A Flight of Fancy

"You always forget... that the reliable machine always has to be worked by an unreliable machine."
- Father Brown (G.K. Chesterton's "The Mistake of the Machine," from The Wisdom of Father Brown, 1914)
Last week, I reviewed Death Through the Looking Glass (1978) by Richard Forrest, which concerned itself with the shenanigans surrounding the discovery of a murder victim inside the wreck of a crashed airplane and the premise was reminder that there were a number of aircraft mysteries languishing on my TBR-pile – one of the more prominent ones being Christopher St. John Sprigg's Death of an Airman (1935).

During his (short-lived) life, Sprigg earned his stripes as a versatile author and signed his name to poems, ghost stories and aeronautical textbooks. But where really garnered praise as a writer was during his brief stint as a mystery novelist. A short period of success that began with the publication of Crime in Kensington (1933) and ended five novels later with The Six Queer Things (1937), which were, incidentally, both listed by Adey in Locked Room Murders (1991). 

They were well received and garnered praise from the likes of Dorothy L. Sayers, who said his work "bubbles with zest and vitality" and stuffed with "good puzzles and discoveries," but his premature death threw them into obscurity – where they became scarce and expensive collector items. Thankfully, one of them has, once again, become available to us poor mortals!

Last year, the Poisoned Pen Press, under the banner of the British Library Crime Classics, reintroduced Sprigg to the present-day horde of mystery readers with a brand-new edition of Death of an Airman. The first one to roll off a printing press in eight decades!

Death of an Airman largely takes place on the tarmac of the Baston Aero Club and the opening has them welcoming a fresh pupil: Dr. Edwin Merriott, the Bishop in Cootamundra, Australia, who wants to take flying lesson to travel from one end of his diocese to the other – which takes several weeks with then conventional ground-based travel. Upon his arrival, the Bishop immediately meets with some of the club notable members, which include the manager and secretary of the club, Sarah "Sally" Sackbut and Lady Laura.

However, one of the most notable characters on the airfield is the scar-faced flight instructor, Major George Furnace, who's first seen when takes a young, inexperienced student, Thomas Vane, for a tailspin. He also creates a scene with another member, Mrs. Angevin, who is told by WWI fighter-pilot to stop "making every decent person's gorge rise" by turning herself into "a cheap circus."

So this sets the stage for, what appears to be, a tragic accident: Furnace's aeroplane is seen doing air spins, when it suddenly loses height, as "the flickering toy vanished behind the trees." Furnace has crashed his plane and his body is found in the wreckage with a deadly head wound, however, not all is what it seems and here's where the medically trained Bishop makes his biggest contribution to the case – perceptively noting the lack of rigor mortis. A fact that's confirmed by the doctor some time later, but the whole affair truly begins to resemble an impossible crime when the pathologist extracts a bullet from Furnace's skull!

The murder can be aptly described as a borderline impossible crime and the circumstances, in which Furnace perished, are genuinely baffling, but it's far from the only component providing a problem for the police.

Inspector Creighton of the Thameshire Constabulary uncovers a potential blackmail angle with direct ties to a dope-smuggling organization, which peddles cocaine across the Channel from Continental Europe. So this leads Creighton to the desk of Inspector Bernard Bray of New Scotland Yard, who has been investigating "the white-drug traffic in Britain for the Home Office," which, in turn, leads to such places as Glasgow and Paris – where Bray receives assistance from M. Jules Durand of the Sûreté (a name closely associated with "the most wildly romantic trials of French criminology").

This warm, friendly collaboration between the English and French police, in a dope-peddling case, recalled Basil Thomson's The Milliner's Hat Mystery (1937). As an additional coincidence, in both cases the police were on the lookout for one or two "Americans" who appeared to be involved in the drug trafficking business. One has to wonder if Thomson was aware of this book and decided to flesh out the smuggling angle into a full-fledged crime-novel. Anyway...

Well, there a lot of people working on the case or giving their two-cents, which provided the plot with a couple of false solutions, which are always fun, but the final explanation as to how the murder was accomplished was devilish cheeky. A piece of trickery that almost seems as impossible to pull off as the effect it ended up creating, but then again, the guilty party in this book always seem take the long way round in order to achieve their goals – whether it's the disposal of a potential dangerous person or smuggling illegal substances. It always has to be done as difficult as humanly possible.

Not that I am complaining about plot complexity, mind you. But I can imagine some readers would be annoyed to learn Sprigg was being difficult for the sake of being difficult, because these crimes certainly did not came about organically. However, I don't want to complain about a complex and juicy plot. I've a reputation to think of!

So, that being said, Death of an Airman is still a very well-written and plotted mystery novel, which also brings the author's insight and personal experience in aviation to the table. A field that has rarely, if ever, been explored by other Golden Age writers and this gives the book somewhat of a unique feeling. I genuine hope the British Library decides to republish his other mystery novels as well, because Crime in Kensington sounds like a must read for any self-respecting locked room fanboy.

On a final note, I cranked out this review on a short time-limit. So that saved you (at least) a page-worth of vague, semi-coherent rambling and arguing with myself on whether or not the book qualified as an impossible crime. As you probably noticed, I decided to go with a borderline impossible crime and have not labeled this blog-post as a locked room mystery.

However, the next blog-post may or may not be a review of a locked room novel. Who knows? Wait and see!


Clatter on the Roof

"When he discovered the wondrous stage of the attic, that predilection for crime... came rushing back..."
- Edogawa Rampo ("The Stalker in the Attic," 1926; collected in The Edogawa Rampo Reader, 2008)
Constance and Gwenyth Little were two Australian-born sisters from East Orange, New Jersey, who were called "the reigning queens of the screwball mystery comedy" and they earned this reputation as the co-authors of twenty-one wacky, "screwball cozies" - all of them standalone novels published between 1938 and 1953.

Unfortunately, the genre has seldom been kind to the memory and legacy of prolific authors of standalones (e.g. Max Murray). So the work of the Little sisters quickly fell into neglect when publishers began to move away from the traditional detective story during the fifties. As a consequence, they were doomed to wallow in literary oblivion, but, one day, two saviors appeared on the horizon.

Tom and Enid Schantz of the now, lamentably, defunct Rue Morgue Press were arguably the biggest fans of the Littles and they practically adopted them as the flagship authors for their publishing house.

During the late 1990s, the Rue Morgie Press began to reissue the then long-forgotten work of the sisters and they became a mainstay of their catalog over the course of the succeeding decade – which saw reprints of all of their work. As a matter of fact, some of the earlier reprints (e.g. Great Black Kanba, 1944) had gone out-of-print again by the time they closed down for business.

I've been aware of the Littles for some time now, but never got around to sample their work and my excuses vary from decade to decade: back in the 2000s, I was still fully immersed in my fundamental period and I would not deign to touch wacky crime novels. I had not yet been exposed to the wonderfully funny, alcohol-fueled and punch-drunk madness of the screwball mysteries by Craig Rice. So, I hope that, somehow, excuses my ignorance at the time. And this decade, we have been flooded by a deluge of reprints and translations, which has put most of the reprints from the 2000s on the back-burner.

However, the festive season that's almost upon us provided me with a convenient excuse to plunge headfirst into one of their first detective stories.

The Black-Headed Pins (1938) was the second novel by the Littles, but the first one to have "black" in the title and takes place in "a dilapidated, creepy old barn" situated in "the wilds of Sussex County," New Jersey, which belongs to a Scrooge-like lady, Mrs. Mabel Ballinger – who puts "every penny through a mangle before parting with it." She cheaply employed the narrator of the story, Leigh Smith, as a live-in companion. Or, as she refers to herself, a general slave.

Luckily, Mrs. Ballinger decided to invite several relatives over for Christmas and Leigh is relieved to know she won't be alone with her employer, during the holidays, in the large, sprawling and gloomy barn. But a shadow is cast over this prospect when an old family ghost stirs from his slumber.

Over a hundred years ago, the nonagenarian Edward Ballinger lived there with a handful of servants and he broke his leg when alone in the attic room. He was not found until one of the servants heard him trying to drag himself across the floor towards the stairs. The old was brought to his bedroom and a doctor was summoned, but the only thing he could do was sign a death certificate. However, this is not where the story ends: when the undertaker arrived the following morning they found the body on the floor over on the other side of the room, but the doctor swore he was dead the first time he examined the body. And thus a family legend was born.

The story goes that "if ever there is a dragging noise across the attic floor" someone with Ballinger blood will meet with "a fatal accident," but if the body is not watched until it's buried, "it will walk." That's right, zombies!

I've to point out here that the dragging noise from the attic qualifies as a borderline impossible crime, because the solution would have lend itself perfectly for a locked room situation. And the dragging noise really should have emanated from a locked attic. It would have been a nice touch to the overall story, but what's really unforgivable is how the authors missed out on a scene that would have practically written itself. Several of the characters, including the local policeman, staged a stakeout in the attic to catch whatever made the unnerving sound, but there should've been a scene in which they bolted from the attic, down the stairs, as the dragging noise from an invisible source was crawling into their direction – which would fit the method for the trick perfectly. Oh, well.

Thankfully, the Little sisters used the second part of the family legend, about the walking corpses, to full effect.

John Ballinger is Mrs. Ballinger's favorite nephew, which is a practical affection, because he has a "fondness for tools and repair jobs." It was his form of recreation and there was more than enough odd jobs to do for him in the large, half neglected home of his aunt, but that's when the family legend lives up to its reputation. John was repairing the leaky roof when he fell to his death and physical evidence shows someone had tempered with the scaffold he was standing on. So it's a case of murder.

After the death of John, the sisters did a commendable job in balancing the story between a dark, doom-laden narrative and lighthearted, good natured detective work.

The ghostly back-story and the walking corpses result give some excellent set-pieces to the plot, but the doom and gloom also springs from the personal circumstances of the characters. One example is John's widow, Rhynda, who was pregnant at the time of his death and one of the unexpected guests to the house, Richard Jones, has shown a certain interest in her – as well as in our narrator. But there's also a good deal of enthusiastic sleuthing on the part of Leigh and some of the relatives and friends in the house. I also loved Mrs. Ballinger's horror over the expanding costs of her Christmas party and all of the extra mouths she has to feed.

It keeps the reader engaged, interested and (more importantly) entertained, which made it forgivable that the story continued pass the point when the story should've ended. The Black-Headed Pins should have been a novella with thirty or forty pages shaved off it, but, as said before, the Littles knew how to entertain and captivate their audience. So this is really not that big of a deal. Hell, I was sufficiently entertained that, while having a decent conclusion, the plot lacked the proper fairplay to help you reach the same conclusion as the character. After all, you have to take into account that storytelling and humor take center-stage in the work of these sisters.

What I do object against are the titular black-headed pins, which were meaningless red herrings and an unnecessary distraction. They meant nothing in the end and I suspect they were only added to the plot to give the story a name with black in the book-title.

But, all in all, The Black-Headed Pins turned out to be one of the more memorable Christmas-time mysteries and comes very much recommended, especially if you enjoy reading such holiday-themed detective stories around this time of the year. Plot-wise, it might not be as solid or fair as some of the others of its kind, but it's better written and far more original than most Yuletide mysteries – which tend to be cast from the same mold as Agatha Christie's Murder for Christmas (1938).


Crash Dive

"Yes... it's a puzzle to know just where to begin."
- Major Williams (Lynton Blow's The "Moth" Murder, 1931)
Originally, the plan for this blog-post was to be a cross-blog tag team review with "JJ," who blogs over at The Invisible Event, but he emailed me last Saturday saying he was bowing out, because he had never "hated every single aspect of a book" before - including the author. He simply refused to waste anymore time on the book.

So what was he reading, you ask? Death on the Mississippi (1989) by the late Richard Forrest, which is an impossible crime novel about a houseboat that vanishes from a closely watched stretch of river. And, as a contrast, I was going to review Death Through the Looking Glass (1978), which concerns the brief and inexplicable disappearance of the wreck of a crashed airplane.

Luckily, I fared better with my pick than the one JJ tried to battle through and it turned out to be surprisingly consistent. That's not something I can say about all of Forrest's locked room novels.

Death Through the Looking Glass is the third entry in a series of ten books about Lyon and Bea Wentworth, who first appeared in A Child's Garden of Death (1975) and were last seen in Death at King Arthur's Court (2005), but it was also the author's second impossible crime novel – even though that aspect of the plot was barely brought up. Surprising, I know. But the angle of the vanishing plane-wreck was barely given any consideration.

The story opens on Lyon's birthday, who's now in his mid-thirties and approaching an early midlife crisis, but at least he got some nifty birthday presents: the complete works of Dashiell Hammett, a six-foot doll based on one of the characters from his children's stories and a new wicker basket for his hot-air balloon. He got the last one from his wife and she also insisted he stopped getting them involved in dangerous murder cases, but during the first flight in the new balloon he personally witnesses the beginning of another one.

A low-flying aircraft, "a garishly painted Piper," approached from the east, "directly out of the sun," which Lyon recognizes as the plane of Tom Giles, a long-ago classmate and real-estate lawyer, but the rush of childhood memories are disturbed when he sees "a plume of black smoke curling" from the craft – after which it plunges in the waters below. However, a search of the supposed crash site, pointed out by Lyon, failed to find any sign of wreckage. Or even a simple oil slick.

The wreck of the airplane has simply disappeared, but the situation becomes even more inexplicable when Lyon receives a phone-call from Giles!

Giles tells Lyon he has good reasons to believe someone is attempting to kill him and asks his old friend to come and see him at his lakeside cottage, but when he arrives the place is completely deserted and there a signs of foul play: the phone line has been cut and there's a suspicious stain next to an overturned chair. On the following morning, Lyon awakes to the news that the plane-wreck has been found with Giles inside it! A bullet in the head and the purse of woman by his side, which belongs to a certain Carol Dodgson.

After this, the story "normalizes" and turns into a regular whodunit: the official police, Captain Norbert of the State Police, favor the wife of the victim, Karen, and her pilot-lover, Garry Middleton. Lyon sees more in the Giles' membership in a tontine, in which the last surviving member makes five million on a hundred thousand dollar investment. There are some colorful characters part of this tontine scheme such as Sal Esposito, an Italian-American, who owns a string of adult-movie shops and massage parlors but, privately, he's a complete weeb. He even has a Japanese houseman. An equally colorful personality is Reverend Dr. Toranga Blossom, leader of a doomsday cult, who believe "the world will die in 1982" in "a multitude of brilliant blossoms" - i.e. atomic warfare. So they can use every penny they can get to prepare by buying abandoned mines and provisions.

Luckily, any person storylines from the regular characters were kept at a bare minimum, because there was red flag in the first chapters of the book. Lyon was silently approaching his early midlife crisis when the eighteen-year-old daughter of a friend began to show interest in him, but that plot-thread mercifully fizzled out. It had the potential to become a total cringe-fest. So the characterization could have been far worse.

As far as the plot is concerned, it is (as I said before) the most consistent detective novel I've read by Forrest. Usually, he has a good (locked room) ideas buried in an uneven, sometimes padded narratives and this has me convinced he should've written his impossible crimes as short stories. It might not have made the same kind of money as a series of full-length novels, but a short story collection of locked room mysteries might have been better for his reputation within in genre in the long run.

How good was the impossible situation in this one? Well, I think the best aspect of this plot-thread was how well it tied-in with Lyon's hobby as a balloonist. His eye-witness account of the crash was a key element of the trick, but the problem is that the nature of the trick gives the entire game away. Once you know how it was done, you know by who it was done. Because the trick fits one of the characters like a glove. I guess that's why the clues were thinly spread around in this surprisingly short novel, but the method for the vanishing plane-wreck is very guessable and from that point out you can figure out everything else.

Yes, Death Through the Looking Glass is one of Forrest's most consistent detective novels, but also one that's very easily solved. Even without any significant clueing.

So, while my overall experience was somewhat better than JJ, I fully acknowledge Forrest was not one of the top-tier mystery novelists from the post-GAD era and some of his better (locked room) ideas were probably better served had they been written down as short stories or novellas. And this relatively short novel shows that in his case less was more and improved the overall quality of the story and plot.

Well, thus far this lukewarm blog-post.


A Fine Italian Hand

"Perfect murder, sir? Oh, I'm sorry. There's no such thing as a perfect murder. That's just an illusion."
- Lt. Columbo (Now You See Him, 1976)
I'm not the most qualified person to comment on the detective story in Italy, but I've always been amazed at the apparent quantity of classically-styled crime-fiction available in that Mediterranean country – ranging from the Titans of the Golden Era to translations of Detective Conan and Paul Halter. But where there any Italian mystery novelists who participated in the Grandest Game in the World? The answer to that question is yes and one of the most illuminating figures from their nook of the genre has recently made an appearance in English! 

Augusto de Angelis is known as "the father of the Italian detective novel," whose series-character was Commissario Carlo de Vincenzi of the Squadra Mobile (Flying Squad) of Milan, but as interesting as his literary legacy were the final weeks of his life. De Angelis wrote during the days of Fascist rule in Italy and Il Duce's regime took a dim view of detective fiction, which they saw as glorifying criminal behavior and preferred a public image of an idyllic, crime-free Italy.

As a result, the Nestor of Italian crime-fiction was banned from the national bookshelves and De Angelis was eventually imprisoned as an anti-fascist in 1943, but his tragic end came upon being released and had a physical altercation with a group of fascists – sustaining serious injuries he was unable to recover from in his weakened state. This is, literally, the worst the fascist have done during their reign in Europe! What? They murdered a mystery writers! Name one thing they did was worse than that. Just one thing!

Earlier this year, Pushkin Vertigo, published Il banchiere assassinato (The Murdered Banker, 1935), which marked the (genre) debut of both De Angelis and Commissario De Vincenzi. Since then, there have been two additional translations: L'albergo delle tre rose (The Hotel of the Three Roses, 1936) and Il mistero delle tre orchidee (The Mystery of the Three Orchids, 1942).

So readers have an opportunity to sample some of the non-English Golden Age mystery fiction from a truly obscure and overlooked corner of the genre.

The Murdered Banker opens on a cold, foggy night and De Vincenzi receives an unexpected visitor in his office at the police station: his old school friend, Giannetto Aurigi, who seems not to be himself. Coincidentally, the ringing of the phone, "like three desperate screams," interrupts their conversation and De Vincenzi is summoned to an apartment at 45 via Montforte – which happened to be the home address of his friend.

An anonymous phone-call, reporting a murder, had lured Inspector Maccari to the apartment and there he discovered the body of a man in the sitting room: stretched out on the floor, clad in evening dress, with "a bullet hole in his temple." The body belonged to a wealthy banker, named Garlini, who's worth millions and Aurigi was in debt to him to the tune of "exactly five hundred and forty-three thousand lire." So that's a cut-and-dry motive right there, but the case turns out to be more complex than it appears on the surface.

There are a number of physical clues that obscure the matter, which range from a phial of perfume containing prussic acid, a stick of lipstick, a brace of revolvers, letters, receipts, ticket stubs and a clock that is running an hour fast, but there are also interconnecting relationships and hidden motives – forming "a disturbing web of mysterious and hidden facts." At the center of this web is "the fatal triangle," which consists of Aurigi and his fiancé, Maria Giovanna, who has a past with the tragic young man living in the attic apartment above Aurigi. On the sideline is Maria's father, Count Marchionni, who engaged the services of a private-eye, Harrington.

Harrington is an obvious nod to the detective-characters from the English speaking world and he even remarks how De Vincenzi only has to get his "little grey cells" working in order to solve the case. He was briefly setup as a rival detective, but, sadly, was sidelined well before the end of the story. I absolutely love rival detectives (e.g. Patrick Quentin's Black Widow, 1952), but Harrington was, perhaps, out of place in this book, because The Murdered Banker was written in the traditional of the police novels (roman policier) of continental Europe, which includes the work of Georges Simenon, A.C. Baantjer and Herbert Reinecker. The problem solvers in these books and TV-series are sober-minded, sensible and philosophical-prone policemen who often reach a solution by common sense thinking rather dazzling feats of deduction. And the solution also reflects this style of crime-fiction.

The identity of the murderer is slightly underwhelming and the plot turns out to be a simple, grubby kind of murder, "an ugly crime," but the killer did a wonderful job at obfuscating the whole business – basically committed one crime to cover-up another. So that part of the explanation was pure Golden Age and encourages to return to his work before too long.

While The Murdered Banker was not entirely perfect, I still found the book to be an interesting and rewarding read with a decent enough plot. I've always been curious about the Golden Age detective stories from non-English speaking countries, but only recently were some of these traditionally-styled mystery novels from France and Japan translated into English. And now we can add Italy to that list. So we're finally getting somewhere!

Finally, allow me to draw your attention to my previous review, Koromu no satsujin (Murder in the Red Chamber, 2004) by Taku Ashibe, which offers a feast of locked room mysteries and seemingly impossible situations. There are about seven of them. So that should pique the curiosity of some of you!


Serpents in the Garden

"Stories rife with words inane,
Tears in hand, all shed in pain;
These, the author holds—a fool,
Who else can make their thread unspool?"
- Cao Xueqin
Recently, our resident tour guide in the world of shin honkaku, Ho-Ling, posted a review of Akechi Kogorou tai Kindaichi Kousuke (Akechi Kogorou vs. Kindaichi Kousuke, 2002) by Taku Ashibe, which is a collection of short stories from his Exhibition of Great Detectives series – a flattering "showcase of pastiches starring famous detectives from both East and West." Ho-Ling's enticing review was a helpful reminder that, not only, is there an English translation available of one of Ashibe's detective novels, but also that the book in question was residing on my TBR-pile. So I felt compelled to finally take a crack at this very strange and peculiar locked room mystery. Yes, I know, but what did you expect from me?

Ashibe is an award-winning novelist with close to forty books to his name, "spanning the gamut from horror to courtroom dramas," but seems to have a fondness for "highly detailed pastiches." And his sole work (thus far) appearing in English can definitely be described as a meticulously constructed homage.

Koromu no satsujin (Murder in the Red Chamber, 2004) takes place in the world Cao Xueqin's Dream of the Red Chamber (1791), widely regarded as one of the four classic novels in Chinese literature, which received a thorough translation under the title The Story of the Stone and consists of more than two thousand pages – spread out over five volumes. I've not read this 18th century novel of manners and therefore every single reference flew pass me unnoticed, but Murder in the Red Chamber can perfectly be read as a standalone work. Some might even be inspired to pick up the book that inspired this imaginative, blood-soaked take-off.

There is, however, one drawback to the fact that the fundament of the plot stands on the premise of a two-hundred year old book of more than two thousand pages, which is that it comes with a large, sprawling cast of characters. Only recently, "JJ," mentioned in his review of Jan Ekström's Ättestupan (Deadly Reunion, 1975) how he found the genealogy of the central family to be confusing, but the family tree from that book is dwarfed by the one printed in this one. It comprises of roughly thirty names, dead and alive, spanning several generations and the dramatis personae lists thirty-four active characters! Even Michael Innes' Hamlet, Revenge! (1937) has not as big a cast as that.

So this makes the book a bit of an ordeal to properly review, which is why the primary focus of this blog-post is on the plot and its profusion of impossible crime material. It's a farrago of impossibilities comparable to Paul Halter's Les sept merveilles du crime (The Seven Wonders of Crime, 1997), but Ashibe, arguably, wrote a better story around those half a dozen locked room situations.

Murder in the Red Chamber opens with the return of Jia Yuan-chun to her ancestral home. She was once a maid of the Imperial Palace, but has since risen to the position of Imperial Consort and Jia clan erected a garden compound in her honor – a walled paradise christened Prospect Garden. The book also includes a beautifully illustrated and numbered map of Prospect Garden, which shows all of the locations within its walls. It's very similar to the maps found in the Judge Dee novels by Robert van Gulik.

Japanese edition
Anyway, the first of many tragedies also take place within those walls: one of the maidens of Prospect Garden, Ying-chun, who was seen across a lake, resting on a stool beneath the arched roof of a pavilion, when "a pair of arms sprouted from the darkness" – grasping her by the throat and eventually dragging the body "into the lifeless void behind her." The body of water between this horrifying scene and the onlookers on the opposite bank of the lake prevented immediate actions, but when everyone recovers from the first shock and comb the garden they find the body of Ying-chun in a stagnant pond not far from the lake. However, the shadowy killer seems to have escaped and "vanished from a heavily guarded garden." And this would not be the only inexplicable event haunting the characters of this story.

One of the woman from Jia clan, Wang Xi-feng, disappears from a locked and watched room, in which "a looming shadow" was flitting across the sliding door, but when the room was opened the only occupant was the chief maid, Patience – who was tightly bound and clasping the key of the room. But this is only the first act of a three-part (miracle) trick: outside they see "a swath of silk floating nearly seventy feet up in the air." It's a tailored garment that's recognized as Wang Xi-feng's robe and the body that was supposed to be inside this piece of clothing miraculously reappears inside "a courtyard locked from all sides."

Note that these are still only half of all the seemingly impossible situations in the story: the body of a third woman, Shi Xiang-yun, inexplicably appeared in a bed of petals and fourth, named Caltrop, vanished mere seconds after being seen inside a locked room and her body was later found on an outside field. Lastly, an apparition manifests itself by the lake and tries to drag a woman into the water, but this attempt is thwarted and the manifestation sinks back into the underworld.

Well, that's a hefty parcel of miracles and naturally not every single one of them is a classic example of the form: the impossibilities at the lake, the first and last one, where rather theatrical in nature and wonder if they would actually work or fool anyone, but they're good for what they are – especially the first one. The disappearance of Wang Xi-feng and the intruding shadow from the locked room was pretty routine, as was her reappearance inside the locked courtyard, but loved the bit about her ghostly garment floating in the air. It was wonderfully silly and a bit Scooby Doo-ish. I found the answer as to how Caltrop vanished from her locked and watched room a bit sketchy, but the explanation for how a body suddenly appeared in a bed of flowers was as clever as it was imaginative. A similar kind of trick was used in The Undying Butterflies (1997), from The Kindaichi Case Files, to create an alibi-trick and the idea might have been cribbed from that story. Regardless, Ashibe added some noticeable color to the idea. I loved it!

Dream of the Red Chamber
All of these apparent impossibilities are directly connected to the family history of the characters, inter-connecting relationships, past sins and the cultural mores of the time, which form an intricate maze of illusions and treachery – which is navigated by Lai Shang-Rong. A bright government official whose impressive casebook lifted him from the rank of lowly prefect to full-fledged Inspector of the Ministry of Justice. He's enjoyable and energetic investigator who sees mere trickery were others are blinded by the apparent supernatural, but his final conclusion has a blemish or two.

The first one is that the clueing is rather sparse and the second one is the revelation of what's behind this extraordinary chain of events, which is rather anticlimactic as it does not show any kind of grand design one expects from such a elaborate, twisted and complicated plot. However, this is partially made up when an intervening force is revealed to have meddled in the murders and the motive for the interference is what makes The Murder in the Red Chamber a genuine original piece of crime-fiction.

So, The Murder in the Red Chamber is far from being a classic in its own right, but the large scope of the story, the maze-like nature of the plot, the plethora of impossible situations and the final explanation definitely makes the book worth a shot. In particular if you're a fan of locked room conundrums, historical mysteries, foreign crime novels, pastiches or simply loved the source material that Ashibe drew upon for this book.

A note for the curious: some time ago, I took an enthusiastic shot at reading one of The Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese Literature, A Journey to the West (c. 1592) by Wu Cheng'en, which consists of two-thousand pages and the faithful, but terse, translation covered four volumes. Actually, the first volume, detailing Sun Wukong's rebellion against Heaven, was very readable, but got burned out in the second volume. It's a great and fantastic epic, but not the kind of literature that lends itself for binge reading. However, I still want to return to the third and fourth volume, because I still remember where I ended (the kidnapping of Tang Sanzang).

So far another one of my overlong, rambling reviews. I'll try and make an effort to ease off on the impossible crimes, but again, no promises.


An Invasive Species

"Impossible is a word to be found only in the dictionary of fools."
Napoléon Bonaparte
Back in October, "JJ," posted an open invitation on his blog, "John Dickson Carr is Going to Be 110 – Calling for Submissions," which gave everyone who wanted to participate a two-month notice and this was sufficient time to prepare – as even I managed to write and schedule this review well ahead of the deadline. Yes, I actually prepared a blog-post in advance! I'm that much of a fanboy for John Dickson Carr.

And picking my Carr-related subject was even easier than preparing this blog-post: the habitually overlooked and criminally underrated Captain Cut-Throat (1955), which is a thunderous blend of ghostly murder, espionage and adventure set in Napoleonic France. Regardless, the book never managed to emerge from the shadow of Carr's better-known historical work (e.g. The Devil in Velvet, 1951), but (at least) deserves to have its existence acknowledged. So let's put some polish on its name recognition!  

Captain Cut-Throat takes place during the warm summer days of August 1805, when "the shadow of the new Emperor lay long across Europe," who has been amassing an invasion force, called the Armée d'Angleterre, "along the whole length of the Iron Coast" – restlessly awaiting the Imperial order to begin the invasion of England. Their stationary position made the soldiers bored, fidgety and restless, but their attention was soon to be occupied by a murderous, wraithlike creature sneaking around the military encampments at Boulogne.

On the night of the 13th August, this shadowy figure began to murder sentries "like a ghost," because he couldn't be seen "even when he walks in the light." It began as a series or relatively ordinary stabbing deaths, but, "step by step and murder by murder," the killer moved from "a point far outside the camp to its very center," which culminated in a seemingly impossible murder. Grenadier Émile Joyet, of the Marine Guard, was one of the sentries patrolling the lighted, oblong enclosure round the Emperor's cliff-top pavilion, but he suddenly shouted, doubled up and collapsed – stabbed through the heart. The other sentries, who could observe "the whole lighted space," both inside the fence and outside, swear they had not seen a soul anywhere near the spot where the stabbing took place. As if the murderer had been invisible!

After some of the killings, the weapon was left behind, namely bloodstained daggers, but in every single instance there was a scrap of paper: signed "Yours sincerely, Captain Cut-Throat." Since the night of the second murder, the Grand Army has talked of nothing else.

The murders came to the attention of the Emperor himself and he has two options: launch his invasion at once, "which would cure everything by curing inaction," or " he must crush Captain Cut-Throat before another murder can be committed." So the Emperor gives Joseph Fouché, the Minister of Police, an impossible task: he has less than a week to ensnarl the cut-throat with his talent for Machiavellian maneuvering. 

M. Fouché has a large, far-reaching network of agents and spies, which captured a foreign agent, named Alan Hepburn, who operated in France under the Lupinian nom de guerre of "Vicomte de Bergerac." He wants to use this British agent to trap a British agent and involves Hepburn secret wife, Madeleine, whom he deserted for unknown reason. But they're not the only ones send into the encampments by Fouché: Hepburn involved himself with another woman, Ida de Sainte-Elme, who's one of Fouché agents and helped to capture Hepburn and they're closely followed by a Prussian horse-rider – Lieutenant Schneider of the Hussars of Bercy. 

Admittedly, a good portion of the first half of the book is one or two paces slower than the rest of the story, because Carr takes the time to introduce the characters, explain their situations and giving the details about the "series of ghost-murders" of Napoleon's sentries. But after these opening chapters, the story becomes somewhat atypical for Carr. One of the most notable examples of this is how he treated the impossible crime element of the story, which does not take the center stage of the plot and is easily explained by Hepburn around the halfway mark of the book. I found this to be a minor mark against the book, but I can understand why it was done as Captain Cut-Throat is more a novel of adventure and intrigue than one of detection and ratiocination. And that may be a problem for even some of Carr's most loyal readers. 

However, purely as a historical novel of romance, intrigue and adventure, Captain Cut-Throat allowed the cavalier attitude of its author to roam freely and let his swashbuckling, adventure-hungry spirit off the chain. This resulted in what is, arguably, Carr's best action scene: Hepburn's night-time flight through the field of balloons. A scene that would, by itself, be justification enough to make an expensive period film out of the book. It's simply that great! 

Of course, even an unapologetic JDC-apologist, like myself, cannot deny all of this running around and adventuring did not came at the cost of the detection, which has some shaky reasoning and fair play, but these elements are still far stronger than your usual run-of-the-mill historical spy-thriller – because this is a Carr novel after all. And the final revelation of the omnipresent villain is perhaps one of the most original plays on the least-likely-suspect gambit. I actually figured out the identity of Captain Cut-Throat the first time I read the book, but (admittedly) arrived to that conclusion instinctively rather than deductively. 

Captain Cut-Throat is not a perfect piece of fiction, but it's tremendous fun with an intriguing premise and plenty of excitement with a dusting of mystery and romance. On top of that, the first half has a good, if simplistic, impossible crime. So Carr really threw everything he had at the plot and the most impressive accomplishment is how he managed to simultaneously use elements of the spy-thriller, adventure story and an impossible crime tale, inside a historical narrative, without reducing the impact or effectiveness of any of them. Therefore, the book really should be better known within the ranks of readers of both Carr and historical mysteries. 

In closing, I would like to wish the ghost of John Dickson Carr a grand 110th birthday. Long may he haunt us!