Rim of the Pit – Hake Talbot (1944)

“I came up here to make a dead man change his mind.”

RimOfPitI have a heavy suspicion that at some point, nearly every review of Rim of the Pit includes that immortal first line of the story.  And how could you not?  It’s a perfect quote to set the stage for the ensuing madness that unfolds.  Famously cited as the second best impossible crime novel of all time in a 1981 poll, Rim of the Pit has a heavy reputation to live up to.  Curiously, it’s one of only two full length mystery novels published by Hake Talbot, making you question the potential of what might have been.

I’ll just cut to the chase and declare that it’s well worthy of its legend.  The second best impossible crime novel?  Mmm, I’ve no room to judge in my limited mystery reading career.  I’ll tell you though that if you’re a fan of the genre, you’re in for a treat that you’ll remember for a long time.

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Fear is the Same – Carter Dickson (1956)

“In all ages, everything changes.  Manners, customs, speech, views on life, even morals – all change.  But fear is the same.  Only fear is the same.”

FearIsTheSameThe only historical John Dickson Carr book published under the name Carter Dickson, Fear is the Same is the one full length novel in which the pseudonym is used without featuring Henry Merrivale.  It feels very much like the other Carr historicals that I’ve read – The Demoniacs and Fire, Burn (I don’t quite count The Witch of the Low Tide as being in the same category).  In fact, Fear is the Same neatly straddles these two novels, featuring the adventure and swordplay of The Demoniacs, while mixing in the time travel aspect of Fire, Burn.

Yes, you read that correctly, time travel.  If you haven’t read a historical Carr, much less a time travel one, you’re probably hastily scrambling to change the page.  Whoa there, it’s alright.  I had the same healthy skepticism for this type of story before I accidentally mistook Fire, Burn for The Burning Court.  The notion of a historical mystery on its own is actually fairly easy to swallow.  Take a good GAD storyline and drop it back in the past a hundred years or so.  The times may have changed, but we’re still dealing with the same thing, right?  Ok, now comes the part that I’m not going to convince you on.  Let’s say that the main characters of said mystery inhabit the 1950s and suddenly just find themselves back in the past.

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The Gilded Man – Carter Dickson (1942)

gildedmanIt’s funny how some books don’t really draw your attention.  With 70+ John Dickson Carr books to choose from, some stand out as obvious reads.  Others have a reputation as being the bottom of the barrel.  Then there is the great middle ground.  Even there, some books just jump out at me more than others.  Perhaps it is the title, the cover art, or just the brief background that I know about the story.  Who knows what my brain is up to, but it’s up to something

The Gilded Man is a prime example of my brain saying “I’m not interested in reading that book”, and I couldn’t even tell you why.  Some part of me probably came to that conclusion when I had an awkwardly high TBR pile on my desk and I had to make some priority decisions.  And then that reputation just stuck, and the book sat there, way down on my reading list…until now (cue dramatic music).

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The French Powder Mystery – Ellery Queen (1930)

FrenchPowder3My initial experience reading Ellery Queen with The Roman Hat Mystery was a mixed bag, slanting heavily towards disappointment.  I had an exciting start, gobbling up the maps, false forwards, and dramatis personæ preceding the start of the actual story.  The investigation started out fairly interesting, but as the book wore on, I came to the slow uncomfortable realization that investigation was all I was going to get.  The sleuthing and police work was enjoyable enough, but one dimensional.  It was only really at the end when the wheels came off.  The stark reality that 300 pages of interviews, interrogations, and painstaking searches was all for nothing.  There was no twist to satiate my curiosity, no clever misdirection to be unveiled.

Yet, I’m not going to dock an author for a first book, especially one as well respected as the Queens.  The next in line was The French Powder Mystery, and reputation was that it featured a rather notable ending.  Well, actually, I came in knowing exactly what makes the ending notable because I did a bit more blog reading than I should have (a bad habit that I’m trying to ween myself from).  Fortunately, I didn’t learn anything that ultimately detracted from my experience.

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The Roman Hat Mystery – Ellery Queen (1929)

RomanHatMysteryFor over a month I’ve had a tall stack of Ellery Queen books staring at me out of the corner of my eye.  It would be easy (perhaps advisable) to dive in with The Greek Coffin Mystery, commonly regarded as Queen’s best.  But no, I’ve made the decision to tackle them in order (an effort which JJ at the Invisible Event proactively cribbed from me).  This makes my path perilous – The Roman Hat Mystery doesn’t seem to be that well regarded.  In fact JJ flat out panned it several months back.

The criticism didn’t affect me though – I was excited to get started with such a well regarded author(s) with a massive backlog of enticing titles.  And what a start it was…

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Panic in Box C – John Dickson Carr

pacnicinboxcI’m taking a jump towards the end of Carr’s career as I return to our regularly scheduled program.  Published in 1966, Panic in Box C is the second to last Dr Fell story and the sixth to last novel by the author.  Popular consensus tends to regard the previous year’s House at Satan’s Elbow as the beginning of Carr’s end of career slide, although I have seen some reviewers state that they enjoyed Panic in Box C, Dark of the Moon, and The Ghosts’ High Noon.

Panic in Box C feels different than earlier Fell works, although there is also much that is the same.  At this point, the author had been living in the United States and focusing much of his output on historical mysteries.  Nearly 20 years has passed since the core run of well-regarded Fell and Merrivale novels.  The historical mysteries that filled the gap (as far as I’ve read) have been deep in research and adventure, but lighter on mystery.  You can somewhat feel that effect on Panic in Box C.  The fact that this is a Fell novel seems to result in Carr putting more focus on the mystery, yet he also applies a liberal sprinkling of trivia on wide range of subjects.

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To Be Read – Ellery Queen edition

Alternative title – what you can accomplish with $70 on eBay.

If there’s one thing I love about John Dickson Carr besides the quality of his work, it’s the quantity.  70+ titles to look forward to.  Sure, the quality ebbs and flows a bit, but I’ve yet to encounter a title that I regret reading.  I’m sure I’ll encounter a few late career ones eventually, but when my worst reads so far are The Lost Gallows, The Demoniacs, and My Late Wives, you know the author is doing something right.

There are undoubtably many GAD authors who produced a string of high quality works – Christianna Brand seems like an obvious example.  Yet her entries into the mystery genre are less than 10.  How many authors like Carr do you get who provide such high quality and sustain it for 30+ novels?  Agatha Christie is a definite qualifier.  The other author(s) likely to come to your mind is Ellery Queen.

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