Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Obligatory Beach Episode

Image result for a caribbean mysteryThis is probably one of the blander titles Christie has done. At least “Sittaford” sounds unfamiliar.
A Caribbean Mystery is one of Christie's later Marple novels, and already I was feeling a bit of dread going in. I like Christie, like all sane and rational people do, but very few can deny the quality drop in her later years. The fact that this was a Marple novel, which tend to be weaker on the mystery side of things, didn’t help with that. Still, I haven’t read a bad Christie yet*, so I had hopes.

Also I enjoyed Third Girl. My taste is already numb.

As the title states, Miss Marple is currently on a Caribbean cruise, courtesy of her nephew. She’s also bored out of her mind, and stuck listening to an old major ramble about his times in Africa and all that. At one point he mentions having a photo of a murderer on him, and is about to show it when he looks behind Miss Marple, freaks out, and suddenly shoves it back where is came from. Sadly, the tropical air has addled Miss Marple’s brain, and she doesn’t think anything of it until the Major turns up dead from high blood pressure.

Of course, while everyone knows he had it, no one can remember where they heard it. And the picture is gone.

Now, JJ at The Invisible Event took a look at this book, and did a post about nostalgia, Christie in her old age, and many thematic things, which is good and you should read. It also gives me an excuse to focus on the mystery aspect, which I’m fine with.

The main problem with the mystery is that Marple does very little in the way of investigating for half the book, only seriously getting involved after the obligatory second murder. To be honest, it doesn't even feel like her investigation accomplishes much, as little of the information she learns is important to solving the case. I think like one conversation is actually useful, in the long run. At one point, we learn that two characters conspired to poison another in the backstory. Do we learn this from Marple’s tireless investigation, or at the very least intuition? Nope, we learn it in third person narrative, and it proves to be of no importance to the plot.

Speaking of suspects, they’re...there. A mix of couples, nothing much interesting to say, barring Mr. Rafiel, a cranky old man who proves to be both entertaining and interesting. I’m not one who argues that Christie used 2-D characters, but the suspects here remind of The Body In The Library, mainly how everyone was more or less cardboard. The set-up off the story also limits the potential suspects, and while Christie makes a valiant effort to call into questions what we “know” to extend the net, it feels strained, especially when you consider we get this discussion almost halfway into the book.

Even the pure mystery aspect feels, perhaps not weak, but easy. I can’t imagine what goes on here challenging, say, Poirot for more than a day**. I read in A Catalog of Crime that this is more or less a short story as a novel, and I agree with that. It feels like a short story, from the lack of suspect focus to the more minor mystery to the way it’s resolved. The clue that breaks the case is a simple bit of reasoning, more suited to the shorter form. The culprit is also easy to see coming, thanks to a third murder that more or less gives everything away. And another….aspect that I can’t say without spoilers. It’s the sort of information that the author is assuming you’ll forget, which is fair in a 800-page beast, but not so much in a 200 some page book you can read in a few hours.

In spite of that, I still enjoyed it, to an extent. Most of the flaws I mentioned didn’t hit me until after I was done reading, so it was at least able to maintain plausibility. I attribute most of this to Christie's skill at plain writing, a skill all wannabe (and actual!) authors would kill to have. I would know. The narrative keeps moving, and it all passed by so quick that you don’t notice the flaws in the set-up until you’re long past.

All in all, slightly below average Christie. Of course, “slightly below average Christie” is still better than most, but nonetheless, this is Partly Recommended at best.

*except for Dumb Witness, and that was more boring than anything.

** This comes with the disclaimer that I expect two different detectives to have very different styles/types of cases, it only makes sense.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Sitting at the Right Hand of the Evil Ouija Demons

Image result for the sittaford mysteryFor some reason, I find myself enjoying Christie’s non-series novels more than I think I will. I’m not sure why this is. Probably because I have a better track record with solving them.
The Sittaford Mystery is one of those non-series mysteries, taking place in the snowy countryside. A group of people have gathered at Sittaford House for a party. The guests include Major Burnaby, a well, major, and friend of the house's owner, Captain Trevelyan. Said captain is renting the place out to the Willetts, a mother-daughter pair from South Africa. The rent is confusing, as most of the characters can’t understand why people from a warm climate would chose to vacation in English winter, much less in an isolated house in a small village. Also attending the party would be Mr. Rycroft, who fancies himself an expert on criminology; Ronnie, a young man who’s (unsuccessfully) convince his aunt to leave him money; and the enigmatic Mr. Duke, whose identity is a minor plot point.
The party gets interesting in the Chinese sense when table-turning is brought up, and the Ouija board is pulled out. The result does not turn into Paranormal Activity 23, but does result in a disturbing message, namely that Captain Trevelyan has been murdered. This sets the group on edge, but everyone laughs it off...except for Major Burnaby, who sets out into the snow to his friend’s house. Three guesses who he finds bashed with a sandbag here, and the first two don’t count, nor does the third if you try to be clever.

Inspector Narracott is on scene, and Christie sets him up as the Great Detective(™) of the book, as he quickly sees through the set-up at the murder scene and deuces that it was not a burglary gone wrong, but a carefully planned murder. However, he’s soon led astray in favor of the most likely suspect in Trevelyan's murder. James Pearson is a weak-willed man who has committed embezzlement as his workplace, and needs money to cover it up. Money that was left to him by Trevelyan in his will. Combine this with the fact that he left town the night of the murder and lied about being there in the first place, and it doesn’t look good for him.
Enter Emily Trefusis, James’s fiancé and the true detective of the novel. She knows that Jim isn’t a moral paragon, but he’s not capably of murder, and sets off to the village to prove his innocence. She is assisted by a local reporter, who quickly falls for her, giving Christie a chance to play with a love triangle. Credit where credit is due: While this set-up is a tad cliché, Christie does play with expectations a little, and the result will either be pleasantly surprising or shockingly ridiculous, depending on what you think of the relationship's dynamics
The mystery, in and of itself, is decent, though marred by the book’s length. Most of the clues are delivered near the beginning, and after that, not a whole lot happens, mainly due to the amateur nature of the investigation. It still works, but that’s mainly due to Christie’s ability to handle prose that many current and wannabe authors (such as me!) would kill to be able to emulate. But it must be stated that there were a few times I was uncomfortable aware of the page count, and the interview happy nature of it does drag in places. Most of it, however, flies by quickly.
Back to the mystery, while it is fairly clued, most of it is near the beginning, as I said. The final “aha” moment is….weak. Mainly because I’m not sure how you can draw those conclusions based on this one thing. Still, the main “trick” at the center of the book is clever, and Christie's shows her talent for giving the reader insight into her character's thoughts and actions and still misleading you about why they’re doing it.
All in all, I liked it. Not top-tier Christie, but a pleasant read, though perhaps not the best book to start with. Recommended.
P.S. A possible flaw that only occurred to me after this was done, but when did the killer come up with their plan anyhow? The implication a that is was planned in advance, but they couldn't have set it up that way. Ah, I’m probably misreading.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Mr. Monk On Deck

It’s a jungle out there, you know?

Image result for mr monk gets on boardMonk was a TV series on the USA Network that stared Adrian Monk, a consultant for the San Francisco Police Department, who used to be part of them until his wife got blown up, which most people agree can derail your career something fierce. The show, which ran for eight seasons, featured Monk's quest to find his wife's killer, as well as get involved in many murders. More the latter than the former, to be honest. One of the more common plot devices on the show was to have someone who could not have committed the murder commit the murder, in a modern version of Christie Logic.* Monk's other main gimmick was that Monk suffered from Hollywood OCD**, which both made him insufferable (as someone with mild OCD tendencies himself, I can confirm this is true) as well as gave him an awareness of everything around him, useful for solving crimes (this is not true).

The spin-off novels by Lee Goldberg are, on the whole, are quite good. The ones written after the series ended felt weaker in the mystery plotting, but were still good on the whole. Theeeen Hy Conrad took over. The first book under his name, Mr. Monk Helps Himself was a horrid book that managed to not only bungle an interesting mystery plot, but also managed, in my opinion, to butcher the character of both Monk and his assistant/narrator of the books, Natalie. It’s hard to explain how, especially since I read the book about a year or so ago, but Monk came off as far more of a malicious jerk, and Natalie seemed far too...weak, I guess is the word, falling to pieces over the victim of the week. I dunno, again, it’s been awhile since I’ve read it, and I was a Goldberg fan.

But that was then, and this is now, and I decided to suck it up and pick up the next in the series, Mr. Monk Gets on Board. In his introduction, Conrad refers to this as a “lost episode” of the TV show, one he and the rest of the writers always wanted to do, but never had a chance/got permission to do. While I was never a regular watcher of the show, this introduction interested me, and raised my hopes for the novel. Hopes that, I’m glad to say, were not entirely unfounded.

The plot of the book goes down on the docks of a semi-fancy cruse ship where Natalie intends to attend a business seminar, in the hopes of making something of the PI agency she and Monk (mostly her) have set up. However, it doesn’t take long for problems to arise. For one, the ship is also hosting ordinary guests since the business seminar part has been losing money. For another, Monk manages to make it onboard the ship, immediately clashing with his roommate. Natalie finds a bastion of sanity in the ship’s cruise director, Mariah, but this is Monk, where no one can make friends without said friends dying. Or being a murderer.

An overheard conversation at a stop tips Natalie off that Mariah and the captain of the ship are having an affair. Natalie (not unreasonably, since Monk is around, and when Monk is around, people die) decides that the captain intends to off her. Monk agrees, and the two watch him. Of course, this being Monk, murder happens anyway.

The man overboard alarm sounds, resulting in the discovery of Mariah’s body floating in the water. An injury on her head leads to the conclusion that she simply slipped and fell in the water, but Monk and Natalie (as well as the reader) are well aware that the captain bashed her over the head, but in Monk tradition, he has an alibi. He was in full sight of multiple passengers, including Monk and Natalie for some time before the alarm went off, making it impossible for him to have dumped Mariah's body overboard. The trick here is split into two parts, and shouldn’t pose a challenge to the experienced mystery reader. Still, the second part of the trick is clever, and well-hinted. But there’s more to the book than this, including a problem brought up by the captain himself.

A rash of vandalism has struck the ship, and not the fun kind of vandalism, the not-fun kind, such as screws being removed from balcony railings. While no one has died yet, the captain (or to be more accurate, his wife) decides to hire Monk and Natalie to look into the incidents. This sub-plot is also handled surprisingly well, though it needed a tad more cluing to push it into “fair play.” Still, I was oddly satisfied.

There’s another subplot running through the novel, involving the opening of the book, which involves the murder of an old man and the theft of Shakespeare's First Folio. The result, which incidentally kicks off the book’s plot, results in Natalie meeting the obligatory cute guy, who promises to continue helping the police in their investigation, only to keep blowing them off at every turn. This thread finally culminates in a hit-and-run at one of the ship’s stops, and I’m sad to say that not much comes of it. Ultimately, it just serves to draw out the climax.

All in all, this was actually a good book, which I wasn’t expecting. It was so good, that I actually sucked it up and got the next Monk book Conrad did, which I thought I never would. Recommended.
Next time, Christie! Probably.

* "This person could not have committed the murder, therefore he did."

** See also: "Hollywood DID, Hollywood Kleptomania, and Hollywood Insanity"

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

That Was...Objectionable!

EDIT: Welp, note to self, don't copy/paste directly from Google Docs without killing the formatting.

Do I have to explain to anyone who Agatha Christie is?
Image result for the witness for the prosecution
The Queen of Crime (a well-deserved title!) put out many different works showing off how to kill people. She created two of the most famous detectives of all time: Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. She also wrote quite a few non-series things that no one cares about, so I decided to read them myself. The Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories contains eleven stories, including one Poirot because the publishers ran out of material (Disclaimer: This is probably not the reason.) The rest are all non-series. Let’s go!

“The Witness for the Prosecution” has a timeless set-up. A man is accused of killing an old woman for money. He tells his lawyer that his wife can give him an alibi. The lawyer is doubtful, because he’s read enough mystery stories to know that wives lie. Sadly for him, not only is she testifying, she’s testifying for, well, guess. This is more of a legal thriller with a tweeeeeest at the end, and the main mystery is it’s baffling popularity.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a solid story, but I’m honestly wondering who looked at this relatively short story and thought, “We should make a play/movie about this.” Ahh well.

“The Red Signal” is about, er, well, ahah...I’m not sure. There’s a séance, some girl the protagonist likes who might be crazy, something about “red signals” as a sign for danger, and the obligatory murder, but the story kinda lurches getting from one topic to another. There is neat bit where Christie misdirects both the narrator and the reader about the topic of a conversation, which I thought was neat.

After that, Christie put that story away, got out the hard drugs, and did “The Fourth Man,” Stephen King style. Three men, one representing the church, one science, and one the law, end up in a train car and discuss a woman who claimed to have split personalities. Of course, there’s a fourth man in the car, and he has a far more bizarre-and disturbing-truth to tell. It’s a truth that’s very...different from the normal Agatha fair. I liked it, though it’s definitely the oddball here.

Also, was this based on a real thing? Because I swear I recall reading about a woman similar to the one mentioned here.

After coming off of the high, Christie turned her attention to this next story, “S.O.S” It’s the stuff of good thrillers. A motorist is forced to take shelter in an isolated house, and while the family treats him warmly, the “S.O.S” written in the dust of his room tells him that things are afoot. What things? Danged if I know, I've read this story many times, and I still don’t understand the conclusion at all. I get the gist of it, but the protagonist seems to pull it out of him bum, saying that he figured it out from what a person told him. But this person didn’t tell him that, they told him the exact opposite. And the reason for the S.O.S is decidedly meh.

Still nursing a headache, Christie next gives us “Wireless”. A woman gets a wireless radio from her nephew, which is all well and good, until her dead husband starts using it, to go all, “Yeah, I’m gonna pay a visit.” It’s a standard story, and the reveal of who was phone isn’t going to shock anyone. Twist at the end is a little understated.

Next on the list is the story “The Mystery of the Blue Jar.” A young man trying (and failing) to master his golf swing hears a cry of “Murder!” No matter how hard he tries, he can only find a young woman who denies making the cry or hearing it. Needless to say, this causes some good old fashioned paranoia, and it all seems to have something to do with a blue jar. A decent story, with a good twist.

“Sing a Song of Sixpence” is one of the more classical stories in this collection. A lawyer is called upon by an old lover of his to look into the murder of her aunt, who got whacked on the head a few times. In normal Christie tradition, suspicion is flying around between family members, and it’s up to an outsider to resolve it. It’s actually a borderline locked room, as the maid of the house heard no one moving around the house. The solution nudges the fairness boundary slightly, but not much.

“Mr. Eastwood’s Adventure” is a bit of light comedy. The titular Mr. Eastwood, a struggling author, is fighting for a plot to his newest novel “The Adventure of the Second Cucumber” when he gets a Mysterious Phone Call (™) from a Mysterious Lady (™) provoking him to set off for adventure in the grand manner. Though really, it’s a funny story with a kick in the end, though it’s a kick that’s already been used once in this collection.

Next up, we have “Philomel Cottage” which is more domestic suspense, written for ladies who think that they’re husband is bad enough, at least he isn’t planning on killing them. (Disclaimer: If your husband is planning on killing you, I sincerely apologize for the offense. You should also stop reading a sub-par blog and call the police.) Christie’s take on the legend of Bluebeard, it’s a well-done story, though predictable in almost all respects. The way the protagonist deals with her husband is clever though.

“Accident” is about a former inspector who sees a woman who he knows was involved in a certain “accident” with her previous husband. And her step-father. And probably this new sap too. A decent reverse whodunit with a tweeeeest.

The last story here, “The Second Gong” brings out Poirot, mustache and all, to the estate of one Hubert Lytcham Roche. Poirot is supposed to look into some financial irregularities, but ends up arriving just as his client locks himself in his office and shoots himself. Of course, Poirot goes and shows murder, in this shorter version of Dead Man’s Mirror. Which is slightly worse than this story, with a far too large cast. This is a simpler mystery, but it works much better.

All in all, a decentish collection of short suspense and mystery stories. Sadly, this is more a collection of interesting hooks than full stories, and one often ends up thinking that they could have been fleshed out a bit. At least, I did anyway, and since I’m writing the review, that’s the opinion that gets known.

Next time, either a look even further back into the history of the mystery, or a novel, for once. And one written in the last fifty years too.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

I Object!

So I love the Ace Attorney series and want an excuse to ramble about it for months on end.

For those of you poor souls who have no idea what I'm talking about, the Ace Attorney series (Gyakuten Saiban in Japan) is a long-running visual novel/adventure game series about attorneys. Better than it sounds, I promise. With five main series games (and a sixth due to come out at the time of this post) a spin-off series, a crossover with the Professor Layton games, and another spin-off taking place in Victorian England, there's a lot to cover.

For backstory: According to the translation of the games, the series takes place in a future where the criminal justice system has been completely overhauled. Trials now take three days max, juries are abolished, the prosecution has far more leeway in what counts as  "proof", "Guilty until proven innocent" is the norm, and really it resembles the Japanese legal system, minus the three days part. This makes sense when you consider that the series was originally intended as a satire of said system.

The series mainly revolves around the life and times of Phoenix Wright and his associates. Phoenix himself is one the more abused lawyers in mystery fiction, regularly subjected to whips, thrown coffee, thrown toupees,, thrown knives, and witnesses who lie. A lot. And perjury doesn't exist in the wonderful world of Japanifornia. (Japanifornia is a word which here means: A nation that results when you claim your game is set in Los Angeles, but then the creators start tossing in more and more Japanese locals.)

I honestly do love this series, in all it's madness. The writing is funny, the translation is top-notch (mostly, "The miracle never happen." is a meme for a reason.), the music is amazing, the characters are varied, and the mysteries are solid. And so, I've decided to go through it. All of it.

Yes, this is the beginning of the Ace Attorney Retrospective (or AAR). I intend to go through all of the Ace Attorney games (even the Layton crossover) and review the cases, one by one. This, obviously. will take a loooong while for me, especially considering I now have about 100-150 hours worth of text to watch on YouTube. Not sure if I intend to hit the manga, depends on if I can find cheap copies. Anything else is debatable.

Yes, this boils down to an advertisement for a project that I haven't even started on, but I'm getting back into shoving my opinions in your face and mocking the idea that I could ever be wrong blogging, and I need that hype.

And for the record, the fat man was due for the last act, but was sadly found dead in a locked room, shot in the head. Maybe. Bullet in the brain, no actual visible injuries. The killer is suspected to be a dashing man in red who was seen running into a room with no other exits, but vanished. It's a Thursday, what do you expect?

Next time: Actual content, and I finish the title with help from the Queen of Crime.

Thursday, April 28, 2016


Image result for the night of the wolfWere I more pretentious/educated, I would throw in some French phrase here to seem intelligent. As it is, you get a summary.

Paul Halter is claimed by many to be the next John Dickson Carr, who has come to purge all inferior mystery novels and replace them with holy locked rooms.* Having read most his translated novels, I will say that this is...semi-accurate. His books are rather good, but there always seems to be something holding them back. And I, sadly, have not read enough Carr to give an accurate comparison. Thankfully, I'm just reviewing a short story collection.

The Night of the Wolf contains ten of Halter's short stories. They either feature Dr. Alan Twist (Dr . Fell after his weight loss program), Owen Burns (a jerk), and Irving Farrell (the most interesting one, so of course he doesn't have his own novels). Personally, I feel that the short story format plays up Halter's strengths, and limits his weaknesses. But that's for the summary, let's get to the dead people.

The collection opens with the Farrell story, "The Abominable Snowman". While wandering a cookie-cutter town on his way to a party, Farrell runs into a mysterious man who offers to tell him about a murder committed some years ago. You know the story, two brothers love the same girl, one dies in war, other one marries girl, second brother possesses snowman to beat his brother to death, and the village fool get strung up for it. I don't know about you, but I think we need more Christmas stories like this. The story itself is rather complex (or so it seemed to me when I read it) but the clues are there, it's quite clever.

Next up is Dr. Twist in "The Dead Dance At Night". Stranded in a mansion, Twist recalls a story about dancing corpses in a sealed tomb, and what do you know, his hosts were the people in that story. Twist pretty quickly unravels this one, and even solves a murder in the process. It's another good story, though it's hampered by family exposition. (And an error, as I'm pretty sure Halter has a dead character giving advice).

The good doctor shows up again for "The Call of the Lorelei" A ship ride down the Rhine brings him into contact with a man who offers to tell him of a real death caused by the Lorelei. A German man was lured out onto a frozen lake, and only his foot prints were found. Obviously, there's a human hand behind it all, using a simple, if clever trick. Fun Fact: I actually narrated this story for a speech class once. Abridged, yes, but still.

"The Golden Ghost" is up next and,'s a thing. The story stars a modern Scrooge who's more than I tad disturbed by the match girl that shows up on his doorstep, especially when she explains that she's been chased by a flickering, golden ghost. The lack of footprints in the snow behind her seem to disprove it, but when a friend confirms the story, our "hero" is plunged into a nightmare. Which this story is. I'm dead serious, that ending left me cold when I first read it. Kinda like Carr when  he was feeling dark.

We now move on to another non-series story, "The Tunnel of Death". A drifter talks with a police officer (it's at this point that I feel I should mention that this is the format of just about every one of Halter's short stories. Person talks to Great Detective(TM) about something, Great Detective(TM) solves it. Not so much complaining as musing.)  about a series of bizarre murders in a tunnel under the influence of one of the most ridiculous gypsy curses in mystery fiction. People have been shot by an unknown and invisible assailant, with the most recent death being the obligatory evil businessman who was shot even though he was surrounded on all sides. It's a bit of a weak story, honestly, the main trick borders on cheating. But hey, one of the suspects in it is named Picard, so you can sing the Picard Song while reading.

Owen Burns, lover of the fine arts and the fine art of murder, realizes that this collection doesn't have enough of him yet, and sets out to rectify that with "The Cleaver". While indulging in that great British pastime of complaining about America, Burns meets an American diplomat who offers a true American ghost story. A bank teller has a dream about a gruesome murder, and is so shaken that he goes to try and confirm it...and runs right into the "killer". He insists on checking on the "victim" and, surprise surprise, he's gotten a cleaver to the throat. Another good story, though hampered by the lack of possible false solutions.

The next story once again features Burns, though the pain is soothed by what is this collection's highlight, "The Flower Girl". Some botched flirting lets Burns and Achilles Stock (his Watson, much too unimportant to mention before now) hear about a rich family who were witness to a young flower girl's Santa visit, a claim made all the more convincing by the bizarre tracks in the snow: The prints of reindeer and a sleigh can be clearly seen in the snow outside...but they seem to start and stop in the middle of the street. The local Scrooge objects to this "joy and happiness" crap, which may have led to Santa going full Black Christmas on him...and dropping him from his sleigh! The solution to this story is neat and simple and oh so fitting for the puppet master(s) behind St. Nicholas. It also led me to a kindred spirit in Achilles, who gets just as annoyed with Burns as me.

The next story, "Rippermaina" is sadly the point where the collection stumbles a bit. Halter indulges one of his favorite topics, Jack the Ripper, via a man who claims to be dreaming of Victorian London, with some murders tossed in for good measure. A dull thriller with an obvious TWEEEEEST.

Dr. Twist (I swear I didn't intend that pun) has another showing with "Murder in Cognac" Don't know what that is? Neither do I. And I still don't know. All I know is that a man is poisoned in his locked tower after being threatened by Philippe Faux (marvel at that name, marvel more if I managed to spell it right), only managing to get out, "The cat brought a tin." This story is hard to review, because, thinking about it, I may have accidentally hit on Halter's game when I first read this, making it too obvious. (Le Spoiler: I think that Halter intended to trick the reader into think  that it was a reverse whodunit. The killer is obvious, so it's just a matter of how. I never hit on that idea, so I hit on the actual killer, and therefore ended up not liking the story.) The solution/main clue are both a tad blah.

The collection wraps up with "The Night of the Wolf." Farrell once again takes the stage, this time looking into the death of the town's skirt chaser, apparently killed by a werewolf that not only claws you, but stabs you. For reasons. At least it was kind enough to leave only its footprints in the snow leading up to house,  It doesn't take a lot of effort on Farrell's part to unravel the facts, though the backstory is a tad vague, and the solution might raise an eyebrow or two.

All in all, I liked it. Halter is at his best in short stories, I feel. His characters tend to be a tad flat which isn't as much of a problem as it would be in a full novel, and the limited page counts makes him focus on one problem instead of jumping between numerous problems, some of which aren't explained well. This, however, is a very solid short story collection, and good, I think, for getting someone new to mysteries into them.

*As found in Carr 12:8, which may or may not exist.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

It Ain't Over Till The Fat Man Sings

More Crippen and Landru, more locked rooms. Such fun.

This is not, has not been, and hopefully never will be a political blog, aside from the jabs that I feel is every person's noble responsibility. But that's neither here nor there. What is both here and there is the subject of this review: Banner Deadlines: The Impossible Files of Senator Brooks U. Banner, written by one of the most underappreciated mystery authors out there, Joseph Commings.

The book stars the titular Senator Banner, who seems to be Dr. Gideon Fell after his attempt at a weight-loss program. He seems to do very little politicking, focusing more on getting involved in bizarre impossible crimes (not that I object). But he does not merely look at locked and bolted doors, oh no! Too mundane. Why not a sword wielded by a giant? Or a delivered gun that kills without even damaging the envelope? ...Yes, it's obvious that I like this collection already....

Murder Under Glass

Despite my earlier rant, this story does indeed begins with a murder committed behind a locked a room made of glass. A famous glass manufacturer is stabbed in his greatest creation, and only Banner can uncover the truth...even if said truth is semi-flawed. (SPOLIERS Wouldn't the witnesses have heard two crashes and not one? And looking back, the one who mentions the killer. Why? And could a jack really lift the room up that high? END SPOLERS) The concept is very good, but the execution...yeah.

Fingerprint Ghost

A séance is held to uncover the truth in a past death. To the surprise of no one, it's organizer is stabbed to death. While everyone is straightjacketed. And they're linked by touching feet. Just for fun. the story is far better than the previous, with the best kind of "Well, duh." solution. The kind that makes you feel a little dumb for not catching it immediately. Though I do have wonder both at the killer's motivations, and Banner's actions at the end. It's not like he was short of evidence...

The Specter on the Lake

There's a legend on Mad Moon Lake.  Two lovers drowned themselves because forbidden love, and now the tragedy receives a new spin when two parts of a love triangle are shot to death on the lake...even though no one approached. I'm actually a little reluctant to critique...mainly because I don't know how much of this me or Commings. I think that he reversed (SPOLIERS the victims' positions) which completely changes the story. I don't know for sure, but the story is broken if he did.

The Black Friar Murders

Eric Bayne is on the prowl. No one knows his face, but he seems to have wormed his way into a group stranded in a cloister. Oh, and there's a ghostly friar stabbing people in barred cells before running through the wall. The story is well told, with a fairly hinted at killer, but the solution to the impossible crime isn't hinted at all. Also, Banner's plan is.. odd, to say the least. Why would the killer decide that something a petty as that was somehow going to expose everything?

Ghost in the Gallery

Linda Carewe poisoned her husband with five grams of arsenic. It what will go down as one of history's greatest murder fails, not only does he live, but he also gains the superpower of vanishing from an observed room after stabbing a woman to death. Kinda useless all thing considered, unless you're a serial killer. The actual solution is well done, and the story itself moves at a nice pace.

Death by Black Magic

Fifteen years ago, Simmonds, playing Othello, actually strangled his wife, playing Desdemona, before vanishing from the stge. The theater that it all went down in seems like a great place to test a magic trick, so thinks the magician who will be strangled in his own cabinet in full view of his daughter and Banner. The murderer is fairly hinted at, but the solution is nearly impossible to figure out. The past crime is interesting though.

Murderer's Progress

A bunch of smart people with nothing better to do all decide to come up with some ingenious ways to make Banner look dumb. It'd be a doomed plan from the start, but then one comes up with the idea to arrange a nice impossible vanishing....that ends with both participant dead. A nice, multi-layered story, who's only real flaw is a slight lack of cluing about the solution.

Castanets, Canaries, and Murder

Kean Smith has some problems. He seems to have won the affections of a woman who's kinda crazy to him. Oh, and she has a problem with some dead canaires. Thankfully, Banner's happy to look into it...and he uncovers blackmail, and a murder almost committed almost in front of a running camera. And no, the killer wasn't seen. How silly would that be! The problem is that you will either instantly see the trick, or miss it with no in between. The clueing for the killer is at least semi-fair. The leading lady is a tad on the over-the-top side though.

The X Street Murders

Already done. Twice.  Large And In Charge

Hangman's House

During a storm, Banner finds himself stranded with a bunch of people in a mansion cut off by a flood. They all survive and go home happy. The end.

Hah. The original owner is found hanging by an insanely high chandelier over a floor of almost unbroken dust. It's a well-done and grand solution, that's marred by the fact that there are only two clues to the killer's identity. One is small and without context, the other is slammed in your face. Also, why does the killer need to do all of this? Just dump the body in the raging flood surrounding the house. Also, the motivation is...very weak at best. At worst, you'd think that the victim and killer would be reversed. Fremantle did threaten them...

The Giant's Sword

Estelle Whitelake is not happy. That nice painting that she bought? A forgery. The dealer that she bought it from? Dead, impaled on an overly large sword better suited for a giant. Probably the most creative of the stories, and another with a perfect, "Well, duh." solution. The killer is a little obvious though.

Stairway to Nowhere (co-written by Edward D. Hoch)

Jim Newman is not having the best day. His girlfriend vanished about halfway up a staircase. She might have been running around with a valuable diamond.  Nope. Not a good day. Good thing that Banner is around to offer insight! This is one of two stories that follow a different character, and it's done well here, with Banner being inscrutable. The solution is well-done, and the story itself is also very good.

The Vampire in the Iron Mask

Colonel Hope Seven is trying to give Guy St. Hilaire a medal for his work in Nazi killing, but he's being a stubborn old jerk. Throw in a beautiful woman, and you have nice tension going.  And this is before the iron-masked vampire starts strangling kids and writing names in a locked tomb. Because those are the things you see at creepy French boarding schools. All joking aside, the story is quite good, with a nice solution and motive for the locked room. Though I do have to wonder how the reader is supposed to know that (SPOLIERS the first death was accidental. No really, how? END SPOLIERS) The story also could've done with more suspects.

The Whispering Gallery

An evil magician. An upside-down killer. A man vanishing from his house. Stolen Egyptian papyrus. All of these are interesting plot elements...individually. Unfortunately, it feels like Commings wrote a few lines for each idea, then crammed then together into a story. It's a mess. What was the point of that tarot lady, for example? Even the solution manages to be underwhelming, mainly because there was no reason for the killer to do that!

All in all, a very good collection. The stories, while flawed in places, are well-told. Banner himself is also entertaining to watch in action, which is good because the stories would be a little bland otherwise. I still think that some of the solutions are near-impossible to figure out without specialized knowledge, they're at least interesting. Out of fourteen stories, I only didn't care for two. That's good, right?

I'm giving this a recommendation. If just so we can get more of these stories.

Next time, the French John Dickson Carr. And werewolves.