Monday, July 26, 2021

F. Van Wyck Mason’s The Castle Island Case

F. Van Wyck Mason’s 1937 mystery The Castle Island Case belongs to a particularly fascinating sub-genre - the mystery novel with visual clues. It therefore has some affinity with some of the “murder dossier” mysteries of the time which included various visual or physical clues.

The Castle Island Case is a mystery that is profusely illustrated with photographs. Some or all of the photographs contain important clues.

Major Roger Allenby flies to Bermuda to conduct an investigation for an insurance company. A young woman named Judy Fortier (whose life was insured with the company) has apparently drowned and the circumstances suggest suicide. She seems to have jumped off a cliff into the sea. The sea was rough on that day, there was a dangerous rip tide and Judy was a poor swimmer. Her body was not found but she could hardly have survived.

The insurance company has no reason to suspect fraud but they are understandably not entirely happy about paying out on the policy in the absence of a body. Two other things concern them - there was no apparent motive for suicide and the young lady’s life was insured for a very large amount of money considering that she was only a secretary.

Judy had been Barney Grafton’s secretary and it had been assumed that he’d marry her, but then he married a wealthy New England socialite instead. Barbara Grafton is still fairly young and definitely glamorous, although tending to be just a little strait-laced. Grafton is planning a huge South American mining deal so Allenby’s cover is that he’s a retired banker looking to get in on a good deal.

Much of the action centres on the palatial home of Barney Grafton (Freebooters’ Hall), located on Plunder Island, an apparently mythical island (Bermuda consists of no less than 181 islands). So we have a typical golden age detective fiction setup with a relatively small group of suspects more or less isolated. In this case they’re not entirely isolated but it’s still safe to assume that the murderer has to be a member of Grafton’s household or one of his house guests. Grafton’s family consists of his wife Barbara, his beautiful daughter Gail and his young stepson Peter. Also present are young scientist Stanley Gibbons (who hopes to marry Gail), Judy Fortier’s sister Patricia, Barbara’s slightly dissolute brother Terry, financier C. Townley Ward and a pretty and bubble southern belle named Cora Sue. 

Later arrivals are English businessman Sir George Pakenham and the young and beautiful Kathleen Manship.

There are plenty of romantic entanglements among these people, providing potential motives for murder. Both the mining deal and the large policy on Judy Fortier’s life provide possible monetary motives. And there are secrets that need to be kept secret so fear could be a motive as well.

Allenby has an impressive reputation as an investigator but he really struggles with this case. He cannot prevent the second murder, nor the third.

Finally he comes up with an ingenious plan to trap the murderer (or murderess). Fittingly, his plan involves photographic trickery. This is a book that doesn’t involve clever murder methods (there’s nothing remotely impossible about any of the crimes) but it does include clever methods of detection. The photographic trick is just one of the tricks up Allenby’s sleeve.

There are also very clever coded messages. And there’s voodoo. As you would expect the crucial clues are almost all visual. There are no unbreakable alibis but Mason (like Allenby) has a few twists to pull on us.

The many many photographs included in the book give it just a bit of a documentary feel, and even a “true crime” feel. Many of the photographs are supposedly snapshots taken by Allenby (who doesn’t go anywhere without his trusty Leica camera). So we get the feeling that we really are seeing what Allenby sees.

We even get a kind of Challenge to the Reader when our attention is drawn to a small number of photographs that contain the really major clues. But of course that doesn’t necessarily mean that we know what to look for. We might know, if we’ve been paying very close attention.

The use of photographs allows Mason to dispense with descriptive passages, Instead of telling us what Freebooters’ Hall look like we got a photo of the house. We don’t need to be told what the characters look like. We can see them in photographs. This means that the text section of the novel is very economical and the story moves along very quickly.

The publishers must have had high hopes for his book since they flew photographer Henry Clay Gipson and a whole gaggle of models to Bermuda for the photo shoot. Interestingly the models included crime writer C. Daly King and F. Van Wyck Mason himself.

One of the surprising things about this book is that one of the photographic clues is a nude photograph of a young woman. And she is entirely nude. Very daring for 1937, but then I guess the publishers figured that the whole point of the book was to attract attention so why not add a bit of nudity? The book is in fact rather on the racy side, with plenty of photos of the female characters in bathing suits and even engaged in some mildly sexual hijinks.

F. Van Wyck Mason was a very popular writer (in many genres) at the time. He was the author of the extremely successful and long-running series of Hugh North spy thrillers. They’re wonderfully entertaining and some of them are in fact closer to being detective novels than spy novels, an example being the excellent The Fort Terror Murders. Equally good are The Branded Spy Murders, The Budapest Parade Murders (which combine both genres) and The Singapore Exile Murders. Mason was a very popular writer (in many other genres as well) at the time.

The Castle Island Case is an interesting experiment that, surprisingly, works pretty well. It doesn’t come across as mere gimmickry. There’s a pretty decent plot and the photos give it a very distinctive feel. It’s definitely worth getting for its historical value as an experiment but it’s a satisfying and very enjoyable mystery as well. Highly recommended.

The good news is that used copies are available but the bad news is that they’re not cheap.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Fletcher Flora's Killing Cousins

Killing Cousins
is a 1961 novel by Fletcher Flora which fits at least vaguely into the noir pulp style of the time.

Fletcher Flora (1914-1968) was an American crime writer. He wrote about nineteen novels. Apart from the fact that he was born in Kansas and served in the military during World War 2 I know nothing about him.

Willie Hogan lives with her husband Howard in Ouichita Road in the town of Quivera. It’s a neighbourhood that has a trace of gentility gone slightly to seed. It’s still a lot better than the neighbourhood she grew up in. The marriage is not startlingly happy or unhappy from Willie’s point of view. Her main complaint is that Howard can be a bit tiresome about her infidelities. Such as the time he came home early and caught her in bed with Evan Spooner. That was just typical of Howard’s thoughtlessness. And Howard has been getting tiresome again about her affair with his cousin Quincy.

These are however minor irritations. Willie can live with these things. But when Howard threatens to leave her, that’s a different matter. Willie likes living in Ouichita Road and being a member of the Country Club and having nice clothes and all the other things that make life pleasant. Especially the Country Club. There are plenty of nice men to sleep with at the Country Club. How is she supposed to maintain this lifestyle without Howard? It doesn’t bear thinking about it. So it isn’t really her fault that she become so upset that she shot Howard.

But now Howard is a big problem. Instead of coming up with a good story right away, such as a burglar shooting Howard, she went to sleep and forget about it until the next morning. But how Howard is still there and he’s dead. Which is typical of his lack of consideration for her. Fortunately Quincy agrees to help her out.

Quincy is a cheerfully amoral sort of guy. Covering up a murder sounds to him like an amusing thing to do. And it’s a challenge worthy of his cleverness. Quincy is a very clever guy.

Quincy is tempted by the idea of coming up with an elaborate plan to dispose of Howard but he has the strong impression that people who do such things in elaborate ways tend to get caught. A good simple plan would be better. The important thing is that it should be thought out carefully and executed just as carefully.

Of course there are little unexpected things that go wrong when you’re trying to cover up a murder but in this case they seem pretty minor. There’s no reason to panic.

Even when Lieutenant Elgin Necessary (yes that’s the cop’s name) starts asking questions it’s no real problem. Necessary is sure it’s just a case of a husband walking out on a wife. He’s not really suspicious at all.

This is not really a hardboiled story at all. Quincy is amoral but he’s not in any sense a tough guy. Willie is selfish and shallow but she’s no spider woman. She just wants an unpleasant situation to go away. Lieutenant Necessary is no hardbitten cop. He’s a nice guy.

There’s a definite touch of Hitchcockian black comedy to this novel, which is no coincidence. Flora wrote a lot of stories for Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and a lot of his stories are to be found in the various Alfred Hitchcock mystery fiction anthologies. He was clearly a writer very much in tune with the style of whimsical black comedy that was so characteristically Hitchcockian (and especially the style of Hitchcock’s TV anthology series). This book has the same kinds of amusingly ironic twists that there such a feature of that series, and it has the same slightly tongue-in-cheek tone. And the final twist is amusing.

Killing Cousins is murder as lighthearted witty entertainment which pretty much excludes this book from consideration as noir fiction. The content is such that it could have been noir, but it’s too whimsical to be genuine noir. This is murder as one of those awkward social necessities, a tiresome business like having to pay your taxes.

It is however a thoroughly enjoyable read and is highly recommended.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Laurence Meynell's The Frightened Man

The Frightened Man is a 1952 Hooky Heffernan private eye novel by Laurence Meynell.

Laurence Meynell (1899-1989) was a British writer and he was one of those writers who had a long and successful career only to have his books disappear into oblivion after his death. He wrote at least 150 books in various genre. His detective fiction included the series of Hooky Heffernan private eye mystery thrillers.

Business hasn’t been too good for our narrator, Hooky Heffernan, and his betting on the ponies hasn’t been too successful recently either. He is therefore very happy when a client turns up. A thin rather owlish individual named Edward Ryder. Ryder’s problem is that he needs to stay alive until the following Friday. Obviously he’d like to stay alive after that as well, but surviving until Friday is the immediate priority.

Ryder is a high school science teacher and part-time inventor and he’s come up with an invention that he thinks is pretty exciting. It could revolutionise the textile industry. He’s a clever chap when it comes to science but a bit of an innocent when it comes to dealing with the world. It never occurred to him that there might be powerful interest groups that don’t want the textile industry revolutionised because they’re doing very nicely as it is. Now Ryder suspects that some such group is determined to stop him from developing his invention any further. They’re prepared to take drastic steps to stop him. They’ve already tried to kidnap him.

Hooky thinks of himself as a pretty hardboiled character but he really doesn’t like powerful people who want to push around innocents like Edward Ryder. Hooky takes the case.

Hooky’s first lead comes from the boarding house where Ryder lives. The landlady, Mrs Malden, denies that any such person has ever lived there. Now Hooky is really interested. He picks up some more pointers from two women who seem to be involved in the case but in ways that are not at all clear to our hero. There’s Joyce Malden, the step-daughter of the landlady, and there’s Ann Deighton. Ann is hopelessly in love with Ryder which is awkward since she’s married. Both of these women have connections to men who may also have some interest in Edward Ryder’s future. And a third woman will later make her appearance, to make things a bit more difficult for Hooky.

It doesn’t take Hooky too long to get a pretty fair idea of what’s going on, his main problem being that there are some nasty types conspiring against poor Ryder and there are lots of people mixed up in the scheme whom Hooky may or may not be able to trust. And time is not on his side.

This is a book that is somewhat franker about sexual matters than you might expect in 1952.

It also has some of the disillusioned postwar British austerity atmosphere that is rather interesting. There’s lots of financial deprivation even for the lower middle class and lots of everyday items that are simply unobtainable. Hooky fondly remembers the days when one could actually buy cheese. There’s also a rather stifling social atmosphere. Meynell indulges just a little in subtle but not too intrusive social commentary. Social commentary is something I generally dislike, mostly because it’s usually badly done. In this book however it really is unobtrusive and it’s integrated into the plot. If you must do social commentary this is the way to do it.

The characters have some complexity. They have plausible motivations and on the whole behave like real people. Even when they do irrational things they do irrational things that are in character. The two major female characters have surprising depth.

Hooky Heffernan is an engaging hero. He’s a slightly irresponsible chap who spends too much time in bars, betting on horses and chasing women. He’s nowhere near as hardboiled as he likes to imagine. He’s genuinely fascinated by people and he has a certain basic decency. He’s a bit of a rough diamond but he’s likeable and amusing.

I love the cover of the 1950s Fontana paperback edition. It suggests a steamy potboiler containing existential despair, torrid romance and maybe even a bit of sleazy sex. But it’s not that kind of book at all.

In the 1950s this is the sort of book you’d have picked up a railway bookstall. It would have provided not-too-demanding entertainment to enliven a dull train journey and by the next day you’d have largely forgotten it. But the next time you had to take a train journey you’d quite happily buy another of his books.

This is a thriller rather than a mystery and the plot is not exactly bursting with originality or inspiration. It’s best described as serviceable. Meynell’s style is bright and breezy, moderately hardboiled in an English sort of way and with some dashes of humour. The main interest in reading this book is that it’s the kind of competently executed harmless entertainment low-key thriller that was so typical of its time. I must admit that I rather enjoyed it. Recommended.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Jack Williamson's The Alien Intelligence

The Alien Intelligence is a short novel by American science fiction writer Jack Williamson (1908-2006). The title suggests some kind of first contact or alien invasion story but this story in fact belongs to the lost world or lost civilisation genre, a genre to which I’m peculiarly addicted. The Alien Intelligence was published in the July and August 1929 issues of the Pulp Wonder Stories making this one of his very very early published works.

A young American doctor named Fowler has travelled to Perth, Australia to begin his medical practice. On the voyage to Australia he had befriended an older man, Dr Horace Austen, a radiologist, archaeologist and explorer.

Austen departs for the arid wastes on the Great Victoria Desert in search of the Mountains of the Moon about which he seems to have some theories. Nothing is heard from Austen for months until a radio message is picked up. The message is cryptic but it is clear to Fowler that his friend is in need of assistance. Being an adventurous young man Fowler sets off for the Mountains of the Moon to find the things referred to in that odd radio message - the ladder, the Silver Lake and Melvar of the Crystal City. He takes several guns and an enormous supply of ammunition with him, and he’ll need them.

Fowler finds the ladder which allows him to ascend an otherwise unclimbable pinnacle of rock. He discovers the nature of the Mountains of the Moon - a vast crater many miles in diameter, the bottom of the crater lying well below sea level.

He encounters the terrifying red streaks of light which seem to be searching the crater, and he finds that in the middle of the crater is a city atop a vast pinnacle of rock. It is the crystal city of Astran, built of diamonds, emeralds and rubies. Astran is inhabited by fair-skinned fair-haired people who seem strangely primitive. Despite living in a city that is clearly evidence of a very advanced civilisation they do not even seem to have mastered the art of kindling fire.

He meets the beautiful blonde Melvar, a young woman who seems to posses an intelligence and nobility of spirit far above that of most of her people. But Fowler and Melvar are in great danger in Astran, having aroused the wrath of the priests. They flee the city to go in search of Horace Austen and to solve the mysteries of the fluorescent Silver Lake, the Purple Ones and those terrifying bars of red light.

There are plenty of mysteries for Fowler to solve. Are the people of Astran the decadent descendants of a once-great civilisation or was Astran built by some other civilisation? How many other civilisations inhabit the great crater? Why does the Silver Lake bring death? How many of the wonders of this land (such as the pillar of silver in the sky) are natural phenomena? Is Fowler right in suspecting that he’s in the presence of both great intelligence and great evil? Is this intelligence human, is it a thing of this earth, is it something supernatural or unfathomably alien?

Of course there’s romance as well as adventure. Fowler falls hopelessly in love with Melvar.

This is the work of a very young man but it has the imaginative sweep and epic qualities that make Jack Williamson’s 1930s space operas so entertaining.

Fowler is a typical adventure story hero, brave and determined and with a strong streak of idealism. Melvar is a pretty typical heroine - she’s sweet and gentle but she’s resourceful and she learns to handle a gun rather skilfully.

This short novel obeys most of the conventions of the lost world genre (which were well and truly established by this time) but gives them a bit of a science fictional twist. Setting the story in Australia rather than South America or Africa or Asia was a nice touch.

The lost world genre was extraordinarily popular from 1882 (when H. Rider Haggard wrote King Solomon's Mines) until the 1930s. It gradually faded because, unfortunately, there were no longer any unexplored parts of the globe left to make such stories plausible. This has in my opinion left a tragic gap in the human imagination. Somehow science fiction tales of adventures on other planets have never quite managed to fill the gap. We lost something precious when the planet ceased to have unexplored corners.

The Alien Intelligence is an impressive effort by a 21-year-old writer and it’s a fine tale of adventure. Recommended, and if you’re a lost world fan I’d be inclined to bump it up into the highly recommended category.

Armchair Fiction have paired this title with Into the Fourth Dimension by Ray Cummings in a two-novel paperback edition.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Alexander Wilson’s Wallace of the Secret Service

Alexander Wilson’s Wallace of the Secret Service was published in 1933. It’s a collection of short stories and it even includes a locked-room mystery.

Writers of spy fiction are often colourful personalities and many have been actual spies or intelligence officers (Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, John le Carré, Ian Fleming). The most colourful of them all was perhaps Alexander Wilson (1893-1963). Wilson wrote nine very successful spy novels during the 1920s and 1930s. Wilson was married four times but the problem was that he had four wives all at the same time. He served two terms of imprisonment for fraud. He was also a British spy, either for a brief period or a very long period depending on whether one believes Wilson’s own account or the account of others.

He certainly worked for MI6 from 1939 to 1942 at which time he was dismissed for concocting false reports. Wilson claimed that in fact he was still working for MI6 under deep cover and that he continued to be an agent for many years. MI5’s files on Wilson are still classified.

Wilson’s spy thrillers recount the adventures of Sir Leonard Wallace, a war hero (he has an artificial arm as a result of a daring attempt to destroy a U-boat base in Dorset) and now head of the Secret Service. He’s not the kind of man to just stay in his office and send agents out on missions. He undertakes most of the missions himself.

Wallace of the Secret Service is actually a short story collection. 1933 was an interesting time for a spy thriller to be written. Nazi Germany was not yet a threat. Relations with fascist Italy were still friendly. The Soviet Union was definitely seen as a threat and Bolshevism as an extreme threat. To Wilson it was obvious that the British Labour Party was basically Bolshevik and socialist revolution might come at any moment.

There were also plenty of reasons to fear for the future of the British Empire. As a result these stories have a rather different feel from later spy stories focused on Nazis and Reds. In some ways they have more of a pre-WW1 feel (similar to the spy stories of the era written by people like E. Phillips Oppenheim and William le Queux).

Given the later sorry history of Soviet infiltration of MI6 (for who Wilson certainly worked at some stage) it’s a fascinating detail that in one of the stories Sir Leonard Wallace covers up evidence that one of his men is a traitor, to avoid a scandal.

Wilson definitely belongs more to the Bulldog Drummond tradition of spy fiction than to the psychologically complex morally ambiguous school of spy fiction that started to emerge in the 30s with Writers like Graham Greene, Eric Ambler and Somerset Maugham. Wilson is content to have his heroes be noble and heroic and generally perfect and his bad guys be dastardly melodrama villains. Which is OK, I can enjoy both schools of spy fiction. There’s lots of jingoism which can be amusing. You can generally assume that the villains will be beastly foreigners but to his credit Wilson does pull off the occasional surprise.

It has to be admitted that the plots are pretty basic. Of course these are short stories but even so they lack the ingenious plot twists that you hope for in spy fiction. Wilson’s novels are stronger - in his novels such as The Mystery of Tunnel 51 and The Devil’s Cocktail he manages to sustain the outrageousness and the fun more successfully.

In the first story, Out of the Land of Egypt, Wallace is up against extreme Egyptian nationalists who want the British out of their country. Wallace has to get hold of their plans for a rising.

In Bound in Morocco an Italian prince is kidnapped and held captive in Morocco. Not for ransom but for political reasons. Wallace will have to rescue him but first he has to find him.

Sentiment and Suicide is the locked-room mystery. A British scientist is found shot to death in his laboratory. The only access to the laboratory is through two doors, one of them a hefty steel door. There are no windows. The steel door is locked from the inside and the only key is in the professor’s pocket. The scientist has developed a poison gas so lethal it could wipe out all living things. Naturally that’s no problem as long as the British Government controls it but what if it fell into the hands of foreigners? And now it appears that foreign agents have managed to get their hands on the formula. OK, it’s not one of the great locked-room mysteries but is is interesting to see how popular such mysteries were in the early 30. It’s an improvement on the first two stories, with a more ambitious plot.

Russian Hospitality involves a dastardly Bolshevik plot against the British army. Wallace has one of his men go undercover as a communist rabble-rouser but will he able to fool the Soviet masterspy Lavinsky? This one involves a battle of wits between Lavinsky and Wallace with both men believing they have the upper hand. It’s not too bad.

Things start to get really far-fetched and outrageous with A Soviet Dinner Party. Wallace tries to infiltrate a secret meeting in Moscow and ends up holding Lenin hostage! It’s all very silly but it’s exciting in its own way.

A Greek Tragedy is a rather curious tale of intrigue. Wallace discovers that the British Ambassador to Turkey has been murdered. He also discovers the reason why but what should he do about it? It could all be very embarrassing and unpleasant, for the British, the Greeks and the Turks. This is the first story in the collection which is not a straightforward good vs evil story which makes it an interesting departure.

In Brien Averts a War Major Brien (Wallace’s second-in-command at the Secret Service) obtains some letters exchanged between two French politicians, letters which could easily start a war. And there are desperate men determined to get hold of those letters, if necessary by striking at Wallace’s family.

In East is East Wallace has to infiltrate Gandhi’s ashram in India to find out what mischief the Congress party is plotting. The very idea of Indian independence was of course quite unthinkable to Wilson. This is by far the weakest story in the collection, a story which manages to be completely unbelievable and completely uninteresting because nothing really happens.

The Poisoned Plane is a much better story. An envoy has been despatched to Britain from the King of Afghanistan, bearing proposals for an alliance. There are reasons to believe that attempts will be made to prevent the envoy from reaching his destination. Major Brien is given the job of escorting him. There are aerial chases, poison gas attacks, sinister dwarves, a battle at sea and all kinds of skullduggery. It’s all delirious fun and a rather exciting story. In fact it’s the best story in the collection.

In It Happened in Capri plans for a new naval gun have been stolen by a master criminal. Wallace has to get them back but he has to do it without fuss. It’s a fairly routine story.

Overall Wallace of the Secret Service is a bit disappointing. I wouldn’t write Wilson off but I also wouldn’t recommend this short story collection as a starting point. This one is for Sir Leonard Wallace completists. But the novels are worth a look.

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Robert van Gulik's The Chinese Nail Murders

Robert van Gulik (1910-1967) was a Dutch diplomat, orientalist scholar and writer whose first literary endeavour was his translation into English of the 18th century Chinese detective novel Dee Goong An. Published as Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee in 1949 it was a major success. The Chinese novel had been based on the career of the famous real life magistrate and statesman of the Tang Dynasty Dee Jen-djieh (630-700). The success of Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee inspired van Gulik to try his hand at a series of detective novels featuring Judge Dee. His idea was to keep as much of the flavour of traditional Chinese detective fiction as possible (such as the device of having Judge Dee working on three more or less unrelated cases simultaneously) while making his books more palatable for modern readers by largely dropping the supernatural elements.

The fifth of van Gulik’s Judge Dee novels was The Chinese Nail Murders, published in 1961. Dee has just been appointed magistrate of Pei-chow in northern China. In Imperial China the magistrate acted as a combination of judge, jury, district attorney and police detective. As usual Dee is assisted by the faithful Sergeant Hoong and his three underlings Ma Joong, Chiao Tai and Tao Gan (all reformed criminals).

And as usual Judge Dee has three cases to deal with, the most troubling being the discovery of the headless body of a woman. The woman’s husband has been accused of her murder. Judge Dee always pays close attention to the scene of a crime and he finds a number of puzzling items.

There is also the disappearance of a young woman in broad daylight. While his investigations into the first two cases are still proceeding the third case comes along, the poisoning murder of a very respected citizen. He may have left a very cryptic (and clever) dying clue.

There are some tenuous links between at least two of the cases. There’s also a minor case involving blackmail and two girls sold into prostitution which sheds unexpected light on one of the main cases. Of course it’s possible that other links between the three cases may come to light.

Judge Dee and his assistants undertake their investigations in a rigorous and logical manner. Autopsies are performed. Care is taken that crime scenes are not prematurely disturbed and the crime scenes are thoroughly searched for clues. Witnesses are interviewed. All possible leads, no matter how irrelevant they might seem, are followed up. Most importantly Judge Dee does not jump to conclusions. He is very much aware that things are not always exactly how they seem to be. In other words the novel can be seen as a kind of police procedural.

While the Dee Goong An was set in the days of the Tang Dynasty, in the seventh century, it was written a thousand years later and the historical background was a mixture of various time periods. In his Judge Dee novels van Gulik was also not overly concerned to get the historical details of the Tang period absolutely correct although he was certainly knowledgeable enough about Chinese history to have done so. He wanted to preserve the same mixture of elements of different historical eras that he had found in the Dee Goong An.

Chinese detective tales often had very strong supernatural elements, with vital evidence being provided by the testimony of ghosts. Van Gulik realised that modern readers of detective stories would be alienated by such devices but at the same time he was writing about historical periods in which the supernatural was taken for granted. In The Chinese Nail Murders Judge Dee discovers that sorcery is still practised in Pei-chow. This plays no actual rôle in the story but does add a hint of an exotic flavour. There is a kind of prologue however which contains much stronger hints of the supernatural.

Van Gulik’s Judge Dee novels were detective fiction but they were also historical fiction. There is absolutely no point in an author’s writing historical fiction unless he makes a genuine attempt to convey the differentness of the historical period he has chosen. If the characters are just 21st century characters wearing historical costumes the whole thing is a waste of time. Which is why it is no longer possible to write historical fiction. Today publishers insist that the characters must be 21st century characters with 21st century attitudes, values and social and sexual mores. In the 1950s and 1960s it was however still possible to attempt actual historical fiction and van Gulik does make a genuine attempt to convince us that we are reading about a different culture in which people really do have beliefs, values and social and sexual mores that are sharply differentiated from ours.

In The Chinese Nail Murders we encounter a system of criminal justice that is in its own way efficient and just but there are certain things that Judge Dee takes for granted that would hardly be accepted today - such as flogging uncooperative witnesses. And a key point in the novel hinges on a very dramatic difference between the Imperial Chinese legal system and modern systems (although I can’t offer you any hint as to what that difference is without revealing a vital spoiler). Judge Dee can be merciful but he can also be (to modern ways of thinking) extraordinarily severe. And even his ideas on being merciful will seem alien in many ways.

Judge Dee is a devoted family man and loves all three of his wives. He loves them in his own peculiar unsentimental way. For Dee everything comes down to duty - duty to family, to one’s ancestors and to the Imperial Government. Personal happiness is of little importance. Dee is not bothered by prostitution but he is shocked and enraged by the thought of a man having sex with his fiancée before the wedding.

Van Gulik took many of his plot elements from ancient case-books or from traditional Chinese detective stories and he very deliberately tried to emulate the style and structure of those stories although adapted to modern tastes (Chinese detective stories were usually inverted mysteries but van Gulik preferred the more conventional western method of concealing the murderer’s identity until the end and he tried to make his novels as fair-play as he could). The somewhat sparse and formal style of his novels is a conscious choice.

The Chinese Nail Murders offers much to enjoy - three clever murder plots, an exotic setting, a unique detective hero and a glimpse into a very different culture. Highly recommended.