The Rose of Death – Walter Masterman (1934)

I vaguely recall reading several reviews of stories by Walter Masterman, but the only thing that sticks out in my mind is that a post about The Wrong Letter over at The Invisible Event seemed interesting enough that I jotted it down for my “maybe buy this” list.  And yet, when I browsed the respectable library of Masterman’s books available from Ramble House, I was too taken in by alluring titles like The Yellow Mistletoe and The Rose of Death.  I mean, you don’t judge a book by its cover, you judge it by its name, right?

The descriptions of Masterman’s novels tread the line between mystery and horror, and reading the blurbs for the books that I have left me thinking that I might wind up in HP Lovecraft country, so I went with the one that sounded the most mystery-ish.  And here I am with The Rose of Death.

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One of These Seven – Carolynne & Malcolm Logan (1946)

One of These Seven may feature a murder that takes place in a locked room, but it’s hardly a locked room mystery.  Said locked room features a lock to which seven people hold the key, and so when a man is found shot to death within, the obvious question is which of the seven committed the crime.  And honestly, that’s about what you’re going to get from this story.  Amateur detective Justus Drum pledges that he’ll track down the killer and subsequently interviews the seven suspects.  Then one of them winds up dead, so he re-interviews the remaining six.  Then the killer is revealed.  Sadly that’s about it.

I wouldn’t say that the book is poorly written in any obvious way, other than it absolutely fails to leave an impression.  The only memorable part is the victim; a larger than life artist who graces a dozen or so pages before winding up riddled with bullets.  Aside from that, you get a competently written investigation, but it never turns into anything other than “who murdered Paul Quinton?”  In the end, whether it was any specific one of the seven doesn’t really matter.  A finger is pointed, a killer confesses, and we move on with our lives.

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In Spite of Thunder – John Dickson Carr (1960)

After a nearly 10 year gap following Below Suspicion (1949), John Dickson Carr’s best series detective Gideon Fell returned for a final run of five novels starting with The Dead Man’s Knock in 1958 and stretching through Dark of the Moon in 1967.  Consider that a similar span of time towards the beginning of his career would see the author produce three times that many Fell novels, and you can kind of sense that Carr’s heart wasn’t with the great detective.

Well, obviously.  Carr had spent the past decade going all in on the historical mystery genre, and his few contributions to the contemporary impossible crimes on which he had built his name feel more like something he was nudged into by his publishers.  The Dead Man’s Knock isn’t worth reading.  Panic in Box C is passable, but a chore due to all of the tangents Carr goes on.  Dark of the Moon is a meandering mess that at least features an interesting impossible crime and a somewhat shocking reversal of expectation.  His historical mysteries from the same period are actually pretty good, with the exception of Scandal at High Chimneys (released a year before In Spite of Thunder).  But the contemporary stuff?  Nah.

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John Franklin Bardin – The Deadly Percheron (1946)

John Franklin Bardin came to my attention when I spotted his second novel, The Last of Philip Banter, as a 2005 entry in the Honkaku Mystery Best 10.  The annual mystery guide features some amazing novels that will be familiar to anyone who has delved into the cream of the crop of the Golden Age.  What I like most about the list is that it isn’t made up solely of the obvious entries (The Hollow Man, And Then There Were None, etc, etc), but enough deep cuts that it’s obvious the editors know what they’re doing.

Anyway, The Last of Philip Banter is a curious enough title that it piqued my interest, and in seeking out the book I discovered that I could grab Penguin editions of Bardin’s entire library (he only published three books) for a steal.  With so few stories, I figured I’d take them in order, and so here I am with Bardin’s first – The Deadly Percheron.

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The Shade of Time – David Duncan (1946)

The Shade of Time has always been somewhat of a legend to me.  It’s a book that receives few reviews, and yet it somehow obtained a slot in Roland Lacourbe’s list of top locked room mysteries.  It isn’t easy to find either, at least in the price range that I’m willing to pay for a book that I know so little about.  After years of hunting, I’ve never seen it come in for less than $20.

“Don’t spend $20 on it”, I recall JJ from The Invisible Event telling me, crushing my dreams of a long lost impossible crime masterpiece (do you hear me JJ?  You crushed my dreams!).  A few others pitched in a similar opinion, and I had to settle for the reality that this legendary book long sought after just wasn’t going to live up to my expectations.

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The Case of the Crumpled Knave – Anthony Boucher (1939)

I’ve been hellbent on acquiring this exact Popular Library edition of Anthony Boucher’s The Case of the Crumpled Knave ever since I first saw it.  Released in 1949, the cover boasts a gorgeous illustration by Rudolph Belarski, and is the epitome of the classic style that I live for.  Tracking a copy down proved to be a bit tricky, as they typically flirt around the $40-60 range, but years of waiting finally panned out when I snagged a copy for less than $10.

On receiving the copy, I realized that it was a bit more lurid that I had noticed in the thumbnails I’d seen online.  The woman kneeling over the body is wearing a flat out see through top, which is not only surprising given that this edition is from the 1940s, but upon reading the book, I learned that:  1. The woman is kneeling over the body of her father.  2.  The woman just finished serving a room full of people breakfast.  So, anyway, covers aren’t always a good representation of a story, but this is still the style that I like and it has some nice touches around the dying message involving a playing card: the crumpled knave.

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Sir John Magill’s Last Journey – Freeman Wills Crofts (1930)

Is it possible to pass up a Pocket Book edition of a Freeman Wills Crofts novel?  Aside from the recent (and ongoing) reissues of Crofts catalog by Collins Crime Club, your options up to now have pretty much been paying a criminal amount of money for a two-decade old House of Stratus edition, or scooping up the handful of titles released by Penguin in the 60s.  So yeah, when I stumbled upon a 1941 paperback of Sir John Magill’s Last Journey by Pocket Books, I had to grab it.  This is a pretty early year for Pocket Books, and I was lucky that my copy was in a condition robust enough for a comfortable read without breaking out the tweezers and velvet gloves.

I recall JJ from The Invisible Event commenting that it took him two weeks to make it through this book.  Given that I don’t have much time for reading, it took me full on three.  What a journey it was though.  The introductory map suggested that I was going to get to know the triangle between England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland well.  Seriously, it looks like someone fired a blast of buckshot into the UK.  You’ve got dots littering the western coast of Great Britain, accompanied with a travel guide’s worth of town names I’ve never heard of.

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Raspberry Jam – Carolyn Wells (1919)

Carolyn Wells wrote an absurd number of books in a career spanning the first four decades of the twentieth century.  One might get a bit nervous about the quality of an author who produced 170 novels, but I’ve seen Wells’ name associated with impossible crimes enough that I let curiosity get the best of me.  Poking around the web suggested that the curiously titled Raspberry Jam might be one of her top five mysteries, and so I took a chance on a steal of an ancient but readably preserved edition.

We’re introduced to Eunice and Sanford Embury, a young couple with plenty of dough, temporarily housing zany Aunt Abby in their Manhattan apartment.  Sanford will eventually end up murdered in a thoroughly locked room, but that doesn’t happen until midway through the book, and there’s a lot to unpack before we get there.

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Ghoul’s Paradise – Theodore Roscoe (1938)

One of the highlights of my reading in 2020 was Four Corners Volume One, a collection of short mysteries by Theodore Roscoe.  The stories take place in the small town of Four Corners, located in the mountains of upstate New York.  There’s a definite vibe of Ellery Queen’s Wrightsville novels, although Roscoe’s were published half a decade earlier and are far richer.  The tales of Four Corners are more stories than mysteries, and although my own description there probably wouldn’t excite me to read it, what outstanding stories they are.

I wondered at the time if there would ever be a second collection of the series, and have to admit that I skeptically assumed it would never come to be.  Imagine my shock when I stumbled upon Four Corners Volume Two while trawling for other Roscoe works.  By some coincidence it had been released a week or so earlier, even though I hadn’t heard a peep about it.

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Sealed Room Murder (1941) – Rupert Penny

One (me) could be forgiven (I am) for retitling this book “The Case of the Vandalized Clothes and Floor”, because I’ll be damned if that isn’t what the first two thirds of this novel focuses on.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, you’ll get your “Sealed Room Murder”, and it will be a doozy, but you’ll put your time in until you get it.  For such a no holds barred smack me down title, Rupert Penny takes his sweet time in getting to what you’re looking for.

Fortunately for Penny, he’s one of the better writers of the Golden Age.  Yeah, you’ll sit through 139 pages of nothing to do with a locked room mystery, but I’ll read anything by an author that can make this out of a character introduction:

“Mrs Harriet Steele, while she lived, was above all a thing of flesh and blood, a solid animate mass which ate and slept and rose unrepentant, which dyed its hair and plagued its associates and weighed thirteen stone seven in its unimaginable nudity.”

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