Last winter I was blown away by Noel Vindry’s The House that Kills. It was jam packed with impossible crimes and read at a breakneck pace, and so as I stocked my larder for an end of year glut of “can’t fail me” mystery reads, another Noel Vindry novel came to mind immediately. I went with The Howling Beast, in part because, well, there are only three available books to choose from, but also because it seems to be the better regarded of his novels that have been translated to English. Better than The House that Kills? Sign me up.
While The House that Kills is a breathless sprint of impossible insanity, The Howling Beast is more of a traditional and drawn out detective story. In fact, although there are some minor mysteries throughout the story, we don’t encounter the marquee crime until the final few chapters. It’s a fine one though, with two people shot in a locked down castle, under circumstances that fall into the “impossible if we believe the accounts of several additional witnesses” category. Not quite an impossible crime in my book, but you know that you’re going to get a solution that fits the bill from a novel published by Locked Room International.
Crippen and Landru recently released The Kindling Spark, a collection of John Dickson Carr’s earliest stories. The nine pieces collected within were published between 1922 and 1929, while Carr was still in high school and college. The plots range from horror to adventure to mystery, and this is really a deep cuts collection for the reader who wants to get into every last bit that the author wrote.
I was lucky enough to order The Kindling Spark early, and managed to get my hands on one of the first 200 copies, which are clothbound and signed by editor/contributor Dan Napolitano. This limited run also comes with an exclusive pamphlet featuring Carr’s second story – The Cloak of D’Artagnan. Given that this story is unlikely to be published elsewhere, I figured I’d provide an overview for the curious.
It’s rare that I finish a book in a single day. Oh, it happens from time to time, but typically because I’m on a business trip – with the time at the terminal, the time on the plane, and the night at the hotel affording me the chance to put in a solid block of reading. I read Goodnight Irene like it was nothing. If you asked me what I did the day I read it, I’d hardly mention reading, as I was out and about enjoying the holidays: a rare breakfast out alone with my wife, some late shopping for those last minute gifts that feel suddenly necessary, some chores around the house. But tucked in there, I somehow stole enough moments with this book to burn through 248 pages. And let me tell you, as the page count dropped to the final forty or so, there was no way that I wasn’t finishing it.
Take Zelda Popkin’s flub of a book Dead Man’s Gift and pretend that it lived up to every last bit of promise: a swollen Mississippi River encroaching on the holdout contenders for a deadman’s will; said deadman offed under impossible circumstances; an unfathomable fire within the deluge just when you think things couldn’t get worse. Mix in some creeping horror a la Hake Talbot, the pell mell energy of the second half of Theodore Roscoe’s Murder on the Way, and the ambitious bravado of Paul Halter. Yes, Goodnight Irene is a hell of a read.
On the heels of a few mediocre reads, I start what I hope will be a holiday glut of stellar mysteries. A smattering of sure-fire killer books that I’ve squirreled away for later, and if you can’t treat yourself at this time of year, then when? And what better author to start such a run than Paul Halter? The modern day master of impossible crimes consistently delivers plots chock full of puzzles and twists, and the “worst” of what I’ve read has still been tons of fun.
The Locked Room International translation of The Man Who Loved Clouds was released four years ago, and I recall it being well received at the time – although, honestly, The White Lady is the only Halter title that I can remember receiving any less than top tier enthusiasm. Since then, I’ve seen The Man Who Loved Clouds pop up on several “best lists” – whether best of Halter, or best impossible crime novel – and so this seemed like the perfect place to start my binge.
I got a bit caught up in the excitement of the Christopher Bush reissues around 2017-18. With a mostly unheard of mystery writer who had published over 60 novels, I bought into the hype that maybe we had our next Christie or Carr to dive into. Cut Throat and The Case of the April Fools seemed to be the better reviewed books at the time, so I picked those up. Somehow I also ended up with The Case of the Three Strange Faces, which I don’t even recall seeing reviewed anywhere, as well as Dancing Death, which I received as a gift. I ended up reading Dancing Death first, and it was a total dud that burst my Bush balloon. It wasn’t an awful book, it just wasn’t worth reading.
So now a few years later I finally worked up my courage/curiosity enough to give Bush another chance. Dozens of other Bush titles have been reissued in the meantime, but I decided to go with Cut Throat as it still seems to crop up whenever anyone mentions Bush’s best work.
Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library. That’s it. That book is the perfect analogue to The Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye. Don’t worry, there’s no spoiler in that statement; the stories have completely different solutions. But boy, there are some similarities. Two novels set at seaside hotels. Two mysteries where the police struggle to identify a female murder victim. Two cases in which questions of identity play a major role.
Brian Flynn had a 14 year drop on dame Agatha, so I’ll give credit where due. The similarity in my mind though doesn’t really come down to the story. It’s the quality. The Body in the Library is a perfectly serviceable – if somewhat forgettable – 1940s Christie novel. That’s not a bad thing; most any other author would be lucky to match a lesser Christie from one of her prime decades. Brian Flynn had such luck.
Once a London newspaper titan, Lucius Marplay has spent the last two decades locked in a mental asylum. Doctors fear that he has homicidal tendencies, and for good reason. Lucius himself openly admits that he’s spent years plotting the murder of four ex-partners that he claims stole his newspaper The Echo and had him committed. If he manages to carry out his scheme and gets caught, he has an ace up his sleeve – as a diagnosed lunatic, he can’t be sentenced to death.
It won’t surprise the reader that Lucius escapes the asylum and makes a beeline for London. We soon learn that the four partners who have taken over the newspaper business are indeed scum of the earth, and find ourselves in a rare Golden Age story where we’re actively cheering on the killer. It’s a quirky plot in that sense – not a conventional mystery (as we know the killer), nor an inverted mystery (since the police are actively trying to thwart the crimes). And yet it does unfold somewhat like a mystery, as the machinations of the crime spree take place off screen. We know who the killer is, who the victims will be, and what the motive is, but we’re unaware of how everything is being carried out. The “how” is the truly interesting part, and where They Can’t Hang Me takes a swerve into impossible crime territory.
Gideon Fell was featured in a run of 18 novels over 16 years, starting with Hag’s Nook in 1933. At least one Fell novel was released each year through 1941, and then the pace slightly cooled to a book every few years, finishing with Below Suspicion in 1949. John Dickson Carr was still producing contemporary mysteries with his other lead detective, Henry Merrivale through 1953, as well as releasing a stand alone title, The Nine Wrong Answers (1952), and a spin off featuring a character from Below Suspicion – Patrick Butler for the Defense (1956). In light of that, the reemergence of Dr Fell in 1958 with The Dead Man’s Knock may appear like a brief gap in Carr’s contemporary novels, but it was a nine year absence for the detective.
It was back in 2018 when I last read a John Dickson Carr novel that really featured the author in his prime. The last four years still featured some good reads, but they weren’t the books that drew me to Carr – the kind you press upon others to read with a religious fervor. I front loaded my Carr reading with the very best of his work (of which there’s a lot), and since then I’ve been slowly hen pecking through the mid to low range material put out mostly during the second half of his career (of which there’s also a lot). For the most part they’re fine books that would stand out in any other author’s library, but there’s also some stuff that’s grating to read – 50s/60s Fell novels and his last four historicals – due to his writing being influenced by years of writing dialogue heavy radio plays.
With that in mind, He Wouldn’t Kill Patience was a true “coming home” moment for me. What a breath of fresh air to once again experience the competent prose and artful plotting that first drew me to one of the best mystery writers of the Golden Age. How enthralling to once more take in a (literally) air-tight locked room murder, after years of stories with impossible crimes that felt loose in their construction or minor to the plot. To experience one more time what I felt in those first 40 books.
The cover of my 1964 Crest Books edition of A Dram of Poison champions the book as having won the Mystery Writers of America award for Best Mystery Novel of the Year. If that’s the case, then 1956 must have been a really lean year for American mysteries, because A Dram of Poison simply isn’t a mystery novel. The first half does play out as if Charlotte Armstrong is treading down the inverted mystery path, but this isn’t even that.
Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t read this. Charlotte Armstrong somehow manages to pull off the miracle of creating an engrossing read for mystery fans, despite not featuring a mystery. I ate up most every minute of it, and I imagine this might resonate with someone who enjoys Craig Rice novels – at least based on the Rice reviews that I’ve read.