Nine Times Nine – Anthony Boucher (1940)

NineTimesNineIt’s always interesting diving into a renowned impossible crime novel.  John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man, Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit, John Sladek’s Invisible Green, Clayton Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat – each of these novels are a legend to themselves.  Does that legend create too much of an expectation for the reader?  Even if the stories deliver a tight puzzle and face slapping solution, can they ever really live up to their reputation?

In some cases, these books are known for an element beyond the pure impossibility.  The Hollow Man is the most notable example, with an entire chapter devoted to a locked room lecture provided by Carr’s classic detective Dr Gideon Fell.  The passage is well known for laying out all of the possible solutions to a locked room mystery – of course leaving the door open for the novel to deliver an unaccounted for technique.

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The Danger Within – Michael Gilbert (1952)

DangerWithinThe Danger Within first flickered onto my radar a little over a year ago while I was reviewing Tomcat’s list My Favorite Locked Room Mysteries over at Beneath the Stains of Time.

“This is one of my all-time favorite mystery novels from the post-WWII era and of the best blends of the formal detective story, thriller elements and a semi-autobiographic at the same time. The setting is a POW camp in Italy and has a nifty impossible situation: a man has been found dead in a secret escape tunnel and the entrance was blocked with a furnace, which needed the combined strength of half a dozen men to budge as much as an inch.”

A locked room mystery set in a WWII POW camp?  Sign me up please.

While I spent my childhood consuming a hefty amount of mystery and science fiction, I more than dabbled in tales of the trenches.  The idea of an impossible crime taking place on a battlefield or in a prison camp is intriguing beyond simply stepping outside of the expected setting of a country house or the odd castle.  You expect death in war time, and I’ve heard of more than one GAD novel in which a murderer has attempted to disguise their deed among the ruins of bombed out England.  The actual theatre of war is different though.  There, death simply is.  The notion that a friend could become foe in the face of a clearly defined common adversary is no unique concept – just see Platoon.  Still, mix in an impossible-style murder plot and I’m all game.

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The Cavalier’s Cup – Carter Dickson (1953)

CaveliersCupThe Cavalier’s Cup doesn’t have the best reputation as far as John Dickson Carr books go.  Oft-derided, it tends to be lumped in with the other common undesirables – The Hungry Goblin, Behind the Crimson Blind, Deadly Hall, Papa La-Bas, and a handful of other titles.  Is it a fair reputation though?

I’ve become somewhat skeptical of the stigma attached to supposedly lower-tier Carr books.  I flat out loved The Problem of the Wire CageSeeing is Believing was a killer read up until an ending that I’ll admit was comical at best.  Below Suspicion?  How could anyone not enjoy it?  Dark of the Moon?  Yeah, it was a rambling slog, but the end spun me around so bad that I’m half tempted to recommend it.

Across forty-some Carr books that I’ve read up to now, I’ve only really read one book that didn’t work for me at all – Night at the Mocking Widow.  As such, I’m fairly open to trying a book with a bad reputation.  In fact, I look forward to it.  Even if the story doesn’t fire on all cylinders, maybe there’s a gem tucked in there to be appreciated.

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The Invisible Circle – Paul Halter (1996)

InvisibleCircleThe ultimate locked room mystery set up – where to start?  Is it The Judas Window, with a room so perfectly sealed you couldn’t push a pin into it, much less the arrow lodged in the victim’s heart?  Perhaps it’s Clayton Rawson’s From Another World, in which a corpse is found alongside the knife that killed him in a room with all doors and windows sealed from the inside with tape?  Or is it The Plague Court Murders, with a man stabbed repeatedly in the back despite being locked in a secure stone hut surrounded by a field of untouched mud?

There’s almost a one-upmanship in some cases, with the author tasked with laying out a crime so thoroughly impossible that the reader is left with no avenue for an answer.  In the best cases, that answer comes in the form of a simplicity that you never thought to consider.  In the weaker ones, we get a solution so overly complex that it merely rings as a hollow justification for the puzzle.

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Black Aura – John Sladek (1974)

BlackAuraIf you asked me what comes to mind when someone says “essential locked room mysteries” I’d rattle off an answer that I suspect would be familiar to many others – Rim of the Pit by Hake Talbot, Nine Times Nine by Anthony Boucher, Death From a Top Hat by Clayton Rawson, Invisible Green by John Sladek, and a whole batch of John Dickson Carr novels.  The Carr novels would be of my own opinion; the rest are more of a recitation of canonical titles, most stuck in my mind by this list compiled by John Pugmire.

I’m not going to debate the viability of that list here.  Nor should I.  I’ve possessed enough fortitude to abstain from burning through the contents, withholding the enjoyment of the titles for future days.  Instead, I’ll call attention to Invisible Green by John Sladek.  The novel sounds like an impossible crime enthusiasts fantasies come to life – members of a detective book club are picked off one by one under impossible circumstances.  Imagine my surprise when I learned that another book by Sladek – Black Aura – is held in higher regard by many.  Both books are somewhat tricky to find on the cheap, so when I stumbled upon Black Aura for a steal, I was quick to snatch it up.

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Fatal Descent – Carter Dickson and John Rhode (1939)

FatalDescentWhen I think about the true sweet spot in John Dickson Carr’s career, it’s 1938-1939.  The Crooked Hinge, The Judas Window, The Problem of the Green Capsule, The Problem of the Wire Cage, The Reader is Warned.  Not only is that a lot of books that start with the word “The”, but it’s a list that contains some of his very best work – titles matching some of his strongest puzzles with intriguing plots.  Fortunately, I’ve been disciplined enough to hoard a few titles from this period to enjoy at a later time – Death in Five Boxes and Fatal Descent.

Fatal Descent is notable in that Carr shared writing duties with another prolific mystery author of the time – Cecil Street.  Street’s writing career spanned roughly the same period as Carr, although he published quite a few more novels, mostly under the names of John Rhode and Miles Burton (I’ll use “Rhode” going forward to avoid confusion).  I’ve never read any of his work (his books typically go for $50 dollars at least), but I’ve seen him classified as part of the “humdrum” school of GAD – not exactly an exciting endorsement, especially with money on the line.  Still, some prominent members of the GAD blogosphere attest to Rhode’s quality, and so if you’re interested in learning more, I’ll have to point you to a Rhodes scholar (eh, see what I did?  Well, it is a somewhat US-centric reference…).

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Night at the Mocking Widow – Carter Dickson (1950)

nightatmockingwidowIf you’ve read my reviews up to now, you know that I haven’t shied away from the supposedly weaker Carr titles.  The Problem of the Wire Cage – loved it.  Death Watch – I wish every Carr book was that good.  Below Suspicion – I have no clue why people dislike it.  Seeing is Believing – ridiculous ending but otherwise a strong title.  Panic in Box C – mmm, it meandered here and there with Carr’s love for trivia, but overall it was decent.  And then of course, The Hungry Goblin – not a book to enthusiastically recommend, but an enjoyable Carr historical.

Naturally, my enjoyment of these supposedly weaker titles has me second guessing myself.  Am I an unabashed JDC fanboy, so blinded by the enjoyment of a few good reads that I’m willing to choke down any mediocre swill the author felt fit to put to page?  Of course not – at least that’s what I tell myself.

Well, I hate to say it, but I’ve finally met my match.  As much as I wanted to love her, there isn’t much to appreciate about the Mocking Widow.  The comedy is bad, the characters are Carr’s shallowest, the plot feels disjointed, the mystery is meh, and the whole read feels like a phoned in facade.

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