“I came up here to make a dead man change his mind.”
I have a heavy suspicion that at some point, nearly every review of Rim of the Pit includes that immortal first line of the story. And how could you not? It’s a perfect quote to set the stage for the ensuing madness that unfolds. Famously cited as the second best impossible crime novel of all time in a 1981 poll, Rim of the Pit has a heavy reputation to live up to. Curiously, it’s one of only two full length mystery novels published by Hake Talbot, making you question the potential of what might have been.
I’ll just cut to the chase and declare that it’s well worthy of its legend. The second best impossible crime novel? Mmm, I’ve no room to judge in my limited mystery reading career. I’ll tell you though that if you’re a fan of the genre, you’re in for a treat that you’ll remember for a long time.
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John Dickson Carr has left me with some emotional moments – the anger followed by enlightenment at the reveal of It Walks By Night; the poignancy of the end of He Who Whispers; the shock and disbelief of The Burning Court; the haunting conclusion of She Died a Lady. Never though, have I been so impacted as the final chapters of Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger.
I was bound to delve into non-Carr works eventually and so why not take the leap with a classic? I’ve started to accrue a backlog of books by other authors, and the temptation to branch out proved to be too much. My first choice would have been Brand’s The Death of Jezebel, but that title has proven itself hard to find in physical form. My tipping point was a recent purchase of Tour de Force and Green for Danger by the same author. I desperately wanted to read the former, but worried that it may contain some end of series reveals, I opted for the earlier work.
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If I could wrap up everything that I’m looking for in a Carr work perfectly, it would be The Plague Court Murders. No, it’s not his absolute masterpiece – that designation is better bestowed on works such as The Problem of the Green Capsule, He Who Whispers, or even a short story like The House in Goblin Wood. Yet, in many ways, The Plague Court Murders excels in dimensions that each of those titles doesn’t quite reach. To that effect, this title – the first Merrivale tale – is the purest representation of what I search for in the author.
Let’s start with the puzzle. After all, that’s why we read these things, right? Carr’s reputation centers around the impossible crime, and he delivers more often than not. His best puzzles don’t just perplex, they leave you fixated on the problem for every last page until the solution is finally revealed. The Plague Court Murders offers that two-fold with a single crime. A man is found violently stabbed to death in a stone hut that is completely locked down. The only door is tightly barred from the inside, the fireplace is impenetrable, and the small dwelling is so barren that there isn’t a place for a culprit to hide. As if the classic locked room set up wasn’t enough, Carr add in a footprint puzzle. You see, the hut is surrounded by an expanse of untouched mud. Not a single footprint is present and none other than Chief Inspector Masters (a staple of Merrivale mysteries) was watching the grounds and could hear the murder being committed.
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The definitive locked room mystery novel. For an author whose name is so entwined with the locked room genre, The Judas Window showcases Carr at the top of his game. Too often, the label “locked room” is applied loosely, covering a range of impossible crimes in which a murder occurs in an inaccessible location. Not so here – this is text book locked room. Steel shuttered windows. A door thoroughly bolted from the inside. No conceivable way in or out of the room. And, yet, as Henry Merrivale repeatedly states, every room has a Judas window.
Carr wastes no time, presenting us with the impossibility immediately. A man is found dead in a comprehensively locked room, stabbed through the heart with an arrow that had been mounted on a trophy display. There’s a twist though – the victim is not alone. Young Jim Answell is found passed out on the floor, a gun in his pocket and his fingerprints on the murder weapon. Upon coming to, he swears to his innocence, claiming that he had been drugged and that the victim was still alive when he slipped out of consciousness. Yet no trace can be found of the whiskey tumblers and decanter that he swears delivered the dose that put him under.
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The Cross of Murder
Published in 1941, the same year as The Case of the Constant Suicides, Seeing is Believing falls in the middle of an amazing eleven year stretch for Carr. Starting with Death Watch and The Hollow Man in 1935, and finishing with He Who Whispers in 1946, the author churned out 31 novels, many of them considered to be his best work. Consult a Top 10 Carr list and they’re almost all guaranteed to come from this era.
One could question if Carr experienced a brief dip in quality around the time Seeing is Believing was published. Although the period from 1939-1941 features some of his best work (The Problem of the Green Capsule, Nine – and Death Makes Ten, and the previously mentioned Suicides), it also features a string of titles that were less well received (The Problem of the Wire Cage, The Man Who Could Not Shudder, Death Turns the Tables, And So to Murder,….and Seeing is Believing. In fact, pretty much all of the “weak” titles from the 10 year period came out during these three years.
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“In a detective story, no person is above suspicion. But there are several types who are below it.”
I did it. I finally did it. I knew that if I explored some of Carr’s less popular works, I’d find a gem worth savoring. A book that for some reason has fallen out of favor, leaving it a neglected treasure to be stumbled upon. Below Suspicion is that book. Let me explain how I got here.
Several months back, I took a chance on The Man Who Could Not Shudder, based on a comment from JJ at The Invisible Event that it had an audacious ending. The book definitely had a few weaknesses, such as a plodding first half and a surprising lack of atmosphere for a plot that revolves around a haunted house. Still, I enjoyed it. The pace picked up in the second half and the finale was truly enjoyable. To be clear, it wasn’t top tier Carr, but it didn’t strike me as deserving of the derision it receives.
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When it comes to evaluating impossible crimes, there are two super obvious criteria.
- How gripping the puzzle is
- How clever the solution is
It isn’t surprising to note that the two aren’t always the same. The best solutions aren’t alway preceded by the most bewildering impossibility, and the most rapturing puzzle doesn’t alway leave you satisfied in the end. I’ve previously covered some astonishing solutions, and now I’ll be looking at five beguiling puzzles (hint: where the two lists intersect, you’ll find some killer impossible crimes).
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