The Hollow – Agatha Christie (1946)

TheHollowMy last encounter with Agatha Christie, Five Little Pigs (Murder in Retrospect), really stuck with me.  There was something that she captured between those pages that my mind couldn’t leave alone – the tragedy of it all.  It’s been several months, and yet my thoughts continually drift back to the characters, the setting, and paint drying on a canvas.

It’s a rare thing for me to really be impacted by a mystery book.  Christianna Brand has a certain knack for it – creating a cast of characters so richly painted that it becomes anguishing in the end when one of them is revealed to be a killer.  John Dickson Carr was less effective at it, but he had his moment with books like He Who Whispers and She Died a Lady – titles in which some element of the story pulls at the mind long after the book is set down.

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Time Lines – John Dickson Carr edition

With over 70 books under his belt, John Dickson Carr has a career as a GAD novelist that surpasses most of his peers.  Across the span of 42 years are littered a respectable number of classics, a handful of lowlights, and a whole slew of books you really should read if you enjoyed the classics.  Categorizing his work may seem simple on the surface – we have the first few books staring French detective Henri Bencolin (published under his own name), the Dr Gideon Fell novels (published under his own name), the Sir Henry Merrivale works (published as Carter Dickson), a handful of non-series works in a similar vein to the Fell/Merrivale stories, and a set of historical novels published between 1950 and the end of his career in 1972.

Or would you divide the work by quality?  Surely across the 70+ books there are highs and lows and various shades of in-betweens.  What are the better years in Carr’s portfolio?  Is there truly a drop off in quality towards the end?

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The Greek Coffin Mystery – Ellery Queen (1932)

TheGreekCoffinMystery3At long last, I’ve made it…I think.  I’ve survived the brutal intrigue-barren plains of the first three Ellery Queen novels with a grim determination to make it to an oasis – The Greek Coffin Mystery.  With the promise of a nearly unanimously regarded top five Ellery Queen novel, I’ve maintained a steady yet bleary eye on the horizon as I trudged through hundreds of pages of mind-numbingly detailed suspect interviews and crime scene searches.  Now that I’ve arrived at the goal, would it be a GAD paradise or merely a mirage?

I started my journey reading Queen in publishing-order with burning excitement.  Here was one of the big name golden age authors – a true master of the craft – with a library of almost forty novels to look forward to.  I’ll never forget those first few chapters of The Roman Hat Mystery.  Mesmerized by crime scene maps, dramatis personæ, and a false forward, I waded into the chaos of those exciting first few chapters as the New York police struggled to contain a crime scene in a crowded theatre.  It took a while, but as I slowly realized that I was going to have to sit through the police interviewing every damn person in the theatre, I found my startled eyes contemplating just how many pages there were in the book.

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The Invisible Circle – Paul Halter (1996)

InvisibleCircleThe ultimate locked room mystery set up – where to start?  Is it The Judas Window, with a room so perfectly sealed you couldn’t push a pin into it, much less the arrow lodged in the victim’s heart?  Perhaps it’s Clayton Rawson’s From Another World, in which a corpse is found alongside the knife that killed him in a room with all doors and windows sealed from the inside with tape?  Or is it The Plague Court Murders, with a man stabbed repeatedly in the back despite being locked in a secure stone hut surrounded by a field of untouched mud?

There’s almost a one-upmanship in some cases, with the author tasked with laying out a crime so thoroughly impossible that the reader is left with no avenue for an answer.  In the best cases, that answer comes in the form of a simplicity that you never thought to consider.  In the weaker ones, we get a solution so overly complex that it merely rings as a hollow justification for the puzzle.

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The Madman’s Room – Paul Halter (1990)

MadmansRoomThe idea that crimes of the distant past can haunt the present is easily my favorite plot device deployed by John Dickson Carr.  The author introduced this technique in the first Dr Gideon Fell novel, Hag’s Nook, in which multiple generations of male heirs to a rotting castle have died by a broken neck after participating in a secret ritual.  A year later, Carr introduced Henry Merrivale in The Plague Court Murders, and we’re treated to the ghost of an eighteenth century hangman’s assistant stabbing a man to death in a locked hut surrounded by a field of untouched mud.

Carr would return to these fertile grounds several times throughout his career.  His most famous example may be The Burning Court (1937), where the ghost of a seventeenth century poisoner strikes in the modern era.  The author even managed to inject intrigue into the meandering Dark of the Moon (1968) by introducing the mystery of how three men, centuries apart, were all bludgeoned to death despite being surrounded by expanses of untouched sand.

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Through a Glass, Darkly – Helen McCloy (1950)

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face

ThroughAGlassDarklyI first became aware of this title via Ed Hoch’s 1981 compilation of top impossible crime novels.  Sharing a spot alongside works like The Judas Window, Rim of the Pit, and Death From a Top Hat seems to speak volumes for a book.  Of course, that can be quite a reputation to live up to as well.

Through a Glass, Darkly is my first experience with Helen McCloy, although she’s on my radar for other much lauded titles such as A Cue for Murder and Mr Splitfoot.  This is the eight book with her series character Dr Basil Willing – a psychiatrist, not a detective.  Many reviewers consider it to be her masterpiece, although I’ve read a number of other reviews that consider several of her other works to be superior.

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Paul Halter – The Demon of Dartmoor (1993)

DemonOfDartmoorOn paper, Paul Halter seems to be custom tailored for me.  Locked rooms – check.  Vanishing footprints – check.  Multiple impossible crimes in a single book – triple check.  Regarded as a modern day John Dickson Carr, Halter follows in the master’s footsteps not just in the impossible crimes that he employs by the fistful, but in the dense atmosphere that permeated Carr’s earlier work.  Rooms that kill, crimes of the past haunting the present, disappearing alleys – these are the hooks on top of the puzzle that have drawn me into Carr’s work.  To have this all echoed by Halter in new and imaginative ways is almost too good to be true.

Of course, there are detractors.  Halter’s books are said to be thin on character, sparse on the prose, and mere cardboard dressing for his puzzles and tricks.  This is complicated by the fact that he writes only in French.  His titles available in English are translations, and it seems inevitable that nuances of the author’s voice would be lost in the process.

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