dickson Carr although it is not my first encounter with the character of Dr. Gideon Fell. Recently I had listened to the BBC Radio adaptations of several Carr stories in which the role of the famed amateur sleuth was played by Donald Sinden.

Going from adaptation to the original source material was an interesting experience and it’s usually one I try to avoid. Not because I believe that the book is always better but because once you hear or see a character performed it can be hard to see the character as originally envisaged. It was certainly hard not to hear Sinden’s voice in each of Fell’s pronouncements and interjections though I think that may just reflect that he was well cast in that role.

Having enjoyed the character I was keen to explore him further and so I set about finding one of the Carr stories and quickly settled on this one based on its rather striking premise. The crime here is quite audacious and certainly captures the imagination.

When the story begins there has already been a murder that apparently involved poison being placed in chocolates that were sold in a confectionery and tobacconists shop. No one can quite figure out how this was done yet Dr. Marcus Chesney has an idea and, after lecturing his family on how eyewitness accounts are unreliable, he decides to stage a theatrical production to prove his point.

Inevitably the fake murder ends up becoming the real thing. When the police arrive they soon realize that the only viable suspects were all in the audience and are able to give each other alibis. At about the halfway point in the narrative Dr. Fell is called in and begins to review the evidence to find the way the seemingly impossible murder was carried out.

Part of the reason I found this mystery so impressive is that it has such a small set of possible suspects to work with and the scenario is so well constructed that suspicion is able to fall equally of each of those characters.

The solution as to how this particular crime was worked is quite ingenious while playing quite fair with the reader. While I did not manage to identify every element of how the trick was worked, when the explanation is given I could see exactly where I went wrong in how I was looking at the case and how I fell for a red herring.

Though the characters are generally pretty solid, one aspect of the story that didn’t quite work for me was the police detective’s attraction to one of the characters involved in the murder. While I certainly don’t mind romantic elements in a story, I am not sure that their inclusion did much to advance a theme or complicate the investigation.

As for Fell himself, I found the character to be thoroughly entertaining. Carr holds back his entrance to the midpoint of the novel, essentially enabling him to seem all the more brilliant when he arrives and starts to deduce some of the mechanics of how the crime was achieved. He is a methodical and practical character and while he will occasionally make a short jump of reasoning, those moments generally feel credible.

Overall I think I picked a good story to start with and I certainly plan to continue dipping into these stories and some of Carr’s other works. Highly recommended.

Do you have any suggestions for which Carr works I should seek out next? I’m considering starting at the beginning with Hag’s Nook but I’m willing to be persuaded into trying something else…