Ellery Queen: The Adventures of Ellery Queen (1934) – Part 1 of 2

There’s no denying that the early Ellery Queen books (the nine [Nationality] [Object] Mysteries, Halfway House, and the novella The Lamp of God), published between 1929 and 1936, will not be to the taste of every reader today. Ellery the character is often a smug prig, the style of writing is mannered and can be hard to plod through, and the stories can move at a slower pace than we moderns are used to. (Much the same kind of thing could be said of the four books written in this period as by Barnaby Ross, featuring alternate sleuth Drury Lane.)

On the other hand, considered as puzzles, this group of works includes some of the finest fair-play mysteries ever to challenge a reader, and it would be a shame if a serious mystery fan were to try reading the first few chapters of, say, The Roman Hat Mystery, get scared off, and never get to enjoy the delights of Greek Coffin or Siamese Twin.

So what’s a reader to do? My recommendation: start with The Adventures of Ellery Queen, a collection of short stories published in 1934. They feature the same insufferable Ellery as the contemporaneous novels and the same florid writing style… but they move right along, and most of them feature the same ingenuity of plotting, even better than in some of the above-mentioned novels.

There are eleven stories in this collection. Here’s a look at the first six.

Before I start, I am going to make one general observation that applies to all eleven stories: “A lesser writer could easily have taken the plot of this one and expanded it into a novel… and it still would have been a good, solid mystery. The two Queen collaborators were so good at coming up with puzzles that they could afford to write up this one as a short story.”

“The Adventure of the African Traveler”: Queen had a lot of fun over the decades with stories that presented the reader with one or more false solutions before you got to the true one. This is one of the earliest examples: Ellery teaches a criminology class to three hand-picked students and takes them with him on a murder investigation. Each comes up with a different explanation that he demolishes before revealing the truth. 

The long arm of coincidence may get stretched a bit in this one, but it’s nice in one passage to see Queen poking fun at (instead of quietly going along with) some of the casual racism of the period.

“The Adventure of the Hanging Acrobat”: a vaudeville performer is found with a rope around her neck in her dressing room. The lady seemed to be sleeping with every male member of the troupe, but which one of them decided life would be better without her?

The real delight of this one is the way it gives the reader a taste of the world of a kind of performance now relegated to history. As for the puzzle… well, if you do anticipate the identity of the murderer, well, you won’t be the only one.

“The Adventure of the One-Penny Black”: Everyone who buys a copy of a certain book from a certain bookseller becomes the victim of a robbery – in which that book alone is stolen.

I’m not quite sure this one plays fair with the reader, although it’s hard to say without committing a spoiler. But once you’ve read it, have a look at the last line and see if you don’t agree there’s an adjective in there that hasn’t been fairly set up earlier.

“The Adventure of the Bearded Lady”: A murdered artist’s last act was to paint a beard and moustache on his portrait of a woman.

The first Queen short story to use what would become the team’s trademark device of the dying message; unfortunately, this particular message is not as ingenious as the ones they would dream up in later years. As well, the other clues to the identity of the murderer will probably be easier for a reader in the 2020s to pick up on than they were in the 1930s.

“The Adventure of the Three Lame Men”: The kidnapping of a wealthy businessman turns into murder, but not in the way you might expect.

A lot of good clues, yet it’s not unlikely you will beat Ellery to the solution.

“The Adventure of the Invisible Lover”: Ellery investigates a murder in a small New York town, committed with a gun that was unquestionably in the possession of one man and only one man during the period when it could have been committed. Yet everyone who knows him swears he’s no murderer…

By far the best story in the first half of the book, this is a clear example of a complex story that could have been stretched out into a perfectly good full-length novel. Queen gets a little pretentious toward the end of the story with some Deep Thoughts about Weighty Matters, but they don’t really get in the way, so I’ll forgive him.

To be continued…

Edward D. Hoch: Nothing is Impossible (2013) – Part 3 of 3

The pandemic has turned my day job upside down (no complaints, I still have a day job), but I finally have a chance to do another blog entry, so here goes! This is the third and last look at Edward D. Hoch’s third collection about impossible-crime specialist Dr. Sam Hawthorne. Reviews of the first and second thirds of the book can be found here and here.

“The Problem of the Two Birthmarks” 

What seems to happen: a patient at Pilgrim Memorial Hospital is murderously attacked during the night; shortly after, a nurse who should have been on duty at the time turns up strangled in the operating room, even though it’s locked and the one and only key accounted for. The whole thing is somehow mixed up with an attempt to destroy a ventriloquist’s dummy at a local night spot.

A weak explanation for the impossibility (Dr. Sam has to say “try it yourself if you don’t believe me”) and some motivation I found impossible to swallow keep this from being a classic.

“The Problem of the Dying Patient” 

What seems to happen: elderly Betty Willis has been poisoned while lying in her sickbed, and it looks as if the only person who could have done it was the attending physician, Dr. Sam himself, who has to think fast to keep from being arrested and losing his license. 

The clue that tips Sam off is not bad, but it’s not that well-concealed… if you spot it as soon as it’s mentioned, you’ll wonder why someone as sharp as our hero is doesn’t as well, and you’ll be impatient waiting for him to see the light.

“The Problem of the Protected Farmhouse” 

What seems to happen: Rudolph Frankfurt lives in a house with locked windows and doors, an electrified fence and guard dogs, convinced his enemies want to kill him. Someone does.

The first one in this group to really score, with a well-concealed killer and motive.

“The Problem of the Haunted Tepee”

What seems to happen: In 1890, western gunman Ben Snow (another of Hoch’s series characters) comes across a mystery he can’t solve – a tepee that seems to kill anyone who spends the night in it. In 1935, he tells the story to Dr. Sam and his nurse Mary, and they’re able to explain what happened.

I love a good “room that kills” puzzle, but this one depends on a fact you either know or don’t. Not very satisfying. This is the only Dr. Sam story that’s told in the third person, I guess because we see the beginning and end from his viewpoint and the middle part from Ben’s.

“The Problem of the Blue Bicycle”

What seems to happen: Teenage Angela Rinaldi is part of a group of kids riding their bicycles along a winding country road. She sprints ahead and rounds a curve, the others momentarily losing sight of her. When they also round the curve, her bike is lying in the middle of the road, but she’s gone – and there is no place in the surrounding fields where she could have hidden in the few seconds she was unobserved, nor were there any other vehicles around.

Another really clever one and a high note to end the collection on.

I’ll try not to let so much time pass before my next review!

Columbo: Season 3 (Part Two)

Life’s been coming hard at all of us lately, so let’s relax and go back to a simpler time when you could stand less than two metres from someone, the murderers were brilliant, and a certain unassuming policeman was even smarter…

(My look at the first half of Season 3 is here).

“Publish or Perish” by Peter S. Fischer (who would write several more Columbos and go on to co-create “Murder, She Wrote” with Levinson and Link)

Book publisher Riley Greenleaf (Jack Cassidy in his second outing as a murderer on this show) has a star author named Alan Mallory (Mickey Spillane). Unfortunately, Mallory wants to sign a contract with a different publisher. Greenleaf decides to have him killed – at a time when he has an airtight alibi – and collect on the hefty insurance policy he has on the writer’s life. (As I type this, I realize how reminiscent this is of the motive in Cassidy’s first episode, “Murder by the Book”.)

This one is not bad, but it should be better than it actually is, given Cassidy’s usual stellar performance and strong contributions by Spillane and by John Chandler as a psychopathic would-be author. The problem is, for me, the same one as in “Etude in Black” – as soon as a certain clue appeared, I said “That’s how Columbo is going to catch his man,” and so it was.

Peter S. Fischer wrote a total of five episodes for the original NBC Columbo, and two more for the revival on ABC, and they’re all at least good. On the other hand, most of his plots have one thing in common, and saying what it is outright might partially spoil some episodes for those who have not watched them. So here it is in rot-13:

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“Mind over Mayhem” by Steven Bochco, Dean Hargrove and Roland Kibbee, based on a story by Robert Specht

Dr. Marshall Cahill (Jose Ferrer) is a brilliant scientist who’s pushed his non-brilliant son Neal (Robert Walker Jr.) too hard all his life – so much that Neal, now a college student, has resorted to passing off the work of a recently-deceased researcher as his own. Dr. Howard Nicholson (Lew Ayres), a member of the same think tank where the Cahills work, threatens to expose Neal, so Marshall runs him over with his car, planting the body in Nicholson’s own living room and passing the crime off as a burglary gone wrong.

An ingenious murder and some equally ingenious detection by Columbo, but the way he finally exposes Cahill is, in terms of both morality and ingenuity, on the same level as dragging him into an interrogation room and beating a confession out of him. The episode still leaves a bad taste in my mouth when I think of it.

“Swan Song” by David Rayfiel, based on a story by Stanley Ralph Ross

Country superstar Tommy Brown (Johnny Cash) would be a lot happier if not for his blackmailing wife, Edna (Ida Lupino), who can prove he had an affair with Maryann Cobb, an underaged member of their entourage (Bonnie Van Dyke). As long as Edna is alive, the profits from Tommy’s concerts will go to Edna’s evangelical ministry. Tommy, an experienced pilot, flies Edna and Maryann to Los Angeles in his private plane. He gives them a thermos of coffee laced with sedatives and, once they are unconscious, parachutes out of the plane, letting it crash into the a mountainside. His plan hits a snag when he breaks his leg on landing, but he is still able to bury the parachute and drag himself to the crash scene in time for emergency crews to find him there.

Johnny Cash brings a lot of conviction to a character who’s basically him but a killer, and there is a wonderful scene at the crash site when an FAA investigator (John Dehner) goes from wanting to shoo Columbo away and let the professionals handle things to wishing he had someone as brilliant as the LA cop on his squad – in about five minutes! The episode’s ending is not one of the great ones, but there are lots of excellent clues and deductions up to that point.

“A Friend in Deed” by Peter S. Fischer

Wealthy Hugh Caldwell (Michael McGuire) kills his wife when a domestic argument turns violent. Knowing he’s not smart enough to get away with it, he turns to his friend, Deputy Police Commissioner Mark Halperin (Richard Kiley), to create an alibi for him. Mark does so, but that’s only the beginning of his sinister plan.

What if Columbo realized one of his superiors was implicated in a case he was investigating? Well, we know the guilty parties would pay the price at the end, but watching Columbo overcome this extra obstacle without ruining his career is suspenseful, and the way he does it is ingenious. And take special note of the brief sequence where a black guy turns up near a crime scene and the uniformed cop is all “Well, well, looks like we just caught our murderer!” This series did not take place entirely in fantasyland.

Taking Season 3 as a whole, I make it three excellent episodes (“Candidate for Crime,” Double Exposure” and “A Friend in Deed”), three good ones (“Any Old Port in a Storm,” “Publish or Perish” and “Swan Song”), one okay one (“Lovely But Lethal”) and one bad one (“Mind over Mayhem”). Would Season 4, with only six episodes, do better? Stay tuned…

John Dickson Carr: The House at Satan’s Elbow (1965)

There have been repeated ghost sightings at Greengrove, the country house built in the mid-18th century by that disreputable judge, Sir Horace Wildfare. Is Sir Horace returning from the grave to scare the current residents? Is a living person creating a ghost-hoax for some more sinister purpose? And is either entity responsible for the locked-room shooting that closely followed the latest sighting? Dr. Gideon Fell investigates…

The mid-1960s and onwards were not, by anyone’s yardstick, the glory years of John Dickson Carr. As Douglas Greene ably outlines in his biography of Carr, his writing was by now showing certain mannerisms not to everyone’s liking. Characters began to lecture each other; when they didn’t lecture they spoke enigmatically to no good purpose; and humour played a greater role than ever before, none of it funny. (And Carr developed a peculiar fondness for stringing three sentences together as one, separating them by semicolons.)

All that said, however, The House at Satan’s Elbow is well worth at least one reading if you’re a Carr fan. The locked-room puzzle is intricate, generally solid and probably the last first-rate impossibility Carr ever created. You may find it reminiscent of an earlier one — I won’t be more precise — but this one is different enough that I would acquit the author of mere repetition. And if the characters are pretty much out of his stock company, well, that never stopped me from enjoying one of his books before.

So, if you’re unsure about giving late (say, post-1960) Carr a try, this would be a good one to start with. Our old friend Dr. Fell is much as he had been 20 or 30 years earlier; the plot, in spite of a few contrivances, is not unworthy to stand aside those of Carr’s Forties mysteries. The main difference is the “late Carr” style of writing. If you can’t get past that, then the last two Fells and the final historical novels are probably not for you.

Edward D. Hoch: Nothing is Impossible (2013) – Part 2 of 3

Looking at stories #6 through #10 in this collection of impossible-crime stories featuring Dr. Sam Hawthorne, country medico and amateur sleuth in 1930’s New England. Part 1 is here.

“The Problem of the Invisible Acrobat”

What seems to happen: The Bigger & Brothers Circus has come to Northmont, which means the five Flying Lampizi Brothers will be performing their death-defying trapeze act. At the end of the performance, though, only four of them have come back down to ground level. Later, the missing brother is found murdered…

A classic problem with a classic solution you’ll spot in no time if you’ve read enough classic mysteries. If you’re new to the genre, Hoch does a pretty good job of hiding the clues.

“The Problem of the Curing Barn”

What seems to happen: tobacco magnate Jasper Jennings and two of his employees are in  a curing barn when one of them cuts his throat, practically under Dr. Sam’s nose – but neither man has a weapon on his person, nor is there one anywhere near.

If you read this story up to the point where Dr. Sam tells us “suddenly I knew I was right” and then do a re-read, you’ll probably spot the phrase that indicates the secret of the impossibility. The solution satisfies but is not all that well-hidden.

“The Problem of the Snowbound Cabin”  

What seems to happen: You can guess, can’t you? Ted Shorter enters his cabin in the Maine woods; snow falls; the next morning he’s found dead with no weapon or killer inside – and no tracks outside.

There’s nothing quite like a good no-footprints problem, and this is a good one, one that had me fooled. Before Dr. Sam figures out the truth he offers a solution that turns out to be false, but would have been good enough to be the real one.

“The Problem of the Thunder Room”

Not the typical locked-room or impossible-disappearance situation that usually confronts Dr. Sam. Instead, May Russo is lying on an examining table in his office at the exact time that witnesses swear she was several miles away, murdering Hank Foster.

Like “Invisible Acrobat,” the basic solution to this one is not original, but Hoch does give a fresh spin to an old classic.

“The Problem of the Black Roadster”

It’s the era of John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson, so naturally masked men hold up the Farmers & Merchants Bank and clean out all the cash. Dr. Sam and Sheriff Lens happen to be driving by as the getaway car zooms off, but even though Lens has the state police throw up roadblocks all around Northmont, the robbers don’t go through any of them. And there’s no place they could be hiding within the perimeter.

The weakness of this one is that the impossibility does not seem all that airtight – a witness even says that the bad guys could have gone past one of the checkpoints before the roadblock was set up, and the best comeback a state cop has is “I doubt it.” That said, the way the robbers escape detection is a clever one, and for once it’s not Dr. Sam who figures things out, although again he comes up with a decent wrong explanation.

To be concluded eventually!

Lamb chops and pineapple

In Carter Dickson’s 1940 novel And So to Murder, Hollywood scriptwriter Tilly Parsons swears by a diet of lamb chops and pineapple as a great way to take off those extra pounds. (Her colleague Bill Cartwright calls it a “hellish combination”.) I assumed John Dickson Carr was parodying fad diets and had just made up an unlikely combination when I read this passage, but I’m in the middle of rereading Anthony Boucher’s 1941 The Case of the Solid Key, and at one point Fergus O’Breen suggests he and Norman Harker have lunch at a movie studio commissary: “Watch buxom blondes, brooding brunettes, and ravishing redheads – all eating lamb chops and pineapple?”

So I checked Wikipedia and sure enough, “lamb chops and pineapple” was a real fad diet back in the day! Apparently the idea was that the protein in the lamb and the sugar in the pineapple would give you strength, while the acid in the pineapple would dissolve the fat in the lamb, or something like that. Like so many fad diets, it turned out to be unhealthy because eating just two foods meant you were missing out on a lot of essential nutrients.

The things you learn reading classic mysteries!

Public Service Announcement: Anthony Boucher

I don’t know how long this has been going on, but Amazon Kindle is now selling Anthony Boucher’s Fergus O’Breen mysteries – The Case of the Crumpled Knave, The Case of the Solid Key, The Case of the Seven Sneezes – as well as The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars, which does not feature Fergus but takes place in the same universe. Kindle also has Boucher’s short-story collection Exeunt Murderers. If you don’t have these books, this is a chance to get copies (well, e-copies) at a reasonable price.

Edward D. Hoch: Nothing is Impossible (2013) – Part 1 of 3

Beginning a look at the fifteen stories in the third collection of stories about Dr. Sam Hawthorne, Edward D. Hoch’s solver of small-town impossible crimes. The tales in this collection take place from 1932 to 1936.

“The Problem of the Graveyard Picnic”

What seems to happen: As Dr. Sam watches from a river bank, a young woman is pushed (or pulled?) off the opposite side by some unseen force, falls into the raging waters, and drowns.

Old-timers in the impossible-crime field are not likely to have much of a problem figuring out how this one was done, but to avoid spoilers, I won’t say exactly which classic it reminds me of.

“The Problem of the Crying Room”

What seems to happen: the day before the brand-new Northmont Cinema is scheduled to open, projectionist Freddie Bay commits suicide, leaving a note confessing to the locked-room murder of Mayor Trenton on opening night, and explaining how he pulled off the impossibility. That’s right, he confesses to all this before any of it has happened. At the actual movie-house opening, Dr. Sam and Sheriff Lens are both guarding the mayor, but someone shoots him in a locked (or technically, observed) room anyway. And whoever did it didn’t use Freddie’s method…

The first story in this book to hit a home run, with a well-hidden culprit and method. A “crying room,” by the way, was apparently a soundproof room where people who were watching the show could take any screaming babies or toddlers.

“The Problem of the Fatal Fireworks”

What seems to happen: It’s the Fourth of July and brothers Teddy and Billy Oswald are fooling around with firecrackers – a box they just bought and unsealed. Yet when Teddy sets one off, it turns out to have been adulterated with dynamite, and that’s it for Teddy.

Another one that probably won’t stump you. One of the clues is very good, though.

“The Problem of the Unfinished Painting”

What seems to happen: Artist Tess Wainwright goes into a room where all the windows are locked from the inside, and the one door is under constant observation by her housekeeper, Mrs. Babcock. Yet someone manages to strangle her with one of her own painting cloths.

I’m afraid this is yet another fairly simple one when you ignore the misdirection and look at the evidence. The most interesting thing about the story is that Dr. Sam spends so much time on the case he neglects a dying boy patient and blames himself for not being there for him at the end (although Hoch is careful to point out that his presence wouldn’t have saved the child or even prolonged his life). He swears off solving mysteries at the end of the story, and sticks to his decision for over a year, but I have a feeling he only holds back for that long because it’s a year before the next impossibility presents itself.

“The Problem of the Sealed Bottle”

What seems to happen: It’s the end of Prohibition in the U.S., and Dr. Sam is part of a group celebrating the occasion at Molly’s Café in the appropriate manner. Mayor Cresson opens a bottle of sherry that had been sealed at the bottling plant and takes his first legal drink in fourteen years. It turns out to be his last one ever, thanks to a dose of potassium cyanide. (Did Hoch have a thing against mayors?)

Another “how could anyone have tampered with this when it came straight from the manufacturer?” puzzle, but a much better one than “Fatal Fireworks”, although there is one piece of physical evidence someone might have spotted before Dr. Sam explains all.

To be continued…

Ellery Queen in real-life legal drama


Excerpt in case this link goes dead:

“The jig is up!

“In a twist straight out of a pulpy page-turner, a son says he discovered his late mystery-novelist father’s signed books had been stolen — after seeing them go up for auction at Sotheby’s, according to a new lawsuit.

“Upper West Sider Richard Dannay — son of detective-fiction author Frederic Dannay — claims 33 of his dad’s signed books were stolen by his step-mom Rose, passed to her son Terry Koppel and eventually given to Sotheby’s for auctioning, according to a Manhattan Supreme Court lawsuit filed late Wednesday.”

Carter Dickson: She Died a Lady (1943) – this review contains spoilers!

This review spoils the identity of the murderer, the secret of the impossible crime, and some other good stuff. You have been warned!

It’s the summer of 1940 and war has come to Britain, not least to the town of Lyncombe on the north Devon coast. As Hitler expands his empire and southern England faces a possible German invasion, country doctor Luke Croxley is watching a more private drama unfold: Alec Wainright’s beautiful (and much younger) wife Rita is keeping company with handsome Barry Sullivan. Will they run off together? Will one of them end the affair? Or will they do something else? When Dr. Luke, visiting the Wainrights, finds two sets of footprints leading to a cliff overlooking the sea – and none coming back – it seems clear Rita and Barry killed themselves by jumping off at low tide. But when their bodies wash up on shore, it turns out they died from gunshot wounds…

She Died a Lady was one of the first books by John Dickson Carr I ever read, and I’ve long held it in high regard for a number of reasons – the ingenuity of the solution, the atypical viewpoint character (an elderly man who doesn’t fall in love during the story), and the sharply drawn picture of daily life during the first year of World War Two. I recently reread it and while my affection for it remains unabated, I have been asking myself… does Carr play 100% fair in this one?

Let’s review the impossibility. It appears that during a narrow window of time while it was low tide, Rita and Barry walked to the edge of the cliff and jumped off – a safe thing to do at high tide, but fatal when they did it due to the rocks below. A police examination of the footprints proves that two people did walk out to the edge without coming back – there is no chance one person pulled the old trick of walking out in one pair of shoes and back in another. There is one strange thing about the prints, though – the two people who left them were walking in step. Why would they have done that? And if the murderer wasn’t hanging in midair while shooting them, how were they killed?

Dr. Luke eventually figures out an explanation – the set of prints he saw were indeed left by one person doing the walking-backwards trick. Hours later, after the tide had come in – but before the prints could be checked – Rita and Barry walked out to the edge, pushing a garden-roller ahead of them, obliterating the previous sets of prints and leaving the in-step ones. They let the garden-roller fall into the water and dove in after it, swimming to what they thought was a safe place – only to find the murderer waiting for them with a gun.

When Dr. Luke tells H.M. what he thinks the method was, and his choice for the killer of Rita and Barry (local artist Paul Ferrars), H.M. sadly tells him he thought of the same solution, but he had the bottom of the cliff checked, and there was no garden-roller there. 

At which point Chapter 19 ends, and we have a brief interlude written by Ferrars in which he tells us that Dr. Luke was killed in an air raid shortly after writing the manuscript we just read, and that he never realized that the real murderer was his own son, whom he treated in the story more as a part of the background than as a suspect. 

And in Chapter 20, also by Ferrars, H.M. explains that Dr. Luke was right about the garden-roller all along, and the reason it wasn’t where it should have been was that H.M. paid some guys to remove it before the truth could come out and break the old man’s heart. 

Now, lying is a perfectly acceptable weapon in the armoury of any detective, real or fictional. At the same time, I couldn’t help feeling let down – I began Chapter 20 expecting an even more ingenious solution to the footprints puzzle, and of course I didn’t get it.

However, having thought things over, I have to acquit Carr of not playing fair here. There’s one book of his where the detective tells a flat-out lie to a character regarding his suspicions in the case, and says in the last chapter he’d had to do it, due to the effect it would have had on the character if he’d been truthful. This is pretty much the same thing – in trying to figure things out, you have to take into account that while H.M. might be telling the truth about “no garden-roller”, he might also be lying for some strategic reason. 

So while I’m still a bit let down that there was no “true” explanation of the impossibility, I still rate this as one of the top H.M. novels, my only real criticism being that this is the point in the saga where his non-hilarious slapstick antics start to take up too much room in the stories. I blame that on the fact that things were still looking grim when Carr wrote the book, and he wanted to do something to alleviate the gloom… and by the time the war ended, he’d fallen in love with his comedy skills too deeply to give humour up.