In the opening chapter, "The Coming of Mr. Diabolo" we learn of the specter's legend which dates back to the days of young Lord Farrant, one of the founders of the College of Western Studies, who staged "mysterious midnight parties in his rooms." Professor Cornelius describes the origins of the specter:
His rooms smelled of incense or, some said, of brimstone. his servant found the stubs of black candles and once, half burned, a kitten's paw. And sounds were heard. In short, people became quite convinced that young Lord Farrant was indulging in the black arts. [...] his friends were less discreet, particularly in their cups. They were overheard speaking of somebody who was present at their meetings called 'Mr. Diabolo.'A conference of the Anglo-American Literary and Political Society ("the Alps" to its members) has brought together academics from both the US and the UK to the campus of the college, a former monastery dating back to the 15th century. The story is narrated by Foreign Office agent Alastair Burke who is allowed to participate in the criminal investigation as a liaison for the Americans attending the conference until a lawyer can be found to represent them. He continues to be involved int eh case when he becomes a witness to a second attempted murder. It is the mysterious Arthur Blaise, however, former associate of Burke's in the spy trade, who unravels the mystery of the disappearing Mr. Diabolo and the locked room murder of Bill Frazer.
As is the case with many mysteries of this subgenre the characters are obsessed with the miraculous circumstances that obscure the crime. Burke and the lovely Barbara Tracey act as the amateur sleuthing duo who do their best to gather data from the suspected members of "the Alps" all the while remaining mystified by the unscalable wall that surrounds the alley, the pile of clothes left behind by the vanished specter, and the door locked on the inside of Frazer's sealed room. Arthur Blaise, like Fell and Merrivale, will not succumb to the impossibilities. He absorbs and examines the evidence, weeds through the lies and deceit, holding back most of his thoughts until the final pages when he explains away all the obfuscating mysteries as the magician's tricks they really are.
"Anthony Lejeune" is in reality Edward Anthony Thompson, crime fiction reviewer, thriller writer, and close friend of Dennis Wheatley. His debut spy thriller Crowded and Dangerous (1959) was described as "snugly readable, bustling Buchanish" by esteemed critic Maurice Richardson with a plot summed up by Violet Grant of the Daily Telegraph as "the trail leads from a Chelsea houseboat to a ship in the London docks, sailing under an Iron [C]urtain flag." Lejeune later created series character Adam Gifford, a reporter and spy, who appeared in at least three other mysteries one of which is the tempting The Dark Trade (1966), published in a US paperback reprint as Death of a Pornographer. In the 1980s he returned to writing mysteries with an academic background and created Professor Lowery who solves crimes in two books.
|Japanese edition from 2010|
One of the 10 Best "honkaku"- orthodox mysteries
Thankfully, when the solution comes there is one brilliant surprise -- perhaps a nod to a famous Anthony Boucher novel which also shares a similar trick -- that redeemed the book for me. With such a great opening, the macabre legend, and the baffling vanishing of a ghost-like killer Lejeune's novel aspires to true greatness and promises to dazzle the reader. Sadly, he only manages to raise a faint glow of surprise just falling short of book that might have been a real classic in locked room mysteries.