I became aware of Hugh Holman through a review of Up This Crooked Way over at Beneath the Stains of Time. Holman produced six detective novels, and from the meager details I can find online, it appears that some of them may feature an impossible crime. An affordably priced copy of the Hangman’s House edition of Death Like Thunder was too good to pass up, with a stellar cover and the feel of a well worn baseball mitt.
Death Like Thunder opens with New York City radio script writer Mike Leiter arriving in small town South Carolina in search of inspiration for his flagging mystery series. He finds that inspiration within the first dozen pages, but not in the way that he might have liked. A man is shot in a darkened room full of witnesses during a blackout, and when the lights come on, Leiter finds himself with the murder weapon in his hand.
This seems to be a reoccurring theme for Hugh Holman: of the plot descriptions that I can find, his books consistently involve a northern transplant to South Carolina wrongly accused of a murder that they seemingly had to commit. In Death Like Thunder, the case against Mike Leiter appears to be air tight. All other occupants in the room where the shooting occurred were situated in such a manner that they each have at least two witnesses that can attest that they remained seated and couldn’t have been in the doorway where the shot was fired. This isn’t quite an impossible crime – there’s the possibility that some unknown outsider crept into the house and fired the shot – but if we’re willing to accept the closed circle of suspects and Leiter’s innocence, then we can consider this to be a case of unbreakable alibi.
The police seem to have an open and shut case, but there are cracks in it. How did the power in the house go out shortly before the shooting? How did the murderer see the victim in a completely dark room? Why was a second shot fired at a car parked in front of the house?
This probably sounds like an interesting set up, but there was something a bit thin about how it was presented. The crime occurs very early on, and I had the sense that there had been no chance in the brief set up for any real misdirection to occur. My assumption turned out to be correct, but Holman did manage to recover on that front by the end of the book.
Honestly I wasn’t that thrilled with the first third of the book. At its best it captures small town South Carolina in the 1940s and gives an eye opening take of a local’s perspective on racism and attitudes towards northern states. At its worst, it regularly swerves into awkward territory, with clumsy passages such as:
“I have quite the collection of Colts – you must examine them sometime when you are over at my house. They’re all in a big case just inside my library. Take them out and look at them. The case is never locked.”
Bear in mind that the above passage is between two men who just met, and is one of the first ten sentences spoken between them.
There’s also this section concerning a lawyer attempting to hire a secretary, and I’ll set the stage by telling you that this is the character you’re most likely to sympathize with.
“‘Pulchritudinous’ was the word that automatically ruled out the waiting group, collectively and individually. But you can’t tell a woman she isn’t pretty enough to work for you – not and keep a semblance of reputation in a town of five thousand. You had to find some other and more physically complimentary excuse.”
Somehow though, I got really wrapped up in the story for the final half. Holman seems to have found his pace (Death Like Thunder was his first mystery novel), the awkwardness subsided, and I just got sucked into the story. I’ll make no claim that this is a book that you should seek out, but it ended up making for an engrossing read, in particular the courtroom scene that closes out the story.
As for the solution – it was a fairly clever bit of trickery, although nothing to ring a bell about. I caught onto the most obvious part of it (no spoilers) involving a flashlight, and the principle behind the main trick did flash through my mind, but I dismissed it as far fetched. If you’re a collector of puzzle-type solutions, this is worth your attention, but don’t come looking for that next great thing.
It’s worth mentioning that Hugh Holman seems to have had some relationship with John Dickson Carr. Carr’s final novel, The Hungry Goblin, is dedicated “To Hugh Holman”. Holman grew up in South Carolina (although later moved to North Carolina), and Carr spent his final years starting in 1965 (around the time of The House at Satan’s Elbow) in Greenville, South Carolina. I didn’t find any mention of Holman in Douglas Greene’s biography of Carr, but I’d be interested to know more about the relationship.
Death Like Thunder was originally published by Phoenix Press, and the first edition cover captures an element of the crime being committed in an interesting way. My Hangman’s House paperback edition, on the other hand, has an absolutely gorgeous cover, that oddly has nothing to do with the story. It’s an interesting physical specimen though, running a mere 116 pages, yet those pages are a good inch wider than usual. As such it’s somewhat difficult to gauge the length of this book, although it felt shorter than most.
The Hangman’s House edition is “condensed slightly”, which hopefully explains some of the clumsier passages towards the beginning of the story. The back cover of the book is an illustration of the Hangman’s House logo, and interestingly doesn’t feature any text. The paper stock used for the edition feels almost like a newspaper, and the cover is a thick and amazingly smooth card stock that feels of oiled leather. Definitely a nice physical copy to have.