Cue for Murder – Helen McCloy (1942)

CueForMurderMy first encounter with Helen McCloy was through the highly touted Through a Glass, Darkly.  The story may be most well known for making position #12 in Ed Hoch’s 1981 collaborative list of top impossible crime novels.  I personally didn’t see what justified that ranking, as I can think of 12 novels by John Dickson Carr alone that I’d rank ahead of it.  I’ll concede that if you’re looking to create a list diverse in both author and types of impossibility, the novel is worth noting.

For my second McCloy, I decided to jump to another of her better regarded novels – Cue for Murder.  I spent a long time holding out for the Dell map back edition of this book, but finally succumbed to a well priced 1965 copy by Bantam Books.

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The Skeleton in the Clock – Carter Dickson (1948)

skeletonintheclockHow on earth was The Skeleton in the Clock not on my radar?  Well, I mean, I obviously knew about the book – I’ve owned it for a few years and it’s shifted positions in my To Be Read pile enough times as it is.  It’s just that I didn’t realize it was going to be this good.  Let me explain.

Although I’d describe myself as being more of a fan of John Dickson Carr’s series detective Dr Fell, my favorite run of books may well be the near dozen early Sir Henry Merrivale novels published under the name of Carter Dickson between 1934 and 1940.  The set ups to those books were classic – confounding puzzles that set the standard for the genre of impossible crime.  Better yet, Carr wrapped these stories in a smothering atmosphere of pure dread.  Rooms that kill, ghostly hangmen, killers who commit their crimes by mere thought; I just love this stuff.  Granted, there’s a natural explanation behind it all in the end, but these are stories that make you question whether you’re dealing with something much more sinister.

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The Quick and the Dead (There Was an Old Woman) – Ellery Queen (1943)

quickandthedeadMy last encounter with Ellery Queen – 1942’s Calamity Town – left me wanting more.  It was with some restraint that I didn’t immediately pick up The Quick and the Dead, instead electing to mix up my authors a bit.  Well, I’ve done my mixing and I’m back for more.

I’ll spare you the tales of boredom that I experienced with the early period one Queens – dry monotonous tomes filled with chapter after chapter of never ceasing investigative footwork.  I found a different Queen with the second period’s The Four of Hearts – cardboard in a Hollywood sense, but not boring; even clever in the end.  It was Calamity Town that won me over though.  This was no classic mystery by a long run – if you’ve read more than five GAD books then you’ll see through it in an instant – but the milieu was so damn fine.

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The Picture from the Past – Paul Halter (1995)

picturefromthepastIt’s been about a year since I first jumped into reading Paul Halter, and I’ve already made my way halfway through the Locked Room International translations of his work.  It’s been hard to drag it out this long – every book has been a direct injection of exactly what I’m looking for in an impossible crime novel.  That isn’t to say that they all work out in the end (I’m looking at you, The Invisible Circle), but every story has been a rush of endorphins.

There’s one Halter title that’s always struck my curiosity – The Picture from the Past.  This could just be me, but it seems to be the book that flies under the radar.  You have the ones that everyone raves about – The Demon of Dartmoor, Death Invites You, The Madman’s Room, etc, etc.  You have the ones that people tend to criticize – The Vampire Tree, The Seven Wonders of Crime, maybe The Lord of Misrule.  And then you have this weird little guy – The Picture from the Past.  I rarely see it come up in reviews or conversation.

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Death’s Old Sweet Song – Jonathan Stagge (1946)

deathsoldsweetsongBecause death’s old sweet song, keeps Georgia on my mind…

Ok, well, it doesn’t quite go like that.  The song referenced in the title of Jonathan Stagg’s Death’s Old Sweet Song is much more obscure by my standards – Green Grow the Rushes, O, an English folk song that I’ve never heard of in my life.  It’s one of those songs where I listen to it the first time thinking “why on earth is this song even notable?” and then find it oddly sticking around in my head a few hours later.

The song is cumulative in each verse, similar to The Twelve Days of Christmas.  It plays into the novel in that each verse is associated with a murder victim, a la And Then There Were None.  In this case we get “the lily white boys clothed all in green”, “the rivals”, “the gospel makers”, and so on.  Suffice to say, Death’s Old Sweet Song has quite the body count…

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Death Has Deep Roots – Michael Gilbert (1951)

deathhasdeeprootsMy first encounter with Michael Gilbert was the excellent WW2 impossible crime novel, The Danger Within.  Seeking out more of his work, I was naturally drawn to Death Has Deep Roots by the gorgeous cover of the Dell edition that I happened to stumble on.  It seemed to be a fortunate find – Death Has Deep Roots is the book that preceded The Danger Within, and is itself preceded by another of Gilbert’s most lauded novels – Smallbone Deceased.  Perhaps I had found myself in a solid run of Gilbert’s mystery catalog.

Let’s be clear – Death Has Deep Roots is not an impossible crime novel.  Nor is it the type of GAD mystery that you’d usually find me covering on this site.  I’d say that a mystery lurks beneath the surface, but isn’t quite true.  Instead, the mystery is the surface, and a very different tale lurks beneath.

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The Mysterious Affair at Styles – Agatha Christie (1920)

MysteriousAffairAtStylesAm I the only one with an odd bias towards the early works of prolific authors?  Not a bias in that I don’t like the books after I read them, but in that I assume they won’t be that good before I read them.  Well, it’s probably just me, so let me explain this quirk of mine.

Say that an author published four mystery novels and then disappeared into the depths of history.  I wouldn’t pay any mind to whether I was reading their first, third, or last novel.  But now let’s say that author published 30+ novels…  Well, the first few were obviously them finding their voice so they couldn’t be any good… right?

I had that sort of assumption in my head when I approached John Dickson Carr’s first novel, It Walks By Night.  In reading it, I was absolutely shocked that his prose were as rich as ever, his plotting much the same, and his impossibilities as crafty as they come.  Of course, it seemed silly in retrospect – it’s not like Carr dragged his knuckles through several volumes of garbage before he hit pay dirt.  That isn’t to say that he didn’t evolve over time, but even his earliest work featured that spark that I knew and loved in his wider library.

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