5/22/18

The Misadventures of Ellery Queen (2018) edited by Josh Pachter and Dale C. Andrews

Recently, Wildside Press published a long overdue anthology, The Misadventures of Ellery Queen (2018), edited by Josh Pachter and Dale C. Andrews, who collected sixteen pastiches, parodies and short stories inspired by the Dean of the American Detective Story, Ellery Queen – written by such short story luminaries as William Brittain, Edward D. Hoch and Arthur Porges. The anthology has three (short) introductions by the editors, Richard Dannay and Rand Lee.

In their introduction, Pachter and Andrews touched upon the ill-fated publication of The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes (1944), edited by Queen, which was withdrawn when Conan Doyle's estate used "a minor permission snafu" for Sherlock Holmes material used in 101 Years' Entertainment: The Great Detective Stories, 1841-1941 (1943) as leverage "to halt all further distribution." They also reveal that the idea for this anthology dates as far back as the early 1970s. Fredric Dannay apparently liked the idea, but it would take four decades before the first version of this anthology appeared in print.

Six years ago, the chairman of the Japanese EQ fanclub, Iiki Yusan, edited and published a 400-page, Japanese-language anthology consisting of parodies, pastiches and homes to Queen – appropriately titled The Misadventures of Ellery Queen (2012). So the idea for an English edition was pulled out of cold storage in 2015 and was finally published in early March of this year.

Pachter and Andrews note that the publication of this anthology was their attempt "to close a circle that opened almost 130 years ago" with the publications of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892), The Adventures of Ellery Queen (1934) and The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes. I believe they succeeded.

Richard Dannay is the son of Fredric Dannay and a copyright lawyer, who briefly points out the legal perils that lay between parodies and pastiches, but ends his introduction with the remark that he welcomes both parodies and pastiches of Ellery Queen as long as they "represent affection and respect." Something I wholeheartedly agree with, because the way in which some alleged writers handles the literary legacy of actual writers borders on the criminal.

Rand Lee is the son of the other half of the EQ partnership, Manfred B. Lee, who very briefly wrote that his father liked pastiches and would have been greatly amused by this anthology.

So, now we got the background and introduction to this anthology out of the way, let's take a closer look at the stories.

Thomas Narcejac's "Le mystère des ballons rouge" ("The Mystery of the Red Balloons") was first published in Usurpation d'indentité in 1947 and has the honor of being the first Ellery Queen pastiche ever written and this is its first-ever publication in English – as well as being the only representative in this anthology of the genre's Golden Age. So we have an actual débutante opening this collection, but one with a hardboiled edge to it. The police of New York City are confronted with a series of murders, which appear to be unrelated on the surface, but a red balloon is found at each scene. One day, a policeman on the grounds of Jonathan Mallory's estate and this time they get to the victim before he can be murdered and they station themselves inside the house. Something that displeases the crusty Mallory immensely. The subsequent events nearly costs Sgt. Velie his life, who's critically wounded, before Ellery uncovers the murderer.

The murderer is rather obvious, but, as stated by the "Challenge of the Reader," detection is not "a matter of guessing" or "stumbling upon the answer by chance." You have to analyze all of the data and clarify issues that seemed unimportant. You might have spotted the murderer, but the next question is how and why these murders were committed. So this story is more of a why than a who-dun-it. Not an out-and-out classic, but I liked it. Solid, old-fashioned Ellery Queen.

I previously reviewed "Dying Message" by Leyne Requel in my 2011 review of Norma Schier's The Anagram Detective (1979).

Jon L. Breen's "The Gilbert and Sullivan Clue" was originally published in the double anniversary issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in 1999 and Breen tells in his introduction that Dannay and Lee always set their stories in the present-day. Ellery stayed "more or less the same age from decade to decade." So we get EQ in the nineties with references to Star Wars, Y2K and rap music. One of the suspects is even a rapper (Daddy Trash).

Ellery is invited by Gil Castberg to take a trip aboard the luxurious Sea Twin and cruise the Californian coastline. The headline entertainer is a former client of Castberg, Ozzie Foyle, who used be part of a comedy duo, but the partnership imploded and Foyle fully dedicates himself to the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan – while his former partner, Jim Dugan, faded into obscurity. All of their grudges come bubbling back to the surface when they're reunited aboard the cruise ship and the result is murder.

Obviously, Breen had fun writing new lyrics for "I've Got a Little List" from The Mikado ("that superior freeloading detective novelist: I don't think he'd be missed, I'm sure he'd not be missed."), but this is not merely a comedic detective story. There's a clever, humorous dying message and an interesting alibi-trick, but I feel the short story format constrained the plot. The story ended rather abruptly and perhaps needed an extra clue or two, because the central clue (dying message) requires a more than passing familiarity with the work of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Still, this was a fun little story and only wished the editors had also included Breen's “The Lithuanian Eraser Mystery,” which I have wanted to read for ages.

Francis M. Nevins' "Open Letter to Survivors" was first published in the May, 1972 issue of EQMM and was written under the tutelage of Dannay, who ripped the original version of the story apart with "a surgical precision" that "was more than justified," and then they "began to build the story up again." Dannay always struck me as pillar of support to everyone who dared to pick up a pen, no matter who they were, and even published stories from teenagers in EQMM. And we'll get to two of those later on in this review.

Contain "Open Letter to Survivors"
"Open Letter to Survivors" is written around a line from Ten Days' Wonder (1942), "there was the case of Adelina Monquieux" and "the remarkable solution" that "cannot be revealed until before 1972," which is studded with Queenian motifs, but the detective in this story remains nameless – even though its obviously him. Ellery is in the middle of writing a book, but concludes that his plot is some vital element and decides to consult "the foremost political analyst of the generation," Adelina Monquieux (pronounced Mon-Q). Monquieux is the mother of three adopted sons, Xavier, Yves and Zachery, who are monozygotic triplets and completely identical right down to their fingerprints. A problem when their mother is murdered during Ellery's visit to their home. So who of the identical triplets committed the murder and what prevented the truth from coming out until 1972?

This is interesting story for sure and how the triplets are used is kind of brilliant, as are Ellery's deductions, but I think the ending makes this somewhat of an anti-detective story. However, Nevins did a good job making hay out of a throw-away reference.

I previously reviewed "The Reindeer Clue" by Edward D. Hoch in my 2011 review of Ellery Queen's The Tragedy of Errors (1999).

Dale C. Andrews and Kurt Sercu's "The Book Case" was originally published in the May, 2007 issue of EQMM, which I have read before, but my opinion of it remains unaltered. Generally, I'm not too big a fan of pastiches, however, "The Book Case" would make my best-of list of detective pastiches, because it feels like it could be part of the actual canon. This betrays that the story was written by two of the biggest EQ fanboys in the United States and Europe.

The story has a contemporary setting and the series-characters have aged or passed away. Ellery Queen is now a venerable, 100-year-old man, who seemed "to move only through the sheerest will power," but not old or helpless enough to look into the murder of Dr. Jason Tenumbra – an oncologist and an avid collector of mystery novels. Tenumbra appears to have left a dying message by throwing all of his Ellery Queen novels on the floor, but the case becomes a personal one when it becomes clear that the children of Djuna are involved. And one of them dies!

Andrews and Sercu not only succeeded admirably in placing their story snugly within the confines of the original series, but also has a very clever and tricky plot demonstrating (once again) that the wonders of modern forensic science has not made ingenious plots in detective fiction obsolete – which made this the standout story of this anthology. Loved it!

By the way, one of the detectives in "The Book Case" is the elderly Harry Burke, who's closing in on his retirement, and he had appeared previously in Face to Face (1967). And the ending tells us what became of Nikki Porter. Just a couple of the nods to the original series.

J.N. Williamson's "Ten Month's Blunder" is a silly, good-natured parody about a character named Celery Keen, who helps his father solve the murder of a pawnshop owner, which cements his reputation as an amateur sleuth across the world. However, when Keen returns from a world-tour of snooping, his father has some unpleasant news for him.

Arthur Porges' "The English Village Mystery" was originally printed in the December, 1964 issue of EQMM and is the first of only two parodies he wrote about a character named Celery Green.

The story takes place in the tiny village of Tottering-on-the-Brink, which only has fourteen inhabitants, but twelve of those have been shot, stabbed, strangled and blown to pieces. Inspector Dew East has been given 48 hours to close the case and, out of desperation, turns to a gifted and well-known amateur detective, Celery Green – who happened to be visiting England at the time. You would expect the solution to be as ridiculous and silly as its premise, but there's a trace of reason to all of this madness. I think this shows, even with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, Porges was one of the masters of the short detective story. Only overshadowed by the King of the Short Story, Edward Hoch.

Dennis M. Dubin was a high-school senior when his short story, "Elroy Quinn's Last Case," appeared in the July, 1967 issue of EQMM and took a similar route as Andrews and Sercu by casting the title-character as an old man. And his last case is precariously balanced on international politics that could set the world ablaze.

The king of Ubinorabia has arrived in the United States "to begin talks about on the huge oil deposits recently discovered in his country," but one of his royal bodyguards has been shot and later an attempt is made on the king himself – who's critically wounded. A bizarre array of clues consist of a Roman helmet, a statuette of two seemingly identical Thai cats, a wooden shoe and a small replica of a mummy case. So Inspector Thomas Valie, Jr. turns to the old maestro for help and the solution takes its cue from a famous EQ short story and one of their lesser-known mystery novels. A story that will delight every reader who loves EQ.

James Holding's "The Norwegian Apple Mystery" is the first of ten stories about King Danforth and Martin Leroy, originally published in the January, 1961 issue of EQMM, who are mystery writers and the creators of the Leroy King series. Apparently, the stories take place during a round-the-world cruise, but they encounter more murderous plots on their extended holiday than when they were writing detective novels back home. I think this first story has a really novel way of telling a detective story.

Danforth and Leroy become intrigued by the "perfectly natural accidental death" of one of their fellow passengers, Angela Cameron, who had choked to death on a piece of apple while reading in bed. They find it an intriguing premise for a detective story and, together with their wives, speculate how this accidental death could have been a cleverly disguised murder. Only to discover in the final sentence that their ideas were spot on. A good and original variation on the how-dun-it.

William Brittain's "The Man Who Read Ellery Queen" appeared together with "The Man Who Read John Dickson Carr" in the December, 1965 issue of EQMM and is a detective with a warm, beating heart.

Arthur Mindy is an old man living at the Goodwell Home and took a complete collection of Ellery Queen novels with him. Mindy has always dreamed of solving a mystery "just the way Ellery does" and finally gets an opportunity when another resident, Gregory Wyczech, had his precious 1907 ten dollar gold piece stolen, but he caught the thief, Eugene Dennison, in act – only problem is that the coin is not found on him. Even after Dennison stripped naked. Mindy deduces where the gold piece is hidden based on a shaving cut and why Dennison preferred to take the stairs instead of the elevator. The way this theft is resolved gives the story a warm, sweet and sugary ending. And to top it all off, the solution showed this was also a (borderline) impossible crime! What more do you want?

Josh Pachter was sixteen when he wrote "E.Q. Griffin Earns His Name" and seventeen when it was published in the December, 1968 issue of EQMM.

Ellery Queen Griffin is the 16-year-old son of Inspector Ross Griffin, of the Tyson County Police Force, who had grown up on "a rich diet of detective fiction" and had named all of his eleven children after a famous detective character. A Griffen child earned his name by solving "a criminal problem in the manner of his namesake," but Ellery had yet to earn his name. There are two problems in this story that could provide that opportunity: who stole the apple pies from Leora Field's windowsill and how was a precious necklace stolen from a locked jewelry shop. This is only nominally a locked room mystery and the solution to the locked shop problem is a bit of a cheat, but the real point is that Ellery (logically) deduces the identity of the thief. And thereby earning his name.

I really liked this story and it should have been the start of a juvenile mystery series with each story concentrating on one of the Griffin children. A missed opportunity, because eleven of those stories would have made for a wonderful collection. If you're reading this, Pachter, I want a Gideon Fell Griffin story. I want it, I want it, I want it!!!

Patricia McGerr was no stranger to turning the conventions of the detective story upside down (e.g. Pick Your Victim, 1946) and "The Last Check," a short story first published in the March, 1972 issue of EQMM, can only be described as a parody-pastiche – as it lands somewhere between the two. A gray area not often frequented by mystery writers. The story is about the murder of Stephen Coleman, a collector of Ellery Queen, who was shot to death in his study, but left a dying message by scribbling his name on a blank check. A clue that appeared either meaningless or implicate every single suspect. Luckily, the policeman on the case, Captain Rogan, is also an avid reader of Ellery Queen.

So who's better fitted for the job of deciphering a dying message, left by a dying EQ reader, than a policeman who also reads EQ? Once again, I liked this story, but the murderer was a little too obvious.

Lawrence Block's "The Death of the Mallory Queen," originally published in Like a Lamb to the Slaughter (1984), is actually more of a Nero Wolfe pastiche than a take on Ellery Queen. Block wrote two novels about a Nero Wolfe wannabe named Leo Haig, Make Out With Murder (1974) and The Topless Tulip Caper (1975), who's assisted by Chip Harrison – a young lad was reinvented as a private detective after appearing in two coming-of-age novels, No Score (1970) and Chip Harrison Scores Again (1971). Reportedly, Rex Stout was not amused with the result.

This short story has Mavis Mallory of Mavis Publications consulting Haig, because she fears being murdered, which happens in the most extraordinary circumstances imaginable. During a panel discussion at Town Hall, held in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of Mallory's Mystery Magazine, the lights go out. And when they turn back on, Mallory has been stabbed, shot, bludgeoned and poisoned. The explanation is about as credible as anything you'll see on Monty Python, but that didn't made the story any less fun to read. I really have to look further into this series.

Arthur Vidro's "The Ransom of EQMM #1" was first published online on the Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine website and is a story that'll be especially appreciated by collectors of (pulp) magazines.

Homer Slocum is an avid collector of EQMM from Shinn Corners (The Glass Village, 1954) and owns a complete run of the magazine, up to the latest issue, which attracts the attention of the Shinn Corners Courier, but their article attracted locals to his house – who all wanted to see The Collection. But when he finally got around to putting his collection back in order, Slocum noticed that the Fall 1941 issue of EQMM was missing! The first of more than 800 issues. A $500 dollar ransom note soon follows, but Slocum notices something slightly off about the photograph that accompanied the note. A short, simple, but fun, story.

Finally, Joseph Goodrich's "The Ten-Cent Murder," published in the August, 2016 issue of EQMM and follows the tradition of the modern historical detective story by casting two real-life persons in the role of detectives – namely Fredric Dannay and Dashiell Hammett. According to the introduction, everything in this story is true with the exception of "a slight case of murder." Hammett taught a class of mystery writing at the Jefferson Institute in Manhattan and Dannay used to be an occasional guest lecturer. So why not take this situation and throw in a good murder? It makes sense.

The school registrar, Morris Rabinowitz, was stabbed to death and a closely guarded list of students was missing. The political climate of days plays a role in this story, but, in order to solve this case, Dannay has to figure out why the victim was clutching a dime. And all of the suspects have names that can refer or sound like coins. The explanation to the dying clue a bit of a pun, but acceptable and believable enough in the circumstances of the story.

On a whole, The Misadventures of Ellery Queen is an excellent anthology without any duds. Practically every short story collection or anthology has one, two or three duds, but this anthology has a well-balanced selection of stories and this becomes a real accomplishment on the part of the editors when you realize all of the entries are parodies or pastiches – which are not always known for their high-standard or quality. There were some stories I liked more than others, but not a single one I really disliked. So, if you like Ellery Queen, The Misadventures of Ellery Queen comes highly recommended.

On a last note, I want to direct your attention to a story that was omitted from this anthology, but would have snugly fit in the potpourri section: Donald A. Yates' "The Wounded Tyrolean" (c. 1955), which was based on a Watsonian reference from The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935).

5/18/18

Dead Man Twice (1930) by Christopher Bush

Dead Man Twice (1930) is the third title in Christopher Bush's Ludovic "Ludo" Travers series and has been recommended to me several times by Nick Fuller and Curt Evans. The book considered to be one of the stronger titles from the early period of the series and not entirely without reason.

Reprinted by Dean Street Press
In this early title, Travers is still working as a financial adviser for that distinguished inquiry, advertising and publicity firm, Durangos Limited, which means that his role is still that of a chameleon in the background and cedes the stage to his friends, Superintendent Wharton and John Franklin – head of the Detective Bureau of Durangos Ltd. So the story has a slightly different feeling than those that have a more prominent role for Travers.

Franklin is visited in his office by Kenneth Hayles, a writer of hackneyed, cliché-ridden thrillers, who wants to use him and his office as a model for his next novel, but Hayles also co-authored Two Years in the Ring. A book he wrote together with Michael France, a gentleman boxer and heavyweight champion of Europe, who's scheduled to fight Toni Ferroni in New York and everyone expects him to bring the world title back to England. So their meeting ends with Franklin getting an opportunity to meet the public hero of the moment.

However, Frankling comes down to Earth again when France wants to consult him on a string of threatening letters, which gave him a few days to leave the country or his "numbers up," signed by "Lucy" and gave Franklin three specimens of handwriting to compare – all three specimens were procured from people who stand close to the boxer. France also asks Franklin to drop by his house, but when he arrived it looks as if nobody is home. The hammering with the door knocker and ringing the bell gets no response whatsoever.

After a while, the valet of France, Mr. Usher, arrives and opens the door, but what they find inside is a scene as bizarre as it's inexplicable.

The body of the butler, named Somers, was lying on the rug of the lounge with tumbler next to his outstretched arm and on the table, next to the decanter and siphon, stood "a small, blue bottle with a red poison label." A suicide note is found, "this is really the end of everything," but Usher recognizes the handwriting as that of his master, Michael France! So this prompts them to further explore the house and they find a second body in an upstairs room. France lay on the bedroom floor with a bullet wound in his forehead and a tiny, toy-like pistol two feet from his outstretched hand. However, the medical evidence reveals that the shot was fired from "a devilish awkward position" and "the bullet might have missed the brain altogether." And the awkward angle of the bullet is a clue as to what happened in that bedroom!

Travers is only a background figure in the investigation, who analyzes the published work of France and Hayles, which leaves all of the legwork to Franklin and Wharton. Once again, the performance Superintendent George "The General" Wharton demonstrated that we lost a great lead-character for a series of detective novels.

Layer by layer, Wharton slowly peels away the mysteries and is "worming his way into some subterranean and buried essential," but the complications are numerous and one of these is that there was a six-inch circle of glass cut out of the window – except this was not a garden-variety burglary. And then there's France's involvement with the wife of the well-heeled, aristocratic racing motorist and his chief financial backer, Peter Claire, who had planted Usher in France's house to keep an eye out. Compounding these confusing jumble of problems and the contradictory facts at the scene of the crime are a couple of durable alibis.

The unbreakable alibi is a trademark of Bush's detective fiction and this begs comparison with another craftsman of cast-iron alibis, Freeman Wills Crofts, but Bush's plotting technique actually makes him closer to John Dickson Carr and John Rhode than to Crofts.

The murder of France could have easily been presented as an impossible situation and Bush's plots are often borderline or quasi-impossibilities (e.g. The Case of the Bonfire Body, 1936), but rarely crosses the border to become a full-fledged locked room mystery. Regardless, this could have been a nifty locked room yarn and the method, which also helped the murderer forging a cast-iron alibi, could have been plucked from the pages of Rhode's mystery novel. As a matter of fact, I have seen variations of this trick in the works of both Carr and Rhode.

Nevertheless, this could have been a nifty locked room and the murder method is something straight out of of a Rhode's novel. As a matter of fact, I have come across variations of this trick in the works of both Carr and Rhode. John Russell Fearn even used a very similar trick to create an actual locked room murder, but I believe Dead Man Twice predates all of them.

So I really liked this plot-strand of the story, which came with diagrams and floorplans, but the poisoning plot wasn't bad either and the nature of the crime, with all its complexities, fitted the personality of the murderer like a glove – which nicely contrasted with the more plot-technical killing of France. But the best part of the plot is how these plot-strands were intertwined and threw one of these plots in disarray.

Only thing you can hold against the plot is that the identity of the culprits were rather obvious. A problem corrected by the intriguing question as to how the murders were committed and the attempt to fit every piece of the puzzle together to form a logical and coherent picture of all the events.

I've not read the first title in this series, The Plumley Inheritance (1926), but feel confident in stating that Dead Man Twice is the first of Bush's baroque-style detective novels that introduced his favorite plot-device of having two murders taking place in close proximity of each other and link them together with a bale of plot-threads. An approach he used to great effect in Dancing Death (1931) and The Case of the April Fools (1933). The result is usually a pleasantly intricate, mind-twisting and challenging detective story and Dead Man Twice is not the exception to this rule.

Dead Man Twice is a grand old-fashioned detective story and more than worthy of the praise it has received, but, personally, I would not go as far as placing it right alongside the superb Cut Throat (1932) and the equally superb The Case of the Missing Minutes (1936). Dead Man Twice stands a step below them along with the previously mentioned The Case of the April Fools, The Case of the 100% Alibis (1934) and the Carrian The Case of the Chinese Gong (1935), which is not a bad company to be in.

So, a long story short, I continue to enjoy my exploration of Bush's detective fiction and will return to him soon, but first have to pick a title. Currently, I have whittled down my options to three titles: The Case of the Dead Shepherd (1934), The Case of the Hanging Rope (1937) and The Case of the Green Felt Hat (1939). Ah, luxury problems!

5/16/18

Devil's Soil: Halter, Hoch and Hoodwinks

I know my blog is dominated by locked room mysteries and impossible crimes, which tends to come at the expense of regular detective stories, but the monster that Edgar Allan Poe created still has me firmly in its grip. Just like Vincent, "I'm possessed by this house and can never leave it again." Nevertheless, I do want to spread out my locked room reading in the future, but until then, I crossed two more short stories from my to-read list. Stories by two modern-day champions of the impossible crime story whose dedication and output rivaled that of the master, John Dickson Carr.

Edward D. Hoch's "The Problem of the Devil's Orchard" was originally published in the January, 2006 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and will be collected for the very first time in the forthcoming Challenge the Impossible: The Last Casebook of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (20??) – published by Douglas Greene of Crippen & Landru. A collection of short stories representing the closing chapters on a long-running series that was fully dedicated to the impossible crime story, but we can be downcast about this when the time comes.

"The Problem of the Devil's Orchard" takes place during Labor Day weekend of 1943, when the tide of the war in Europe was turning in favor of the Allies, but the war was not the only thing occupying the people of the New England town of Northmont. A young man had miraculously vanished from an apple orchard.

Phil Fitzhugh only recently celebrated his nineteenth birthday, works at the feed store of his family and is dating a girl, Lisa Smith, whom he intends to marry, but her folks won't hear of it. Phil became frantic when he finally received his draft notice.

So Lisa turned to Dr. Sam Hawthorne for help, who enlisted the assistance of Sheriff Lens, but after they pick a drunk Phil up at a bar, where he was "acting a bit unsteady," he escapes from Hawthorne's car and flees into Desmond's Orchard – known locally as the Devil's Orchard. The hundred-acre apple orchard is believed to be haunted and attracts "arcenous children," which is why the owner erected two, eight-feet chain-link fences topped by barbwire. Phil was completely trapped inside the orchard, but a subsequent search by fifty workers only turned up a blood-smeared shirt. And the strip of bare soil along the fences was soft enough to show footprints. Only problem is that the earth showed no signs of having been stood on. So how did he vanish from a locked and watched apple orchard?

Hoch has a deserved reputation of usually delivering one of the better, if not the best, short story in any mystery anthology that he's a part of, but this is not one of his finest pieces of impossible crime fiction.

The clues and hints to the solution where all there, like the stone that was found on the bloody shirt, but the fair play could disguise that the impossibility was weak and uninspired. An explanation that should have been used as a false, throw-away solution. Unworthy of Hoch, the King of the Short Detective Story.

So, now we go from one modern locksmith of the impossible crime story, who's no longer among us, to another artisan who still very much alive.

An English translation of Paul Halter's "The Robber's Grave" first appeared in the June, 2007 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and was translated, as always, by John Pugmire of Locked Room International. The story is a charming one and can be compared to the kind of impossible crime stories from Carter Dickson's The Department of Queer Complaints (1940).

Dr. Alan Twist had taken his car to escape the noisy, bustling city of London and lose himself in "the peaceful English countryside," but had ended up in a "desolate spot" across "the border of darkest Wales." There he stumbles into an inn and listens to the story of a nearby grave site where grass refuses to grow.

A hundred years ago, Idris Jones was denounced by "a couple of blackguards," who claim to have seen him rob and beat a beggar to death, but, despite his heated denials, Jones was hanged as a murderer. On his way to the gallows, Jones asked God not to allow "a blade of grass ever to grow over his grave" and the grass over his grave did turn yellow and then disappeared. And that's the last time green was seen on that patch of ground. An attempt to find a logical and natural explanation has driven a developer out of the village.

A property developer from Bristol, Evans, had bought the land and wanted to turn the grounds into a golf course, but you don't want your patrons to come across a haunted grave when they're doing a relaxing round of golf. So he vowed "to break the ancient curse" or "abandon the project." Evans went to a lot of trouble to prove it was all a trick or misunderstanding.

Evans removed the earth to a considerable depth and replaced it with rich, seeded loam, but the grass had scarcely began to grow when it began to turn yellow, died and a bare patch outlining a grave – which only made him double his efforts. The earth was replaced again and Evans hired the best gardeners in the region, but when even this failed he began to suspect sabotage from the locals. So he built a wall around the fence with a metal grille serving as a gate. Guards and dogs watched over this small fortress and the earth inside was, once again, replaced. But all to no avail. The grass refused to grow.

A good and novel impossible situation with a neat, simple and believable explanation that also betrayed the author is undeniably French.

I believe these type of peculiar problems and unusual impossibilities work best, as is demonstrated here, when the problem-solver of the story acts purely as an armchair detective who listens to these extraordinary accounts and then reasoning a logical answer from that same armchair – doing all of the work in his head. "The Robber's Grave" is not strictly an armchair story, because Twists does leave his seat, but he pretty much functions as one. And he figures out the method when he recalled a mean-spirited prank he played on a nasty neighbor as a child.

So we have a good, fun little detective story and another that began promising, but ended up being underwhelming. Well, we'll have to do with that, I guess, and I'll return with some non-impossible crime novels from the likes of Christopher Bush, E.R. Punshon and perhaps Erle Stanley Gardner. So stay tuned.

5/14/18

The Kindaichi Case Files: The Headless Samurai by Yozaburo Kanari and Fumiya Sato

Previously, I looked at a landmark novel of the Japanese detective story, Inugamike no ichizoku (The Inugami Clan, 1951) by Seishi Yokomizo and the detective on that case, Kosuke Kindaichi, is as iconic a figure in Japan as Sherlock Holmes is in the West – referred to some as the Columbo of the East. Yokomizo's famous detective has a well-known grandson, Hajime Kindaichi, who debuted in 1992 in Weekly Shōnen Magazine. A serialized mystery manga that has since spawned numerous manga-and anime series, light novels, video games, live action movies-and TV series and even had a crossover with Conan Edogawa from Detective Conan.

Originally, The Kindaichi Case Files was written by Yozaburo Kanari and my opinion of him, as a mystery writer, is somewhere at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Kanari would probably crack my top 3 of least favorite mystery writers and his hackwork has negatively colored my perception of the series.

Initially, I abandoned the series after only three (or so) volumes of the original series, which began with the uninspired The Opera House Murders that heavily leaned on ideas from Gaston Leroux's Le mystère de la chambre jaune (The Mystery of the Yellow Room, 1907) and Le fantôme de l'opéra (The Phantom of the Opera, 1910) – fluffed up with an impossible crime trick cribbed from a G.K. Chesterton story. The Mummy's Curse is a poorly abridged version of Soji Shimada's Senseijutsu satsujinjinken (The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, 1981) bordering on plagiarism. I don't exactly remember my third one, but it could have been No Noose is Good Noose or The Legend of Lake Hiren, but they were both equally poor in plot and execution.

I abandoned The Kindaichi Case Files with no intention of ever returning, but than I ran across Ho-Ling Wong and he insisted there were quality detective stories in the series. So I reluctantly returned with varying degrees of success. The Graveyard Isle was incredibly weak and don't remember thinking too much of Treasure Isle either, but Death TV, The Magical Express and The Undying Butterfly were generally excellent. House of Wax was even superb and still my favorite entry in this series.

There are, however, a few holes in my reading of the English edition that were published in the West, because TokyoPop folded in 2011. One of these titles, The Headless Samurai, had been recommended to me by a commenter, Jonathan, on my review of The Prison Prep School Murder Case, a multi-part episode of the latest Kindaichi anime – claiming that the story was even better than The Magical Express and House of Wax. Naturally, I was skeptical and had a very good reason to be, which has to do with my reason for picking The Headless Samurai as my follow up to The Inugami Clan.

You see, what I read about the plot of The Headless Samurai made me suspect Kanari had been "borrowing" from Yokomizo's celebrated detective novel and was ready to tar-and-feather him for it. I even hired an angry mob with torches and pitchforks. I was fully prepared for a good, old-fashioned verbal lynching, but, as much as it pains me to say, I turned out to be wrong. Again. The Headless Samurai turned out to stand toe-to-toe with House of Wax and kind of liked what Kanari did with the plot and (visual) clueing. Don't get me wrong. Kanari is still a hack of the first water, but you have to give credit where credit's due, you know.

The Headless Samurai has Inspector Kenmochi traveling to the remote mountain village of Kuchinasi in the Gifu Prefecture to visit a childhood friend, Shino Tatsumi, who had married into a wealthy family, as the second wife of Kuranosuke Tatsumi, but after he passed away she started to receive threatening letters – all of them signed by "The Cursed Warrior." Kenmochi is accompanied by two familiar faces, Hajime Kindaichi and Nanase Miyuki.

There are a few superficial resemblances to The Inugami Clan in the opening stages of the story. One of these is a masked man, Saburo Akanuma, who they spot on the bus to the village and turns up again at the Tatsumi home as a guest of Shino. A second resemblance is the reading of the will, appointing Seimaru Tatsumi as the head of the family and "the heir to all its wealth," but the problem is that Seimaru is Shino's son who was adopted by her husband and an outsider – which means that his appointment comes at the expensive Ryunosuke, Moegi and Hayato. The three children from Kuranosuke's first marriage.

However, The Headless Samurai goes its own way after the setup and the plot is draped in a legend that has hung, like a dark cloud, over the village for centuries.

Over 400 years ago, the village was visited by an army general, Kaneharu Hiiragi, who was badly defeated during the time of the battle of Sekigahara and came to Kuchinasi to seek refuge with his men. Upon his arrival, the general crowned himself leader of the village and attempted to drive out the village chief, but General Kaneharu was betrayed by his soldiers. They killed their master, presented the severed head as peace offering to the chief and settled down in the village. Only General Kaneharu placed a curse on them with his dying breath, "my spirit will wander the earth" and "you will never be free," which was followed by a series of decapitations of his former men.

So the frightened villages began to appease his spirit by erecting a shrine dedicated to him and headless statues were placed representing the victims. And the opening of the story showed that the suit of armor of General Kaneharu has disappeared.

The Cursed Warrior makes an entrance like a Scooby Doo villain, when he slashes through a paper screen with a katana, before disappearing and only an impossibly vanishing trail of sandal-prints on the veranda. However, this side-puzzle is quickly solved by Kindaichi, but the problem is that this reveals the person wearing the armor came from inside of the house. Ah, yes, detective stories are the thinking man's Scream.

This is followed by the impossible murder of the masked man, Saburo Akanuma, who is housed in the only available room at the time. A vault-like room hidden behind a hidden, revolving door that looks like a blank wall. The room itself has an iron door with a lock made in Germany, which comes with a unique, custom-made key that can't be duplicated and the only window is a narrow square with iron bars – looking out over a wide, steep cliff with a river below. One evening, Kindaichi gets a phone-call from Saburo asking to ask him if he really is "the grandson of the famous detective," because he wants to tells him the identity of the katana-wielding samurai.

Kindaichi and Shino go to the Saburo's room to have a word with him, but when they arrive in the passage they hear him scream out, "IT'S THE CURSED WARRIOR." Kindaichi tells Shino to fetch the keys and when they can finally open the door they're greeted by his headless corpse sitting in the silent, moonlit room.

A well-presented locked room problem with a good false solution by Kenmoichi, which fitted only one suspect, who promptly dies, but the actual explanation is practical, simple and believable. Clever and original enough to avoid being disappointing. And nicely contrasts with Kenmochi's solution.

However, the locked room mystery and its false solution are not the gemstones of the plot. An experienced mystery reader with a passing familiarity of the Japanese detective story will immediately suspect a classic, Eastern-style corpse-trick is being placed right under their nose, but not one you can easily unravel and the plot cleverly plays with the cast-iron certainties given by modern forensics and results in a beautiful piece of misdirection – which was nonetheless prominently foreshadowed in the artwork. This also gave the murderer an acceptable motive for all of the theatrics, because they were necessary to answer that age-old question. What to do with the body?

The Headless Samurai was surprisingly strong on motives, which is normally a weak aspect of the series, because the plot tend to be written around the eternal avenger-from-the-past theme. The murderer here had an entirely different motivation. A motive showing that old sins can cast long shadows, the cussedness of all things general and that blood will out. What drives the murderer also gives the story some nice clues and made for a dark, tragic conclusion.

So, all in all, The Headless Samurai was a pleasant surprise and, if I come across as overly enthusiastic, it's because I was determined to hate it going in. But I was proven wrong. I don't mind it at all when that happens. Kanari is still a hack though.