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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The Crimson Fog – Paul Halter (1988)

CrimsonFogI’ve purposely avoided reading anything about The Crimson Fog up to this point.  A post by The Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel warned that it was difficult to discuss without spoilers, and I’ve noticed that many posters only talk about the novel in the vaguest of terms.  Well, I appreciate the discretion – nothing is worse than having an entire novel semi-spoiled for you by an innocent discussion that reveals more than intended.

That’s the tricky thing about writing about GAD mysteries – communicating how a book impacted you without accidentally giving things away.  After finishing a book it can be so tempting to draw an analogy to the solution – “it’s similar to A Murder is Announced”, “it reminded me of the solution to The Emperor’s Snuff Box”, “reminiscent of Crooked House”…these are all statements that would immediately clue a reader in to what to look out for.  Even worse is when someone comments that the author hoodwinks you within the first page or chapter, because, well, now you’re going to second guess everything that happens in that small passage.

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The Devil Drives – Virgil Markham (1932)

DevilDrivesThis is a book that I’ve been dying to get to for a while now.  First, it’s featured in John Pugmire’s list of 99 key locked room novels.  Second, reliable impossible crime enthusiast JJ at The Invisible Event posted a review raving about the book despite declaring it contrary to his usual mystery standards.  The real reason though that I’ve been excited about The Devil Drives is the physical copy I got hold of – a 1944 Bartholomew House edition.

I’ve never had a Bart before, but this one is gorgeous.  The feel of the cover is almost that of a well worn leather baseball mitt.  The pages are of WW2 regulation paper-saving stock – so soft to the touch that they feel like they were printed on the skin of a lamb who lived its entire short little life in a bath of warm olive oil.  I have a dozen or so other books of similar vintage (all Pocket Books and nearly all Ellery Queens), but my copy of The Devil Drives is unsurpassed in the experience of simply holding it.

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