The Demon of Dartmoor by Paul Halter, translated by John Pugmire

Demon
The Demon of Dartmoor
Paul Halter
Originally Published 1993
Dr. Twist #7
Preceded by The Seventh Hypothesis
Followed by À 139 pas de la mort

Back when I posted my review of the first Halter I had read, Death Invites You, I received a number of excellent suggestions of what I should try next. I took them to heart, put them all on my wishlist, and promptly picked a book nobody had mentioned. Fortunately I loved it but for my third pick I went back to those suggestions and picked a book most people seemed to love – The Demon of Dartmoor.

Have you ever read a book where there’s a little detail that just seems to bother you based on some personal knowledge you have? Well, naming a house in Devon Trerice Manor is exactly that sort of thing. The word is a Cornish one meaning a farm or estate owned by Rhys. Every time I read it, the detail just seemed wrong to me and pulled me a little out of the book. It isn’t a big enough deal that I think it affects my overall reading of the novel but it’s there somewhere in the background.

The good news is that beyond that detail, I found a lot to like here. Halter crafts an interesting and engaging story that is rich on detail. This is a mystery that seems to be grounded in a sense of the community in which it takes place and I appreciated the idea of the Moor as an almost mythic location, reminding me of the role it has played in other adventures. Parts of this book even draw on real local myths such as the Headless Horseman so kudos to Halter for pulling those elements into his story.

As with The Madman’s Room, there are crimes here that occur in the present and in the past and they may, or may not, be linked in some way. Early in the novel we learn about the deaths of three young women on the moor over the space of a few years, each apparently thrown from the rock by some invisible force. These bodies were carried off downstream and were only discovered days later but the locals seem to believe that a demonic force was responsible and have connected these events to an even earlier death where a young woman is seen to have been thrown down the stairs of Trerice Manor (!) by an invisible person.

When a newly married actor and his wife visit the area, he is inspired to create a comedic play loosely based on the idea that a man can make himself invisible and, several years later, he has bought the Manor house and renovated it. He takes his wife to the house and his producer and his mistress, who co-stars with him in his play, to stay with for the weekend. Ill-feeling seems to grow among the small party over that weekend so when history repeats itself and the actor seems to be flung from the window to his death we might assume that one of his guests or a local was responsible. The problem for the Police is that the scene is viewed by multiple witnesses, each of whom say no one was near the actor when he fell.

I thought this was a truly excellent impossible crime and while I quickly developed a theory for what may have happened, it turned out to be completely incorrect. In fact none of my ideas came close to the actual explanation of the crime so I was delighted that the solution to this murder was relatively simple and, to my mind, fairly credible on a technical level.

I was a little less certain whether this was actually a clever method for the murderer to employ given the number of things that might have gone wrong. Twist, in his explanation, does pay lip service to the possibility that the murderer had considered what would happen if they were not entirely successful but I am not convinced this was the safest way for that person to achieve their goal.  I can’t say more without spoiling.

I was even more impressed with the explanation given for the oldest of the historical crimes. Twist’s reasoning is solid both psychologically and mechanically and I love that Halter is able to tuck a second, well-constructed crime around his main one and make it rich and satisfying in just a handful of pages.

The other three crimes? Well, here I think the novel is at its weakest as while these murders add plenty of atmosphere the methods utilized by the killer or killers are something of a stretch. I did appreciate the way they strengthened the main mystery however and built up that sense of a local myth that has built up around these tragic deaths.

In addition to its rich setting, I also feel that this book features much stronger character development than in either of the other two Halters I have read. John Pugmire’s translation is also particularly strong and helps build on that sense of atmosphere to make this a really engaging story.

While I think that the crime in The Madman’s Room is a more intricate and clever impossible crime, this is the most satisfying Halter I have read to date and I look forward to continuing to work through his sizeable back catalog this year.

Too Many Magicians by Randall Garrett

TooManyMagicians
Too Many Magicians
Randall Garrett
Originally Published 1966
Lord Darcy #2
Preceded by Murder and Magic
Followed by Lord Darcy Investigates

I first learned about Too Many Magicians when I was reading about a list of Locked Room mysteries that Ed Hoch and eight other enthusiasts had collaborated to produce in 1981 (you can read the list and a short history of how it came to be in this MysteryFile article by John Pugmire). The novel came joint-fourteenth in their rankings and its fantasy cover and title seemed to mark it out as being a little bit different from all of the other titles on the list.

Too Many Magicians is, in addition to being a locked room mystery, also a fantasy novel. It is set in the modern-day but in an alternate history in which the Plantagenet kings continue to rule an Anglo-French empire. In this universe magic exists and is pursued as a science, its use is broadly accepted, providing that the user does not perform destructive black magics. The country has a rivalry with Poland and those tensions form an important part of the background to this story.

The magical system that Garrett devises is interesting and complicated, being governed by the same sorts of laws that you would see in a science. I really enjoyed reading about the way magic is used in this world and its limitations but if this isn’t your sort of thing be aware that this is all background. While magic is used at points within the investigation to provide information, the crime itself is a traditional mystery with a physical explanation that can be worked out logically based on facts that the author establishes.

Garrett had begun writing short stories featuring his investigator Lord Darcy, Chief Forensic Investigator for the Duke of Normandy, in 1964 but Too Many Magicians was his only novel to feature the character. It was published in installments by Analog Magazine in 1966 before being collected into a single volume for publication in 1967. Darcy is not a magical user himself but is assisted by the Irish magician Master Sean O’Lochlainn. While this is not the first Darcy story, it is designed to give us the information we will need to understand this world and characters’ relationships to each other.

The novel opens at a Wizarding convention which Master Sean is attending to deliver an academic paper. After it is learned that he and a rival sorcerer, Sir James Zwinge, are both working on substantially similar material, the convention organizers ask them to consolidate their papers for presentation together. When Zwinge misses their appointment Sean goes to his room to discover the door locked with an enchantment by Sir James and his rival is heard calling out for help from within. By the time that they gain access to the room they discover that he is dead, murdered by a knife wound to the chest.

As I noted earlier, magic is not utilized to commit the crime but we quickly encounter a few magical considerations in our understanding of the scene. The door has been locked with an enchantment by Sir James. Only a particular key, which he possesses, can be used to gain access to the room through the door. And while levitation and unlocking spells might be performed on the windows, this process would take a number of minutes, be incredibly complicated and dangerous even for a master magician and would have had to have been enacted in the full view of the magicians gathered in the courtyard below. In short, the magic only reinforces just how locked this room is.

Darcy’s involvement in this case is initially to clear his assistant’s name when he is arrested for murder based on his rivalry and his proximity to the murder. Soon he is invited to meet with the King and is given background about the crime and how it may be related to another murder. Darcy is to find out who committed the murders and how Sir James was killed.

Arguably Darcy himself is one of the least interesting things about this book, though I think this is perhaps appropriate given the complexities of the world Garrett creates and the rules that govern it. We learn relatively little about him as a person, his tastes or background, and so we engage with him almost exclusively through his professional abilities which are considerable. One thing that is clear however is that while Darcy is not a magical user himself, he possesses a strong knowledge of the laws and mechanics of how magic operates.

The question of how the murder was accomplished is, I feel, more interesting than the one of who committed them. While I think that seasoned mystery readers will pick up on some suspicious behavior from a character, learning how they managed to commit this murder in a magically sealed space is both more complex and much more satisfying.

There are some thrilling moments on the way to that resolution, in particular a sword fight that takes place on a bridge that I felt was really effectively written to draw the reader into the action and which made good use of some elements of magic. I also found the sequences in which Darcy and Sean analyse the crime scene to be particularly interesting and I felt that they both approached it in logical, clear ways and explored a variety of possible approaches well enough to discount other solutions to the crime.

Whether you are normally a fantasy reader or not, I think Too Many Magicians is an engaging and interesting read and a great example of the locked room mystery form. The solution is quite ingenious and I really enjoyed the way the investigation is developed. I plan on seeking out the Lord Darcy short story collections to experience some of the character’s other cases soon.

The Patricide by Kim Ekemar

Patricide
The Patricide
Kim Ekemar
Originally Published 2016

Given how few modern mystery writers tackle the Locked Room form, when I learned about The Patricide (and after trying the sample on Amazon) I was excited to give it a go.

The story concerns the Lafarge family and their estate in the French countryside. The father, Patrice, is concerned that after his death his children will seek to monetize every aspect of their lands, destroying their natural beauty, so he has determined that he will alter his will to create a trust that will bind their actions after his death. His children have long since moved away, to his considerable disappointment, and so he decides to request they all return home for his seventy-fifth birthday so he can share the news.

His children are naturally resentful of this change of plans and, when Patrice refuses to confirm that he has already taken the steps necessary to set up the trust his death seems inevitable. The question is how will it be managed and who will be responsible?

Well, as I noted at the top we are in locked room territory here. In the early hours of the morning following the birthday party, his daughter Constance wakes her siblings to tell them there is smoke coming from their father’s bedroom. They try the door to discover it is locked, forcing the group to break open the window and open the door from the inside. When they do they discover that Patrice died of asphyxiation but there is some further mystery about how the fire started and spread when almost all of the room is made of stone.

The mystery falls into the hands of the unimaginative Inspector Rimbaud who initially has little interest in the conflicts that may have existed between the children and their father but that changes when the coroner informs him that there is clear evidence of murder. At frequent points in his investigation he meets for dinner with his Aunt Emelie who had taught the Lafarge children and they discuss the case and her insights into the children’s characters while he devours the rustic feasts she prepares for him.

Aunt Emelie and Rimbaud make for a wonderful double-act and I really enjoyed reading these passages. Though Rimbaud may be doing all of the leg work and acting in an official capacity, Emelie is able to steer his actions through suggestion and does have some real, credible insight into the participants in the mystery.

One particularly fun aspect of these sequences is that at each dinner Rimbaud will advance a theory about a different family member’s guilt based on the evidence that demonstrates how the murder was achieved, a fire set some hours later and the room was locked. Each is convincing, well thought-through and plausible in the way they address the issue of timing yet clearly they cannot all be correct.

While the seasoned locked room reader will take note of some clues to quickly set on the identity of the killer, possibly even having some idea of how the murder was done, I think the details of the method are clever and original. In this sense I felt the book did keep me engaged until the end.

Ekemar has a pleasing and engaging writing style and does an excellent job of establishing and building up his characters. The characters of each of the children are quite intriguing and he takes the trouble to build them detailed personal lives that will provide motives for murder. I enjoyed learning about each of them and their secrets. In one of my favorite subplots, we see two of the characters’ secret personal lives collide while the siblings are at their family home, unaware of this development. Though I felt the payoff to this moment was a little smaller than I had hoped, I did enjoy those scenes enormously.

While those hoping for a Carrian complication to the story may be a little disappointed, I think that the simplicity of this crime is one of the novel’s virtues and appreciated that the book does not outstay its welcome. The solution is wonderfully fair, with all of the necessary elements clearly established beforehand, and it is easy to follow.

The Patricide is a very cleverly constructed locked room mystery and though the identity of the killer may not be too challenging for fans of the subgenre, I appreciated the challenge of figuring out just how it was done.

Tricks of the Trade by Euan B Pollock

TricksoftheTrade3
Tricks of the Trade
Euan B. Pollock
Originally Published 2018
Dakar and Scott #1
Followed by The Price to Pay

Tricks of the Trade begins with an investigation, not to find a killer but to confirm a cause of a death.

Major Robertson died leaving behind a sizeable estate yet his will contained an unusual condition. On his death his estate would be split amongst his family unless he was found to have committed suicide in which case his estate would be given away to charity.

The Major was found dead in his bath following a family party, his wrists slit and with a note stating “I can’t live without him”. The room was locked from inside. And just months earlier the Major’s wife had also committed suicide.

With an inheritance on the line, the family have asked a legal firm to arrange for Sebastian Dakar to investigate whether the initial police verdict of suicide can be challenged. Trainee lawyer Stewart Scott has been assigned by the firm to accompany Dakar as he conducts his investigation.

Dakar is a practising Zen master of international reputation and seems to be an unlikely figure to serve as a sleuth. Initially he appears quite enigmatic, though very amiable, and while his respectful, thoughtful questioning style gave the investigation an interesting and unusual pace I found it a little hard to understand why he would be sought out and willing to serve in this capacity in an investigation.

As it happens there are answers forthcoming and I will say that I think the explanation did adequately account for both his technique and why he has become the person that he is at the point we encounter him. I did wish though that it had come a little earlier in the narrative as I felt a little distracted by the question up until that point. In spite of this I found Dakar to be a fundamentally likeable figure and I felt it was credible that he had the skills to dedue the solution to this case.

Stewart is our point of entry both to the case and also to Dakar. The novel is written in the third person, the narration tending to follow his perspective and echo his voice. While I would have preferred to have a little less of Stewart’s personality in the narration, this allows us to see Dakar from a distance and with a degree of cynicism about his methods which does work quite well to make the sleuth seem almost as mysterious as the case he is endeavoring to solve.

I found Stewart a harder to like than Dakar, though he is certainly a recognizable type. Stewart is introduced as grouchy, profane and having an unrequited attraction for one of his flatmates in the earliest chapters. He becomes livelier once the investigation gets underway however and I enjoyed the sequences where he begins to build his confidence and carries out a little questioning of his own. Though I could not get excited about the idea of a romance between Stewart and Beth, I did appreciate the way that thread of the story is resolved towards the end of the novel and that we see his experiences with Dakar have a positive effect on him.

The case itself is an intriguing one though I would caution those getting excited at the phrase Locked Room up above that the question of how this murder is accomplished is the least interesting thing about the case. Rather our primary focus will be on figuring out what in the evidence will prove that this is a murder rather than a suicide and determining who has a motive.

The idea of focusing an investigation on whether a crime has taken place at all is an interesting one though I think it has a clear problem that the author has to resolve. Namely that the outcome is implied by it forming the basis of a novel at all. After all, if this is suicide then the ending is bound to feel a little anticlimactic. Inferring that a murder has taken place is one thing, proving it is a much harder affair and I felt Dakar’s explanation for how he reached his conclusions were quite cunning and logically thought out.

The issue of motive however is the most interesting question of the book. If we assume that it is murder, why disguise it as a suicide when that means you will be disinherited? It’s a clever question and I was surprised when Dakar came to sum up his findings that I had overlooked quite a few subtle clues along the way that were there in plain sight.

In conclusion, though I struggled a little with the characterization of Stewart and the way his personality bled into the narration, I appreciated the carefully constructed plot and clues. When the explanations were given at the end I felt equally satisfied and frustrated with myself for not piecing the solution together – this is always a good feeling when you are done with a mystery!

I am not sure about is whether this book is intended to be a standalone or the first in a series featuring one or other (or perhaps both) characters. The ending certainly seems to be fairly neat for one of the pair and I would imagine that the mechanics of bringing the pair together again might prove difficult. Dakar is an interesting creation though and while I think it might be challenging to credibly use him as a recurring sleuth, his more laid back, congenial style and positive outlook is refreshing and different.

Should he return, I would be intrigued to see where Pollock takes him next.

I received an advance reader copy but purchased a copy of the book prior to review.

The Problem of the Wire Cage by John Dickson Carr

WireCage
The Problem of the Wire Cage
John Dickson Carr
Originally Published 1939
Dr. Gideon Fell #11
Preceded by The Problem of the Green Capsule
Followed by The Man Who Could Not Shudder

I am really looking forward to this Saturday.

A couple of months ago JJ announced that he and Ben would be reading The Problem of the Wire Cage for an in-depth, spoiler-filled discussion. This weekend it should be going live and I am really interested to hear what each made of it.

The novel concerns a seemingly impossible murder taking place on a clay tennis court. Frank is a rather odious young man who seems destined to marry Brenda. Doing so will meet the terms of a will which would make the pair tremendously wealthy. Unfortunately young lawyer Hugh is in love with Brenda and is seeking to convince her to abandon talk of an engagement to be with him instead.

There is plenty more background but let’s skip ahead to the details of the impossibility. After a doubles game of tennis the players go their separate ways but Hugh returns later that night to find the court open and, on investigating, finds that Frank is dead, strangled by his own scarf, on the court while Brenda is nearby. Her footprints are the only ones other than the victim’s on the clay yet she insists that he was already dead when she ran to investigate his body. In other words, we have a dead body on a surface that would show footprints yet, if we believe Brenda, there are no signs that anyone else stepped foot on the court.

Much of what follows seems absolutely tailored to my taste, not because this is actually an inverted crime but because structurally it plays out similarly. If Brenda and Hugh did not have committed the crime, the natural evidence of the scene points squarely at their culpability and so they try to manage the evidence and stage the crime scene. While we will see the Police investigation at work and hear some of the deliberations, most of those moments take place from their perspective.

This sequence of the book is not only entertaining, I felt it was really very cleverly constructed. The pair works under considerable pressure to explain themselves, particularly once a character notices one of the things they are up to, and they find themselves needing to make decisions in the moment that they will then need to weave together into a convincing story. They do so incredibly well, casting evidence in a different light. When they realize that another person will be blamed for the murder based on the facts they have suggested they must conduct their own shadow investigation to confirm that those facts are accurate.

In short, what we have here is a case of two groups of characters responding to these events. The actions of the first group are to minimize their own involvement while seeking to find the real culprit (assuming it is not one of them). In doing so however they present the second group with a tampered field of evidence. This not only produces some wonderful tension and a few glorious comedic moments such as the tennis net testing sequence, the need to find a way to the real murderer that might fit with the tampered evidence is itself an intriguingly different take on the mystery story.

In addition to its strong structure, I also appreciated the characterization in these early chapters. There is no doubt that Frank is a pretty unpleasant guy and would make a poor match for Brenda. Given we share Hugh’s perspective as he comes across the body we can dismiss him from consideration yet I think Carr does a wonderful job of making Brenda someone we can believe and yet still harbor some doubts about. Not to mention the handful of other suspects we may consider. For what it’s worth, I settled on the wrong person far too early and was so certain that I was right I overlooked a little evidence that should have pushed me in a different direction.

The question of how the murder was carried out is even more important to the story than the identity of the killer. Here I think the ground becomes a little shakier because, as Puzzle Doctor points out, the method utilized requires us to accept an unusual level of stupidity on the part of the victim. While Carr attempts to convince us with a little harrumphing from Fell that we ought to consider the sequence of events credible because of the personalities of the people involved, I struggled a little with believing that although I did appreciate the mechanical cleverness of the solution.

On the other hand, things take an unfortunate turn in the final third of the novel with the introduction of a half-baked secondary murder that feels both insufficiently clued and explained. While I would agree with some who say that this part of the novel feels clumsily grafted on to the plot, the bigger problem to me is that the method by which the victim is despatched feels ludicrously unlikely and dramatic. I simply could not buy that the person who performed the killing would have conceived of or executed that plan, nor did I feel that the solution to it was fairly clued. In short, this whole sequence derails an otherwise tight, if extremely contrived, crime with little benefit beyond boosting the page count.

Finally I should mention the role, or rather the lack of one, provided for Dr. Fell. I have read some comments that the character really is treated as an afterthought here and that Hugh is intended to be the real sleuth. While I acknowledge that the character’s role is certainly limited, I strongly disagree with the inference. In my opinion, Fell is given a limited role because he is there to explain the impossibility and he gives instant credibility to that solution. I believe his limited role reflects that the impossibility, while serving as the hook for the novel, is not actually the author’s focus.

It seems to me that Carr’s interest here lies in playing with the manipulation of the crime scene and how those manipulations affect the police investigation. Fell cannot be the focus because we have to believe that he can see through Hugh and Brenda’s actions and so he falls into the background while the less rigorous Hadley takes the lead. In short, I think if Carr had made Fell a greater focus in the novel then it would have either made Hugh and Brenda’s initial successes unbelievable or been to the long-term detriment of the sleuth’s character.

So, where does that leave me overall?

I found The Problem of the Wire Cage to be a highly enjoyable read in spite of the flaws in its final third. There are some good ideas here but, more importantly for me, the characterization really sells the story and its structure. Carr provides us with some wonderful moments, some of them funny like Hugh’s conversation with his father, while there is a rather special surprise reveal at the end of Chapter Eleven that really came out of the blue for me.

Unfortunately I cannot judge the novel against Carr’s other works – I have read far too little, though I hope to rectify that in the next few months – but I think it is of interest in its own right and I look forward to reading what others made of it over the next few days.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by strangulation (How)

The Medbury Fort Murder by George Limnelius

Medbury
The Medbury Fort Murder
George Limnelius
Originally Published 1929

The Medbury Fort Murder came as something of a surprise to me. While the blurb certainly highlights the locked room element of the story, the novel could also be described as an inverted mystery and a traditional detective novel. And what makes that truly bananas is that it attempts to be all of those things at the same time.

The novel was first published in 1929 by the Crime Club and was written by Lewis George Robinson under the pseudonym George Limnelius. If that name doesn’t ring any bells it is likely because he didn’t pen many mystery novels and this seems to be the best regarded of the bunch.

Robinson draws on some of his own experiences of serving as an army medic in West Africa in this novel, particularly in the opening chapters where we learn Major Preece’s history and begin to build an understanding of the forces that will inspire him to wish to murder a fellow officer.

In these chapters we also encounter the man who will become the murder victim, the odious Lepean, and we see how little he is liked by the other men stationed at the Medbury Fort. We learn why Preece decides he will kill him and some general ideas of his plan but we may be a little surprised when the next morning Lepean is discovered with his throat cut locked in his own bedroom.

From that point on we would be getting heavily into spoiler territory but I will say that the remaining chapters present the perspectives of both Preece and the investigator, allowing the reader to understand what each are thinking and how they are trying to steer the investigation. They also present us with a little twist that takes the novel in a different, more traditional direction.

Overall, I think the combination of these styles works surprisingly well. Certainly better than I would have expected from a description. There is plenty of tension as we try to piece together exactly what has happened and because the evidence at the crime scene seems to so clearly implicate Preece.

The weakest element of the story is the locked room to the extent that I really debated whether or not to put it in my locked room category. The solution to how it was done is a familiar one and so sadly there is not much innovation there. I would certainly not suggest seeking this one out for the locked room.

The inverted elements on the other hand are much more successful and combine very effectively with the traditional detective investigation part of the story. I particularly appreciated that while we know what Preece was looking to achieve, we can clearly see that he had not left the crime scene the way he had planned. With evidence suggesting him as one of the likeliest suspects, we see him attempt to locate a more appealing figure for the Police investigation.

The investigation itself is a little tougher to evaluate, in part because I do not think it really lends itself to be viewed as a traditional puzzler. Certainly the reader could utilize the information they are given and make some reasonable guesses to come to the correct conclusion but it rarely feels like ratiocination.

Not that the detective really does anyway.

My biggest problem with this book relates to the world view and criminological beliefs of the investigator, McMaster who asserts the no violent crime has ever been committed by an educated man. That view is essentially derived from the most classist of outlooks on life but even if you ignore the inherent class prejudice, it is far too sweeping a statement to use to justify ruling suspects out of a murder charge. It is also quite demonstrably incorrect such as with the case of serial killer H. H. Holmes. I not only groaned when I read McMaster saying it a second time, I also took him a lot less seriously as a sleuth.

On a more positive note, I really embraced the novel’s complex characterizations. I was very pleasantly surprised by how modern Limnelius’ characters can feel. A few days ago I read Henry Wade’s Too Soon to Die which was written a quarter century later yet dealt with infidelity awkwardly rather than in the more frank way Limnelius presents the issue. Limnelius’ characters may still speak quite breathlessly but they do sound passionate and conflicted.

For much of this book I was really expecting to come here and get to post a rave review. I was gripped throughout almost all of the novel and I felt that the novel was building towards a special ending. Unfortunately I just could not see past the McMaster class comments and felt underwhelmed by the solution given which did not convince me.

As much as I like the novel’s ambition and its approach to character-building, at least for its central figures, the story does not match up to its inventive framework. With a better solution I think this hybrid form of mystery storytelling could have worked but as it is, I cannot think of a good reason to recommend it.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: An author you’ve never tried (Why)

The Madman’s Room by Paul Halter, translated by John Pugmire

Madmans
The Madman’s Room
Paul Halter
Originally Published 1990
Dr Twist #4
Preceded by Death Invites You
Followed by The Tiger’s Head

After trying and enjoying my first Paul Halter novel, Death Invites You, last year I received some wonderful suggestions for which book I should pick next. I honestly did make note of all of those suggestions and I intended to utilize them. I really did. But then I actually came across a copy of The Madman’s Room and all those plans went out the window… Whoops!

Halter seems to represent something of a literary fault line among the bloggers I read regularly. That was the reason I was initially so hesitant to try him. His plots are constructed with a lot of elements that often seem to be pulling in opposite directions. This not only seems messy, it may lead some readers to wonder if he’s just throwing these crazy, imaginative ideas out there and forcing them into the shape of a novel.

The Madman’s Room is a much more complex narrative than Death Invites You, incorporating significantly more elements and questions for the reader to consider and yet I felt that these hung together exceptionally well to create a much richer, more rewarding story. It still can feel a little messy and unwieldy and at times I wondered just how these elements could be brought together but, when the explanation is given, everything seemed to align perfectly.

A very basic outline of the core points of the story is that the wealthy businessman Harris Thorne moves his wife’s family to live with him in his ancestral home. They learn the story of his great-Uncle Hector who appeared to be able to see the future, predicting the deaths of family members in a fire years after he himself had died. His room was sealed upon his death but Harris decides that he will reopen that room against his brother’s objections to turn it into his study. He dies soon afterwards with some aspects of the case seeming to mirror the circumstances in which Hector had died.

For another writer that alone may be enough material for a novel but Halter weaves a number of smaller mysteries around the bigger question of who killed Harris Thorne. Did Harris really did commit suicide or if he was murdered? What is the significance of a patch of water that appeared in front of the fire both when Hector and Harris died? What do people see in a doorway that terrifies them? Is everyone that we believe to be dead actually dead? Can Harris’ brother Brian really see the future? And just what are the short lecture about possible outcomes of an exhumation (a la Dr. Fell) and the brief romantic scene at the beginning of the novel there for?

It’s a lot to unpack and to do so would violate my intentions to keep my reviews as spoiler free as possible. What I can say is that I think Halter’s explanations of the ways these elements interconnect is really quite masterful and I respected the simplicity and common sense of many of those solutions. Solutions to some puzzles are easier to predict than others but I found all to be quite satisfying and appreciated the variations Halter gives us. Even the issue that Sergio felt stretched credulity struck me as a discrete nod to a similarly stretched moment in a very early Poirot novel.

While the artificiality of a moment like that can be a negative for some readers, I personally find it quite charming. Certainly I think there are very few people who would talk or act like characters in a Paul Halter novel but I think that’s okay as he is clearly playing with classic mystery fiction types and placing all other elements of the novel as secondary to his chief concern of developing the puzzle. His prose is never pretty, nor is it particularly atmospheric yet it conveys precisely the amount of information the author intends to very well and, like JJ, I find it to be very effective.

And though Halter’s characters here may read a little stiffly, I found them to be a much more interesting group than in Death Invites You. This is partly because Halter’s story plays out over a much longer period, allowing those characters time to change in reaction to the events they are experiencing. I found some of those changes in character to be very effective and I appreciated the psychological angles to the solution to this story.

On the subject of the conclusion however, I must take note of Brad’s criticism that the novel is undermined by its confusing and unnecessary final page twist. While I enjoyed the novel enormously, I would agree that this moment detracts from the otherwise clean, refined nature of the ending. Sadly this concludes an otherwise stellar work on a slightly cheap note.

In spite of that misstep, I think The Madman’s Room is a really striking and effective work. At the midpoint of the novel I had no idea how Halter was going to pull all of these elements together so I was really impressed by just how clean and tidy the explanations were. Unlike many seemingly inexplicable crime stories, the explanations given for how and why the strange events occur are very persuasive because of their simplicity while I felt that the supernatural elements in the story were used very effectively not only to build atmosphere but contribute to the key themes and ideas of the novel.

In short, I loved this and am looking forward to reading more Halter. And next time I promise I will actually utilize some of your suggestions!

The Ginza Ghost and Other Stories by Keikichi Osaka, translated by Ho-Ling Wong

The-Ginza-Ghost
The Ginza Ghost and Other Stories
Keikichi Osaka
Originally Published 2017

The Ginza Ghost is a collection of short crime and detective stories by the writer Keikichi Osaka who, we learn in the introduction, died young and worked primarily in the period in which the puzzle mystery had largely fallen out of fashion in Japan.

This collection contains a mix of styles and subject matters including a few locked rooms but most can be characterized as strange and perplexing crimes.

One of the best examples of this is the story The Mourning Locomotive in which we hear about a heavy locomotive train which is killing pigs on a regular basis, always at the same section of the tracks. It is a strange problem but the answer is really quite logical and can be deduced by the reader. Not that I did.

Another strong example is The Hangman of the Department Store which is a seemingly impossible crime as it takes place on the roof of a fully locked store. And then there is the strange question of the timing of the killing which makes the events seem even more bizarre.

The final story I would highlight is The Guardian of the Lighthouse in which the characters attempt to locate a missing son who seemed to vanish during a shift several days earlier. I felt that story combined a logical mystery with a solid emotional component to strong effect.

While most of the stories feature a striking or ingenious solution, I did find a few of them to be quite dry in the way they were told. Stories such as The Phantasm of the Stone Wall and The Phantom Wife held little interest for me and I never managed to engage with them while others featured ideas that seemed too intricate to be communicated in so few pages.

It may just be that I am not really drawn to short form crime stories. With the exception of an occasional individual story I have never found a collection I have loved and been truly satisfied with. Knowing the importance of the short story to crime fiction, I feel it is important for me to keep trying.

The Ginza Ghost does at least feature a few stories that I feel will stick with me for a while and I could appreciate Osaka’s skill at inventing interesting puzzles to challenge his readers. Unfortunately I found the weaker stories to be a bit of a chore to work through and so I cannot recommend the collection.

Murder on the Way! by Theodore Roscoe

MurderontheWay
Murder on the Way!
Theodore Roscoe
Originally Published 1935

Murder On the Way! is one of two novels by Theodore Roscoe that were republished earlier this year by Bold Venture Press. Both books were edited and boast introductions written by our very own JJ so when I read his tweet and blog post about these books I became rather excited, immediately buying both and placing them on the top of my To Read list.

After purchasing my copies of each came the dilemma of which of the books to read first. In the end I opted to start with this title because I thought that the Haitian setting could be interesting. I was also curious to see how a supernatural element such as zombies could coexist with the structure of a mystery story.

The answer is complex and potentially spoilery. Let me begin by assuring those who might be turned off by the mention of zombies that while the book does have a macabre flavor and features some horrific moments, this is very much a mystery story. Haitian superstitions certainly do play a very important role in this narrative but each of the killings, no matter how bizarre or seemingly impossible, will have an entirely rational explanation by the end.

The novel begins with the narrator’s girlfriend, Pete, being summoned to Haiti to hear the terms of a will in which she has been named. After some reluctance she, and her artist boyfriend, decide to attend. On arriving they encounter the other people named in the will who are a strange collection of highly unsavory types. When the will is read they learn that each of the people named has been placed in an ordered list. Whoever the highest remaining person on that list is twenty-four hours after the deceased’s body is buried will inherit his entire estate, provided they have not left the grounds. Pete, it turns out, is the last name on the list.

If you are thinking ‘that sounds like a recipe for a bloodbath’ then you’d be quite correct.  One-by-one these potential heirs are picked off, often in seemingly impossible ways including a locked room murder. That this takes place in spite of the presence of the Haitian police, who arrive to take charge of the crime scene early in the novel, makes these murders seem all the more remarkable.

Roscoe packs his story with a number of seemingly inexplicable moments or situations to a point where I was seriously beginning to worry that he might need to resort to a supernatural explanation to pull everything together. The variety on offer is seriously impressive and it is striking to think that many of those little mysteries could easily have formed the basis for whole novels. Of these moments, my favorite involves a chase in which a character disappears in a corridor but there are plenty of other good ones to pick from.

I was a little less impressed with the cast of characters that Roscoe creates. Certainly this gallery of undesirables are each presented quite distinctively and represent a variety of backgrounds and types but some of these characterizations have not aged particularly well and feel distinctly of their period. It should be said though that this book, unlike a much more famous title in which a group of people are slowly killed one-by-one in an isolated house, has been presented as originally written and I would argue that in the context of its contemporaries the portrayals of characters from non-white ethnic backgrounds is fairly typical and in some ways is more nuanced than in works like Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die – a novel that was published some twenty years later.

Roscoe’s novel can be said to defy easy categorization and it is notable how the middle section of the book represents a significant shift in tone and style. In the opening Roscoe pitches his story as though he is laying the groundwork for the investigation of an impossible crime yet by this stage the novel feels like a thriller in the way Roscoe builds and manages tension.

This pace encourages the reader to keep going, building momentum as they know another murder will be just a few pages away and if the reader chooses to enjoy the book as a thriller they will be satisfied. The book contains some really great surprises and builds to a rather striking crescendo that cultivates a sense of dread while placing the narrator in significant danger.

Yet, should the reader prefer to take their time and reflect, the novel works equally well as a more conventional detective story. Roscoe takes the time to make sure his book is fairly clued. The solution to what is happening can be reasoned even without a thorough search for clues or comprehensive interviews with each of the suspects. In doing so, this satisfies both as a thriller and also as a more traditional mystery.

Murder on the Way! is a rich and interesting read packed with striking imagery and boasting an intriguing mystery. I enjoyed discovering just what had happened in this house and found the ending to be very satisfying. While I plan on spacing it out, I am looking forward to reading I’ll Grind Their Bones soon and seeing how it compares.

Hard Cheese by Ulf Durling, translated by Bertil Falk

HardCheese
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.