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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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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