A man wakes up from a drugged stupor to the sound of incessant pounding at the door. He finds himself inside a room thoroughly locked from the inside, accompanied by a deceased occupant stabbed through the heart. No, this isn’t a review of John Dickson Carr’s The Judas Window, but like me, you may find yourself curious to see what another author could do with the same premise.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been intrigued by a Carr copy cat. The Five Matchboxes by John Russell Fearn duplicates the setup of Carr’s classic The Ten Teacups, although aside from the significance of the matchboxes, I can’t remember much of that one. It’s a tall order to attempt to play off of one of the best in the business – I mean, is Hugh Holman actually going to provide a solution to the problem that’s better than The Judas Window?
The answer is no – the trick behind the locked room in Slay the Murderer is thoroughly disappointing (although somewhat downplayed) – and yet the story itself is excellent. While Holman may have arrived at the same set up as Carr’s masterpiece locked room, he creates a tale that is entirely different, and in a way doesn’t even try to compete.
Holman has come a long way from his first novel, Death Like Thunder. The plot of both books are much the same – an outsider accused of murder in a small South Carolina town – and yet Homan’s a lot more sure footed in his third outing. Death Like Thunder was very explicit in telling the reader “this book is taking place in the south” and “southerners don’t like northerners”. Those same truths may hold in Slay the Murderer, but they’re much more subtly conveyed.
The murder and the accompanying mystery are at very much the forefront of the tale, and yet the book is strengthened for capturing a time and a place. Front and center is Sheriff John Macready; a Dr Gideon Fell imitation for sure, yet an odd silhouette of what Fell may have been as a small town South Carolina sheriff. Holman pulls off that electricity of Fell – “beaming like a walking furnace”, if you will – and I’ll be reading more books on account of this character alone.
Slay the Murderer is ultimately your Golden Age story of a family of grotesques; think a toned down There Was an Old Woman or perhaps a Crooked House. The elder brother of the family winds up dead in aforementioned locked room, and there’s a strong indication that outsider (and worse, government worker) Charles Cole did the deed. Sheriff John Mcready doesn’t think so though. The doors and windows have been wiped clean of finger prints, as has the knife thrust into the victim’s chest. Despite a looming election, Mcready risks his badge by allowing Cole to follow him around on the murder investigation in a manner as unbelievable and yet as convincing as something that John Dickson Carr may well have dreamed up.
“A lot of simple things put together can make a mighty complicated picture.”
Yeah, you have to suspend belief a tiny bit, but man, this is a load of fun. You get the small town sheriff up against the slimy political rival, the locals ready to string an innocent man up the nearest pole, and one of those mysteries where ten different threads come together satisfyingly in the end. No, this isn’t some brilliant mystery with breath taking misdirection, but you could do a lot worse with eighty percent of books kicking around from this era.
Plus, I learned some fun things. Did you know that bleach used to be called Javelle water? Well, you probably did, but I sure didn’t.
Don’t read this for the locked room mystery; Holman himself acknowledges that he didn’t even try via a comment from Mcready lamenting that he could have lectured on about locked room solutions but there wasn’t a use. Read this instead because you’re looking for a solid Golden Age mystery that does something a little different, yet hits those tropes you’re looking for. This is a solid enough read that I’ll be tracking down the rest of Holman’s scant library on the hopes of a repeat.