The Madrone Tree – David Duncan (1949)

“I told you that the solution to a mystery is always prosaic and never as enjoyable as the mystery itself” states author David Duncan through his bizarre amateur detective Bleeker Twist in the final pages of The Madrone Tree.  And while those words may hold some truth in the genre of Golden Age detective fiction, they’re oddly out of place in this book.  Quite the opposite in fact.  Despite the story revolving around the question of who committed a murder – in this case a man bludgeoned to death in a haunted forest – the book never feels like a true mystery.  And that’s a pity, because when the solution comes it’s somewhat of a whopper, but a whopper that would have hit a lot harder if you realized what the puzzle was supposed to be in the first place.

You should (but probably don’t) recognize David Duncan as the author of The Shade of Time; a criminally hard to come by impossible crime novel.  The Shade of Time suffers from the exact opposite problem of The Madrone Tree, offering up what is one of the best mysteries that I’ve read, only to crumble when it comes to the conclusion.  I read the book a mere six months ago, and while I remember nearly every moment of the story, I really have to stop and think in order to recall how it ended.

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Darkness at Pemberley – T.H. White(1932)

Man, I did not know what I was getting into with this book.  Darkness at Pemberley made the footnotes section of Roland Lacourbe’s 2007 list of top locked room mysteries, having received at least four votes, but being disqualified for not having been translated into French. And so it’s natural that I went into it looking for a locked room mystery, right?  I ended up with something completely different.

The story starts off with what appears to be the setup for an impossible crime: a professor seemingly having committed suicide in his locked apartment after shooting a student in a nearby dormitory.  There’s enough incongruities at the crime scene that police suspect foul play, yet it doesn’t seem possible that anyone else was involved. We soon learn though that the locks on the doors of the building are of the ancient variety, and a key for one door could well open the lock for another.  That evaporates the whole locked room mystery angle, which is a bit of a pity because we get two maps of the crime scene.  More so, the solution to the murders involves some complex shenanigans worthy of an impossible crime, although more appropriate for the short story variety.

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A Dying Fall – Henry Wade (1955)

There’s really nothing at all that interests me about horse races, nor am I that interested in horses.  Credit to Henry Wade then for writing an entire novel deeply entrenched in all things horse, yet somehow leaving me lapping up every page.  Now, I knew that Wade was a talented writer; his Heir Presumptive was a highlight read of 2020, and the murder scene in that story stands out as one of the most visceral experiences that I’ve read to date.  So perhaps it isn’t surprising that A Dying Fall hit the spot for me, horses and all.

A Dying Fall is a mystery in a strange way.  It’s kind of an inverted mystery, with police pursuing horse trainer Charles Rathlyn for the murder of his extremely wealthy wife, except that we don’t really know if he’s guilty.  In experiencing the story through his eyes we know that he had a conflictingly-compelling motive for killing her, but we don’t quite know if he took advantage of her occasional sleep walking and pushed her over a bannister.  The police force are split between whether it was all an accident or murder, and one detective in particular hounds Rathlyn relentlessly.

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Bodies in a Bookshop – RT Campbell (1946)

It seems that this will be the second installment of my “I thought that this was a locked room mystery, but was mistaken” series.  I read this entire book thinking that it was featured on the Roland Lacourbe list of top impossible crimes, and was a bit stumped about how this could be considered a locked room mystery.  In hindsight, I believe that I bought this book around the same time that I acquired T.H. White’s Darkness at Pemberley (which is featured on the list), the books sat together on my TBR pile, and over time my mind got mixed up.

Bodies in a Bookshop does actually feature a murder in a locked room, but eschewing impossible crime tradition, the room is locked from the outside.  Two men are found dead in the backroom of a bookshop, having succumbed to a leak from a faulty gas ring.  There’s a bit of a question as to why the men didn’t simply open a window, and foul play is somewhat obvious given that the office door was latched from the outside.

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The Phantom Passage – Paul Halter (2005)

Man, I must have been in some sort of funk.  Saturday morning rolls around, and it’s time to pick my read for the weekend, and there just wasn’t anything on my shelves that was jumping out at me.  Normally I’d spend my Friday evening peaking through the numerous To Be Read piles littering my desk and scanning my book shelves for the next read.  For some reason I just wasn’t feeling it this time.  Pick back up with John Dickson Carr or Agatha Christie?  Not today.  Maybe dig into Henry Wade, R Austin Freeman, or Freeman Wills Crofts?  Nah.  How about Herbert Brean or Theodore Roscoe?  Those are guaranteed good reads.  Norman Berrow, Anthony Boucher, Rupert Benny, Anthony Berkeley….?  How about one of those honkaku impossible crimes?  They’re always incredibly fun.

I don’t get why, but none of it seemed particularly exciting.  Even the guarantee of a smashing time with Paul Halter didn’t get me wound up.  I went with that choice anyway, and selected The Phantom Passage, a story that’s garnered some recommendations and I’ve been meaning to get around to.  Damned if I didn’t make it thirty pages in before my passion for reading was fully ablaze.

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Death, My Darling Daughters – Jonathan Stagge (1945)

It’s been about two and a half years since I read Death’s Old Sweet Song by Jonathan Stagge.  Since that time I’ve read four novels by the writing collective most commonly known as Patrick Quentin, with the result being somewhat of a mixed bag.  Each book had its own moments in the sun, but I’d only enthusiastically recommend Death and The Maiden and Cottage Sinister.  It’s those two books though that have driven a hunger to find similarly satisfying reads by the authors.  It’s a difficult hunger to satisfy though, as aside from the Peter Duluth series published under the name of Patrick Quentin, you’re pretty lucky to pay less than $80 a book for any of the rest of the library.

So count me lucky that I managed to find a cheap copy of Death, My Darling Daughters.  It was published the year before Death’s Old Sweet Song, which puts it late in the run of nine Dr Westlake mysteries released under the name of Jonathan Stagge between 1936 and 1949.

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Swan Song – Edmund Crispin (1947)

It’s been a few years since I read anything by Edmund Crispin.  Following a bout of eagerly purchasing most of his limited library, I actually got around to reading him in the form of The Moving Toyshop.  It’s an ok book to be sure, but I was left more puzzled by why it’s so well known.  I followed it up with Love Lies Bleeding, which never captured my imagination, and felt entirely forgettable even as I read it.

I’ve always heard good things about Swan Song, and having acquired what I deemed to be the most desirable edition (Felony and Mayhem, 2006), I promptly sat on it for two years.  You see, I have this stack of books that I’m “going to read next” – Peter Dickinson’s The Poisoned Oracle, Paul Gallico’s Too Many Ghosts, Michael Innes’ Hamlet Revenge, and roughly a dozen others – that has become a sort of book graveyard.  I really do intend to read these next, but somehow when I go to pick my next read, it never comes off this pile.  Swan Song was trapped in that perdition as well, and it’s time to break free.

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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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