According to historian Philip Guedalla, reading detective fiction is the “normal recreation of noble minds.” Yet even those of us with plebeian intellects can enjoy ingenious murders and cozy mayhem — especially on these long nights of winter. Here, for instance, are some 2022 mysteries I’ve been curling up with during the past month.
Any devotee of the dynamic duo of Baker Street will welcome Bonnie MacBird’s “What Child Is This?” (Collins Crime Club), subtitled “A Sherlock Holmes Christmas Adventure,” with illustrations by the inimitable Frank Cho. As in her four previous Sherlockian pastiches, MacBird neatly emulates the style and tone of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories as she builds this short novel’s plot around two puzzles: the disappearance of an aristocratic, theater-loving young man and repeated attempts to kidnap the 4-year-old son of a wealthy couple.
Holmes, who dislikes the Christmas holidays as much as Ebenezer Scrooge does, quickly enlists the assistance of the irrepressible Hephzibah (“Heffie”) O’Malley, who stole the show in “The Devil’s Due.” The attentive reader will soon realize that both cases hinge on societal issues much in the news today, but to say more would be to say too much. If you’re in the mood for light seasonal entertainment, albeit with a serious underlay, look no further.
For years, I tried to find an affordable copy of Michael Fessier’s “Fully Dressed and in His Right Mind,” partly because of that catchy title and partly because the book was said to combine fantasy and mystery. This fall the scarce 1935 novel has been reissued by Stark House Press in its Staccato Crime imprint with a biographical introduction by David Rachels. The striking title, he tells us, alludes to the story of Jesus and the man possessed by demons.
Fessier’s very strange book opens with the murder of a newspaper publisher, shot on a whim by a mild-mannered little old man who, nonetheless, “has something about him that makes your blood run cold.” Like an evil Rumpelstiltskin, this polite killer — who is never named — can suddenly appear and vanish at will as he begins to haunt the book’s narrator, John Price. Whenever anyone threatens him with violence, his green eyes exert a hypnotic power that renders that person helpless and obedient to his will.
While seeking a bit of peace from the mounting horror of his situation, Price discovers that a beautiful young woman swims naked each night in a little lake in Golden Gate Park. Elusive, childlike and literally untouchable, Trelia seems more a creature of faerie than a human being. At the novel’s climax, Fessier brings the malignant dwarf and the water-nymph face to face, but before that, several people will die. At one point, Price himself likens this surreal mash-up of fairy tale and noir fiction to “something that Poe didn’t get around to writing.”
This past year, American Mystery Classics, an imprint of Penzler Publishers, continued to reissue handsome new editions of, among others, Erle Stanley Gardner’s “The Bigger They Come,” Ellery Queen’s “The Spanish Cape Mystery” and Mary Roberts Rinehart’s “The Album.” All three are introduced by Otto Penzler, who also compiled the excellent short-story collection “Golden Age Locked Room Mysteries.” Most of this anthology’s selections are established classics, such as John Dickson Carr’s novella “The Third Bullet,” Ellery Queen’s “The House of Haunts” (a.k.a. “The Lamp of God”) and Cornell Woolrich’s “Murder at the Automat,” this last an intricate tour de force that revolves around a poisoned bologna sandwich.
Locked-room crimes always possess an air of the magical or, sometimes, even the science fictional. That’s part of their appeal. In Anthony Boucher’s “Elsewhen,” the milquetoast inventor of a time machine realizes he can use it to murder a rich relative with impunity. Or can he? In Clayton Rawson’s “Off the Face of the Earth,” the Great Merlini must solve a case involving a psychic named Zyyzk who is able to predict, or perhaps cause, the disappearance of a corrupt jurist. At Grand Central Terminal, Judge Keeler enters a phone booth, which is closely watched by two policemen, and simply vanishes, along with a suitcase full of cash.
This Merlini story, as well as Manly Wade Wellman’s similarly ingenious “Murder Among Magicians,” reminded me that I somehow missed Tom Mead’s “Death and the Conjurer,” a widely acclaimed locked-room novel, published this spring by Mysterious Press and featuring an elderly magician named Joseph Spector. Among those who have praised the book is the best-selling mystery cum horror novelist John Connolly, who this year brought out a thousand-page anthology called “Shadow Voices” (Hodder & Stoughton).
In its introduction, Connolly argues that crime, fantasy and horror have been wrongly marginalized and that genre elements “are embedded in the DNA of prose literature.” To showcase the achievements of Irish genre fiction, he then presents a remarkably varied selection of short stories, ranging chronologically from Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” to “Left for Dead,” by contemporary crime writer Jane Casey. Each story is prefaced with a biographical-critical essay by Connolly. Be sure not to miss Lord Dunsany’s criminous masterpiece, “The Two Bottles of Relish,” or Bob Shaw’s heartbreakingly beautiful science fiction masterpiece, “Light of Other Days.”
The handsome paperbacks published as British Library Crime Classics, many of them distributed by Poisoned Pen Press, always provide both good value and good reading. For example, “Guilty Creatures: A Menagerie of Mysteries,” edited by the redoubtable Martin Edwards, assembles stories in which the crime involves some kind of animal. It opens with one of the two Sherlock Holmes cases narrated by the great detective himself, “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane,” then goes on to the G.K. Chesterton classic “The Oracle of the Dog,” followed by Vincent Cornier’s eerie “The Courtyard of the Fly,” in which a huge insect carries off a string of valuable pearls. Best of all, it reprints H.C. Bailey’s “The Yellow Slugs,” wherein a troubled boy tries to drown his little sister and an old woman is viciously murdered. Why? Amateur detective Reggie Fortune observes several traces of slime on the victim’s dress — and these lead him to the story’s shocking conclusion.
Two bodies — that of a minister and a choir singer — are discovered under a crab apple tree in “Blood & Ink: The Scandalous Jazz Age Double-Murder That Hooked America on True Crime,” by Joe Pompeo (Morrow). The title refers to the hotly debated 1922 “Hall-Mills Murder,” which over the last century has been written about by, among others, Damon Runyon, Alexander Woollcott and James Thurber, as well as Frances Hart in her 1927 fictionalized version, “The Bellamy Trial,” and in a 1964 book by the noted civil rights lawyer William Kunstler.
The Rev. Edward Hall and Eleanor Mills apparently met for an amorous rendezvous in a secluded area, where they were shot by a person or persons unknown. Mills’s throat was also cut, nearly severing her head, and the two bodies were neatly arranged next to each other. Both Hall’s wife, scion of a prominent and wealthy New Jersey family, and Mills’s working-class husband appeared to have solid alibis. Both also denied any knowledge of the love affair. So who killed the adulterous couple?
Pompeo, a contributor at Vanity Fair, develops two parallel storylines in “Blood & Ink.” One focuses on the investigation of the murder, the eyewitness testimony of an eccentric recluse known as the Pig Woman and various theories about the crime. The other tracks the involvement of three competing New York tabloids as they brazenly sensationalized the facts, turned up overlooked evidence and eventually forced an arrest, followed by what was then called, like so many others since, “the trial of the century.”
Pompeo retells the whole sordid business with care and authority, deftly pacing its astonishing developments. Along with Daniel Stashower’s “American Demon: Eliot Ness and the Hunt for America’s Jack the Ripper” (Minotaur), “Blood & Ink” is among 2022’s best works of true crime.
While I can recommend all of these, there are numerous others I’ve yet to enjoy. For instance, the most recent title from the Library of Congress Crime Classics series, edited by Leslie S. Klinger, is Ed Lacy’s “Room to Swing,” which features the Black private eye Toussaint Moore and won the 1958 Edgar for best mystery of the year. Another is Crippen & Landru’s “Constant Hearses and Other Revolutionary Mysteries,” by Edward D. Hoch, edited and introduced by Brian Skupin. It presents 13 impossible crimes solved by Gen. George Washington’s special agent Alexander Swift, followed by five investigated by the Golden Age detective Gideon Parrot.
Not least, though, I’m looking forward to David Dodge’s “Death and Taxes,” originally published in 1941 and now reissued by Bruin Books with an introduction by Randal S. Brandt. This was Dodge’s first lighthearted mystery, albeit set in San Francisco — far from Monte Carlo, the glamorous backdrop for his most famous book, “To Catch a Thief.” In my daydreams, I still see myself as John Robie, the Cat, and just wish I could be as suave as Cary Grant.
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