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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The Dead Man’s Knock – John Dickson Carr (1958)

deadmansknock“Fly open, lock, to the dead man’s knock”

The Dead Man’s Knock marks a return of John Dickson Carr’s series detective Dr Gideon Fell following a nine year hiatus.  Carr had published Fell novels on at least a yearly basis throughout the 1930’s, and almost as reliably in the 1940s, aside from a smattering of gaps.  Below Suspicion (1949) marked an end to the detective’s run, as the author took a detour into historical mysteries starting in 1950 with The Bride of Newgate.  It’s interesting to note that although Dr Fell had been abandoned, Carr’s other contemporary series detective, Sir Henry Merrivale, would still feature into a smattering of books up until The Cavalier’s Cup in 1953.

At that point, Carr was pretty much focused exclusively on the historical mystery genre.  While locked rooms and other impossibilities would make fleeting appearances in each book, the stories were more plot driven swashbuckling adventures soaked in historical trivia – not something that appeals to me on paper, but with Carr at the helm they hit the spot.  Interestingly enough, only one contemporary mystery was published between 1952 and 1958.  Patrick Butler for the Defense (1956) was a spiritual sequel to Below Suspicion, but didn’t actually feature Dr Fell.

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The Picture from the Past – Paul Halter (1995)

picturefromthepastIt’s been about a year since I first jumped into reading Paul Halter, and I’ve already made my way halfway through the Locked Room International translations of his work.  It’s been hard to drag it out this long – every book has been a direct injection of exactly what I’m looking for in an impossible crime novel.  That isn’t to say that they all work out in the end (I’m looking at you, The Invisible Circle), but every story has been a rush of endorphins.

There’s one Halter title that’s always struck my curiosity – The Picture from the Past.  This could just be me, but it seems to be the book that flies under the radar.  You have the ones that everyone raves about – The Demon of Dartmoor, Death Invites You, The Madman’s Room, etc, etc.  You have the ones that people tend to criticize – The Vampire Tree, The Seven Wonders of Crime, maybe The Lord of Misrule.  And then you have this weird little guy – The Picture from the Past.  I rarely see it come up in reviews or conversation.

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