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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Rim of the Pit – Hake Talbot (1944)

“I came up here to make a dead man change his mind.”

RimOfPitI have a heavy suspicion that at some point, nearly every review of Rim of the Pit includes that immortal first line of the story.  And how could you not?  It’s a perfect quote to set the stage for the ensuing madness that unfolds.  Famously cited as the second best impossible crime novel of all time in a 1981 poll, Rim of the Pit has a heavy reputation to live up to.  Curiously, it’s one of only two full length mystery novels published by Hake Talbot, making you question the potential of what might have been.

I’ll just cut to the chase and declare that it’s well worthy of its legend.  The second best impossible crime novel?  Mmm, I’ve no room to judge in my limited mystery reading career.  I’ll tell you though that if you’re a fan of the genre, you’re in for a treat that you’ll remember for a long time.

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The Bowstring Murders

bowstringmurdersBefore there was Merrivale and Carter Dickson, there was Carr Dickson.  You see, John Dickson Carr was cranking out books at such a ridiculous rate that he was producing more than his publisher would bear (2 books a year).  Rather than let up the gas or build a backlog, Carr created his first pseudonym and started releasing works under another publisher.  The Bowstring Murders was the first of these efforts, and the only work published under the name Carr Dickson.  His original publisher complained that the name was too similar, so Carr adopted the much less similar Carter Dickson.  Superman himself would be proud of such a clever disguise.

The Bowstring Murders catches Carr at an interesting transition in his early career.  He’s recently wrapped up his main Bencolin works, only resurrecting the detective once more in 1938’s The Four False Weapons.  1933 has given us the first two Dr Gideon Fell works – Hag’s Nook and The Mad Hatter Mystery – providing a glimpse of the fledgling series detective.  We stand at the precipice of greatness – 1934 will start a landslide of killer puzzles that doesn’t let up for the better part of a decade.  The early Merrivale works will find Carr at a completely new level in terms of the impossibilities that he offers.

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The Plague Court Murders

PlagueCourtIf I could wrap up everything that I’m looking for in a Carr work perfectly, it would be The Plague Court Murders.  No, it’s not his absolute masterpiece – that designation is better bestowed on works such as The Problem of the Green Capsule, He Who Whispers, or even a short story like The House in Goblin Wood.  Yet, in many ways, The Plague Court Murders excels in dimensions that each of those titles doesn’t quite reach.  To that effect, this title – the first Merrivale tale – is the purest representation of what I search for in the author.

Let’s start with the puzzle.  After all, that’s why we read these things, right?  Carr’s reputation centers around the impossible crime, and he delivers more often than not.  His best puzzles don’t just perplex, they leave you fixated on the problem for every last page until the solution is finally revealed.  The Plague Court Murders offers that two-fold with a single crime.  A man is found violently stabbed to death in a stone hut that is completely locked down.  The only door is tightly barred from the inside, the fireplace is impenetrable, and the small dwelling is so barren that there isn’t a place for a culprit to hide.  As if the classic locked room set up wasn’t enough, Carr add in a footprint puzzle.  You see, the hut is surrounded by an expanse of untouched mud.  Not a single footprint is present and none other than Chief Inspector Masters (a staple of Merrivale mysteries) was watching the grounds and could hear the murder being committed.

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The Judas Window

judaswindow2The definitive locked room mystery novel.  For an author whose name is so entwined with the locked room genre, The Judas Window showcases Carr at the top of his game.  Too often, the label “locked room” is applied loosely, covering a range of impossible crimes in which a murder occurs in an inaccessible location.  Not so here – this is text book locked room.  Steel shuttered windows.  A door thoroughly bolted from the inside.  No conceivable way in or out of the room.  And, yet, as Henry Merrivale repeatedly states, every room has a Judas window.

Carr wastes no time, presenting us with the impossibility immediately.  A man is found dead in a comprehensively locked room, stabbed through the heart with an arrow that had been mounted on a trophy display.  There’s a twist though – the victim is not alone.  Young Jim Answell is found passed out on the floor, a gun in his pocket and his fingerprints on the murder weapon.  Upon coming to, he swears to his innocence, claiming that he had been drugged and that the victim was still alive when he slipped out of consciousness.  Yet no trace can be found of the whiskey tumblers and decanter that he swears delivered the dose that put him under.

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