Busybody, Beware!

"Blackmail is the most dastardly of crimes."
- Mrs. Bradley (Gladys Mitchell's The Echoing Stranger, 1952)
Margaret Lane van Patten was an American mystery novelist from Portland, Oregon, who moved to London, England, after her marriage to Frederick van Pattan in 1913 and used her adopted homeland as a backdrop for thirteen detective novels – eight of them reportedly star her cast of series-detectives. You read that correctly. She wrote a score of mystery novels, under the name of "Gret Lane," about a cadre of (semi) amateur detectives.

Kate Marsh is the protagonist of the series and the de facto ringleader of the group, who rubs her nose whenever she gets a hunch, which tells her mystery writing husband, Tony, that another body is waiting for them just around the corner. She has pair of partners-in-crime in John Barrin (late of Scotland Yard) and his homely wife, Jennie. This group is rounded out by their Chinese friend, Min Ling, who runs an antique store and Tony's foul-mouthed parrot, Blaster Murphy, who had "sailed the seas on tramps and whalers" and acquired a sailor's vocabulary – scandalizing people unaware of the bird's seafaring vernacular with a torrent of "explicit adjectives." I'm not going to the lie to you, the parrot was my favorite of the gang.

This eclectic group of detectives made their first appearance in The Curlew Coombe Mystery (1930) and would go on to appear in seven additional novels, such as The Lantern House Affair (1931), Death Visits the Summer-House (1939) and Death in Mermaid Lane (1940), but I decided to go with the last one in the series.

The Guest with the Scythe (1943) was not the only the last book about Kate Marsh and her close-knit group of friends, but also the final book Lane wrote during her lifetime as she passed away the following year. My reason for selecting this particular title was the backdrop of a residential spa, in rural England, which became a shelter for people who fled their towns and cities during the Blitz. And the war has a noticeable influence on the characters and events within this story.

White Owl Cove is the home-base of the series and the opening chapter tells how the war has affected that tiny village on the Devon coast.

All "the able-bodied men went to sea" and "the young women flocked daily to a near-by munition factory." The elderly people took care of the children and the children did their part by knotting nets for the purpose of camouflage. Barbed-wire, concealed gun emplacements and soldiers appeared on the shore and cliffs. Kate and Tony Marsh had handed over their semi-detached cottage to "six old ladies who had been blitzed from their Home for Needy Gentlewomen" and had temporarily moved in with their good friends, Mr. and Mrs. John Barrin – who live right next door. Tony had also gone to sea on a Plymouth minesweeper, but was invalided out of the army with a badly injured shoulder.

So this was an interesting snapshot of the effect the war has on a small, coastal community, but the story moves away from White Owl Cove after the first chapter. And the reason for the change in scenery is an unexpected visit from Inspector Smith, of Westbridge, who tells them they can stay at the small, but first-rate, guest house owned by his sister, Mrs. Carter. There is, however, a catch to this generous invitation.

Publicly, they'll be staying at the residential spa to get treatment for Tony's shoulder, but the reason why Mrs. Carter really wants them there is to bait a trap for a blackmailer. A ruthless specimen who drove one of her guests to take his own life. The victim was a young man, named Benson, who was terrified at the prospect of having to serve in the army and when papers were stolen from his room he went out to a field and shot himself. He was brought back in dying condition and confessed to Mrs. Carter that there was "a clever, wicked blackmailer" among her guests.

On a side note, the content of the blackmail material was never elaborated upon, but modern readers can make an educated guess based on the character description of Benson, which was of a "very handsome," effeminate young man "on whom blackmailers batten" – hinting at a personal preference that was not done at the time. Tragically, the public revelation of this secret would have probably kept him out of the army and away from the battle field. Anyway...

So the entire gang descends upon the guest-house of Waterside, in Wellwich, where they're confronted with a large, sprawling cast of potential suspects. There are, all together, sixteen guests and with all the side-and series characters you're looking at a playing field with roughly twenty-five pieces on it. What they find within this large, but closed, circle of people is more than just a blackmailer.

One of the guests they originally pegged as the blackmailer turned out to be merely "a curious busybody," who, like Don Quixote, "tilts at the windmills of rudeness in defense of civility," which he demonstrated when he employed, what could be construed as, blackmail material to publicly reprimand a pair of snobs, Mr. and Mrs. Wilson. But they also come across a potentially amorous prowler, literal kissing cousins, an invalid, two elderly, devoted twins and an old-fashioned opium-addict. Oh, they also find the murdered remains of one of their fellow guests!

Back home, Tony had prophesied that they would "bag a brace of corpses," because they "always do." He was right on the money.

One night, Kate and Tony were awakened by their dog, Taffy, who heard something outside the french windows and what they found was the body of one of their fellow guests, Mrs. Lee, laying underneath her bedroom window – twisted, bloodied and evidently very murdered. Interestingly, what immediately eliminated the possibility of an accident or suicide were not the various head wounds, but the fact that the murderer had replaced the blackout curtain after Mrs. Lee was thrown out of the window. It's one of those little historical details I always love to find in detective stories from this period and here it has some relevance on the plot.

The second, brutally murdered victim is found when the opium-angle leads our group of detectives to the rooms of a fortune-teller, Ismar the Palmist, where they chance upon a dead man in the waiting room with an ominous worded note pinned to it, which is "a warning to the curious" and ended with "busybody, beware." Obviously, this note was meant as a hint to Kate to keep both her nose and her friends out of the murderer's business. A hint stubbornly ignored by Kate and this makes the murderer want to spray death "like a machine-gun" (i.e. mass murder) at the resort.

The Guest with the Scythe is a pleasantly written, engaging and occasionally amusing mystery, but as a story of detection and ratiocination the book is not all that impressive. One of these shortcomings is the thread-bare, almost non-existent, clueing. Kate stumbled to the truth when the murderer made a slip of the tongue, but this happened in the final twenty, or so, pages of the book. A second, very minor, clue was never shared with the reader. But the worst thing is that these scraps only gave her an idea who had committed the murder. She had to wait for a written confession by the murderer to fill in the gaps.

So the conclusion to the story leaves me in two places. On the one hand, I can't say this was an unpleasant or badly written book, but the overall plot turned out to be very poor indeed. I suppose this is one of those series you have to read for the characters rather than the plot (like the Lockridges).

However, the book was written shortly before Lane's passing and the whole dying process may have negatively impacted the quality of the plot. I'll probably try one of the earlier ones, such as The Lantern House Affair, before making up my mind about this series. Something that has become very easy, because Black Heath Editions reissued nearly all of Lane's work. So I'll come back to Lane, Kate Marsh and the gang sometime in the future for a second opinion. 

Finally, allow me to draw your attention to my previous review, which is very long rundown of all the short stories in a 430-page anthology, The Realm of the Impossible (2017), that gathered more than twenty impossible crime stories from all over the world.


The Greatest Miracles On Earth

"I do not believe in miracles when murder is being considered..."
- Rev. Ebenezer Buckle (Nicholas Brady's The Fair Murder, 1933)
Recently, the independent publisher of impossible crime fiction, Locked Room International, released a massive, 430-page anthology, The Realm of the Impossible (2017), which was edited by John Pugmire and Brian Skupin. This collection comprises of 26 short stories and 12 anecdotes of real-life examples of the locked room problem that came from more than twenty countries scattered across this Pale Blue Dot of ours. Some even crossed time-and space itself. So the assortment of stories in this anthology is genuinely wide and varied.

I've decided to take down its content in a long, drawn out blog-post and won't waste too many words on this introduction. I only want to point out that, if you're reading this on the front-page of the blog, to click on "Read More" for the entire review. Yes, I know. I should not have to point out the obvious, but usually don't break up my reviews. Right, now we got that out of the way, let's get to it.

Paul Halter's "Jacob's Ladder" opens this anthology and places his most well-known series-character, Dr. Alan Twist, in the comfortable seat of an armchair detective and he listens to a peculiar story related by a former French policeman at the Hades Club – a tale so implausible that even the presence of the supernatural can't properly explain it.

The story takes place in the late 1930s, in France, where the broken body of a man, named Jacob Amalric, was found on the stony bank of a pond. His wounds were consistent with a fall from a great height, but the problem is that ten miles in any direction there are were no buildings, cliffs or perches for the victim to have been thrown off of. And to add to mystery, the victim lately had religion on his mind and claimed to have seen "a golden ladder reaching to the sky." A ladder he was intended to climb. It took the teller of the story a week of sleepless nights to work out the solution, but Dr. Twist picked apart this conundrum in less than fifteen minutes and reader can do the same – because the narrator provided the reader with all the necessary information and clues to arrive at the same conclusion as Dr. Twist.

So the combination of scrupulous fair play and the fairly original nature of the impossible crimes makes this a strong opening story. I believe stories like these make the case that Halter is better suited for the short story form, because they highlight his strength (plotting) and underplay his weaknesses (characterization, settings).

A note for the curious: one of the murders in Mack Reynolds' The Case of the Little Green Men (1951) poses a similar impossible problem as "Jacob's Ladder," but have to admit that Halter imagined the better of the two solutions.

The next story comes from the pen of Christianna Brand, titled "Cyanide in the Sun," which had not been reprinted since its original appearance in the now defunct British newspaper The Daily Sketch in 1958. Brand blended the sly, prominent poisoner from the classic detective story with the deranged serial killer of post-WWII crime-fiction, but added an impossible angle to some of the deaths.

Sunnyside Guest House, in Scampton-on-Sea, is the setting of the story and the resort has been the scene of several of the infamous "Cyanide Murders," but the perpetrator had not struck for months and guests only feel uneasy now at the idea of unknown murderer strewing poison about the place – until a warning from the killer arrives ("prepare to meet your end"). Precautions are taken by a group of six guests, who share a hamper of food between them, which excluded any prepared stuff that could be "doctored in advance." Nevertheless, one of them ingested a fatal dose of poison and dies. Brand crafted a slightly unusual story here, lacking a proper detective character, with an even more unusual, but clever, resolution ("left-handed").

My only complaint is that the poisoning method was rather obvious, but, perhaps, I have read too much Paul Doherty. Because this is exactly the kind of impossible poisoning you find in his detective stories.


A Wolf Among His Flock

"The cautious murderer, in his anxiety to make himself secure, does too much; and it is this excess of precaution that leads to detection."
- Dr. John Thorndyke (R. Austin Freeman's The Eye of Osiris, 1911)
Early last month, I became acquainted with the writing of James V. Turner through one of his Rev. Ebenezer Buckle novels, The Fair Murder (1933), which is part of a lamentably short-lived series published under the name of "Nicholas Brady." Four of the five titles in this series were released in a short burst during the early 1930s with the last one appearing a decade later in 1944.

I was favorably impressed by the extraordinary and increasingly darkening plot of The Fair Murder, told as a surprisingly conventional detective story, which convinced me to move as many titles from this brief series from my wish list to the big pile – a task that proved to be ridiculously easy. Nearly all of the Nicholas Brady titles are rarities on the secondhand book market and acquiring a copy will cost you a pretty dime.

John Norris of Pretty Sinister Books mentioned in his review of Ebenezer Investigates (1934) it took him almost 15 years to find a copy and had to cough up $85 to acquire it. Fortunately, four of the books were reissued last year by an independent publisher, Black Heath Editions, who sell their books for a buck a pop. So I was able to pick up the book Norris chased for more than in a decade in less than a month and at a fraction of the price he paid for it. Life isn't fair, is it?

I decided to dip into this obscure series without too much delay and my pick turned out to be first-rate village mystery that can stand comparison with H.C. Bailey's Black Land, White Land (1937), Agatha Christie's Murder is Easy (1939), Max Murray's The Voice and the Corpse (1948) and Edmund Crispin's The Long Divorce (1951). Yes, the one by Crispin is a really good village-set detective story, JJ. Just read it already! Anyway...

I picked the previously mentioned Ebenezer Investigates, the next-to-last book in the series, which takes place in the small, quiet village of Dowerby. A place that has not felt "the touch of unnatural death" for more than a hundred years. There are, however, more than enough everyday problems and most of them were deemed "unfit for polite conversation." One of the forbidden subjects was talking openly about the three-hundred pound debt the village incurred on the construction of Village Hall, but the contractor, Harry Cross, is not to be ignored and pesters the villagers with demands to be paid, which makes him such a fearful pest that he becomes the new bogeyman used by parents to intimidate their disobedient children – who were now being told that "Harry Cross will have you."

However, the locals understood they had to be freed from this debt and decided to hold such "a bazaar as had never been heard of in the county" and elected their parson, Rev. Ebenezer Buckle, as chairman of the Organizing Commitee. Several months of hard, selfless work were invested in putting together the village bazaar and the event promised to be a huge success.

The "most attractive part" of the bazaar's program is a village-wide treasure hunt for two golden sovereigns and everyone who pays their two shillings to enter the competition receives a clue in riddle-form.

So, once Rev. Buckle had unburdened himself of the responsibility of his flower stall, the mystery-addicted parson entered the treasure hunt himself, but his clue brought him to a ditch that ran along the foot of the railway embankment and there he caught "the glimpse of something blue" on the other side of bridge – laying at the bottom of the trench. When he came closer, the blue thing turned out to be the body of one of the village girls, Constance Bell, with the handle of a knife protruding from a "ghastly wound" in her throat.

As you'd expect, Rev. Buckle is not going to sit idly by as a murderer stalks the grounds of his own village and unapologetically inserts himself into the investigation. And how! The title of the book may be dull and unimaginative, but aptly describes the parson's role in this story, because he's at the front, back and center of the investigation.

Luckily, Chief Constable Kail holds a favorable opinion of the amateur criminologist and accepts his help in untangling the litany of complications that this murders brings with it.

One of these many complications concerns Constance Bell's rumored promiscuity and the time she spend in London, which may or may not have something to do with a prominent member of the Dowerby community, but the detectives also have to poke around the (emotional) wreckage of her parental home – muddled by the disappearance of her mother and 3-month-old baby brother. The water is even further muddled by her obstinate father, who refuses to talk, and consequently has to be held as a material witness at the police-station. And then there are such problems as to why Constance was standing in a ditch, filled with three inches of water, when she was stabbed and why was a piece torn from her blue frock near her ankles. What happened to the book she was seen carrying around the bazaar and how the murderer manage to lug around a big, cumbersome carving knife (stolen from the village fete) without being seen.

This apparently intricate maze of clues, differing plot-threads and misdirection will fully occupy the attention of any armchair detective and I'll freely admit that all of the bedevilment lead me down the wrong path regarding a vital plot-point, which made the startling simplistic solution a genuine surprise – one that came with a least-likely-suspect as killer. However, this person was being too clever and did too much to obscure the trail, which is what got this person noticed by Rev. Buckle. But the murderer was still clever enough to leave behind any actual evidence that could be brought into court. So the person had to lay a trap and resort to fabricating evidence in order to ensnare this person.

I'm aware that not every reader is charmed when a detective, especially in a classical mystery novel, goes down that route. Nevertheless, in this instance, I believe it fitted the plot of the story and the parson should be forgiven this indiscretion. If only for the wonderful performance he gave away in this book. A role that covered more ground than just detective work.

Not only did Rev. Buckle played the part of amateur criminologist, but also performed the role of enthusiastic botanist who practically chased everyone away from his stall with his intimate knowledge of flowers. Even more importantly, he never forgot his clerical duties to the village and was seen preaching several times from the pulpit, but also provided pastoral care when he mended a badly damaged marriage towards the end of the story ("the best piece of work" since "I was ordained").

This made Rev. Buckle a more well-rounded character that you can't help but like and admire. And invites you to read one of his other cases that were mentioned in passing. Luckily, The House of Strange Guests (1932) and Week-end Murder (1934) are currently residing on the semi-sentient hillside known as my TBR-pile.

On a whole, Ebenezer Investigates is arguably one of the better village-set mystery novels with a rock-solid, but relatively simplistic, plot and a solution that beautifully explains the clutter of complications that preceded the final chapters. Even the location of the two hidden sovereigns (from the treasure hunt) are revealed in the final pages. And what's more, if you paid attention to the opening chapters, you can probably make an educated case about their hiding place. Particularly when you know who hid the coins and the recurring theme in the riddles that were handed out as clues. So what's not to like?

Well, my next read is going to be that new locked room anthology, The Realm of the Impossible (2017), but might precede my mammoth (or two-part) blog-post with a review of Kindaichi or Case Closed.


The Casebook of Miss Victoria Lincoln

"I notice while all people are agreed as to the variety of motives that instigate crime, very few allow sufficient margin for variety of character in the criminal. We are apt to imagine that he stalks about the world with a bundle of deadly motives under his arm, and cannot picture him at his work with a twinkle in his eye and a keen sense of fun, such as honest folk have sometimes when at work at their calling."
- Loveday Brooke (C.L. Pirkis' "The Black Bag Left on the Doorstep," collected in The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective, 1894)
John Russell Fearn has been discussed on this blog before and noted in those previous posts how incredible prolific he was as a writer of science-fiction, westerns and detective stories, published under a small army of pen names, but surprisingly, he also penned a series of adolescent detective stories for teenage girls – using the byline of "Diana Kenyon." The stories originally appeared in a monthly magazine, titled Girls' Fun, during the late 1940s.

The protagonist is Miss Victoria Lincoln, "a lady detective," who's introduced to the reader as a perfectly precious thing. A young college graduate who excelled at almost everything in school and you could find her name "on practically every plaque in the school hall." After she graduated, her rich parents helped her pursue a career as a private investigator and opened a office for her in Regent Street, in London, which came with a big paragraph in the newspaper to announce she was open for business.

So you can say Miss Victoria Lincoln is pretty much a Mary Sue at heart. Thankfully, she's not one of those insufferable, overbearing characters and keeps to her role as investigator without displaying any pesky habits or annoying character-traits – which ensured the stories were readable and fun. Something I feared would not be the case after reading the first pages of the opening story.

There are, as far as I can tell, sixteen short stories in this series that were written by Fearn. However, the character of Miss Lincoln looks to have been the property of the magazine, because I also came across a series-listing that catalogs a clump of additional stories written mostly by Hilary Ashton and Vera Painter. But only a small selection of stories that were penned by Fearn appear to have been collected after their original magazine publication.

The Haunted Gallery: The Adventures of Miss Victoria Lincoln, Private Detective (2011) collects six of the sixteen short stories that Fearn wrote and they were written in the tradition of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and his contemporaries. Some of the stories, like the first one, definitely shows they were written with the Great Detective in mind.

I'll try to run through them as fast as possible and attempt not to bloat this blog-post to the same monstrous size as most of my reviews of short story collections. But no promises.

The first story gave this collection its book-title, "The Haunted Gallery," which takes place at a "lovely and historic old pile of Bartley Towers" that had "a cloak of gloom," sorrow and mystery draped over it ever since its owner, Professor Marchant, passed away, but ever since his passing someone has been paying nightly visits to the locked gallery – which housed the late professor's collection of antiques and curios. Every night, this intruder would smash a valuable antique to smithereens on the floor. And then there's "a ghostly female form in white draperies" who's been witnessed gliding around the place.

So the niece of the professor, Caroline Gerrard, and his former secretary, Dorothy Mannall, who felt "responsible for the safety of the collection" decide to call in outside help to put a stop to the intruder. Gerrard and Mannall have both attended Shelburne College and they recall a particular talented student, Miss Victoria Lincoln, who became a private detective. She came up with an interesting, two-pronged solution to the problem: one pertained to the person who opened the gallery door at night and how that related to the ghostly figure, while the other half revealed who smashed the precious antiques and why.

This double-layered solution struck me as an amalgamation of the plots from Sax Rohmer's "The Case of the Tragedies in the Greek Room," recently reprinted in Miraculous Mysteries: Locked Room Murders and Impossible Crimes (2017), and a well-known story from Conan Doyle's The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1904). No idea whether Fearn had those stories in mind when he wrote this "The Haunted Gallery," but the result is a decent enough story of this sort and a good introduction to the main-characters.

Note for the curious: Miss Lincoln recruits one of the characters, Caroline Gerrard, to become her personal assistance, once she finishes her final term at college, which she does in the third story.

The second story, "The Clue of the Blue Powder," is a mild dame-in-danger tale and begins when Lincoln meets a young woman, named Anne Seymour, standing forlornly at the little train station of Denbury. Seymour ask Lincoln where she can get a taxi, or "a pony and trap," so she can get to Riverdale Hall, but Lincoln offers her a ride and even decided to stay the night at the country house when discovering a message chalked on her suitcase – warning her to "keep away from the green room." This green room is Seymour's old nursery and the persistent threats makes Lincoln suspect there's something about the room that's very important to someone in the house.

So not a bad read at all, but the plot is nothing special and will probably prove itself to be quite a forgettable yarn.

The third story in this collection, "The Thief of Claygate Farm," is a personal favorite and marks the arrival of Caroline Gerrard to take her position as Victoria Lincoln's assistance, which had been offered to her in the opening story. Gerrard immediately has to accompany her new employer to a farm in Esher, Surrey, where Professor Lynch rented Claygate Farm as a place where he could safely store his collection of antiques and curios. Several attempts had been made to break into his London home, but the burglar is a persistent one and looks to have been more successful getting in, and out, of the farmhouse, because rings and pendants keep disappearing as if by magic – taken from "a locked room one by one."

However, what endeared this story to me was not a clever or original impossible situation. On the contrary. The problem of the locked barn house is explained with one of the oldest tricks of the trade. What made me like this story is how the false solution was used. The only opening in the locked room was "a small fanlight" set high in the far wall and this immediately made me suspicious of the pet jackdaw, Kim, that belonged to a farm boy, Tom Derry, who were both introduced at the start of the story. Only problem is that the possibility of the bird being the thief was eliminated halfway through the story and this meant they had to clear the bird's good name by finding the actual thief.

A very good and amusing short story that's actually a better introduction to the main characters than the opening story. Only drawback is the mundane explanation for the locked barn house, but that can easily be forgiven by everything that was written around it.

The fourth story of the lot, "No Shred of Evidence," can best be described as a Sherlockian tale with a classical, Golden Age-style plot and is easily the best item in this collection. I suspect this story will prove to be favorite with many of the more seasoned mystery readers.

Lincoln and Gerrard are traveling to St. Hilda's College for Girls, in Somerset, where the music teacher, Edsel B. Baxter, has gone missing and left behind a disturbing note telling that he had decided to end his own life – intending to do it in such way that his "body never will be found." But when the question his housekeeper, Lincoln and Gerrard learn that there were many suspicious anomalies in the life of the missing music teacher. One of them is that he looked remarkably slimmer when he wore his pajamas, while another concerned a pronounced limp that disappeared when he was (heard) pacing around his room.

So this makes for a typical Holmesian problem that enters Golden Age territory when the body of a man is found dangling from a tree branch in the leafiest corner of a small forest, but the victim is not the missing music teacher! As noted, this story will probably be best appreciated by seasoned armchair detectives, because the plot is a traditional one and surprisingly mature (see motive) compared to the earlier stories in this collection. Plot-wise, this is easily the best one of the lot.

The penultimate story, "The Visitors Who Vanished," can only be taken seriously when read as a spoof of the genre, because the story is borderline ridiculous with an explanation that plays on an exaggerated cliché outsiders have of classic detective stories. A cliché that never fails to make me cringe whenever it actually turns up in a detective story.

Lincoln and Gerrard are engaged by Mr. Graham West, a well-known art dealer, who had a silver statuette of a horseman stolen under seemingly impossible circumstances. One evening, someone who was pretending to be Professor Garston, a famous sculptor, called on West and was alone for less than a minute, but when West returned the study was deserted and one of his statuettes had vanished – only problem is that the entire house was either locked from the inside or had people mooning about the place. A stranger simply could not have left the house, in less than a minute, without being seen.

Obviously, the explanation hinges on a disguise and this makes it very apparent how the vanishing act was done. Something that would have been slightly more acceptable had Fearn picked a different kind of culprit. So not exactly the gemstone of this volume.

Finally, we have the story that closes this collection, titled "From Beyond the Grave," which has perhaps the most original plot of all six stories and only the second one that deals with a murder.

Lincoln and Gerrard are asked by Miss Mary Reid to prevent the murder of her beloved sister, Margaret, who's engaged to Sir Robert Carson, but Miss Reid suspects Sir Robert is only interested in Margaret's money. She's even convinced he murdered his previous wife, Lady Enid, who supposedly fell overboard from a Channel steamer and her body was never recovered. Miss Reid did some detective work of her own and believes the poor woman never set foot aboard the steamer, but was murdered "at some point en route" and the body had been hidden somewhere along the road, which makes it crystal clear how the case can be solved – namely by finding the place where the body had been stowed away.

A very well-written, good and, above all, a fun story to read. The highlight of the story is without doubt the trap that was laid for the murderer, which saw the murder victim stir from her makeshift grave and disturb her murderer's peace of mind. I might be remembering this wrong, but certain aspects of the plot appeared to be anticipating Agatha Christie's 4.50 from Paddington (1957) by nearly two decades.

However, my memory might be playing tricks on me, because it has been eons since I read 4.50 from Paddington. In any case, "From Beyond the Grave" perfectly served its role as a memorable closing act to the overall collection.

All in all, The Haunted Gallery is an attractive collection of short stories that are either playfully innocent or deadly serious. Only the second story attempted to do a bit of both. But whether the stories are playful or serious, the plots clearly showed they were written for a younger audience, because all of them come with training wheels on. So they only pose a challenge to young neophytes, but the bright-eyed innocence of some of these stories might warm the hearts of the more jaded readers of crime-and detective fiction. Personally, I was warmed by the third one, which is a wonderful yarn in every sense of the word. I did not even care by the standard locked room trick that was used. The rest of the story was too good to disqualify it on a technicality. 
So my love-affair with Fearn continues! And I have, what looks to be, a first-rate village mystery novel for my next review. So stay tuned! 


The Room With Something Wrong

"There's no bogey in that room. But there was—and may still be—death in it."
- Lord Mantling (Carter Dickson's The Red Widow Murders, 1935)
Paul Halter's La chambre du fou (The Madman's Room, 1990) is the fourth recorded case of his primary series-characters, Dr. Alan Twist and Inspector Archibald Hurst, which has recently been translated and published by the proprietor of Locked Room International, John Pugmire – who recently also edited and published a massive locked room anthology entitled The Realm of the Impossible (2017). But I'll get to that One Thousand and One Nights of miraculous crimes and impossible problems later this month.

So, for now, let's take a gander at The Madman's Room, which is Halter's take on the "room that kills" variety of the (semi) impossible crime. However, I should note here that the book has been tagged by everyone as a locked room mystery, but the plot is actually a how-was-it-done centered around a cursed room (c.f. John Dickson Carr's "The Devil's Saint" from The Dead Sleep Lightly, 1983). I decided not to tag this blog-post as a locked room or impossible crime.

The cursed room here is part of "a well-proportioned XVIIth century stone construction," named Hatton Manor, of which the oldest part had been built by "a knight who fought in the Hundreds' Years War" and witnessed Joan of Arc being burned at the stake – a horrifying spectacle that continued to haunt him upon his return to England ("we burnt a saint"). Some believe that the guilt-ridden knight went mad and burned down the original structure, but he would not be the last person to lose his mind on that premise.

At the end of the 19th century, Hatton Manor was the home of Stephan Thorne and his family, which included a brother, Harvey, who had the promise of "a future literary genius." Harvey had been given his own room on the upper floor where night after night, year after year, he filled "ream after ream of paper." After two years, Harvey had completed a bulky, handwritten manuscript, but when his father read the manuscript a change came over him, grew ill and passed away. Everyone else who read the manuscript was left in a state of shock and Harvey was ordered to never take his accursed writing out of his room ever again.

Needless to say, Harvey was not pleased by the response his masterpiece received and, in turn, his relatives began to shield him from the outside world, because his mind was clearly unbalanced and he became a recluse in his private room – everyone who crossed the threshold was seized by "a curious and indefinable sense of unease." One day, cries were heard coming from the room and they discovered Harvey angrily convulsing on the ground. He died only a few minutes later, but left them with the chilling words they "will perish in fire" for their sins. Curiously, there was a wet patch on the carpet in front of the fireplace.

And not long after his passing, nearly the entire family perished in a fire and Stephan's pregnant wife, Rosemary, ordered Harvey's room to be permanently sealed.

The room remained sealed for decades. Until one of the two grandsons of Stephan and Rosemary, Harris Thorne, relocated his (extended) family to the manor house, which includes his wife, Sarah, and her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Howard Hilton. But also his brother-in-law, Francis Hilton, and his wife, Paula. Up to that point, the only residents of Hatton Manor had been Harris' brother, Brian, who lives there as a reclusive clairvoyant with a couple of servants.

Over the course of this story, Brain makes several astonishingly accurate predictions about love, money and misfortune. And the later pertains to his brother's decision to reopen the sealed room and use it as a private study. Shortly after the room is reopened, Harris is found beneath the open window of his study, in the rock garden below, with a fatal wound to his head. Even more eerily, there's a wet patch on the carpet. Just like what happened when his great-uncle Harvey died around the turn of the century!

First Floor Floorplan of Hatton Manor
So, there you have it. The premise of a classical, baroque-style detective story that could have been imagined during the genre's golden days and have to highlight two particular aspects of the plot I found to be absolutely endearing.

When Dr. Twist and Hurst discuss the peculiar circumstances surrounding Harris Thorne's apparent suicide, the later mentions that a secret passage had been found in the room. A passage that lead to the adjacent storeroom. However, the thick layer of dust on the storeroom floor demonstrated that nobody had entered it in many years. 

Usually, these kind of secret passages are mentioned, but turn out not to exist, or offered as a completely underwhelming and disappointing answer to a locked room mystery, but never are they actually found and then eliminated – which is something I always wanted to happen for a change. Just have someone come across a hidden passage, or small cubbyhole, at the crime-scene only to have it eliminated as an entrance and exist (like it being bricked up or something).

So kudos to Halter for using the hidden passageway without incorporating it into the solution of the madman's room!

Secondly, I found the attempt on Halter's part to write a more character-driven detective novel to be adorable. Halter is not a mystery writer known for creating believable, three-dimensional characters and this book is no different in that regard, but the characters, or their actions, are given more consideration here. A good example of this is the prologue, which showed Paula had an intimate friendship with detective by the name of Patrick Nolan. A character who would later turn up in the story again to play a vital role in the unraveling of the mysteries that have plagued Hatton Manor for generations.

Nevertheless, Halter is not exactly a Christianna Brand in the character-department and, consequently, his cast-of-characters were only the proverbial cogs in the engine of the plot – who all played their part in "a chain reaction of events." Luckily, those events formed a pretty good, if somewhat imperfect, detective story.

You can compare The Madman's Room to La ruelle fantôme (The Phantom Passage, 2005), which had an excellent central problem and solution about a vanishing street, but was completely unconvincing when it came to explaining the visions from the past and future. The Madman's Room has similar strengths and weaknesses.

As a strength, you can point to the delightful back-story of the titular room and the maddening problem posed by the wet patches that appear on the carpet after each incident. The answer Halter provided for these wet patches was very clever indeed and represents the strongest strand in the twisted coil of plot-threads, which I was unable to figure out for myself (I did figure out who-and why). 

On the weaker side, we have a shaky alibi that was created from "scratch in mere minutes" and someone has called, what made this alibi possible, ridiculously convenient. And I have to agree with that observation. I was also slightly underwhelmed by the answers that explained the divination's of Brian Thorne.

So, while the plot was a mixed bag of tricks, I still tremendously enjoyed my time with the book as a whole, which offered a fun, tricky and solvable detective story. To give you an exact idea where I stand on The Madman's Room, I can point to two other reviews of the book. My fellow locked room enthusiast, "JJ," awarded the book a full five-stars, while Sergio of Tipping My Fedora only gave the book two-and-a-half tips. If I used a similar rating-system, I would give The Madman's Room a solid three-and-a-half points. And that's not too shabby, I think.

Anyway, I better cut this already overlong, rambling review here and tell you that the next post will be about a small, little-known short story collection by a mystery writer who has been mentioned quite often on this blog. Oh, and this collection might contain one or two impossible crime stories. What a surprise!