Friday, February 15, 2019

John Dickson Carr’s The Mad Hatter Mystery

The Mad Hatter Mystery, written in 1933, was the second of John Dickson Carr’s Dr Gideon Fell mysteries. It gives Carr the opportunity to indulge two of his particular enthusiasms - for gothic horror and for farce.

These enthusiasms are obvious right from the start. A young man is found dead, clearly murdered, near Traitor’s Gate in the Tower of London. To make things even more medieval the murder weapon is a crossbow bolt. The farcical touch - the corpse is dressed in a golf suit but is wearing an opera hat that is absurdly over-large.

The victim was a reporter who had been amazing London with his accounts of the recent exploits of the most daring hat thief in history. That the reporter who had been covering the story was found dead wearing a ludicrous item of stolen headgear is both disturbingly absurd and ironic.

Carr was famous as the master of the locked room mystery but The Mad Hatter Mystery is not a locked room puzzle. It is not even an impossible crime. A most strange and extraordinary crime certainly, but definitely far from impossible.

Chief Inspector Hadley finds himself with a multiplicity of crimes to solve - there is not merely a series of hat thefts and a murder, there is also a stolen manuscript. It’s the manuscript of a hitherto unknown Edgar Allan Poe detective story. This makes it immensely valuable and of course it’s a lovely playful touch to have a detective story about the theft of a detective story.

Even with Dr Fell’s help Hadley finds this to be a tough case. Finally we are approaching the end of the book and the mist begins to clear and the truth is revealed. The solution is strange and complex but it’s undoubtedly true. Except that it isn’t. So it’s back to the drawing board. Thankfully the real solution is now obvious. Except that it isn’t. It seems that it will never be possible to get to the bottom of these strange crimes.

This is a dazzling display of plotting pyrotechnics by Carr.

Physical evidence plays very little part in this mystery. Alibis on the other hand are important. Motives are crucial but in this case not always easy to pin down. A major  problem is the fact that the murder is not the only crime to be considered. A satisfactory solution will have to tie together all those crimes, and the motives for all those crimes.

This is a very funny book. Carr loved to add touches of humour to his book and on occasion he would lay on the comic elements with a shovel. Sometimes he overdid it but The Mad Hatter Mystery is a fine example of how to write a very amusing mystery that is still a superbly crafted example of the art of the detective story and to emphasise Carr’s complete mastery he also manages to make it an emotionally affecting novel. However bizarre the circumstances murder is still tragedy.

If you’re a hardcore Dr Fell fan then the good news is that he’s at the centre of things right from the start.

I don’t intend to give even the slightest hint about the ending. All I will say is that some readers will disapprove.

I haven’t read enough of Carr’s work to be able to say whether this qualifies as one of his best books but I certainly found The Mad Hatter Mystery to be insanely enjoyable. Highly recommended.

Friday, February 8, 2019

James P. Hogan's Inherit the Stars

James P. Hogan (1941-2010) was an English science fiction writer. Inherit the Stars, published in 1977, was his first novel. He later wrote four sequels. It has been described as a mystery-science fiction hybrid. Which it is, in a sort of a way. It’s not a whodunit type of mystery but the main thrust of the plot is the search for a solution to a puzzle. The methods used in weighing up evidence, interpreting the evidence and then fitting the clues together to find a solution do bear many resemblances to the methods used by detectives in the golden age of detective fiction.

The book is set in 2027. We get a brief background on the world of 2027 and this is by far the weakest part of the book. Hogan’s ideas on the directions that history might take are silly childish wishful thinking. Technology has solved all problems of scarcity and energy supply and the nations of the Earth have spontaneously decided to abandon nationalism and wars and to embrace a warm and fuzzy universal brotherhood under the benevolent leadership of the United Nations. All races and ethnicities have been erased. All religions have been abandoned. We are all one. It’s John Lennon’s Imagine come true.

With war abolished humanity has decided to embrace the Space Age with enthusiasm. Our future is in the stars! So it can be said to be an attempt to make such an enthusiasm seem plausible, since in 1977 Hogan must have been painfully aware that public interest in the space program had in fact evaporated almost entirely.

None of this nonsense matters once the story gets going. The mystery at the centre of the tale is Charlie (Charlie not being his name but the name that the scientists end up giving him). Charlie is dead. His body was found on the Moon. What makes it a mystery is that Charlie did not belong to any of the lunar colonies or expeditions. And he has been dead for 50,000 years. The real puzzle though is that Charlie is human. This is of course impossible. But nonetheless Charlie remains stubbornly human.

British scientist/inventor/ideas man/all-round genius Victor Hunt is one of the many scientists called in to solve the puzzle. Hunt’s most successful invention is the Trimagniscope which is a device that creates a holographic image of any object that it scans. The clever bit is that it can see inside objects as well. In 1977 this sounded very high-tech indeed. The device is going to be used not only to look inside Charlie’s body, but also to allow the two books which were fund with Charlie’s body to be read without having to open them (since they’re very fragile and would disintegrate if opened).

This is very much hard science fiction. There is zero characterisation. To me that’s no problem. I don’t read science fiction for character studies.

The entire plot is the gradual unraveling of the puzzle. Here we get another intriguing resemblance to detective fiction - as more and more pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are found the picture gets clearer and clearer and then the next piece of evidence turns up and it doesn’t fit at all. Just as fictional detectives find themselves having to scrap elegant theories so the scientists have to do the same. Theory after theory gets discarded. The problem is not a lack of clues - there are plenty of clues but they all seem to point to radically different solutions.

Like any good writer of detective fiction Hogan delights in keeping his investigators on their toes. If they jump to conclusions they end up chasing down blind alleys. There are no red herrings as such. All the clues are real. They are all pieces of the same jigsaw puzzle but it’s like trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle when you have no idea whatsoever what the final picture is going to be. It’s also, like a golden age detective story, a fair-play mystery. The clues necessary to solve the puzzle are available to the scientists, and to some extent to the reader (assuming he knows a certain amount about evolution, cosmology, vulcanology and planetary formation). The scientists certainly have the clues, but it takes a leap of intuition by Victor Hunt to see that the clues can only be assembled in one way that makes sense.

It’s also amusing that like so many detective novels it ends with the scientist-detective gathering everyone together to explain the solution to the mystery!

Not only does this book have much of the structure of a golden age detective story, it even has definite affinities with that fascinating sub-genre, the impossible crime story. There’s obviously no crime, but there are impossibilities that must be resolved.

It’s one of those hard SF novels that deals with Big Themes. Structurally it might be a mystery novel but thematically it’s unequivocally science fiction. The scope of the book is decidedly epic. Hogan stated in interviews that he was inspired to write Inherit the Stars after seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey. He loved the movie but hated the ending. He decided to try his hand at writing a novel with the same basic theme. There are definite plot similarities, and the feel is very similar. Arthur C. Clarke was known for his profound lack of interest in characterisation. Which by the way I agree with - I think characterisation is an unnecessary distraction in both science fiction and detective fiction. You could say that Inherit the Stars takes the initial premise of 2001 and then takes it in completely different directions. In fact it’s the kinship to detective fiction that differentiates it most sharply from 2001 - Hogan wants an ending that ties up all the loose ends.

Inherit the Stars is ideas-based science fiction and the ideas are genuinely interesting but it’s the slow, devious, tortuous and extremely clever unravelling of a complex puzzle that makes it enthralling. Highly recommended.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Rupert Penny's Sealed Room Murder

Rupert Penny was one of the pseudonyms used by Ernest Basil Charles Thornett (1909-1970), an English author who wrote a small number of mystery novels between 1936 and 1941. Sealed Room Murder was one of his last mysteries, published in 1941. It is, very obviously, a locked-room mystery.

This is a book that makes us wait a long long time for the murder. Private enquiry agent Douglas Merton is hired to find out who is harassing Mrs Harriet Steele. It’s almost certainly someone from within her own household, and what a grotesque household it is.

Harriet Steele had been an acrobat but she is now obese, crude and thoroughly unpleasant. By the terms of a very cruel and malicious will a tribe of penniless relatives lives with her, all hoping that somehow they can find a way to get their hands on the Steele fortune. The will forces Harriet to put up with them but she doesn’t have to like it and she doesn’t have to make things pleasant for them. And she certainly makes things incredibly unpleasant for them.

Now it appears that one of them has decided to strike back by launching a low-level campaign of intimidation. Clothing has been ruined, a very expensive mink coat has been slashed, Harriet’s clocks (she collects clocks) have been sabotaged, and expensive flooring has been hacked to pieces.

Harriet is a monster but the rest of the family are not much better. Merton is inclined to think that they all deserve each other. Except for Linda. Linda is different. Linda is a lovely girl. Linda could not possibly have anything to do with anything nasty or malicious. Douglas Merton is not exactly an unbiased witness on the subject of young Linda Whitehead.

Merton’s presence in Harriet Steele’s ugly and depressing house doesn’t deter the miscreant behind the harassment. In fact things start to escalate. And various members of the household report having items stolen or maliciously damaged.

The book mainly consists of a lengthy first-person account of Merton’s inconclusive investigations of the harassment of Harriet Steele. Merton tells us right from the start that he’s not much of a detective and I think most readers will agree with his self-assessment. The point of this lengthy prelude to murder is to establish the dynamics of the household and to establish that while everyone in the house had reason to hate Mrs Steele a number of people had possible motives for wanting to do away with her. We already know, because we’ve been told, that it’s going to end in murder so this is all by way of getting us to indulge in speculation on the identity of the killer even before the murder takes place.

Once the murder takes place the actual investigation of that crime (by Chief Inspector Beale of Scotland Yard) is quickly disposed of. Which is an interesting and decidedly odd choice on the part of the author because this is a detective story in which the whodunit aspect is of very little importance. It’s the how that is important - that’s the aspect of the story in which Penny has invested all his ingenuity and on which the success of the book must stand or fall.

And the how is very very complicated indeed! There are numerous floor plans and diagrams and they’re all needed. It’s the kind of murder method that no real-life murderer would even contemplate, not only on account of its complexity but also because there are so many ways in which it could have failed. On the other hand it is certainly very clever. If you’re a connoisseur of bizarre murder methods and outrageous impossible crimes then this novel should prove eminently satisfying.

It’s also reasonably fairly clued, although even with plenty of clues the fiendish complexity of the murder will probably be enough to ensure that most readers will remain mystified until Chief Inspector Beale’s final explanation.

While the long long lead-up could be seen as a weakness it’s actually quite entertaining, especially if you enjoy books with a plenitude of grotesque characters. Douglas Merton is an interesting protagonist because he’s a private detective but in fact he’s entirely useless in that capacity (although he’s a pleasant enough young chap). There’s no proper detecting done until Chief Inspector Beale’s arrival on the scene. There are plenty of detective stories in which a brilliant amateur solves a case that is beyond the powers of a baffled and incompetent professional. This is a story in which a brilliant professional solves a case that has left an incompetent amateur befuddled and bewildered.

Sealed Room Murder is a slightly odd but fairly enjoyable book with a wonderfully complicated locked-room problem. Highly recommended.

Rupert Penny’s mysteries were re-issued a few years back by Ramble House. So they’re available, but they’re just a little on the pricey side.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Last of Sheila (1973)

After reading JJ's rave review over at The Invisible Event I simply had to to see The Last of Sheila. A fair-play murder mystery that really does play fair and has a great plot seemed almost too good to be true. But it is true and it's enormous fun.

It was written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, both noted fans of the genre.

Here's the link to my review at my movie blog.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Dr Yen Sin #1 The Mystery of the Dragon’s Shadow

In 1936 Popular Publications ceased publication of their Yellow Peril pulp The Mysterious Wu Fang. It was immediately replaced by a new Yellow Peril pulp, Dr Yen Sin. Each issue contained a Dr Yen Sin novel. Three issues appeared between May and October 1936. The first of the Dr Yen Sin novels was The Mystery of the Dragon’s Shadow.

All three novels were written by Donald E. Keyhoe (1897-1988), in my opinion one of the best pulp writers of the era. Keyhoe later became famous as a UFO researcher.

The Mystery of the Dragon’s Shadow is set in Washington but this is not a Washington that would be familiar to most people. It’s like Washington reimagined by Conan Doyle, Edgar Wallace and Sax Rohmer. Everything is shrouded in fog. All the time. There is danger lurking around every corner. Menace seems to be in the very air.

Dr Yen Sin is, not surprisingly, rather similar to Dr Fu Manchu. He’s a diabolical criminal mastermind with dreams of global power. He’s not as morally and psychologically complex as Fu Manchu (Keyhoe was writing for a pulp audience that wasn’t likely to have much patience with complex villains). He lacks Fu Manchu’s highly developed sense of honour. He also lacks Fu Manchu’s visionary qualities. Dr Yen Sin is a sadist. Fu Manchu cold be ruthless and even brutal when he considered it necessary but he could never be considered a sadist. Compared to Fu Manchu Dr Yen Sin is really a stock melodrama villain.

Like Dr Fu Manchu Dr Yen Sin is a bit of a scientific genius, with a knack for inventing fiendish and deadly devices.

Dr Yen Sin’s nemesis is Michael Traile, a young man with some peculiar characteristics. As a result of a botched brain operation he never sleeps. An odd side-effect of this was to accelerate his intellectual development and given all the extra time he has due to not sleeping he has become an expert in many different subjects. He’s in many ways a typical Keyhoe hero. Like Philip Strange (possibly Keyhoe’s best-known creation) he’s not a superman or a superhero but he is a hero with a special ability that gives him a chance of surviving encounters with the most dangerous of enemies. And Traile’s special ability does come at a price - he is subject to sudden attacks of exhaustion. He has paid an even higher psychological price, being forever a kind of outsider. So he actually has some complexity and he’s an ambitious creation for a pulp writer.

Traile of course has a sidekick, Eric Gordon. Eric is brave and dogged and occasionally useful although inclined to get himself into trouble.

There are a couple of women characters who fall into the ever-popular beautiful but dangerous category. In this case Keyhoe manages to keep us wondering right until the end whether Sonya and Iris will turn out to be evil or not.

It has all your favourite pulp thriller clichés - there are secret passageways, hidden trap-doors, disguises and a plethora of narrow escapes. Plus a variety of infernal machines. This is the sort of thing that Keyhoe does well, and he manages to make it all seem reasonably fresh and exciting.

The setting is so much in the Edgar Wallace/gothic/foggy London mode (it even has opium dens) that you might at first wonder why Keyhoe chose Washington. Actually it does make sense since important scenes take place in the Japanese Embassy and Dr Yen Sin’s attempts to interfere in international relations are a vital plot point.

Altus Press have republished all three Dr Yen Sin adventures.

The Mystery of the Dragon’s Shadow is fine pulp fun. Recommended.

Other Donald Keyhoe pulp titles that I highly recommend are Strange War, The Complete Adventures of Richard Knight and Vanished Legion.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Clifford Knight's The Affair of the Jade Monkey

Clifford Knight (1886-1963) was an American writer who wrote a substantial number of mysteries featuring amateur detective Professor Huntoon Rogers, including The Affair of the Jade Monkey which appeared in 1943.

The setting is Yosemite National Park. This clearly pleased the Yosemite National Park authorities because in the 1990s they issued it in paperback as a Yosemite Mystery. It’s fairly easy to find affordable copies of this paperback edition.

Professor Rogers has asked to join a hiking party in the park but it’s not the scenery he’s come for. He’s trying to unravel the mystery of a dead man, a dead man found in the park in a state that makes identification very uncertain.

It’s a time-honoured murder mystery technique to take a group of maybe a dozen people and temporarily isolate them from the rest of the world. They then discover that one of them is a murderer. A hiking party in the wilderness serves this purpose admirably. This is to be a seven-day hike and by the morning of the second day the murderer has already struck.

I’m a bit of a disadvantage reviewing a book like this because to me the idea of voluntarily setting off into the wilderness, on foot, is so bizarre as to be incomprehensible. And as for national parks, I’m sure they’re a most admirable institution, but I wouldn’t visit one if you paid me. So Knight’s attempts to create an atmosphere of peace amid natural beauty, a peace that will of course be shattered by murder, is kind of lost of me. To me the whole thing seems like a nightmare, even before the murder. Having said that I can see that if you’re susceptible to this nature stuff you probably would find the atmosphere quite effective.

Of course normally you’d think that the first thing to do would be to contact the sheriff but apparently in a national park in the U.S. (in 1943 anyway) the park ranger conduct their own criminal investigations, they make any necessary arrests and the park even holds its own preliminary hearings. So the park rangers basically have all the powers of cops. This is one of the intriguingly original things about the novel. It also makes it plausible that the  park authorities, knowing that the rangers have no experience in conducting a murder enquiry, would call on an outsider like Professor Rogers to help.

Having a murder mystery set in the wilderness is interesting but what makes it more original is that it’s not a stationary setting. A murder occurs, and then next day they’re off on the next stage of the hike.

I have to say that based on this novel having park rangers investigating murders is probably a seriously bad idea! Things like preserving the crime scene, looking for fingerprints, looking for footprints, making some effort to estimate the time of death - they don’t do any of that stuff.

Forensic science isn’t going to play any part in the solution. And it’s pretty hard to keep track of people in the middle of the wilderness so alibis are going to be tricky. This means that the investigation is primarily centred on motives. Neither Rogers nor chief park ranger Floyd Plummer do much active detecting. Mostly they just get people talking. Once they start talking Rogers likes to let them keep going, while he keeps listening, and slowly he starts to piece at least a few of the pieces of the jigsaw together.

In the beginning the hiking party seemed to be a collection of complete strangers. As the story progresses we discover that this is not the case at all. There are intricate connections  that seem to tie just about every member of the party to one or more of the other members. This is not coincidence. Most of the members of the party did not join this particular party randomly. As the connections are slowly revealed various motives start to take shape. At the start it appeared that nobody in the party had a motive for any of the murders. Eventually we find out that almost all of them have motives.

As you might expect from what I’ve said so far the clueing is mainly in the form of pointers towards motives. Since such pointers can be somewhat vague it makes it a bit hard to say if it’s fairly clued or not. There’s one major physical clue which is of course the jade monkey itself but I certainly had not the slightest idea of its significance until the very end. There was another major clue that I knew was very important, but again I had no idea what it actually meant. So Knight’s plotting was certainly good enough to fool me.

As for the solution, this is one of those books that has not so much a plot twist as a genre twist at the end. It doesn’t quite belong to the genre to which it originally seemed to belong. Whether you find the solution satisfactory depends on how you feel about this. It’s not that this isn’t a puzzle-plot mystery, but there’s something else going on. Mind you, there are clues pointing in this direction. I hope I’ve made all that sufficiently vague to avoid even a hint of a spoiler!

There are some major red herrings. The plotting is complicated and while it doesn’t fit together with the precision that you’ll find in a plot by a Crofts or a Carr I think the plot can be regarded as quite serviceable. So The Affair of the Jade Monkey has quite a few slightly odd and original features, and an unusual setting. I think that’s a more than sufficient reason to recommend this one.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel

There have been some discussions on some of the vintage crime blogs that I frequent (such as The Invisible Event, Beneath the Stains of Time and also Ho-Ling’s blog) on the subject of mystery/science fiction crossovers. A title that always comes up in these discussions is Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel. Although I used to consider myself to be a science fiction fan I’ve read very little of Asimov’s work. It seemed like a good time to check out The Caves of Steel.

Science fiction of course deals with possible futures. Some of these futures are more possible, or more likely, than others. The actual future will probably bear little resemblance to these science fictional possible futures but the fact that these futures seem at least to be possible is important. One of the intriguing things about vintage science fiction is that it offers glimpses of futures that seemed quite possible at the time but that turned out to be wildly off base.

In The Caves of Steel Asimov gets some of his predictions of the future spectacularly wrong, although in fairness to him he was no more spectacularly wrong than most other science fiction writers. In 1954 when this novel was published it seemed obvious that population growth would continue indefinitely at the extremely high levels of the preceding couple of centuries. The cities of the future would therefore be gigantic and horrifically overcrowded. It seemed just as obvious that we would face extreme shortages of just about everything, including food and water. In the Cities of Asimov’s future world the inhabitants would live on ghastly synthetic food that would be strictly rationed. Having your own bathroom would be a luxury that even very high status people could only dream about. People would live very much like battery hens. The possibility that overpopulation might simply not happen did not occur to Asimov in 1954.

On the other hand he did quite accurately predict a future in which the entire Earth has become a single bland monoculture and society has become a kind of soft totalitarianism in which anything other than absolute conformity is simply unthinkable. We’re well on the way to both of those futures. This is one of the elements that seems to get overlooked regarding this book - it is actually a rather subtle dystopian novel.

The Earth in this particular future had gone through a period of space colonisation but that was a very long time ago. The so-called Outer Worlds have long since achieved complete independence. In fact more than that, they have achieved military and political dominance over the Earth. There are fifty Outer Worlds but no new colonies have been established for centuries, if not millennia.

Robots are an accepted part of life in the Outer Worlds but not on Earth. On Earth they are regarded with suspicion and loathing. Now the Spacers (as the inhabitants of the Outer World are known) are trying to force Earth to embrace robots. Why they are doing this is one of the mysteries that has to be solved.

A Spacer has been murdered and it seems clear that he was murdered by a City Dweller (all of the inhabitants of Earth live in vast Cities are are known as City Dwellers). C-class policeman Elijah Baley, a human and a City Dweller, is assigned to investigate the murder. Much to his horror he is assigned a Spacer as his partner. But it’s worse than that - R. Daneel Olivaw is not just a Spacer but a robot.

Asimov was considered to be a major pioneer in dealing with the subject of robotics in science fiction. He was also generally regarded as being a writer of hard science fiction. What I find interesting about The Caves of Steel is that he appears to have no interest in the hard science fiction side of robotics. He doesn’t seem interested in the scientific and technological aspects. The positronic brain is kind of like a magical device. What Asimov is interested in is the social and psychological effects of a robotics revolution. What happens when robots start to take people’s jobs? What happens when people have to take orders from robots (Asimov’s famous Laws of Robotics notwithstanding there is no question that the robot cop in this novel expects humans to obey him without question). What happens when people start to realise they cannot compete with robots? How will robots make society worse, and how might they make things better? Most importantly, how will people feel about robots?

I must say I’m rather intrigued by this whole Laws of Robotics thing of Asimov’s. The First Law says that a robot cannot injure a human being and the Second Law says that a robot must obey orders from humans. But one of the protagonists of The Caves of Steel is a robot cop and he immediately takes actions that appear to break all three of the Laws of Robotics. How is Asimov going to get out of the corner he seems to have painted himself into?

I’m quite impressed by the discipline of Asimov’s writing. He has a story to tell and anything that does not contribute to the story is ruthlessly eliminated. How were the Outer Worlds settled? Did humanity invent some kind of faster-than-light drive? How do the Spacers who live in Spacetown on the outskirts of New York communicate with their compatriots on the Outer Worlds? What kinds of technologies do the Spacers have that allow them to dominate Earth? How and why, and when, were the positronic brains that make the robots possible developed? How does a positronic brain work? For any science fiction author the temptation to include lengthy infodumps explaining these things would have been overwhelming but for the purposes of the story we do not need to know these things so Asimov tells us nothing about any of these questions. He tells us what we need to know, no more and no less. I rather admire that.

It’s a dystopian novel but it doesn’t see this dystopian future as inescapable. Whether you will actually accept Asimov’s hopeful alternative as wildly impractical or totally plausible is a matter for your judgment. What is interesting is that Asimov doesn’t just offer an alternative - he explores the psychological underpinnings of his alternative, and he accepts that it can only work if people can be persuaded to want it to work.

How does it stand up as a mystery novel? Remarkably well actually. There are lots of red herrings and false leads and before he discovers the real solution Elijah Baley comes up with several very ingenious solutions that turn out to be completely wrong. There are plenty of clues provided and the clever thing is that they’re effective mystery novel clues but they also relate to the science fictional themes of the novel. And most importantly Asimov does not cheat. He explains how his future society works, he explains how the people of this society behave and he explains how his robots behave, and having laid down the ground rules he sticks to them. Which doesn’t stop him from pulling off some very effective misdirection.

So this is a novel that deals with interesting science fiction themes with surprising subtlety and it’s a novel that works very satisfyingly as a detective story. It’s an unqualified double success. Highly recommended.