Wednesday, September 14

Daring Detectives – Alfred Hitchcock (ed)

I unearthed this 1975 collection of deservedly well-known short mysteries in the aftermath of my recent book tragedy. The volume is over thirty years old now, and the stories’ original publication dates are far older – I’ve included them in the title/author information.

The day the children vanished: Hugh Pentecost (1958)
The nine students of a small town school vanish on their way home, along with Jerry Mahoney and the modified yellow station wagon/school bus he was driving. Last seen turning on to the two mile dugout track winding around the (guardrail protected) lake, the bright yellow vehicle never re-emerged. The town of Clayton didn’t take long to decide that the formerly trusted Jerry must have done something to their children, despite the distress of his young fiancée, and the stress seemed to push his retired-magician father off kilter.
Though the rationale is important, the centre of “The day the children vanished” is the disappearing act, which I couldn’t work out but which seemed familiar once revealed, either because I read this long ago or because another author’s employed the same sleight of hand. More interesting though is how well Pentecost portrays the understandable but disturbing swing in mood of the town as a whole and the power of fear. This alone makes me interested in checking the author, with whom I was previously unfamiliar, out further.

Through a dead man’s eye: Cornell Woolrich (1939)
Layoffs and downsizing are far from new, and nor is filial concern; when he overhears his detective father telling his mother that he’s looking at being demoted to beat cop because of austerity measures Frankie decides to help his dad out by bringing him the most prestigious crime and solution – murder. Fortunately, Frankie has a clue to one where the murder hasn’t even been discovered yet – thanks to the local boys’ hobby of swapping items for another of greater value Frankie is in possession of a glass eye. And why, he reasons, would someone get rid of a perfectly good glass eye unless they were dead?
Very much a product of its time, Frankie is plucky, determined, and significantly unchaperoned. Like boys across time he has scant regard for his own safety and is far more focused on helping his father, who he knows is “the best dick in town!” I very much enjoyed the reading experience, and though I don’t think a longer work by Woolrich would be to my taste this appetiser was very pleasing.

The disappearance of Mr Davenheim: Agatha Christie (1953)
Inspector Japp offers Poirot a wager – to find the missing senior partner of financiers Davenheim and Salmon, dead or alive, by the end of the week, without visiting the scene or investigating independently. The facts of the case are undisputed – Mr Davenheim returned by train from Victoria to his country manor at Chingside, wandered around the grounds for some time before tea, then told his wife he was going on to town to post some letters. He was, he said, expecting a Mr Lowen, who was to be shown in to the drawing room if he arrived before Mr Davenheim’s return.
Mr Lowen duly appeared; pleading a train, he left when, after an hour, Mr Davenheim failed to meet him. A subsequent search of the study he’d been waiting in revealed an empty and broken-into safe – a safe that was used to store the jewels Mr Davenheim had been in the habit of buying for his wife whenever he returned from business trips.
A somewhat convoluted mystery, “The disappearance of Mr Davenheim” includes the elements one expects from Christie – class, wealth, clever trickery, and the employment of the little grey cells to reveal all.

The grave grass quivers: MacKinlay Kantor (1931)
A young, unnamed doctor is interviewing for a position to replace the soon-to-retire Doc Martindale of Cottonwood. A sleepy town, he notes, to which Doc Martindale responds that there have only been four murders during the entire history of the town, and only two since 1861. That was the father and brother of young Martindale vanished, along with some $7,000 in gold. Their wagon and team were found, along with some blood, but their bodies were presumed dumped in the nearby river – though Doc always believed they’d been buried nearby.
“The grave grass quivers” is set sixty years later, and is less a mystery than an atmospheric, perfectly crafted vignette. There is, true, a murder (well, two), and the triumphant unveiling of the murderer decades after the crime, plus a unique indicator of the crime (that I somehow wasn’t surprised by, increasing the likelihood that I’ve read this collection before, albeit long ago). But the narrative unfolds gently and almost inevitably, rather than twisting like a contemporary mystery, and Kantor evokes splendid senses of both the time the story is set in and a brief but convincing feel of frontier life a hundred and fifty years ago. I might be interested in following up with Kantor, who is better known, according to Hitchcock’s introduction for “serious novels” – he certainly writes like an author comfortable with producing literature.

Adventure of the Grice-Patterson curse: August Derleth (1956)
Renown detective Solar Pons and his less bright assistant Dr Parker has been asked by Edith Grice-Patterson, grand-daughter of long-dead Colonel Grice-Patterson to come to the family home on Uffa to investigate the latest in a series of curses that have plagued the family – the mysterious strangling death, in a locked room, of her fiancé is but the most recent, following similar, motiveless, murders of her father and uncle. The family is also, somehow, able to keep dogs alive.
If both the protagonists and the set up are reminiscent of a more famous detective that is no coincidence – Derleth (with whose work I have previously been unfamiliar) has apparently created homage to Holmes, of which this is but a taste. The writing style is similarly evocative, and though the killer is different to that in the Doyle classic “The scarlet hat band” it is clearly inspired by that work. Certainly if you like Holmes you will like this – I confess I find myself more compelled by the recent BBC series. - Alex

The adventure of the seven black cats: Ellery Queen (1933)
Sent out to procure an Irish setter, famed New York city detective and author Ellery Queen discovers a pet-shop mystery – why has a bed-bound pensioner who hates cats been secretively buying a green-eyed black tom each week for the last month and a half? The question is quirky enough to intrigue Queen, who sets out for the nearby apartment that Euphemia Tarkle shares with her more mobile (and impoverished) sister, Sarah-Ann.
Sarah-Ann goes out every afternoon, leaving the door on the latch – this is always when Miss Curleigh brings the new cats around; today, however, there is no answer to her knock, and the door is locked. Procuring the key from the wife of building supervisor Potter reveals an empty apartment – empty except for the sight of a fleeing figure out one window. But where is the paralysed Miss Tarkle?
The core of this mystery is the rationale for the cats, and the answer is both practical and haunting, particularly if you’re a felinephile. The writing is compelling and engaging, and the mystery quite involving.
I have long enjoyed Ellery Queen, with whom I first became familiar through the mid-seventies TV series. I realise, writing this, that it has been many years since I last read one of the beautifully crafted, eponymous detective stories and will rectify this on my return to Australia next week.

The footprint in the sky: John Dickson Carr (1940)
Mrs Topham next door is a shrew and a thief; arguing with her yesterday made sleep walking virtually inevitable. Dorothy Brandt rarely recalls anything that happens when she sleep walks – waking with the faint remembrance of snow is unusual – but is it possible it was she who killed the horrible woman?
The scene certainly gives every indication of that: the only footprints, clear and crisp in the shallow snow, are Dorothy’s tiny size 4 and lead without hesitation to and from the adjacent houses, with not another step marring the white perfection. The only anomalous note is a larger footprint, equally clear, in the snow atop a bordering hedge – one that could not possibly support the weight of the grown man such footwear would fit.
Carr’s well known but I haven’t read his other work. I very much enjoyed the unexpected dénouement and unique flavour of “The footprint in the sky” and may look up his other work in the future. - Alex

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