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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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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The Tokyo Zodiac Murders – Soji Shimada (1981)

It’s been a long time since a book left my jaw hanging on the floor.  Too long.  I mean, man, I’ve read some really solid mysteries in the past year, but I can’t say that I’ve had a meme worthy reaction when a revelation came.  Skimming back through my reads, it was nearly a year ago, with Christianna Brand’s Death of Jezebel, that I had my last true “holy shit” moment.  And after completing The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, my heart’s pumping, I’m resisting the urge to sprint through every Japanese honkaku impossible crime novel on my shelves, and my next read is already feeling like a let down.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders isn’t a stranger to top impossible crime lists, and I knew that I was going to get something crazy.  The big shin honkaku novels that I’ve read so far – think the likes of The Eight Mansion Murders, The Decagon House Murders, The Moai Island Puzzle – have all been insane in the best way, and The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is viewed as the genre innovator that started it all.

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The 8 Mansion Murders – Takemaru Abiko (1989)

I have this whole stack of Japanese locked room mysteries published by the likes of Locked Room International and Pushkin Vertigo, and it’s a wonder that I’m not burning through them.  I manage to abstain though, because – like a Paul Halter novel – the honkaku mysteries I’ve encountered are impossible crime on steroids, and I like to space them out so I can savor them between less sure-fire reads.  When dealing with a title brought forward by Locked Room International in particular, you know you’re going to get something crazy – mind boggling impossibilities, a high body count, and some sort of unique hook.

In some ways then, The 8 Mansion Murders might be the most conventional mystery of this sort.  We have a fairly straight forward murder – a man shot with a crossbow, with both the killer and victim in full view of two witnesses – followed by a detective interviewing a closed circle of suspects one by one until they’re all gathered together to expose the killer.  Set that in an English country house in 1935 and you have your traditional Golden Age mystery.  It’s that traditional setup though that makes The 8 Mansion Murders so delightful, and we’re able to see what author Takemaru Abiko is able to paint within such confines.

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Deadly Hall – John Dickson Carr (1971)

Deadly Hall was John Dickson Carr’s second to last novel and its reputation is best captured by a nickname I’ve seen thrown around online: Deadly Dull.  And yet, for all of the joking, I’ve seen few actual reviews.  There are several Carr novels with seemingly rotten reputations that I’ve really really enjoyed – The Problem of the Wire Cage and Below Suspicion being prime examples – and so I try not to let the negative comments jade me too much.  The year that the book was published on the other hand…

Carr’s last great mystery was probably The Nine Wrong Answers in 1952.  You’ll see people sling mud at Patrick Butler for the Defense (1956), but it’s an enjoyable read; the solution to the impossible crime is just disappointing.  The real descent for Carr’s mysteries began in 1958 with The Dead Man’s Knock and lasted for his remaining contemporary mysteries featuring series detective Dr Gideon Fell.  In parallel, Carr was still publishing fine work in the historical mystery vein (heavy on historical and a bit light on mystery), but even that plunged in quality starting with Papa La Bas in 1968.  The historical work became plagued by the same malady that had inflicted the late contemporary work: meandering stories that focus on everything but the core mystery; characters going on and on about some vague danger without ever simply describing what they’re worried about; every ounce of dialog unnecessarily playing out as a tense shouting match.

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The Phantom Passage – Paul Halter (2005)

Man, I must have been in some sort of funk.  Saturday morning rolls around, and it’s time to pick my read for the weekend, and there just wasn’t anything on my shelves that was jumping out at me.  Normally I’d spend my Friday evening peaking through the numerous To Be Read piles littering my desk and scanning my book shelves for the next read.  For some reason I just wasn’t feeling it this time.  Pick back up with John Dickson Carr or Agatha Christie?  Not today.  Maybe dig into Henry Wade, R Austin Freeman, or Freeman Wills Crofts?  Nah.  How about Herbert Brean or Theodore Roscoe?  Those are guaranteed good reads.  Norman Berrow, Anthony Boucher, Rupert Benny, Anthony Berkeley….?  How about one of those honkaku impossible crimes?  They’re always incredibly fun.

I don’t get why, but none of it seemed particularly exciting.  Even the guarantee of a smashing time with Paul Halter didn’t get me wound up.  I went with that choice anyway, and selected The Phantom Passage, a story that’s garnered some recommendations and I’ve been meaning to get around to.  Damned if I didn’t make it thirty pages in before my passion for reading was fully ablaze.

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In Spite of Thunder – John Dickson Carr (1960)

After a nearly 10 year gap following Below Suspicion (1949), John Dickson Carr’s best series detective Gideon Fell returned for a final run of five novels starting with The Dead Man’s Knock in 1958 and stretching through Dark of the Moon in 1967.  Consider that a similar span of time towards the beginning of his career would see the author produce three times that many Fell novels, and you can kind of sense that Carr’s heart wasn’t with the great detective.

Well, obviously.  Carr had spent the past decade going all in on the historical mystery genre, and his few contributions to the contemporary impossible crimes on which he had built his name feel more like something he was nudged into by his publishers.  The Dead Man’s Knock isn’t worth reading.  Panic in Box C is passable, but a chore due to all of the tangents Carr goes on.  Dark of the Moon is a meandering mess that at least features an interesting impossible crime and a somewhat shocking reversal of expectation.  His historical mysteries from the same period are actually pretty good, with the exception of Scandal at High Chimneys (released a year before In Spite of Thunder).  But the contemporary stuff?  Nah.

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The Shade of Time – David Duncan (1946)

The Shade of Time has always been somewhat of a legend to me.  It’s a book that receives few reviews, and yet it somehow obtained a slot in Roland Lacourbe’s list of top locked room mysteries.  It isn’t easy to find either, at least in the price range that I’m willing to pay for a book that I know so little about.  After years of hunting, I’ve never seen it come in for less than $20.

“Don’t spend $20 on it”, I recall JJ from The Invisible Event telling me, crushing my dreams of a long lost impossible crime masterpiece (do you hear me JJ?  You crushed my dreams!).  A few others pitched in a similar opinion, and I had to settle for the reality that this legendary book long sought after just wasn’t going to live up to my expectations.

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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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