Category Archives: Crime Writing
Whatever happened to Isidor Fink?
Criminal Sentences is one of my favourite reference books as well as being a great read and a book you can keep dipping into. Among other things it offers an A-Z of true crimes and criminals, which links them to the plays, films, novels and short stories that they’ve inspired. I opened it again the other day and found that a post-it note, on which I had scribbled ‘Locked Room Mystery’, still marked a page. Why I left it there I no longer remember and why I had marked the page in the first place I’ve long forgotten. It may be because the Isidor Fink Murder still remains officially unsolved. Which intrigues me. I love this sort of stuff.
The scene: New York, 1929. Isidor Fink, a young Polish refugee, runs a laundry from one room in the lower East side. Fearful of burglars, he keeps the doors permanently locked; the windows are nailed shut. On 9th March Fink’s neighbour hears shots. The police break in to find Fink with two bullets in his chest and one in his wrist. Nothing has been stolen. The room is locked from the inside, impregnable. There is no gun, which rules out suicide. The police suspect murder. They get nowhere.
These facts could have come straight out of a John Dickson Carr novel. Surprisingly, the master of locked murder mysteries didn’t fictionalise this one. The person who did is Ben Hecht. His short story, The Laundryman, appears in the collection ‘Actor’s Blood.’ As far as I can tell he is the only one to have used this particular crime, but fiction of this type abounds. My appetite having been whetted, so to speak, I did a bit of research and hardly needed to look beyond Wikipedia for a veritable feast of material. So much that this post can only scratch the surface of the surface.
It’s generally acknowledged that the first complete example of the genre is Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, published in 1841. In the following years others, such as Wilkie Collins, included elements but it wasn’t until 1892 that the seminal story made its entrance. The Big Bow Mystery, written by Israel Zangwill, introduces what is said to be the hallmark of every ‘locked room’ mystery. Namely, misdirection.
Since then, everyone from Conan Doyle to G.K. Chesterton to Agatha Christie has joined in. Even Enid Blyton. English writers, while prolific, didn’t have this field to themselves. There were many important French writers of the genre, among them Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac and Noel Vindry. The most prolific writer after the Golden Age was Akimitsu Tagaki, a Japanese. In modern times another Japanese writer, Soji Shimada carries on the tradition along with a French writer, Paul Halter.
So what really happened to poor Isidor Fink? One of the theories at the time was that Fink had been shot outside in the hallway but had managed to escape into the room and bolt the door. The medical examiner scotched that one, saying that his wounds were such that he would have died instantly, where he was shot. However, in 1942, a little more than ten years later, an article in Edinburgh’s police journal, written by the pathologist Sir Sidney Smith, recounts a case that may offer a solution. He tells of a suicide, who shot himself in the head, causing colossal damage, but who somehow managed to live for several hours, only dying after he had made his way from the scene of the shooting back into his own apartment. Perhaps that’s what happened to poor Theodore. Sadly we will never know.
I took loads of books out of the library to cover me over Christmas, and I still haven’t read them all. I’m very short of time this week, more so than usual, because my blog writing time has been taken up by a long letter to the Chairman of John Lewis – part complaint, part praise but that’s maybe for another time.
I thought I’d just do a quick list and even quicker reviews of my some of my recent reading. I originally set out to write about nine books, but am stopping at five as once again, I’m running out of time.
I’d been really looking forward to reading these first three books – I was thrilled to discover that there were some books by my favourite authors that I had yet to read.
Tigerlily’s Orchids – Ruth Rendell. One of my favourite authors, though I prefer her when she writes as Barbara Vine. This book is more Vine than Rendell, similar in that respect to The Keys to the Street, but that’s where the comparison ends. Some interesting characters but some I soon tired of. Overall it was disappointing, especially as the main premise was so obvious and easy to spot.
The Vault – Ruth Rendell. Much hyped and reviewed. Linked to her earlier novel A Sight for Sore Eyes. I knew I should have re-read that book first but, although I have nearly all the Rendell and Vine books, I couldn’t find it and was too impatient to wait. I don’t generally like the Wexford books; this was no exception. Since I couldn’t remember much about the first book, I spent the whole time wondering when I was going to be reminded of the earlier crime. That didn’t happen until the very end. I don’t know if that made it better or worse for someone who hadn’t read the first book.
Blue Monday – Nicci French. This was also much hyped but with justification. I love the fact that, like most of the French books, this one is set in London. At first the plot seemed fairly pedestrian – small boy goes missing and at the same time a psychiatrist is faced with a patient whose dreams seem to indicate some guilty knowledge. But the plot deepens. The characters are very well drawn. It’s difficult to end a book well, especially a mystery/detective/thriller. This one has the most wonderful twist in the tail, which makes for a great ending.
The next two authors were unknown to me although I don’t know how I missed Derby Day as it was on the Booker shortlist.
Derby Day – D.J. Taylor. Subtitled ‘A Victorian Mystery’ this lives up to the description in spades. The book feels authentic from page one. I could really put myself in the scene. D.J. Taylor brings the era alive, I really related to the characters and felt as if I would understand them as easily as I would someone living today. I haven’t even finished this book – I’m about three quarters of the way through and am just as engaged as I was at the beginning. From looking at the chapter headings I know there are still some surprises to come – and we haven’t even reached Derby Day yet.
Any Human Face – Charles Lambert. The late and much missed Beryl Bainbridge said ‘Charles Lambert is a seriously good writer.’ I totally agree. The book moves from the mid-80s to 2008 and back again, with a side step into the early 60s. Beautifully put together, each section revealing a little bit of the story, until they combine to show the links between apparently unrelated crimes. This is always a brave thing to do as the author must rely on the reader staying with it even though this may demand some patience. The setting is Rome, but a part of Rome the tourists don’t see, the seamy fringe of Rome’s gay scene. The characters are engaging especially the colourful and poignant Birdman.