This is a book that I’ve been dying to get to for a while now. First, it’s featured in John Pugmire’s list of 99 key locked room novels. Second, reliable impossible crime enthusiast JJ at The Invisible Event posted a review raving about the book despite declaring it contrary to his usual mystery standards. The real reason though that I’ve been excited about The Devil Drives is the physical copy I got hold of – a 1944 Bartholomew House edition.
I’ve never had a Bart before, but this one is gorgeous. The feel of the cover is almost that of a well worn leather baseball mitt. The pages are of WW2 regulation paper-saving stock – so soft to the touch that they feel like they were printed on the skin of a lamb who lived its entire short little life in a bath of warm olive oil. I have a dozen or so other books of similar vintage (all Pocket Books and nearly all Ellery Queens), but my copy of The Devil Drives is unsurpassed in the experience of simply holding it.
Well, so, that’s a bit of a weird reason to fall in love with a book. Fortunately, I fell just as much in love with the story. The Devil Drives is a strange beast that defies just about every expectation for a GAD mystery. It’s laden with pulp of the most sumptuous sort, and although a series of mysteries are present throughout, it isn’t until nearly the end that we encounter a bizarre impossible crime and anything resembling a police investigation.
The novel even starts unconventionally, with a chapter zero. A prison warden (his name isn’t quite relevant because it will change multiple times before the end of the story) foils an attempted breakout by a convict moments away from the death chamber. The prisoner’s cryptic final words set in motion a chain of events that find the warden quitting his job, joining the leagues of the criminal underworld, and embarking on a series of mysterious quests.
The core mystery revolves around a packet of letters between two unknown individuals some undetermined number of years in the past. Author Virgil Markham litters the pages with a number of passages from the letters, which seem to be some love notes by a teenage girl to an older man who deflects her advances. I’m a big sucker for a story within a story, although in this case the contents of the letters themselves aren’t overly intriguing – certainly nothing in the vein of the haunting historical passages in The Red Widow Murders or The Plague Court Murders. There’s something hinted at in the notes though – a real life buried treasure. Markham leverages that pulpy morsel to transform the letters into somewhat of a legend. As vanilla as they seemed on the surface, I could tell that clues to something lay lurking on every page.
Our warden friend sets out on a mission to find the treasure, which means tracking down the authors or finding some clue to where they were written. Why this necessitates him joining the ranks of thugs and gangsters was initially beyond me when I read it, but the results are pure enjoyment. The book is an unpredictable series of adventures and I found myself getting caught up in the tension of the warden’s various escapades.
If you read these types of books purely for a GAD detective mystery, this may not be your thing. But, if you’ve read enough GAD, you’ve probably experienced the strange but delightful intersection of pulp and mystery found in books like Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit. In a similar sense you have books like The Punch and Judy Murders (Carr), The Danger Within (Gilbert), or Patrick Butler for the Defense (Carr) which are full fledged thrillers encasing a puzzling crime. These may be diverse brethren, but The Devil Drives is their coked out cousin.
I’m sitting there, enjoying the hell out of this motley crime caper when I’m nearly thrown out of my seat as the story takes a deep swerve into impossible crime territory. What caught me so off guard is that it occurs somewhere around the three quarters mark, when you’d typically be expecting a mystery to start to wrap up. I normally wouldn’t get into details for a crime occurring so late in a story, but this on is so bizarre that I can’t help but talk about it (in vague terms).
A character is found drowned on dry land – encased in a locked house no less. The body is soaking wet, the floor is covered by muddy footprints, and yet the small cottage is clamped down from inside and strong as an oak. Although this gem of a puzzle is tucked into a sprawling plot, it is given the full focus that a locked room mystery truly deserves. We get page upon page upon page of investigation selling us on just how impossible the crime is. Every possible trick is evaluated and dismissed.
As peculiar as the impossibility is, the solution is even more bizarre. I doubt everyone will enjoy how the trick was pulled off, but no one will argue that Virgil Markham didn’t come up with a completely unique solution to a locked room murder. Best of all, the method is hinted at multiple times, and even though I made one correct association, I wasn’t able to follow through on the solution. Ah, the joy of being fooled.
The Devil Drives is one of those books that is going to stand out in my memory as being something special. Every time I pick up some under the radar book, I’m going to be looking for this same experience again. I know though that I’ll never get it.