Resorting to Murder edited by Martin Edwards

HolidayMysteriesThe idea of the detective on holiday is a rather wonderful one and, as Martin Edwards points out in his introduction, has been a rich source of inspiration for mystery novels. This collection is concerned however with much shorter works and features a variety of stories in which the detective or victim is travelling away from home.

In some cases the travel is incidental to the story, used to place the mystery against an exotic backdrop whereas in others the idea of being in an unfamiliar environment is critical to the story’s themes and plot. The stories that Edwards selects draw on a variety of styles and approaches and demonstrate how a basic concept can be taken in many different directions and used for inspiration in many different ways.

There are, of course, some stories from writers who are widely known and remembered such as Arthur Conan Doyle and G. K. Chesterton but there are also a number of stories from lesser-known figures. Of those I particularly enjoyed the contributions from E. W. Hornung, Phyllis Bentley and Gerald Findler while there are some excellent stories from the better-known Michael Gilbert and Leo Bruce here too.

As with any anthology, there are a handful of disappointments in the collection but in most cases those stories fit and illustrate the theme well and their inclusion makes sense. I would certainly say that this is one of the strongest British Library Crime Classics anthologies that I have read and would put this up with The Long Arm of the Law in terms of the general quality of the stories collected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

AdventuresThis is a revisitation for me as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was the first mystery book I ever bought. I was on a class field trip to a National Trust house and saw one of those cheap paperback copies in the gift shop and, remembering that my Dad likes mysteries thought he might enjoy it. Yes, I was one of those relatives though in my defence I was only eight years old.

It turns out that Dad, who had been a member of the Sherlockian society for years, already had read it but he read some of the stories to me and I worked through the others myself. I have frequently revisited them over the years though normally I pick at them rather than taking them in bulk as a collection.

Individual comments on each story will follow but I do appreciate the variety to be found in this collection. Most of these stories work because they are centered on very simple ideas and while the reader will have no chance of working out the solutions to many of them, they generally satisfy because of their creativity.

The best stories, in my view, are those which focus on a small, simple puzzle in which Holmes has to make sense of seemingly disconnected ideas. The Red-Headed League is a wonderfully imaginative story while The Copper Beeches boasts a very clever premise. The standard is pretty universally strong and while I think many of these stories are not fair play detective stories, most are excellent adventure yarns.

Of course, revisiting mystery stories does present problems in that it is hard to know just how well structured and clued a story is. In this case I read the book for the first time close to twenty years ago and many of the solutions stick clearly in my mind. Regardless I had fun revisiting these and think several of the plots are quite ingenious.

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

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

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

Whoops.

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

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

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

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

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Moscow Noir edited by Natalia Smirnova and Julia Goumen

MoscowNoirFeeling somewhat inspired by the start of the FIFA World Cup today which is, of course, being held in Russia I figured I’d take a look at some crime fiction from the region. My choice turned out to be quite simple – I had previously enjoyed an Akashic Noir collection of short stories based in Prague and when I saw this collection set in Moscow I couldn’t help but jump at the chance to pick it up.

The collection is much more uneven than Prague Noir and there are several stories that I think would be a stretch to consider as falling within the traditional scope of the genre. The tone of some stories is more grim and depressing than it is cynical or mysterious. I found the third part of the collection featuring stories with a father and son component to be particularly rough reading.

Still, there are some points of interest in the collection. Looking at it as a whole, I am particularly struck by how it is the shortest stories here that seem the most fresh, bold and interesting. There we see often impressionistic touches in the prose or plotting and some really impressive exploration of theme. In particular, I would recommend In the New Development and The Point of No Return as highlights. I just wish that the collection overall had been a little more consistent in quality.

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Blood on the Tracks edited by Martin Edwards

bloodonthetracksThe latest British Library Crime Classics anthology is a collection of railway mysteries from the Golden Age of crime fiction. As always editor Martin Edwards has managed to find a mix of different styles and approaches from adventure-type stories to inverted crimes.

Most of the stories in the collection feel like good matches for the railway theme though the links in a couple of cases are somewhat tenuous. For instance The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man With No Face is one of the strongest stories in the collection based purely on entertainment value but probably does the least with the train theme.

Among the highlights of the collection for me were The Affair of the Corridor Express by Victor L. Whitechurch and The Case of Oscar Brodski by R. Austin Freeman. The other stories are generally of a high standard and most are paced pretty well with just a few falling short of the mark.

The Man with the Watches by Arthur Conan Doyle

A curious tale that features a seemingly impossible crime where the body of a passenger who hadn’t been seen on the train turns up in a compartment while the train is in motion while passengers who were there seemed to have vanished. I didn’t find it the most engagingly written story I have ever read by Doyle though it does have an interesting premise and I appreciated the construction of its solution.

The Mystery of Felwyn Tunnel by L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace

In this story the detective is being consulted about a seemingly inexplicable death that has taken place in the early hours of the morning at a section of railway. The night watchman is found dead near the tracks with a severe blow to the back of his head. Suspicion has fallen on a young man with whom he was feuding yet the man recounting the tale does not believe he would be responsible though he cannot think of another explanation.

Arguably the story could have been a little more concisely told but the concept is quite clever and logical.

How He Cut His Stick by Matthias McDonnell Bodkin

This Dora Myrl adventure sees her consulted about the matter of a theft of several hundred pounds that was being transported from one bank office to another. The clerk responsible was supposedly travelling in the compartment alone but we are let in on the secret of how the robbery was managed. What remains a mystery however is how the thief managed to get off the moving train.

It’s quite an entertaining read and I did find Dora quite a likeable, lively heroine so I would be interested in reading some of her other adventures. The story though is not really fair play in that some of the details necessary are not fully described while the surprise identity of the villain will shock absolutely no one.

The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway by Baroness Orczy

The Old Man in the Corner tells Miss Polly Burton about a murder that had been committed on the Underground some time before where the Police were certain that they had identified the killer yet were unable to prove their case. He explains how the murder was actually carried out and why the Police came to their incorrect conclusion about the guilty party.

As with each of the previous stories in this collection, this is a tale recounted but the difference is that all of the action has taken part in the past, meaning that there is no movement or action in the story. To me that led to it dragging a little which is a shame as I thought the way the crime was executed was quite smart.

The Affair of the Corridor Express by Victor L. Whitechurch

A clever little tale that unfolds at a good clip. Mr. Hazell is approached by a school master who had been tasked with escorting a student by train after he was summoned by telegram. During the journey the student steps into the corridor and disappears. The master investigates and conducts a thorough search of the train but the child has vanished in spite of the train not having slowed down or stopped at all since the disappearance.

Whitechurch lays out the information very clearly and it is a pleasure to piece together what has happened. The explanation is quite simple and I appreciated the tightness of the resolution.

The Case of Oscar Brodski by R. Austin Freeman

Arguably the first inverted mystery written in English, The Case of Oscar Brodski is a story told in two parts of unequal length. The short opening identifies the murderer and explains the choices that he makes that lead to him taking a life and we see him staging the scene to try to mask his guilt. At the end of this section we are, in effect, challenged to imagine how he might possibly get caught.

The second part reveals that Dr. Thorndyke happened to be travelling on the railway line on the evening of the murder and became aware of the investigation into the death. While he does not have his full laboratory with him, he does have a small green case packed with smaller versions of many of his instruments and his systematically analyses the evidence to build up a picture of just what happened.

The investigation is compelling because the evidence is convincing and easy to follow. Thorndyke may not be the most dynamic investigator but it is interesting to see just how he works and his acknowledgement that his success was down in part to fortunate timing as had he been later on the scene much of the evidence would have not been there.

The Eighth Lamp by Roy Vickers

In this story a signalman agrees to take on the duties of performing final clean up on the platform of a circle line station at the end of each evening. As he extinguishes the last light however he sees a train running through the station without any lights and slowly a dread grows within him about fulfilling those duties.

The story feels tightly written, building a very effective sense of tension and drama. The reader may well guess where the story is headed but I think it is very well paced and packs a strong conclusion.

The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem by Ernest Bramah

A Max Carrados story in which the detective is consulted by his friend Mr. Carlyle about a case he is working on to try to determine who was responsible for a catastrophic train collision. The driver swears that he was following a signal while the signalman says that the driver ignored him.

Aspects of the solution are rather clever and the concept and themes of the story feels far more modern than you might expect given it was written in 1914. That being said, I did find the way the story was told a little dry.

The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face by Dorothy L Sayers

Lord Peter is travelling on a train when he hears about a strange case of a man found strangled on an isolated beach wearing just his bathing costume with nothing to identify him. There are just one set of footprints leading to the body though lest you think this an impossible crime story, Lord Peter solves that within a few paragraphs (it’s a good explanation too).

The story is quite cleverly constructed and has a fairly unconventional ending. Based on entertainment value it is one of the strongest stories in the collection though I might grumble and point out that the train setting is quite incidental and used in just a fraction of the story.

The Railway Carriage by F. Tennyson Jesse

Jesse’s final story to feature occult sleuth Solange Fontaine is really more of a rumination on themes of crime, redemption and capital punishment than it is a traditional detective story. I am not particularly fond of supernatural elements in my crime fiction so this one was perhaps not for me though I think the revelation at the end is quite chilling.

Mystery of the Slip-Coach by Sapper

A story in which a gambler and moneylender is found shot dead within a train carriage with a broken egg near them. This story can boast a devilishly clever solution but you may well wonder whether it could actually work in practice and why on earth anyone would conceive of such a ludicrous way of killing someone.

The Level Crossing by Freeman Wills Crofts

Having believed myself done with Freeman Wills Crofts’ inverted stories, I continue to be delighted by finding new short stories in these collections. This one is a good one, focusing on an accountancy clerk who is intending to kill a man on the railroad tracks.

The Adventure of the First-Class Carriage by Ronald Knox

A very acceptable Sherlockian pastiche which sees the detective consulted by the servant who voices her concerns that her master intends to commit suicide. Holmes travels down by train only to find that during the journey he disappears. What I do think it captures well is Doyle’s ability to set up a seemingly complicated scenario and then to have Holmes reduce it to something quite simple and understandable but while it entertains, there is nothing special to set it apart from the countless other Holmes pastiches.

Murder on the 7.16 by Michael Innes

Forget trying to solve this one yourself – its brevity means it is a little lacking in clues – but the story is a clever one, even if Appleby could never prove it with his evidence. The director of a film is found dead inside a reproduction train cabin on set.

The Coulman Handicap by Michael Gilbert

Detectives attempt to track a woman who they believe is involved in fencing stolen goods but manage to keep losing her. Unfortunately I found the premise less than thrilling and it struck me as one of the weaker entries in the collection.

Review copy provided through NetGalley. Blood on the Tracks is already available in the UK and will be published in the United States by Poisoned Pen Press on July 3, 2018.

Prague Noir edited by Miriam Margala and Pavel Mandys

PragueI have a bad habit of checking out more books than I can ever read from the library and the Akashic Noir series are often among those that I intend to read but keep returning when they fall due with a commitment that next time I’ll finally try one.

Well, next time came and given the particular city chosen I couldn’t resist making sure I got around to reading it. Prague Noir is a collection of stories from a country that didn’t really have a tradition of noir or even mystery fiction prior to the fall of Communism as the excellent introduction points out.

What we have then are some intriguing stories grouped into loose sections based around theme. Many, but not all, focus on the location or aspects of the Czech historical experience but there are a few more traditional detective stories here too.

Story-by-story comments follow but I would pick out Amateurs, The Magical Amulet, All the Old Disguises and Olda No. 3 as my favorites from each of their respective sections. I can also say that I will probably make more of an effort to make sure I read the next Akashic Noir collection I check out.

Part I: Sharp Lads
“Three Musketeers” by Martin Goffa (Vyšehrad)

The collection opens with this story about two men meeting after a number of years. The narrator has a grievance against his companion but at first we are not sure what it may be.

Scenes from the past are inserted at points into that conversation, allowing our understanding to build towards the story’s punchy conclusion. It’s a great way to start the collection as I was surprised by the way it resolves and certainly conveys a sense of place.

“Amateurs” by Štěpán Kopřiva (Hostivař)

This is one of those stories that’s hard to discuss without spoiling where it’s going though I don’t think the resolution is necessarily surprising. The setting is a large-scale marijuana greenhouse operation run by the Vietnamese.

While I think the twist is quite clear, I found the execution to be quite satisfying and feel that the title ends up being quite clever as it could refer to several people within the story.

“Disappearances on the Bridge” by Miloš Urban (Charles Bridge)

The Charles Bridge has been fitted with some new high resolution cameras designed to help the Police monitor the flow of pedestrians and observe pickpockets. The technology is being demonstrated to the head of the division when the technician notices that a young woman wearing a striking red hoodie has disappeared while standing in front of a statue. The officers decline to investigate so he rushes out to look for himself before promptly disappearing near the same spot. Finally one of the officers springs into action and goes in search of the technician only to find himself vanishing as well.

I was quite enjoying this and wondered where it was headed but I felt the answers were a little too fantastic. It all takes a rather violent turn at the end and while I appreciated an element of the resolution, I felt it didn’t quite live up to its striking premise.

“The Dead Girl from a Haunted House” by Jiří W. Procházka (Exhibition Grounds)

This story details an investigation over the course of a few hours into the death of a young woman in a haunted house at the fair.

Procházka is playing with some interesting ideas and creates a suitably gruesome crime scene but I didn’t care much for his habit of referring to characters by pop culture pseudonyms and the ending in which the sleuth gathers all the suspects in one place feels out of place with a story of this type.

Part II: Magical Prague

“The Magical Amulet” by Chaim Cigan (Pankrác)

Set in the 1950s, this story involves a cousin turning up in search of a family heirloom that supposedly has magical powers. It may initially be hard to see where the mystery comes in but things do become clear as the story is developed. It’s a curious piece, reflecting the experiences of the Czech Jewish population during the Second World War and the decade that followed, and I think it raises an interesting question about whether an actual crime is committed.

“Marl Circle” by Ondřej Neff (Malá Strana)

I couldn’t get into this story at all. An excavation and reconstruction is taking place at the former Jesuit Palace near St. Nicolas Cathedral. A workman is discovered dead, a jackhammer having penetrated his chest. There are very heavy paranormal elements here with little sense of mystery. I found the whole thing too much of a diversion from my normal tastes but it may have appeal to those who like the ideas of secret histories and the like.

“The Cabinet of Seven Pierced Books” by Petr Stančík (Josefov)

A story that draws on the idea of the Golem and that once again features some heavy mystical or paranormal content. It does have a wonderful sense of setting however and I appreciated the cleverness of its killer’s motive and the story that is worked around it.

Part III: Shadows of the Past

“The Life and Work of Baroness Mautnic” by Kateřina Tučková (New Town)

This story kicks off the third section of the book which showcases stories in which the historical experiences of the city play an important role in the narrative. This centers on the fate of a house that has fallen into disrepair in the Soviet years and follows the fate of the house and its inhabitants over a number of decades.

I think that this is an interesting approach and it does deal more directly with the Soviet era than many of the other stories in the collection but for all its historical scope, I didn’t engage particularly with the characters or this scenario.

“All the Old Disguises” by Markéta Pilátová (Grébovka)

A superb, economical story about a man’s return to post-Communist Prague at the invitation of his friend’s grandson. There is some genuine mystery here about what that grandson wants from him but the thrills come from seeing the narrator make his choices at the end of the tale. Simple but perfectly executed.

“Percy Thrillington” by Michal Sýkora (Pohořelec)

A more conventional mystery story, a police detective is retiring and in talking with a friend he reminisces about how a vinyl album helped him solve his first homicide case. A businessman is found hanged in his office with a suicide note apologizing to his daughter and laying out his requests for the music for his funeral.

The answers may be apparent to readers but the story is well told and it is a pleasure to follow the detective’s attempts to work through the evidence. Very solid.

Part IV: In Jeopardy

“Better Life” by Michaela Klevisová (Žižkov)

An antiques dealer has taken on some black market work in order to help support his sister and her son who have come to live with him. One week he notices a woman has made repeated visits to his store and he starts to wonder whether she is working for the police or maybe has fallen in love with his picture in a magazine.

Overall I liked this story quite a lot though I found an aspect of the ending confusing and had to reread the last couple of pages. I appreciated that this evolved in an unexpected direction.

“Another Worst Day” by Petra Soukupová (Letná)

A rather good piece telling the story of an investigation into a missing husband’s sudden disappearance. Characterization of the different people involved is strong and while I don’t think I didn’t find the resolution surprising, I think it is well handled.

“Olda No. 3” by Irena Hejdová (Olšany Cemetery)

A divorced woman has picked up a man on a one night stand and has to take the trouble to hide him in her apartment away from her mother and the young son who is still blaming her for the divorce. On the way back from dropping him off at Kindergarten her dog discovers something in the cemetery that will start a short investigation.

This is a well-told tale that has some intriguing twists and turns. I particularly appreciated the coincidence that gives this its title. One of the stronger inclusions in the collection.

“Epiphany, or Whatever You Wish” by Petr Šabach (Bubeneč)

The final story in the collection deals with a man who decides to kill himself to prevent him from killing his wife. It’s an interesting story because it is quite different from the rest of the collection and arguably there is no mystery here at all, being more of a character piece, but I found it to be quite a striking end to what is a pretty strong collection.