F Van Wyck Mason has been on my radar ever since Tomcat reviewed The Fort Terror Murders roughly a year ago. The wacky map included in the book caught my attention, as did the off-the-wall treasure hunt plot. That kind of pulp appeals to me a bit and brings back memories of the old books I used to stumble upon at my grandparent’s house when I was a kid. Mix in some sort of golden age murder mystery and I’m game.
There’s a lot to choose from when it comes to Van Wyck Mason. His library rivals the likes of Carr and Christie, although much of it seems to have focused on spy thrillers and adventure laden retellings of America’s bloody past. A tip I stumbled upon in the comment section of the review for The Fort Terror Murders was to keep an eye out for books with “murder” in the title from the 30’s – apparently that was the run where Van Wyck Mason was doing his mystery bit. While I struck out on finding an appealing copy meeting that criteria, I did snag this killer Handi Book Mystery edition of Spider House with a truly vintage cover.
Normally I’d save discussion of my edition for the end, but here I think it ties tightly to the story that I experienced. My edition is marked as abridged, and I believe it is heavily so. I’ve seen another review of the book that suggests that another edition (I’m guessing hardback) runs to 300 some pages. Understand that a 300 page vintage hard cover typically translates to about a 220 page vintage paperback. Well, my Handi Book clocks in at 127 pages, which has me thinking there’s some heavy lopping going on here. Whether that’s a good or bad thing I can’t quite say.
Spider House starts off firmly in the murder mystery camp, although there’s a pulpy thinness that kept me from getting fully enveloped in the plot. Ezra Boonton, the Spider of Wall Street, has swindled enough people that he’s fearing for his life. He’s apparently had the luxury of time to construct a fortress of a house to guard against would be assassins. Living his life on the secured second floor, it’s impossible for a visitor to approach Boonton without passing through a series of well-guarded strategic choke points. Obviously this is a setting ripe for a locked room murder…
Except it isn’t. Boonton indeed winds up dead, but there are four other guests sleeping in his sprawling equivalent of a safe room. Any one of them could have pulled the trigger that put a bullet through his heart, although nobody seems to have heard a gun shot. And, there’s the complication that a gun is nowhere to be found. How could the gun have been smuggled out of the crime scene given a tight police presence at the only possible exit?
Thus begins Spider House, foot firmly planted in impossible crime territory. The book then takes a hard and unexpected turn towards hard boiled. While not my thing, I’ll admit that it was a thrilling ride. The 127 pages moved by in a blur, and then we jolted back towards conventional mystery for a wrapping up of the crime.
It’s all conveyed from the point of view of police captain Janos Catlin, who comes across as an Wyck Mason’s embodiment of what every man on the planet should aspire to be. We’re almost in proto James Bond territory, and if you can handle it with a smirk, it’s fun stuff.
The wrap of the crime… mehhhh… is ok. There’s nothing especially clever to see here. Yes, I would have never anticipated the explanation behind the impossibly disappearing gun, but at the same time I have no clue why the killer had to make it impossible at all. Perhaps that’s explained more in the full version, but I somehow doubt it.
The abridgment must factor in though somehow. I could see that in aspects while reading. Characters who had previously been only referred to by last names were suddenly referenced on an unintroduced first name basis in an awkward way. Then there’s an entire character who never shows up at all (I’ll withhold any details because this seems to rule them out as a suspect), who is referenced so many times that I have to think there is at least a chapter devoted to them in the non-abridged version.
End judgement? It was a good read, but not the sort that I’ll remember much of two years from now. I’m not going to recommend that you actively seek it out, but if you happen to stumble upon Spider House I think you’ll be happy with the result. I’ll continue to look for The Fort Terror Murders and some of the early 30’s titles like Seeds of Murder, but I’m probably going to leave the post 30s books untouched for the time being, even though some with “murder” in the name are easy enough to find.