When Coachwhip Publications reprinted The Owner Lies Dead in 2017, it was definitely one of the Golden Age reprints receiving a lot of buzz at the time. The reviews full on caught my attention, promising a rare mine-set mystery combined with a vexing impossible crime. It made my Christmas wish list that year, and has inexplicably sat unread ever since.
Well, not that I haven’t tried to read it. I’ve taken several trips through the southwest United States since obtaining this book, and each time, The Owner Lies Dead has traveled with me. Through legendary old mining towns like Silverton, Ouray, Durango, Telluride, and Idaho Springs, the book has jostled along. Of course I have this bad habit of always packing two books too many when I travel (wouldn’t want to get stuck dry), and somehow I never got around to reading it. I’ve even driven past Genesee, Colorado (where the Coachwhip publication states the book is set) multiple times with the book tagging along with me (Genesee is located just outside of Denver near Red Rocks amphitheater – you’ll inevitably unknowingly drive past it if you’re ever in Colorado to ski). While the book does take place in a mining town named Genesee, I’m not convinced that the town is supposed to be set in Colorado (although author Tyline Perry was a resident of the mountain state), because at several points in the story, it seems to be implied that New York City is relatively close by.
Anyway… oh yeah, the actual story. The Haunted Mine (great pulpy name, but unfortunately not capitalized on for creep factor) is on fire, with seventeen men trapped below. The son of the owner rushes inside to save them, but doesn’t make it back out. With the rescue effort abandoned, the entrance to the mine is sealed with cement in an effort to put out the blaze. Five weeks later, the mine is reopened, and the owner’s son’s body is recovered. But he didn’t die from smoke or the fire – he died from a bullet in the back.
I honestly think this might be one of the best setups to a Golden Age mystery, and you can understand why I was so eager to buy this one when I first read the reviews. Unfortunately you have to take the impossible crime angle with a coal-sized nugget of salt. The solution comes less than midway through the book, in one of those “well, why didn’t you mention that thing that makes this not at all impossible?” moments. Ignore the disappointment of the impossibility though, and you still have an absolute labyrinth of twists and turns…… if only they weren’t all so damn obvious.
Look, the last thing that I want to do is to solve a mystery when I’m reading it. I mean, I want to try to solve the mystery, but I want the author to be several steps ahead of me and ultimately sucker punch me with a twist I didn’t see coming; a twist that reframes everything that came before. With The Owner Lies Dead, I saw all of the twists coming from a mile away. To be clear, that’s not bragging; it’s absolutely unfortunate. And the funny thing is, you have epic levels of misdirection going on here. This is the stuff of Death Watch or The Seventh Hypothesis – in which the reader reads one set of events while a completely different set are playing out – and yet the comparison breaks down because this one is so easy to see through.
I mean, normally when I “solve” a mystery, it means that I’ve seen through the general puzzle, but it doesn’t mean that I’ve come close to putting all of the pieces together. I saw through the core impossibility in John Dickson Carr’s The Unicorn Murders, but I still couldn’t have explained 90% of the rest of the solution to that baffling crime. With The Owner Lies Dead, I honestly think I’ve never read a story where I could fill in the background gaps with such certainty. Not just who did it and how they did it, but everything that happened along the way.
Which is so unfortunate. I hope that you read this book and it fools you, because it would probably be one of the best mysteries you’ve read if it succeeds. Tyline Perry’s writing is effortless and enchanting, and I have to hope that someone decides to republish her only other novel-length offering to the genre (The Never Summer Mystery), or collects her various pulp stories. Perry is so successful in building up the town of Genesee and the core cast that it’s easy to get swept away in the story. There’s an element that almost feels like a grown up children’s novel – think Home Sweet Homicide by Craig Rice – that allows you to get lost in the story despite the obvious mysteries.
And man, Perry’s got the talent for it, and I swear with a few more novels under her belt should could have put out some classics. She knows how to lay out a mystery, but she just doesn’t yet know how to anticipate what the reader will suspect. Perry spins a web of false plot lines and solutions, which would have the naive reader tying themselves in knots, but it grows tiresome when you see through it all and just have to wait it all out. I’m reminded of John Dickson Carr’s words in his final novel, The Hungry Goblin:
“Be fair with your readers; tell ‘em everything. But don’t tell ‘em everything in a simple minded way. First decide what the average reader will suspect – anticipate it, and fool him. Then decide what the clever reader will suspect – anticipate it, and fool him. Thus, all openly, you prepare your thunderbolt for the end.”
Still, this was a top notch read, and although the mystery element may have been the weakness, everything else hit the mark. I’m glad this book was brought back to life, and Coachwhip sets the tone perfectly with one of the nicest covers that I’ve seen for a modern reprint outside of the Bryan Flynn reissues.