Death in Five Boxes – Carter Dickson (1938)

deathin5boxesWhen I look back at my early days of reading John Dickson Carr’s work, it’s almost obscene.  Hit after hit after hit after hit.  This wasn’t exactly an accident – I had done my research on the author.  At the same time, I wasn’t exactly being greedy.  My goal was to mix up the consensus classics with some well regarded books that flew a bit below the radar.  It just so happened that a lot of those below the radar books are astoundingly good.

My early days were also constrained by the books that I owned at the time.  One particular bulk purchase that I made towards the beginning was a package of early Merrivale titles in 1960’s Berkley Medallion editions.  Not only did these prove to be solid selections, but they had some great cover art as well.

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Nine Times Nine – Anthony Boucher (1940)

NineTimesNineIt’s always interesting diving into a renowned impossible crime novel.  John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man, Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit, John Sladek’s Invisible Green, Clayton Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat – each of these novels are a legend to themselves.  Does that legend create too much of an expectation for the reader?  Even if the stories deliver a tight puzzle and face slapping solution, can they ever really live up to their reputation?

In some cases, these books are known for an element beyond the pure impossibility.  The Hollow Man is the most notable example, with an entire chapter devoted to a locked room lecture provided by Carr’s classic detective Dr Gideon Fell.  The passage is well known for laying out all of the possible solutions to a locked room mystery – of course leaving the door open for the novel to deliver an unaccounted for technique.

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Cards on the Table – Agatha Christie (1936)

CardsOnTheTableFour suspected murderers sit around a table playing bridge.  Nearby, four of Christie’s greatest detective minds sit embroiled in their own game.  The play is interrupted by a gruesome discovery – the body of the party’s host, stabbed through the heart.  Despite the murder occurring in full view of a room of players, nobody can describe how it happened.

Sounds like a dream come true, right?  There’s almost an element of John Dickson Carr’s The Problem of the Green Capsule or Seeing is Believing, in that a murder is pulled off in front of a room full of spectators.  In this case though, it wasn’t quite a captive audience – the players were paying too close attention to their cards.  It’s still  a perplexing puzzle – how did the killer slip away from the game and dispatch the host without being observed?

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Scandal at High Chimneys – John Dickson Carr (1959)

ScandalAtHighChimneysScandal at High Chimneys is one of the John Dickson Carr novels that has remained somewhat of an enigma to me.  Prior to reading it I had never seen a review on a spoiler free site, and thus lacked any real background for the story.  I knew that the novel fell into the first period of Carr historicals – the books published between 1950 (The Bride of Newgate) and 1964 (Most Secret) that take place in 1600-1800 era England (Captain Cut Throat being a exception in location, and The Witch of the Low Tide being an exception in period).  The works tend to be better regarded than the second period historicals, which take place in the US south (with the exception of The Hungry Goblin) and are considered to have come after Carr began his later-year decline.

With the first era historicals, you kind of know what to expect.  The plot will focus on the plight of someone wrongly accused of murder – either the male lead or his love interest.  The story will follow a race against time to clear the name of the falsely accused as the law forces of the time period close in.  While the core mystery may bear some passing resemblance to an impossible crime, there will never be Carr’s trademark strength of puzzle nor cleverness of solution.

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The Seventh Hypothesis – Paul Halter (1991)

TheSeventhHypothesisThat I’ve made it four months without devouring another Paul Halter novel is a display of herculean restraint.  While by no means perfect, the previous three novels that I’ve read by the modern master of impossible crimes were the summer blockbuster equivalent of a locked room mystery.  Well, scratch that analogy – I tend to loathe summer blockbusters as shallow facades that bore with their action rather than excite.  Although many might deride Halter’s work as being equally shallow, I’ll guiltily admit that they give me exactly what I want.

Take the hooks, puzzles, and misdirection from five solid GAD impossible crime novels, compress it all down to 140 pages, thin out the writing a little (with excuse, perhaps, for being translated), and you’re dealing with a Halter novel.  It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you haven’t read one yet, I encourage you to give it a try.  The puzzles are thick and the twists come flying at you.

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The Sea Mystery – Freeman Wills Crofts (1928)

TheSeaMysteryI’ve been looking forward to the prospect of diving into Freeman Wills Crofts’ deep catalog for a few months now.  He’s been on my radar for a while, but was always slagged as a boring author – a writer of time-table mysteries that are heavy on detailed investigation.  After my experience with Ellery Queen’s early catalog, I wanted to avoid a monotonous trudge at all cost.  And then JJ at The Invisible Event wrote a rave review of The Sea Mystery, and since that time has been posting additional Crofts reviews that make the author sound like the second coming of….well, someone.

Now, JJ’s had just as excruciating a time with the early Ellery Queen novels as I have – in fact, he has yet to make it past The Dutch Shoe Mystery despite trying his hardest.  So if JJ is going to say that a supposedly humdrum author like Freeman Wills Crofts is worth diving into, I’m interested.  Since JJ’s initial post, I’ve read several other reviews of The Sea Mystery, all of which were very positive.

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Suddenly at His Residence – Christianna Brand (1947)

SuddenlyAtHisResidenceI’ll always tout Christianna Brand as an author who can deliver an emotional blow.  Green for Danger, Fog of Doubt – even less known books like Alas for Her Who Met Me – all have a way to draw you in to the lives of a cast of characters.  Perhaps it’s her informal turn of the phrase, but the characters feel real in a familiar sense, rather than sketches on the page from 70 year ago.  The denouement comes as a punch to the gut, as real lives crumble, and a person you’ve empathized with is unmasked as the killer.

While that ability to trigger real emotion is the trait of Brand that stands out most clearly to me, she may well be among the most skilled in the field for pulling the wool over the reader’s eyes.  Her particular talent seems to be dangling a clue repeatedly in the readers face, to the point where the final solution to the puzzle comes as a natural, yet shocking realization.  John Dickson Carr certainly had this talent too, but Brand in particular excels in inflicting a sense of “damn, how didn’t I see that coming the entire time?

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