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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Death Invites You – Paul Halter (1988)

DeathInvitesYouI had originally intended to read Death Invites You as my first Paul Halter novel, and with good reason.  It boasts the most intriguing set up of any of the French author’s English translations – quite the feat, given an impossible crime catalogue laden with rooms that kill, invisible assassins, bodies surrounded by untouched snow, and every manner of locked room puzzle – plus I’ve seen a number of reviewers list it as his best.  How then does this book end up being the tenth Halter I’ve read?  Honestly, I have no excuse other than a capricious hand when selecting my next reads.

As for that set up, it’s as impressive as it gets.  A dinner party arrives to find their eccentric host locked in his office.  Unable to summon him, they eventually break down the door and stumble upon a bewildering sight.  A full banquet has been spread out on a table, the food still steaming hot.  Something else is steaming – a dead man sits hunched over the table, his face in a bubbling pot of oil.  All doors and windows are thoroughly locked from the inside.  Witnesses in the house saw no one entering or exiting the room in the time leading up to the incident, and there’s no evidence of how such a feast could have been prepared from within.

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Invisible Green – John Sladek (1977)

InvisibleGreenIt’s a setup to be savored: members of a murder mystery club picked off one by one in impossible circumstances.  Landing at position 15 in Ed Hoch’s list of top impossible crime novels, there seems to be a consensus that Invisible Green is one of the entries that actually deserves to be there.  I’ve been saving this one for a while, and now that I’m binging on top shelf reads, this seemed as good a time as any.

John Sladek only wrote two mystery novels, both starring amateur detective/miscreant Thackeray Phin.  I’d previously read his first entry: Black Aura.  Stacked with three perplexing impossibilities – including a man hovering outside an upper story window before plunging to his death – Black Aura was a solid read… and yet I didn’t quite click as much with its 1970’s bohemian vibe (not to mention that the solution to one of the puzzles was… frustrating).  I’ll state now that Invisible Green is the better of the two books.

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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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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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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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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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The Moai Island Puzzle – Alice Arisugawa (1989)

MoaiIslandPuzzleThe Moai Island Puzzle is my first foray into honkaku – Japanese puzzle mysteries steeped in the style of the classics of the golden age.  Thanks to Locked Room International, a handful or so are available in English translation, and I’ve had a number kicking around my To Be Read pile for a while.  That I finally read one was on a bit of a whim.  I was looking for an off the wall impossible crime, which naturally meant reaching for a Paul Halter.  I remembered though that JJ at the Invisible Event had ranked The Moai Island Puzzle as his favorite release by Locked Room International, so I decided to go for a new angle.

The book is absolutely loaded with puzzles, with chapter names suggestive of the type of problem within – Locked Room Puzzle, Bicycle Puzzle, Moai Puzzle, Suicide Puzzle, Jigsaw Puzzle…  If you’re a fan of impossible crime fiction because you’re drawn in by the promise of a mystery that’s going to get your mind working, this one’s definitely for you.  Better yet, the novel is fashioned very much in the fashion of a 1930s GAD novel.  We start out with a map and a list of dramatis personae, then end with a challenge to the reader before the denouement.  Very Ellery Queen-esque, at least in the early sense, although I’ll argue much more successful.

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Death from a Top Hat – Clayton Rawson (1938)

DeathFromATopHatClayton Rawson was a real life magician, and he imbued his debut novel with seemingly every trick up his sleeve.  The set up of Death from a Top Hat is an impossible crime lover’s dream – multiple locked room murders, a “no footprints in the snow” crime scene, and a suspect who vanishes into thin air.  It’s no wonder that this book made position number seven on Ed Hoch’s famed 1981 list of top impossible crime novels.

We encounter the first puzzle – a locked room murder – within mere pages.  A magician is found strangled to death inside his apartment, his body spread out over the form of a pentagram.  Occult objects litter the room, but the real strangeness lies in how sealed down the crime scene is.  Both doors to the apartment are locked and bolted from within.  Scraps of handkerchief have been pushed into each keyhole – from the inside.  A couch is pressed up tightly against one door.  All windows are secured and show no sign of being tampered with.

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The Five Matchboxes – John Russell Fearn (1950)

TheFiveMatchBoxesAn anonymous letter tips police off that a man will be killed at an exact time and place.  The police stake out the location, even posting a man in a hall right out the murder room.  Right on time, a shot rings out, and as police break down the door, they find a victim lies dead of a gunshot in an airtight locked room.  And sitting there, on the table, are ten teacups.

Er, actually it’s five matchboxes.  Forgive me though if I make the obvious comparison to The Ten Teacups by John Dickson Carr.  John Russell Fearn’s novel was published thirteen years after Carr’s, and it checks all of the boxes when it comes to the set up.  Man shot in a locked room?  Check.  Detective posted directly outside the door, with even more police watching the building from outside?  Check.  Mysterious note announcing the exact circumstances of the murder?  Check.  Puzzling collection of objects found at the crime scene (five matchboxes rather than ten teacups)?  Check.

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