The Invisible Circle – Paul Halter (1996)

InvisibleCircleThe ultimate locked room mystery set up – where to start?  Is it The Judas Window, with a room so perfectly sealed you couldn’t push a pin into it, much less the arrow lodged in the victim’s heart?  Perhaps it’s Clayton Rawson’s From Another World, in which a corpse is found alongside the knife that killed him in a room with all doors and windows sealed from the inside with tape?  Or is it The Plague Court Murders, with a man stabbed repeatedly in the back despite being locked in a secure stone hut surrounded by a field of untouched mud?

There’s almost a one-upmanship in some cases, with the author tasked with laying out a crime so thoroughly impossible that the reader is left with no avenue for an answer.  In the best cases, that answer comes in the form of a simplicity that you never thought to consider.  In the weaker ones, we get a solution so overly complex that it merely rings as a hollow justification for the puzzle.

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The Madman’s Room – Paul Halter (1990)

MadmansRoomThe idea that crimes of the distant past can haunt the present is easily my favorite plot device deployed by John Dickson Carr.  The author introduced this technique in the first Dr Gideon Fell novel, Hag’s Nook, in which multiple generations of male heirs to a rotting castle have died by a broken neck after participating in a secret ritual.  A year later, Carr introduced Henry Merrivale in The Plague Court Murders, and we’re treated to the ghost of an eighteenth century hangman’s assistant stabbing a man to death in a locked hut surrounded by a field of untouched mud.

Carr would return to these fertile grounds several times throughout his career.  His most famous example may be The Burning Court (1937), where the ghost of a seventeenth century poisoner strikes in the modern era.  The author even managed to inject intrigue into the meandering Dark of the Moon (1968) by introducing the mystery of how three men, centuries apart, were all bludgeoned to death despite being surrounded by expanses of untouched sand.

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Through a Glass, Darkly – Helen McCloy (1950)

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face

ThroughAGlassDarklyI first became aware of this title via Ed Hoch’s 1981 compilation of top impossible crime novels.  Sharing a spot alongside works like The Judas Window, Rim of the Pit, and Death From a Top Hat seems to speak volumes for a book.  Of course, that can be quite a reputation to live up to as well.

Through a Glass, Darkly is my first experience with Helen McCloy, although she’s on my radar for other much lauded titles such as A Cue for Murder and Mr Splitfoot.  This is the eight book with her series character Dr Basil Willing – a psychiatrist, not a detective.  Many reviewers consider it to be her masterpiece, although I’ve read a number of other reviews that consider several of her other works to be superior.

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Paul Halter – The Demon of Dartmoor (1993)

DemonOfDartmoorOn paper, Paul Halter seems to be custom tailored for me.  Locked rooms – check.  Vanishing footprints – check.  Multiple impossible crimes in a single book – triple check.  Regarded as a modern day John Dickson Carr, Halter follows in the master’s footsteps not just in the impossible crimes that he employs by the fistful, but in the dense atmosphere that permeated Carr’s earlier work.  Rooms that kill, crimes of the past haunting the present, disappearing alleys – these are the hooks on top of the puzzle that have drawn me into Carr’s work.  To have this all echoed by Halter in new and imaginative ways is almost too good to be true.

Of course, there are detractors.  Halter’s books are said to be thin on character, sparse on the prose, and mere cardboard dressing for his puzzles and tricks.  This is complicated by the fact that he writes only in French.  His titles available in English are translations, and it seems inevitable that nuances of the author’s voice would be lost in the process.

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Poison in Jest – John Dickson Carr (1932)

poisoninjest“No, no, they do but jest. Poison in jest. No offense i’ th’ world.”

I nearly started reading Poison in Jest this past summer, but a reliable source advised me to stash it for a cold winter’s day.  Well, it’s holding steady with a high of 12 degrees Fahrenheit this week, so I figured it was time to break the ice.

Released in 1932 – the same year as The Corpse in the Waxworks – Poison in Jest is set in the winter mountains of rural Pennsylvania.  The story has a tie to Carr’s previous four books in that it’s told from the point of view of Jeff Marle.  Henri Bencolin, the great French detective that Marle accompanied in earlier mysteries, is mentioned several times, but doesn’t make an appearance.  Instead, we find Marle on his own, called to the home of Judge Quayle to review a manuscript.

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The Dutch Shoe Mystery – Ellery Queen (1931)

TheDutchShoeMystery4It’s been six months since I set out on a mission to approach the Ellery Queen books in order…. and it’s been six months since I read one.  My initial experiences with The Roman Hat Mystery and The French Powder Mystery were a true let down.  Although both books started somewhat strong, they descended into the monotony of one-dimensional investigation.

We all love a little investigation though, don’t we?  Well, not when it’s the only thing you get over the course of a 250 page novel.  Page after page of interviews followed by more interviews, then a review of the facts, then more interviews, then more reviews of the facts.  Without a touch of comedy, atmosphere, or really anything else, it gets to be a little much.

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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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