One of only a handful of French mystery writers to produce short stories (the others being Maurice Leblanc, Pierre Boileau and Paul Halter), Pierre Very is best known to French locked room fans for his prize-winning Le Testament de Basil Crookes and Les Quatre Vipères.
M. Török is a versatile and well-respected figure in French cultural circles. He is a celebrated film critic, radio producer and film director of note, having been nominated for the Golden Palm for Best Short Film at the Cannes Film Festival for La Ligne de Sceaux. In addition to his directorial talents, he also wrote the screenplay for A Bad Son. He is equally well-known in literary circles, his biography of Pierre Benoit, author of l’Atlantide, having been honored by the Académie française.
Paul Halter was born in Hagenau, Alsace, in 1956. He pursued technical studies before joining the French Marines in the hope of seeing the world. Disappointed with the lack of travel, he left the military and, for a while, sold life insurance while augmenting his income playing the guitar in the local dance orchestra. he gave up life insurance for a job in France Telecom and, upon discovering the writings of John Dickson Carr, gave up the guitar for the pen.
LRI had been planning to re-publish Shimada Soji’s masterpiece in August, but there has been a complication regarding rights and it will not happen, at least for the time being. Further explanations will be forthcoming at the appropriate time, but I can assure readers it was not the result of any disagreement between the author and myself. Our relationship is very amicable and I hope to publish more of his works at a later date.
Derek Smith (1926-2002) was a reclusive character with poor health but a fertile mind, who turned his hand to writing mystery fiction while in convalescence, after being invalided out of the army in the late 1940’s. His chosen field was locked room mysteries, about which he possessed a truly phenomenal knowledge. He tried both short stories and novels, only one of which ever saw publication in his native land. But that single exception has earned him a place in the pantheon of locked room authors.
Whistle Up the Devil (1953) pops up regularly in “Best of” lists, and for good reason. Publisher’s Weekly’s (starred) June 30 review calls it “one of the most intelligent and crafty impossible murder novels of all time.” Lacourbe et al’s 1001 Chambres Closes ranks it among the masterpieces. No locked-room library is complete without a copy.
Come to Paddington Fair, probably written in the same period, never found a publisher in the English-speaking world. Ironically, it was left to a discerning Japanese collector and reviewer, Hidetoshi Mori, who regarded it as an impossible crime masterpiece, to publish it privately (in English). It involves “a clever murder committed in plain sight on a London stage during a performance” (PW again).
Model for Murder (1952) appears to have been Derek’s first novel, specifically written for the Sexton Blake market. Sexton Blake (“the poor man’s Sherlock Holmes’) was the fearless detective hero of over 4,000 stories by more than 200 authors of whom Derek, alas, was not destined to be one. His manuscript was rejected, possibly because it was too cerebral for the intended audience. Nevertheless, it is a well-written story with a solid locked room element.
The omnibus itself was the result of detective work. Having long admired Derek’s novels (thanks to Bob Adey I had photocopies of Model for Murder and Come to Paddington Fair and owned a copy of Whistle Up the Devil), I decided to try to locate the owner of the rights to see if they would agree to publication by LRI. Bob, who knew Derek better than anyone, had given me the phone number of his one-time solicitor. They were unable to give me any specifics, but steered me in the direction of the UK Probate Registry. Two months after filling out a printed on-line form and forking out the princely sum of 6 GBP (which included mailing to anywhere in the world), I received a copy of Derek’s will in the mail.
I was stunned to find I knew the owner of the rights: Derek had bequeathed the rights of all his published and unpublished writings to Douglas G. Greene, well-known to mystery fans as the owner of Crippen & Landru. Doug, with whom I have been communicating for nearly 10 years, was thunderstruck when I told him. He could not understand why the executors had neglected their basic duty to inform him. After digesting the news, he graciously invited me to publish the stories and I, of course, agreed. Doug suggested publishing all three novels in an omnibus, which turned out to be a smart decision because it allowed us to qualify for reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and two other periodicals. We are both delighted that Derek Smith will get another chance to be read, and I am deeply grateful to Doug for the opportunity.
*Yes, I know it says Locked Room International, but that doesn’t preclude British writers. I’m looking at another one for 2015…
In February 1936, Heikichi Umezawa, a demented artist, is found dead inside his studio, barred from the inside. Paintings with Zodiac themes are stacked against the walls and a letter from him, filled with alchemy and astrology references, is found in a drawer. In it, he details his plan to slaughter his six nieces and daughters and create Azoth, the perfect woman, from body parts removed from each of them. Fortunately, it appears that he was murdered before he could execute his insane plan….
… But, in the weeks following his death, his stepdaughter is raped and murdered and the police begin to discover the corpses of the six Umezawa women buried all over Japan, each apparently poisoned by a different alchemic element and each missing a vital body part. A Japanese Dr. Frankenstein seems to have carried out Heikichi’s mad project, yet Azoth herself is never found and the killer is never unmasked, despite the outpouring of theories provoked by the nationwide revulsion to the crimes. On the surface, they were the fruit of a diseased mind, a serial killer, but were they really…?
In 1979, a young fortune-teller, astrologer and amateur detective, Kyoshi Mitarai, takes a rash bet that he can solve in one week a mystery that has eluded all efforts over more than forty years. He succeeds and unmasks the diabolical killer and the extraordinarily clever plot, featuring possibly the finest red herring in all detective fiction.
Despite its magical and horrific overtones, this is a work of classical detection and a locked room mystery. It launched a revival of the Golden Age style (honkaku) in Japan (and, incidentally, introduced the serial killer theme one year before Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon.)
LRI is privileged to republish “TTZM.” Take advantage of this unique opportunity to acquire a personalized signed copy of this acknowledged masterpiece, dedicated to whomever you wish: contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org before June 15.
LRI continues its Spring Offensive with the second of the four books promised: Paul Halter’s The Invisible Circle. You can think of it as The Knights of the Round Table meet The Ten Little Indians….
Seven people receive invitations to a ‘singular experience’ during a weekend in Cornwall in a castle reputedly built on the site of King Arthur’s, and situated on an island tenuously connected to the mainland. The sinister host announces that a murder will be committed that night, shows them a sword embedded in a stone (which none of them is able to pull out) and a golden chalice which he claims is the Holy Grail sought by the Knights of the Round Table.
Thus begins a nightmarish series of events including impossible murders, the disappearance of the Grail, and communication with the mainland cut off. Has the vengeful king indeed returned? And is there any connection to the recent release of the host’s homicidal half-brother? The plot, one of Paul Halter’s most convoluted, is great fun.
As is our wont, Paul and I conversed almost weekly on the text, because I needed to understand the layout of the island, which is crucial to the plot. Eventually, in desperation, the maestro sent me a hand-drawn sketch which I will include in every order of a signed and lettered (S&L) copy.
Now on to the Derek Smith Omnibus and The Tokyo Zodiac Murders….
In 1887, a British author named Arthur Conan Doyle published a book about a drug-taking, misanthropic private detective with a gift for observation and logical deduction and who was knowledgeable about the chemical and forensic science of the period. He was a master of disguise and his audacious exploits were narrated by his friend and confidant, a doctor. The detective’s name was Sherlock Holmes. He played the violin.
In 1871, a young French author named Henry Cauvin published a book about a drug-taking, misanthropic private detective with a gift for observation and logical deduction and who was knowledgeable about the chemical and forensic science of the period. He was a master of disguise and his audacious exploits were narrated by his friend and confidant, a doctor. The detective’s name was Maximilien Heller. He did not play the violin.
Arthur Conan Doyle found international fame and Sherlock Holmes achieved immortality: his name became synonymous with masterful detection and is known by every schoolchild in the world. Henry Cauvin wrote ten more books that nobody read and ended up as the treasurer of a small French department. Maximilien Heller passed into oblivion. Was it because Doyle wrote in English and Cauvin in French? French was vying with English at the time as the most spoken civilized language. Was it because detective stories were staring to be serialized in England just as Holmes arrived? They had been serialized in France long before: Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo came out in 1844. Was it because Holmes played the violin and Heller did not? Probably not. Was it because The Killing Needle (as Cauvin’s book was later called) was just not that great a book? I actually think it’s a very well written book, almost as exciting as Robert Louis Stevenson’s best, but read it for yourself. It has been favorably reviewed by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (July 2014 issue) and Publisher’s Weekly (April 14 issue) Why is LRI publishing it? Because it is a historic milestone: very probably the first instance of a locked room method that became classic, and the subject of debate by John Dickson Carr and Clayton Rawson.
Well, I did say this blog would be intermittent…. But a number of interesting things have happened lately and have only just reached the point where I can comment publicly.
First comes an amazing book featuring a drug-taking, misanthropic private detective who helps the police and who is notable for his keen gift of observation and his powers of logical deduction. He is a master of disguise and has a complete grasp of the chemistry and forensic science of the period. His audacious exploits are chronicled by his friend, a doctor. Who else could it be but…Maximilien Heller. This Parisian detective appeared in 1871— 16 years before Sherlock Holmes showed up. The Killing Needle will be out in May and readers may judge for themselves how much Conan Doyle might have been influenced. Incidentally, it’s also the first occurrence of a now classical locked room trick. Secondly, the great Paul Halter has produced a marvelous romp wherein a number of unsuspecting potential victims are lured to a remote island-peninsula claimed to have been built on the site of King Arthur’s original castle. Needless to say, the visitors start to get bumped off in impossible ways, the prime suspect being the ghost of the vengeful king–or perhaps a recently released homicidal maniac. You can rely on Paul to provide a rational–and fiendishly clever–solution. The Invisible Circle appears mid-June.
Thirdly, by kind permission of Douglas Greene, LRI will be publishing an omnibus of Derek Smith’s work. Derek is best known for Whistle Up the Devil, which appears in many lists as one of the very best locked room mysteries ever written. You can’t find a hardcover for less than $40, and the other two books in the collection aren’t even on the market: Come to Paddington Fair was published privately in Japan only, and Model for Murder was never published (it was written as a Sexton Blake story). Doug, who knew Derek, didn’t find out until late last year that he had been bequeathed the rights to all his literary works, because the executors neglected to tell him! (I know the I in LRI stands for International, but international doesn’t exclude English.) The omnibus will be out in July with a foreword by Bob Adey.
Fourthly, I was privileged this month to meet the great Shimada Soji who was visiting New York (more about that in another blog) I’m delighted to say that LRI will be reprinting his masterpiece The Tokyo Zodiac Murders in the late summer. Soji is credited with launching the revival of the classic Golden Age mystery style in Japan through the honkaku (orthodox) movement. Its success can be measured by the sheer volume of mystery novels (mostly impossible crimes) pouring out every year and the mangas. Even children and young adults have the bug (e.g. Case Closed). You can find plenty of copies of TTZM for under $10, which is fine for anyone reading French, Chinese or Vietnamese. It gets a little trickier if you want it in English. One hardcover copy is being offered for 2400 UK Pounds–postage not included! This will be the first English trade paperback edition. We also discussed a lot of future plans which could lead to some great reading in the future but cannot be revealed for now.
Fifthly, as can be seen from the home page, The Lord of Misrule, the first LRI publication, is the only book without a cover illustration, which irks collectors. We shall be rectifying that in the Fall with a typically crude-and-clunky LRI style cover. What is the method behind the madness, I hear you ask? I sketch out a suggested cover layout in stick-man form and the illustrator, the other great contemporary impossible crime master, Paul Halter, creates the cover. Quel homme! Truly a Renaissance man.
Sixthly, I’ve penciled in a plan for fourth quarter release of an impossible crime anthology including 20 or so short stories from around the world. I’ve been working on it with a friend and drinking partner for quite a while and hopefully this will be the year. One obstacle has been rights issues which, as you can well imagine, get pretty complicated if you’re dealing with overseas rights organizations–and I don’t mean Amnesty International. Most of the stories have never appeared in English-language anthologies.
Seventhly, I have an agreement with Paul Halter, to translate and publish two novels a year, the next one in the series beingThe Blurred Image. Twist and Hurst fans will be pleased to learn of their return. The first Halter book in 2015 will be The Phantom Passage, featuring Owen Burns.
Turning to another publisher, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, two noteworthy stories are due out later in the year. The Ghost of the Badminton Court by Szu-Yen Lin is set in Taiwan and is planned for the August issue. The Lure of the Green Door by Norizuki Rentarou is frequently cited as one of the best Japanese impossible crime short stories. Hopefully it will appear in the November issue, but there have been contract issues and it is not a foregone conclusion. I recently submitted a brand new Halter short and another Shimada story and hope to be able to report on them in another blog.
It was a privilege and a pleasure last month to receive a visit from the great Soji Shimada and his lovely wife and daughter. (I had previously met Yuko, the daughter, several times after we collaborated on an adaption of one of his stories: The Locked House of Pythagoras (EQMM August 2103); she continues to act as the patient translator-go-between while she completes her studies at Columbia University, just up the road.) Shimada-san, as explained elsewhere on this site, is the father of the Shinhonkaku (new authentic) literary movement which has seen the resurgence of classical detective fiction with fair-play plots and clues and an emphasis on impossible crime. The popularity of Honkaku is immense: there are hundreds of books published every year, schoolchildren and young adults lap it up in mangaform and thousands of people turn out when Soji has a public appearance:
Contrast that with the US today: the editrix of EQMM complained to me that she had a hard time finding ‘whodunit’ stories because there was no interest among most American writers.
Despite his fame and recognition, Soji is charming and approachable, with a good sense of humour. I learnt over dinner that he is an ardent Anglophile: he played rugby at school (right wing) and drove sports cars such as MGA and MGB. When I recounted a near-death experience in a TR4, he joked that God saved me for a purpose: to popularize Honkaku in the United States. He loves Sherlock Holmes, of course, but also the work of more ironic and humorous writers such as Saki and Jerome K. Jerome. Like the other great contemporary impossible crime writer, Paul Halter, he is fascinated by Jack the Ripper and has written a novel about him. (More of that another time.)
Over coffee two days later, we signed a contact for LRI to reprint his masterpiece The Tokyo Zodiac Murders and discussed numerous projects, including one especially dear to his heart: an English-language anthology of famous Japanese locked room/impossible crime mysteries. If we can overcome numerous obstacles, the foremost of which being rights issues, he will have accomplished something that the doyen of Japanese mystery literature Edogawa Rampo, failed to achieve. I pledged to do whatever it took.