The Tiger’s Head – Paul Halter (1991)

TigersHead“Suitcases with macabre contents, mysterious and seemingly pointless thefts, murderers who can vanish from locked rooms, tales about evil genies, fakirs who can make young boys disappear and cobras coil and uncoil at will – when they’re not climbing ropes in the air..”

Detective Archibald Hurst summarizes the plot of The Tiger’s Head much more concisely than I could probably manage.  In that one sentence he provides a glimpse of the hail storm of craziness that author Paul Halter blasts you with throughout the novel.  This is par for the course for Halter.  The french author’s novels teeter with impossible crimes stacked every which way.  There’s something simply gluttonous about Halter’s work if you’re a fan of the “how done it”.

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The Quintessence of Queen – Edited by Anthony Boucher (1962)

QuintessenceOfQueenI acquired a substantial portion of my Ellery Queen library through bulk purchases of 15-30 books at a time.  Swept up in the tide were several “associated by name only” compilations such as The Quintessence of Queen – assortments of short stories published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and probably tossed into the bundles by some seller who didn’t know much better.

I’m admit I’m a fan of the short story.  As a child I read a fair amount of Ray Bradbury and similar authors who walked the tightrope between science fiction, mystery, and horror.  As an adult, I found my way into the locked room genre via the short story form.  Since going full in with my reading of John Dickson Carr, I’ve stuck to novels based on the knowledge that authors such as him recycled story ideas occasionally – The Gilded Man being a well known example to appear in both short and long form.  Better to ruin a twenty page read than a two hundred page one…

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The Case of the Solid Key – Anthony Boucher (1941)

CaseOfTheSolidKeyHaving enjoyed Anthony Boucher’s locked room classic Nine Time Nine, my natural next stop was Rocket to the Morgue.  Right?  I mean, that’s the only other title by the author that ever really gets mentioned.   That struck me as odd.  Boucher was a well regarded writer of both science fiction and mysteries, yet I only really associate his name with two mystery novels.  Instead, I typically think of him as the mystery critic who wrote forwards in reprints of other authors’ novels, or assembled short story compilations, such as The Quintessence of Queen.

Recent reviews of The Case of the Crumpled Knave and The Case of the Seven Sneezes turned me on to the fact that Boucher had an actual library of books aside from those published under the pseudonym of H.H. Holmes (Nine Time Nine and Rocket to the Morgue).  A comment by Tomcat from Beneath the Stains of Time pointed me towards The Case of the Solid Key – a novel I’d never heard of, and one that Tomcat suggested had a particularly interesting solution.  The ante was raised when JJ from The Invisible Event replied that the book was nearly impossible to find at an affordable price.

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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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