Heads You Lose – Christianna Brand (1941)

HeadsYouLoseI must be a bit of an idiot.  How else could I explain walking into Heads You Lose thinking “this might be ok”?   I mean, come on – I’ve absolutely loved Christianna Brand’s mysteries up to now.  The set ups are great, yep.  The solutions are a seemingly contradictory blend of earth shattering and simply obvious.  And man, her writing…  If there’s another author with this sense of wit and the ability to craft a cast of characters, let me know.

I’ve read most of Brand’s nine mainstream mysteries (she published a handful more that for some reason fly under the radar), and aside from the elusive and enamored The Death of Jezebel, I’ve only had Heads You Lose and Death in High Heels left to go.  And so I’ve saved them; on one hand so I had some of Brand at her best left (which is somewhat of an errant thought – her lesser known books have been excellent), but also because I had the impression that some reviewers had lesser impressions of these early books.  Yeah, I realize there’s a bit of a contradiction there.

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Death Invites You – Paul Halter (1988)

DeathInvitesYouI had originally intended to read Death Invites You as my first Paul Halter novel, and with good reason.  It boasts the most intriguing set up of any of the French author’s English translations – quite the feat, given an impossible crime catalogue laden with rooms that kill, invisible assassins, bodies surrounded by untouched snow, and every manner of locked room puzzle – plus I’ve seen a number of reviewers list it as his best.  How then does this book end up being the tenth Halter I’ve read?  Honestly, I have no excuse other than a capricious hand when selecting my next reads.

As for that set up, it’s as impressive as it gets.  A dinner party arrives to find their eccentric host locked in his office.  Unable to summon him, they eventually break down the door and stumble upon a bewildering sight.  A full banquet has been spread out on a table, the food still steaming hot.  Something else is steaming – a dead man sits hunched over the table, his face in a bubbling pot of oil.  All doors and windows are thoroughly locked from the inside.  Witnesses in the house saw no one entering or exiting the room in the time leading up to the incident, and there’s no evidence of how such a feast could have been prepared from within.

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Come to Paddington Fair – Derek Smith (1997)

DerekSmithOmnibusI’ll admit it – I’m not one for the theatre.  Don’t get me wrong, attending a play is just fine, I’m just not that mad about mysteries that revolve around one.  There’s this whole world of the stage that seems somewhat alien to me, and as varied as the writers and trappings may be, a theatrical murder plot always feels somewhat the same.  Panic in Box C, Puzzle for Players, Cue for Murder – they’re fine enough stories (although there isn’t anything verging on a classic in those ranks), but you kind of know what you’re going to get.  A cast of suspects made up by, er… the cast… of the play, plus a stage manager or two, a security guard, and maybe a stage hand.  We’ll be taken behind the curtain into a world of grease paint, and subjected to 150+ pages of interviews.  Someone will break into a dressing room at night, plus some antics are sure to occur outside of the bounds of the theatre.

I don’t know… it never really clicked for me.  It’s funny, because many similar tropes apply when it comes to country house murders, but for some reason I tend to enjoy them there.

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Invisible Green – John Sladek (1977)

InvisibleGreenIt’s a setup to be savored: members of a murder mystery club picked off one by one in impossible circumstances.  Landing at position 15 in Ed Hoch’s list of top impossible crime novels, there seems to be a consensus that Invisible Green is one of the entries that actually deserves to be there.  I’ve been saving this one for a while, and now that I’m binging on top shelf reads, this seemed as good a time as any.

John Sladek only wrote two mystery novels, both starring amateur detective/miscreant Thackeray Phin.  I’d previously read his first entry: Black Aura.  Stacked with three perplexing impossibilities – including a man hovering outside an upper story window before plunging to his death – Black Aura was a solid read… and yet I didn’t quite click as much with its 1970’s bohemian vibe (not to mention that the solution to one of the puzzles was… frustrating).  I’ll state now that Invisible Green is the better of the two books.

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The Stingaree Murders – William Shepard Pleasants (1931)

StingareeMurdersThe Stingaree Murders has always been one of those “well, I’ll never actually read it” books.  I think it first flitted into my conscious due to a review on Classic Mystery, although maybe it was Beneath The Stains of Time.  Whatever.  The book is beyond rare – I believe the first edition may be the only edition – and both reviews I’d seen included a warning that a healthy dose of racism is tucked between the pages.  The strange title stuck in my mind though, as both reviews also mentioned multiple impossible crimes and a truly audacious solution.  It was a recent review at The Invisible Event that finally tipped the scales and I took a stab at tracking the book down.

While it’s rare, The Stingaree Murders isn’t that hard to come by for an affordable price.  I nicked mine for around $10 (sans dust jacket), which is a bargain compared to the more elusive corners of impossible crimes such as Anthony Wynne or Caroline Wells.

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A Graveyard to Let – Carter Dickson (1949)

agraveyardtoletMy three remaining Carter Dickson novels all find me towards the end of the Sir Henry Merrivale series.  The very best of Merrivale’s work is unfortunately at the opposite end – the run of macabre impossible crimes spanning The Plague Court Murders (1934) through Nine – And Death Makes Ten (1940).  The mysteries published in the 40’s were lighter fair, with the elements of brooding horror giving way to unnecessary spurts of slapstick comedy.  That’s not to say there aren’t strong entries there – many would list She Died a Lady (1943) amongst Carr’s best work (I wouldn’t go that far) and The Skeleton in the Clock (1948) is quite the return to earlier form.

The stories tend to get weaker over time though, and as we hit the final three books – Night at the Mocking Widow (1950), Behind the Crimson Blind (1952), and The Cavalier’s Cup (1953), you’ll be hard pressed to find many positive comments.  It’s on the precipice of this decent that I find myself with A Graveyard to Let (1949).  The two books that it straddles – The Skeleton in the Clock and Night at the Mocking Widow – are dramatically different in terms of quality.  Which would I get with this one?

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Whistle Up the Devil – Derek Smith (1953)

DerekSmithOmnibusIt feels like ages since I’ve mentioned the top locked room lists cited by John Pugmire in A Locked Room Library.  It’s an excellent reference, providing a top 15 locked room mystery list initiated by Ed Hoch with the help of other luminaries of detective fiction, along with a list of ninety nine novels for “any respectable” locked room library compiled by another set of genre experts.  I’ve by no means read through this list exhaustively (why would I rob myself of future enjoyment?), and yet I feel compelled to drop the following declaration: Derek Smith’s Whistle Up the Devil is easily one of the top locked room mysteries ever published.

Bear in mind, Whistle Up the Devil didn’t even make the original Ed Hoch list – apparently Helen McCloy’s Through a Glass Darkly and Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead and The Chinese Orange Mystery were felt to be better entries, although I can’t imagine that many would agree.  Whistle Up the Devil did make the list of 99, but for that matter so did John Dickson Car’s The Dead Man’s Knock (crap), Night at the Mocking Widow (bad story but bizarre clever impossibility), and The Curse of the Bronze Lamp (decent enough story but tiptoeing the line on being impossible).

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The Lord of Misrule – Paul Halter (1994)

LordOfMisruleThis turned out to be an accidental Christmas read.  It was the multiple “footprints in the snow” impossibilities that lured me to The Lord of Misrule, a natural attraction given two feet of fresh snow surrounding my home.  That the crimes in the story span the days surrounding Christmas was an unexpected bonus.  So here you go – a holiday Paul Halter!

If The Lord of Misrule feels ubiquitous, it’s probably because JJ, the author of The Invisible Event, adopted a fragment of the book’s cover as an avatar and thus forever associated it with quality comments on mystery fiction blogs.  As a Paul Halter novel though, it flies somewhat under the radar.  Not part of the much lauded titles (The Madman’s Room, The Demon of Dartmoor, etc, etc, etc, etc) nor the criticized (The Vampire Tree, The Seven Wonders of Crime), The Lord of Misrule occupies that no man’s land along with The Picture of the Past: the book’s that don’t really get discussed.

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The Footprints of Satan – Norman Berrow (1950)

FootprintsOfSatanUh, so how come everyone isn’t constantly going on and on about how amazing this book is?  How is the title not thrown down alongside the likes of Rim of the Pit, Nine Times Nine, The Hollow Man, or any of those other regulars when discussing top impossible crimes?  Why was I not forced, at gunpoint or otherwise, years ago to read The Footprints of Satan?

I walked into this one pretty sure that I was going to like it based on the few reviews that I’ve seen.  And yet, Norman Berrow seems to be one of those obscure authors – the likes of Rupert Penny or Virgil Markham – and I have a distinct impression that not everyone likes his stuff.  That would be crazy though, as from the opening pages Berrow provides a warm embrace with the tale of Londoner Gregory Cushing visiting his quirky uncle Jake Popwell in the small town of Winchingham.  It’s evident from the start that this isn’t going to be some stodgy mystery – Berrow can clearly handle characters and humor as well as his better known peers.

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Policeman’s Evidence – Rupert Penny (1938)

PolicemansEvidenceRupert Penny has been on my radar for a while courtesy of JJ at The Invisible Event.  Penny seems to divide readers into camps who think he’s a long lost craftsman of the golden age, and those who feel his writing is the literary equivalent of hard tack.  I tend to trust JJ on these points, and so Penny was at the top of my birthday wish list recently.

Despite JJ clearly laying out a “best of Penny” post, I somehow got mixed up and put Policeman’s Evidence at the top of my list.  My mind inexplicably translated “fifth best” into “the best”, and so here I am.  I guess on the positive side, there are even better books to look forward to.

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