The Picture from the Past – Paul Halter (1995)

picturefromthepastIt’s been about a year since I first jumped into reading Paul Halter, and I’ve already made my way halfway through the Locked Room International translations of his work.  It’s been hard to drag it out this long – every book has been a direct injection of exactly what I’m looking for in an impossible crime novel.  That isn’t to say that they all work out in the end (I’m looking at you, The Invisible Circle), but every story has been a rush of endorphins.

There’s one Halter title that’s always struck my curiosity – The Picture from the Past.  This could just be me, but it seems to be the book that flies under the radar.  You have the ones that everyone raves about – The Demon of Dartmoor, Death Invites You, The Madman’s Room, etc, etc.  You have the ones that people tend to criticize – The Vampire Tree, The Seven Wonders of Crime, maybe The Lord of Misrule.  And then you have this weird little guy – The Picture from the Past.  I rarely see it come up in reviews or conversation.

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Death’s Old Sweet Song – Jonathan Stagge (1946)

deathsoldsweetsongBecause death’s old sweet song, keeps Georgia on my mind…

Ok, well, it doesn’t quite go like that.  The song referenced in the title of Jonathan Stagg’s Death’s Old Sweet Song is much more obscure by my standards – Green Grow the Rushes, O, an English folk song that I’ve never heard of in my life.  It’s one of those songs where I listen to it the first time thinking “why on earth is this song even notable?” and then find it oddly sticking around in my head a few hours later.

The song is cumulative in each verse, similar to The Twelve Days of Christmas.  It plays into the novel in that each verse is associated with a murder victim, a la And Then There Were None.  In this case we get “the lily white boys clothed all in green”, “the rivals”, “the gospel makers”, and so on.  Suffice to say, Death’s Old Sweet Song has quite the body count…

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Death Has Deep Roots – Michael Gilbert (1951)

deathhasdeeprootsMy first encounter with Michael Gilbert was the excellent WW2 impossible crime novel, The Danger Within.  Seeking out more of his work, I was naturally drawn to Death Has Deep Roots by the gorgeous cover of the Dell edition that I happened to stumble on.  It seemed to be a fortunate find – Death Has Deep Roots is the book that preceded The Danger Within, and is itself preceded by another of Gilbert’s most lauded novels – Smallbone Deceased.  Perhaps I had found myself in a solid run of Gilbert’s mystery catalog.

Let’s be clear – Death Has Deep Roots is not an impossible crime novel.  Nor is it the type of GAD mystery that you’d usually find me covering on this site.  I’d say that a mystery lurks beneath the surface, but isn’t quite true.  Instead, the mystery is the surface, and a very different tale lurks beneath.

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The Mysterious Affair at Styles – Agatha Christie (1920)

MysteriousAffairAtStylesAm I the only one with an odd bias towards the early works of prolific authors?  Not a bias in that I don’t like the books after I read them, but in that I assume they won’t be that good before I read them.  Well, it’s probably just me, so let me explain this quirk of mine.

Say that an author published four mystery novels and then disappeared into the depths of history.  I wouldn’t pay any mind to whether I was reading their first, third, or last novel.  But now let’s say that author published 30+ novels…  Well, the first few were obviously them finding their voice so they couldn’t be any good… right?

I had that sort of assumption in my head when I approached John Dickson Carr’s first novel, It Walks By Night.  In reading it, I was absolutely shocked that his prose were as rich as ever, his plotting much the same, and his impossibilities as crafty as they come.  Of course, it seemed silly in retrospect – it’s not like Carr dragged his knuckles through several volumes of garbage before he hit pay dirt.  That isn’t to say that he didn’t evolve over time, but even his earliest work featured that spark that I knew and loved in his wider library.

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Dancing Death – Christopher Bush (1931)

DancingDeathFor me, a mystery isn’t just about the story.  It’s also the time and the place in which you’ve experienced it.  There are so many books that I’ve read where I simply can’t divorce where and when I read them from the actual plot.  The Burning Court – a mountain lodge in Crested Butte, Colorado.  The Plague Court Murders – a dingy “extended stay” motel in San Jose, California.  Nine Times Nine – a sleepless night in Winchester, UK.  The list goes on and on, even if it’s merely on the couch in my home on a foggy night.

There’s a nagging desire in my mind to mix the mood of my surrounding with the book I’m reading.  Not from a desire to further experience the book, but to instead amplify the seasons that I enjoy in life.  And if there’s any given time of year I look forward to, it’s the fall and the early winter.  Last year I felt like I captured that season perfectly with John Dickson Carr’s Poison in Jest.  I don’t know that I’d characterize that Pennsylvanian gothic tale as being particularly wintery, but reading it in late November sure hit the spot.  As the season rolled around this year, I’ve been keeping my eye out for some appropriate reads.  And so, in classic cheesy blog tradition, I present you with a Christmas murder mystery.

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After the Funeral – Agatha Christie (1953)

AfterTheFuneral“It begins, all this, at a funeral.  Or rather, to be exact, after the funeral.”

At its heart, After the Funeral (alternatively published as Funerals are Fatal) is a story of England in transitioning times.  The war has led to changes in all layers of society.  Not just has the very upper crust seen their standing buckle in light of post war regulations, but those impacts have rippled to the staff or even the pre-war business owner in town.  Christie has a knack for telling this sort of story.  It’s not just the lord of the manor lamenting that he can’t find a good help anymore, but also the manor’s trained butler questioning his own place in a changing society.

Of course, After the Funeral also features a murder, and a damn fine one.  The story unfolds after the natural death of Richard Abernethie – your typical rich corpse surrounded by a family pecking for his inheritance.  At his funeral party, socially awkward Aunt Cora remarks to everyone’s horror – “But he was murdered, wasn’t he?”  Twenty four hours later and Cora is occupying a coffin – her head nearly severed by an axe.

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The Sleeping Sphinx – John Dickson Carr (1947)

sleepingsphinx“The sand, the lock, and the sleeping sphinx”

I went into The Sleeping Sphinx knowing very little.  It’s not a famous work within Carr’s library, but it’s positioned at an interesting spot in his timeline.  The previous two Dr Gideon Fell novels – Till Death Do Us Part (1944) and He Who Whispers (1946) – are considered by most Carr fans to be among the author’s best work.  The next entry in the series – Below Suspicion (1949) – is criminally under-rated in my opinion.  Given the strength of this run, I was curious to see what The Sleeping Sphinx would hold.

Don Holden returns from WWII under unusual circumstances.  Involved in espionage during and after the war, he was sent on an assassination mission in Italy and declared dead as part of his cover.  He returns to a home that thinks he ceased to exist.  The beginning of the story is fairly engrossing as we watch Holden reunite with his old life and attempt to rekindle a relationship put on pause for seven years by the war.

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