This coming weekend mystery aficionados — especially those who favor Golden Age whodunits and modern cozies — will be gathering for the annual Malice Domestic conference, held in Bethesda. I myself am notoriously fond of classic locked-room puzzles or any crime that seems “impossible.” What appeals to me about such tales is their intricate artistry. The real cat-and-mouse game isn’t between the Sherlockian sleuth and the clever murderer, but between the far more clever author and the alertly attentive reader.
Thus I was particularly eager to read Stacey Bishop’s “Death in the Dark” (Locked Room International). First published in England in 1930, this book has been called “the ‘Moby-Dick’ of mystery novels,” copies being as elusive and as seriously hunted for as the great white whale. Now available in an affordable American edition, it turns out to be so satisfying that one wishes Bishop had written a dozen others.
In the opening chapter, we are introduced to Stephan Bayard, a young connoisseur of the arts who dabbles in detection. Surely you remember his solution to the celebrated Lanoucin affair in Paris? Bayard — the name carries chivalric resonance — frequently helps out the police when they are faced with an extraordinary case, such as the murder of New York concert manager Dave Denny.
At the end of one of his frequent parties, Denny said good night to his half brother Aaron and locked the door. Remaining in his spacious apartment were six people: Denny and his wife, Gertrude his mother, Mrs. Roscoe Denny Sr.; the family physician, Dr. Leo Stein; and the violinist John Alvinson and his Russian-born wife, Frieda. Almost immediately, Denny announced that he was suffering from a headache and was going directly to bed. A few minutes later, several fire engines raced by and Gertrude, Dr. Stein and Alvinson peered out the windows to watch them. Frieda kept intently reading her book; the elder Mrs. Denny was already asleep. At that moment, the apartment was suddenly plunged into darkness as a shot rang out. When the light was turned back on, a revolver lay in the middle of the floor and Denny was discovered, in his bedroom some distance away, with a look of surprise on his face and a bullet hole in the center of his forehead.
Bayard soon notices several odd details surrounding the crime. Why was the apartment key left in the lock rather placed on its usual hook? How could someone be such a dead shot in utter darkness? As the novel progresses, other people will be murdered, always under seemingly miraculous conditions. One subsequent victim is even killed while being kept in a guarded police cell. In the meantime, the investigation takes Bayard to a swim club, a country house, a swanky Manhattan restaurant and the laboratory of a half-mad scientist. But who, finally, is the daring killer?
And who, for that matter, is Stacey Bishop? In fact, none other than radical composer Georges Antheil, best known for his “Ballet Mécanique,” which requires 16 player pianos, as well as a cacophony of bells, buzzers, xylophones, airplane propellers and a siren. (It was memorably presented a few years back as part of the National Gallery’s dada exhibition.) In an afterword, Antheil scholar Mauro Piccinini usefully identifies the various roman a clef elements in the story, but you don’t need to be aware of any of them. As Martin Edwards, author of “The Golden Age of Murder,” notes in his enthusiastic introduction, this is truly “a one-of-a-kind detective novel.”
“Death in the Dark” was originally championed by its Faber editor, T.S. Eliot, well known for his love of detective stories. But did you know that the poet’s older brother Henry Ware Eliot Jr. had actually written one? First published in 1932 and now reissued by Coachwhip Publications, “The Rumble Murders ” focuses on a pair of bodies secreted in the fold-up rumble seats of old-time automobiles. The principal investigators are a mystery novelist and an aging sleuth of international repute.
In style, Eliot can be quietly wry, as when he describes a married woman who is “almost totally unable to converse with men without flirtatious implication.” Unfortunately, he indulges in overkill, mixing together a plethora of whodunit tropes, including ciphers, a smudged photograph, ancient wrongs, rifled graves, a secret marriage, a lost will and, finally, a surprise ending. Though ramshackle in its structure, the book still makes for an agreeable evening’s entertainment.
“The Rumble Murders” is one of several mysteries introduced by Curtis Evans for Coachwhip. I’m now looking forward to enjoying Tyline Perry’s “The Owner Lies Dead,” which highlights an “impossible” murder deep inside a coal mine; it was praised in 1930 by no less than Dashiell Hammett. Evans, who runs The Passing Tramp mystery blog, has also edited “Murder in the Closet: Essays on Queer Clues in Crime Fiction Before Stonewall” (McFarland). In its pages, Lucy Sussex discusses the covert homosexuality of Fergus Hume, author of the 19th-century blockbuster, “The Mystery of a Hansom Cab ”; John Curran analyzes the gay characters in Agatha Christie; James Doig presents the notorious “Twisted Clay,” which depicts a nymphomaniacal, lesbian serial killer, and Evans himself contributes several pieces, including one on Gore Vidal’s Edgar Box mysteries.
Let me end by pointing readers to a pair of special treats they might easily miss. This spring Audible brought out Stephen Fry reading the four Sherlock Holmes novels and 44 of Arthur Conan Doyle’s 56 short stories about the great detective. Need more be said, other than to murmur “audio bliss”? Any serious fan of Ian Fleming will also want to seek out the spring 2017 issue of the Book Collector. Virtually the entire issue concerns Fleming, as a bibliophile (he contributed the core volumes to the famous exhibition “Printing and the Mind of Man”), as the author of the James Bond thrillers, and as the founder and first publisher of the Book Collector itself.
Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursdays in Style.