Invisible Green – John Sladek (1977)

InvisibleGreenIt’s a setup to be savored: members of a murder mystery club picked off one by one in impossible circumstances.  Landing at position 15 in Ed Hoch’s list of top impossible crime novels, there seems to be a consensus that Invisible Green is one of the entries that actually deserves to be there.  I’ve been saving this one for a while, and now that I’m binging on top shelf reads, this seemed as good a time as any.

John Sladek only wrote two mystery novels, both starring amateur detective/miscreant Thackeray Phin.  I’d previously read his first entry: Black Aura.  Stacked with three perplexing impossibilities – including a man hovering outside an upper story window before plunging to his death – Black Aura was a solid read… and yet I didn’t quite click as much with its 1970’s bohemian vibe (not to mention that the solution to one of the puzzles was… frustrating).  I’ll state now that Invisible Green is the better of the two books.

Yeah, it’s still set in the 70s, but what’s John Sladek to do?  Born at the height of the golden age, Sladek was middle aged at the time of writing this one, but it seems like he was influenced by the best of an earlier era.  Sladek has a wit about his writing that reminds me somewhat of a toned down Christianna Brand.  It’s not just the wry observations littering the text.  Invisible Green features a Brandian opening, introducing each character one by one in their own setting.  There’s also that way that both authors manage to send a chill down the spine with the simple suggestion that one amongst the cast is set on murder.

“Before he’d reached the bus stop, the faces of the Seven Unravellers were already blurring in his memory.  He thought of old Sir Tony with the joke knife-handle on his back, and he thought of the faces reacting to it: some shocked, others immediately annoyed by the joke…

But one face, for a moment, had registered something else: a German might have called it Schaudenfreude, but the photographer had to settle for a ‘devil grin’.  One, out of the Seven, had been gloating over the ‘body’ of Sir Anthony Fitch.  But which one?”

The Seven Unravellers refers to the ex-members of a long disbanded murder mystery club.  Each has gone their separate ways, and an invitation to a reunion sparks a run of murders.  A mysterious figure, dubbed Mr Green, is knocking the gang off one by one and leaving clues in the form of colors.  But why?

The answer to why is perhaps one of the best parts of the book, because it seems so straight forward in retrospect.  But before we get there, we’ve got a series of impossible murders to contend with.  It’s the first murder that probably gets the most press – a paranoid man inexplicably killed in his fortress of a house, with lock laden doors and untouched talcum powder covering the floor.  I’d argue that Sladek somewhat downplays just how impossible it is, with the death taking a backseat to other events in the book.  The solution though is entirely original, and no doubt why this book still gets talked about today.

It’s the second murder that receives the bulk of the screen time: a man stabbed in inexplicable circumstances.  I’ll avoid much detail because the crime comes as a surprise, but the general idea is that witnesses peppering a setting rule out the possibility that anyone approached the victim.  This is the puzzle that Sladek sets up the best, although the solution is at once frustrating and clever.  There’s a definite wow moment when a fact is revealed, and it provides a beautiful explanation as to why witnesses overheard a particular something.

I won’t divulge exactly how many murders there are in Invisible Green, because part of the intrigue is in seeing how far the killer will make it down the line.  Still, I have to give some recognition to the final murder; a seemingly vanilla slaying made most interesting by the presence of air tight alibis for all suspects.  Sladek plays a brilliant trick with the reader’s assumptions, and in some ways this may be the most satisfying solution of them all.

So there’s a ton to love.  What doesn’t work?  Nothing really, other than the minor disappointment with the solution to the second murder.  I wills grouse that most any plot summary (including mine) inevitably overplays the fact that the gang of suspects/victims are members of a murder mystery club.  They might as well have been stamp collectors, as there’s no real discussion of mysteries, nor are there attempts by the members to apply their craft to solve the crime.  If you want something like that, you’re better served by The Decagon House Murders or The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars.

But that’s a weak complaint.  John Sladek never claimed to be writing that book, it’s just an assumption a modern reader might jump to when they hear the setup.  Invisible Green is ultimately memorable for how it all clicks together in the end.  Why Mr Green?  Why the color clues?  How was a paranoid man killed in a fortress of a dwelling?  Better yet, why was he killed?

It’s the answer to those questions (and several more I’ll leave unmentioned) that really makes this book stand out for me.  It wasn’t so much the identity of the killer that surprised me, but rather the way that the motive cascaded like sand in the end.  Worthy of a top 10 impossible crime novel list?  More worthy than most that I see listed as contenders.

My edition

I spent a long time hunting down a Walker British Mystery edition of this book simply because the cover seemed like the best available.  It turned out to be a good choice, as the cover depicts a key scene and provides a nice representation of the characters.

You may also notice that my cover has a patch missing from it.  Alas, it wasn’t that way when I bought it.  Rather, the spot was covered by a price tag, which I carefully and successfully peeled away.  The problem is, I didn’t bother to remove the tacky film left behind by the sticker.  Once I stacked another book on top, my Invisible Green became fused to it.  I’ve since learned my lesson and take the pain to use an adhesive remover to clean up the remnants.  Hopefully you’ll take heed and avoid a similar fate.

7 thoughts on “Invisible Green – John Sladek (1977)”

  1. It’s really something special, isn’t it? Invisible Green reads like an author trying to cram in everything he’s ever loved about mysteries into a comedy of manners. But then he’s got a good sense of unease. There’s always the feeling that any character could die. The presentation of the impossibilities is second to none.

    I read Black Aura a long time after IG, and I was immediately pulled back into Sladek’s universe. He’s got a unique style of misdirection. And the prologue! That’s the best mystery prologue I’ve read. So subtle.

    Glad you liked it.

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    1. It’s amazing that Sladek managed to pack in three well done crimes into a single novel. It isn’t unusual to have multiple murders in a book, but you typically end up with one star and the rest are more of throw aways. In this case, all three murders were puzzling and each solution was memorable.

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      1. The crimes are great, the solutions are brilliant, and I’m delighted to find like minds in my assertion that this is the superior of Sladek’s two mystery novels — BA is great, but IG is a work of art.

        See this s why you shouldn’t hoard classic titles, dude — you reduce the amount of time that you’re aware of just how damn good they are…!

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      2. Mainly I’m just pleased for you — you’re about to go on a voyage of discovery, and then you have the rest of your life to go on about how brilliant they are; exciting times!

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  2. This is a great book, and it’s too bad that Sladek stuck to science fiction after it. He said in an interview that he wanted to write more mysteries, but “I was turning out a product the supermarket didn’t need any more…One could starve very quickly writing locked-room mysteries like those.” Once the Golden Age was over, there were so many promising impossible-crime writers whose careers got derailed simply by lack of interest from publishers and/or readers. Hake Talbot and Derek Smith both gave up fiction entirely after getting too many rejections, Joseph Commings spent his whole career writing short stories for obscure magazines, and there are probably others we’ve never heard of at all. And there are extant manuscripts of rejected novels by Christianna Brand and Anthony Boucher just waiting around for someone to publish them (I know Brand’s is a locked room story; not sure about Boucher’s).

    Speaking of Boucher, I know you’re not a fan of THE CASE OF THE SEVEN SNEEZES, but I think it shares a very ingenious misdirection device with INVISIBLE GREEN (let’s put this in ROT13): Gur zheqrere ABG orvat n zrzore bs gur tebhc gung vf erhavgvat nsgre znal lrnef, ohg vafgrnq n lbhatre eryngvir bs bar bs gurz. Ur’f fgvyy n znwbe punenpgre, ohg gur ernqre’f nggragvba vf qverpgrq njnl sebz uvz orpnhfr gurl guvax gur xvyyre zhfg or bar bs gur byqre tebhc. (Bs pbhefr, guvf zrnaf gur “qrivy teva” guvat arire ernyyl cynlf n ebyr va gur cybg, ohg jr pna’g unir rirelguvat.)

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    1. All good points left in ROT-13, and yes, unfortunate that one bit doesn’t play out.

      It’s a crime to think of all of the rejected manuscripts that are out there, if they still even exist at all.

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