Ellery Queen – The Murderer is a Fox (1945)

MurdererIsAFox2Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town (1942) was a turning point for me with the author.  Up until then I had suffered through the early era works (1929-1932) with little to indicate why Queen is held in regard as a top author of the golden age.  The Four of Hearts had some promising bits, but besides that, Queen had been a desert of boredom.

Calamity Town was different.  The series shifted from NYC detective fiction heavy on investigative footwork to a cozy small town New England murder.  Gone were the heavy police procedurals, the dense chapters chronicling every last detail of the hunt for evidence.  Gone was the privileged son of Inspector Queen, smugly weaving teetering towers of filament-thin brittle logic to snare the killer.  In its place we got a slice of Americana that lived and breathed.  Wrightsville, a town that was brought to life by its own citizens.  A town where as a reader you got to know the butcher, not because he could provide evidence relating to the story’s crime, but because he was part of the fabric of the community.  The characters actually live lives and carry out actions that aren’t directly related to the mystery, and the story benefits from it.

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The Moai Island Puzzle – Alice Arisugawa (1989)

MoaiIslandPuzzleThe Moai Island Puzzle is my first foray into honkaku – Japanese puzzle mysteries steeped in the style of the classics of the golden age.  Thanks to Locked Room International, a handful or so are available in English translation, and I’ve had a number kicking around my To Be Read pile for a while.  That I finally read one was on a bit of a whim.  I was looking for an off the wall impossible crime, which naturally meant reaching for a Paul Halter.  I remembered though that JJ at the Invisible Event had ranked The Moai Island Puzzle as his favorite release by Locked Room International, so I decided to go for a new angle.

The book is absolutely loaded with puzzles, with chapter names suggestive of the type of problem within – Locked Room Puzzle, Bicycle Puzzle, Moai Puzzle, Suicide Puzzle, Jigsaw Puzzle…  If you’re a fan of impossible crime fiction because you’re drawn in by the promise of a mystery that’s going to get your mind working, this one’s definitely for you.  Better yet, the novel is fashioned very much in the fashion of a 1930s GAD novel.  We start out with a map and a list of dramatis personae, then end with a challenge to the reader before the denouement.  Very Ellery Queen-esque, at least in the early sense, although I’ll argue much more successful.

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The Secret Adversary – Agatha Christie (1922)

SecretAdversarySix months after I started my quest to read Christie’s first decade in order of release, I’m finally on to the second book.  I know, I know, hold your applause, it’s quite an accomplishment.  I actually had quite a bit of enthusiasm coming out of The Mysterious Affair at Styles and then I somehow squandered it with other reading.  Heading back in, it struck me that there are two paths I could take – proceed in complete chronological order, or take a Hercule Poirot focused route, moving on to The Murder on the Links.  I elected to go full chronological, as understanding the breadth of Christie’s early work might allow me to better appreciate how each book fell into place.

As a recap, my initial motive for reading Christie’s early works in order was based on an assumption that they weren’t going to be that good.  Time and again, I’ve seen comments suggesting that aside from The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the first decade is mostly forgettable mysteries, or even worse, thrillers involving villainous syndicates.  My thought was that I might as well take the decade in order as it could lend some added appreciation to the books, rather than hen pecking them at random along with the rest of Christie’s catalog.

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Puzzle for Players – Patrick Quentin (1938)

PuzzleForPlayersMy most recent experience with the writing collective most commonly known as Patrick Quentin was with Death and the Maiden.  What felt like breezy fair while I read it ended up packing a major punch in the end, which scores points in my book.  Since that time I’ve built up my Quentin collection a bit, mostly in the Peter Duluth series books that the authors seem to be best known for.

I somehow got it into my mind that Puzzle for Players is one of the better regarded Duluth novels, and so I decided to start there.  It was somewhat of a questionable choice, as I’ve gotten the sense that the Duluth series has quite a bit of continuity between books, and I haven’t yet read the first entry – Puzzle for Fools.  Did I make a mistake?  Perhaps – I could quickly tell that at least five characters were potential hold overs from that first novel, which I suppose would rule them out as being killers in the original mystery.  Don’t worry – I’m not big at listing character names in my posts anyway, so no risk of spoilers here.

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Death from a Top Hat – Clayton Rawson (1938)

DeathFromATopHatClayton Rawson was a real life magician, and he imbued his debut novel with seemingly every trick up his sleeve.  The set up of Death from a Top Hat is an impossible crime lover’s dream – multiple locked room murders, a “no footprints in the snow” crime scene, and a suspect who vanishes into thin air.  It’s no wonder that this book made position number seven on Ed Hoch’s famed 1981 list of top impossible crime novels.

We encounter the first puzzle – a locked room murder – within mere pages.  A magician is found strangled to death inside his apartment, his body spread out over the form of a pentagram.  Occult objects litter the room, but the real strangeness lies in how sealed down the crime scene is.  Both doors to the apartment are locked and bolted from within.  Scraps of handkerchief have been pushed into each keyhole – from the inside.  A couch is pressed up tightly against one door.  All windows are secured and show no sign of being tampered with.

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The Devil in Velvet – John Dickson Carr (1951)

devilinvelvetLet me get this out of the way really quick so that you can decide if you want to read further.  The Devil in Velvet is not a mystery novel.  Yeah, it kind of features the puzzle of a semi-impossible poisoning, but that’s merely a backdrop to a book that must have captured every last passion of late career John Dickson Carr’s infatuation with history.  Why read further?  The Devil in Velvet is often cited as one of Carr’s best historical mysteries (which I’ll refute), and understanding what the author was aiming for provides an interesting insight into his wider career.

Carr spent the last two decades of his career focusing primarily on historical mysteries.  The most well regarded, published between The Bride of Newgate (1950) and The Demoniacs (1962) were swashbuckling affairs – light on Carr’s trademark impossible crimes, but heavy on adventure and sword play.  I’ll admit that the description doesn’t appeal to me on the surface, but just read Fire, Burn or Captain Cut Throat, and I think most golden age mystery fans will find themselves turned on to a type of novel that they didn’t know they wanted.

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The Case of the Seven Sneezes – Anthony Boucher (1942)

CaseOfSevenSneezesYou’re always looking for that next best thing, right?  That next John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie, Christianna Brand, or pick your poison.  The author that delivered not just one or two mysteries that knocked you over, but enough of them that you could gorge on the wealth of their library.

Lord knows we put them through their paces.  A puzzle that both captures and confounds the imagination.  A solution at once complex and yet mind numbingly simple.  To top it off, you have to back that all with enough story and character to make it feel worth something.

The author on my radar since last summer has been Anthony Boucher.  I got hooked with his most famous novel, Nine Times Nine, as I can imagine many a reader has.  As a send up to John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man, it is a locked room mystery for locked room mystery aficionados.  My second read with Boucher is what really got me addicted.  The Case of the Solid Key is just as solid of an impossible crime as Nine Times Nine, plus it features a “why didn’t I think of that?” forehead slapping solution.  What sealed it though for me was that both novels read really well – almost like an American version of John Dickson Carr.  Err… well, Carr was American, but you know what I mean.

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