Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Murder by Experts: Review

The Mystery Writers of America Presents Murder by Experts published in 1947 and edited by Ellery Queen is, what you most likely suspect, an anthology of crime and detective stories selected by prominent mystery writers of the day. It contains everything from a story by John Dickson Carr selected by Clayton Rawson to William Faulkner's "The Hound" selected by Margaret and Kenneth Millar. The stories represent the gamut from locked room to early private detective to the scientific sleuth to a psychological drama about the effects of guilt. As with all anthology, there is also a range of strength in the selections, but given the keen eyes and noses for a good story belonging to those who have made the choices the range is more heavily weighted on the better end of the spectrum. ★★★ and 3/4 for a strong collection.

Here is a run-down of the stories:

"The Locked Room by John Dickson Carr (selected by Clayton Rawson): Carr is well-known as the master of locked rooms and impossible crimes. This one involves the attempted murder of Francis Seton--hit over the head with a piece of lead-loaded broomhandle and his safe robbed while his secretary and librarian sat outside the only door and the window was locked.

"Human Interest Stuff" by Brett Halliday (selected by Helen McCloy): For those of you who aren't quite as into mysteries as I am--if you're going to try a mystery short story, you really should give this one a try. Overshadowing the crime, the story is more about the relationship between the two central characters--our narrator and a man named Sam. The narrator, who has been an engineer responsible for the completion of a railroad line from St. Louis to Mexico, opens by responding to a question from a newspaper reporter. The reporter is looking for a human-interest angle on the execution (next day) of a man who was captured in Mexico for the murder of Bully Branson. The narrator promises to give the reporter an exlusive. 

I'm the only person that can give you the real low-down. Me, and one other. But it's a cinch the other fellow isn't going to talk for publication.
What follows is the story of the hunter and the hunted--two men who have so much in common, but who are pitted against each other with the life of one and the integrity of the other at stake. Readers are pretty sure they know the outcome of this contest...be prepared for a surprise.

"The Blast of the book" by G. K. Chesterton (selected by Leslie Charteris): Father Brown teaches a scientist interested in the paranormal and psychic phenomena how to distinguish between what is really there and what isn't when a clergyman comes along with a story about a cursed book which makes people disappear.

"P. Moran, Diamond-Hunter" by Percival Wilde (selected by Dorothy B. Hughes): As the title indicates, P. (Peter) Moran is called upon to find some missing diamonds. A group of collectors have gathered for as club for a kind of monthly "show and tell" meeting. First editions of rare books, unique etchings, interesting paintings, priceless stamps...and eleven rose diamonds are all on display. During a short film (depicting one collector's trip to the Gulf to "collect" some fish), the diamonds disappear. A search of the room by those present does not find them. So Moran (who has been taking a detective correspondence course) is asked to try his hand. None of the collectors want to call in a real detective or the police because they don't want any publicity. Moran, with a little help from a brainy dame, manages to come up with the goods.

"The Age of Miracles" by Melville Davisson Post (selected by Howard Haycraft): A story which features Post's colorful American sleuth Uncle Abner. Here Uncle Abner saves a young woman from being cheated out of her inheritance by a man using the law to do so.

"The Witness for the Prosecution" by Agatha Christie (selected by Mabel Seeley): This is Christie's premier courtroom drama. Leonard Vole is accused of murdering an old woman who took him under his wing, but his wife can prove he didn't do it. Or can she? And better yet--if she can, will she?

"The Hound" by William Faulkner (selected by Margaret & Kenneth Millar): A grim tale of crime and guilt, not unlike Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart"--only this time Ernest Cotton, a "mild man" driven to murder by bitterness, rage, and fear, is hounded by the victim's dog...

"The Dancing Detective" by Cornell Woolrich (selected by Q. Patrick): (a story I now remember reading some time in the past). In this, Ginger, a dance hall girl, loses her best friend when a killer makes a habit of killing girls from the dancing halls. Nick, the policeman on the case, takes a fancy to Ginger and when the killer sets his sights on Ginger, she has to hope that Nick will get the messages and clues she's left behind--before she becomes another "Poor Butterfly" in the killer's collection.

"The Hands of Mr. Ottermole" by Thomas Burke (selected by Anthony Boucher): Burke manages to tell a fine tale of a serial killer who gets away with murder in a story of just 17 pages or so. In shortened form, you would expect to find less tension and less room for the true horror of multiple killings. After all, the author can't build things up and taunt the reader with victim after victim. And he can't spend a lot of time letting you become attached to the victims as they're casually strangled one by one.

The power of Burke's story is in the fact that, although we don't know these people well, he makes us realize that any of these unfortunate people could be us. It's the average Londoner who is slain with no rhyme or reason--other than the idea just occurred to the killer. It is also a particularly affecting story because, for those who are encountering it for the first time, Burke manages to parade the killer around quite openly without giving him or her away. It will be a sharp reader indeed who spots the murderer before the surprise at the end.

"The Little Dry Sticks" by Cora Jarrett (selected by George Harmon Coxe): A reporter accompanies his host Danby to visit a female friend who wants advice about her property. They arrive to find that the woman's husband has been murdered while they made they chilly way to the house and Mrs. Elderson was showing them the area of property in question. A key phrase by Danby leads the reporter and the police to the culprit.

"The Last Exploit of Harry the Actor" by Ernest Bramah (selected by Baynard Kendrick): Bramah's story features his blind detective Max Carrados in a mystery featuring the robbery from several safe deposit boxes in a Lucas Street depository known colloquially as "The Safe." The contents of the boxes are held safe behind multiple barriers--both real locks and bars as well as secret passwords known only to the owners. And yet...a large number of the boxes are plundered. Carrodos, whose other faculties have become stronger to compensate for the loss of his sight, is able to "see" the solution to the mystery very quickly.

"Puzzle for Poppy" by Patrick Quentin (selected by Helen Reilly): This mystery features Quentin's regular protagonists, producer Peter Duluth and his wife Iris as they try to solve the attempted murder of a St. Bernard. It appears that no one is guilty--but someone clearly must be. Quentin parades all the clues before the reader and yet one feels like one has come to the blank wall at the end of a dead end street. And it's all done with a zany humor that is uniquely Quentin's. [Quentin is a pseudonym used by Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler.]

"Death Draws a Triangle" by Edward Hale Bierstadt (selected by Edward D. Radin): This is actually an account of a true crime from Victorian-era New York. The triangle in question is that between Daniel McFarland, his wife Abby, and her friend Albert D. Richardson. But the case is rather more than a simple love triangle--Tammany Hall politics and its dislike for the Tribune and editor Horace Greeley play a part as well. The facts of the case were never in question. McFarland, an abusive and drunken husband who saw slights where there weren't any and built up the friendship between his wife and Richardson into a sordid affair, walked into the Tribune offices, sat calmly down to wait, and, when Richardson made an appearance in the outer rooms, just as calmly shot his perceived rival. 

When Tammany Hall discovered that Richardson was a Tribune man, they promptly put all their machinery behind the "poor, betrayed husband." The trial which followed presented McFarland as a saint of a man who was driven insane by his wife's behavior and Richardson's perversion of her affections. Of course adultery (or assumed adultery, as in this case) was often considered the more heinous of the crimes because "it is so much more enjoyable. The point of view of the public on adultery is, generally, 'I want to commit adultery, but I don't dare; and, by heaven, if I can't I'm not going to let you!'" The trial was a travesty of justice--the killer was declared "Not Guilty" and Abby's reputation was permanently blackened. Bierstadt's account attempts to right the historical record.

"Persons or Things Unknown" by Carter Dickson (selected by Lillian de la Torre): In "Persons or Things Unknown" a host at Christmas-time regales his guests with a tale of long-ago murder that fuels the rumors of a ghost in one of the rooms of his house. When he took over the house, he found a diary that told the story of two men who loved the same woman and the death of one of them. It is an impossible crime that has gone unsolved for nearly two hundred years. But Dickson/Carr is an expert at providing solutions to impossible crimes and he does it again here.

"Almost Perfect" by William MacHarg (selected by Hugh Pentecost): The story describes a murder that is just what the title says--almost perfect. The murderer fools the local police and the state troopers, but when O'Malley, a New York cop, is called in he immediately spots what the others have missed and lays a trap to catch the culprit. The story is plot-driven and O'Malley may use a trick to get his man/woman, but it is a straight-forward entertaining story.

"Mr. Ponting's Alibi" by R. Austin Freeman (selected by August Derleth): The very scientific Dr. Thorndyke sets about discovering who murdered Miss Millicent Fawcett, a woman of independent means who volunteers as a district nurse. Mr. Ponting has been quite vocal about the fact that he believes the money she inherited should have come to him. But she had written a will favoring two cousins over him. All three have alibis--provided for each other. Thorndyke spots the flaw in the alibi--and to whom that fatal flaw points.

"Remember Galileo" by Harry Klingsberg (selected by Percival Wilde):  John Doowinkle, Assistant District Attorney, is not thought to be charismatic enough to prosecute the big cases. So he is left with trying to prove a charge of "practicing astrology" against a charlatan. Who would believe that his case would lead to the solution of a much bigger crime?

"Story of the Young Man with the Cream Tarts" by Robert Louis Stevenson (selected by Lawrence Treat): Terrific, mood-setting descriptions and the denouement was perfect. And I love this quote: "There is every reason why I should not tell you my story. Perhaps that is just the reason why I am going to do so." Prince Florizel and Colonel Geraldine are, as they are so often, roaming the streets and cafes of London in disguise--seeking amusement. While sitting in a cafe that night, they are accosted my a young man who asks if they will eat any of his cream tarts. If they don't, then he will eat them himself.

The Prince suspects that there is more to this story than meets the eye and wins the young man's confidence. It seems that the man has come to the end of his rope. He has set out to squander all but his last 40 pounds--he's saving that to pay his entrance fee to a club for people who want to end it all but who don't have the courage to jump or pull the trigger themselves. He and his aide join the young man and discover the scoundrel behind the club.

"The Infallible Godahl" by Frederick Irving Anderson (selected by Vincent Starrett): Godahl is a clever gentleman thief of fiction. In this particular story, his author uses the methods ascribed to his character to discover the whereabouts of a white ruby--with somewhat disastrous results.

"The Adventure of the President's Half Disme" by Ellery Queen (selected by Craig Rice): A very well-known Queen short story. I have read this one several times in various collections. Ellery Queen tries his hand at solving a historical mystery which involves President George Washington. A document is found that indicates that in 1791 Washington, in gratitude for services rendered by a farmer and his wife, planted a small grove of oak trees on the farmer's land. He was supposed to have hidden his personal sword and a half-disme coin under one of them. The farm's current owners are in desperate need of funds to save their farm--if they can find the treasure all will be well. But they dig up the area where all twelve trees are (or were for those that have been destroyed by lightning and whatnot) and find nothing. They enlist the aid of Queen who manages to figure out the logic of our First President and discover the hiding place.

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