Ghoul’s Paradise – Theodore Roscoe (1938)

One of the highlights of my reading in 2020 was Four Corners Volume One, a collection of short mysteries by Theodore Roscoe.  The stories take place in the small town of Four Corners, located in the mountains of upstate New York.  There’s a definite vibe of Ellery Queen’s Wrightsville novels, although Roscoe’s were published half a decade earlier and are far richer.  The tales of Four Corners are more stories than mysteries, and although my own description there probably wouldn’t excite me to read it, what outstanding stories they are.

I wondered at the time if there would ever be a second collection of the series, and have to admit that I skeptically assumed it would never come to be.  Imagine my shock when I stumbled upon Four Corners Volume Two while trawling for other Roscoe works.  By some coincidence it had been released a week or so earlier, even though I hadn’t heard a peep about it.

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Sealed Room Murder (1941) – Rupert Penny

One (me) could be forgiven (I am) for retitling this book “The Case of the Vandalized Clothes and Floor”, because I’ll be damned if that isn’t what the first two thirds of this novel focuses on.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, you’ll get your “Sealed Room Murder”, and it will be a doozy, but you’ll put your time in until you get it.  For such a no holds barred smack me down title, Rupert Penny takes his sweet time in getting to what you’re looking for.

Fortunately for Penny, he’s one of the better writers of the Golden Age.  Yeah, you’ll sit through 139 pages of nothing to do with a locked room mystery, but I’ll read anything by an author that can make this out of a character introduction:

“Mrs Harriet Steele, while she lived, was above all a thing of flesh and blood, a solid animate mass which ate and slept and rose unrepentant, which dyed its hair and plagued its associates and weighed thirteen stone seven in its unimaginable nudity.”

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Death in the House of Rain – Szu Yen Lin (2006)

When I think of modern day novels brimming with audacious impossible crimes, my mind immediately goes to either French author Paul Halter or the honkaku style of Japan.  Apparently China should be just as much in the running.  Szu Yen Lin’s Death in the House of Rain may be the most balls to the wall effort I’ve read to date.

I coincidentally read a short story by Szu Yen Lin a few weeks ago.  The Miracle on Christmas Eve, collected in The Realm of the Impossible, seemed like a reasonable winter read and delivered a heartwarming twist on the locked room.  Well, Death in the House of Rain is The Miracle on Christmas Eve’s sadistic cousin.  It’s a dark tale boasting no less than seven victims, and the means they are dispatched in are more brutal (although not necessarily graphic) than your standard GAD-style fare.  Top that off with four locked room murders, and this is a breathtaking read.

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Mr Splitfoot – Helen McCloy (1969)

It took me a long long time to track down a well priced copy of Mr Splitfoot.  I haven’t been that enamored by Helen McCloy so far, but you’ll never see me pass up a “room that kills” mystery.  Ah, the room that kills…  It sits there silently, waiting for centuries, occasionally producing the corpse of someone foolish enough to sleep within its walls.  I love the gimmick because you’re almost assured a locked room murder, but you also have the riddle of how the mysterious deaths could be repeated across dozens of decades.  Sure, someone may have pulled off some clever murder 80 years ago, but how is it connected to the deaths of today?  Did someone discover a long lost trick?

I started reading this book back in August, but shelved it a few pages in when I realized it was a perfect holiday read.  This is one of those books where you feel the cold air, see the snow, and hear that uncanny silent nothingness of white covered mountains.  Well, yep, it worked a lot better in late December than in the merciless peak of summer, plus, this book is absolutely amazing.

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The Hangman’s Handyman – Hake Talbot (1942)

It’s as if Hake Talbot wrote this story just for me.  From the very first page this was a dark brooding read, and as the chapters unfolded, there were all of the other tropes that I love the most.  It’s rare that I find a story that truly fires on all cylinders, and The Hangman’s Handyman is one of them.

To begin with, we have a jam thick atmosphere, as we find ourselves stranded on a small coastal Carolina island during a raging storm.  The inhabitants of the lone house are gathered by the fire discussing an old family legend.  Their host inexplicably drops dead before their eyes, struck down at the moment that his brother utters a fabled curse.  Poison seems like the only possible explanation, but how was it timed so perfectly?  And how has the body decayed so drastically just a few hours after death?

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The Three Tiers of Fantasy – Norman Berrow (1949)

I’ve been wanting to get back to Norman Berrow ever since I read The Footprints of Satan last year; an astounding impossible crime with one of the most satisfying solutions that I had read in a long time.  It’s unfathomable that I’ve let a year go by, but the Berrow books always ended up getting passed up for my most recent acquisition of the moment.  Of course, it didn’t help that I only have a few of them in my library, but rest assured, that number will be doubling come Christmas.

The Three Tiers of Fantasy is escapism at its finest.  Berrow delivers what are essentially three impossible crime novelettes stitched together, although that’s a disservice to the fact that this is very much a story as a whole.  This feels like a longish book (always hard to tell with these modern reprints, with the different form factor and all), and yet with three very unique set ups and investigations, there’s never even a hint of the story dragging.

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Behind the Crimson Blind – John Dickson Carr (1952)

Whenever anyone makes a comment about the worst of John Dickson Carr’s books featuring detective Henry Merrivale, you’re pretty much guaranteed that Behind the Crimson Blind is going to get a mention.  At this stage in Carr’s career, he was just breaking ground on an excellent run of historical mysteries, but he’d already abandoned series detective Dr Fell, and his novels featuring Merrivale were in a nose dive.  Bookended by Night at the Mocking Widow (1950) and The Cavalier’s Cup (1953), I had a good idea of what to expect: a severe drop in the quality of the mystery, with the stories instead focusing on slapstick antics of a once great detective.

While my suspicions were semi-correct, Behind the Crimson Blind is a much better book than I anticipated it would be – although I’m going to have to qualify that statement.  Lop off a 60 page section roughly midway through the book, and this would be a good read by most authors standards.  It still would only be a shadow of Carr’s best – my closest comparison being maybe The Curse of the Bronze Lamp – but he’s also doing something significantly different.

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The Seven Wonders of Crime – Paul Halter (1997)

I’ve hit a point with a well known mystery where I just don’t have any enthusiasm to go on.  I might get back to it in a few weeks, but in the mean time, where to go?  Why, Paul Halter of course.  Even when they don’t completely pan out, Halter’s stories are a mad flurry of impossible crimes and brave ideas; just the kind of jolt that I need.  In fact, I’ve been dabbling a bit with his short stories in between bouts of my more tepid read, and tales like Jacob’s Ladder and The Cleaver have been that perfect mix of creativity and shock that I’ve been lacking.

My next Halter was meant to be The Phantom Passage, but I decided to go all in with The Seven Wonders of Crime.  Based on the reviews that I’ve read, this isn’t his best book – far from it, it would seem – but the whole set up is so out of this world that I just had to go for it: a serial killer creating a criminal masterpiece with seven impossible murders.  Just do that math on that.  We’ll get seven impossible setups, along with seven solutions.  For a book running 180 pages, that lets us average about 12 pages between either a crime or a solution.  Of course, we have to assume those solutions might get packed together into a 30 page denouement, which leaves us with 150 pages for seven crimes, which is still a pretty good run rate of 20 pages between crimes.

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Dead Man’s Gift – Zelda Popkin (1941)

Six heirs to a massive fortune gather in a small Pennsylvania town for a reading of the will and to learn their stake.  The strange thing is, none of them know the benefactor, despite all sharing his last name.  And, as it turns out, this is one of those wills where the money gets evenly divided among the heirs who are still living…

Not that atypical of a set up for a Golden Age mystery, but Zelda Popkin throws in the curve ball of a town beset by a rising flood.  The heirs soon find themselves trapped in a mansion quickly filling up with water, without any power or a means to contact rescuers.  Oh yeah – an oil tank has released a spill, and a blazing slick is headed their way…

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Slay the Murderer – Hugh Holman (1946)

A man wakes up from a drugged stupor to the sound of incessant pounding at the door.  He finds himself inside a room thoroughly locked from the inside, accompanied by a deceased occupant stabbed through the heart.  No, this isn’t a review of John Dickson Carr’s The Judas Window, but like me, you may find yourself curious to see what another author could do with the same premise.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been intrigued by a Carr copy cat.  The Five Matchboxes by John Russell Fearn duplicates the setup of Carr’s classic The Ten Teacups, although aside from the significance of the matchboxes, I can’t remember much of that one.  It’s a tall order to attempt to play off of one of the best in the business – I mean, is Hugh Holman actually going to provide a solution to the problem that’s better than The Judas Window?

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