Whistle Up the Devil – Derek Smith (1953)

DerekSmithOmnibusIt feels like ages since I’ve mentioned the top locked room lists cited by John Pugmire in A Locked Room Library.  It’s an excellent reference, providing a top 15 locked room mystery list initiated by Ed Hoch with the help of other luminaries of detective fiction, along with a list of ninety nine novels for “any respectable” locked room library compiled by another set of genre experts.  I’ve by no means read through this list exhaustively (why would I rob myself of future enjoyment?), and yet I feel compelled to drop the following declaration: Derek Smith’s Whistle Up the Devil is easily one of the top locked room mysteries ever published.

Bear in mind, Whistle Up the Devil didn’t even make the original Ed Hoch list – apparently Helen McCloy’s Through a Glass Darkly and Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead and The Chinese Orange Mystery were felt to be better entries, although I can’t imagine that many would agree.  Whistle Up the Devil did make the list of 99, but for that matter so did John Dickson Car’s The Dead Man’s Knock (crap), Night at the Mocking Widow (bad story but bizarre clever impossibility), and The Curse of the Bronze Lamp (decent enough story but tiptoeing the line on being impossible).

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The Lord of Misrule – Paul Halter (1994)

LordOfMisruleThis turned out to be an accidental Christmas read.  It was the multiple “footprints in the snow” impossibilities that lured me to The Lord of Misrule, a natural attraction given two feet of fresh snow surrounding my home.  That the crimes in the story span the days surrounding Christmas was an unexpected bonus.  So here you go – a holiday Paul Halter!

If The Lord of Misrule feels ubiquitous, it’s probably because JJ, the author of The Invisible Event, adopted a fragment of the book’s cover as an avatar and thus forever associated it with quality comments on mystery fiction blogs.  As a Paul Halter novel though, it flies somewhat under the radar.  Not part of the much lauded titles (The Madman’s Room, The Demon of Dartmoor, etc, etc, etc, etc) nor the criticized (The Vampire Tree, The Seven Wonders of Crime), The Lord of Misrule occupies that no man’s land along with The Picture of the Past: the book’s that don’t really get discussed.

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The Footprints of Satan – Norman Berrow (1950)

FootprintsOfSatanUh, so how come everyone isn’t constantly going on and on about how amazing this book is?  How is the title not thrown down alongside the likes of Rim of the Pit, Nine Times Nine, The Hollow Man, or any of those other regulars when discussing top impossible crimes?  Why was I not forced, at gunpoint or otherwise, years ago to read The Footprints of Satan?

I walked into this one pretty sure that I was going to like it based on the few reviews that I’ve seen.  And yet, Norman Berrow seems to be one of those obscure authors – the likes of Rupert Penny or Virgil Markham – and I have a distinct impression that not everyone likes his stuff.  That would be crazy though, as from the opening pages Berrow provides a warm embrace with the tale of Londoner Gregory Cushing visiting his quirky uncle Jake Popwell in the small town of Winchingham.  It’s evident from the start that this isn’t going to be some stodgy mystery – Berrow can clearly handle characters and humor as well as his better known peers.

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Policeman’s Evidence – Rupert Penny (1938)

PolicemansEvidenceRupert Penny has been on my radar for a while courtesy of JJ at The Invisible Event.  Penny seems to divide readers into camps who think he’s a long lost craftsman of the golden age, and those who feel his writing is the literary equivalent of hard tack.  I tend to trust JJ on these points, and so Penny was at the top of my birthday wish list recently.

Despite JJ clearly laying out a “best of Penny” post, I somehow got mixed up and put Policeman’s Evidence at the top of my list.  My mind inexplicably translated “fifth best” into “the best”, and so here I am.  I guess on the positive side, there are even better books to look forward to.

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Spider House – F Van Wyck Mason (1932)

SpiderHouseF Van Wyck Mason has been on my radar ever since Tomcat reviewed The Fort Terror Murders roughly a year ago.  The wacky map included in the book caught my attention, as did the off-the-wall treasure hunt plot.  That kind of pulp appeals to me a bit and brings back memories of the old books I used to stumble upon at my grandparent’s house when I was a kid.  Mix in some sort of golden age murder mystery and I’m game.

There’s a lot to choose from when it comes to Van Wyck Mason.  His library rivals the likes of Carr and Christie, although much of it seems to have focused on spy thrillers and adventure laden retellings of America’s bloody past.  A tip I stumbled upon in the comment section of the review for The Fort Terror Murders was to keep an eye out for books with “murder” in the title from the 30’s – apparently that was the run where Van Wyck Mason was doing his mystery bit.  While I struck out on finding an appealing copy meeting that criteria, I did snag this killer Handi Book Mystery edition of Spider House with a truly vintage cover.

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The Ghosts’ High Noon – John Dickson Carr (1970)

GhostsHighNoonThis may be the longest gap in my Carr reading since I started this whole thing.  I read The Blind Barber nearly three months ago, and I’ve only now gotten back to Carr.  It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy my last read – it was much better than everyone seems to think it is – but rather that The Ghosts’ High Noon is so damn long.  Well, not that long in the scheme of things –  a mere 300 pages – but longer than your typical Golden Age detective fiction (I realize we’re about twenty five years past the period on this one).  Plus, it’s stuffed in this Carroll and Graff edition that packs 300 pages in twice the height of your typical 40-60’s paperback, so it looks damn formidable.

Formidable because of when it was published – 1970.  John Dickson Carr’s better days had passed by the mid-sixties.  His previous novel, Papa La Bas (1968) has no redeeming value and was quite a chore to get through – dragged across three weekends if I recall correctly.  And so 300 pages of a potentially awful read wasn’t exactly an exciting prospect.

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Wilders Walk Away – Herbert Brean (1948)

WildersWalkAwayIt took me a while to track down a copy of this book for the price that I wanted to pay for it – mostly because I’m a stickler for getting an edition with a cover that I want – and finally won out when a friend got me the IPL edition for Christmas.  Leave it to fate that immediately after finishing reading this, I stumbled upon a vintage Pocket Books edition for $5, but that’s my life…  And hey, an IPL is always more than welcome in my home.

Wilders Walk Away has this interesting reputation: an excellent read, a unique take on the impossible crime, and yet not a book to read solely for the impossible elements.  And, as it happens, if you want to save yourself some time, I’m basically going to grouse on and one about those exact points below.

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The Fourth Door – Paul Halter (1987)

FourthDoorFor a first novel, Paul Halter sure swung for the fences.  Two locked room murders, a no-footprints crime scene, unexplained events at a seance, and a prominent magician character – sounds like something out of impossible crime classics like Clayton Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat or Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit.  Just like many a band’s debut effort is the culmination of all of those ideas dying to get out, you can get a sense of how the The Fourth Door was that first raw effort for what Halter was yearning to create.

The Darnley house has plagued the imagination of neighborhood children since the supposed suicide of Mrs Darnley years ago.  Although covered with brutal stab wounds all over her body, suicide was the only conceivable explanation for Darnley’s death, as her body was found tucked away in a small attic room with the door bolted from the inside and the only window sealed.  Ever since, neighbors have reported occasionally seeing a mysterious light in the attic room late at night.

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The Gentleman From Paris – John Dickson Carr (1950)

GentlemanFromParis

I wouldn’t normally write about a single short story.  At least, I think I wouldn’t.  As much as I love a short mystery, I’ve mostly avoided the form since I started reading through John Dickson Carr’s library.  I know that a few of his shorts share elements with a novel or two, and I’d rather ruin the abbreviated form if it comes to that.  Of course, that shouldn’t keep me from digging into other author’s short stories, but somehow I’ve formed a bit of a habit.

Well, here I am, talking about a short story… by John Dickson Carr no less.  I’ve been making my way slowly through The Quintessence of Queen #2 (#1 is reviewed here), and figured I might as well read the one Carr story contained within.  Suffice to say, it was good enough that I’m actually writing more than a blurb about it.

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Black Maria M.A. – John Russell Fearn (1944)

BlackMariaFor my second John Russell Fearn read, I decided to go with the first novel in the Black Maria series.  From what I’ve read, this run of books contains some of Fearn’s better work, so it seemed like a good way to get a firmer sense of the author.  Plus, these novels are kind of hard to lay your hands on, so I didn’t exactly have much to choose from.

Black Maria M.A introduces us to Maria Black, the headmistress of Roseway College for Young Ladies.  Black has a reputation with the girls as a strict disciplinarian, although we don’t get to experience this first hand, as Black immediately leaves on a summer vacation trip to New York City.  Well, it isn’t exactly a vacation – Black has been summoned by the lawyer for her deceased brother, Ralph Black.  Ralph established a massive fortune as the first person to can broccoli (you read that right), and then branched out his business into a sprawling enterprise.

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