Nine Times Nine – Anthony Boucher (1940)

NineTimesNineIt’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.

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The Seventh Hypothesis – Paul Halter (1991)

TheSeventhHypothesisThat I’ve made it four months without devouring another Paul Halter novel is a display of herculean restraint.  While by no means perfect, the previous three novels that I’ve read by the modern master of impossible crimes were the summer blockbuster equivalent of a locked room mystery.  Well, scratch that analogy – I tend to loathe summer blockbusters as shallow facades that bore with their action rather than excite.  Although many might deride Halter’s work as being equally shallow, I’ll guiltily admit that they give me exactly what I want.

Take the hooks, puzzles, and misdirection from five solid GAD impossible crime novels, compress it all down to 140 pages, thin out the writing a little (with excuse, perhaps, for being translated), and you’re dealing with a Halter novel.  It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you haven’t read one yet, I encourage you to give it a try.  The puzzles are thick and the twists come flying at you.

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Suddenly at His Residence – Christianna Brand (1947)

SuddenlyAtHisResidenceI’ll always tout Christianna Brand as an author who can deliver an emotional blow.  Green for Danger, Fog of Doubt – even less known books like Alas for Her Who Met Me – all have a way to draw you in to the lives of a cast of characters.  Perhaps it’s her informal turn of the phrase, but the characters feel real in a familiar sense, rather than sketches on the page from 70 year ago.  The denouement comes as a punch to the gut, as real lives crumble, and a person you’ve empathized with is unmasked as the killer.

While that ability to trigger real emotion is the trait of Brand that stands out most clearly to me, she may well be among the most skilled in the field for pulling the wool over the reader’s eyes.  Her particular talent seems to be dangling a clue repeatedly in the readers face, to the point where the final solution to the puzzle comes as a natural, yet shocking realization.  John Dickson Carr certainly had this talent too, but Brand in particular excels in inflicting a sense of “damn, how didn’t I see that coming the entire time?

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Patrick Butler for the Defense – John Dickson Carr (1956)

PatrickButlerPatrick Butler appeared in two novels and somehow managed to become the most divisive topic of John Dickson Carr’s 70+ book career.  Why?  Well, he’s a bit of a pompous ass, perhaps known best for declaring that he’s never wrong.  He’s somewhat of a pig too, with the misguided perception that every woman in the world wants him – and he’s wont to act on that assumption.

Although Butler’s character is despised, what about the two Carr novels featuring him?  I’ve seen a number of comments declaring both to be utter garbage, yet the scarce full reviews that I’ve been able to find weren’t overly critical.

Butler first appeared in the Dr Fell novel Below Suspicion (1949), and I have to admit that I loved it.  The novel features two semi-impossible poisonings with a clever solution that I never saw coming.  On top of that, it introduces touches of the adventure elements that would come to define Carr’s historical novels, starting with The Bride of Newgate, published the following year.

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The Danger Within – Michael Gilbert (1952)

DangerWithinThe Danger Within first flickered onto my radar a little over a year ago while I was reviewing Tomcat’s list My Favorite Locked Room Mysteries over at Beneath the Stains of Time.

“This is one of my all-time favorite mystery novels from the post-WWII era and of the best blends of the formal detective story, thriller elements and a semi-autobiographic at the same time. The setting is a POW camp in Italy and has a nifty impossible situation: a man has been found dead in a secret escape tunnel and the entrance was blocked with a furnace, which needed the combined strength of half a dozen men to budge as much as an inch.”

A locked room mystery set in a WWII POW camp?  Sign me up please.

While I spent my childhood consuming a hefty amount of mystery and science fiction, I more than dabbled in tales of the trenches.  The idea of an impossible crime taking place on a battlefield or in a prison camp is intriguing beyond simply stepping outside of the expected setting of a country house or the odd castle.  You expect death in war time, and I’ve heard of more than one GAD novel in which a murderer has attempted to disguise their deed among the ruins of bombed out England.  The actual theatre of war is different though.  There, death simply is.  The notion that a friend could become foe in the face of a clearly defined common adversary is no unique concept – just see Platoon.  Still, mix in an impossible-style murder plot and I’m all game.

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The Cavalier’s Cup – Carter Dickson (1953)

CaveliersCupThe Cavalier’s Cup doesn’t have the best reputation as far as John Dickson Carr books go.  Oft-derided, it tends to be lumped in with the other common undesirables – The Hungry Goblin, Behind the Crimson Blind, Deadly Hall, Papa La-Bas, and a handful of other titles.  Is it a fair reputation though?

I’ve become somewhat skeptical of the stigma attached to supposedly lower-tier Carr books.  I flat out loved The Problem of the Wire CageSeeing is Believing was a killer read up until an ending that I’ll admit was comical at best.  Below Suspicion?  How could anyone not enjoy it?  Dark of the Moon?  Yeah, it was a rambling slog, but the end spun me around so bad that I’m half tempted to recommend it.

Across forty-some Carr books that I’ve read up to now, I’ve only really read one book that didn’t work for me at all – Night at the Mocking Widow.  As such, I’m fairly open to trying a book with a bad reputation.  In fact, I look forward to it.  Even if the story doesn’t fire on all cylinders, maybe there’s a gem tucked in there to be appreciated.

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The Moving Toyshop – Edmund Crispin (1946)

MovingToyShopI’ve been collecting Edmund Crispin books for several months now without actually reading them.  It all started with Swan Song, frequently cited as his best work, but I’ve for some reason held off on reading it.  Then I started collecting more of his books – The Moving Toyshop, Love Lies Bleeding, The Case of the Gilded Fly, Glimpses of the Moon, Buried for Pleasure.  It’s probably a questionable pursuit, collecting an author without actually having read them.

With a wide range of titles presented to me, I shook my instinct to go with Swan Song and instead went against my nature by selecting THE BOOK – The Moving Toyshop.  I refer to it that way because this is the famous one – Crispin’s version of The Hollow Man or Murder on the Orient Express.  The Moving Toyshop seems to be the “of course you’ve read this one” title when it comes to Crispin, and so I figured I might as well use it as my springboard.

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