There are plenty of mystery novels that start strong. I’ll write you a whole post on the first sentence of Rim of the Pit or The Red Right Hand if you want. Those are perfect opening sentences, and the paragraphs that follow them are fine as well. There are also books with storming opening chapters; see the suffocatingly impossible hellscape we’re confronted with in chapter one of The Judas Window.
Rewind to 2017 and Golden Age mystery fans were abuzz about finally getting their hands on Murder Among the Angells; a revered classic in Japan that somehow wallowed in obscurity throughout the rest of the world. And what’s not to get excited about? A mansion with a unique floor plan, nine maps, a bizarre will, and an impossible crime to top it all off. I was pumped to read it, and so I immediately purchased it, and then let it rot in my TBR pile for nearly six years.
Well, that last part is because I always lose track of stories in these multi-novel collections, and Murder Among the Angells comes in the form of a twofer from Coachwhip Publications alongside Cat’s Paw. Due to stacking issues, I end up stashing these bigger books somewhere else and then forget I have them. Anyways, I finally got around to reading Cat’s Paw last year, and I’ve been eager to get back to Roger Scarlett ever since.
I previously covered what I consider to be the first period of John Dickson Carr’s Sir Henry Merrivale mysteries. These novels, published from 1934-1940 lean hard into impossible crimes, which distinguishes them from Carr’s Dr Gideon Fell novels from the time. The focus on impossible crimes is also a dividing factor between the first two periods of the Merrivale novels, and we’ll cover the second period here.
Carr published 22 Merrivale novels over a 19 year span, beginning with The Plague Court Murders in 1934 and finishing with The Cavalier’s Cup in 1953. My split between the era’s of the Merrivale novels takes place in 1940, which coincidentally divides these into two equal groups of 11. The latter 11 novels differ from the first 11 in terms of the focus on impossible crimes, as well as the role of humor in the novels. The first 11 novels are all about the impossible crime (with a few exceptions already covered), whereas impossibilities play a middling role in this second half. The novels also take a step down in quality. Before getting into that, let’s first take a look at the books that make up this second phase.
I knew it would happen. I knew that if I kept reading these Patrick Quentin novels I’d find another that I’d enjoy. Because when they’re good, they’re good. Nothing amazing, to be clear, but I’ve read two that I’d enthusiastically recommend Unfortunately, that’s two out of seven so far by the writing collective that published under the Q Patrick/Jonathan Stagge/Patrick Quentin aliases. Never outright bad, mind you, but kind of shallow and uninspired; your run of the mill American mysteries of the time. And so I’ve plodded along, knocking off one or two a year, and over time I grow a little less enthusiastic. But no more, the enthusiasm is back.
SS Murder is a solid ocean cruise mystery, finding reporter Mary Llewellyn recovering from appendicitis onboard an ocean liner bound for Rio de Janiero (sea air does you good, yada yada yada). She immediately kicks off a journal, with the intent to send daily entries to her fiancé once the ship reaches a midway stop at Georgetown, Guyana (which would have been British Guiana at the time). The story is told purely in the form of these journal entries, and we’ve barely become acquainted with the first class passengers before murder strikes. During a game of bridge, a wealthy construction magnate falls victim to strychnine poisoning. Shades of Christie’s Cards on the Table (published three years later) abound: a number of spectators have come and gone over the course of the bridge game, and there’s the question of who had the opportunity to plant the poison in the deceased’s drink. Mary’s notes also capture some inexplicably clumsy plays (diagrams included), and we barely need a “had I but known” nudge to realize that they’ll play a key role in the solution.
The Judas Window. The White Priory Murders. The Ten Teacups. The Red Widow Murders. Nine, and Death Makes Ten. Five heavy hitters that trump the best of most any other mystery writer’s library. John Dickson Carr published these all in his first decade, and the one hand tied behind his back is that these are just a selection of the Sir Henry Merrivale mysteries from the time period; I’m not even looking at the equally (if not more) revered Dr Gideon Fell series. Carr had a career that spanned five decades (granted most output came during the first three), but it’s the 30s where he’s swinging fast and landing his punches. While his alternate detective Dr Gideon Fell will always remain my favorite, I hold that Carr’s best streak came in the first stretch of eleven Henry Merivale mysteries that constitute the era we’ll cover here.
Carr opened his career with four Henri Bencolin novels before releasing two standalone mysteries: Poison in Jest and The Bowstring Murders. That brief exploration forked into the Fell and Merrivale series, with two Fell novels being released in 1933 before introducing Sir Henry Merivale in 1934. After that, both series took off like rockets, with Carr releasing two books from each in most years up until 1941. At that point, the pace slowed a bit, but we’re still talking a novel per year in each series for the most part.
James Ronald published six novels under the name of Michael Crombie between 1934 and 1936, before reviving the alias for one last go with The Frightened Girl in 1941. I’m going with the last one first since the rest of the Crombie titles are extremely difficult to find, and will cost you an arm and a leg even if you get lucky. Admittedly, The Frightened Girl will likely cost you a fortune as well, but I got lucky in my hunting and found a copy for below $10. Almost too good to be true…
The story opens with a “frightened girl” – Cecily Foster – spotted leaving the scene of a murder, and we view the story through sympathetic eyes that tell us that she wasn’t responsible. Amateur detective / professional crime reporter Julian Mendoza makes a similar observation of innocence and spends a few chapters throwing the police off her scent. The murder itself is nothing that interesting: Cecily clocked a frisky studio exec over the head and then fled the scene, and it appears someone else put a bullet in the man’s head before he came to. It’s one of those open ended mysteries where I find myself not really looking forward to the solution, as inevitably it will turn out that one of a dozen suspects just showed up and shot him.
Sometime last year I finished reading Double Double by Ellery Queen, and having thoroughly loathed it, promptly went out and bought two copies of the next entry in the Queen library: The Origin of Evil. I know that sounds stupid, but there’s a logic here. I’d made my way through the Queen novels in order starting with Calamity Town (1942) through Double Double (1950) – an attempted reading of the earlier 1929+ era Queen novels in order being aborted because they’re an absolute torture to read – and although I’m still not impressed, I might as well keep a streak going. Plus, the book after The Origin of Evil is The King is Dead (1952), which famously shows up on top impossible crime novel lists (which makes me interested to read it) despite reputable sources assuring me it is in no way an impossible crime (leading me to believe it will inevitably piss me off). Regardless, I’m going to read The King is Dead, so I might as well not leave a one book gap.
If that’s not reason enough for me go out and buy two copies of The Origin of Evil (I’m aware two thirds of you reading don’t agree that it is), check out the covers in this post. They’re not toppest of top tier Golden Age covers, but they’re damn good. The color, the detail, the well drawn hands (a lost art), the highlights; this is what I’m looking for in a vintage cover. You’ll notice that both covers feature a woman with dark hair wearing red in what turns out to be the same scene, and there’s actually a third book – a Pan edition – that features the exact same details, and I damn near bought it before I snapped out of it with the realization of “my god man, you’re about to spend $15 on three copies of a book that you’re 75% not going to enjoy”. So I kept it to $10.
I was absolutely shocked when I stumbled upon this Handi Books edition of Seven Men. I’d known that there was a 1980’s Starmont Facsimile edition of this obscure Theodore Roscoe novel, but all the copies I’d ever seen floated above my price point. Seven Men was originally published in the April 12, 1941 edition of Detective Fiction Weekly, and I had assumed that the Starmont version was the only actual novelization. But there it was – a Handi Books edition for an affordable price.
I’m a bit of a sucker for Handi Books, having collected a half dozen or so. The publisher specialized in mystery novels by extremely obscure authors; Cornell Woolrich and Anthony Gilbert being the most “famous” names that I’ve noted in their library. The few books that I’ve read are actually pretty awful, and I imagine Handi Books was going after some low hanging fruit when it came to publishing rights.
It’s a rare talent to sell a reader a mystery novel, and then lure them fifty pages in with such a blissful story that said reader finds themselves thinking “Oh, I hope nothing bad happens”. I’m not talking about building up a sense of dread, mind you, but rather creating such an enchanting world that you don’t want to see it shattered. And yet here I find myself relishing the tale of Anne Day – down on her luck and hopelessly jobless Londoner – suddenly presented with an all too good to be true head of household position at a dream country estate, and I’m a third of the way through the book wishing that an inevitable murder won’t disrupt her life. Everything is just going so right for Anne. Sure, the lady of the house suffers from a persecution complex and thinks her husband is trying to kill her, but Anne, with her charms, manages to smooth out even that situation.
Given that author Freeman Wills Crofts is so stereotyped as a writer of dull novels overly reliant on train schedules for even yet blander mysteries, it’s so funny that he wrote this. But then again, I already knew that Crofts is so unfairly stereotyped, as I’d witnessed the charm and humanity that seeps into stories like The Sea Mystery and Sir John Magill’s Last Journey. Yes, when series detective Inspector French gets down to work, he toils tirelessly and follows up on every whiff of a thread, but he enjoys life as he does it.
This isn’t the first time that I’ve accidentally read the wrong book. I intended to start out my reading of Seishi Yokomizo with The Honjin Murders, as I was fiending for a Japanese mystery with a puzzling impossible crime. I recalled hearing that the central puzzle of The Honjin Murders involved a crime scene with untouched snow, and you can’t blame me if I looked at the cover of The Inugami Curse, saw the body in the snow, and assumed I had the right book.
Well, I got a Japanese mystery, but I didn’t get an impossible crime. And I don’t know that I got quite the type of off the wall Japanese mystery that I’ve enjoyed with the likes of The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, Murder in the Crooked House, or Death in the House of Rain. Yes, The Inugami Curse boasts an engrossing story featuring four separate murders, but don’t expect an over the top element like you get with some of its honkaku brethren. Which is fine – most of the books that I read aren’t over the top, and I just had my expectations in the wrong place.