“I came up here to make a dead man change his mind.”
I have a heavy suspicion that at some point, nearly every review of Rim of the Pit includes that immortal first line of the story. And how could you not? It’s a perfect quote to set the stage for the ensuing madness that unfolds. Famously cited as the second best impossible crime novel of all time in a 1981 poll, Rim of the Pit has a heavy reputation to live up to. Curiously, it’s one of only two full length mystery novels published by Hake Talbot, making you question the potential of what might have been.
I’ll just cut to the chase and declare that it’s well worthy of its legend. The second best impossible crime novel? Mmm, I’ve no room to judge in my limited mystery reading career. I’ll tell you though that if you’re a fan of the genre, you’re in for a treat that you’ll remember for a long time.
It’s as if Talbot had read through John Dickson Carr’s first four Henry Merrivale works (The Plague Court Murders, The White Priory Murders, The Red Widow Murders, and The Unicorn Murders), smiled and said “yeah, I got this.” It’s these four Carr books that exude atmosphere and feature some of the author’s most perplexing puzzles, and Talbot seems to capture this essence and then multiply it. The shear number of impossibilities is staggering. We get not just one or two, but…a lot. I did a rough tally and we’re in the neighborhood of seven puzzles that could each form the basis of a typical novel.
The story takes place in the snow choked New England wilderness. The Ogden family owns significant timber lands, but Irene Ogden has been reluctant to let her current husband, Frank Ogden, log a key stretch of forest. She had made a promise to her previous husband, a skilled outdoorsman who died under mysterious circumstances, to avoid logging the land for decades. Hence that famous opening line.
Frank Ogden has convinced Irene to host a seance at the family’s isolated cabin in the hopes that her dead husband will grant permission to the timber. Eight participants sit in awe as Irene seems to summon the powers of the beyond – accomplishing impossible feats such as reading questions sealed in envelopes and triggering spirits to interact with the audience. The tense seance ends with her dead husband’s ghost materializing above the audience and then floating down a hallway where it vanishes in a dead end.
So we have our mystery, don’t we? Not so fast. One of the participants in the seance is a magician who specializes in debunking fake mediums. In typical end-of-the-book fashion, he delivers a lecture on spiritual deception, dispatching mystery after mystery and exposing Irene as a fraud. That’s all by page 70. With this, Talbot exercises a key talent that I look for in a mystery – pace of revelation.
Too often we sit through nearly 200 pages of investigation, licking our chops for that eventual reveal that we know isn’t coming until the final chapter. Every once in a while though, we get a story with that perfect marbling of discovery. The reader is rewarded with answers throughout the book, creating a sense of progress, and more importantly feeding that craving for the solutions to the puzzle. When it’s done just right, those epiphanies open the door for even more questions. Prime examples of this that come to mind are The Judas Window, Till Death Do Us Part, and The Red Widow Murders by John Dickson Carr (who else did you think I was going to use as an example?) Contrast that with the alternative – chapter after chapter of Fell/Merrivale just on the brink of explaining the mystery, only to be interrupted and the solution moved once more beyond the horizon.
Talbot takes it to another level in Rim of the Pit. By the end of chapter six, he’s constructed and almost completely deconstructed an entire book worthy mystery – only the apparition of the dead husband remains unexplained. We have 16 more chapters to go, and Talbot’s just getting started. By the end, we’ll rack up not just one, but two locked room mysteries. Top that with flying demons, bodies surrounded by untouched snow, footprints that begin and lead to nowhere, and multiple feats that no human could accomplish.
It almost seems natural for Talbot – he was a magician in real life after all. He pulls the plot forward time and time again by revealing how illusions are accomplished. In the words of Vok, his in-story magician, “Look for the unnecessary”. Yet even with all of those reveals, we still know that Talbot is hoodwinking us with those bigger impossibilities – the locked rooms, the footprints to nowhere. And so we look for the unnecessary, and therein the author lures the ‘learned’ reader into his traps. On multiple occasions, I found myself sure that I had nailed the solution, only to have a character explicitly raise the same argument pages later. Yes, it’s standard affair to dangle red herrings in front of the audience, but the most skilled writer makes the reader perform a mental gymnastic beyond the obvious, tricking the observant veteran into thinking they’ve seen behind the curtain. The White Priory Murders and She Died a Lady feature excellent examples of this technique.
The strength of Rim of the Pit lies not only in the number and nature of the impossibilities. We have a frantic thriller that vergers on horror; the hair raising sense that something is lurking out in those woods, waiting to pick the characters off one by one. That horror is multiplied by the knowledge that it isn’t really going to be a ghost or a creature, but one of the well fleshed out characters in the small circle of suspects.
The end is a mixed bag. We’re treated to an engrossing 20 page solution that explains the puzzles and features surprises of its own. And yet, the solutions to some of the impossibilities aren’t quite up to snuff. Talbot is most successful when explaining the more minor puzzles, such as a card trick or the seance chicanery. While the locked room solutions were satisfying, some of the other major impossibilities came up short. I’ll reserve my specific complaints for now – JJ at The Invisible Event is teaming up with Dan from The Reader is Warned in July for a no holds barred spoiler-laden examination of Rim of the Pit. I assure you I’ll be there, axe in hand.