Sir John Magill’s Last Journey – Freeman Wills Crofts (1930)

Is it possible to pass up a Pocket Book edition of a Freeman Wills Crofts novel?  Aside from the recent (and ongoing) reissues of Crofts catalog by Collins Crime Club, your options up to now have pretty much been paying a criminal amount of money for a two-decade old House of Stratus edition, or scooping up the handful of titles released by Penguin in the 60s.  So yeah, when I stumbled upon a 1941 paperback of Sir John Magill’s Last Journey by Pocket Books, I had to grab it.  This is a pretty early year for Pocket Books, and I was lucky that my copy was in a condition robust enough for a comfortable read without breaking out the tweezers and velvet gloves.

I recall JJ from The Invisible Event commenting that it took him two weeks to make it through this book.  Given that I don’t have much time for reading, it took me full on three.  What a journey it was though.  The introductory map suggested that I was going to get to know the triangle between England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland well.  Seriously, it looks like someone fired a blast of buckshot into the UK.  You’ve got dots littering the western coast of Great Britain, accompanied with a travel guide’s worth of town names I’ve never heard of.

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Raspberry Jam – Carolyn Wells (1919)

Carolyn Wells wrote an absurd number of books in a career spanning the first four decades of the twentieth century.  One might get a bit nervous about the quality of an author who produced 170 novels, but I’ve seen Wells’ name associated with impossible crimes enough that I let curiosity get the best of me.  Poking around the web suggested that the curiously titled Raspberry Jam might be one of her top five mysteries, and so I took a chance on a steal of an ancient but readably preserved edition.

We’re introduced to Eunice and Sanford Embury, a young couple with plenty of dough, temporarily housing zany Aunt Abby in their Manhattan apartment.  Sanford will eventually end up murdered in a thoroughly locked room, but that doesn’t happen until midway through the book, and there’s a lot to unpack before we get there.

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Ghoul’s Paradise – Theodore Roscoe (1938)

One of the highlights of my reading in 2020 was Four Corners Volume One, a collection of short mysteries by Theodore Roscoe.  The stories take place in the small town of Four Corners, located in the mountains of upstate New York.  There’s a definite vibe of Ellery Queen’s Wrightsville novels, although Roscoe’s were published half a decade earlier and are far richer.  The tales of Four Corners are more stories than mysteries, and although my own description there probably wouldn’t excite me to read it, what outstanding stories they are.

I wondered at the time if there would ever be a second collection of the series, and have to admit that I skeptically assumed it would never come to be.  Imagine my shock when I stumbled upon Four Corners Volume Two while trawling for other Roscoe works.  By some coincidence it had been released a week or so earlier, even though I hadn’t heard a peep about it.

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Sealed Room Murder (1941) – Rupert Penny

One (me) could be forgiven (I am) for retitling this book “The Case of the Vandalized Clothes and Floor”, because I’ll be damned if that isn’t what the first two thirds of this novel focuses on.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, you’ll get your “Sealed Room Murder”, and it will be a doozy, but you’ll put your time in until you get it.  For such a no holds barred smack me down title, Rupert Penny takes his sweet time in getting to what you’re looking for.

Fortunately for Penny, he’s one of the better writers of the Golden Age.  Yeah, you’ll sit through 139 pages of nothing to do with a locked room mystery, but I’ll read anything by an author that can make this out of a character introduction:

“Mrs Harriet Steele, while she lived, was above all a thing of flesh and blood, a solid animate mass which ate and slept and rose unrepentant, which dyed its hair and plagued its associates and weighed thirteen stone seven in its unimaginable nudity.”

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The Radiant Dove – Christianna Brand as Annabel Jones (1974)

Christianna Brand may well be one of the best mystery writers of the Golden Age.  Her output was short but powerful.  Green for Danger, Suddenly at His Residence, Death of Jezebel, Fog of Doubt, Tour de Force, and Cat and Mouse; these six novels, published between 1944 and 1955 match the best of any other author.  There’s Death in High Heels and Heads You Lose as well, which, while being widely read and reviewed, don’t seem to hold quite the same reputation (I quite enjoyed Heads You Lose up until the final chapter).

But then poof, that was it for Christianna Brand as a mystery writer.  She then went on to write a series of well regarded children’s books and we never got anything more…

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Death in the House of Rain – Szu Yen Lin (2006)

When I think of modern day novels brimming with audacious impossible crimes, my mind immediately goes to either French author Paul Halter or the honkaku style of Japan.  Apparently China should be just as much in the running.  Szu Yen Lin’s Death in the House of Rain may be the most balls to the wall effort I’ve read to date.

I coincidentally read a short story by Szu Yen Lin a few weeks ago.  The Miracle on Christmas Eve, collected in The Realm of the Impossible, seemed like a reasonable winter read and delivered a heartwarming twist on the locked room.  Well, Death in the House of Rain is The Miracle on Christmas Eve’s sadistic cousin.  It’s a dark tale boasting no less than seven victims, and the means they are dispatched in are more brutal (although not necessarily graphic) than your standard GAD-style fare.  Top that off with four locked room murders, and this is a breathtaking read.

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Mr Splitfoot – Helen McCloy (1969)

It took me a long long time to track down a well priced copy of Mr Splitfoot.  I haven’t been that enamored by Helen McCloy so far, but you’ll never see me pass up a “room that kills” mystery.  Ah, the room that kills…  It sits there silently, waiting for centuries, occasionally producing the corpse of someone foolish enough to sleep within its walls.  I love the gimmick because you’re almost assured a locked room murder, but you also have the riddle of how the mysterious deaths could be repeated across dozens of decades.  Sure, someone may have pulled off some clever murder 80 years ago, but how is it connected to the deaths of today?  Did someone discover a long lost trick?

I started reading this book back in August, but shelved it a few pages in when I realized it was a perfect holiday read.  This is one of those books where you feel the cold air, see the snow, and hear that uncanny silent nothingness of white covered mountains.  Well, yep, it worked a lot better in late December than in the merciless peak of summer, plus, this book is absolutely amazing.

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The Lady’s in Danger – Norman Berrow (1955)

I’d never heard of this book until I bought it.  I’m at that stage where I’ve come to the conclusion that I will read everything Norman Berrow wrote, but I haven’t quite memorized the full catalogue to be purchased.  I’m familiar enough with the names and covers of most of the books that I haven’t bought yet, but I don’t ever recall seeing The Lady’s in Danger.

Berrow isn’t one of those authors that you can find for cheap.  Although you might get lucky on a 1970’s edition of Ghost House, the rest of his catalogue is only accessible via the Ramble House reprints, and you can either pay $20 for those brand spank’n new, or you could for some reason pay $40 for them used on eBay (I’ll never understand how that’s a workable model).  Anyway, I was building up a holiday gift list for myself (and you should do the same – a friend would much prefer buying you a novel you want than gambling on that novel wine opener), and I stumbled upon The Lady’s in Danger for $6 new on Amazon.  Fast forward through me falling out of my chair and breaking my mouse while pounding the Buy button.  This must have been some chance bargain, because when I checked minutes after my purchase, the only price I could find for the book was back to $20.

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The Hangman’s Handyman – Hake Talbot (1942)

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?

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Death for Dear Clara – Q Patrick (1937)

I’ve been wanting to get back to Q Patrick ever since reading Cottage Sinister earlier this year.  The author collective known as Patrick Quentin, Jonathan Stagge, and Q Patrick has been a bit of a mixed bag for me, but Cottage Sinister provided a marvelous British village mystery that felt like it could have come from the pen of Agatha Christie during her better years.  The problem is that these Q Patrick books are very hard to find, much less for the price range that I’m willing to pay.  When I spotted a Popular Library edition of Death for Dear Clara for cheap, I snatched it up.

The story concerns Clara Van Heuten, a respected fixture of New York high society.  She runs a literary advice agency, reviewing manuscripts on the behalf of fledgling authors.  The story kicks off with a day in the office, and throughout the day, Clara receives seven visitors.  Her “gargoyle faced” secretary (who will later turn out to be pretty once some rouge is applied) provides witness to the comings and goings, which is a fortunate piece of evidence, since Clara ends the day slumped over her desk with a knife buried in her back.  The obvious solution is that the final visitor committed the crime, but it turns out that there’s a little known rear entrance to Clara’s office.  Anyone could have snuck in and committed the murder.

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