The Hollow Man (The Three Coffins) – John Dickson Carr (1935)

Let me know when you’ve found another book that throws down the gauntlet in the opening stretch like this one does.  The Problem of the Wire CageThe Judas WindowThe Red Widow Murders?  Maybe.  I scan my bookshelves and I struggle to find a book that comes out with as solid of an opening as The Hollow Man.

There are plenty of mystery novels that start strong.  I’ll write you a whole post on the first sentence of Rim of the Pit or The Red Right Hand if you want.  Those are perfect opening sentences, and the paragraphs that follow them are fine as well.  There are also books with storming opening chapters; see the suffocatingly impossible hellscape we’re confronted with in chapter one of The Judas Window.

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Murder Among the Angells – Roger Scarlett (1932)

Rewind to 2017 and Golden Age mystery fans were abuzz about finally getting their hands on Murder Among the Angells; a revered classic in Japan that somehow wallowed in obscurity throughout the rest of the world.  And what’s not to get excited about?  A mansion with a unique floor plan, nine maps, a bizarre will, and an impossible crime to top it all off.  I was pumped to read it, and so I immediately purchased it, and then let it rot in my TBR pile for nearly six years.

Well, that last part is because I always lose track of stories in these multi-novel collections, and Murder Among the Angells comes in the form of a twofer from Coachwhip Publications alongside Cat’s Paw.  Due to stacking issues, I end up stashing these bigger books somewhere else and then forget I have them.  Anyways, I finally got around to reading Cat’s Paw last year, and I’ve been eager to get back to Roger Scarlett ever since.

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The Phases of Carr – Second Period Merrivale

I previously covered what I consider to be the first period of John Dickson Carr’s Sir Henry Merrivale mysteries.  These novels, published from 1934-1940 lean hard into impossible crimes, which distinguishes them from Carr’s Dr Gideon Fell novels from the time.  The focus on impossible crimes is also a dividing factor between the first two periods of the Merrivale novels, and we’ll cover the second period here.

Carr published 22 Merrivale novels over a 19 year span, beginning with The Plague Court Murders in 1934 and finishing with The Cavalier’s Cup in 1953.  My split between the era’s of the Merrivale novels takes place in 1940, which coincidentally divides these into two equal groups of 11.  The latter 11 novels differ from the first 11 in terms of the focus on impossible crimes, as well as the role of humor in the novels.  The first 11 novels are all about the impossible crime (with a few exceptions already covered), whereas impossibilities play a middling role in this second half.  The novels also take a step down in quality.  Before getting into that, let’s first take a look at the books that make up this second phase.

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The Phases of Carr – First Period Merrivale

The Judas Window.  The White Priory Murders.  The Ten Teacups. The Red Widow Murders.  Nine, and Death Makes Ten.  Five heavy hitters that trump the best of most any other mystery writer’s library.  John Dickson Carr published these all in his first decade, and the one hand tied behind his back is that these are just a selection of the Sir Henry Merrivale mysteries from the time period; I’m not even looking at the equally (if not more) revered Dr Gideon Fell series.  Carr had a career that spanned five decades (granted most output came during the first three), but it’s the 30s where he’s swinging fast and landing his punches.  While his alternate detective Dr Gideon Fell will always remain my favorite, I hold that Carr’s best streak came in the first stretch of eleven Henry Merivale mysteries that constitute the era we’ll cover here.

Carr opened his career with four Henri Bencolin novels before releasing two standalone mysteries: Poison in Jest and The Bowstring Murders.  That brief exploration forked into the Fell and Merrivale series, with two Fell novels being released in 1933 before introducing Sir Henry Merivale in 1934.  After that, both series took off like rockets, with Carr releasing two books from each in most years up until 1941.  At that point, the pace slowed a bit, but we’re still talking a novel per year in each series for the most part.

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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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