The Dead Man’s Knock – John Dickson Carr (1958)

deadmansknock“Fly open, lock, to the dead man’s knock”

The Dead Man’s Knock marks a return of John Dickson Carr’s series detective Dr Gideon Fell following a nine year hiatus.  Carr had published Fell novels on at least a yearly basis throughout the 1930’s, and almost as reliably in the 1940s, aside from a smattering of gaps.  Below Suspicion (1949) marked an end to the detective’s run, as the author took a detour into historical mysteries starting in 1950 with The Bride of Newgate.  It’s interesting to note that although Dr Fell had been abandoned, Carr’s other contemporary series detective, Sir Henry Merrivale, would still feature into a smattering of books up until The Cavalier’s Cup in 1953.

At that point, Carr was pretty much focused exclusively on the historical mystery genre.  While locked rooms and other impossibilities would make fleeting appearances in each book, the stories were more plot driven swashbuckling adventures soaked in historical trivia – not something that appeals to me on paper, but with Carr at the helm they hit the spot.  Interestingly enough, only one contemporary mystery was published between 1952 and 1958.  Patrick Butler for the Defense (1956) was a spiritual sequel to Below Suspicion, but didn’t actually feature Dr Fell.

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The Skeleton in the Clock – Carter Dickson (1948)

skeletonintheclockHow on earth was The Skeleton in the Clock not on my radar?  Well, I mean, I obviously knew about the book – I’ve owned it for a few years and it’s shifted positions in my To Be Read pile enough times as it is.  It’s just that I didn’t realize it was going to be this good.  Let me explain.

Although I’d describe myself as being more of a fan of John Dickson Carr’s series detective Dr Fell, my favorite run of books may well be the near dozen early Sir Henry Merrivale novels published under the name of Carter Dickson between 1934 and 1940.  The set ups to those books were classic – confounding puzzles that set the standard for the genre of impossible crime.  Better yet, Carr wrapped these stories in a smothering atmosphere of pure dread.  Rooms that kill, ghostly hangmen, killers who commit their crimes by mere thought; I just love this stuff.  Granted, there’s a natural explanation behind it all in the end, but these are stories that make you question whether you’re dealing with something much more sinister.

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The Picture from the Past – Paul Halter (1995)

picturefromthepastIt’s been about a year since I first jumped into reading Paul Halter, and I’ve already made my way halfway through the Locked Room International translations of his work.  It’s been hard to drag it out this long – every book has been a direct injection of exactly what I’m looking for in an impossible crime novel.  That isn’t to say that they all work out in the end (I’m looking at you, The Invisible Circle), but every story has been a rush of endorphins.

There’s one Halter title that’s always struck my curiosity – The Picture from the Past.  This could just be me, but it seems to be the book that flies under the radar.  You have the ones that everyone raves about – The Demon of Dartmoor, Death Invites You, The Madman’s Room, etc, etc.  You have the ones that people tend to criticize – The Vampire Tree, The Seven Wonders of Crime, maybe The Lord of Misrule.  And then you have this weird little guy – The Picture from the Past.  I rarely see it come up in reviews or conversation.

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The Sleeping Sphinx – John Dickson Carr (1947)

sleepingsphinx“The sand, the lock, and the sleeping sphinx”

I went into The Sleeping Sphinx knowing very little.  It’s not a famous work within Carr’s library, but it’s positioned at an interesting spot in his timeline.  The previous two Dr Gideon Fell novels – Till Death Do Us Part (1944) and He Who Whispers (1946) – are considered by most Carr fans to be among the author’s best work.  The next entry in the series – Below Suspicion (1949) – is criminally under-rated in my opinion.  Given the strength of this run, I was curious to see what The Sleeping Sphinx would hold.

Don Holden returns from WWII under unusual circumstances.  Involved in espionage during and after the war, he was sent on an assassination mission in Italy and declared dead as part of his cover.  He returns to a home that thinks he ceased to exist.  The beginning of the story is fairly engrossing as we watch Holden reunite with his old life and attempt to rekindle a relationship put on pause for seven years by the war.

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The Crimson Fog – Paul Halter (1988)

CrimsonFogI’ve purposely avoided reading anything about The Crimson Fog up to this point.  A post by The Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel warned that it was difficult to discuss without spoilers, and I’ve noticed that many posters only talk about the novel in the vaguest of terms.  Well, I appreciate the discretion – nothing is worse than having an entire novel semi-spoiled for you by an innocent discussion that reveals more than intended.

That’s the tricky thing about writing about GAD mysteries – communicating how a book impacted you without accidentally giving things away.  After finishing a book it can be so tempting to draw an analogy to the solution – “it’s similar to A Murder is Announced”, “it reminded me of the solution to The Emperor’s Snuff Box”, “reminiscent of Crooked House”…these are all statements that would immediately clue a reader in to what to look out for.  Even worse is when someone comments that the author hoodwinks you within the first page or chapter, because, well, now you’re going to second guess everything that happens in that small passage.

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The Devil Drives – Virgil Markham (1932)

DevilDrivesThis is a book that I’ve been dying to get to for a while now.  First, it’s featured in John Pugmire’s list of 99 key locked room novels.  Second, reliable impossible crime enthusiast JJ at The Invisible Event posted a review raving about the book despite declaring it contrary to his usual mystery standards.  The real reason though that I’ve been excited about The Devil Drives is the physical copy I got hold of – a 1944 Bartholomew House edition.

I’ve never had a Bart before, but this one is gorgeous.  The feel of the cover is almost that of a well worn leather baseball mitt.  The pages are of WW2 regulation paper-saving stock – so soft to the touch that they feel like they were printed on the skin of a lamb who lived its entire short little life in a bath of warm olive oil.  I have a dozen or so other books of similar vintage (all Pocket Books and nearly all Ellery Queens), but my copy of The Devil Drives is unsurpassed in the experience of simply holding it.

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The Tiger’s Head – Paul Halter (1991)

TigersHead“Suitcases with macabre contents, mysterious and seemingly pointless thefts, murderers who can vanish from locked rooms, tales about evil genies, fakirs who can make young boys disappear and cobras coil and uncoil at will – when they’re not climbing ropes in the air..”

Detective Archibald Hurst summarizes the plot of The Tiger’s Head much more concisely than I could probably manage.  In that one sentence he provides a glimpse of the hail storm of craziness that author Paul Halter blasts you with throughout the novel.  This is par for the course for Halter.  The french author’s novels teeter with impossible crimes stacked every which way.  There’s something simply gluttonous about Halter’s work if you’re a fan of the “how done it”.

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