Murder in Retrospect – Agatha Christie (1942)

Five Little Pigs

MurderInRetrospectI was dead set on reading this book under it’s original title – Five Little Pigs.  It’s an odd enough title that it always caught my interest.  But I’m a creature of some convenience and thrift, and so when I realized that I already had access to the story under its US release as Murder in Retrospect, I had to succumb to practicality.

What a dry title though – Murder in Retrospect.  At least, that’s what I thought as I initially started to turn the pages.  I’ll tell you this though – upon completing this 1942 Poirot novel, I can see no name more fitting.

That’s what it is after all – a murder in retrospect.  Poirot is approached by a young woman with the request that he investigate a murder that occurred 16 years in the past.  Her mother, Caroline Crale, was convicted of the murder of her father Amyas, a well renowned painter.  Although Caroline died in prison, she left a note to her daughter proclaiming her innocence.  Poirot is intrigued enough by the case to take it up, drawn in by the prospect of solving a mystery without ever being able to glimpse the crime scene.

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Tour de Force – Christianna Brand (1955)

TourDeForceWhen it comes to mysteries, they call her The Queen of Hearts.  Er…, “they” being Brad at Ah Sweet Mystery.  But he’s right.  If ever an author could build a cast of suspects in such a way that the final reveal of the true culprit could be so heart-wrenching, it’s Christianna Brand.  She’s crafty too, laying key clues out in plain sight, but framing them in such a way that the reader is incapable of understanding what they’re seeing.

The trouble with Brand is that she only wrote 10 or so mystery novels (we’ll discuss the exact number later).  Of those, the most acclaimed are the big four – Green for Danger, Suddenly at His Residence (also released as The Crooked Wreath), Death of Jezebel, and Tour de Force – although I’d argue that Fog of Doubt deserves to be just as well regarded.  I’ve been excited to read Tour de Force for a while, as it’s considered by many to be one of Brand’s trickiest mysteries, and, well, the title kind of implies it’s going to be a masterpiece…

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Nine — and Death Makes Ten – Carter Dickson (1940)

nineanddeathHow unfair is it for me to have to write about a book featuring a dash in the title?  Or, I suppose, how awkward is it for you to have to read it?  I’ve already done my time with the comma in Fire, Burn, and now I take another turn with Nine — and Death Makes Ten.  I could of course refer to it by it’s alternative titles – Murder in the Submarine Zone and Murder in the Atlantic – but, hey, that would be confusing because of the edition that I own, so here we go.

I’ve been holding off on reading this one for quite some time.  In fact, a post about my Carr To Be Read pile from seven months ago features this in the fourth position, and about eight books have since passed it by.  I’ve held off for a reason.  With only 25 Carr titles left to go, this is one of the last great ones.  At least that’s what popular opinion would leave me to believe.  Nine — and Death Makes Ten crops up on enough Top 10 Carr lists that I’ve been holding out hope that this will be a true classic.

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The Bride of Newgate – John Dickson Carr (1950)

brideofnewgateThe Bride of Newgate is the first of John Dickson Carr’s historical mysteries.  Well, in a certain sense.  It was preceded by Devil Kinsmere (published under the alias of Roger Fairbairn) in 1934 (and later republished in 1964 as Most Secret) and the non-fiction The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey in 1936.  The Bride of Newgate was the beginning of what I see as Carr’s core historical run, lasting from its publishing in 1950 through to The Demoniacs in 1962.

Most of these stories follow somewhat of a formula.  A hero is accused of a crime that they didn’t commit and must race against time and conspiring forces to solve the mystery – a puzzle that is somewhat light by Carr’s typical standards.  Along the way he’ll win the heart and protect the honor of his one true love.  There will be daring feats and duels, often involving humiliating a brash member of the upper crust.  Oh, and time travel – there may be some of that.

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The Frightened Stiff – Kelley Roos (1942)

FrightenedStiffAs I build out my library of GAD literature, it all comes down to the promise of an unknown story, sometimes by an unknown author, based on the back of recommendations I’ve seen from well regarded bloggers or an interesting comment left on some random post.  In seeking out these titles to purchase, it’s hard not to get drawn in by the qualities of the actual books themselves – the cover art, the edition, the physical format.  Yeah, I could buy some gangly modern day 10×7 copy with dreadful cover art, settle for the generic 1980s printing, pick up the ebook version for a fraction of the price, or splurge for that original hardback with a crinkly dust cover.

For me though, there is one pure form that has no equal.  The 7×5 pocket format, typically published between the 1930s-50s.  You know what I’m talking about – the Dells, Avons, Pocket Books, and occasional Berkleys or Bantams.  The size is perfect.  The paper (both cover and page) has the right feel.  And then there is the art.  I absolutely love the illustrations.  There’s something about the style that just connects with me in a way that I can’t describe.

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Dark of the Moon – John Dickson Carr (1968)

“Dark of the moon, I think?”

darkofthemoonThe final Dr Fell novel (or Carr series novel for that matter), Dark of the Moon was published two years after Panic in Box C.  Both books enjoy somewhat of a soiled reputation, viewed as the tail end of the downward arc that the author’s writing took in the later years of his career.  Truth be told, I somewhat enjoyed Panic in Box C.  Yes, it rambled here and there, and Fell was a reduced to a caricature of a formerly great character.  Yes, there was an unforgivable hole in the solution.  But it was interesting enough.  As far as Carr goes, I’d give it a C (ooh, ooh, I feel a joke coming).  Seriously though – for all the nightmares that I had of a truly bad Carr title, Panic in Box C wasn’t it (that honor is reserved for Night at the Mocking Widow).

Dark of the Moon picks up right after Panic in Box C and makes a number of references to the previous story – although nothing spoiler related or so important enough to necessitate reading in order.  The setting has moved south across the eastern seaboard from New York and Connecticut to South Carolina, where Carr spent his later years.  Set on an island at the mouth of the Charleston harbor, Dark of the Moon has an entrenched southern feel.  Perhaps it’s that I read it while on a trip to New Orleans, but I could feel the humidity and hear the southern drawls in each page.

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Black Aura – John Sladek (1974)

BlackAuraIf you asked me what comes to mind when someone says “essential locked room mysteries” I’d rattle off an answer that I suspect would be familiar to many others – Rim of the Pit by Hake Talbot, Nine Times Nine by Anthony Boucher, Death From a Top Hat by Clayton Rawson, Invisible Green by John Sladek, and a whole batch of John Dickson Carr novels.  The Carr novels would be of my own opinion; the rest are more of a recitation of canonical titles, most stuck in my mind by this list compiled by John Pugmire.

I’m not going to debate the viability of that list here.  Nor should I.  I’ve possessed enough fortitude to abstain from burning through the contents, withholding the enjoyment of the titles for future days.  Instead, I’ll call attention to Invisible Green by John Sladek.  The novel sounds like an impossible crime enthusiasts fantasies come to life – members of a detective book club are picked off one by one under impossible circumstances.  Imagine my surprise when I learned that another book by Sladek – Black Aura – is held in higher regard by many.  Both books are somewhat tricky to find on the cheap, so when I stumbled upon Black Aura for a steal, I was quick to snatch it up.

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