Blood on the tracks

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“Never had I been given a tougher problem to solve, and never had I been so utterly at my wits’ end for a solution.”

A signalman is found dead by a railway tunnel. A man identifies his wife as a victim of murder on the underground. Two passengers mysteriously disappear between stations, leaving behind a dead body.

Trains have been a favourite setting of many crime writers, providing the mobile equivalent of the “locked-room” scenario. Their enclosed carriages with a limited number of suspects lend themselves to seemingly impossible crimes. In an era of cancellations and delays, alibis reliant upon a timely train service no longer ring true, yet the railway detective has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in the twenty-first century.

Both train buffs and crime fans will delight in this selection of fifteen railway-themed mysteries, featuring some of the most popular authors of their day alongside less familiar names. This is a collection to beguile even the most wearisome commuter.

Rating: C+

I have to say I love the sentence “In an era of cancellations and delays, alibis reliant upon a timely train service no longer ring true”. Clearly, nobody has been hit harder by the decline of the railways than poor mystery writers who have lost such a great plot-device…

While one might think that ‘railway related mysteries’ limits the type of stories one can include in this book there is some variety. In many cases, they are simply a sub-set of locked-room mysteries: somebody (or something) disappeared from a moving train (but the how is different every time). Sometimes the train provides the murder-method (or the means of masking the murder) and sometimes the train is mere coincidence (The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face opens in a train but the actual crime had been committed somewhere else and was in no way connected to a train or the railway).

Of course, the stories also vary in quality. No matter how popular railway mysteries were, not every writer did his best work in (short) railway fiction. (Sayer’s story is nowhere near as brilliant as her long fiction). My personal preferences also play a role (I’m not a big fan of mysteries told from the POV of the killer. Or of occult detectives).

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Keikichi Osaka: The Ginza Ghost

Cover Keikichi Osaka: The Ginza GhostTitel: The Ginza Ghost
Author: Keikichi Osaka

Although the Japanese form of Golden Age detective fiction was re-launched in the early 1980s as shin honkaku by Soji Shimada and Yukito Ajatsuji, the original honkaku dates from the 1930s and one of its pioneers was Keikichi Osaka. The Ginza Ghost is a collection of twelve of his best stories, almost all impossible crimes. Although the solutions are strictly fair-play, there is an unreal, almost hallucinatory quality to them.

Rating: C+

There were a few stories that stood out for me in Foreign Bodies and Keikichi Osaka’s did it for being much darker than the rest. It wasn’t my absolute favourite but it turned out to be the only one where it was easy to find more by the author in translation.

The stories in this collection are also all darker than what readers of Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie might be used to. The author doesn’t shy away from detailed descriptions of how a body looks after a brutal murder. But it never feels like either goriness for the sake of it (as it often does in modern thrillers) or the slightly condescending Well, murder is brutal and gory and if you are reading about it for your entertainment you have to be able to deal with it-attitude that some crime novels have. It simply fits the overall tone of the story.

And while there still are stories where the motive is plain great or jealousy, there are also many where more complex emotions are behind the events of the story. Some of those make for an interesting change from the often puzzle-focussed (Western) detective fiction. Others veer more into the ridiculous melodrama territory. Part might be blamed on a geographical and temporal culture clash but some of the stories, especially the one the introduction promised to be an incredibly moving tragedy, had me feel nothing except the urge to roll my eyes.

The topic of this collection is impossible crimes so this isn’t a collection of all of Osaka’s stories featuring a certain character or from a certain period in his career. The common denominator of the stories is their apparent impossibility: a dead person commits a murder, someone disappears from an island from which there was no possible escape, a car disappears from a straight road that has no side-streets and other variations of locked room mysteries…

While I enjoy those kinds of mysteries, this collection doesn’t do itself any favours by limiting itself to this theme. There are twelve stories in total; three feature the same twist and three others very similar explanations for why something seemed very different from what it actually was.

Now he isn’t the first writer who recycles ideas (*cough* The Red-Headed League and The Stockbroker’s Clerk) and it is entirely possible that looking at his whole body of work there are only a couple of repetitions and the editor’s attempt to collect these ‘impossible crimes’ meant that he ended up with some similar twist. Since this is his only work that appeared in translation, I can’t tell.

But if I’m honest: even if there were more of his stories translated I wouldn’t rush to read them. Osaka has a rather exhausting writing-style. When e.g. in a Sherlock Holmes story somebody comes to Holmes and tells him about something that happened earlier, they will still sound like a narrator. In other words, Alice telling Holmes about her confrontation with Bob will read like this:

I rushed to his room and slammed the door behind me.
“You fiend!”, I cried, “You were behind it all along!”
He turned towards me and laughed, “Of course I was.”

Osaka lets people tell stories in a much more realistic fashion:

I rushed to his room and yelled at him that he had been behind it all along. He didn’t deny it and just laughed.

(With apologies to both Doyle and Osaka who are much better writers than I am but you should get the gist).

With three or four stories in The Ginza Ghost that have somebody tell the story long after it has happened, that’s a lot of recounting of events with indirect speech etc. And while that is the more realistic way to talk, it makes for more difficult reading. It’s hard to focus on long walls of text.

It was still an interesting experience to read these stories as someone whose idea of detective/mystery stories was formed by (Western)-European authors but I can’t quite sing the same praises for Osaka as the editor of this collection does in his introduction.


This was a read for the Kill you Darlings game: Suspect: Arthur Conan Doyle (Read a book that is a mystery or a collection of short stories)

Suspect: Arthur Conan Doyle

The Rivals: Tales of Sherlock Holmes’ Rival Detectives

The Rivals: Tales of Sherlock Holmes' Rival Detectives

Title: The Rivals: Tales of Sherlock Holmes’ Rival Detectives

Lucy Coleman is a journalist who is supposed to write an article about the great Sherlock Holmes. Hoping that somebody who worked together with him several times can share some insight she seeks out Inspector Lestrade. But Inspector Lestrade is sick of Sherlock Holmes (and not only because he is described as rat-faced in these stories). Why is everybody talking about him when there were so many other detectives who solved cases that were just as impressive or even more so than those of Holmes? It doesn’t take Lucy long to persuade Lestrade to tell her about these Rivals.

Rating: D+

The framing of these stories is a bit odd: Lestrade doesn’t only tell the stories, he was involved in some of them. Sometimes only as a bystander who happens to be near the plot and sometimes replacing the character who was the assistant in the original stories. The actual work is still done by Dupin, van Dusen & Co.

The Murders on the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe

A brutal double-murder in a locked room. How could it have happened? And who would have the motive to murder an unassuming mother and her daughter? Not that detective Dupin is looking for a motive…he has a very unique idea about who the killer might be…(oh come on. Is there anybody left who doesn’t know what’s going on?)

I am not 100% sure if I’ve read that story before. I think I did but my dislike for Poe might also stem from any of his other works I had to read at some point. I did know the twist but that might as well be because so many mysteries make references to it. In any case, listening to the story did not change my opinion on it. It’s stupid. I’ll take any of the weaker Holmes stories over The Murders on the Rue Morgue any day.

The Problem of Cell 13 by Jacques Futrelle

S. F. X. van Dusen makes a bet: in just one week he will escape from a prison cell that is considered inescapable. The director of the prison is, of course, convinced that this is impossible.

But surprisingly it is not! All van Dusen needs is a friend who is in on his plan and willing to help. Well, and he has to hope that the wardens agree to fulfill his strange requests. But then it’s easy…well as long as the cell has the right architectural features. Which honestly makes it a lot less impressive. It’s also all very theoretical: there is no actual crime, nothing is really at stake, it’s just a story to show off how clever van Dusen is.

Murder By Proxy by Matthias McDonnell Bodkin

Jonathan’s uncle Tilley is hell-bent on stopping him from marrying Julia, the woman he loves. He can’t take away Jonathan’s inheritance since it’s entailed but he can refuse to support Jonathan as long as he lives.
When Tilley is murdered and Jonathan is the only one with an opportunity, h
is desperate brother calls on Paul Beck to save Jonathan from the gallows.

Unlike the previous stories, this is very much a classic mystery: an evil uncle, an upright young man who gets caught up in a horrible crime…and it needs a genius detective to discover the ingenious method the true killer used. It’s nothing new but Paul Beck (with his love for gardening) is a nice character. Though I might be slightly biased because in the audio play he is voiced by Anton Lesser, whom I love since Endeavour. A great show by the way and you should all watch it. There was a tiger, once.

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Mystery of Redstone Manor by Catherine Louisa Pirkis

Loveday Brooke only wanted to visit St. Paul’s cathedral before she returns home to America but when she finds a dying man there she is drawn into a web of secrets and spies. Fortunately, Loveday is no damsel in distress and knows exactly what to do (even if she has to make it up as she goes along).

On the one hand, it’s very cool to have a female main character who really does things instead of fainting at the first vague sign of danger. But on the other, she has more in common with someone like Richard Hannay than with Sherlock Holmes and I’m just not that much into spy-stories. So my only basis for comparison is the movie The 39 Steps and unlike that Mystery of Redstone Manor does not make me wonder if the writer has ever met a woman so that’s definitely a plus.

The Problem of the Superfluous Finger by Jacques Futrelle

A woman storms into a physician’s practice and demands he should amputate part of her perfectly healthy finger. When he refuses she takes drastic measures. Only a genius like van Dusen can discover the reasoning behind her actions.

Because everyone else is an idiot. Including the bad guys who could have easily gotten away with it if they had had more than one brain cell between them. But as it is van Dusen only appears clever because everyone else is an idiot.

The Clue of the Silver Spoons by Robert Barr

Sophia Gibb asks Eugène Valmont for help. She has hosted a number of dinner parties, always with the same guests. Every time an item from one of the guests was stolen: a watch, some letters or money. The thief could only have been one of the guests but she trusts all of them. So who committed these thefts? And why?

The mystery is nice and has everything I want from that kind of story but Valmont got on my nerves approximately two seconds after he appeared for the first time. I have occasionally complained that many of Holmes’ rivals are just devices who move the plot forward at the right time but have no characteristics of any kind.
Valmont has characteristics: he likes food. Like really. Not any food, good food. He will literally not shut up about food. We first meet him in a restaurant where he eats and talks about eating. When Sophia Gibb asks for his help he immediately mentions the cook she employs who is apparently pretty famous…that’s not really a good characterisation.

The Intangible Clue by Anna Katherine Green

Lady Violet investigates the brutal murder of an old woman. The woman lived alone, the houses beside her own are empty so no neighbor could have seen or heard anything. The murder left nothing behind. So how should she solve this case?

This is the first story where the whole set-up of the framing-device goes badly wrong. Because at the beginning of The Intangible Clue, Lestrade announces that Holmes could solve a case where the only clue where five orange pips but that he never solved a case where there were no clues at all.
The no clues Lady Violet has are: footprints in the dust, a teakettle and an eyewitness who conveniently turns up. The way she reads these clues is still clever and impressive but not cleverer than anything Holmes does.

Apart from that (spoiler. Highlight to show) there is a strange scene at the end where they imply that Violet murdered her own husband. I don’t think that it is part of the original stories (but I only glanced over them) and I don’t see the point of it.

The Game Played in the Dark by Ernest Bramah

Max Carrados works on a case involving missing compromising letters which could derail an upcoming royal wedding. But in the middle of that investigation, he is asked to investigate the theft of valuable coins, and events take a surprising turn.

Max Carrados is a blind detective. And having a disabled main character in a story from that era does make for interesting reading. But it feels like Carrados has to ‘make up’ for his blindness by being even more of a genius than all the other genius Victorian detectives. Not only can he distinguish smells and sounds in an instant, he also makes his deductions in record-speed, and never worries about anything.
Many of Holmes’s contemporaries are dull because they have no character. Carrados is boring because he’s an absolute superhuman.

The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem by Ernest Bramah

A train-crash leaves more than 30 people dead. The cause seems to be a human error: the train-driver swears the signal light was green, the signalman swears it was red. While trying to figure out who is lying Carrados soon discovers that much more sinister forces are at play.

In my review for Foreign Bodies I mentioned that I know I have to expect problematic content in old stories but that I also wonder why modern editors can’t take some care when selecting stories for new anthologies. And this is again the case here. The bad guy in this story objects to the actions of the British Empire in India…but since we can’t have a criminal with actually reasonable motives he’s actually just in it for the money because really all these Indians shouldn’t complain…or something.

And because that isn’t enough the audio play adds some Fenians that weren’t even part of the original story. The only reason for this is too add some more problematic elements to the story…tumblr_nb05e9Wl3H1tiqwkoo1_500

A Snapshot by Matthias McDonnell Bodkin

When old Carmondy is murdered the culprit seems to be clear. After all, he has done everything to stop his niece Margaret from marrying Gore even though he and Margaret love each other. Carmondy even threatens to expose a dark secret from Gore’s past. But as it turns out he wasn’t the only one with a motive.

Once again, I want to question the choices of the person who put together this anthology. Though this time it’s not because of any offensive contents but rather because the basic premise ‘evil uncle keeping young lovers apart and then gets murdered’ is exactly the same as the other Bodkin-story. (Or was he simply not a very original writer?)
Beck remains a character who walks the line between ‘dull plot-device’ and ‘quirky for the sake of quirkiness’ and behind the somewhat unoriginal plot, the story gets much darker than one would expect. There’s an allusion to sexual abuse (which might not have been in the original) and a proper look at the darker parts of the British Empire (looking at the author, this could well have been in the original but since the Beck stories aren’t available online I can’t confirm that). Overall, I enjoyed this one as well, even though this time Beck wasn’t played by Anton Lesser.

Seven-Seven-Seven City by Julius Chambers

Thanks to faulty telephone-wiring Edith overhears a couple planning to murder the woman’s husband. She has to stop them. But how, when she doesn’t know their names or where and when they are planning to strike?

Well, as it turns out there are convenient trains and church bells in the background that help Edith with locating the place the call came from (she won’t be the last detective that is helped by such coincidences but – considering the story was originally published in 1903 – she might well have been the first). Apart from the novelty of a phone-based mystery the story also offers also a surprising twist and a nice Miss Marple-like sleuth. Nothing outstanding but interesting.

The Moabite Cypher by R Austen Freeman

Lestrade is supposed to protect Pastor Wayne Kaplan, an American preacher who claims to have healing powers and who has received death-threats. Things take a surprising turn when he runs into Dr. Thorndyke – and then both of them into a dying thief who has a mysterious letter in his possession.

Well…despite the addition of the pastor this is still the same story about which I already talked and about which my thoughts haven’t changed.

 

In the end, I wasn’t too fond of this collection. For once because of the choice of stories: it turns out I’m not overwhelmed by either van Dusen or Max Carrados and they featured in two stories each. But I also think ‘bitter Lestrade screaming about detectives that were so much better than Holmes’ doesn’t work too well. It starts out OK, with him only pointing out that others also did great work but that everybody only talks about Holmes. But with time it turns into ‘actually Holmes sucked, he is only famous because of Watson, all other detectives were better and also Holmes and Watson were always mean to me’.

I don’t think that’s a particularly clever marketing strategy for a collection that has Sherlock Holmes in quite huge letters on the cover and which is probably aimed at people like me – people who like Holmes but are also curious about the other detectives of that time.

Foreign Bodies

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Title: Foreign Bodies
Editor: Martin Edwards

Today, translated crime fiction is in vogue – but this was not always the case. A century before Scandi noir, writers across Europe and beyond were publishing detective stories of high quality. Often these did not appear in English and they have been known only by a small number of experts. This is the first ever collection of classic crime in translation from the golden age of the genre in the 20th century. Many of these stories are exceptionally rare, and several have been translated for the first time to appear in this volume. Martin Edwards has selected gems of classic crime from Denmark to Japan and many points in between. Fascinating stories give an insight into the cosmopolitan cultures (and crime-writing traditions) of diverse places including Mexico, France, Russia, Germany and the Netherlands.

Rating: B-

Anton Chekhov: The Swedish Match

A murder has happened. The victim was far from popular so there’s no shortage of suspect. Enter the eager detective who finds important clues (likes the eponymous Swedish match), makes lots of deduction (much to the chagrin of his colleagues) and just won’t stop investigating. His final conclusion shocks everybody…but is he right?

It actually reads more like an author had gone ‘I’m bloody sick of this Holmes and how every little scrap he finds tells him volumes. I’ll write a character using his methods and have him end up in a really awkward situation because of it’, only that The Swedish Match is from 1883, which is a bit early for a Holmes-parody, considering A Study in Scarlet wasn’t published till 1887

It’s not great: there are lots of coincidences, and suspects appear at the drop of a hat without having been mentioned before. No matter how many crime-novels you’ve read before you will not guess the resolution. It still is an amusing story and (as somebody who had to read Lady with Dog for university and went to see a questionable version of Uncle Wanja neither of which could awaken my admiration for Chekhov), it did make me curious about some of his other works, since the introduction mentioned he wrote quite a few detective stories.

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The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: Thorndyke & Pringle

As part of my The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes Project I’m reading other Victorian (and occasionally Edwardian) detectives. I decided to start with R. Austin Freeman who wrote the Dr. Thorndyke and the Romney Pringle stories (the latter together with John Pitcairn (and under the pseudonym Clifford Ashdown)).

Today’s stories – two with Thorndyke and one with Pringle – were all filmed as part of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes ITV-series and can be found in the accompanying book.

I have read Thorndyke-stories before and he is one of the rivals I’ve really enjoyed. Thorndyke occasional shares Holmes’ tendency to tell a man’s life-story from the way his clothes and hands look but most of the time he is more grounded in real science. As forensics/the history of forensics has fascinated me since my mother gave me her Jürgen Thorwald’s The Century of the Detectives-books, Thorndyke does have a soft spot in my heart. Even if he does occasionally share the blandness of many of Holmes’ colleagues.

I haven’t read any of the stories previously, but the two Thorndyke episodes were the only ones I watched from the TV-show. (However, I have forgotten everything about them, except for a memorable but plot-irrelevant scene from The Moabite Cypher).

Romney Pringle, on the other hand, is someone I hadn’t heard of before so I don’t know what to expect at all.

A Message from the Deep Sea (Dr. John Thorndyke)

A young woman is found murdered with a strand of long red hairs in her hand. When the police discover that her romantic rival has long red hair they don’t look further. Dr. Thorndyke, however, does.

Overall, the story is rather average but I do find it interesting that this is a case featuring a murdered young woman when I can barely remember Holmes-stories featuring women as murder-victims. And the women in this story also feel more real. Jealousy is not the most original of plots but a refreshing difference from Doyle’s beloved ‘I never did anything immoral. However, there was this one time I did something I won’t give any details about but which was in no way wrong. And if my husband who dearly loves me but who also is such an honest man would learn about this time where I didn’t do anything wrong he would die of shame.’-blackmail plots. Of course, everybody just wanted to be published in Victorian times and so it’s not like this story is full of juicy details. But I can’t deny that most of Freeman’s female characters feel more real than Doyle’s.

The mystery itself is pretty average. Of course, the police and their experts are useless and of course, only Thorndyke is clever enough to look further than them. Not unusual for these kinds of stories. Neither is Thorndyke’s penchant for a presenting his findings in a very dramatic way. But I couldn’t help thinking that (Spoiler: Highlight to show)

it seems like a bit of a stretch that only Thorndyke noticed that the hair wasn’t torn out does seem.

So: fun but nothing special.

The Moabite Cipher (Dr. Thorndyke)

The police fear that a certain person is part of a group that plans an assassination attempt on a high-ranking person. Unfortunately, their attempt to shadow him misfires and the suspect ends up dead. The only clue he was carrying with him is a message written in an incomprehensible cipher.

A mysterious cipher! An even more mysterious man who is worried about his brother’s health! And of course, it needs Thorndyke’s genius to figure out the connection. (Well, and a Marsh test).

That is exactly the kind of story I love. It has twists and turns and ends up somewhere you would have never guessed at the start. Sadly, it is also yet another instance of ‘this ominous foreigner who is also Jewish and did we mention ominous and probably evil?’, which is a frequent occurrence in Thorndyke-stories.

 

The Assyrian Rejuvenator (Romney Pringle)

By chance, Pringle discovers a company that cons people with a machine called ‘The Assyrian Rejuvenator’ that promises eternal youth. He decides to step in…

Wikipedia describes Romney Pringle as ‘reformed con-artist’ but this story seems to be from a time where he wasn’t yet reformed for all he does here is conning a different con-artist and then continuing that con on his own. And well…that’s not particularly endearing. I enjoy the occasional heist-story about loveable and clever rogues taking money from questionable characters that have more money than they can ever spend but it’s not that kind of con. Pringle isn’t even extraordinarily clever. He’s cunning and at the right place at the right time. His victims are average people who are somewhat stupid.

It seems that this is the first Pringle-story, so I assume the actual ‘reformed’ part will come in the later ones but I’m not exactly burning to check them out.

 

Since all the stories were also filmed for the eponymous series I (re)watched them as well. The Pringle-story manages to make him even more unlikeable: he doesn’t only con innocent people, he also endangers them. I think that this particular flavour of 70s humour isn’t my cup of tea.

The two Thorndyke-stories, on the other hand, make me wish we had gotten a whole series of him. Though they admittedly took some artistic license with canon and ‘Holmesified’ Thorndyke a bit; on the page, he never insisted “You know exactly as much as I do Watson Jarvis, you can also solve this case as well as I can”. They also added a vain streak that isn’t quite as prominent in the books. But they also gave him a snarky Jarvis who has no qualms pointing exactly that out. More episodes with that duo could have been really enjoyable (especially since the also reduced the number of ominous Jewish people in the adaptations…which in one case meant turning a character Irish but…it’s the thought that counts…)