Death from a Top Hat by Clayton Rawson

Book Details

Originally published in 1938
The Great Merlini #1
Followed by The Footprints on the Ceiling

The Blurb

Master magician The Great Merlini has hung up his top hat and white gloves, and now spends his days running a magic shop in New York and his nights moonlighting as a consultant for the NYPD. When the crimes seem impossible, it is his magician’s mind they need. 

So when two occultists are discovered dead in locked rooms, one spread out on a pentagram, both appearing to have been murdered under similar circumstances, Merlini is immediately called in. The list of suspects includes an escape artist, a professional medium, and a ventriloquist – and it is only too clear that this is a world Merlini knows rather too well…

The Verdict

This offers up several intriguing impossibilities but I found the pace slow and did not care much for Merlini.

The locked room is your cue. All you have to do is find someone who could have gotten out of this apartment, leaving it with the doors locked on the inside as found.

My Thoughts

With my track history I should have known better than to plan a weekly feature…

Back when I announced that Mondays would be impossible I had a list of titles I was very keen to read and review. This book was right at the top of that list for a couple of pretty good reasons. The first was its wide availability thanks to a reprint a few years ago as part of the American Mystery Classics range. I always appreciate being able to talk about books that there is at least a pretty good chance others have read. The other reason was that this book is pretty widely celebrated and was voted seventh best locked room mystery of all time by experts in the genre. In short I was hoping for a guaranteed positive review. As you have probably surmised, that is not what you’re getting here…

Ross Harte is working on an article about detective stories when he hears a commotion coming from outside his neighbor’s apartment. Upon investigating he finds a group of magicians trying to rouse his neighbor, Dr. Sabbat, who they had apparently arranged to meet. They are concerned to find that he cannot be roused and that there are no signs he has left the apartment that day as there is milk still on the doorstep. Fearing something may have happened they break in only to discover his corpse.

On close examination it seems that Dr. Sabbat has been stranged and his body has been arranged atop a drawn pentagram, his limbs arranged to touch each of its points. The body is surrounded by occult objects including a book detailing a ritual to summon a demon. Each of the doors to the room had been locked and bolted from the inside, the keys within Sabbat’s pocket, while the door locks have been stuffed with fabric from the inside. None of the windows appear to have been disturbed. In short, there does not seem to be any way that the killer could have escaped yet a thorough search does not find anyone inside the room either.

The police are baffled and recognizing that all of the suspects come from the world of magic they decide to send for an expert magician of their own, the Great Merlini. Their hope is that he will be able to offer some simple technical explanation of how the trick was worked but instead their investigation expands as we encounter further impossibilities including a second murder along the same lines and a suspect’s disappearance from within an observed taxi cab.

Rawson stuffs the first half of his novel full of ideas, many of which are quite intriguing. I think he does a particularly good job of laying out the various features and points of interest in the first crime scene, giving the reader plenty of information to work with. I also really enjoyed the suggestion, however brief, of the crime’s connection to the occult and wished that he had leant a little more heavily into that idea (as Paul Halter would do working half a century later).

The subsequent impossibilities are similarly quite well set up and described, particularly the disappearance. While simpler than either of the locked rooms, the idea is visually quite appealing and serves a really useful role in the story as it allows the reader to see evidence of Merlini’s abilities and deductive reasoning early in the novel. The locked rooms, by comparison, are much more challenging with solid solutions and will likely please those who are primarily interested in the puzzle.

While I am focusing on the positives, I should also highlight the cast of suspects that Rawson creates. The idea of having each of them be professionals within the magic world is pretty inspired, not only because it means we have multiple experts of misdirection at hand but because they are all pretty colorful and eccentric characters. I enjoyed exploring their personalities and learning more about their acts.

As pleasing as the puzzle and many of the supporting characters were, I found the experience of reading this to be a real slog. The problems begin with the use of Harte as the narrator. While the choice of having an expert in detective fiction narrate the story adds a playful self-awareness that Rawson makes use of to expand upon Carr’s famous locked room lecture, I found Harte’s presence largely distracting.

Harte does not really offer up much in the way of contributions to the plot beyond his witnessing the initial discovery of the body and so becomes an extra body whose presence during the investigation feels odd (which given that it stands out in a book that features the police consulting a magician is quite remarkable). While I understand the need to keep us distant from a genius like Merlini so we do not learn the identity of the person he suspects until close to the end, I think this character could have been folded into one of the policemen and it would have made for a much neater story.

I was actually pretty lukewarm towards Merlini himself. His expertise on elements of magic is certainly interesting but other aspects of his personality, particularly his smug attitude towards the authorities, put me in mind of Phase One Ellery Queen. On another day I may well have reacted more charitably towards this but I felt thoroughly worn out by him by the end of the novel.

One of the stranger ideas in the novel is the choice to have him deliver his own version of a locked room lecture, a la Dr. Gideon Fell who he references as though he were a real person. While I quite liked that conceit of the character being real and merely chronicled by Carr, the delivery of the lecture felt dry and its inclusion rather contrived, as though it was there to reference something the author loved rather than because it was necessary as a structure to explore the crime scene.

This brings me to my final complaint which concerns the novel’s pacing. While the careful exploration of the details of a crime scene is quite desirable, the back and forth discussions with the police detective handling the case felt repetitive and really slow the novel down. These appear to have been intended to be a source of humor as we see the detective become frustrated with Merlini but they weren’t funny enough to justify the time given over to them, nor did they significantly advance our understanding of the plot.

All of which is a shame because the parts of this story that worked are really fun and clever. Rawson clearly had some superb ideas and he creates several really strong impossibilities with fair play solutions. I personally didn’t care too much for the investigation itself but I know I am in the minority on this one and would certainly encourage you to seek out other views if you haven’t already read this yourself.

Further Reading

Ben @ The Green Capsule suggests that the book is a ‘must read’ and praises the slew of impossibilities it offers.

JJ @ The Impossible Event similarly appreciated the author’s creativity and praises the bold challenge to the reader Rawson issues just a few pages into the novel. I had meant to do that too – that’s one of the more charming features of the novel.

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime appreciated the puzzles but had similar feelings about the book’s pace and characterization.

Black Aura by John Sladek

Book Details

Originally published in 1974
Thackery Phin #1
Followed by Invisible Green

The Blurb

Thackery Phin, the delightfully eccentric American University philosopher turned detective, is attracted to the headquarters of a spiritualistic group and the beginning of his second case.

When a rock star is killed after trying to levitate from a fourth story window, and another member disappears behind a locked door while demonstrating astral projection, Phin begins to suspect that the members of the society may be involved in something far blacker than seances.

The curse of an Egyptian amulet, a dark seance parlor, lurking death in an orgone box, psychic poison and live burial–Sladek’s brainteaser fairly creeps with fiendish happenings.

The Verdict

A really strong story with two excellent impossibilities, this is an often whimsical and fourth wall-breaking delight.

“There is a black aura emanating within these walls. Love and trust have left this house, the light has gone out of it.”

My Thoughts

Black Aura is the first of two impossible crime novels written by John Sladek, a writer better known for his efforts in the realm of speculative fiction. The books feature his sleuth Thackery Phin, a philosopher who dropped out from a think tank to turn sleuth, advertising in the newspapers for cases promising ‘Anything irrational considered’. When he learns of an occult group called the Aetheric Mandala Society he is intrigued and after hearing about a supposed cursed amulet connected with the death of a young member of the community he decides to investigate further.

The main focus of the novel however are a series of impossible events that take place once Phin arrives at the rooms in Caversham Gardens. The first impossibility is that the father of the young man who died vanishes from within a locked lavatory. Then shortly afterwards another member of the community, a rock musician, is witnessed levitating feet away from the building through one of the fourth floor windows before he appears to fall, dying impaled on the spiked railings below. Finally, and this one is not listed in Adey’s Locked Room Murders, a member of the order disappears after entering a building which is observed on all sides.

Three impossibilities is a generous helping for any mystery novel and while I would agree with other reviewers that they are not all of equal quality, each is treated pretty seriously within the text being described carefully and each plays fairly with the reader. As interesting as the two disappearances are, the most striking impossibility is the apparent feat of astral projection. The image of a mediating rock musician hovering in the air is quite wonderfully imaginative and certainly feels very of its moment and Sladek builds up to that reveal carefully, building a strong sense of atmosphere and tension as we wait for that feat to take place. What I think caps it off so nicely is that Sladek takes great care to carefully outline the details of the scene and follows the moment with a very thorough search of the building, looking for many of the tools that the reader may assume would have been used to bring about this amazing feat.

The other two puzzles, both inexplicable disappearances, are a little less eye-catching though each offers its points of interest. One has a stronger solution than the other but given that is not clear until the end of the novel the reader will likely not perceive a difference in the quality of the setup – just the satisfaction of the answers given.

Individually these three puzzles are interesting and entertaining but what makes Black Aura a special read is the exploration of the ways in which they are connected. The element that seems to bind all three strange events together is that the victims were each in the possession of that strange scarab beetle amulet. This is a lovely device that helps add to the book’s strange sense of atmosphere and its occult themes as some suggest that there may be a curse of some kind on the amulet that brings doom to its owners – a wonderful hook for a mystery which is used thoughtfully here.

In the process of trying to find the answers to these strange occurrences, Phin gets to know each of the members of the commune as well as some of their followers. They are predictably quite a striking and colorful bunch which certainly helps to make the community feel like a vibrant and bustling one and also to keep their roles within the group straight. I was pleasantly surprised to find that these characters were not as broadly drawn as they first appear and that Sladek, while clearly cynical about their practices, does take the time to explore why they are part of the movement and reflect on why those beliefs have a power for them.

The issue I have with the characterization of members of the group came in the form of a retired air pilot who is, we quickly learn, a white supremacist and identified directly as such in the text. It should be said that this is presented as something rather idiotic that the character believes and voices rather than anything admirable so I think it is pretty clear that Sladek is not condoning those views. On the other hand, it does feel rather odd to see hatred for an entire race of people treated as a lightly comical character trait rather than something more insidious though this book is hardly unique for handling it in that way – it has shades of Alf Garnet or Archie Bunker.

Sladek’s writing style is wonderfully flippant and witty, reminding me a little of the tiny bit of Edmund Crispin I have read so far. One favorite moment was when Phin is asked about his method of solving crimes and he confesses that he doesn’t have one – ‘I usually just hope the killer blurts out his guilt in front of witnesses’. A very cute remarkable that instantly won me over to him.

Similarly I really enjoyed the little moments where Phin appears to acknowledge that he is a character in a detective story, effectively breaking the fourth wall. The first time that happens – where we are told that an event that normally happens at a particular juncture in a detective story hasn’t happened – it feels a little odd but I quickly got used to it and rather anticipated those little reflections by the end. It is wonderfully self-conscious and seems to fit the tone and themes of the work well, even if it means that readers are unlikely to take Phin seriously. Like Crispin’s Gervase Fen though I am pretty sure we’re not meant to.

The piece builds very nicely with Sladek spacing out the clues and discoveries well ensuring that the story never seems to stagnate. The final few chapters are particularly striking with the author finding a pretty dramatic way to bring his story to a close and I have to say that I think the manner in which the killer is caught is quite brilliant. The explanation Sladek provides is convincing and the only disappointment is that one of the two inexplicable disappearances is a little diminished for its explanation. Personally though I feel that is offset but my greater appreciation for the skill involved in the crafting of the other and my general delight about how well Sladek connects the three events together in his description of what happened.

Overall then I was delighted with my first experience of Sladek’s work, even though I know that the tragedy is that not much else remains. While the book feels very of its period in terms of the setting it conjures and the people we encounter, the careful approach to crafting the puzzles is pure golden age. It makes for a truly striking read and one I am glad I made the effort to seek out.

Now to try and track down a copy of Invisible Green

Second Opinions

Ben @ The Green Capsule writes a very fair review of this title praising Sladek’s wit.

The Lord of Misrule by Paul Halter, translated by John Pugmire

Book Details

Originally published in 1994 as Le Roi du Desordre
Owen Burns #1
Followed by The Seven Wonders of Crime

The Blurb

We are in Victorian London, with its gaslight and fog, not long after the Jack the Ripper Murders. A mysterious cloaked figure wearing a hideous, leprous mask and sleigh-bells is stalking the countryside outside the capital, committing murder wherever it goes, yet leaving no footprints.

This is the first Paul Halter novel featuring amateur detective and aesthete Owen Burns, who regards the impossible crime as an art form.

The Verdict

The chilling seasonal elements work nicely but the solution feels rather contrived.


My Thoughts

The Lord of Misrule was the subject of a bit of a mystery for me last week when I sat down to start reading it. As I opened up the ebook for what was apparently the first time I found that my copy contained multiple annotations including highlighted passages and notes about aspects of the book. This went from the first page to the very end of the book and, what’s more, each thought was largely in line with the things I was thinking and feeling about the book.

Had I perhaps read the book before and, for some reason, decided not to review it and mark it as unread? If that was the case, why had I no memory of any part of it? Were those notes and highlights somehow transferred from the future? If so, given that I didn’t make any new ones should I expect to find myself in a Back to the Future-type situation where those notes would fade from my ebook when I failed to create them… Or was there some sort of Kindle glitch that gifted me the notes of a kindred spirit? Alas, I will never know. Rest assured however that the opinions that follow are my own – those notes were only consulted after forming them!

The book begins by recounting the story of how the narrator, Achilles Stock, got to know the amateur detective Owen Burns shortly after arriving in England for the first time. That first encounter, while somewhat tangential to the story, is quite amusing and does give us a strong understanding of both men’s personalities and characters. This in turn will help to explain the rather far-fetched circumstances by which the pair come to get involved in this crime story.

The next chapter jumps forward a year as the pair renew their acquaintance and Burns seeks a favor from his friend. Judging him to be a man who enjoys intrigue, he asks Stock to take his place at the Mansfield family’s Christmas at their estate on the outskirts of London to enable him to spend time with a young woman he is enamored with. He is supposed to attend in the guise of the fiance of Catherine, the sister of Samuel Piggott, the man engaged to Mansfield’s older daughter Sibyl.

The reason for the deception is that Catherine fears that for the safety of her brother because of a family curse that strikes fatally when the family occupy the estate at Christmas. It appears that the Lord of Misrule, a killer with a white mask and wearing jingling bells, has been responsible for a number of murders in the family over the centuries including three years earlier when Sibyl’s brother was murdered by an assailant who did not leave tracks in the snow. Achilles agrees to Owen’s request and attends the gathering only to find that further inexplicable events occur, all credited to this Lord of Misrule…

Let’s start with the legend of the Lord of Misrule because I consider it to be the most intriguing part of the book. The concept dates back to an old tradition by which someone is appointed to be the figurehead of the Christmas revelries, organizing games and jokes to entertain the party. While this custom may not be familiar to many today, it does help ground the story around the festive celebrations as well as emphasize that this family legend has been around for some considerable time.

The story of the origins of this Lord of Misrule, when it is relayed to the reader, is actually rather chilling and speaks to the idea of wild excesses being committed by the nobility. While we will know given that this is a detective story that a supernatural explanation will not be the correct one, it is understandable why the historical event would cast such a long shadow over the family and why it would be a very effective idea to revive in the present day. Similarly I love the image of the frightful face appearing at the window – it is creepy and fits in with the older concept of Christmas as a time for ghost stories.

I have more mixed feelings about some other aspects of the setup for this adventure. The circumstances in which Stock becomes involved in the case are quite convoluted and while I enjoyed some of the subterfuge this involves, the story does dance around describing what actually happened all those years ago for quite some time. This does mean that we then get a lot of detail compressed into a few dense chapters which meant that the book read more slowly than you might expect for a 180 page story.

On the other hand, I do quite like the mechanism of having Stock on his own at the start of the adventure and I also appreciate that the business with needing to pretend to be part of the family does mean that he experiences events from the perspective of part of the party rather than as an adversary. This had echoes for me of The Hound of the Baskervilles in its structure of allowing the reader to witness things through the unqualified eyes of the Watson-figure with the knowledge that a more brilliant reading of the crime will be given later when the Great Detective character arrives on the scene and explains it all. Just as with that story, the structure does build our anticipation for that happening.

In the meantime, Stock’s account of his misadventures is often quite entertaining and does manage to emphasize how startling and inexplicable many of the incidents that take place during the festivities are. Halter does do a fine job of creating situations that do seem to be genuinely impossible which only built my interest and left me wondering just how he could craft a solution that would pull everything together in a satisfactory way.

Rather unfortunately I think the solution misses the mark. There are certainly some strong ideas here, not least with regards the explanation for the strange circumstances surrounding Edwin’s death, but the crime that takes place in the present has some elements that struck me as highly unsatisfactory. Particularly the reveal of an critical element on the very last page that had me groaning and feeling frankly a little cheated.

Reading this I was reminded what I look for in impossible crime stories. I want a fantastic premise that becomes breathtakingly simple and logical when viewed from a perspective that would never have occured to me. Halter gives us that with the death of Edwin. The setup is superb while its explanation, viewed on its own, would be quite strong. Were that crime allowed to be the focus of the story I would no doubt be writing a very positive review right now.

The book’s problems lie in attempting to weave additional crimes into the mix. While those present day events add some additional complexity and interest to the investigation, they also make the solution significantly more contrived. Instead of taking a fantastic situation and making it simple, the result is that the reality of that seemingly fantastic situation is even more bizarre than it seems, leaving me rather frustrated and disappointed.

The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers

Book Details

Originally Published in 1945

The Blurb

A deranged killer sends a doctor on a quest for the truth—deep into the recesses of his own mind.

After the death of Inis St. Erme, Dr. Henry Riddle retraces the man’s final moments, searching for the moment of his fatal mis-step. Was it when he and his bride-to-be first set out to elope in Vermont? Or did his deadly error occur later—perhaps when they picked up the terrifying sharp-toothed hitch-hiker, or when the three stopped at “Dead Bridegroom’s Pond” for a picnic?

As he searches for answers, Riddle discovers a series of bizarre coincidences that leave him questioning his sanity and his innocence. After all, he too walked those wild, deserted roads the night of the murder, stranded and struggling to get home to New York City. The more he reflects, his own memories become increasingly uncertain, arresting him with nightmarish intensity and veering into the irrational territory of pure terror—that is until an utterly satisfying solution emerges from the depths, logical enough to send the reader back through the narrative to see the clues they missed.

The Verdict

A suspenseful, atmospheric and unsettling read. The mystery plays fair and has a really clever resolution. Highly recommended.


My Thoughts

In his excellent introduction to the American Mystery Classics reprint, Joe. R. Lansdale recommends that readers attempt to consume this in a single sitting. The reason is that this is written as one long manuscript without any chapter breaks, almost as a stream of consciousness, and by doing so you allow the narrative to slowly build upon your senses of apprehension and dread.

I opted to follow Lansdale’s advice and I would strongly recommend that you do as well. This book is one of the trippiest and most disconcerting I have read in a while and I agree that it rewards a reader’s undivided attention.

The book is told from the perspective of Dr. Henry Riddle, a young surgeon who is attempting to make sense of a bizarre series of events. These concern Elinor and Inis – a couple who were travelling through Vermont from out-of-state in a plan to elope together and the hitchhiker with a torn ear, sharp teeth and a strange corkscrew walking style that joined them on their journey.

The particular part of Vermont they are in happens to be very remote and Riddle himself is a visitor, having been called into the area to provide care to a gravely ill man. The party decides to stop at the nearby Dead Bridesgroom’s Pond for a picnic but the meal has a violent end as the hitchhiker apparently kills Inis and attempts to murder his fiancée before speeding away in a car containing the corpse.

Dr. Riddle tries to understand is why he did not pass that car when it was seen heading along the road he was stranded on and given there was no turning before it should have passed him. It is a perplexing situation that becomes even stranger when he learns that the man he witnessed walk past him in the forest had been killed a short time earlier when he was struck by the fleeing car.

Rogers writes in a seemingly unfocused style, jumping forwards and backwards in the order of events. This represents his stream of consciousness and also his sense of confusion as he works around different points in the series of events, trying to make some sense of those experiences. The experience is as disorienting for the reader as it is for Riddle and the more we learn, the more confusing those events appear.

This unorthodox storytelling style is one of the most memorable aspects of the book because it is no mere gimmick. The apparent disorder of Riddle’s thoughts helps establish the mood and tone of the piece while also reflecting a key theme of the novel – that our observations may be unreliable as things are not always as they appear.

That idea can be applied to the novel itself as much as its plot. On the surface this appears to be a psychological suspense story with countryside noir elements. Those aspects of the novel are certainly there but beneath them Rogers has crafted an exceptional example of a fair play mystery with clever, logical clues and an audacious solution that you have a reasonable chance of reaching for yourself. It is a remarkable achievement that makes me wish Rogers had been more prolific in the genre.

The plot, themes and tone would be reason enough to read this but they are not the novel’s only strengths. I was struck by Rogers’ depiction of the rural setting and the feeling of being really isolated. This is not only important to the plot, it feeds into the book’s strange sense of atmosphere as we are reminded that you could travel for miles without seeing anyone and that if a killer does still lurk nearby, the characters have little hope of getting help.

This atmosphere seems to thicken the more you read and a slow, inexorable sense of dread grows as the tale nears its conclusion. That ending is as thrilling as it is clever, the tension building right up to the end.

There is plenty more I could say about this book but unfortunately doing so would spoil the book’s surprises. Instead let me sum up by saying that I found this book to be a truly gripping and unpredictable read. I appreciated the clever blend of psychological suspense and fair play mystery with several apparent impossibilities and that wonderful sense of atmosphere Rogers creates.

Strongly recommended.

A copy of the new American Mystery Classics edition was provided by the publisher for review.
The American Mystery Classics edition will be released on July 7th (print) and 9th (digital).

The Tiger’s Head by Paul Halter, Translated by John Pugmire

The Tiger’s Head
Paul Halter
Originally Published 1991
Dr Twist #5
Preceded by The Madman’s Room
Followed by The Seventh Hypothesis

It has been a surprising amount of time since I last read and wrote about a Paul Halter novel though I have had several up near the top of my TBR list. The Tiger’s Head was my selection mostly because I was tantalized by its premise of a murder committed in a locked room by a genie. As it happens though this is just one of three mysteries within the novel.

Each of those three mysteries is presented as a separate case and yet have considerable overlap as they involve the same community and cast of characters. The first is the murder and dismemberment of several young women, the second is the murder of a retired major in a locked room and the final one is the ongoing series of thefts of seemingly random items of limited value around the small village of Leadenham.

Let’s start with the least of these – the thefts. Though it is introduced almost as a background storyline, Halter does not treat it as such. While it may not be the case that brings Dr. Twist to Leadenham, it has plenty of points of interest (not least that everyone in the village has an alibi for one or more of the crimes) and could easily have made for an entertaining short story in its own right. I certainly enjoyed the resolution and discovering how it played into the other story threads.

The second story thread, the murder of the Major, is the one that the novel is named for and it presents us with our most traditional locked room elements. There is, ostensibly, a supernatural element at play: the Major had told a story about how he had won the Tiger’s Head cane from a fakir while in India and that it contains a genie that can kill. The Major had challenged a friend to stay with him in a room where every door and window is locked from the inside and wait for the genie to appear. When their friends get worried they break into the room to find the Major dead and the doubter lying unconscious from head injuries, claiming that he saw and was attacked by the genie.

Now, I will say that I do not love the conceit of a room with the locked doors under observation by individuals – it is too obvious how this sort of a puzzle can be broken. Happily Halter gets on with it, almost immediately acknowledging that not everyone’s story can be true and getting on with trying to unpick people’s alibis.

This puzzle is, in my opinion, the cleverest of the three mechanically (while it plays fair, I would be astounded if anyone was able to deduce exactly how it was achieved) and if the book has a fault it may be that it chooses to present the solution to this three-quarters of the way through rather than at the close. Structurally there are some good reasons for this because of the ways the three stories connect but it does mean that the most intriguing and complex aspects of the narrative are already done as the book enters its endgame.

Twist and Hurst’s original reason for being in Leadenham is to hunt the ‘Suitcase Killer’, who has dismembered young women and put their limbs into suitcases which have been left at train stations. The premise is usually gruesome for Halter but I think he sets up the situation quite brilliantly, reminding me in some aspects of one of my favorite Golden Age mysteries. Unfortunately it is one of those cases where I can’t really reveal which story it is without giving away some of the parallel plot points. I can say though that there are some really satisfying moments, not least one that comes at the end of one of the early chapters that actually had me gasping in surprise.

Readers may feel that this story thread does slide into the background a little too easily at points in the narrative given that we are talking about the actions of a serial killer who we should expect would strike again. I think though that Halter does present a credible reason why Twist and Hurst get distracted from this case and focus in on the other mysterious events taking place in Leadenham.

The explanation given for what happened and why is clever, particularly in how it relates to the other storylines. There is some very clever plotting and narrative sleight of hand at play here and while I think it plays its strongest surprise a little too early (and is mechanically fairly straightforward), I found the solution to be significantly more satisfying than I expected though I share Brad’s dissatisfaction with an aspect of the ending that does leave a bit of a bad taste in the mouth.

In spite of this however I have little difficulty in pronouncing this a triumph and one of the most satisfying experiences I have had with Halter to date. The quality of the run of books Halter produced between The Madman’s Room and The Demon of Dartmoor is truly impressive and while I think The Seventh Hypothesis is a more satisfying read overall, I think this is a close runner up winning points for its creativity and imagination.

Further Reading

JJ @ The Invisible Event has not written a review of this on his blog but he did discuss it on an episode of The Men Who Explain Miracles podcast. He also includes it on his Five to Try: Starting Paul Halter post. Finally, it places highly on his Top 15 LRI publications list.

The Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel also recommended the book, albeit with some reservations. These include feeling that one of the locked room resolutions is ‘utter rubbish’ and thinking a motive is over the top. I do agree with his general sentiment that Halter’s problem is often that he throws too many elements in, not giving them the room to be properly developed.

Brad @ AhSweetMysteryBlog is not always Halter’s biggest fan but he says that he was pleasantly surprised for the first three quarters of the novel and loved one of the explanations for a locked room. Unfortunately his experience was spoiled by a final scene reveal and by Halter not really trying to hide whodunnit.

Ben @ The Green Capsule was responsible for pushing this book higher up my TBR when he reviewed it toward the end of last year. He comments on how no individual solution is brilliant but the way they are brought together is ‘misdirection at its finest’.

The Invisible Circle by Paul Halter, translated by John Pugmire

Circle
The Invisible Circle
Paul Halter
Originally Published 1996

Several months ago in the comments section of my review of The Seventh Hypothesis I came to a realization about Paul Halter’s novels. I have sometimes struggled with the theatrical, gothic elements in his novels because they seem contrived for the reader’s entertainment rather than because they make the killer’s plans better.

The Invisible Circle, like The Seventh Hypothesis, is a consciously theatrical mystery. What I mean by this is that the theatrical elements of the scenario Halter creates are intentionally created by a character within the story to appear theatrical rather than to try to convince us that supernatural events are actually occurring.

There are multiple theatrical aspects to Halter’s scenario which are introduced early in the story, each evoking Arthurian legends. Before the characters even arrive on the island off the coast of Cornwall they are aware that the area is reputed to be the real location of King Arthur’s castle. Later the eventual victim gives each of the characters an Arthurian name, tells them that he will be murdered within an hour, identifies a killer and proceeds to lock himself within a room telling everyone that he must not be disturbed within that time. When he is discovered, he is found stabbed to death with a sword that they had previously seen firmly lodged in a stone.

Though I had been worried that those theatrical elements would be an afterthought or used as little more than color for this mystery I was very pleased when I realized that they had significance to piecing together what was happening and why it was happening. By the end of the novel we understand why the killer decides to create an apparently impossible crime and even if we think their actions are improbable, they are at least logical.

The puzzle of the murder itself is rather brilliant, benefiting in part by the other characters being able to clearly establish the geography of the room and its contents prior to it being sealed with the victim inside. This is a side effect of the theatricality or artificiality of the premise of the murder – because it is announced by the victim the characters are able to state definitively what they witnessed within the room and that no one interfered with the door during the hour in which the murder took place. The reader has to not only work out how the killer gained access to the room but also how they extracted the sword from the stone during that hour.

My usual stumbling block with these sorts of impossible crimes, particularly from Halter, is in understanding the killer’s thinking. My expectation is not that the crime is likely to have been committed in the way described but that the characters’ actions make sense given their motive and the resources at their disposal. I think Halter does a very good job of creating a solid explanation for why the killer decides to carry out a murder in this fashion and that he plays absolutely fair with the reader in laying the clues for us to deduce what is going on. I may not consider such a murder likely but I could understand how it might make sense to the killer to commit their crime that way.

Mechanically I think there are some aspects of the crime that work extremely well. Certainly I think the mystery of how the sword in the stone could have been used is cleverly explained. Also I was in no doubt of the killer’s movements and that they had the opportunity to carry out the murder which helped make the solution even more credible.

Now that is not to say that isn’t at least some coincidence and luck involved in the killer’s plans coming together. Their plan ultimately has some flaws, one of which is that once you attack the situation logically the killer’s identity becomes clear even if their motivation is not immediately so. Still, while I correctly guessed at the killer’s identity very early in the story it took me a while to feel like I could prove it.

The bigger issue is that there is a key aspect of the plot that relies on some astonishingly poor observational skills on the part of the cast of characters. Reviews by Puzzle Doctor and Ben both identify this as something that would be hard to believe could work as effectively as it does here and they are each right to do so. It didn’t bother me given that Halter signposts the theatricality of this scenario and that once you understand what has happened it can be used as evidence to solve the bigger mystery but I would agree that the killer gets extremely, almost unbelievably, lucky in that moment.

Having voiced my appreciation for Halter’s plotting and use of the Arthurian legends, I must say that the novel is less impressive in terms of its cast of characters. With the exception of Madge, the host’s niece, they feel functional rather than three-dimensional. I think this is appropriate for the type of plot Halter creates here but I mention it because this approach to characterization is not to everyone’s tastes.

So, where does that leave me overall? The Invisible Circle is not my favorite Halter novel but I think it is one of the most enjoyable. The pacing is brisk and each chapter seems to end with a fresh revelation that spins the case off in a new direction or makes the scenario seem even more dramatic.

Though I think the killer’s plan was enormously risky, I think Halter does explain the reasoning behind it and I appreciated that it plays fair, providing a solution that the reader can work out by a process of logical deduction. For those reasons I could overlook the killer taking what seems like several enormous risks and appreciate what they brought to this otherwise very cleverly constructed story.

The Double Alibi by Noël Vindry, translated by John Pugmire

DoubleAlibi
The Double Alibi
Noël Vindry
Originally Published 1934

Over the past year I have been slowly but surely working my way through the Locked Room International back catalogue in a rather haphazard way, picking titles based on positive reviews comments from blogging chums and on occasion because an element of the premise intrigued me. Though I own The Howling Beast and The House That Kills I decided I would skip over those titles after I read JJ’s review of this title.

There were a few aspects of the novel that appealed to me in advance but what caught my attention the most was the problem of a person appearing to have been in multiple places at once. As TomCat quite rightly points out, this is not really an impossible situation as there are perfectly clear explanations given for each of the sightings but the reader and M. Allou have to work out how these different threads are woven together.

The subject of those reported sightings is Gustave Allevaire, a thief who has been in prison several times to his cousins’ mortification. They are constantly trying to persuade their aunt who they care for and who expects to receive a sizeable inheritance whenever her brother passes away that he is a bad lot but she still sees him as a cheeky youngster rather than a career criminal.

They hear from a family friend that Gustave has been seen in the vicinity of their home so when they wake at one in the morning to discover that the silver and their life savings have been pilfered they instantly suspect him. Things are looking even bleaker for Gustave when his fingerprints are discovered on a few pieces of silver that were dropped in the house. The problem is that at precisely the same time he was supposedly stealing from their home he was also breaking into but not stealing money from his employer’s desk nine hours drive away and in a third location (I’m not spoiling that one for you – it is a great reveal).

Enter M. Allou, a juge d’instruction who takes charge of investigating these cases in spite of their occurring in separate jurisdictions. In the course of the novella he travels to each of the crime scenes, interviewing the witnesses and trying to make sense of how Gustave appears to have been in three places at once.

The novel is at its best in the opening and closing sections as it lays out the facts of the incidents and explains the links between them. I found the scenes with the Levalois sisters and their aunt to be entertaining and their relationship to be well observed. The characterization is strong and I appreciated the time Vindry spends explaining their living situation as it does help bring them to life rather than existing just to serve the puzzle.

Similarly I really responded well to the characters in the office where Gustave had been working and, in particular, to the uncertain interpersonal relationship between the witness who claims to have seen Gustave and the owner’s sister. Even the police officers that Allou works alongside prove interesting and colorful!

Unfortunately while I appreciated the strong character work, I did find that the novel seemed to drag a little for me in the middle. In this section we witness Allou and his colleagues mulling over the different theories about who may be at best incorrect or possibly lying about what they saw, a process that becomes a little repetitive as we wait for a breakthrough to happen.

Happily that does come along with a small locked room problem to liven things up as we get ready for Allou to have his breakthrough and work out what was done and how. Those explanations are quite clever and do make sense of the tangle of links between the three appearances. I certainly didn’t get close to solving this one and kicked myself about not picking up on a couple of points once the explanations were given which is really what I’m hoping to get out of reading an impossible crime story.

Overall, I am glad I finally got around to reading one of the Vindry books I have had sat on my to read pile for months and I certainly appreciated some of the interesting character choices the author made. The puzzle, while not impossible, is clever and stimulating and I did enjoy the way everything is brought together at the end. I will be curious to try the other Vindry novels in the future though I think my next Locked Room International stop will be a return to Halter.

The Seventh Hypothesis by Paul Halter, translated by John Pugmire

SeventhHypo
The Seventh Hypothesis
Paul Halter
Originally Published 1991
Dr Twist #6
Preceded by The Tiger’s Head
Followed by The Demon of Dartmoor

In preparing this review I took a moment to go back and read what I had written about previous Halter novels and was shocked by what I found. Folks – it’s been nearly FOUR MONTHS since I last read a Paul Halter.

That was The Phantom Passage, a novel I found to be a little disappointing in the way it was resolved. In the comments JJ suggested that I may want to take a look at The Seventh Hypothesis and I decided, for once, to actually follow-up on a Halter suggestion. I am glad I did because this novel is, to date, my favorite of his works I have read.

The plot is, as can be quite typical of his work, overstuffed with elements which can make it a challenge to summarize. The best I can offer is that Halter presents us with two crimes that, because of some coincidences, appear to be linked.

The novel opens with a policeman having a strange encounter with a man dressed as a medieval plague doctor. Soon afterwards he encounters a man dressed in the manner of a very old-fashioned doctor who addresses him as a confederate worried about where they have hidden a body. The policeman investigates, searching the three bins in turn without finding anything. The doctor pronounces himself a doctor of crime and, upon leaving, directs the policeman to look in a bin again where he finds a corpse.

Later the private secretary of a playwright comes to see Dr. Alan Twist and Archibald Hurst to tell them about his concerns regarding a conversation he overheard between his employer and a visitor. He tells them that the pair have made a murder pact in which one will commit a crime and try to blame it on the other. If that wasn’t confusing enough, at a key moment in their conversation one of the pair picked up a doll that resembled a plague doctor, calling back the first case.

In the past I have complained about feeling Halter incorporates too many ideas into a single story, opting for style and theatrical moments rather than logical plot developments. For instance, I took issue with some of the deaths in The Demon of Dartmoor which I felt stretched credibility. The Seventh Hypothesis follows the same pattern of incorporating a lot of ideas and incident into a very short page count and yet here the mixture works with those elements seeming to support each other.

Part of the reason I think it works so well here is the central conceit of the challenge between the playwright and his rival, a renowned actor, into which all of the other elements are folded. Halter wastes no time trying to convince us that what we are seeing may be coincidences or misunderstandings but he establishes at least some points in the secretary’s story to be true. He does this both by having the investigators discover inconsistencies in stories but also by directly showing us conversations between the two suspects, making us aware of their responses to some developments.

JJ calls the interactions between those two characters as being ‘a sumptuous, insanely dizzying whirligig’ and I heartily concur. I found both the report of their conversation and the meetings between them to be thoroughly intriguing and while this apparent narrowing of our field of suspects should be limiting, the construction of the plot helps ensure that the reader can never entirely trust the evidence they have before them.

What creates that ‘whirligig’ feel he alludes to is Halter’s breathless plotting. It is rare for a chapter to pass without a small revelation or incident taking place which changes our understanding of what is happening or significantly moves the case forwards. For instance, there are several further murders that take place after the discovery of that first body, making an already complicated case even harder to unravel. Even the secretary’s report of the conversation he overhears contains two or three significant reversals and revelations.

Halter’s stylistic flourishes are also very well executed, creating an unsettling oddness that may initially seem a little forced and yet fit perfectly into this very theatrical plot Halter constructs. While I enjoyed those early passages in which the doctors in historical dress talk about plague in the city, I did wonder if these existed just to create a sense of atmosphere but I was pleasantly surprised by the way he incorporates those costumes into the plot and makes them feel necessary rather than an indulgence.

The solution to the story is cleverly constructed and quite audacious. Each of the explanations makes sense as logical and consistent with the evidence and I thought some of the ways clues were utilized were quite novel. Some may question whether Twist proves all of his case and I do take their point – the most questionable revelations occur in the epilogue and while I guessed at them I do not know that he could have proved them – but the logical process he describes in reducing his suspect pool in the run up to the accusation makes perfect sense to me and I do think he proves his case mechanically, if not convincingly when it comes to motivation.

Given my fairly glowing sentiments about this book I guess the question I am left with is why isn’t this picked as a highlight of Halter’s oeuvre? My feeling is that it probably comes down to how, unlike much of his translated work, the mystery is neither an impossible crime nor a locked room. Aspects of it are certainly incredible and audacious and may look impossible but it is fairly simple to work out how the disappearing and reappearing body may have taken place. The challenge is in knitting all of these elements together to understand why these things occurred.

I enjoyed that challenge a lot and found the book to be stimulating, imaginative and satisfying right up to the conclusion. After this experience I certainly don’t think it will take four months for me to pick up another Halter – the only challenge will be deciding which one. Fortunately I still have a fair amount of his back catalog to work through…

The Case of the Constant Suicides by John Dickson Carr

ConstantSuicides
The Case of the Constant Suicides
John Dickson Carr
Originally Published 1941
Dr. Gideon Fell #13
Preceded by The Man Who Could Not Shudder
Followed by Death Turns the Tables

I am never entirely sure how best to approach dipping into the works of a classic author. I can certainly see the appeal of selecting their most famous or successful books at first but then what do you have waiting for you once you’re done?

After starting out with the wonderful The Problem of the Green Capsule, my next few experiences of Carr’s work were of books generally reckoned to be second or third tier works. Some, such as The Problem of the Wire Cage, exceeded expectations while The Witch of the Low Tide felt messy and left me disappointed and underwhelmed. It was time to go to a safer choice…

I am pleased to say that The Case of the Constant Suicides is the best work I have read so far from Carr. It manages to balance its humorous and mysterious elements perfectly to create a book that is as entertaining as it is perplexing.

The story begins with members of the Campbell family being summoned to Scotland following the death of Angus Campbell who seems to have jumped out of a window at the top of a tower and fallen to his death. It turns out that he has very little wealth to speak of but did take out several heavy life insurance policies whose combined payouts ought to add up to a very healthy sum for the inheritors.

The problem is that if Angus did commit suicide those contracts would be voided and the estate would be worthless. The family want to believe that he wouldn’t have committed suicide, knowing the financial pressures it would create for the family, but the alternative of murder seems inconceivable – the tower being too tall and the room being thoroughly locked – so what caused Angus to take the plunge?

It’s a cracking good start for a story and Carr does a superb job of constructing the rules of the locked room, stating the facts clearly. Since starting this blog I have learned that the concept of a mysterious string of identical historical deaths will always grab me and here is no exception.

I knew from early on that this was the book for me when we first see Alan and Kathryn encounter each other on the train. Carr gives the two characters a delightfully entertaining backstory and seems to relish throwing them together. They bicker and spar, make pointed comments and soon it becomes all too clear that they are attracted to each other.

It should be pointed out that these two characters, while related to most of the different suspects, are external characters. This is different from the approach Carr takes, for instance, with Brenda and Hugh in Wire Cage, where they become involved in the case and so need to present evidence and track down the real killer. Some may feel that this subplot is then tacked on, contributing little material evidence, and yet I found it immensely enjoyable and I think it works brilliantly as a device for the family to come together and to share pertinent information with our heroes.

The bulk of the sleuthing however is carried out by our old chum, Gideon Fell. As usual, he manages to see right through some of the noise of the case to find its key points. I think what interests me most about the character is how amoral he is shown to be. There is a moment where he tells the family that, should he find it was suicide, he will sit on the story and find a way to persuade the insurance companies.

Another aspect of the novel that I think bears closer scrutiny is Carr’s decision to write in dialect for his English readers. Should you have read my review of Lament for a Maker another Scottish mystery set in an old castle, you will be aware of just how much I can dislike authors doing this. Carr escapes that trap because it’s only used in short bursts and typically the meanings are easy to infer from their context.

Some may grumble at all the ‘we’re in Scotland’ tropes happening here but I found them to generally be quite charming and amusing. The jokes aren’t mean-spirited in tone which I do think helps keep things light and they are not so frequent that you can’t ignore them.

Towards the end of the novel Carr stacks several other murders on top of the first death, a move which I have found to be the undoing of some of his other works. I am happy to say though that this was something of an exception with one of the secondary crimes more interesting to me than the main case in terms of how it was executed. When the explanations are given for each death, I was suitably impressed by the ingenuity on display and on the way the remainder of the story holds up.

Overall, I was extremely impressed with this Carr read and I look forward to spending more time with Dr. Fell in some of his further adventures. Hopefully it won’t take me quite so long before I come across another top-notch read. As always, I’d be grateful for suggestions shared (I may not have reviewed them but I have experienced The Hollow Man and Til Death Do Us Part).

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: An academic (who)

The Phantom Passage by Paul Halter, translated by John Pugmire

PhantomPassage
The Phantom Passage
Paul Halter
Originally Published 2005
Owen Burns #4
Preceded by Les douze crimes d’Hercule
Followed by La chambre d’Horus

What if there was an alleyway that could not be found on any recent maps, that appeared from nowhere and seemed to disappear the moment those who found it have left?

American diplomat Ralph Tierney turns up at Owen Burns’ room, seeking out his old friend with such a tale. He tells Owen and Achilles Stock that he had stumbled upon the passage and witnessed a strange vision in a room on the second floor of a house there. When he fled the passage and tried to find his way back it, and the landmarks that guided him to it, seemed to have vanished completely.

When Owen and Achilles start to look into this they discover previous accounts of similar experiences and that the visions experienced in that room have either happened in the past or will happen in the future. Could this passage really be showing people events from the past or future or is there some sinister design behind it?

The Phantom Passage is, for much of its duration, a truly inventive and bewildering read. Halter skillfully introduces and plays with the concept of a supernatural occurrence. The idea of this passageway into the past and future is so fantastical and its physical presence seems to be so clearly disproved that at times it seems the only possible explanation.

As Owen and Achilles investigate the stories of those who have encountered this passageway before we are introduced to a few striking characters and get to hear of further seemingly bizarre events. By the time we get to the point of revelation I was aching to know how Halter would explain away some of those strange little points of interest in the case and make sense of what seems a truly bizarre set of events.

Unfortunately when that time comes, Halter’s explanation struck me as unconvincing. I did not find it at all credible that anybody who had the motive given in this novel would devise this convoluted method to execute their plans. There seemed to be too much coincidence and too many moments in which those plans might go wrong to make any sense of those choices.

The problem, for me, is that even in that resolution there are individual elements that I think work really well. Ideas that, taken in isolation, make sense and which can be quite effective but that never stitch together to make a convincing whole psychologically, even if they mechanically make sense.

This is particularly frustrating because the book up until the final two chapters is highly enjoyable. While it is quite a short read in terms of its page count, I stretched it out taking regular breaks to consider just how the effects may have been achieved. For all that thought and concentration, I don’t think I ever achieved the full explanation.

I also have to say that I really like Owen Burns and Achilles Stock as a detective pairing and how distinct they feel from his other series pairing of Twist and Hurst. Both characters get some strong moments but I particularly appreciated a lengthy sequence featuring Stock towards the end of the novel and its repercussions. I certainly look forward to trying some other stories with this pairing.

I really enjoyed reading this book up until its final two chapters but because of my frustrations with its explanation I can’t recommend it and would likely place it lowest of the Halter novels that I have read so far. That is in spite of having enjoyed it more than Death Invites You and about as much as The Madman’s Room. I think the enjoyment of the ride probably makes up for its conclusion and so while I ultimately felt frustrated by the novel, I would suggest that you check out one of the more positive reviews out there such as JJ’s and check it out for yourself.