Goodnight Irene – James Scott Byrnside (2018)

It’s rare that I finish a book in a single day.  Oh, it happens from time to time, but typically because I’m on a business trip – with the time at the terminal, the time on the plane, and the night at the hotel affording me the chance to put in a solid block of reading.  I read Goodnight Irene like it was nothing.  If you asked me what I did the day I read it, I’d hardly mention reading, as I was out and about enjoying the holidays: a rare breakfast out alone with my wife, some late shopping for those last minute gifts that feel suddenly necessary, some chores around the house.  But tucked in there, I somehow stole enough moments with this book to burn through 248 pages.  And let me tell you, as the page count dropped to the final forty or so, there was no way that I wasn’t finishing it.

Take Zelda Popkin’s flub of a book Dead Man’s Gift and pretend that it lived up to every last bit of promise: a swollen Mississippi River encroaching on the holdout contenders for a deadman’s will; said deadman offed under impossible circumstances; an unfathomable fire within the deluge just when you think things couldn’t get worse.  Mix in some creeping horror a la Hake Talbot, the pell mell energy of the second half of Theodore Roscoe’s Murder on the Way, and the ambitious bravado of Paul Halter.  Yes, Goodnight Irene is a hell of a read.

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The Man Who Loved Clouds – Paul Halter (1999)

On the heels of a few mediocre reads, I start what I hope will be a holiday glut of stellar mysteries.  A smattering of sure-fire killer books that I’ve squirreled away for later, and if you can’t treat yourself at this time of year, then when?  And what better author to start such a run than Paul Halter?  The modern day master of impossible crimes consistently delivers plots chock full of puzzles and twists, and the “worst” of what I’ve read has still been tons of fun.

The Locked Room International translation of The Man Who Loved Clouds was released four years ago, and I recall it being well received at the time – although, honestly, The White Lady is the only Halter title that I can remember receiving any less than top tier enthusiasm.  Since then, I’ve seen The Man Who Loved Clouds pop up on several “best lists” – whether best of Halter, or best impossible crime novel – and so this seemed like the perfect place to start my binge.

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They Can’t Hang Me – James Ronald (1938)

Once a London newspaper titan, Lucius Marplay has spent the last two decades locked in a mental asylum.  Doctors fear that he has homicidal tendencies, and for good reason.  Lucius himself openly admits that he’s spent years plotting the murder of four ex-partners that he claims stole his newspaper The Echo and had him committed.  If he manages to carry out his scheme and gets caught, he has an ace up his sleeve – as a diagnosed lunatic, he can’t be sentenced to death.

It won’t surprise the reader that Lucius escapes the asylum and makes a beeline for London.  We soon learn that the four partners who have taken over the newspaper business are indeed scum of the earth, and find ourselves in a rare Golden Age story where we’re actively cheering on the killer.  It’s a quirky plot in that sense – not a conventional mystery (as we know the killer), nor an inverted mystery (since the police are actively trying to thwart the crimes).  And yet it does unfold somewhat like a mystery, as the machinations of the crime spree take place off screen.  We know who the killer is, who the victims will be, and what the motive is, but we’re unaware of how everything is being carried out.  The “how” is the truly interesting part, and where They Can’t Hang Me takes a swerve into impossible crime territory.

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He Wouldn’t Kill Patience – John Dickson Carr (1944)

It was back in 2018 when I last read a John Dickson Carr novel that really featured the author in his prime.  The last four years still featured some good reads, but they weren’t the books that drew me to Carr – the kind you press upon others to read with a religious fervor.  I front loaded my Carr reading with the very best of his work (of which there’s a lot), and since then I’ve been slowly hen pecking through the mid to low range material put out mostly during the second half of his career (of which there’s also a lot).  For the most part they’re fine books that would stand out in any other author’s library, but there’s also some stuff that’s grating to read – 50s/60s Fell novels and his last four historicals – due to his writing being influenced by years of writing dialogue heavy radio plays.

With that in mind, He Wouldn’t Kill Patience was a true “coming home” moment for me.  What a breath of fresh air to once again experience the competent prose and artful plotting that first drew me to one of the best mystery writers of the Golden Age.  How enthralling to once more take in a (literally) air-tight locked room murder, after years of stories with impossible crimes that felt loose in their construction or minor to the plot.  To experience one more time what I felt in those first 40 books.

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The House at Satan’s Elbow – John Dickson Carr (1965)

John Dickson Carr put out a stellar run of 18 Gideon Fell novels between Hag’s Nook in 1933 and Below Suspicion in 1949, with a solid dozen of the titles being absolute classics, and the rest still being well above the status quo.  The detective wasn’t heard from again until nine years later, with the unfortunately awful return to the page in The Dead Man’s Knock (1958).  Fell closed out his career over four additional novels, being retired for good with 1967’s Dark of the Moon.  Sadly none of those final books are really worth reading except for the Carr completist.

The House at Satan’s Elbow finds us in the middle of the final five Fell novels, and I’m surprised to say that it may be the best of the lot.  We get a country house, a ghost, a locked room mystery, and some glimmers of the personality that made the gargantuan detective so fun to read.  It’s a muddled affair though, which is frustrating, because if you strip away the cobwebs, this could have been a solid read.

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The Vampire Tree – Paul Halter (1996)

The Vampire Tree is the last of the “old” Paul Halter books that I’d yet to read, and my distinction there is going to feel meaningless to you, but there’s a point to it.  At the time that I bought The Vampire Tree, I owned all available english translations of Halter published by Locked Room International.  Half a dozen additional translations have been released since then, but I, for some reason, decided to read all of the “old ones” first before moving on to “new” stuff.  Of course, those labels are really meaningless, since Halter’s output spans four decades and the order that the books have been translated in seems somewhat random… although, now that I think about it, all of the recent translations have been of stories published after 1998.

Anyway, I’d kind of put this one off for “last” because I had gotten the impression that this was the lesser regarded of Halter’s output, although I’ve been wrong about such impressions before.  Regardless of the validity of the impression, The Vampire Tree is not a lesser work.  In fact, it may be the best story that I’ve read by Halter.  Now, I want to emphasize that I said “best story”, not “best book” or “best mystery”, and I think there’s a real distinction there when you’re dealing with this genre.  You’re shaking your head, I realize, and I’m about to lose you, but here we go.

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Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries (1982)

This anthology made it onto my radar when Cornell Woolrich’s Murder at the Automat was reviewed over at The Invisible Event.  It’s not so much that the description of the story made me swoon, but it was the mention that the story could be found in Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries, and hey, anytime I learn about the existence of a locked room mystery collection I’m going to buy it.  Plus, one of the editors is Isaac Asimov.  While I’ve never been a fan, he’s the author of a supposedly solid impossible crime (I have yet to read) The Caves of Steel, and I was curious to see what he might have brought to the table.

Well, aside from the story choice, Asimov’s contribution is a three page introductory essay titled Nobody Did it.  It’s meant to set the stage by tantalizing us with an introduction to the genre of locked room mysteries, but Asimov gets tripped up and wastes one page on a philosophical point that veers into the question of how the moon came to exist.  That leaves us with little space for a few scrap mentions of Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, Agatha Christie, and John Dickson Carr – Carr being the one name that truly deserves a mention given the topic, and he’s not even featured in the anthology!

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Murder in the Crooked House – Soji Shimada (1982)

While I enjoy watching mystery films, I’ve never felt that Golden Age style fair play mysteries translate particularly well to the screen.  The stories are all about these subtle moments and clues that stand out in retrospect when encountered on the page, but just get lost in the background when presented on film.  I watch the Agatha Christie adaptations with friends, and I’m screaming in my mind “you glanced away while the maid was setting down the coffee cup in the background of the shot!!!!!!”  Either that, or the camera pans in on the coffee cup on the sideboard while an ominous chord sounds, and then why even bother…

But although my beloved novels would probably fall flat as movies, I’ve always thought of particular scenes that I’d love to see captured on film.  My number one is the murder scene in The Judas Window – a solution that many deride for being overly complex, yet I think would play out as stunningly simple on screen.  There’s also the murder scene in The Problem of the Green Capsule, which if done right could be horrifically creepy, and of course the point of that book is that witnesses perceive the same exact events differently, so why not make the audience a part of that?

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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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