The Vampire Tree – Paul Halter (1996)

The Vampire Tree is the last of the “old” Paul Halter books that I’d yet to read, and my distinction there is going to feel meaningless to you, but there’s a point to it.  At the time that I bought The Vampire Tree, I owned all available english translations of Halter published by Locked Room International.  Half a dozen additional translations have been released since then, but I, for some reason, decided to read all of the “old ones” first before moving on to “new” stuff.  Of course, those labels are really meaningless, since Halter’s output spans four decades and the order that the books have been translated in seems somewhat random… although, now that I think about it, all of the recent translations have been of stories published after 1998.

Anyway, I’d kind of put this one off for “last” because I had gotten the impression that this was the lesser regarded of Halter’s output, although I’ve been wrong about such impressions before.  Regardless of the validity of the impression, The Vampire Tree is not a lesser work.  In fact, it may be the best story that I’ve read by Halter.  Now, I want to emphasize that I said “best story”, not “best book” or “best mystery”, and I think there’s a real distinction there when you’re dealing with this genre.  You’re shaking your head, I realize, and I’m about to lose you, but here we go.

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Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries (1982)

This anthology made it onto my radar when Cornell Woolrich’s Murder at the Automat was reviewed over at The Invisible Event.  It’s not so much that the description of the story made me swoon, but it was the mention that the story could be found in Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries, and hey, anytime I learn about the existence of a locked room mystery collection I’m going to buy it.  Plus, one of the editors is Isaac Asimov.  While I’ve never been a fan, he’s the author of a supposedly solid impossible crime (I have yet to read) The Caves of Steel, and I was curious to see what he might have brought to the table.

Well, aside from the story choice, Asimov’s contribution is a three page introductory essay titled Nobody Did it.  It’s meant to set the stage by tantalizing us with an introduction to the genre of locked room mysteries, but Asimov gets tripped up and wastes one page on a philosophical point that veers into the question of how the moon came to exist.  That leaves us with little space for a few scrap mentions of Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, Agatha Christie, and John Dickson Carr – Carr being the one name that truly deserves a mention given the topic, and he’s not even featured in the anthology!

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Murder in the Crooked House – Soji Shimada (1982)

While I enjoy watching mystery films, I’ve never felt that Golden Age style fair play mysteries translate particularly well to the screen.  The stories are all about these subtle moments and clues that stand out in retrospect when encountered on the page, but just get lost in the background when presented on film.  I watch the Agatha Christie adaptations with friends, and I’m screaming in my mind “you glanced away while the maid was setting down the coffee cup in the background of the shot!!!!!!”  Either that, or the camera pans in on the coffee cup on the sideboard while an ominous chord sounds, and then why even bother…

But although my beloved novels would probably fall flat as movies, I’ve always thought of particular scenes that I’d love to see captured on film.  My number one is the murder scene in The Judas Window – a solution that many deride for being overly complex, yet I think would play out as stunningly simple on screen.  There’s also the murder scene in The Problem of the Green Capsule, which if done right could be horrifically creepy, and of course the point of that book is that witnesses perceive the same exact events differently, so why not make the audience a part of that?

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The Case of the Seven of Calvary – Anthony Boucher (1937)

I was a bit skeptical that I was ever going to get my hands on this one.  The Case of the Seven of Calvary must be the most difficult Anthony Boucher mystery to get for a reasonable price.  A quick check online as I write this shows a copy going for $40 (way more than I’d ever pay), and then the next choices are jacketless hardbacks in the $60 range before we spiral into the bonkers price range north of one thousand dollars.  But patience is key my friends – decide what you want, decide what you’ll pay for it, and then stay determined.

I eventually nabbed a 1961 Collier Books edition for $8.  It’s not the prettiest thing – there appears to be a tea stain and someone did a dreadful job of removing what I assume was a price sticker from the cover – but once you get past the front and back covers, it’s perfectly readable.  And that’s what matters, right?  Because Anthony Boucher is one of my favorite mystery authors to read.

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The Polferry Riddle – Philip MacDonald (1931)

The Polferry Riddle opens in a seaside home enveloped by a powerful storm.  As wind shakes the house and rain lashes the windows, three men drink by the fireside while the rest of the inhabitants lay asleep upstairs.  As they head up for the night, the men stumble upon a gruesome scene: the lady of the house lies halfway off her bed, her throat slit from ear to ear.

It’s a powerful opening, and my love of a good storm had me wrapped fully into the scene.  And I remained wrapped throughout an ever shifting romp of a plot that’s the sort where you breathlessly look back at some point and think “boy, we’re miles from where we started.”  Which is a bit unfortunate, because The Polferry Riddle must feature one of the biggest let downs of a solution that I can think of.  And yet I’m still going to tell you that I really loved this book.

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The Piccadilly Murder – Anthony Berkeley (1929)

If there’s anything to speak to Anthony Berkeley being one of the better mystery writers of the Golden Age, it’s that he was able to produce The Piccadilly Murder: an absolutely delightful read from cover to cover, even though by its very premise it lacks a mystery.  For you see, the story opens with amateur detective Ambrose Chitterwick lunching at the Piccadilly Palace, and before his eyes watching a man pour poison into a distracted woman’s cup of coffee.  The woman passes away minutes later, and Chitterwick quickly points out the culprit to the police.

That the namesake “Piccadilly Murder” unfolds in such cut and dry fashion – and yet is the murder that the novel revolves around – should be a mortal blow to the book, as you have to wonder what the subsequent 200+ pages could possibly be about.  And yet you’re not going to put the book down, because Berkeley is in the groove.  Much of his success takes the form of Ambrose Chitterwick, a delightfully self centered character who casts an eye of snarky judgment on everyone he comes into contact with, and yet is somewhat just as much of a fool as the recipients of his observations.

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The Death of Laurence Vining – Alan Thomas (1928)

There comes a time when you finally accept that there are some books that you’re just never going to get a chance to read.  I’d claim I’ve had my eyes fixed on The Death of Laurence Vining for years now, but I don’t recall my eyes ever even seeing it available.  If my memory is faulty it’s likely because those eyes glazed over at the sight of a four digit price tag.  Yes, this was a book that I was willing to break my normally steadfast $12 limit to acquire – possibly shelling out an unthinkable $20 for (I know, I know, don’t be crazy Ben) – but yeah, I’m not going to be even touching on a hundred dollars for a book.  I didn’t even do that for Death of Jezebel.

And honestly, I’d be taking a chance with that $20.  Alan Thomas is an author that I’ve never read anything by, plus I’ve only seen two or three reviews of The Death of Laurence Vining, and I don’t recall that anyone was screaming from the heavens that this was must read material.  But it is featured on THAT list: the Roland Lacourbe list of top locked room novels.  The bulk of the list is made up of what you’d expect: really strong impossible crimes that you can imagine receiving a mention if a bunch of geeks like me got together to create their own list (hey, should we do that?).  But there are a handful of titles – the likes of The Shade of Time, Into Thin Air, The Wailing Rock Murders, The Malinsay Massacre – that fly under the radar, most likely due to scarcity (ok, the last two of those are kind of available).  And when I see an impossible crime novel that’s… er, impossible… to obtain, I simply obsess over getting it.

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Sweet and Deadly (The Bramble Bush) – David Duncan (1948)

David Duncan has this absolutely amazing novel called The Shade of Time.  I’ll admit, it falls down a bit in the end, but it’s tightly written and there’s this incredibly audacious locked room murder that left me a fan for life.  I had to find more by him, and I followed it up with The Madrone Tree; somewhat of an impossible crime in reverse that cements my perception that Duncan was a talented mystery writer.  This leads me to Sweet and Deadly, a novel originally published under the much more appropriate name The Bramble Bush, as well as the suitable title Worse than Murder.

I don’t know that I’d quite call it a mystery.  This is the type of semi-noir pulp where the main character gets knocked unconscious four times, poisoned, pushed down a cliff – all in a 24 hour period (I shudder to imagine the long term health consequences) – but man, it’s an incredible story, and the last fifty pages are every bit as breathless of a finale as any denouement that I can imagine.

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Double Double – Ellery Queen (1950)

It’s impressive to think that a detective novel could feature seven murders, and yet not for a moment feel like a mystery.  How the writing duo of Ellery Queen pulled it off, I’m still not quite sure.  Double Double follows detective Queen going about his days doing a bunch of things – playing matchmaker, buying a swimsuit, going on a picnic, getting a drink at a bar – and it ends up feeling like a book about a man with nothing better to do than running a never ending series of whimsical errands.  Yeah, people do occasionally wind up dead (quite a few of them, in fact), but there’s just never a mystique to it or a sense of purpose.

We’re back in the small town of Wrightsville, for what is apparently the last of the Queen novels set there, and wow, I guess I actually read them all in order.  This is the sixth Queen in a row that I’ve consumed in sequence, starting with Calamity Town (1942), and correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve just passed through what’s regarded as his better work.  I’ll leave that discussion for another time, but “meh”.  Calamity Town was the obvious highlight, shifting the Queen stories to something with a bit of humanity in them; this in the form of the living/breathing town of Wrightsville.  Then the stories became a bit too much about humanity, with Queen becoming a shell shocked charade of perpetual self doubt.  I guess we’re kind of straddling that with Double Double.  Queen’s still incredibly gun shy and riddled with misgivings, and it gets a bit tiring watching him second guess himself for 250 pages.  Wrightsville too is a shell of its former self; a never ending list of townsfolk and landmarks, but the spark that animated it all in Calamity Town and The Murderer is a Fox is missing here.

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Rendezvous in Black – Cornell Woolrich (1948)

Remind me never to mess with Cornell Woolrich or any of his surviving relatives…  Rendezvous in Black is a tale of revenge, and it is some astoundingly dark revenge.  A bereaved man, with no idea which of five people were responsible for the careless accident that killed his fiancé, decides to get revenge on all five.  The vengeance is exacted not directly on the five suspects, but rather on the women that each loves most.

In other words, a madman goes on a rampage, killing five innocent women.  Oh, but it’s so much more than that, and Rendezvous in Black enshrines Cornell Woolrich as one of those authors for which I now have to track down absolutely everything written.  This is not the conventional mystery that I read – hell, it might not even really be a mystery – but I enjoyed it just as much as the cream of the crop out of the Golden Age.

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