Malice Aforethought – Frances Iles (1930)

I’ve been meaning to get around to this book for years.  Malice Aforethought is probably the most consistent title to come up whenever inverted mysteries are discussed, and I had a feeling that I should get to it before I read too many books in that vein.  In part, I had gotten the impression that there may be some unique twist to this book that was later copied by others, although having now read this, I don’t think there’s really anything that spoilable.

Anthony Berkeley (here writing as Francis Iles) has been really enjoyable for me so far.  His characters have this delightful smug selfishness, and his wry observations through them tell as much about the thinker as they do about whoever the snarky thoughts are directed at.  It makes the stories a humorous read without ever veering in the direction of comedy.  Yeah, some of his characters are inevitably asses, but that’s the fun part.

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Turn of the Table – Jonathan Stagge (1940)

With the exception of Death’s Old Sweet Song, Jonathan Stagge novels are notoriously hard to find.  Tracking down a nice looking paperback is especially difficult, even more so if you try to purchase in my bargain bin price range.  Imagine my jealousy then when Brad from Ah Sweet Mystery mentioned to me that he’d snagged a copy of Turn of the Table for a mere nine dollars.  I hadn’t even recalled seeing Turn of the Table available, much less in a gorgeous Popular Library edition, and I swear I had just been hunting for Stagge a day or two before.  I was compelled to take another look, and imagine my delight when I found another copy of Turn of the Table for the same unbelievable price of nine dollars.  I snatched it up immediately.

What followed was immediate guilt/confusion, as it sank in that I may well have purchased the exact same copy that Brad had told me about.  That guilt was compounded a few days later when my copy arrived in the post, and Brad mentioned that his still hadn’t come.  Yeah… I stole this book for him by some quirk of the online shopping cart…

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The 8 Mansion Murders – Takemaru Abiko (1989)

I have this whole stack of Japanese locked room mysteries published by the likes of Locked Room International and Pushkin Vertigo, and it’s a wonder that I’m not burning through them.  I manage to abstain though, because – like a Paul Halter novel – the honkaku mysteries I’ve encountered are impossible crime on steroids, and I like to space them out so I can savor them between less sure-fire reads.  When dealing with a title brought forward by Locked Room International in particular, you know you’re going to get something crazy – mind boggling impossibilities, a high body count, and some sort of unique hook.

In some ways then, The 8 Mansion Murders might be the most conventional mystery of this sort.  We have a fairly straight forward murder – a man shot with a crossbow, with both the killer and victim in full view of two witnesses – followed by a detective interviewing a closed circle of suspects one by one until they’re all gathered together to expose the killer.  Set that in an English country house in 1935 and you have your traditional Golden Age mystery.  It’s that traditional setup though that makes The 8 Mansion Murders so delightful, and we’re able to see what author Takemaru Abiko is able to paint within such confines.

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Deadly Hall – John Dickson Carr (1971)

Deadly Hall was John Dickson Carr’s second to last novel and its reputation is best captured by a nickname I’ve seen thrown around online: Deadly Dull.  And yet, for all of the joking, I’ve seen few actual reviews.  There are several Carr novels with seemingly rotten reputations that I’ve really really enjoyed – The Problem of the Wire Cage and Below Suspicion being prime examples – and so I try not to let the negative comments jade me too much.  The year that the book was published on the other hand…

Carr’s last great mystery was probably The Nine Wrong Answers in 1952.  You’ll see people sling mud at Patrick Butler for the Defense (1956), but it’s an enjoyable read; the solution to the impossible crime is just disappointing.  The real descent for Carr’s mysteries began in 1958 with The Dead Man’s Knock and lasted for his remaining contemporary mysteries featuring series detective Dr Gideon Fell.  In parallel, Carr was still publishing fine work in the historical mystery vein (heavy on historical and a bit light on mystery), but even that plunged in quality starting with Papa La Bas in 1968.  The historical work became plagued by the same malady that had inflicted the late contemporary work: meandering stories that focus on everything but the core mystery; characters going on and on about some vague danger without ever simply describing what they’re worried about; every ounce of dialog unnecessarily playing out as a tense shouting match.

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Towards Zero – Agatha Christie (1944)

As much as I enjoy reading Agatha Christie, I’ve had the unfortunate luck of seeing through a number of her solutions.  I’m going to guess that I have about a 50% success rate, which is nothing to brag about since when I reach the end of a mystery novel I really want to feel thoroughly fooled – or as Scott K Ratner more eloquently puts it, I want to experience “sudden retrospective illumination”.  I’m happy to report that Towards Zero did indeed give me that sudden retrospective illumination, although honestly Christie’s books are fun enough reads that I enjoy them either way.

I’ve had Towards Zero on my radar as one of the better Christies – perhaps as a result of some helpful comments on my past reviews – although honestly I could be mixing it up with another title.  I’ve had a dreadful 1972 Pocket Books edition on my shelf for years (honestly, who knew that the cover quality of Pocket Books dropped so severely; see pic further below), and when I stumbled upon an inexpensive 1963 edition with a proper cover, I had to snatch it up.  And of course, I couldn’t leave a cover that nice unread for long.

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Cat of Many Tails – Ellery Queen (1949)

Well, I just spent six weeks reading this book…  Granted, I had a few camping trips mixed in there, but this was a story that I struggled to engage with, and subsequently I didn’t make the time to plow through it.  Which is a bit surprising, as Cat of Many Tails seems to be widely regarded as one of Ellery Queen’s five best novels… if not his very best.  Indeed, my 1965 Bantam Books edition is part of a “World’s Great Novels of Detection” series hand selected by none other than Anthony Boucher.

Queen for me has been… well, I was going to say “hit or miss”, but I don’t know that he’s ever really hit.  There are some decent reads in there: The Tragedy of Y (1932) is the closest thing that we get to a hit, with a total sucker punch of an ending even if you see it coming; Calamity Town (1942) is an excellent read with a somewhat obvious mystery; The Murderer is a Fox (1945) follows with a similar quality, although it may feature one of the most disappointing solutions of all time; The Four of Hearts (1938) is a weird Hollywood leaning piece that featured some fine misdirection.  Mostly though the books have been incredibly dull.

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The Madrone Tree – David Duncan (1949)

“I told you that the solution to a mystery is always prosaic and never as enjoyable as the mystery itself” states author David Duncan through his bizarre amateur detective Bleeker Twist in the final pages of The Madrone Tree.  And while those words may hold some truth in the genre of Golden Age detective fiction, they’re oddly out of place in this book.  Quite the opposite in fact.  Despite the story revolving around the question of who committed a murder – in this case a man bludgeoned to death in a haunted forest – the book never feels like a true mystery.  And that’s a pity, because when the solution comes it’s somewhat of a whopper, but a whopper that would have hit a lot harder if you realized what the puzzle was supposed to be in the first place.

You should (but probably don’t) recognize David Duncan as the author of The Shade of Time; a criminally hard to come by impossible crime novel.  The Shade of Time suffers from the exact opposite problem of The Madrone Tree, offering up what is one of the best mysteries that I’ve read, only to crumble when it comes to the conclusion.  I read the book a mere six months ago, and while I remember nearly every moment of the story, I really have to stop and think in order to recall how it ended.

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Darkness at Pemberley – T.H. White(1932)

Man, I did not know what I was getting into with this book.  Darkness at Pemberley made the footnotes section of Roland Lacourbe’s 2007 list of top locked room mysteries, having received at least four votes, but being disqualified for not having been translated into French. And so it’s natural that I went into it looking for a locked room mystery, right?  I ended up with something completely different.

The story starts off with what appears to be the setup for an impossible crime: a professor seemingly having committed suicide in his locked apartment after shooting a student in a nearby dormitory.  There’s enough incongruities at the crime scene that police suspect foul play, yet it doesn’t seem possible that anyone else was involved. We soon learn though that the locks on the doors of the building are of the ancient variety, and a key for one door could well open the lock for another.  That evaporates the whole locked room mystery angle, which is a bit of a pity because we get two maps of the crime scene.  More so, the solution to the murders involves some complex shenanigans worthy of an impossible crime, although more appropriate for the short story variety.

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A Dying Fall – Henry Wade (1955)

There’s really nothing at all that interests me about horse races, nor am I that interested in horses.  Credit to Henry Wade then for writing an entire novel deeply entrenched in all things horse, yet somehow leaving me lapping up every page.  Now, I knew that Wade was a talented writer; his Heir Presumptive was a highlight read of 2020, and the murder scene in that story stands out as one of the most visceral experiences that I’ve read to date.  So perhaps it isn’t surprising that A Dying Fall hit the spot for me, horses and all.

A Dying Fall is a mystery in a strange way.  It’s kind of an inverted mystery, with police pursuing horse trainer Charles Rathlyn for the murder of his extremely wealthy wife, except that we don’t really know if he’s guilty.  In experiencing the story through his eyes we know that he had a conflictingly-compelling motive for killing her, but we don’t quite know if he took advantage of her occasional sleep walking and pushed her over a bannister.  The police force are split between whether it was all an accident or murder, and one detective in particular hounds Rathlyn relentlessly.

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Bodies in a Bookshop – RT Campbell (1946)

It seems that this will be the second installment of my “I thought that this was a locked room mystery, but was mistaken” series.  I read this entire book thinking that it was featured on the Roland Lacourbe list of top impossible crimes, and was a bit stumped about how this could be considered a locked room mystery.  In hindsight, I believe that I bought this book around the same time that I acquired T.H. White’s Darkness at Pemberley (which is featured on the list), the books sat together on my TBR pile, and over time my mind got mixed up.

Bodies in a Bookshop does actually feature a murder in a locked room, but eschewing impossible crime tradition, the room is locked from the outside.  Two men are found dead in the backroom of a bookshop, having succumbed to a leak from a faulty gas ring.  There’s a bit of a question as to why the men didn’t simply open a window, and foul play is somewhat obvious given that the office door was latched from the outside.

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