The Body in the Library – Agatha Christie (1942)

For some reason The Body in the Library is one of the Christie book titles that stands out the most in my mind, although I’m not even sure that I’ve read a review of it.  I somehow have the impression that it’s one of the quintessential Christie novels, which makes no sense because I don’t recall anyone really talking about it.  But that’s kind of cool, because I have an early 1940s novel by an author in her prime, and I know next to nothing about it.

It may be the American in me, but whenever I hear “body in the library”, I always imagine a murder victim found in a town’s public library.  I’ve read enough British books from the era to know better, but for some reason my mind always goes there.  I can now confirm to you that the body in Christie’s novel is indeed found in the reading room of a country house, and not a building of the book lending variety.  The owners of the estate are shocked to discover the corpse, as they both claim they’ve never seen the girl before.  Things do look a bit grim for the man of the house, as it’s immediately assumed that someone knocked off his mistress.

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The House at Satan’s Elbow – John Dickson Carr (1965)

John Dickson Carr put out a stellar run of 18 Gideon Fell novels between Hag’s Nook in 1933 and Below Suspicion in 1949, with a solid dozen of the titles being absolute classics, and the rest still being well above the status quo.  The detective wasn’t heard from again until nine years later, with the unfortunately awful return to the page in The Dead Man’s Knock (1958).  Fell closed out his career over four additional novels, being retired for good with 1967’s Dark of the Moon.  Sadly none of those final books are really worth reading except for the Carr completist.

The House at Satan’s Elbow finds us in the middle of the final five Fell novels, and I’m surprised to say that it may be the best of the lot.  We get a country house, a ghost, a locked room mystery, and some glimmers of the personality that made the gargantuan detective so fun to read.  It’s a muddled affair though, which is frustrating, because if you strip away the cobwebs, this could have been a solid read.

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Blind Drifts – Clyde Clason (1937)

I went on a bit of a Clyde Clason buying spree after enjoying The Man from Tibet.  Admittedly, it might have been a b-grade mystery, but it had enough unique touches to keep my interest throughout, and opened with a stellar story-within-a-story that completely won me over.  I finally return to Clason with his third novel, which was published a year before The Man from Tibet.  I picked this one because it takes place in a Colorado gold mine.  A mine is always a fun setting for a story, and something that you don’t see too often in the Golden Age; The Owner Lies Dead being the exception that comes to mind, although hopefully someone posts a few more examples.

It was the Colorado setting that struck me too.  I’m biased in my preference for mysteries set in England, in part because 99% of US mysteries from the Golden Age seem to be set in New York City, and there are a set of tropes that you seem to get with The Big Apple.  Anthony Boucher is an obvious exception, with his output taking place in the San Francisco bay area, and I suppose that Ellery Queen stretched his legs and headed out to Hollywood.  US settings outside of that are few and far between (I realize you’ll correct me).  There’s late-era John Dickson Carr exploring the south – although those books were well past his prime – and I supposed Hugh Holman set his stories in South Carolina.  But Colorado?  I can’t really think of another Golden Age set in Colorado.  Yeah, you could interpret The Owner Lies Dead as taking place in Genessee right outside of Denver, but I had the sense while reading it that it was supposed to take place somewhere on the east coast.

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Double Indemnity – James M Cain (1936/1943)

There’s a bit of a funny lineage with this one.  Double Indemnity was originally published as a serial in Liberty magazine back in 1936.  In 1943 it was featured alongside two other novellas in a collection titled Three of a Kind.  That same year, the story was first made available as a standalone novel, both in the Murder Mystery Monthly series (released by Avon Books), as well as a “pure” Avon paperback, the latter of which has one of the best covers I’ve laid my eyes on.  I myself ended up with the pictured 1947 Avon edition, and it lists copyrights for 1936, 1938, 1940, 1943, 1943 (yes, twice, not a typo) and 1947.  I’m curious what the 1938 and 1940 dates pertain to, but honestly, I never usually give this stuff that much thought… I swear!

The 1943 Avon paperback may have the best cover, but the 1947 edition isn’t bad itself.  It sits at 129 pages, which places it in novella territory, although at a glance the physical book doesn’t look much skinnier than 180 page brethren from the same period.  It’s a blazingly fast read, and I challenge anyone to draw this out to more than two sittings.  That’s not just because it’s short, but because it runs at such a pace that you’ll struggle to find a satisfying spot to pause.

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Cat’s Paw – Roger Scarlett (1931)

Ah 2018…  Pre-covid and the Golden Age of Detective Fiction corner of the universe was abuzz with the recent republishing of Murder Among the Angells by Roger Scarlett.  Put me down as one of those who lined up for a copy – well, I put it on my Christmas wish list and eventually got my hands on it – which came in the form of a two story volume along with Cat’s Paw.  And as with all of these multi-story compilations, I kind of lost track of it, simply because the bulky format doesn’t accommodate being stacked in a pile with a bunch of smaller form factor books that I plan to read next.

Out of sight is kind of out of mind when it comes to my library, and I actually forgot that I owned this.  I stumbled upon it at the base of a stack of books and realized that I still really want to read Murder Among the Angells.  Cat’s Paw comes first though, because if I don’t read it now, I’m likely to forget again that it even exists.

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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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