It’s been a while since I looked at The Quintessence of Queen #1 – an anthology of “best prize stories” from Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It was originally published alongside these entries as part of a larger collection, but my Avon editions find the compilation split in two. We get some reasonably big names in part two – Nicolas Blake, Helen McCloy, and John Dickson Carr, plus entries by less renowned authors. Similar to part one, you get a wide range of styles, although not too many of the stories really stand out. Two of them do though. Both Carr and Jorge Luis Borges provide excellent entries well worth tracking down.
You’re always looking for that next best thing, right? That next John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie, Christianna Brand, or pick your poison. The author that delivered not just one or two mysteries that knocked you over, but enough of them that you could gorge on the wealth of their library.
Lord knows we put them through their paces. A puzzle that both captures and confounds the imagination. A solution at once complex and yet mind numbingly simple. To top it off, you have to back that all with enough story and character to make it feel worth something.
The author on my radar since last summer has been Anthony Boucher. I got hooked with his most famous novel, Nine Times Nine, as I can imagine many a reader has. As a send up to John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man, it is a locked room mystery for locked room mystery aficionados. My second read with Boucher is what really got me addicted. The Case of the Solid Key is just as solid of an impossible crime as Nine Times Nine, plus it features a “why didn’t I think of that?” forehead slapping solution. What sealed it though for me was that both novels read really well – almost like an American version of John Dickson Carr. Err… well, Carr was American, but you know what I mean.
Having enjoyed Anthony Boucher’s locked room classic Nine Time Nine, my natural next stop was Rocket to the Morgue. Right? I mean, that’s the only other title by the author that ever really gets mentioned. That struck me as odd. Boucher was a well regarded writer of both science fiction and mysteries, yet I only really associate his name with two mystery novels. Instead, I typically think of him as the mystery critic who wrote forwards in reprints of other authors’ novels, or assembled short story compilations, such as The Quintessence of Queen.
Recent reviews of The Case of the Crumpled Knave and The Case of the Seven Sneezes turned me on to the fact that Boucher had an actual library of books aside from those published under the pseudonym of H.H. Holmes (Nine Time Nine and Rocket to the Morgue). A comment by Tomcat from Beneath the Stains of Time pointed me towards The Case of the Solid Key – a novel I’d never heard of, and one that Tomcat suggested had a particularly interesting solution. The ante was raised when JJ from The Invisible Event replied that the book was nearly impossible to find at an affordable price.
It’s always interesting diving into a renowned impossible crime novel. John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man, Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit, John Sladek’s Invisible Green, Clayton Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat – each of these novels are a legend to themselves. Does that legend create too much of an expectation for the reader? Even if the stories deliver a tight puzzle and face slapping solution, can they ever really live up to their reputation?
In some cases, these books are known for an element beyond the pure impossibility. The Hollow Man is the most notable example, with an entire chapter devoted to a locked room lecture provided by Carr’s classic detective Dr Gideon Fell. The passage is well known for laying out all of the possible solutions to a locked room mystery – of course leaving the door open for the novel to deliver an unaccounted for technique.