Friday, March 5, 2021

The Hanging Doll Murder - Roger Ormerod

Can a murder mystery about a locked room with a broken window still be considered as an impossible crime?

The bloody shotgun murder in The Hanging Doll Murder (1983) sure seems like one. A man has been found with his face blown off and his hands mangled from the being shot at by both barrels of a shotgun. The entire house was locked from the inside and the front door has swelled from cold weather and cannot be opened. But one window in the kitchen has a hole in it, presumably from a shotgun blast and yet it’s too small and almost too perfectly made. And why is there no glass on the inside of the house if someone shot the victim through the window from the outside. Why is the glass only found outside in the snow covered ground that reveals hardly any footprints?

Is a puzzlement, as the King of Siam used to say.

Ultimately it isn’t the puzzle of the broken window that makes the book such an engaging and devilish bit of detective fiction. With a deviously layered plot, one brilliant piece of misdirection, and a gasp inducing surprise in the final pages here is a throwback to the heyday of detective fiction when story and plotting superseded character study and grim psychological probing. TomCat who blogs at Beneath the Stains of Time has reviewed several Roger Ormerod mystery novels and I finally succumbed to temptation after his most recent review mentioned other Ormerod titles with possible locked room elements that he wanted to investigate. The Hanging Doll Murder was on that list of books.

If the locked room really isn’t completely sealed and the problem of the broken window is only a minor impossible problem that doesn’t discount The Hanging Doll Murder as a fine piece of mystery fiction. But I prefer the original UK title Face Value. It’s much more fitting both for the pun about the identity of the murder victim as well as the colloquial meaning of the phrase. A clever police constable introduces the idea of the title when he says “on the face of it” the crime appears to have be committed one way, but what if the exact opposite were true? I can’t reveal either side of his argument without spoiling one of the many clever ideas Ormerod presents in this story of a violent crime.

A burned out car, a missing husband and the release from prison of a murderer/rapist all culminate in the shotgun murder. Prior to the discovery of the murder a weird plastic doll with a beard glued to its chin was found hanging from a noose in a tree on property belonging to the former prisoner. Later some taunting drawings are found painted on the house itself. Was someone out to kill the prisoner? Who is the victim? The husband? The ex-con? Or someone entirely different? Amelia Trowbridge reported her husband missing and becomes a key suspect when police learn she was instrumental in getting the rapist released from his life sentence.

This is the first of ten novels featuring Richard Patton. It is also the book in which he meets his future wife. Like Lord Peter meeting Harriet Vane during a murder trial in Strong Poison and The Man in the Moonlight in which Dr. Basil Willing first meets his future wife who is a prime suspect in a murder investigation, Patton meets Amelia Trowbridge who the police are highly suspicious of having done something to her missing husband. But unlike those very innocent other future wives of fictional detectives don’t be too quick to cross Amelia off the list of suspects in this instance. Things look very bleak for her indeed and her behavior does not improve matters. Patton is certain she is guilty of something if not murder then some terrible secret.

I really enjoyed this mystery novel. Rarely am I as thoroughly surprised by everything in a story as I was by this book. That it’s fairly contemporary is all the more wonderful. This is an excellent example of a modern mystery that honors the traditions of the Golden Age and still incorporates modern police technique, modern behavior and a motive that will never go out of style. I kept trying to outguess Ormerod at his own game and failed miserably. Patton makes a stunning pronouncement in the final chapter that explains a very minor mystery that I basically dismissed the moment it was introduced. Foolish mistake for that minor mystery is key to understanding the entire solution. It all reminded me of a particular trick repeatedly employed by Agatha Christie with great finesse. There are several amazing twists in the plot not the least of which is what happened to Amelia’s husband which is truly the most brilliant part of the story. Highly recommended. I’m off to find more Roger Ormerod books!

26 comments:

  1. Finally a rave review of a book that's easily found. Two clicks and I have a copy on its way to me. Thanks, John. Between you and TomCat, I have finally been persuaded. And like you, I'm off to find more!

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    1. Hope I didn't oversell it. It was one of the best contemporary traditional mysteries I've read in recent years. TomCat is right when he praises Ormerod's books as retro GAD plots.

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  2. I'm a big fan of the Richard Patton novels. He was fairly prolific with standalones and at least two other series. I think the Richard Patton books are consistently the best.

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    1. I'm interestdi n reading the entire series and I'm going to try to do it in chronological order. Looks like almost all are available

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  3. John, when you praise a book so highly and it is, as you say, "fairly contemporary", I have to look into it. I too have ordered a copy.

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    1. This is the most popular post of the year! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did and that I didn't gush too much.

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  4. You beat me to this one, but glad you enjoyed it and thanks for the mention!

    I don't understand why Ormerod has been so thoroughly forgotten today, especially by us, because he was one of the few who tried to find a balance between the traditional detective story and modern crime novel during a time when it wasn't fashionable at all. And, to my knowledge, there weren't many British writers during the 1970s, '80s and '90s who specialized in locked room mysteries. Now he didn't always succeed (An Open Window was a bit of a dud), but when he did, you get the best of two different eras of the genre. The plot-thread you mentioned about Amelia's missing husband is good example as you rarely see series-character related mysteries in GAD, but Ormerod used this more modern approach to deepen the plot. He really should be better known.

    I recommend A Shot at Nothing, which is a genuine, 1930s mystery novel written and published in the early '90s. You might also like More Dead Than Alive with its impossibly missing magician, stage tricks, false solutions and an originally audacious solution, but the plot rambles a bit in parts. However, the positives definitely outweigh the negatives. And Hope to Die is another, relatively successful attempt at recreating the Golden Age detective novel that feels like the authentic thing instead of a send up. Even with the locked room-trick turning out to be a very old dodge.

    "I’m off to find more Roger Ormerod books!"

    I call dibs on The Key to the Case!

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    1. No copies for sale of More Dead Than Alive. Grrr!

      Of the other books I bought I did buy And Hope to Die. Also have By Death Possessed because it's an art mystery and I very much like those. I also have Still Life with Pistol, the second Richard Patton mystery. I may try to read those in order to see what Ormerod deals with the relationship of Richard & Amelia over time.

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    2. The problem with Ormerod is that practically nothing informative has been written about his work, either in print or online (present company excluded), which makes cherry picking impossible. So you have to grope around in the dark to find your way. Endeavor/Lume has made this both easier and more difficult at the same time with their dark, brooding and gloomy uniform covers and phrases like "intense crime novel" and "fast moving." Not the best way to advertise a retro GAD writer to readers of either modern crime novels and traditional mysteries, because you'll disappoint one and get mostly ignored by the other.

      However, from my sampling and digging (call it genre archaeology), Ormerod appeared to have become more traditional over time beginning in the 1980s and seems to have experimented a lot with framing and storytelling. Such as trying to find a balance between the classic/modern style, merging two of his series into a new one (officially beginning with More Dead Than Alive) and keeping the locked room mystery alive. That makes it all the more surprising Adey listed only three of his impossible crime novels when I found at least six more by just groping around in the dark.

      So glad you have joined me on my archaeological expedition to unearth Ormerod and someone to look at his non-impossible crime fiction. I wanted to look at one of those for my next Ormerod, but that's not happening now. :)

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  5. There seems to be little about him, a number of sites still have him alive at 101. I tried to find some of the Hale books but little joy, and Victor Bridges seem like competent novels in the vein of Edger Wallace (Wallace's 4 Just Men and the short stories of the Mind of Mr Reader are worth looking up.). So I'll give Victor a miss. I did pick up a Antoine Laurain and it's in the pile to read as is Roger Ormerod's Face Value. I look forward to reading more about Ormerod's novels. I just read Swing Brother Swing by Ngaio Marsh and found it disappointing after reading so many good things about her, sadly I picked the murderer due to her style of writing and so the method of murder was too difficult. Wayne.

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    1. Victor Bridges is eminently skippable for me. I ordered two of his books at once and The Secret of the Bridge ordered form a UK delaer an dlost inthe customs maze and delayed to due to the horrible winter storm s of last month arrived only last week. I wouldn't have cared if it never arrived! It's going on the shelf as unread. I may just sell it immediately!

      I hope you like Antoine Laurain. I've read three of his books so far and loved them all. Really loved them. He's a writer that I feel I've known all my life and yet just discovered him. Reading his books makes me so happy. They're uplifting without being treacly. Reviews of The Portrait and The President's Hat are coming soon

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  6. Roger Ormerod is a new author for me. I ordered this on the strength of your review and look forward to reading it. Thank you.

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    1. It's rather amazing to me that this post and this book are getting so much attention. It's good to know that this blog is still being read. I know you stop by regularly, Scott, and I'm grateful. However, the rate of views has been plummetting for the past three years and coupled with the drastic drop in comments I was beginning to wonder if I had an audience at all. Today is very reassuring.

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  7. Good to see a heads-up on the late Mr Ormerod whose books used to be staples of the UK library system. I've read a few and rarely been disappointed. An Alibi Too Soon was one I particularly appreciated due in part to it's setting around the North Wales borders an area I know quite well. Another I've yet to identify about an insurance claims investigator struggling with amnesia after a vicious attack in the line of duty. I wonder if Jonathan Ross would be a bit of a parallel case ? Solid traditional police procedurals with a quirky pair of lead detectives and well-observed small town setting. Now out of fashion it seems ... - Mike Vawdrey

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    1. Based on the plot blurbs at Fantastic Fiction, a website I'm using as a resource to help me find Ormerod books with plots that sound alluring, I'm sure that amnesia book you describe above is A Death to Remember. I'll look for a copy of that one, too. Amnesia plots never cease to fascinate me. I have a topic tag for it on this blog. Thanks, Mike!

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    2. One of his David Mallin novels is titled Amnesia Trap and is about an actress who's missing an entire day in her life.

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  8. I just read the book and enjoyed it, but I wondered why the police never bothered to do a thorough background check on certain persons of interest. Seems as if that would have cleared up part of the mystery a lot sooner.

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    1. I think that's meant to be a further contrast between Patton and the officious egotist who took over his job. Too full of himself to be skeptical. I think the constable who was first investigating the car wreck and proved to be extremely insightful and observant would've done a better job that the Superintendent.

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  9. Sorry meant to say, the method of murder was not too difficult (to spot.) Are there any Ngaio Marsh books you would recommend? At the moment my reading is slow, my dyslexia is acting up. I've only read a few novels this year and a handful of short stories. I've moved the Antoine Laurain up near the top of my to read list, I also have a Ramsey Campbell novel I want to read. Thanks for the reviews. wayne.

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    1. Marsh is not really one of my favorites. I read a handful of her books back in high school (1970s), but I got tired of them. Odd, I know, because Marsh was a specialist in bizarre murder methods and everyone knows that I'm a fan of those type of books. But I have to tell you of the few I did read all those decades ago I hardly remember anything about them. I vaguely recall enjoying Death in Ecstasy about a weird cult which I thought a bit perverse when I was a teen. And Vintage Murder just because of the murder weapon. I can tell you that Nick Fuller who knows his GAD novels very well recommends these titles: Death in a White Tie, Overture to Death, Death at the Bar and Final Curtain. Nick rates them 4 or 5 out of 5.

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  10. There is a brief biography of Ormerod in Twentieth-Century Crime and Mystery Writers (1st ed.). He wrote 14 mysteries between 1974 and 1979, all published by Robert Hale (I think that Hale was only one step above not being published any longer at all) and a good many more after that date up to 1999 with other publishers. I am leery of using Fantastic Fiction as a bibliographical source because it was not intended for that purpose and has a lot of errors.
    What I call Marten Cumberland Syndrome is actually pretty common, as you can see by reviewing Twentieth-Century Crime and Mystery Writers. Cumberland for instance, had his first book published in 1926 and the last one in 1966 for a total of 62 novels. He died in 1972. I have never otherwise heard of Cumberland, nor have I ever heard him discussed. These authors sell enough copies decade after decade to a fixed public to keep on being published, but never enough to gain any reputation. Their fixed public will buy their annual or biannual productions because they are a satisfactory known product. These authors produce an excellent, workmanlike product and they usually publish throughout their lifetimes. The usual reason why they stopped publishing is because they died. Usually they wrote right through the Golden Age up to the time they died, usually in the 1960s or 1970s. But when the yearly product stopped coming, their public soon dispersed and they were forgotten. These authors are usually English, and American publication was spotty or nonexistent. Their big problem was that they never had the break-out story to make their names like "A Scandal in Bohemia" or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or The Maltese Falcon. One of the biggest problems is that mystery fans have done a very poor job for their authors in the biography and bibliography departments. Compare the Internet Speculative Fiction Database and The Science Fiction Encyclopedia with what is available to mystery fans and you will see what I mean.

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    1. Thanks for all this Oh Unknown One. I did not say I was using Fantastic Fiction as a bibliographic source. I’d never do that. The Omerod listing is littered with duplicate titles, mostly the US edition with different titles listed as separate books. I said I was reading the plot blurbs (which are cut and pasted from Amazon listings) to help me find books that would interest me.

      Unlike you I have know of Marten Cumberland and his Saturnin Dax mystery series since I was a teenager. Though I own two of them I’ve still not read either.

      The GA detection wiki attempted to be crine fiction’s answer to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Unfortunately it was started by a fan who cut and pasted book lists from Wikipedia listings and other internet sites. The concept of cross-referencing with actual bibliographic sources was unheard of to that guy. I began a project of correcting many listings and adding proper biographical info, but gave up when I discovered it would take me many hours, working every day for the rest of my life to fix all the errors! Wasn’t the Internet Speculative Fiction Database begun by John Clute and based on his monumental encyclopedia? We have no one doing that for us. Mystery fan sites can only rely on dogged obsessed researchers to come up with something of equal strength and scope. The problem is most modern fans would just rather read the books. Curt Evans, TomCat and I are three writers who are doing our best to create capsule (sometime detailed) biographies of mystery writers on our blogs when we can find the information. I recently found the only known photo of writer “Christopher Hale” along with data on her family. Other than a newspaper site it has appeared nowhere else until I posted it a few weeks ago. Curt, of course, is the star of us all with a wealth of sources available to him and loads of time, apparently, to write amazing biographical essays.

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    2. The Internet Speculative Fiction Database is a purely fan written and run project. There is a Wikipedia article on its history. John Clute and Peter Nicholls edited The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (hardcover), which has since moved on line. It is a more professional effort but still seems to me to be a group effort. There is an old saying in science fiction: "Fandom is a way of life." I think that is much more the case for science fiction than it ever was with detective story fans. Let me put it this way: the first index to the pulp science fiction magazines was published by Donald B. Day in 1952. The pulp era wasn't even over yet. It is virtually complete up to its date of publication. It was a one-man effort. You can see him with a huge pile of index cards in a photo on the back of the book. He did it for pure love of science fiction. As far as I know, the year of grace 2020 has now passed but I am still not aware that anyone has published a complete index to the pulp mystery stories. (I hope I am wrong about that but I have not found one. All I have found is the Crime, Mystery and Gangster Index at Galactic Central and that is not much of a pulp index.) Dashiell Hammett is hardly an unknown author, but we had to wait almost 100 years for anyone to publish a complete unabridged edition of the Continental Op stories. When you say that you have no one doing this sort of thing, that is the point. If modern mystery fans would rather just read the books, well that is why we wind up with forgotten authors like Douglas Clark, Roger Ormerod, Christopher Bush, Brian Flynn and all the other fine authors who have had to be resurrected almost by accident on these blogs.

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    3. In our defense, the detective genre and fandom, especially from the past, was very different from the much more united and organized science-fiction genre and fandom. I mean, someone who read John Dickson Carr and locked room mysteries in the 1940s was unlikely to be aware of John Russell Fear or the pulp magazines. It was all over the place until the internet arrived. SF fandom got organized early (1930s I believe) to track of everything. So give us some time to process everything and get our house in order. Hey, we've already brought about a Renaissance era and we're working on that Second Golden Age.

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  11. Brooklyn Public Library has this book and a few others by Ormerod, and I'll be reading it soon.

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  12. "Can a murder mystery about a locked room with a broken window still be considered as an impossible crime?"
    Yes, if the victim was killed by an elephant.

    You've prompted an interesting discussion of a name new to me. I'm looking forward to checking out a few of his titles. Thanks!

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