I remember someone posting a comment that they’d picked up a copy of Death of Jezebel “the other day” for a mere $6, and in hindsight that was a definite hilarious troll. But that comment fueled me for the better part of four years, lighting the fire that I would obtain this book for $10… or $20… or at least an outrageous to me $25, for which I would gladly pay. Alas, a year after passing up a $70 copy, and with eyes glazed over and mind jaded by one too many a $395 copy, I sucked it up and put down eighty-some – approximately seven-times what I’ve ever paid for any mystery novel – and here we are.
That Death of Jezebel isn’t widely available for an affordable price is simply mind boggling. Yes, someone should get a $17 reprint out there immediately, but why aren’t there a dozen editions readily available on the second hand market to select from spanning the fifties through at least the nineties? Christianna Brand is one of the true masters of the Golden Age, and in a sense, she’s the one that got away – publishing less than a dozen mysteries, yet with each rivaling the best by any other author. That her library isn’t more widely accessible is beyond reason, but what’s even more bewildering is how Death of Jezebel – acknowledged by many to be one of the best impossible crime novels of all time – is next to impossible to find for less than three figures. You’d think that some enterprising publisher would say “hmm, you know that book that everyone desperately wants to read, but costs an arm on a leg on the second hand market? I wonder if there’s money to be made there instead of republishing Lee Thayer’s catalog?”
Whenever anyone makes a comment about the worst of John Dickson Carr’s books featuring detective Henry Merrivale, you’re pretty much guaranteed that Behind the Crimson Blind is going to get a mention. At this stage in Carr’s career, he was just breaking ground on an excellent run of historical mysteries, but he’d already abandoned series detective Dr Fell, and his novels featuring Merrivale were in a nose dive. Bookended by Night at the Mocking Widow (1950) and The Cavalier’s Cup (1953), I had a good idea of what to expect: a severe drop in the quality of the mystery, with the stories instead focusing on slapstick antics of a once great detective.
While my suspicions were semi-correct, Behind the Crimson Blind is a much better book than I anticipated it would be – although I’m going to have to qualify that statement. Lop off a 60 page section roughly midway through the book, and this would be a good read by most authors standards. It still would only be a shadow of Carr’s best – my closest comparison being maybe The Curse of the Bronze Lamp – but he’s also doing something significantly different.
I’ve hit a point with a well known mystery where I just don’t have any enthusiasm to go on. I might get back to it in a few weeks, but in the mean time, where to go? Why, Paul Halter of course. Even when they don’t completely pan out, Halter’s stories are a mad flurry of impossible crimes and brave ideas; just the kind of jolt that I need. In fact, I’ve been dabbling a bit with his short stories in between bouts of my more tepid read, and tales like Jacob’s Ladder and The Cleaver have been that perfect mix of creativity and shock that I’ve been lacking.
My next Halter was meant to be The Phantom Passage, but I decided to go all in with The Seven Wonders of Crime. Based on the reviews that I’ve read, this isn’t his best book – far from it, it would seem – but the whole set up is so out of this world that I just had to go for it: a serial killer creating a criminal masterpiece with seven impossible murders. Just do that math on that. We’ll get seven impossible setups, along with seven solutions. For a book running 180 pages, that lets us average about 12 pages between either a crime or a solution. Of course, we have to assume those solutions might get packed together into a 30 page denouement, which leaves us with 150 pages for seven crimes, which is still a pretty good run rate of 20 pages between crimes.
When Coachwhip Publications reprinted The Owner Lies Dead in 2017, it was definitely one of the Golden Age reprints receiving a lot of buzz at the time. The reviews full on caught my attention, promising a rare mine-set mystery combined with a vexing impossible crime. It made my Christmas wish list that year, and has inexplicably sat unread ever since.
Well, not that I haven’t tried to read it. I’ve taken several trips through the southwest United States since obtaining this book, and each time, The Owner Lies Dead has traveled with me. Through legendary old mining towns like Silverton, Ouray, Durango, Telluride, and Idaho Springs, the book has jostled along. Of course I have this bad habit of always packing two books too many when I travel (wouldn’t want to get stuck dry), and somehow I never got around to reading it. I’ve even driven past Genesee, Colorado (where the Coachwhip publication states the book is set) multiple times with the book tagging along with me (Genesee is located just outside of Denver near Red Rocks amphitheater – you’ll inevitably unknowingly drive past it if you’re ever in Colorado to ski). While the book does take place in a mining town named Genesee, I’m not convinced that the town is supposed to be set in Colorado (although author Tyline Perry was a resident of the mountain state), because at several points in the story, it seems to be implied that New York City is relatively close by.
I’ve been enjoying the enthusiasm displayed for the work of R Austin Freeman by JJ over at The Invisible Event, and when I stumbled upon a cheap set of Freeman paperbacks by Avon and Popular Library, I snatched them up immediately. I was tempted still to seek out The Singing Bone (which seems to be Freeman’s most heralded story collection), nearly dropping $10 on a mediocre-covered edition. Thank goodness I passed it up though: out of the five books I’d collected, I somewhat randomly decided to start my Freeman reading with The Adventures of Dr Thorndyke. Flipping open the cover of my Popular Library edition,I was astonished to learn that it was actually the US title for The Singing Bone.
The Adventures of Dr Thorndyke features five short stories, each divided into two halves. In the first half of each, we get an inverted mystery set up, showing how some soul was led down a dark path to murder, and their subsequent steps to avoid detection. In the second half, the story completely shifts perspective, and we watch as series detective Dr Thorndyke applies scientific principles to uncover the truth. In a sense, we’re really treated to ten short stories – five tales of villainy and five tales of detection (ok, so the final story The Old Lag doesn’t quite fit the mold).
I can’t for the life of me remember where I got it into my mind that Margery Allingham’s Death of a Ghost is an impossible crime novel. Well, I kind of remember; I stumbled upon some blog a few months ago which contained a list of maybe 50 top mysteries featuring an impossibility (a blog that I frustratingly can’t find anymore). There were many of the titles that you expect to see, but also maybe 10 I had never heard of. I started buying these books left and right, and in the middle of that buying binge, I guess I also read a compelling review of Death of a Ghost over at Dead Yesterday; compelling enough to order it. By the time all of the books arrived in the post, my mind was kind of fixated on the impossible crime splurge, and I guess I forgot there was another title mixed in there…
So here’s my review of “a semi-obscure impossible crime”, although there is no impossibility, and I don’t know that Margery Allingham exactly qualifies as obscure. I haven’t read Allingham before, yet her name is familiar enough that I think even non-mystery readers recognize it as being associated with the genre. Knowing that she has a fairly large library, I was curious to see what I’d get.
Six heirs to a massive fortune gather in a small Pennsylvania town for a reading of the will and to learn their stake. The strange thing is, none of them know the benefactor, despite all sharing his last name. And, as it turns out, this is one of those wills where the money gets evenly divided among the heirs who are still living…
Not that atypical of a set up for a Golden Age mystery, but Zelda Popkin throws in the curve ball of a town beset by a rising flood. The heirs soon find themselves trapped in a mansion quickly filling up with water, without any power or a means to contact rescuers. Oh yeah – an oil tank has released a spill, and a blazing slick is headed their way…
I can’t think of a book that would be more difficult to give my opinion on than this one. Well, maybe one aspect is clear cut: The Red Right Hand is a smashing success and I can’t imagine a reader not gobbling up the final dozen or so pages. Hands down, you should absolutely read this book.
But it gets muddy in discussing exactly why it’s a success, and it’s even trickier to discuss the shortcomings. I’ve had enough books spoiled for me by ham handed reviews or the accompanying comments, and I’d hate to do that to you. So, if you haven’t read this, here’s my attempt at a sensitive blurb.
Man, when I came across a Popular Library paperback edition of Cottage Sinister by Q Patrick for a mere eight bucks… straight to the top of the pile. This is the first published novel by the writing collective known as Q Patrick, Patrick Quentin, and Jonathan Stagge (in this case, the early incarnation made up of Richard Webb and Martha Kelley). I’ve read one book published under each name up to now, and it was only 1939’s Q Patrick offering of Death and the Maiden that actually left me spinning. Now I rewind eight years to the first Q Patrick title – Cottage Sinister.
I’ll admit it, I was a bit thrown at first. All of the Patrick Quentin (as the collective is most commonly known) novels I’ve read up to this point have been set in the US and are thoroughly what I’d consider US Golden Age mysteries. The UK cottage setting of Cottage Sinister caught me off guard, and there was a clumsiness to the presentation of English village mystery tropes. Had these people ever actually even been to England?
A man wakes up from a drugged stupor to the sound of incessant pounding at the door. He finds himself inside a room thoroughly locked from the inside, accompanied by a deceased occupant stabbed through the heart. No, this isn’t a review of John Dickson Carr’s The Judas Window, but like me, you may find yourself curious to see what another author could do with the same premise.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been intrigued by a Carr copy cat. The Five Matchboxes by John Russell Fearn duplicates the setup of Carr’s classic The Ten Teacups, although aside from the significance of the matchboxes, I can’t remember much of that one. It’s a tall order to attempt to play off of one of the best in the business – I mean, is Hugh Holman actually going to provide a solution to the problem that’s better than The Judas Window?