Locked Rooms and Impossible Murders, Modern Crime

Tricks of the Trade by Euan B Pollock

TricksoftheTrade3Tricks of the Trade begins with an investigation, not to find a killer but to confirm a cause of a death.

Major Robertson died leaving behind a sizeable estate yet his will contained an unusual condition. On his death his estate would be split amongst his family unless he was found to have committed suicide in which case his estate would be given away to charity.

The Major was found dead in his bath following a family party, his wrists slit and with a note stating “I can’t live without him”. The room was locked from inside. And just months earlier the Major’s wife had also committed suicide.

With an inheritance on the line, the family have asked a legal firm to arrange for Sebastian Dakar to investigate whether the initial police verdict of suicide can be challenged. Trainee lawyer Stewart Scott has been assigned by the firm to accompany Dakar as he conducts his investigation.

Dakar is a practising Zen master of international reputation and seems to be an unlikely figure to serve as a sleuth. Initially he appears quite enigmatic, though very amiable, and while his respectful, thoughtful questioning style gave the investigation an interesting and unusual pace I found it a little hard to understand why he would be sought out and willing to serve in this capacity in an investigation.

As it happens there are answers forthcoming and I will say that I think the explanation did adequately account for both his technique and why he has become the person that he is at the point we encounter him. I did wish though that it had come a little earlier in the narrative as I felt a little distracted by the question up until that point. In spite of this I found Dakar to be a fundamentally likeable figure and I felt it was credible that he had the skills to dedue the solution to this case.

Stewart is our point of entry both to the case and also to Dakar. The novel is written in the third person, the narration tending to follow his perspective and echo his voice. While I would have preferred to have a little less of Stewart’s personality in the narration, this allows us to see Dakar from a distance and with a degree of cynicism about his methods which does work quite well to make the sleuth seem almost as mysterious as the case he is endeavoring to solve.

I found Stewart a harder to like than Dakar, though he is certainly a recognizable type. Stewart is introduced as grouchy, profane and having an unrequited attraction for one of his flatmates in the earliest chapters. He becomes livelier once the investigation gets underway however and I enjoyed the sequences where he begins to build his confidence and carries out a little questioning of his own. Though I could not get excited about the idea of a romance between Stewart and Beth, I did appreciate the way that thread of the story is resolved towards the end of the novel and that we see his experiences with Dakar have a positive effect on him.

The case itself is an intriguing one though I would caution those getting excited at the phrase Locked Room up above that the question of how this murder is accomplished is the least interesting thing about the case. Rather our primary focus will be on figuring out what in the evidence will prove that this is a murder rather than a suicide and determining who has a motive.

The idea of focusing an investigation on whether a crime has taken place at all is an interesting one though I think it has a clear problem that the author has to resolve. Namely that the outcome is implied by it forming the basis of a novel at all. After all, if this is suicide then the ending is bound to feel a little anticlimactic. Inferring that a murder has taken place is one thing, proving it is a much harder affair and I felt Dakar’s explanation for how he reached his conclusions were quite cunning and logically thought out.

The issue of motive however is the most interesting question of the book. If we assume that it is murder, why disguise it as a suicide when that means you will be disinherited? It’s a clever question and I was surprised when Dakar came to sum up his findings that I had overlooked quite a few subtle clues along the way that were there in plain sight.

In conclusion, though I struggled a little with the characterization of Stewart and the way his personality bled into the narration, I appreciated the carefully constructed plot and clues. When the explanations were given at the end I felt equally satisfied and frustrated with myself for not piecing the solution together – this is always a good feeling when you are done with a mystery!

I am not sure about is whether this book is intended to be a standalone or the first in a series featuring one or other (or perhaps both) characters. The ending certainly seems to be fairly neat for one of the pair and I would imagine that the mechanics of bringing the pair together again might prove difficult. Dakar is an interesting creation though and while I think it might be challenging to credibly use him as a recurring sleuth, his more laid back, congenial style and positive outlook is refreshing and different.

Should he return, I would be intrigued to see where Pollock takes him next.

 

I received an advance reader copy but purchased a copy of the book prior to review.

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Golden Age, John Dickson Carr, Locked Rooms and Impossible Murders

The Problem of the Wire Cage by John Dickson Carr

WireCageI am really looking forward to this Saturday.

A couple of months ago JJ announced that he and Ben would be reading The Problem of the Wire Cage for an in-depth, spoiler-filled discussion on their podcast. This weekend it should be going live and I am really interested to hear what each made of it.

The novel concerns a seemingly impossible murder taking place on a clay tennis court. Frank is a rather odious young man who seems destined to marry Brenda. Doing so will meet the terms of a will which would make the pair tremendously wealthy. Unfortunately young lawyer Hugh is in love with Brenda and is seeking to convince her to abandon talk of an engagement to be with him instead.

There is plenty more background but let’s skip ahead to the details of the impossibility. After a doubles game of tennis the players go their separate ways but Hugh returns later that night to find the court open and, on investigating, finds that Frank is dead, strangled by his own scarf, on the court while Brenda is nearby. Her footprints are the only ones other than the victim’s on the clay yet she insists that he was already dead when she ran to investigate his body. In other words, we have a dead body on a surface that would show footprints yet, if we believe Brenda, there are no signs that anyone else stepped foot on the court.

Much of what follows seems absolutely tailored to my taste, not because this is actually an inverted crime but because structurally it plays out similarly. If Brenda and Hugh did not have committed the crime, the natural evidence of the scene points squarely at their culpability and so they try to manage the evidence and stage the crime scene. While we will see the Police investigation at work and hear some of the deliberations, most of those moments take place from their perspective.

This sequence of the book is not only entertaining, I felt it was really very cleverly constructed. The pair works under considerable pressure to explain themselves, particularly once a character notices one of the things they are up to, and they find themselves needing to make decisions in the moment that they will then need to weave together into a convincing story. They do so incredibly well, casting evidence in a different light. When they realize that another person will be blamed for the murder based on the facts they have suggested they must conduct their own shadow investigation to confirm that those facts are accurate.

In short, what we have here is a case of two groups of characters responding to these events. The actions of the first group are to minimize their own involvement while seeking to find the real culprit (assuming it is not one of them). In doing so however they present the second group with a tampered field of evidence. This not only produces some wonderful tension and a few glorious comedic moments such as the tennis net testing sequence, the need to find a way to the real murderer that might fit with the tampered evidence is itself an intriguingly different take on the mystery story.

In addition to its strong structure, I also appreciated the characterization in these early chapters. There is no doubt that Frank is a pretty unpleasant guy and would make a poor match for Brenda. Given we share Hugh’s perspective as he comes across the body we can dismiss him from consideration yet I think Carr does a wonderful job of making Brenda someone we can believe and yet still harbor some doubts about. Not to mention the handful of other suspects we may consider. For what it’s worth, I settled on the wrong person far too early and was so certain that I was right I overlooked a little evidence that should have pushed me in a different direction.

The question of how the murder was carried out is even more important to the story than the identity of the killer. Here I think the ground becomes a little shakier because, as Puzzle Doctor points out, the method utilized requires us to accept an unusual level of stupidity on the part of the victim. While Carr attempts to convince us with a little harrumphing from Fell that we ought to consider the sequence of events credible because of the personalities of the people involved, I struggled a little with believing that although I did appreciate the mechanical cleverness of the solution.

On the other hand, things take an unfortunate turn in the final third of the novel with the introduction of a half-baked secondary murder that feels both insufficiently clued and explained. While I would agree with some who say that this part of the novel feels clumsily grafted on to the plot, the bigger problem to me is that the method by which the victim is despatched feels ludicrously unlikely and dramatic. I simply could not buy that the person who performed the killing would have conceived of or executed that plan, nor did I feel that the solution to it was fairly clued. In short, this whole sequence derails an otherwise tight, if extremely contrived, crime with little benefit beyond boosting the page count.

Finally I should mention the role, or rather the lack of one, provided for Dr. Fell. I have read some comments that the character really is treated as an afterthought here and that Hugh is intended to be the real sleuth. While I acknowledge that the character’s role is certainly limited, I strongly disagree with the inference. In my opinion, Fell is given a limited role because he is there to explain the impossibility and he gives instant credibility to that solution. I believe his limited role reflects that the impossibility, while serving as the hook for the novel, is not actually the author’s focus.

It seems to me that Carr’s interest here lies in playing with the manipulation of the crime scene and how those manipulations affect the police investigation. Fell cannot be the focus because we have to believe that he can see through Hugh and Brenda’s actions and so he falls into the background while the less rigorous Hadley takes the lead. In short, I think if Carr had made Fell a greater focus in the novel then it would have either made Hugh and Brenda’s initial successes unbelievable or been to the long-term detriment of the sleuth’s character.

So, where does that leave me overall?

I found The Problem of the Wire Cage to be a highly enjoyable read in spite of the flaws in its final third. There are some good ideas here but, more importantly for me, the characterization really sells the story and its structure. Carr provides us with some wonderful moments, some of them funny like Hugh’s conversation with his father, while there is a rather special surprise reveal at the end of Chapter Eleven that really came out of the blue for me.

Unfortunately I cannot judge the novel against Carr’s other works – I have read far too little, though I hope to rectify that in the next few months – but I think it is of interest in its own right and I look forward to reading what others made of it over the next few days.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by strangulation (How)

Agatha Christie, Golden Age

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

StylesI had initially planned for my next Agatha Christie read to be The Man in the Brown Suit but in an act of absent-mindedness I contrived to leave it at work and was stranded without a read. My Audible collection came to the rescue and I quickly settled on a recording of the story read by David Suchet. Incidentally, if you do wish to listen to this on audio, his reading is superb.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles is narrated by Captain Hastings who, after receiving an injury at the front, has returned to England for convalescent leave. At a loss for what to do he visits a friend at their country house, Styles. This house is owned by his friend’s stepmother who inherited it for the remainder of her life upon her husband’s death along with the majority of his fortune. This has made her stepchildren reliant on her for financial support. She had been fairly generous, if controlling, with them in previous years but we learn that things have changed following her marriage to a much younger man.

Several days later Emily Inglethorp is found dead in her boudoir from an apparent case of strychnine poisoning though it is not clear how the drug had been administered. Hastings suggests that the family bring in a friend of his, Hercule Poirot, who he has discovered is staying in the village as a refugee and the family agrees after being persuaded of his discretion.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles was Agatha Christie’s first published novel and so it also introduces one of mystery fiction’s most iconic characters: the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot with his egg-shaped head, military moustache and desire for neatness and order. While the character would become richer over the years and play a larger role in later adventures than he does in this narrative, it is striking just how well formed he already is at this point.

Rather than focus on the things that are already in place here, I was more interested in a couple of things that felt a little different from the character or the style of the later mysteries.

Firstly, it is immediately apparent that this is a book that evokes a sense of the period in which it was written in a way that few other Christie stories do. Here we see a family whose circumstances are actually being affected by the war and throughout the book there are references given that remind us of this. Economies are being made at Styles and we hear Emily Inglethorp complain that her stepchildren are not doing enough to help the cause. And, even more noticeable, a woman is working in a professional capacity.

Given Christie’s popular image as a stodgy, conservative voice, I was struck by how Christie writing in 1916 is a progressive voice for that time. Her women are strong and patriotic, whether they are working to put Styles on a war footing or serving in a pharmacy. Meanwhile the males are mostly coasting on financial handouts, not seeking to contribute while believing that they are owed a living. The contrast is striking and gives the lie to the notion that Christie was someone who deplored progress.

The question of Christie’s politics is, of course, contentious and I think more complex than it appears. Part of the problem is that her longevity meant that many of her later works were written when she was a much older figure, seemingly from a bygone age. Those novels seem to wistfully reflect on the past and while I think that there is some acceptance of the need for progress in those later books, that can often be overlooked by readers. While I do not think you can base an opinion on a single novel, I would argue that at the very least it illustrates that there was a period of her career where Christie was more forward-thinking and perhaps even a little disapproving of her supposedly beloved establishment.

Secondly, while Poirot’s later adventures usually put a primary importance on the analysis of the psychological factors of a case, here he seems almost entirely focused on the question of motive and opportunity. While Poirot may later berate Hastings for what he suggests is an obsessive focus on the clue, here we see him finding scraps of a will in a fire grate and some of those unlikely strands of fabric stuck on a door latch.

Thirdly, in this case we actually see a suspect being brought to trial. I am not entirely sure that trial writing was really a strength of Christie’s and the narrative does seem to slow quite significantly at this point yet its inclusion is important and does serve a real purpose in the story.

Finally, here we have a version of Poirot that is living in difficult circumstances as a refugee and yet is managing to retain his sense of pride. This is essentially the same character we will see later and yet he is not initially the master of the crime scene through reputation but because of his inherent competency.

So, the final question I want to consider is whether this book, were it not the first Poirot mystery, would be considered a particularly noteworthy one. I say that because I think it is one of those books that anyone with an interest in GAD should try for its significance to the genre but that is not necessarily a mark of quality.

I personally rather enjoy The Mysterious Affair at Styles but I do think the mystery itself is one of Poirot’s less interesting cases. Certainly there is an element of the resolution (the identity of the killer) that I think is quite clever and utilizes Christie’s soon-to-be iconic skills at misdirection well but the cast of suspects are not particularly interesting either in variety or motive.

Also there is also an element of the resolution (the means of death) that I think is too clever and technical for me to be entirely happy with it. Not so much because it isn’t fair play but because it isn’t ingenious enough to be interesting and the death could have been contrived in a simpler way.

Still, I would reiterate that I did enjoy revisiting the novel. It is fascinating to see how much of the Belgian detective’s character is already in place in his first appearance and there are some wonderful moments along the way, not least one of Hasting’s customary and misguided acts of chivalry.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: At a country house (Where)

Ellery Queen, Golden Age

The Dutch Shoe Mystery by Ellery Queen

DutchAfter getting off to a rough start with The Roman Hat Mystery, I felt that I had turned the corner with the second Ellery Queen novel The French Powder Mystery. I had read good things about the third book in the series, including from some people who generally don’t care about the early Nationalities phase of the cousins’ writing. On top of that, this book was significantly shorter than the two efforts that preceded it. Surely this would be the book where Dannay and Lee would knock it out of the park and deliver the classic read I know they are capable of… Right?

Well, let’s start with the positives. The initial premise of the book is, in my opinion, the strongest of the first three novels. Ellery is attending a meeting at the Dutch Hospital and, at its conclusion, he is invited to watch an operation being carried out on a wealthy philanthropist who funds some of the hospital’s research.

When the time comes for the surgeon to operate however they discover that she has been garroted and at first it seems that the killer is none other than the surgeon himself. There are a few other possibilities however including – and here my pulse was truly quickening – a mobster who was under anaesthesia at the time.

The other element of the novel that particularly marks it out is that this story features a second murder at the midpoint of the novel. This is a particularly welcome development as it addresses one of the principle weaknesses of the first two books – that the second halves of those books drag, becoming chapter after chapter of interviews. By introducing a second corpse, Ellery not only has something to do but he also must now question whether he is investigating the actions of one murderer or a first murderer and a second copycat murderer.

So, why aren’t I feeling more enthused about this? Perhaps it’s an expectations game. Maybe I just thought that The French Powder Mystery was so certain to be terrible that I was pleasantly surprised whereas I came to this one feeling hopeful that I was on course for a thrilling read that I felt let down. I certainly think that is a part of it.

The more significant problem for me was that I didn’t find the mystery particularly mysterious, at least in comparison with the previous two stories. There are some clues that Ellery takes a long time to piece together (or at least to tell us that he has pieced together) whose significance seemed quite obvious to me and, once worked out, the identity of a key figure is pretty simple to piece together. So where the previous books kept my attention in their final section as Ellery explains it all in minute, excruciating detail, here I just wanted him to get on with it.

There are other issues of pacing. While the introduction of a second murder certainly gives the story a lift, the individual chapters often pass with very little progress being made. In fact, there is quite a large section of the book where Ellery just seems to wallow in his inability to piece the case together in spite of the apparent simplicity of the crime. While I think the first two books are far too long, there is at least the sense of constant progress, however incremental. Here however we are waiting for Ellery to make a mental connection between evidence he already has and it is tedious.

I also think the book suffers from not having any particularly standout, colorful characters. I wasn’t rooting for anyone, either to be found innocent or guilty, and with Ellery conducting the investigation on his own, I found myself missing the banter between Ellery and his father.

So, were there any bright spots? Well, I appreciated that Djuna is finally given something to do and sets up some future development, though I still find the core concept of that character problematic (he is a Romany orphan that Ellery’s father adopts and makes into a sort of housekeeper).

Also, while the individual pacing of the chapters is a problem, I do think that the second murder adds a welcome complexity to the investigation even if it has the unfortunate side effect of narrowing an already quite limited field of suspects.

But sadly I think that’s about it. While the previous two books were a grind at times, I was at least interested in following them through to the end and finding out exactly how the crimes were committed. The Dutch Shoe Mystery tested my patience and I was found wanting.

I will, of course, no doubt find myself reaching for the next book at some point soon. I’ve already paid for it and while Queen can be tedious, I can see the bright spots and the potential. But I will be much more careful about letting those expectations rise again.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Set in a hospital/nursing home (Where)

Cozies

Murder with Fried Chicken and Waffles by A. L. Herbert

ChickenWhen I first set up this blog I had intended to read a range of different mysteries but I have been on such a GAD kick lately that those other categories you’ll see on the navigation bar are looking a little sparse. After a run of vintage mysteries I fancied mixing it up a bit and, after a brief search of the library shelves, this caught my eye.

Murder with Fried Chicken and Waffles was published back in 2015 and is the first in a series of cozy mysteries investigated by the owner of a soul food restaurant in Prince’s County, Maryland. The second book has already been published and the author is apparently currently at work on a third volume.

Halia Watkins grew up loving food and the way it could bring people together. As an adult she opened her own restaurant which has grown to be quite successful and is something of a family affair. Her highly opinionated, boisterous cousin Wavonne supposedly works as a server when she isn’t snapping at the customers or sampling the product in the back while her retired mother comes in early in the morning to bake the cakes and desserts.

Halia’s path to opening that restaurant was not smooth however and it was only possible because of an investment made by Marcus Rand, a very smooth, fast-talking entrepreneur who likes to bring his clients to dine at the restaurant. One evening he brings a group with him and they stay chatting long after closing. As it nears midnight, Halia gets fed up of waiting for Marcus and his group to leave and so she takes him up on his offer that he will lock up with his set of keys when he is done. When she discovers the building still open and Marcus lying dead in her kitchen she is worried about the negative publicity and so she and Wavonne secretly move the body to a spot in a nearby alley where they hope it will be found. As a result of this Wavonne ends up becoming the number one suspect in the murder and Halia realizes that the only way to clear Wavonne may be to find the real killer.

The biggest strength of this novel is definitely the characterization which is really rich. I had no difficulty imagining the different characters who populate the story. Halia does not always make good decisions – moving the body is definitely a questionable choice – but she is responsible and thoughtful in how she approaches trying to figure out what happened. I certainly have met a number of Wavonnes who can talk their way into trouble just as often as they talk their way out of it. My favorite character was Halia’s mother who only appears in a few chapters but is a sensible, no-nonsense woman who makes a meaningful contribution to the investigation towards the end of the novel.

Marcus is an intriguing character too as it quickly becomes clear that no one entirely knows where his money comes from. While we see that he is capable of being charming, no one seems to like him very much including his sister who works as his personal assistant. The clients he is dining with on the evening of the murder seem angry and stressed at points in the evening while his girlfriend seems more interested in his money than him. As Halia looks into things the list of suspects expands yet further.

The mystery itself is solid and, with the exception of a visual clue that doesn’t get described in enough detail to help the reader, mostly fair-play. While it is not directly labeled, the end of Chapter 42 is a Challenge to the Reader as Halia tells us that she is 99% certain she knows who killed Marcus. Attentive readers should be able to figure out the significance of the clue to work out who did the crime – the why is a little trickier though I think it is sufficiently clued, even with the problem of the visual clue.

The developments in the case are spaced out well and I felt that the for the most part the author does a good job of balancing the mystery with the themed elements. The only part that did not seem quite natural was a short exchange between two characters about food providence and large scale meat production though I don’t dispute that customers raise those sorts of questions – it is just a little awkward.

In addition to the mystery itself, there are recipes included for Sour Cream Cornbread, Light and Fluffy Belgian Waffles, Sweet Corn Casserole, Fried Chicken Wings and the House Cocktail described in the story. Unfortunately, being on a bit of a diet at the moment, I have not tried any of the recipes for myself though I may end up giving the Sweet Corn Casserole a try at a future family gathering as it does sound tasty.

Overall, I found this to be a charming example of the cozy, foodie mystery. I like Halia a lot as a protagonist and I will look forward to reading the sequel, Murder with Macaroni and Cheese, at some point soon to catch up with what happens to her next.

Inverted, Italian Crime, Pre-Golden Age

The Priest’s Hat (Il Cappello del Prete) by Emilio De Marchi

ThePriestsHatThis post will be my the fiftieth review for Mysteries Ahoy! and, to mark the occasion, I knew that I wanted to find something a little bit special.

Being on something of an inverted mystery kick, I have been doing lots of research into the various novels available that belong to that sub-genre. As I read articles, encyclopedia entries and guides, I have been writing down titles that catch my eye but none struck me quite so much as The Priest’s Hat and the moment I found out about it I was quite determined that I would track a copy down for the blog.

The novel was apparently one of the earliest examples of the Italian giallo form which combines elements of horror, mystery and suspense. It was written in 1887 and published in installments before being collected into a volume for publication in 1888.

The story was inspired by the then-recent news stories concerning the Count Faella d’Imola who had killed a priest for his money, been arrested and died in prison. While De Marchi’s characters have different names and some of the circumstances of the crime differ, it is clear that this work certainly uses the details of that case as a starting point to explore the psychology of the criminal leading up to and following a murder.

The murderer in this story is the Baron Carlo Coriolano di Santafusca who, we are told in the first sentence, did not believe in God or the Devil. We discover that he is a libertine who is in dire financial straits, having mortgaged his property and borrowed from his tenants to pay for his gambling habits. At the start of the novel he is seeking to sell his family property in order to service his creditors although he expects that this will still leave him destitute.

The man he seeks to sell the house to is a priest, Cirillo, who has amassed a small fortune. Unfortunately he has also gained a reputation as someone who possesses mystical powers after he advises a group of brigands who have kidnapped him to pick numbers in the lottery that end up being drawn. As this story becomes more widely known, Cirillo finds himself being hounded and is looking to escape his congregation. He also happens to know that the Baron’s home will make a particularly good investment.

The events of the novel depict the process by which the Baron decides that rather than selling his property he will kill Cirillo and steal the money he will be bringing with him for the sale. The actual murder itself is quite brief and takes place early in the novel. Much of what follows shows the Baron, after an initial run of exceptionally good luck, slowly beginning to mentally disintegrate as an investigation begins and the guilt and fear of discovery builds within him.

Unlike many of the other inverted mystery stories I have read, we see very little of the investigation that will take place. Nor are there really a lot of developments in the case, yet we do see how even a small piece of evidence can end up being used as the basis for a much broader case against someone.

That piece of evidence is the titular priest’s hat – an expensive, brand new hat that Cirillo is wearing for his visit to meet with the Baron and conclude the purchase of the house. In one of the Italian language blog entries I read about this novel, the author describes the hat as a sort of tell-tale heart which I think is a particularly appropriate parallel. The idea of the hat becomes an obsession for the Baron who begins to worry that it is the one piece of evidence he has not accounted for.

The way that fear impacts his decision making is interesting and because the case is quite simple, it is easy to see the role the hat plays in the development of the story. While it seemed clear to me how the novel might conclude, I enjoyed the journey to that point and was interested in precisely what decisions the Baron would make.

While the novel’s cast of supporting characters is kept quite small, several are quite striking characters. I found Cirillo’s backstory to be quite entertaining and I enjoyed and appreciated the sections in which we see the local priest puzzling over the dilemma of what to do about an object he has inadvertently stolen.

Arguably the novel does stretch its material a little during the Baron’s later stages of mental anguish (beginning with the chapter The Orgy, which is far less prurient than its title may suggest), feeling a little heavy-handed, but because the time is taken to emphasize the instability of his life prior to his becoming a murderer I felt that erratic behavior seemed to fit his nature.

While I am not sure that the ending was entirely satisfying from the point of view of concluding the investigation, I felt it pulled the work together thematically in its discussion of how the act of murder would affect the guilty party.

Given my recent run of dud reads, I was pleased that the fiftieth review would be of a title that I found to be both interesting and enjoyable. While the book’s age may make it a curiosity for fans of the inverted mystery, I think it is an enjoyable example of the form in its own right.

Sadly the novel is not easily available in print in English though the highly readable Frederick A. Y. Brown translation has been digitized and made available online by the Bodleian. That translation was written in 1935 and so is still presumably in copyright. My hope is that, with the various small crime-specialist presses digging up more and more lost classics of the genre, someday this might be republished and find its way back into wider circulation in English.

Golden Age, Inverted, Locked Rooms and Impossible Murders

The Medbury Fort Murder by George Limnelius

MedburyThe Medbury Fort Murder came as something of a surprise to me. While the blurb certainly highlights the locked room element of the story, the novel could also be described as an inverted mystery and a traditional detective novel. And what makes that truly bananas is that it attempts to be all of those things at the same time.

The novel was first published in 1929 by the Crime Club and was written by Lewis George Robinson under the pseudonym George Limnelius. If that name doesn’t ring any bells it is likely because he didn’t pen many mystery novels and this seems to be the best regarded of the bunch.

Robinson draws on some of his own experiences of serving as an army medic in West Africa in this novel, particularly in the opening chapters where we learn Major Preece’s history and begin to build an understanding of the forces that will inspire him to wish to murder a fellow officer.

In these chapters we also encounter the man who will become the murder victim, the odious Lepean, and we see how little he is liked by the other men stationed at the Medbury Fort. We learn why Preece decides he will kill him and some general ideas of his plan but we may be a little surprised when the next morning Lepean is discovered with his throat cut locked in his own bedroom.

From that point on we would be getting heavily into spoiler territory but I will say that the remaining chapters present the perspectives of both Preece and the investigator, allowing the reader to understand what each are thinking and how they are trying to steer the investigation. They also present us with a little twist that takes the novel in a different, more traditional direction.

Overall, I think the combination of these styles works surprisingly well. Certainly better than I would have expected from a description. There is plenty of tension as we try to piece together exactly what has happened and because the evidence at the crime scene seems to so clearly implicate Preece.

The weakest element of the story is the locked room to the extent that I really debated whether or not to put it in my locked room category. The solution to how it was done is a familiar one and so sadly there is not much innovation there. I would certainly not suggest seeking this one out for the locked room.

The inverted elements on the other hand are much more successful and combine very effectively with the traditional detective investigation part of the story. I particularly appreciated that while we know what Preece was looking to achieve, we can clearly see that he had not left the crime scene the way he had planned. With evidence suggesting him as one of the likeliest suspects, we see him attempt to locate a more appealing figure for the Police investigation.

The investigation itself is a little tougher to evaluate, in part because I do not think it really lends itself to be viewed as a traditional puzzler. Certainly the reader could utilize the information they are given and make some reasonable guesses to come to the correct conclusion but it rarely feels like ratiocination.

Not that the detective really does anyway.

My biggest problem with this book relates to the world view and criminological beliefs of the investigator, McMaster who asserts the no violent crime has ever been committed by an educated man. That view is essentially derived from the most classist of outlooks on life but even if you ignore the inherent class prejudice, it is far too sweeping a statement to use to justify ruling suspects out of a murder charge. It is also quite demonstrably incorrect such as with the case of serial killer H. H. Holmes. I not only groaned when I read McMaster saying it a second time, I also took him a lot less seriously as a sleuth.

On a more positive note, I really embraced the novel’s complex characterizations. I was very pleasantly surprised by how modern Limnelius’ characters can feel. A few days ago I read Henry Wade’s Too Soon to Die which was written a quarter century later yet dealt with infidelity awkwardly rather than in the more frank way Limnelius presents the issue. Limnelius’ characters may still speak quite breathlessly but they do sound passionate and conflicted.

For much of this book I was really expecting to come here and get to post a rave review. I was gripped throughout almost all of the novel and I felt that the novel was building towards a special ending. Unfortunately I just could not see past the McMaster class comments and felt underwhelmed by the solution given which did not convince me.

As much as I like the novel’s ambition and its approach to character-building, at least for its central figures, the story does not match up to its inventive framework. With a better solution I think this hybrid form of mystery storytelling could have worked but as it is, I cannot think of a good reason to recommend it.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: An author you’ve never tried (Why)