Goodnight Irene – James Scott Byrnside (2018)

It’s rare that I finish a book in a single day.  Oh, it happens from time to time, but typically because I’m on a business trip – with the time at the terminal, the time on the plane, and the night at the hotel affording me the chance to put in a solid block of reading.  I read Goodnight Irene like it was nothing.  If you asked me what I did the day I read it, I’d hardly mention reading, as I was out and about enjoying the holidays: a rare breakfast out alone with my wife, some late shopping for those last minute gifts that feel suddenly necessary, some chores around the house.  But tucked in there, I somehow stole enough moments with this book to burn through 248 pages.  And let me tell you, as the page count dropped to the final forty or so, there was no way that I wasn’t finishing it.

Take Zelda Popkin’s flub of a book Dead Man’s Gift and pretend that it lived up to every last bit of promise: a swollen Mississippi River encroaching on the holdout contenders for a deadman’s will; said deadman offed under impossible circumstances; an unfathomable fire within the deluge just when you think things couldn’t get worse.  Mix in some creeping horror a la Hake Talbot, the pell mell energy of the second half of Theodore Roscoe’s Murder on the Way, and the ambitious bravado of Paul Halter.  Yes, Goodnight Irene is a hell of a read.

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He Wouldn’t Kill Patience – John Dickson Carr (1944)

It was back in 2018 when I last read a John Dickson Carr novel that really featured the author in his prime.  The last four years still featured some good reads, but they weren’t the books that drew me to Carr – the kind you press upon others to read with a religious fervor.  I front loaded my Carr reading with the very best of his work (of which there’s a lot), and since then I’ve been slowly hen pecking through the mid to low range material put out mostly during the second half of his career (of which there’s also a lot).  For the most part they’re fine books that would stand out in any other author’s library, but there’s also some stuff that’s grating to read – 50s/60s Fell novels and his last four historicals – due to his writing being influenced by years of writing dialogue heavy radio plays.

With that in mind, He Wouldn’t Kill Patience was a true “coming home” moment for me.  What a breath of fresh air to once again experience the competent prose and artful plotting that first drew me to one of the best mystery writers of the Golden Age.  How enthralling to once more take in a (literally) air-tight locked room murder, after years of stories with impossible crimes that felt loose in their construction or minor to the plot.  To experience one more time what I felt in those first 40 books.

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The House at Satan’s Elbow – John Dickson Carr (1965)

John Dickson Carr put out a stellar run of 18 Gideon Fell novels between Hag’s Nook in 1933 and Below Suspicion in 1949, with a solid dozen of the titles being absolute classics, and the rest still being well above the status quo.  The detective wasn’t heard from again until nine years later, with the unfortunately awful return to the page in The Dead Man’s Knock (1958).  Fell closed out his career over four additional novels, being retired for good with 1967’s Dark of the Moon.  Sadly none of those final books are really worth reading except for the Carr completist.

The House at Satan’s Elbow finds us in the middle of the final five Fell novels, and I’m surprised to say that it may be the best of the lot.  We get a country house, a ghost, a locked room mystery, and some glimmers of the personality that made the gargantuan detective so fun to read.  It’s a muddled affair though, which is frustrating, because if you strip away the cobwebs, this could have been a solid read.

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Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries (1982)

This anthology made it onto my radar when Cornell Woolrich’s Murder at the Automat was reviewed over at The Invisible Event.  It’s not so much that the description of the story made me swoon, but it was the mention that the story could be found in Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries, and hey, anytime I learn about the existence of a locked room mystery collection I’m going to buy it.  Plus, one of the editors is Isaac Asimov.  While I’ve never been a fan, he’s the author of a supposedly solid impossible crime (I have yet to read) The Caves of Steel, and I was curious to see what he might have brought to the table.

Well, aside from the story choice, Asimov’s contribution is a three page introductory essay titled Nobody Did it.  It’s meant to set the stage by tantalizing us with an introduction to the genre of locked room mysteries, but Asimov gets tripped up and wastes one page on a philosophical point that veers into the question of how the moon came to exist.  That leaves us with little space for a few scrap mentions of Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, Agatha Christie, and John Dickson Carr – Carr being the one name that truly deserves a mention given the topic, and he’s not even featured in the anthology!

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Murder in the Crooked House – Soji Shimada (1982)

While I enjoy watching mystery films, I’ve never felt that Golden Age style fair play mysteries translate particularly well to the screen.  The stories are all about these subtle moments and clues that stand out in retrospect when encountered on the page, but just get lost in the background when presented on film.  I watch the Agatha Christie adaptations with friends, and I’m screaming in my mind “you glanced away while the maid was setting down the coffee cup in the background of the shot!!!!!!”  Either that, or the camera pans in on the coffee cup on the sideboard while an ominous chord sounds, and then why even bother…

But although my beloved novels would probably fall flat as movies, I’ve always thought of particular scenes that I’d love to see captured on film.  My number one is the murder scene in The Judas Window – a solution that many deride for being overly complex, yet I think would play out as stunningly simple on screen.  There’s also the murder scene in The Problem of the Green Capsule, which if done right could be horrifically creepy, and of course the point of that book is that witnesses perceive the same exact events differently, so why not make the audience a part of that?

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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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James Scott Byrnside

Author of impossible-crime murder mysteries

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