Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Freeman Wills Crofts' The Hog’s Back Mystery

Freeman Wills Crofts is a detective fiction writer people either love or hate. Crofts, at least in the early part of his career, was uncompromising in his devotion to the puzzle plot. His fans find his books enthralling and deeply satisfying while his critics find them dull and uninteresting. If you’re looking for complex characterisation or sparkling wit you’d best look elsewhere. If you’re looking for superb exercises in intricate plotting then you’ve struck gold with Crofts. The Hog’s Back Mystery appeared in 1933 and it’s typical of the Crofts approach to mystery writing.

Julia Earle lives in a isolated house in Surrey with her husband, a doctor now mostly retired from practice. Julia, her sister Marjorie and Ursula Stone had been great friends at school (quite some time ago as the three women are now in early middle age) and Marjorie and Ursula have arrived for what should be a very pleasant visit. It immediately becomes apparent to Marjorie and Ursula that Julia’s marriage is on somewhat shaky ground.

Then Dr Earle suddenly disappears. Very suddenly indeed, and in slightly puzzling circumstances. Puzzling enough to persuade the Surrey police to ask Scotland Yard for help. The help arrives in the form of Inspector Joseph French.

When a man vanishes and there’s no actual evidence of foul play it generally means he wanted to vanish. It also means, more often than not, that a woman is involved (a woman who is not his wife). To Inspector French it seems clear that this is just such a case. This seems to be confirmed when it is revealed that a woman vanished at almost precisely the same time as the doctor, a woman who appears very likely to have been the other Woman in the case. Nonetheless the circumstances were still rather puzzling and both the local superintendent and French agree that the matter needs to be looked into.

French conducts his investigation with his usual thoroughness and he is perfectly satisfied that Dr Earle and Nurse Nankivel ran off together. At least he is perfectly satisfied until there is another disappearance at which point it becomes obvious that French is going to have to start all over again from square one.

What makes the case exasperating is that it is still not clear that murder has been committed.There may have been a murder. It may have been a double murder. It may even have been a triple murder. On the other hand there might have been no murder at all.

There are plenty of clues but there is as yet absolutely no hard evidence whatsoever.

This is the sort of case that illustrates French’s methods particularly well. When you spend an inordinate amount of time following up an extremely promising lead only to find that it leads nowhere and you were on entirely the wrong track there is a temptation to give in to despair. French simply starts all over again from the beginning. It is frustrating but that’s what being a detective is all about. You don’t solve crimes with brilliant leaps of intuition. You solve crimes through doggedness and thoroughness. When you run out of promising leads you start following up the unpromising leads.

French believes very strongly that there is no such thing as a murder that cannot be solved. If there’s a murder there must be a murderer and therefore there must be a solution. You just keep searching for the evidence and you just keep looking for a way to bring the various pieces of evidence together in such a way that all loose ends are dealt with and you must eventually find the solution.

It’s not that French lacks imagination. He has a powerful imagination but it is rigidly disciplined. No matter how attractive a theory of the crime might be if it doesn’t hold together it has to be discarded.

In a Crofts detective novel you expect to find a nice juicy unbreakable alibi. The Hog’s Back Mystery has a whole series of unbreakable alibis. Every suspect (and there are quite a few of them) seems to have an alibi for each of the murders (assuming that they are murders and not voluntary disappearances) and all the alibis seem to be distressingly watertight. To solve the case Inspector French will have to break multiple unbreakable alibis.

This is not a perfect Crofts novel. The solution is fiendishly complex but there’s one absolutely crucial point that relies on a plot device that is always unsatisfactory and unconvincing and there’s another crucial element that makes part of the solution a little too obvious. It also makes use of a favourite Crofts device that he used much too often.

The Hog’s Back Mystery is a good, but not a great, Inspector French mystery. This one has been included in the British Library’s recent paperback reissue series but it’s an odd choice. If you want books that show Crofts at the top of his form check out The Sea Mystery, Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy, The Loss of the Jane Vosper or Sir John Magill’s Last Journey instead.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Think Fast, Mr Moto

Think Fast, Mr Moto was the third of the Mr Moto spy thrillers written by American John P. Marquand (1893-1960). It appeared in 1937.

The resemblances between the Mr Moto novels and the Mr Moto movies are rather tenuous (although it must be said that both the novels and the moves are terrific in the own ways). In the movies Mr Moto is a policeman, working for Interpol (which existed in the 1930s although it was not yet known by its familiar modern name). He chases criminals and spies.

In the novels Moto is an agent (and a senior one) of the Japanese intelligence service. He is unequivocally a spy. But that doesn’t mean he’s the bad guy. Not at all. At the time Marquand wrote the early Moto books the United States and Japan were at peace. Moto’s attempts to advance the interests of the Japanese Empire are not portrayed as being morally any different from the attempts of other characters to advance their own national interests (whether they be American, Chinese, British, or what have you). Moto can be ruthless but he’s a secret agent, not a Boy Scout. Like any good spy he practises deception when it is professionally necessary to do so but on a personal level he is honest, honourable and even kindly. There is no trace of cruelty in Mr Moto. Necessary ruthlessness yes, but never cruelty.

Mr Moto is not the actual protagonist in most of the novels. He does however still manage to be the dominant character. He’s the one who sets things in motion, and he’s the one who continues to pull the strings. And of course he’s  by far the most interesting character in the books.

In this case the protagonist is Wilson Hitchings, a pleasant young American. He is in Shanghai where he is being groomed to take his place in the family business. The family business is Hitchings Brothers, a venerable, highly respected, very wealthy trading and banking firm with interests throughout the Far East. Wilson’s Uncle Will currently holds the reins of power. Uncle Will has received some disturbing news from the company’s Honolulu office. A distant relative, a young woman, is running a very successful gambling club there. That would be no problem except that the club is named the Hitchings Plantation. Hitching Brothers most certainly does not want its name to be associated with a gambling club but the difficulty is that the young woman concerned is most definitely a Hitchings (her name in fact is Eva Hitchings) and sees no reason to change the name. Wilson is despatched to Honolulu to buy her off, in as subtle a manner as possible.

In Honolulu Wilson Hitchings is surprised to run into Mr Moto, a Japanese gentleman he had met briefly in Shanghai (his uncle had told him a rather unlikely story that this inoffensive little man was actually a Japanese government agent). Wilson also discovers that things are not quite right in Honolulu. The story he had been told about Eva Hitchings and her gambling club doesn’t quite ring true. Something odd is going on. His feeling of disquiet is confirmed when a gunman opens fire at him. Or was the gunman aiming at Eva Hitchings? Or possibly Mr Moto? And why on earth would anyone want to kill any of them? For that matter, why is Eva’s club apparently run by gangsters and why is the roulette wheel crooked? It’s also puzzling that a Japanese government agent should just happen to be on the scene, and apparently taking a keen interest in the Hitchings Plantation.

Wilson Hitchings is an interesting protagonist. He has something in common with Eric Ambler’s heroes - ordinary men who are reluctantly drawn into the world of espionage. The main difference is that Wilson, once he decides that the reputation of Hitchings Brothers is at stake, isn’t entirely reluctant. He’s also rather competent. He is an intelligent and resourceful young man. His main disadvantage is that he has brought up in a world sheltered from sordid realities like crime and espionage and faced with such things he is an innocent. He is also inclined, as Mr Moto points out, to assume that a beautiful woman must also be a good woman. Mr Moto has no such illusions about the female of the species.

Marquand mercifully does not succumb to the temptation to deliver political lectures. Mr Moto is doing his job and serving his country and given that Japan and the United States were at peace at the time there is no reason why a young American should not co-operate with him. Moto wants to serve Japan’s interests. Hitchings wants to protect the good name of his family and of the family business.

This is a very unconventional spy thriller. It has character development! In the course of this adventure Wilson Hitchings learns a good deal about life and about himself, and about the moral complexities of duty and honour and loyalty in an imperfect world. He grows up.

There is some action although the emphasis is on suspense and atmosphere as both Wilson Hitchings and Mr Moto, in pursuance of quite different agendas, slowly unravel a complex conspiracy. Marquand certainly has to be considered to be at the more literary end of the spy fiction genre.

Think Fast, Mr Moto is unusual but fascinating. Highly recommended. The two earlier books in the series, Your Turn, Mr Moto and Thank You, Mr Moto are also excellent.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Ellery Queen's The American Gun Mystery

The American Gun Mystery appeared in 1933 and was the sixth of the Ellery Queen mysteries. And it’s a rather controversial one among fans of golden age detective fiction.

This is a story about cowboys and cowgirls and six-shooters and horses and roping steers and all that sort of stuff, but it’s set in New York City. Wild Bill Grant’s rodeo and wild west show has come to town. The venue is the Colosseum, a gigantic sports arena operated by promotor Tony Mars. As a special extra added attraction the show will feature former cowboy movie star Buck Horne doing an exhibition of trick riding and sharpshooting.

On the opening night Inspector Richard Queen of the NYPD and his son Ellery just happen to be in the audience. The show takes an unexpected turn. Murder was not part of the program but murder does take place, in full view of 20,000 witnesses. And in spite of all those witnesses, and in spite of Inspector Queen’s decision to seal off the Colosseum so that not a single soul is able to leave until the mystery is cleared up, the mystery is not cleared up. The identity of the killer remains unknown, the details of the murder remain obscure and most exasperatingly the murder weapon cannot be found.

The victim was shot. Lots and lots of guns are found. But not one of these guns is the murder weapon. The various participants in the show were all carrying guns and during the course of the show they all fired their guns but since this is a Wild West Show their guns are all large-calibre revolvers. The fatal shot came from a .25 automatic.

This is not quite an impossible crime story but it does have tendencies in that direction.

The controversial element I alluded to earlier is the puzzle of the missing gun. When Ellery finally reveals the solution to that part of the puzzle many readers find themselves disappointed or even enraged. The objections to the solution are that it’s silly, it’s implausible or that it’s a cheat. It is certainly silly. It does stretch plausibility to the limit. As to its being a cheat, that’s a matter of opinion. There is a very definite clue that points to the solution but the solution itself is so outrageous that very few readers are going to grasp the significance of the clue. I’m personally inclined to feel that the solution to the missing gun puzzle is not very satisfying and is even just a tad irritating.

It must however be pointed out that the missing gun puzzle is only one minor part of the story. In fact it’s not important at all as far as the solution of the murder mystery is concerned. The finding of the gun only matters insofar as it will be difficult to get a conviction in a murder case without a murder weapon.

Another possible weakness is the motive which is not revealed until the final page, although admittedly there are clues that make the motive (mostly) plausible.

Then there’s Ellery himself. Many readers seem to dislike him intensely. He does have certain affectations, he does love showing off his erudition, he can be high-handed and he does have the habit of not letting people know how much of the puzzle he has already figured out. He’s like a younger and more callow version of Philo Vance. On the other hand he is a young man and it’s hard to dislike a young man for having the faults of youth. I like him but your mileage may vary.

So this book does have its flaws. It also has considerable strengths. Circuses and theatres provide wonderful settings for murder mysteries and a Wild West show works every bit as well. These are strange self-contained worlds filled with colourful eccentrics who have their own distinctive codes of behaviour and even honour. In this case the authors have enormous fun with the whole Wild West thing and they throw in elements of other equally bizarre sub-cultures. Among the assorted possible suspects are gambling joint owner Julian Hunter, prize-fighter Tommy Black and movie star Mara Gay while both Buck Horne and his daughter Kit are or were stars of Hollywood cowboy movies. There’s also a glimpse into the fascinating world of newsreels (which provides a valuable clue). And the fact that the Wild West world has been transported to the middle of New York City adds to the fun.

The plotting is typical early Queen, extremely complex but with plentiful clues and apart from the disappearing gun it holds together well enough. This is a flawed Ellery Queen but while the flaws in The Spanish Cape Mystery proved fatal The American Gun Mystery is mostly successful if you overlook that pesky and annoying little .25 automatic. Generally enjoyable, although not as good as The French Powder MysteryThe Siamese Twin Mystery or The Greek Coffin Mystery. Recommended.