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 Shade of Time – David Duncan (1946)

The Shade of Time has always been somewhat of a legend to me.  It’s a book that receives few reviews, and yet it somehow obtained a slot in Roland Lacourbe’s list of top locked room mysteries.  It isn’t easy to find either, at least in the price range that I’m willing to pay for a book that I know so little about.  After years of hunting, I’ve never seen it come in for less than $20.

“Don’t spend $20 on it”, I recall JJ from The Invisible Event telling me, crushing my dreams of a long lost impossible crime masterpiece (do you hear me JJ?  You crushed my dreams!).  A few others pitched in a similar opinion, and I had to settle for the reality that this legendary book long sought after just wasn’t going to live up to my expectations.

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Raspberry Jam – Carolyn Wells (1919)

Carolyn Wells wrote an absurd number of books in a career spanning the first four decades of the twentieth century.  One might get a bit nervous about the quality of an author who produced 170 novels, but I’ve seen Wells’ name associated with impossible crimes enough that I let curiosity get the best of me.  Poking around the web suggested that the curiously titled Raspberry Jam might be one of her top five mysteries, and so I took a chance on a steal of an ancient but readably preserved edition.

We’re introduced to Eunice and Sanford Embury, a young couple with plenty of dough, temporarily housing zany Aunt Abby in their Manhattan apartment.  Sanford will eventually end up murdered in a thoroughly locked room, but that doesn’t happen until midway through the book, and there’s a lot to unpack before we get there.

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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 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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