3/26/17

Clue to the Labyrinth

"The whole story is now before you: clues galore, I give you my word; and when put together in the proper order and the inevitable deductions drawn, they point resolutely to the one and only possible criminal."
- Ellery Queen ("Challenge to the Reader" from The American Gun Mystery, 1933)
Philip MacDonald was a horse-and dog breeder, screenwriter and a crime-and thriller novelist who pioneered the modern serial killer genre with such novels as Murder Gone Mad (1931), The Mystery of the Dead Police (1933) and the very late The List of Adrian Messenger (1960), but MacDonald was also credited with penning a few genuine detective stories – some of them made it into Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991). Rest assured, this is not going to be yet another piece on some obscure locked room title. Something else found its way into my hands!

Recently, the Collins Crime Club, an imprint of HarperCollins, reissued an experimental detective story by MacDonald, The Maze (1932), which is alternatively titled Persons Unknown and originally had a good subtitle – namely "An Exercise in Detection." I think the description is very appropriate for a book that can best be described as a novelization of the "Challenge to the Reader" concept that Ellery Queen introduced in The Roman Hat Mystery (1929).

MacDonald stated in his preface that he had "striven to be absolutely fair to the reader." Or, as he described it, The Maze is a completely fair story that places the reader and his detective "upon an equal footing" by giving both parties all of the information in exactly the same form. The lion's share of the book consists of a lengthy transcript of a Coroner's inquest and this verbatim report barely leaves any room for fanciful prose or shrewd characterization, which makes this the storybook equivalent of a crossword puzzle or chess problem.

So this is not mystery novel everyone will be able to enjoy, but connoisseurs of the pure, problem-oriented and clue-strewn detective stories will no doubt be able to appreciate it.

The Maze opens with MacDonald's series-detective, Col. Anthony Gethryn, receiving a letter from the Assistant Commissioner, Sir Egbert Lucas, while on holiday abroad and the reason for this intrusion pertains an extraordinary case – one that could benefit from a fresh pair of eyes and a rested brain. Sir Egbert has enclosed the court transcripts from the inquest, all of them, and wants Gethryn to peruse them at his leisure to see if he can spot anything the police might have missed.

The problem MacDonald poses is of the classical kind: on the night of the 11-12th July, in the private study of a Kensington home, the head of the household, Maxwell Brunton, is murdered under bizarre circumstances. Brunton's right eye had been penetrated by a large lump of gold quartz with a long, blood-covered spur that had pierced the brain. A very unusual murder weapon and circumstances suggests the murderer must be one of "the inmates of the house," but, as the transcript shows, there's "a perfect gallimaufry of motive" that correspond with a number of potential suspects.

First of all, there's the victim's wife, Enid Brunton, who was "persistently harrowed" by her husband's constant infidelity. One of the women entangled in a liaison with her husband was her best friend, Mary Lamort, who was staying at the home at the night of the murder. Adrian Brunton is the only son of the victim, but his motive is threefold, because his father disapproved of the woman he intended to marry and that angered him. And there's also the huge inheritance. Claire Bayford is Maxwell Brunton's daughter, who widowed young, but she has invited a guest over at the home, Peter Hargreaves, which, for some reason, annoyed her father – as well as providing a potential motive during the inquest. Finally, there's the secretary and number of servants. All of them make testimonies and some even emerge as potential suspects.

You should take note that all of these characters only appear to the reader as named in the transcript. The only allowance given to characterization is how they talk (i.e. accents) or how they responded to the Coroner's questions (i.e. elusive or outright rude).

Gethryn acknowledged how the lack of a human element hampered him, which resulted in some self-reflection on my part, because, as a plot-oriented reader, I tend to snarl at characterization, but MacDonald effectively showed that a pure, undiluted and plot-driven detective story can have its limitations – which makes my failure all the more embarrassing. I completely failed in getting anywhere near the correct solution. Not even close!

I'm not entirely sure how fair the motive actually was, which seemed very modern for a 1930s mystery novel, but I should have identified the murderer. So that pretty much shattered my self-image as a brilliant armchair detective and crushed any ghost of a dream of becoming, as MacDonald advised in his preface, "a really big noise at Scotland Yard." However, that's also part of the fun of The Maze and this aspect should not disappoint any mystery reader who loves to match wits with the detective. As a matter of fact, if you're that kind of (thinking) reader, you should launch this title to the top of your wish-or TBR list. I also suspect fans of the Van Dine-Queen School of Detective Fiction will be able to appreciate The Maze.

So, now that we got the review out of the way, I want to end this blog-post with an observation about the book and author: MacDonald wrote The Maze around the same time he moved to Hollywood, which made me wonder if the book, for him, was also a writing exercise. It's practically written like a movie script. I got the strong impression he was practicing to build a story and distinguish characters with nothing but dialogue. Why not? You pen a pure detective story and simultaneously garner some experience for your second line as a scenarist. You kill two birds with one stone. It makes sense, right?

3/25/17

Tricks of the Trade

"In the stock market—and I know just enough about the market to know that money begets money—it is possible to make or lose millions in an hour."
- Prof. Augustus S.F.X. van Dusen (Jacques Futrelle's "The Problem of the Vanishing Man," collected in Great Cases of the Thinking Machine, 1977)
Willoughby Sharp was born into a wealthy, prominent New York family and briefly followed in his father's footsteps as the head of a brokerage firm, but this endeavor only lasted three years and moved his family to island of Bermuda – where they lived from the "judicious sales of costly pieces of jewelry" that Sharp had bought his wife during the 1920s. Upon his return to New York, Sharp entered the world of publishing and even became the author of a pair of obscure, long-since forgotten mystery novels.

Fortuitously, Murder in Bermuda (1933) and Murder of the Honest Broker (1934) were reissued by Coachwhip in 2013 and Curt Evans wrote an extensive introduction of roughly thirty pages. One that was littered with Van Dinean footnotes, sometimes eating up the bottom half of a page, but the biographical details were very interesting and one event of note was the brutal murder of Sharp's ex-business partner, Claude Kendall – a notorious publisher of controversial and banned books. Evans wrote a short piece about this case on his blog, entitled "Murder of the Publisher: Who Killed Claude Kendell," which (sort of) is provided with a possible answer in the comment-section.

A second, unsolved mystery brought up in the introduction concerned a third detective novel, that was announced, but never published!

For 1935, Sharp had promised a second case for the policeman character from his previous novel, Inspector Bullock, which was to be titled The Mystery of the Multiplying Mules and even supplied a very enticing synopsis. Reportedly, Bullock is called in by Logan family, not because something was stolen, but something had been added to their property. On three successive Friday mornings, they've found strange mules "in their locked barn" and "three deaths follow in rapid order." Sadly, the book was never published, or even written, and can be added to this depressing list of lost manuscripts and unpublished detective novels. Something that becomes even more depressing when you realize the locked barn might have provided the plot with an impossible situation.

Thankfully, we can still get our greedy hands on the two mystery novel that did roll off the printing press and my choice fell (for no specific reason) on The Murder of the Honest Broker.

The broker of the title is Philip Torrent, who may be an honest stockbroker, but the opening of the book shows he's surrounded by a coterie of would-be assassins and all of them are lavishly supplied with a variety of motives. One of them is his business partner, Temple Hastings, who defrauded him to the tune of "three hundred and eighty thousand two hundred and forty-seven dollars," but the timely passing of Torrent would put Hastings in the clear. Torrent also has a nephew, Howard, who, according to his uncle, has only ambition and that's "to drink dry every hotel, restaurant and speak-easy in the city." So he refuses to supplement his nephew's monthly allowance. The stockbroker is also a silent partner of Chipo Marinelli, who runs a speak-easy, but Torrent wants to cash-out and this means that the barman has to cough up seventy thousand dollars. But there are also some personal motives.

Mrs. Mary Torrent is unfaithful to her husband with another stockbroker, Jack McDonald, who wants to marry her, but her husband "refuses a divorce on any grounds." However, Philip Torrent also has an extramarital affair with one Lucy Laverne, but when he ends their affair she promises that he will "live just long enough to regret it."

So there are more than enough suspects to go around when Torrent collapses on the floor of the Stock Exchange.

Enter Inspector Francis X. Bullock of the Homicide Squad: a great, red-faced giant of a man, "brusque of speech and direct of manner," who has been overheard commenting with "Irish fluency, causticity and blasphemy" of the subject of certain class of "mythical and infallible beings" - namely the storybook detective. Bullock would love to meet "one of those mincing, namby-pamby know-it-alls" and put his hands around one of their "damned supercilious necks." He even echoes Sgt. Beef from Leo Bruce's Case for Three Detectives (1936) when condemning their "Egyptian mummies and their stuffed fish and their underground passages and their slant-eyed, Chinese hatchet men."

Regardless of Bullock's antipathy for Philo Vance, Drury Lane and Thatcher Colt, the police inspector gives away a grand performance as one of the Great Detectives of the Printed Page. A remark he would no doubt answer with absolute contempt (see ending).

A problem facing Bullock is having to uncover the common denominator between the poisoning of Philip Torrent and the death of Sandy Harrison. Only a short time after Torrent collapsed, Harrison was thrown in a similar convulsion in his office on the top-floor of the Stock Exchange, but there doesn't seem to be a motive for killing both men within the same quarter of an hour. And then there's the tricky question how a deadly quantity of curare could have been introduced into the bloodstream of both men.

Slowly, but surely, Bullock pieces together the truth based on scraps recovered from the paper-strewn floor of the Stock Exchange, a red metal pencil, a phonograph needle that was not smeared with poison and a passage from South American history. One thing that was, sort of, impressive is how the origin of the poison was actually used as a hint. Usually, the presence of curare is nothing more than to give a story a tinge of the exotic, but here it actually functioned as a clue of sorts and helped put Bullock on the right track – demonstrating that Sharp knew his way around a plot.

The method for administrating the poison, as well as the deadly connection between both murders, clearly showed the ghoulish ingenuity we so gleefully associate with the genre's Golden Age. However, I was somewhat less enthusiastic about the revelation of the murderer.

In my opinion, the culprit in Murder of the Honest Broker was a little too well hidden from the reader, which somewhat weakened the obvious attempt by Sharp to play completely fair with his readers. I suppose it still qualifies as a fair play mystery novel, but not a perfect textbook example of how the least-likely-suspect card should be (ideally) played. What was interesting about this aspect of the solution is how much the murderer's actions resembled those of the culprit from Max Rittenberg's 1914 short story, "The Mystery of Box 218," which can be read in The Invisible Bullet and Other Strange Cases of Magnum, Scientific Consultant (2016). There's even a similar sort of relationship, but how or what would be spoiling both stories. I just wanted to point out that there's remarkable similarity in the solutions of both stories.

So, all in all, Murder of the Honest Broker was not bad, not bad at all, which comes with an authentic backdrop and some ingenuity as far as the method is concerned, but the highlight of the book the presence of Bullock – who does not, exactly, hover inconspicuously in the background. He forcefully takes center-stage of the story and I would not have it any other way. It also makes the loss of his second recorded case all the more depressing.

Who knows... maybe one day a yellowing, crumbling manuscript of The Mystery of the Multiplying Mules is excavated from a bottom drawer or a dusty, long-forgotten archive. Until then, I'm glad this one got reprinted and I'll be taking a look at Murder in Bermuda sometime in the future.

3/22/17

A Thing of the Past

"Outside the window, so close to the pane that it seemed to be pressing against it, was a white face—a chalk-white face, whether man or woman none could tell."
- Annie Haynes (The House in Charlton Crescent, 1926)
In my previous blog-post, I reviewed an archaeologically-themed mystery novel, Arthur Rees' The Shrieking Pit (1919), which left me in the mood for a similar sort of detective story, but there were only two such titles on my shelves that had not been previously discussed on this blog – namely R. Austin Freeman's The Penrose Mystery (1936) and Agatha Christie's Murder in Mesopotamia (1936). Logically, I should've gone with the former, because it has been wasting away on my TBR-pile for ages, but settled for the latter. So, yes, this is the second re-read this month.

Murder in Mesopotamia is fourteenth novel about Christie's most popular and enduring creation, Hercule Poirot, which also happened to be part of a sub-category, called "Poirot Abroad," that includes some of the Belgian detective's most celebrated cases – such as Murder on the Orient Express (1934), Death on the Nile (1937) and Evil Under the Sun (1941). The books and short stories from this sub-category take place between the countries of continental Europe (e.g. Murder on the Links, 1923) and the sun-drenched Middle East (e.g. Appointment with Death, 1938).

Christie's second husband, Max Mallowan, was a prominent British archaeologist and she spend many years helping her husband with pulling the remnants of past civilizations from the earth of the Middle East. So you can easily see how this region became the backdrop for so many of her stories, but there are only two that used an excavation site as the scene of a crime: an early short story, entitled "The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb," collected in Poirot Investigates (1924) and Murder in Mesopotamia. A pity, really, because archaeological settings are criminally underutilized in detective stories. Anyhow...

Murder in Mesopotamia takes place during an archaeological dig near Hassanieh, "a day and a half's journey from Baghdad," situated in present-day Iraq and was at the time of the story a young, independent kingdom – having been granted full independence from British rule in 1932. However, the presence of a British policeman, Captain Maitland, suggests the story took place when the region was still a protectorate of the British Empire.

The story at hand is narrated by a nurse, named Amy Leatheran, who has been engaged by a well-known archaeologist, Dr. Erich Leidner, to keep a weary eye on his wife. Louise Leidner is a beautiful, charming and intelligent woman, but Leatheran quickly comes to the conclusion that she's also "the sort of woman who could easily make enemies." Lately, she seems to be genuinely afraid of someone.

Dutch edition (pastel series)
During the Great War of 1914-18, Louise was married to a German, Frederick Bosner, who she discovered to be "a spy in German pay." She had a hand in the arrest and he was to be a shot as a spy, but escaped and was, reportedly, later killed in a train wreck. However, she started to receive threatening signed by her late husband. So did her husband escape death a second time? Or is his younger sibling, who idolized his older brother, plotting revenge? In any case, two days after her marriage to Dr. Leidner she received a death threat ("You have got to die"). Several additional letters arrived, recently they even had an Iraqi stamp, but the most disturbing ones announce "death is coming very soon" and "I have arrived." She even saw "a dead face," grinning against a window pane, which only she saw.

So not everyone takes her completely serious and Leatheran even suspects Louise might have been sending those threatening letters herself, but the situations becomes as serious as the grave when Dr. Leidner stumbles across Louise's body in her bedroom – struck down by "a terrific blow on the front of the head."

Coincidentally, the world-renowned private-detective, Hercule Poirot, is passing through the region after "disentangling some military scandal in Syria" and is basically given full control of the investigation by Captain Maitland. Something for the curious-minded: Poirot's experience in this case is what inspired the famous quote from Death on the Nile that compared detective work with an archaeological dig. Poirot does something like that here: removing all of the dirt and extraneous matter surrounding the problem, and small cast of characters, until the truth clearly emerges from all of the facts, questions and personality of the victim. As one of the characters observed at the end, Poirot has "the gift of recreating the past" and would have made a great archaeologist.

Interestingly, Poirot's explanation reveals that the book, all along, was an impossible crime story.

Scene of the Crime

One of the two reasons for re-reading Murder in Mesopotamia is the archaeological angle, but also for the fact that Robert Adey listed it in Locked Room Murders (1991). However, the claim of the book being a locked room mystery seems shaky at first, because the bedroom was neither locked from the inside nor under constant observation from the outside. It's established that nobody from outside of the large house could have committed the murder, but there was a window of ten minutes when nobody was in the courtyard to observe anyone entering, or leaving, the only door that opened into Louise's bedroom – which would make this a closed circle of suspects situation. There is, however, a very good reason why it would still qualify as an impossible crime novel.

I recently posted a comment on a blog-post on The Reader is Warned, titled "The Case of the Impossible Alibi," in which I gave my (poorly typed) opinion under what strenuous conditions an apparent cast-iron alibi can be considered an impossibility. I think Murder in Mesopotamia meets those qualifications and the explanation as to how the murderer pulled of the killing could've been used to create a full-fledged locked room scenario. So I filed this review under "locked room mysteries" and "impossible crimes."

However, I would recommend not to read my comment on that blog-post unless you've read the book.

I should point out something that's often overlooked or ignored: a second, gruesome murder occurs towards the end when a colleague of Dr. Leidner, one Anne Johnson, swallows "a quantity of corrosive acid" and burns to dead from the inside, but when she lies dying she gives, what's known as, a dying message – one that gives away a huge clue about the method of the first murder. And that gives a huge hint about the identity of the killer.

So, all in all, Murder in Mesopotamia has all the ingredients for a top-tier Agatha Christie novel, but the plot has one very black mark against it. You can only accept the solution, if you accept that Louise Leidner was a very dense, unobservant and low-conscience person. And there was an attempt to foreshadow the fact that she could have missed the keypoint of the plot. However, it's was confirmed that she was actually an intelligent woman. So this single point makes the solution, as a whole, hard to digest and condemns the book to the rank of mid-tier Christie.

I was actually reminded of Ellery Queen's The American Gun Mystery (1933), which came inches from being a first-class detective story and a classic title from the early EQ period, but then came the mind-numbing explanation for the vanishing gun – which was impossible to swallow. The American Gun Mystery and Murder in Mesopotamia are actually the same in that regard, because that single point makes the whole explanation a tad-bit implausible.

Regardless, it was still a well written and interesting mystery novel, but simply not in the same league as Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun.

Well, that ended on a less than enthusiastic note. Anyway, not sure what I'll dig up next, but I'll continue my futile attempt to reduce the mass of my semi-sentient TBR-pile.

3/19/17

A Frame of Mind


"Commit a crime, and the earth is made of glass. Commit a crime, and it seems as if a coat of snow fell on the ground, such as reveals in the woods the track of every partridge and fox and squirrel and mole. You cannot recall the spoken words, you cannot wipe out the foot-track, you cannot draw up the ladder, so as to leave no inlet or clew." 
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Back in 2012, I positively reviewed The Moon Rock (1922) by Arthur J. Rees and John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, suggested in the comment-section I take a look at Rees' The Shrieking Pit (1919) next, which he described as "one of the best detective novels written prior to 1920." 

Well, that was enough to secure it a spot on my elephantine TBR-pile, but then this long-forgotten mystery novelist began to slip from my mind and had not really given him a second thought until one of my fellow bloggers, "D for Doom," reviewed the book over at his excellent blog – called Vintage Pop Fiction. So I decided to finally excavate the book from the big pile and see what all the fuss is about.

The Shrieking Pit is set in Norfolk, England, in 1916, when the European continent was in the middle of the First World War and this global skirmish has a prominent presence in the story. In the first chapter, there are references to young army officers, war widows and a nearby zeppelin air-raid that had nearly emptied out the Grand Hotel. Something that may have affected the peculiar young man in the public room of the Grand Hotel.

David (or Grant) Colwyn is an American-born Englishman and a private-investigator of some celebrity, who is supposed to be taking a well deserved holiday, but he can't help observing the troubled man sitting in an alcove and assumes the poor soul is shell-shocked – until another guest takes a seat at his table. The man is Sir Henry Durwood, a Harley Street specialist, who recognizes the signs of furor epilepticus and asks Colwyn to help him intervene when the attack comes. Sure enough, they find themselves carrying a now unconscious man, who registered as James Ronald, to his room, but refuses any additional help once he regained consciousness. And that same day, he leaves the hotel without paying his bill of thirty pounds.

However, the memory of this incident comes back the following day when news reaches the hotel that a murder has been committed in a neighboring village and it looks as if the author of that crime is James Ronald!

The scene of the crime, called Flegne-next-sea, is a dying seaside village surrounded by "swamps and stagnant dykes." A place of outstretched marshlands, which encroached on the roads, dotted with often abandoned stone cottages, ruins of a priory and "a crumbling fragment of a Norman tower" - remnants of a long, sustained struggle against the hostile elements of the place. It was "a poor place at the best of times," but the war had made everything worse and everyone a whole lot poorer. So the arrival of an archaeologist to the village was seen as a godsend, because of the work and money this brought to the locals.

Roger Glenthorpe was an elderly archaeologist, who lodged at the Golden Anchor, which he used as the home base for his extensive research into the fossil remains that are common to that part of Norfolk. Unfortunately, for the archaeologist, the locals of this remote spot are scientifically illiterate. So he welcomed the arrival of Ronald at the inn, because the young man was obviously educated and knew a thing or two about science and history.

However, Ronald leaves the inn in the wee hours of the morning and Glenthorpe's bedroom is found empty, but the key is, uncharacteristically, sticking in the lock on the outside of the door. A track of boot-prints lead from the inn to the mouth of a pit, which is a part of "a number of so-called hut circles" that were "prehistoric shelters of the early Britons," where a workman was lowered into by rope and finds the murdered remains of Glenthorpe – stabbed in the chest. A sum of 300 pounds and a table-knife, used by Ronald at dinner, are missing. So things don't look very good for the missing Ronald.

One thing pointed out by "D" in his review is the fascinating treatment of circumstantial evidence and how this evidence can be interpreted, which runs like a red thread through the plot. According to Colwyn, there are two kinds of circumstantial evidence: in one of them the presumption of guilt depends on "a series of links forming a chain," while in the other "the circumstances are woven together like the strands of a rope." Colwyn thinks the latter is the strongest kind of circumstantial evidence of the two, but believes the case against Ronald hinges on the former and believes the strongest link in the chain of evidence are the boot-prints. And take that away and the evidence "snapped in the most vital link."

However, Colwyn's professional opinion does not prevent a devastating loss in the courtroom. The courtroom scenes were one of the highlights of the book. They were very well written and characterized, which makes you almost wish the entirety of the story had been penned as an old-fashioned courtroom drama. One of the very few genuine weaknesses of the plot is the repetition of the all facts and this would've been less of a problem in a courtroom setting, because the reiterations could be done by the lawyers, prosecution and a final summing up by the judge – as well as by witnesses on the stand. Nevertheless, I think plot-oriented readers can cope with some of the repetition here.

I suppose this sounds a bit weird, following that minor complaint, but The Shrieking Pit struck me as a predecessor of E.R. Punshon's work. There's more than a passing resemblance between Rees' The Shrieking Pit and Punshon's The Conqueror Inn (1943).

Rees also had a similar verbose, ornamental writing-style as Punshon, with a keen eye for historical detail, which might be off-putting to some readers, but, personally, I love this approach when it's wrapped around a strong, intelligently constructed and well imagined plot – which was definitely the case here. A story gets so much better when there's a strong sense of place, time and history.

The ghosts of past centuries, even millenniums, appear throughout the book, which range from the prehistoric, stone-age dwellings and the bullet tinted wall of the inn telling of a long-ago battle between a gang of smugglers and the King's troops to the sporting magazines from the 1860s at the inn's fireside bookshelf – all of them alluding to a different and sometimes better, more prosperous time. They make the impoverished state of the small, dying village even more tragic. If that's not gloomy enough, there's the encroaching marshlands, the dank swamps and the ghost of a cursed woman in white who haunts the region. But there are also whispers among the locals of a ghostly dog, "Ol Black Shuck," roaming the dense woods. So the book also has a touch of Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902).

So, the atmospheric and historically rich backdrop, alongside the role of the First World War, undoubtedly counts as the book's strong point, but the very involved plot also proved to be noteworthy.

Granted, the explanation revealed that the crime-scene resembled a busy train-station, with characters popping in-and out of the bedroom, which caused many of the plot complexities, but Rees held a firm grasp on all of the plot-threads – which resulted in a pleasing, clear-cut explanation of all the events. You'd want to kick some of the characters for being so bone-headed, however, it made for a nice, complex and involved detective story. One that appeared, on the surface, to be a straightforward case for the police, but Corwyn uncovered many complications and contradictory evidence. All of which he managed to explain away by revealing that there was a simplistic, even sordid, truth behind the crime.

So, yes, The Shrieking Pit is a well-written, competently plotted and interesting detective novel from the transitional period between the Doylean Era and the Golden Age. As such, I can particularly recommend it to readers whose personal taste veer towards the Victoria-style of mystery writing or to fans of Punshon's Golden Age mysteries.

Well, so far my hasty, sloppily written review and my next one will probably be of another archaeological-themed mystery novel, but I've not yet made up my mind. So we'll see.

P.S: see comment-section for an explanation on the confusing first name of the detective. 

3/16/17

John Sladek: Short Slayings

"A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools."
- Douglas Adams (Mostly Harmless, 1992)
John Sladek is perhaps best remembered as a satirist and an author of science-and speculative fiction, usually written with a humorous bend, but he also made a brief excursion into the realm of crime-fiction during the 1970s and penned two highly regarded locked room novels – alongside a few surprisingly obscure short stories.

During the early 70s, the Times of London held a short story competition for detective fiction and no less a figure than Agatha Christie served on the jury. Over a thousand short stories were submitted, but Sladek's "By an Unknown Hand" emerged victorious and became the centerpiece of The Times of London Anthology of Detective Stories (1973). However, the real prize for Sladek was an opportunity to write a full-length mystery novel and this resulted in a shimmering gem of the modern, post-World War II era. A genuine classic!

Black Aura (1974) is widely regarded as one of the best locked room novels the genre has ever produced and was followed by Invisible Green (1977), which is less popular, but still relatively well thought of by aficionados of impossible crime fiction – who usually acknowledge that the latter failed to live up to its predecessor. Regardless of the uneven quality between both titles, they cemented Sladek's reputation as a notable practitioner of the locked room mystery and we all mourned the fact that the he only wrote two of them. But as Sladek once remarked in jest, "one could starve very quickly writing locked room mysteries" in the modern era.

Nevertheless, most readers who loved his two novels seem to be unaware he penned nearly a dozen short detective stories, which were largely gathered in the posthumously published Maps: The Uncollected John Sladek (2002). The highlight of that compilation, for mystery readers, is the inclusion of two short stories about Thackeray Phin, who was also at the helm of Black Aura and Invisible Green, but these short pieces definitely measure up to the novels.

The first of these short stories is, of course, "By an Unknown Hand," which introduces Sladek's take on the Great Detective, Thackeray Phin, who's an American philosophy professor living in England and advertises himself as a "professional logician and amateur sleuth" - one who would welcome a challenge. Phin has always dreamed of being a detective and is elated when the owner of an art gallery, Anthony Moon, engages him as a bodyguard to protect an unpopular artist, Aaron Wallis. Someone has been sending him letters promising to end his life.

Wallis lives in an apartment on the 11th floor of a soulless apartment building and he had all the windows bricked up, because he has an aversion for natural light. So the windows offered no way in or out for the occupants would-be assassin. Before Phin began his watchman's duty, the apartment was searched by Wallis himself and the door was both locked and chain-locked from the inside, which was done with a very though chain. The door needed to be battered half a dozen times before the staple was torn from the wall and they could enter the apartment. Why did the door required battering, you ask? Somehow, someone managed to enter the sealed apartment and strangle the unpopular artist.

There are two points of interest that should be pointed out: once our detective realizes that "Sherlock Holmes wasn't going to be any help at all," Phin hurried home "to read some locked room mysteries," because, "if Dr. Fell could not cure this devil case," perhaps "Father Brown could exorcise it" - really showing where this story fits in the scheme of the overall genre. Secondly, the brother of the victim, Hector Wallis, is a clairvoyant, known as "Ozanam," who is seen giving a demonstration of the ability of his third eye. I think this particular scene, in combination with Phin's explanation, makes for a nice semi-impossible situation straight out of Clayton Rawson or Jonathan Creek. The solution to the locked room problem also somewhat resembled the work of that mystery writer and TV-series.

You can divide the crux of the impossible situation in two sections. The first part concerns the setup of the trick and plays out like an elaborate stage illusion, which is as risky as it's clever and lot's of fun. And there's something in the story that should set the seasoned armchair detective on the right track. However, the method for the sealed nature of the room was a lot more routine, but, overall, a very solid and promising debut for, what potentially could have been, John Dickson Carr's successor.

I'm also baffled why this story never found its way into one of the many locked room themed anthologies that have appeared since the early 1970s.

The second short story from this series, "It Takes Your Breath Away," was syndicated in 1974 in various London theater programs, which included A Streetcar Named Desire at the Piccadilly Theatre and is really just a short-short – covering only a scant three pages. Phin finds himself "far back at the discouraging end" of long cinema queue that twisted round a corner. One of the people waiting in line ends up with a knife in his chest, but that's all I really can say about the plot without giving anything away. But the plot is surprisingly rich and involved for a short-short of only three pages.

Well, most mystery readers are probably aware of the first short story discussed here and some known of the second, but very few are aware that Maps has a section, entitled "Sladek Incognito," which gathered eight virtually unknown crime story – originally published in the late 1960s and some were published as by "Dale Johns." Most of them are short-short inverted mysteries, usually no more than four pages, in which the plans of the culprit usually backfires on them. So you could call them A-Hoist-On-Their-Own-Petard stories.

My personal favorite is "You Have a Friend at Fengrove National," originally published in a 1968 issue of Tit-Bits, which has a clever money scheme with cheque deposits go horribly wrong when an unpolished specimen of the criminal classes intervene. A very short piece, but also very good. Loved as much the second time as when I first read it. Deserves to be better known!

"Just Another Victim" comes from the pages of the same publication and has a jealous woman plotting the murder of a friend, planning to make it look like the work of an active serial killer, but you can probably guess the twist in that story. "The Switch" was also published as "The Train," again in Tit-Bits, in which a husband is plotting the murder of his wife by creating a train disaster, but the disaster is not what he expected. A somewhat technical short-short that could have been more interesting had it been a little bit longer. "Timetable" is a murder for hire gone wrong for the person who paid for the professional assassins, because he forgot a small, silly detail. This one also came from Tit-Bits. "Now That I'm Free" is a very good take on the multi-sided love affair that end in murder. I would imagine Christie would have a good chuckle at this story. The last of the short-shorts, "Practical Joke," has a thoroughly unpleasant character getting his much deserved comeuppance.

The next short story, "Publish and Perish," came from a June 1968 issue of a publication known as If and comes highly recommended to fans of Edmund Crispin, Michael Innes and crime stories with an academic setting – because this one is almost a parody of such kind of crime stories. A young associate professor of physics, Gleason, has an opportunity to rise in the academic ranks when a professor passes away, but his university has a strange tradition to decide who fills a seat: murder! Gleason not only has to survive the attempts on his life, such as a bomb in the coffee maker, but also has get dispose of his rival. A fun and unusual type of crime story that some of you will no doubt be able to appreciate.

Finally, there's a rather unusual hybrid-type of story, "In the Oligocene," culled from the pages of the July 1968 issue of If and has a time-traveler from the 1978 return to 1939 to save the woman he loved as a young man. Unfortunately, he is now a man in his sixties and to ensure she only loves him he takes her to the Oligocene period. A "comparatively gentle era in the earth's history," when the great reptiles had gone the way of the dinosaurs and the largest mammals weren't numerous enough to pose a danger, but she not thrilled by the prospect of being stranded in ancient history – without any other living soul to communicate with. So the reunion is not going as envisioned and the way this situation gets resolved is a science-fiction imagining of a deus ex machina. Hands down one of the weirdest kidnap stories in all of detective fiction.

So, that's all of the detective fiction that can be found in Maps, which have been long overlooked, but these stories are well worth possessing the entire collection. And if you like humorous science-fiction (e.g. Douglas Adams), you'll probably enjoy the non-criminal content of this collection. But the main reason for me was the hidden treasure trove of excellent detective stories.

On a final note, Sladek also wrote a non-series short locked room mystery, titled "The Locked Room," which is collected in Keep the Giraffe Burning (1978) and a review of that story can be read here.