The Sleeping Sphinx – John Dickson Carr (1947)

sleepingsphinx“The sand, the lock, and the sleeping sphinx”

I went into The Sleeping Sphinx knowing very little.  It’s not a famous work within Carr’s library, but it’s positioned at an interesting spot in his timeline.  The previous two Dr Gideon Fell novels – Till Death Do Us Part (1944) and He Who Whispers (1946) – are considered by most Carr fans to be among the author’s best work.  The next entry in the series – Below Suspicion (1949) – is criminally under-rated in my opinion.  Given the strength of this run, I was curious to see what The Sleeping Sphinx would hold.

Don Holden returns from WWII under unusual circumstances.  Involved in espionage during and after the war, he was sent on an assassination mission in Italy and declared dead as part of his cover.  He returns to a home that thinks he ceased to exist.  The beginning of the story is fairly engrossing as we watch Holden reunite with his old life and attempt to rekindle a relationship put on pause for seven years by the war.

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The Crimson Fog – Paul Halter (1988)

CrimsonFogI’ve purposely avoided reading anything about The Crimson Fog up to this point.  A post by The Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel warned that it was difficult to discuss without spoilers, and I’ve noticed that many posters only talk about the novel in the vaguest of terms.  Well, I appreciate the discretion – nothing is worse than having an entire novel semi-spoiled for you by an innocent discussion that reveals more than intended.

That’s the tricky thing about writing about GAD mysteries – communicating how a book impacted you without accidentally giving things away.  After finishing a book it can be so tempting to draw an analogy to the solution – “it’s similar to A Murder is Announced”, “it reminded me of the solution to The Emperor’s Snuff Box”, “reminiscent of Crooked House”…these are all statements that would immediately clue a reader in to what to look out for.  Even worse is when someone comments that the author hoodwinks you within the first page or chapter, because, well, now you’re going to second guess everything that happens in that small passage.

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The Devil Drives – Virgil Markham (1932)

DevilDrivesThis is a book that I’ve been dying to get to for a while now.  First, it’s featured in John Pugmire’s list of 99 key locked room novels.  Second, reliable impossible crime enthusiast JJ at The Invisible Event posted a review raving about the book despite declaring it contrary to his usual mystery standards.  The real reason though that I’ve been excited about The Devil Drives is the physical copy I got hold of – a 1944 Bartholomew House edition.

I’ve never had a Bart before, but this one is gorgeous.  The feel of the cover is almost that of a well worn leather baseball mitt.  The pages are of WW2 regulation paper-saving stock – so soft to the touch that they feel like they were printed on the skin of a lamb who lived its entire short little life in a bath of warm olive oil.  I have a dozen or so other books of similar vintage (all Pocket Books and nearly all Ellery Queens), but my copy of The Devil Drives is unsurpassed in the experience of simply holding it.

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Calamity Town – Ellery Queen (1942)

CalamityTownBefore I ever started actually reading Ellery Queen, I had read a lot about him.  Err…them…and him?  If you’re reading this then you’re likely aware that “Ellery Queen” refers to both the detective character and the pseudonym used by the Dannay/Lee cousins who wrote the series.  And quite a series it was, stretching well over 30 novels.  Two of my favorite blogs – Noah’s Archive and Ah Sweet Mystery – have excellent posts breaking that career down into a set of periods.  From the very beginning, the third period – Wrightsville – has stood out as a destination I very much wanted to get too.

My experience with Ellery Queen hasn’t exactly been great so far.  The first period books were dry slogs.  I dragged myself through four of them before abandoning my mission to read the series in order.  I skipped ahead to the so called Hollywood period, and had much better luck with The Four of Hearts, even if it did feel a little…well, Hollywood.

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Love Lies Bleeding – Edmund Crispin (1948)

LoveLiesBleedingA while back I got awfully excited about Edmund Crispin.  I had read a number of reviews of his books and determined that this was an author I wanted to read.  A few bulk purchases later and I had most of his catalogue on my shelf.  My original intention was to start with the well regarded Swan Song, but instead I elected to go with his most famous book – The Moving Toyshop.

Although it was an enjoyable read, I didn’t quite get what the fuss was about.  And who knows, maybe there wasn’t really any fuss to begin with.  The Moving Toyshop was a fine book – clever, well paced, and overall fun.  It just never quite delivered in the mystery department in the way that I was hoping.

For my second encounter with Crispin, I decided to go with Love Lies Bleeding.  For one, it seems to be regarded as one of his stronger books.  For two… well, there’s just something fascinating about the title.

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The Punch and Judy Murders – John Dickson Carr (1936)

PunchAndJudy2The Magic Lantern Murders

When I first started reading John Dickson Carr, I leaned heavily on the top tier titles.  Part of that was intentional – wanting to read the best while first exploring an author – and part of it was the dumb luck of stumbling on a few not-as-renowned titles simply because they were readily at hand.  The consequence though was that I burned through nearly all of the early Henry Merrivale books published prior to 1940.  As I would later come to realize, this run of Carr’s novels features his most over the top impossibilities.

Each of the early Merrivale titles (published under the pseudonym Carter Dickson) stands out for an outlandish puzzle.  A man stabbed to death in a locked hut surrounded by untouched mud (The Plague Court Murders); a woman found dead surrounded by untouched snow (The White Priory Murders); a room that kills anyone who spends the night inside (The Red Widow Murders); a man stabbed by an invisible force in plain view of multiple witnesses (The Unicorn Murders).  These are simply the first four plots in a nine book run.  Not only is Carr delivering some of his best impossibilities, but his books pack a brilliant pace and some of his best writing.

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Cat and Mouse – Christianna Brand (1950)

CatAndMouseCat and Mouse is a bit of an off the radar Christianna Brand novel from what I’ve seen.  Most reviews focus entirely on the well know Inspector Cockrill series – Heads You Lose, Green for Danger, Suddenly at His Residence, Death of Jezebel, Fog of Doubt, and Tour de Force – with the occasional review of Death in High Heels (one of Brand’s first novels).  That’s odd to me, since 1. Everything I’ve read by Christianna Brand so far is an absolute classic  2. Brand wrote more than an equal number of non-Cockrill mystery novels.

So what’s the deal?  Why do people only talk about the Cockrill novels?  Are the rest garbage or have they simply been less obtainable?  I’ve started to explore that question already with my review of Alas, For Her That Met Me! (published under the name of Mary Ann Ashe).  While I wouldn’t categorize that novel as a traditional mystery, it had enough of the elements that I think fans of at least John Dickson Carr’s historical mysteries would appreciate.

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