The Hangman’s Handyman – Hake Talbot (1942)

It’s as if Hake Talbot wrote this story just for me.  From the very first page this was a dark brooding read, and as the chapters unfolded, there were all of the other tropes that I love the most.  It’s rare that I find a story that truly fires on all cylinders, and The Hangman’s Handyman is one of them.

To begin with, we have a jam thick atmosphere, as we find ourselves stranded on a small coastal Carolina island during a raging storm.  The inhabitants of the lone house are gathered by the fire discussing an old family legend.  Their host inexplicably drops dead before their eyes, struck down at the moment that his brother utters a fabled curse.  Poison seems like the only possible explanation, but how was it timed so perfectly?  And how has the body decayed so drastically just a few hours after death?

Author Hake Talbot is most famous for his only other contribution to the mystery genre, Rim of the Pit.  Frequently recognized as one of the ten best impossible crime novels of all time, the story earns its reputation with vanishing footprints in the snow, a flying demon, locked rooms, and a body surrounded by untouched snow.  It’s the chilling  atmosphere though that I remember, and if you don’t come into the book knowing that it’s a Golden Age mystery, you’d be well excused to think that it was a tale of supernatural horror.

What ultimately sets Rim of the Pit apart in my mind is the rate of discovery.  Talbot laces the story with a number of small puzzles, and the cast actually solves them along the way, rather than cramming all of the revelations into the end of the book (granted, you still get about eight solutions in the final chapter).  This kept the pace tight and provided a sense of accomplishment throughout the read.

Talbot employs that technique in The Hangman’s Handyman, via an amateur magician character who presents minor magic tricks as metaphors for how the larger crimes could have been accomplished.  There’s nothing especially audacious here – your standard cup under foil pushed through the table trick – and yet it provides that taste of revelation throughout the story.

Another trick that Talbot employs to move things along is the story-within-the-story.  Similar to The Plague Court Murders, The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars, and The Red Widow Murders, we get an escape from the main proceedings with small tales that provide additional background; in this case a passage providing the history of the family curse, plus a chapter titled “Cambodian Interlude”.  I’m a massive fan of the story-within-the-story.  In the best cases you get a the equivalent of a full on short story, while in other cases (as is here) you get a brief diversion that captures the imagination.  Authors should do this more.

Oh yeah, there’s a second impossibility, with a man strangled by what seems to be a sea creature in a room locked from the inside.  Honestly, The Hangman’s Handyman is just brimming with this good stuff.  Multiple impossibilities, macabre horror, stories within the story, a heavy rain storm at sea… you have my heart Hake Talbot.  As far as weaknesses, it’s probably the same as Rim of the Pit: while the story delights throughout, don’t come solely for the final solution.  Oh, it’s fine, but don’t be expecting Whistle Up the Devil or Death of Jezebel level fireworks.  The way that the truth comes out is top notch though; a pulpy deviation from the standard rounding up of the suspects.

That Hake Talbot never published a third novel is devastating – apparently one was written but was rejected by publishers.  Does it still survive?  I can only hope, because I’d be scrambling to buy it if it ever gets reissued.

17 thoughts on “The Hangman’s Handyman – Hake Talbot (1942)”

  1. (GETTING CLOSE TO A SPOILER HERE)

    This may be the only mystery I’ve read where the crime is TOO impossible–the events are so bizarre that only one person could possibly have been in a position to set them up. RIM OF THE PIT has the same problem, but to a lesser extent (even if you guess who is behind the supernatural incidents, there are still many more surprises waiting for you). Both of them are great books, though.

    There are two extant Rogan Kincaid short stories (“The High House” and “The Other Side”), but that third novel (reportedly titled THE AFFAIR OF THE HALF-WITNESS) is gone for good unless there’s a manuscript lying around in someone’s attic somewhere–hopefully alongside the four lost Joseph Commings books and those unfinished Carr novels (MISS DEATH, THE SIX BLACK REASONS, PIRATE’S WAY, et al.) which are mentioned in Doug Greene’s biography.

    On that note, why, why, why hasn’t anyone put out those extant unpublished novels by Boucher and Brand? GAD fans would be lining up to buy them!

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    1. I didn’t have any strong theories for any particular character, but I was definitely looking in the wrong direction, so the “who” was a bit of a surprise. The “how” had some inevitable aspects, although I never realized how it all fit together.

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    2. Jack, you’re a very lucky man indeed if this is the only mystery where that happened to you…! Or maybe you’re just more selective in your choices, and thus have only the Good Stuff to report back on.

      Like everyone, I think I prefer Rim, but like what feels a minority of readers I really, really like this one for the atmospshere, the creativity, and the creeping dread that pervades it. It’s a testament to how good Rim is that people read this afterwards and go “Yeah, I guess it’s okaaaay…” — if almost anyone else had put this out, it’d be the highlight of their career and we’d all be going wild for it.

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      1. I think The Hangman’s Handyman is a definite candidate for a Best Of list. It’s better than most of the books from the 99 Novels for a Locked Room Library list and beats out quite a few from the 1981 list. Perhaps it isn’t the most perplexing impossibility, but as a complete story it’s really solid.

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        1. Interesting idea, to compare it to those lists. Let’s have a look…

          The Hoch list is a tricky proposition given what we know about how it was constructed, but books I could definitely kick off in favour of this are The King is Dead by Ellery Queen (far from EQ’s finest hour as author or sleuth, and simply dull all the way through with a tedious and obvious impossible shooting), Through a Glass Darkly by Helen McCloy (fascinating in principle, and beautifully written, but flawed in execution), and The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Leroux (which, having reread this year, I love decidedly less than I remembered).,

          The Lacourbe list offer the difficulties of a) being 30% French novels as yet untranslated and b) unread by me in certain other cases, but I’d place hangman’s Handyman above the following:

          About the Murder of a Startled Lady by Anthony Abbot
          Death Has Many Doors by Frederic Brown
          Curtain by Agatha Christie [not an impossible crime]
          The Poison Oracle by Peter Dickinson
          The Curse of the Bronze Lamp by Carter Dickson
          Le Brouillard Rouge de Paul Halter
          Les Sept Merveilles du Crime de Paul Halter
          The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux
          Bloodhounds by Peter Lovesey
          Rynox by Philip MacDonald [magnificent, but not impossible]
          The Polferry Riddle by Philip MacDonald [great, but not impossible]
          Through a Glass Darkly by Helen McCloy
          The Wailing Rock Murders by Clifford Orr [not impossible]
          Hoodwink by Bill Pronzini
          The Chinese Orange Mystery by Ellery Queen [not impossible]
          The Door Between by Ellery Queen
          The King is Dead by Ellery Queen
          Dead Man Control by Helen Reilly
          La Maison qui Tue de Noel Vindry

          So, yeah, Hangman is very much not the poor relation it’s sometimes made out to be, eh?

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          1. Perhaps this is heresy, but I’d say that The Hangman’s Handyman is a better read than Death from a Top Hat. The latter has a magnificent setup, to be sure, but runs a bit dry.

            Further thoughts on the Lacourbe list:
            The Deadman’s Knock – unfathomable that it even came close to the list.
            Night at the Mocking Widow – a pretty bad book, although the imagination of the impossible crime is only rivaled by The Stingaree Murders.
            Tour de Force – excellent book but I don’t consider it to be an impossible crime.
            A Holiday for Murder – this feels like a locked room mystery in only the most technical sense.
            The Footprints on the Ceiling – not really an impossible crime. Possibly a better overall read that Death from a Top Hat, but not as good as Hangman.
            The Red Right Hand – not an impossible crime.
            Black Aura – not as good as Hangman (ducks brick thrown by JJ)

            Btw, is it weird that I keep the Pugmire post on the list permanently open in one browser tab?

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            1. You might have a point with some of these — I’ve not read Footprints on the Ceiling, Dead Man’s Knock, or Mocking Widow. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas I read too long ago to really recall, but I remember liking it. And, yeah, I’ll allow that Hangman is better than Black Aura; if you’d said Invisible Green we’d be about to have a very public falling out, but Black Aura is totally fine.

              Red Right hand I shall be rereading early in 2021. Expect feedback then.

              And, no, it’s not in the least bit odd that you keep it open at all times. I have it bookmarked for the same reason: despite having virtually memorised the list, and having tracked down all but (I think) four of the books on it, I like to go back and look over it from time to time. It’s a magnificent resource, and a source of fascination as much as a jumping off point in the subgenre as for its obvious wrongness is certain regards.

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              1. The Dead Man’s Knock deserves to be on the list as Carr’s last hurrah as the master of the locked room mystery, which actually has a clever locked room-trick and clueing, but agree The Hangman’s Handyman is better than nearly every other title you two listed (only Black Aura is better).

                I’ve never understood why Queen’s The King is Dead is so highly regarded by some (is it the James Bond-style approach?) or how Reilly’s Dead Man Control managed to get a single vote. It’s almost an anti-locked room mystery!

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                1. The two actual impossible crime novels by Queen on the list — Chinese Orange doesn’t qualify — seem to be there because people felt any list of “best” mystery novels needs some EQ on it. That both are fairly weak, even if Door Between has some nice ideas, apparently didn’t worry anyone too much ☺️

                  And, yeah, the Reilly is a very, very odd inclusion. Does she have a good reputation, and so was determined to be another one on the list for that reason alone? So few people seem to have read her in any quantity, and DMC is my only experience of her work (and it didn’t leave me eager to sample more, it has to be said…).

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                2. Of course I only notice people knocking on Dead Man Control after I bought it…

                  Consider the warning a Christmas present. I “lucked” across a copy after reading praise of it on the old Yahoo GAD mailing list as a top 10 candidate for best locked room mystery. It barely meets the requirements to be listed in Locked Room Mysteries to the point that’s almost an anti-locked room mystery, but worst of all, it’s a dull and forgettable novel. I only remember my bitter disappointment when I see it mentioned.

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  2. Glad you enjoyed this one! The Hangman’s Handyman has always been overshadowed by the monumental Rim of the Pit, but it’s an excellent, top-tier impossible crime novel in its own right (have read much, much worse) and show Talbot was one of few writers who can honestly be compared to Carr.

    Yes, I hope the manuscript of his third novel still exists, somewhere, waiting to be discovered in a drawer or box. Just like all those other lost or unpublished manuscripts, which is one of the two most frustrating things I’ve discovered over the years. The other being the few novels of a new, but quickly lost, generation of GAD writers, like Kip Chase and Charles Forsyte, who published a few novels during the 1960s. They gave me the impression of having slipped through the cracks. So imagine how much bigger the pile of rejected and lost manuscripts of traditional detective novels is from that period. Stuff of nightmares.

    Enjoy the holidays and all the best for 2021!

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    1. I find it hard to believe that Talbot wrote two novels this good but only published a few short stories. It seems like there would be more short stories given that his vehicle was the pulp magazine.

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      1. I don’t know if you’ve read “The High House” and “The Other Side,” but they’re not anywhere near as good, or memorable, as his novels. They’re good enough stories with “The High House” trying to capture that creepy atmosphere of the novels and “The Other Sid” has a decent locked room-trick, but Talbot obviously needed a novel-length canvas to work his magic on. Maybe this is something he realized himself and gave up altogether when The Affair of the Half-Witness was rejected.

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        1. I don’t have the Ramble House edition of Rim of the Pit or Murder Impossible, so I haven’t had an opportunity to read The Other Side. I suppose I can only read The High House by tracking down the original magazine. Based on your and JJ’s reviews I don’t know if I’ll go out of my way.

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