Scandal at High Chimneys – John Dickson Carr (1959)

ScandalAtHighChimneysScandal at High Chimneys is one of the John Dickson Carr novels that has remained somewhat of an enigma to me.  Prior to reading it I had never seen a review on a spoiler free site, and thus lacked any real background for the story.  I knew that the novel fell into the first period of Carr historicals – the books published between 1950 (The Bride of Newgate) and 1964 (Most Secret) that take place in 1600-1800 era England (Captain Cut Throat being a exception in location, and The Witch of the Low Tide being an exception in period).  The works tend to be better regarded than the second period historicals, which take place in the US south (with the exception of The Hungry Goblin) and are considered to have come after Carr began his later-year decline.

With the first era historicals, you kind of know what to expect.  The plot will focus on the plight of someone wrongly accused of murder – either the male lead or his love interest.  The story will follow a race against time to clear the name of the falsely accused as the law forces of the time period close in.  While the core mystery may bear some passing resemblance to an impossible crime, there will never be Carr’s trademark strength of puzzle nor cleverness of solution.

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The Seventh Hypothesis – Paul Halter (1991)

TheSeventhHypothesisThat I’ve made it four months without devouring another Paul Halter novel is a display of herculean restraint.  While by no means perfect, the previous three novels that I’ve read by the modern master of impossible crimes were the summer blockbuster equivalent of a locked room mystery.  Well, scratch that analogy – I tend to loathe summer blockbusters as shallow facades that bore with their action rather than excite.  Although many might deride Halter’s work as being equally shallow, I’ll guiltily admit that they give me exactly what I want.

Take the hooks, puzzles, and misdirection from five solid GAD impossible crime novels, compress it all down to 140 pages, thin out the writing a little (with excuse, perhaps, for being translated), and you’re dealing with a Halter novel.  It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you haven’t read one yet, I encourage you to give it a try.  The puzzles are thick and the twists come flying at you.

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The Sea Mystery – Freeman Wills Crofts (1928)

TheSeaMysteryI’ve been looking forward to the prospect of diving into Freeman Wills Crofts’ deep catalog for a few months now.  He’s been on my radar for a while, but was always slagged as a boring author – a writer of time-table mysteries that are heavy on detailed investigation.  After my experience with Ellery Queen’s early catalog, I wanted to avoid a monotonous trudge at all cost.  And then JJ at The Invisible Event wrote a rave review of The Sea Mystery, and since that time has been posting additional Crofts reviews that make the author sound like the second coming of….well, someone.

Now, JJ’s had just as excruciating a time with the early Ellery Queen novels as I have – in fact, he has yet to make it past The Dutch Shoe Mystery despite trying his hardest.  So if JJ is going to say that a supposedly humdrum author like Freeman Wills Crofts is worth diving into, I’m interested.  Since JJ’s initial post, I’ve read several other reviews of The Sea Mystery, all of which were very positive.

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Suddenly at His Residence – Christianna Brand (1947)

SuddenlyAtHisResidenceI’ll always tout Christianna Brand as an author who can deliver an emotional blow.  Green for Danger, Fog of Doubt – even less known books like Alas for Her Who Met Me – all have a way to draw you in to the lives of a cast of characters.  Perhaps it’s her informal turn of the phrase, but the characters feel real in a familiar sense, rather than sketches on the page from 70 year ago.  The denouement comes as a punch to the gut, as real lives crumble, and a person you’ve empathized with is unmasked as the killer.

While that ability to trigger real emotion is the trait of Brand that stands out most clearly to me, she may well be among the most skilled in the field for pulling the wool over the reader’s eyes.  Her particular talent seems to be dangling a clue repeatedly in the readers face, to the point where the final solution to the puzzle comes as a natural, yet shocking realization.  John Dickson Carr certainly had this talent too, but Brand in particular excels in inflicting a sense of “damn, how didn’t I see that coming the entire time?

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Patrick Butler for the Defense – John Dickson Carr (1956)

PatrickButlerPatrick Butler appeared in two novels and somehow managed to become the most divisive topic of John Dickson Carr’s 70+ book career.  Why?  Well, he’s a bit of a pompous ass, perhaps known best for declaring that he’s never wrong.  He’s somewhat of a pig too, with the misguided perception that every woman in the world wants him – and he’s wont to act on that assumption.

Although Butler’s character is despised, what about the two Carr novels featuring him?  I’ve seen a number of comments declaring both to be utter garbage, yet the scarce full reviews that I’ve been able to find weren’t overly critical.

Butler first appeared in the Dr Fell novel Below Suspicion (1949), and I have to admit that I loved it.  The novel features two semi-impossible poisonings with a clever solution that I never saw coming.  On top of that, it introduces touches of the adventure elements that would come to define Carr’s historical novels, starting with The Bride of Newgate, published the following year.

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Death Comes as the End – Agatha Christie (1945)

DeathComesAsTheEnd2The phrase “historical mystery” instantly brings to mind John Dickson Carr.  The author shifted his focus from contemporary Golden Age mysteries starting with The Bride of Newgate (1950) and contributed heavily to the sub-genre up until his final novel – The Hungry Goblin.  His historical works cover ground between the seventeenth century (The Devil in Velvet) up until the time of his own birth (The Witch of the Low Tide) and I’ve seen several comments claiming that he basically created the historical mystery.

Or does Agatha Christie hold that title?  Death Comes as the End, published in 1945, came out five years before The Bride of Newgate.  Set in ancient Egypt, the tale of death stalking a high priest’s family certainly checks the boxes for historical and mystery.  It’s worth mentioning though that Carr had two prior historical works – the non-fiction The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey (1936) and Devil Kinsmere (1934), although I haven’t read the later and I’m not certain that it qualifies as a mystery.

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The Danger Within – Michael Gilbert (1952)

DangerWithinThe Danger Within first flickered onto my radar a little over a year ago while I was reviewing Tomcat’s list My Favorite Locked Room Mysteries over at Beneath the Stains of Time.

“This is one of my all-time favorite mystery novels from the post-WWII era and of the best blends of the formal detective story, thriller elements and a semi-autobiographic at the same time. The setting is a POW camp in Italy and has a nifty impossible situation: a man has been found dead in a secret escape tunnel and the entrance was blocked with a furnace, which needed the combined strength of half a dozen men to budge as much as an inch.”

A locked room mystery set in a WWII POW camp?  Sign me up please.

While I spent my childhood consuming a hefty amount of mystery and science fiction, I more than dabbled in tales of the trenches.  The idea of an impossible crime taking place on a battlefield or in a prison camp is intriguing beyond simply stepping outside of the expected setting of a country house or the odd castle.  You expect death in war time, and I’ve heard of more than one GAD novel in which a murderer has attempted to disguise their deed among the ruins of bombed out England.  The actual theatre of war is different though.  There, death simply is.  The notion that a friend could become foe in the face of a clearly defined common adversary is no unique concept – just see Platoon.  Still, mix in an impossible-style murder plot and I’m all game.

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