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.