The Piccadilly Murder – Anthony Berkeley (1929)

If there’s anything to speak to Anthony Berkeley being one of the better mystery writers of the Golden Age, it’s that he was able to produce The Piccadilly Murder: an absolutely delightful read from cover to cover, even though by its very premise it lacks a mystery.  For you see, the story opens with amateur detective Ambrose Chitterwick lunching at the Piccadilly Palace, and before his eyes watching a man pour poison into a distracted woman’s cup of coffee.  The woman passes away minutes later, and Chitterwick quickly points out the culprit to the police.

That the namesake “Piccadilly Murder” unfolds in such cut and dry fashion – and yet is the murder that the novel revolves around – should be a mortal blow to the book, as you have to wonder what the subsequent 200+ pages could possibly be about.  And yet you’re not going to put the book down, because Berkeley is in the groove.  Much of his success takes the form of Ambrose Chitterwick, a delightfully self centered character who casts an eye of snarky judgment on everyone he comes into contact with, and yet is somewhat just as much of a fool as the recipients of his observations.

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The Death of Laurence Vining – Alan Thomas (1928)

There comes a time when you finally accept that there are some books that you’re just never going to get a chance to read.  I’d claim I’ve had my eyes fixed on The Death of Laurence Vining for years now, but I don’t recall my eyes ever even seeing it available.  If my memory is faulty it’s likely because those eyes glazed over at the sight of a four digit price tag.  Yes, this was a book that I was willing to break my normally steadfast $12 limit to acquire – possibly shelling out an unthinkable $20 for (I know, I know, don’t be crazy Ben) – but yeah, I’m not going to be even touching on a hundred dollars for a book.  I didn’t even do that for Death of Jezebel.

And honestly, I’d be taking a chance with that $20.  Alan Thomas is an author that I’ve never read anything by, plus I’ve only seen two or three reviews of The Death of Laurence Vining, and I don’t recall that anyone was screaming from the heavens that this was must read material.  But it is featured on THAT list: the Roland Lacourbe list of top locked room novels.  The bulk of the list is made up of what you’d expect: really strong impossible crimes that you can imagine receiving a mention if a bunch of geeks like me got together to create their own list (hey, should we do that?).  But there are a handful of titles – the likes of The Shade of Time, Into Thin Air, The Wailing Rock Murders, The Malinsay Massacre – that fly under the radar, most likely due to scarcity (ok, the last two of those are kind of available).  And when I see an impossible crime novel that’s… er, impossible… to obtain, I simply obsess over getting it.

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Sweet and Deadly (The Bramble Bush) – David Duncan (1948)

David Duncan has this absolutely amazing novel called The Shade of Time.  I’ll admit, it falls down a bit in the end, but it’s tightly written and there’s this incredibly audacious locked room murder that left me a fan for life.  I had to find more by him, and I followed it up with The Madrone Tree; somewhat of an impossible crime in reverse that cements my perception that Duncan was a talented mystery writer.  This leads me to Sweet and Deadly, a novel originally published under the much more appropriate name The Bramble Bush, as well as the suitable title Worse than Murder.

I don’t know that I’d quite call it a mystery.  This is the type of semi-noir pulp where the main character gets knocked unconscious four times, poisoned, pushed down a cliff – all in a 24 hour period (I shudder to imagine the long term health consequences) – but man, it’s an incredible story, and the last fifty pages are every bit as breathless of a finale as any denouement that I can imagine.

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Double Double – Ellery Queen (1950)

It’s impressive to think that a detective novel could feature seven murders, and yet not for a moment feel like a mystery.  How the writing duo of Ellery Queen pulled it off, I’m still not quite sure.  Double Double follows detective Queen going about his days doing a bunch of things – playing matchmaker, buying a swimsuit, going on a picnic, getting a drink at a bar – and it ends up feeling like a book about a man with nothing better to do than running a never ending series of whimsical errands.  Yeah, people do occasionally wind up dead (quite a few of them, in fact), but there’s just never a mystique to it or a sense of purpose.

We’re back in the small town of Wrightsville, for what is apparently the last of the Queen novels set there, and wow, I guess I actually read them all in order.  This is the sixth Queen in a row that I’ve consumed in sequence, starting with Calamity Town (1942), and correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve just passed through what’s regarded as his better work.  I’ll leave that discussion for another time, but “meh”.  Calamity Town was the obvious highlight, shifting the Queen stories to something with a bit of humanity in them; this in the form of the living/breathing town of Wrightsville.  Then the stories became a bit too much about humanity, with Queen becoming a shell shocked charade of perpetual self doubt.  I guess we’re kind of straddling that with Double Double.  Queen’s still incredibly gun shy and riddled with misgivings, and it gets a bit tiring watching him second guess himself for 250 pages.  Wrightsville too is a shell of its former self; a never ending list of townsfolk and landmarks, but the spark that animated it all in Calamity Town and The Murderer is a Fox is missing here.

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Rendezvous in Black – Cornell Woolrich (1948)

Remind me never to mess with Cornell Woolrich or any of his surviving relatives…  Rendezvous in Black is a tale of revenge, and it is some astoundingly dark revenge.  A bereaved man, with no idea which of five people were responsible for the careless accident that killed his fiancé, decides to get revenge on all five.  The vengeance is exacted not directly on the five suspects, but rather on the women that each loves most.

In other words, a madman goes on a rampage, killing five innocent women.  Oh, but it’s so much more than that, and Rendezvous in Black enshrines Cornell Woolrich as one of those authors for which I now have to track down absolutely everything written.  This is not the conventional mystery that I read – hell, it might not even really be a mystery – but I enjoyed it just as much as the cream of the crop out of the Golden Age.

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Phantom Lady – William Irish (1942)

Scott Henderson is miffed that he’s been ditched by his wife on date night.  Not wanting to waste dinner reservations and tickets to a hot show, he picks up a complete stranger at the bar on a lark: they’ll enjoy a night out on the town with no expectation of making a connection or ever seeing each other again.  His companion is nice, but not especially memorable.  That proves to be a problem when Henderson returns home to find his wife murdered, the police already at the scene of the crime, and there’s some damning evidence that he’s the guilty party.

Henderson finds himself without an alibi, as he doesn’t even know the name of the woman that he was out with.  Even worse, various witnesses throughout the night – a barman, a cab driver, the wait staff at the restaurant – all testify that he was flying solo.  Sentenced to death, and with the days ticking down, Henderson spends his time behind bars while his best friend races to piece together his shattered alibi.

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The Secret Dancer – Norman Berrow (1936)

I’ve been intrigued by the title of this book for a while, and I can’t quite explain why.  There’s something to it – a haunting quality, maybe similar to The Last of Philip Banter or The Shade of Time – where it strikes this chord of curiosity and I have to find out what it means.  Granted, you can’t judge a book by its… err, title, but like some nice cover art, a well chosen name can add some extra allure to a read.

Of course, it helps that I’ve loved the books by Norman Berrow that I’ve read so far.  He has a way with words and can turn out a memorable line to rival the best of them – see also Theodore Roscoe, Anthony Berkeley, Anthony Boucher, Christianna Brand, and – in his first few decades – John Dickson Carr.  I’m astounded that it’s been over a year since I last picked up anything by Berrow, as what I’ve read so far places him towards the top authors of the Golden Age.

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The House That Kills – Noel Vindry (1932)

About two years ago I picked up The House That Kills and The Howling Beast by Noel Vindry, and this year I padded out my collection with The Double Alibi and the somewhat recently released Through the Walls.  So maybe I should actually get around to reading one, right?  I ended up picking The House That Kills due to my love of murderous rooms (see The Madman’s Room, Mr Splitfoot, The Red Widow Murders, etc), despite the fact that I seem to recall some people being critical of the book.

To be clear, this is not really a “room that kills” (err… house that kills) book, despite its name.  There’s no haunted house consuming it’s victims under a shroud of horrors from the past; rather it’s a gang of mysterious strangers terrorizing a family.  But man, it’s an absolutely crazy ride, and I’m so happy that I went with it.

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Murder in Mesopotamia – Agatha Christie (1936)

I’ve always been under the impression that Murder in Mesopotamia is one of Christie’s big novels, although I’m not sure how that thought formed.  The title definitely stands out, with the reference to Mesopotamia being a bit more memorable than, say, Easy To Kill or The Secret of Chimneys, and maybe my mind draws a bit of an association with the “exotic travel” titles like Death on the Nile or Murder on the Orient Express.  Plus, the book did feature on the Roland Lacourbe list of top impossible crime novels, although I’ve come to learn that isn’t exactly a guarantee that a novel will in fact feature an impossible crime.

Whether Murder in Mesopotamia is actually a staple of Best of Christie lists or not, it didn’t really work for me.  This is actually the first Christie novel that I struggled to get into.  That’s not to say that it’s a bad book in anyway, it’s just that I didn’t find myself sucked into the characters, location, and story in the way that I’ve come to expect from Christie’s work.  The Christie magic was missing.

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To Live and Die in Dixie – Theodore Roscoe (1961)

If any Golden Age author can tell a story, it’s Theodore Roscoe.  Yes, I take great comfort in the prose of the likes of John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie, Henry Wade, Anthony Berkeley, Herbert Brean, Rupert Penny, or Norman Berrow.  And Christianna Brand… well, she’s just sublime.  But Theodore Roscoe can paint with words in a way that I haven’t encountered with other authors.  I’d be fine reading a Roscoe book that doesn’t even feature any mystery – but, I mean, come on, give me a mystery…

Which takes me to this read – To Live and Die in Dixie.  Is it a mystery novel?  Roscoe wrote a breadth of pulp, ranging from tales of The Foreign Legion to jungle safaris and adventures of the United States Navy, so there isn’t a guarantee that anything you pick up by him is going to be a story of detection.  But I suppose it’s a silly question to pose in the case of To Live and Die in Dixie.  It’s right there on the cover: “A mystery novel by Theodore Roscoe”.  Why then can’t I find a single review of this book?  I mean, this is the guy who wrote Murder on the Way – a zombie laced impossible crime (published in 1935 no less) – which is easily one of the best entries the genre has to offer.

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