Thursday, April 23, 2015

"I Do Not Dismiss Logic Because I Have Faith"

By Hal White.
Lighthouse Christian Publishing.
2008. 252 pages.
Story Collection: Six Stories.
For sale HERE.
Most people, I am delighted to say, are fond of the locked room. But — here's the damned rub — even its friends are often dubious. I cheerfully admit that I frequently am . . . . Why are we dubious when we hear the explanation of the locked room? Not in the least because we are incredulous, but simply because in some vague way we are disappointed. — Dr. Gideon Fell, "The Locked-Room Lecture," The Three Coffins, Chapter 17
So wrote John Dickson Carr, the foremost practitioner of the sealed-chamber mystery. We are certain, however, that you will not be disappointed in Hal White's locked-room mystery collection, The Mysteries of Reverend Dean. In times past a new writer would arrive on the scene and be proclaimed "the next Agatha Christie," which, of course, they turned out not to be. In Hal's case, however, he just might become, not the next Christie, but the next Carr, if his book is any indication.

Hal's central character is in the grand tradition of clerical detectives; he is described this way on Hal's website:
The Reverend Thaddeus Dean has just retired as pastor of a small church at the foot of the Cascade Mountains. He is lonely, poor and desperately misses his wife who died years ago. Fortunately, he has a pastime. He solves murders which are so bizarre as to seem impossible. In each of the stories collected in this volume, Reverend Dean is challenged by a seemingly “impossible” crime . . . . Readers won't just have to guess who the criminals are, they'll have to guess how they committed their crimes. Harking back to the stories of John Dickson Carr, Hal White has created a brilliant yet endearing sleuth who not only investigates crimes which seem insoluble, but crimes which appear impossible. But these are not supernatural stories — they are classic mysteries.
Each story is a first-rate head-scratcher. You'll have fun matching wits with Reverend Dean; we guarantee it.


(1) "Murder at an Island Mansion"
"In Dark Pine I have felt things — and seen things — that are . . . unusual."
"Footprints will carry me away,
 but no seller of my house
 will see any footprints
 before he dies."
She gazed at Reverend Dean's eyes. Someone was home in there, all right. There was no doubt about that. She almost jumped when the old man finally spoke.
As Reverend Dean joined the frantic girls he looked down at the unfortunate victim — and was met with the vacant stare of Jay. It was vacant because a knife protruded from his heart.
Reverend Dean receives a desperate phone call from a former parishoner. Not only has her father recently died in hospital but there has also been another death in the family, her brother, the oldest heir to the estate — only he has been indisputably murdered, his body found on a stretch of beach completely devoid of footprints. But before Reverend Dean can even get to the family's opulent mansion, the next oldest sibling and heir is discovered stabbed to death just moments after the crime in the corner of a room, surrounded by wet paint on a floor also completely devoid of footprints. While Dean is pondering the complexities of the case, yet another sibling — the next in line to inherit — is found dead on a wet mud flat, with only the footprints of the discoverers of the crime leading up to it. Three impossible crimes — but with one solution. It's up to Reverend Dean to find the common denominator — not a ghost as one character believes, but a flesh-and-blood person with deep-seated insecurities and the ability, on occasion, to fly.

Reverend Dean outdoes not only Father Brown, Mr. Reeder, and Charlie Chan in the areas of modesty, humility, and self-effacement but also Uncle Abner in revealing the intricacies of divine justice.

(2) "Murder on the Fourth Floor"
He stopped in front of the trunk, shielded his eyes from the sun, and looked toward the top of the apartment building standing in the middle of the next block. Apparently intrigued by what he saw, he took a step toward the intersection. That's when the shot rang out.
He was surprised by the caliber, however. A .22 . . . . A .22 rifle was a boy's gun. Or maybe . . . a woman's.
". . . what do you do when the most important person in the world — the person who knows you better than anyone else — decides that you don't deserve to live?"
"What did he see?"
"He says he saw a yellow snake slither past his window."
"Then she can answer the question of the day — how did she get out of a sealed apartment without anyone seeing her?"
"She printed a suicide note, drove to the park near I-90, and shot herself through the eye."
"I know you. If your mind worked any harder, there'd be smoke coming out of your ears."
"We both saw him get shot."
"It was impressive, wasn't it?"
Tim Dearborn and his wife Betty are separated and on the verge of divorce. Tim is about to meet with Reverend Dean and a mutual friend, Detective Mark Small, when a shot is fired and Tim collapses on the street, a bullet having passed through his arm. Sure, there was considerable animosity between us, Tim avers, but would Betty really try to murder me? Mark searches the apartment house across the street from which the shot most likely came; it's no surprise to him when he learns that Betty had a rented room there and that other residents can place her in her apartment at the time of the shooting. But there's an anomaly: No one can confidently testify to seeing her leave. It would seem she just vanished into . . . well, you know. When Betty's body is found later, complete with a typed suicide note, Mark is satisfied — for the most part — that the case is closed. Reverend Dean, however, is far from satisfied and filled with questions that Mark must admit have no easy answers. Without realizing it at the time, Mark and the reverend had been eyewitnesses not merely to an attempt on someone's life but the aftermath of a meticulously planned murder.

It takes Reverend Dean nearly sixteen pages to explain all the details of this crime — but not to worry; it isn't boring.

(3) "Murder on a Caribbean Cruise"
Despite her entertainment value, however, the reverend worried for anyone who might develop feelings for her. A worry, it turned out, that was terribly well founded.
Thinking quickly, Carla grabbed a life preserver, pushed past the man and threw it overboard. But before she could take another step, the beefy man grabbed her hair, jerked her from the railing, and punched the courageous woman in the middle of her face.
"Fifteen minutes ago, she called the bridge and told us that we 'shouldn't blame ourselves' for what she was going to do. Then she barricaded her door, and . . . well, you can see for yourself."
"Indeed I can." The reverend gently turned his friend's head again. "And that's how I know this poor woman did not kill herself. She was murdered."
"You shouldn't have come here, Reverend. If I hurt my friends, what makes you think I won't hurt you?"
The entire procedure, including explanation, had taken less than two minutes. The group was amazed. No one would have guessed the old man had such a nimble — and devious — mind.
An opportunity to take a Caribbean cruise arises, and Reverend Dean simply can't turn it down. Although he fears becoming a fifth wheel among a group of young unmarrieds — the "Surviving Singles" — he is quickly accepted by them. Little does he suspect, however, that one of the group harbors jealousy and conceals rage — enough of both to commit murder — and the cunning to execute a near-perfect locked room crime. Among the clues Reverend Dean must juggle and put in the right order are a pair of sunglasses, a doorknob that smells like mint julep, a dry wristwatch, a tiny smear of oil, a man who is rescued in the wrong place, dental floss, and a missing life preserver.

In this one, the irresistibly delicious shipboard cuisine becomes almost as great a threat to the reverend's well-being as the killer.

(4) "Murder at the Lord's Table"
"For this reason many of you are weak and sick — and some of you have died."
"For this reason many of you are weak and sick — and one of you will die."
The reverend knew his friend didn't look for theological fights, but he didn't back down from them, either. More than once this had created tensions.
"Thus, I do not dismiss logic because I have faith. Rather — due to its unique view of man — logic leads me to my faith."
"Two decades as a subordinate was bad enough. Two decades as the subordinate of someone you didn't respect was intolerable."
The plan was brilliant in an evil kind of way . . . . Who better to impugn a pastor than God?
"I said that you were a murderer . . . not that you were stupid."
"The trick, of course, was to make people think that the poison came from somewhere else."
There are strange doings at Pastor Steve Ragsdale's little church: First an angel dressed all in white appears at one service and, after paraphrasing Scripture, departs; on another occasion Jesus attends the meeting, quotes virtually everything the angel said, and promptly disappears from a locked pastor's office. Pastor Steve is rattled enough to ask his good friend Reverend Dean to attend the next communion service; he does and along with thirty other witnesses sees Steve die in the sanctuary, a victim of poisoning. Rather than suspecting divine punishment being meted out on a man who seems to harbor some secret sin, however, Reverend Dean suspects a more mundane cause for Steve's death: "naked ambition, perhaps mixed with a dollop of theological disgust." Isn't that somewhat akin to the motive behind the first recorded murder, the one involving someone named Cain?

We go into largely ignored territory in this story: of how logic and faith do not necessarily work to their mutual exclusion, and of how they can operate in concert to help solve a murder.

(5) "Murder in a Sealed Loft"
". . . I've got a very peculiar case and I don't know what I'm missing . . . . Actually, I do know what I'm missing: who did it, how he did it and why he did it . . . . Have I left anything out?"
She was found on her back, with a knife sticking out of her at a forty-five degree angle. The handle pointed toward her feet, with the blade sliding under her ribs into her heart.
"So . . . we have what appears to be an impossible crime. Someone stabbed this unfortunate woman, yet the murder was performed while she was behind a door with three locks — two of which could only be locked from the inside — windows which were locked, and a large dog guarding the interior."
"Worse . . . the murder occurred while three witnesses were working around the building, thus insuring that no one could leave the unit unnoticed."
"So the question is: why would a woman — murdered at approximately 1:00 PM on a Saturday afternoon — be covered with blood that she'd previously donated?"
"It was a classic example of misdirection," the detective gloated. "And pretty smart, too, I must admit."
Unaware he had been murdered, Puppadawg turned his ponderous head and licked the hands of his killer.
Reverend Dean is housebound, battling a case of the flu, when his friend Detective Mark Small pays a visit, bearing not gifts but the burden of a difficult case: the murder of a woman inside a locked and closely observed artist's studio. Anomalies abound: What could be the significance of such things as the missing stapler and paperweights, of the dog that correctly barked at the wrong person (or would it be the dog that incorrectly barked at the right person?), of the frozen blood on the corpse, of the triply-locked front door, of the apparently useless cot, and of the kid who often knocks a baseball over the roof of his house? Ignoring these bafflements, Mark soon thinks he has the killer nailed; but Reverend Dean, ill though he may be, sees the situation with more clarity: "Unlike his puzzled friend, he saw no problem with how the murder might have been committed. He knew at least four ways someone could accomplish it." Thanks to a pop fly, the reverend puts the killer out before he can steal home.

Because of the flu, Reverend Dean is forced into the role of armchair detective; he never leaves home, even to visit the scene of the crime.

(6) "Murder at the Fall Festival"
Annoyed with the locked door as well as her husband's disappearance, Tina let herself in the garage.
Ninety seconds later everyone in the house heard her scream.
"My guess is that someone knocked him unconscious with a blunt object, and then suffocated him."
The cleric frowned. He didn't like it. That sort of conspiracy only happened in fiction.
More importantly, why murder someone in the garage in the first place? What was the point?
"Despite what you see on TV, police work is specialized and complicated. I'm sure you're a very good minister, but in a criminal investigation, you're out of your depth. You have to leave this to the professionals."
He knew why the circle was important. But that only solved half the problem. What about — Then the old man remembered the murderer's occupation. It was bizarre, but it fit. It all fit.
"We've been waiting for garbage?"
"It's perfectly legal, Detective."
". . . it was clearly planned on the spur of the moment. The mind that could produce this scheme, in such a limited time, is frightening."
It's almost Halloween and busy preparations are underway for a Fall Festival to be held at a local church; the festivities come to a screeching halt, however, when a woman finds her husband murdered in their garage. To Reverend Dean, several things just don't compute, such as how the killer could have done it in a place where dozens of people are milling about; or how the medical examiner's report doesn't jibe with the way it should have happened; or why, if the motive is properly understood, the murderer delayed so long in executing the crime, among others. Complicating matters further, the reverend must solve this one despite the disdain, scorn, if not quite outright hostility of the senior police detective. The answer to this conundrum can be found in any or all of these items: an unsmoked cigar, its metal tube, pieces of an ironing board cover, a curling iron, oven mittens, a metallic space blanket, a heating coil, a spinning wheel large enough to support a body, and the Eastern notion that time is circular. Concerning that last, however, Reverend Dean offers his own refutation when he puts the killer on a one-way path to a non-recurrent lifetime in prison.

Reverend Dean must get down and dirty in this one — all in the cause of justice, of course.

- Hal White's homepage, loaded with plenty of information about locked room mysteries, is HERE.
- You can buy an omnibus edition containing Carr's The Three Coffins and two other novels HERE.

Category: Locked room mysteries (clerical division)

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