John Sladek is better known these days as a furiously inventive author of decidedly loopy SF — and I mean that as a compliment — but he did publish two detectives novels in the 1970s that each contained several impossibilities. The first, Black Aura (1974), has two disappearances and a man flying outside a third-storey window (without anything so amateur as wires holding him up, you cynic), and two-thirds of these are explained away superbly — the second disappearance in particular. It is a very good book, if perhaps a little slow in places, and boded well for the next time Sladek opted to dip his toe in our waters. Invisible Green, then, is very much the realisation of this potential, being superior in every single respect, and therefore something of a bittersweet read as we know now that nothing else followed it in the realm of the unachievable provably done.
The setup is classically simple — a group of people, brought together initially as a discussion group for detective fiction, are being killed off one-by-one some thirty years after their last meeting — but Sladek embellishes it with a couple of fabulous impossibilities: murder in a sealed house where the floors are covered with unmarked talcum powder, and a stabbing with was no way out due to every exit being watched. This second death also has a wonderful additional twist in the victim being overheard asking their murderer “Who are you?” despite having been introduced to everyone who could have done it just a few minutes previously. Both solutions are excellent, and they alone commend this to anyone who has an interest in this kind of thing.
But there’s also a lot more here to enjoy besides that. Sladek’s pacing is far more even this time around, with events rolling together really rather beautifully, and the set of characters involved a lot more distinct that the credulous hippies of Black Aura. His American detective Thackeray Phin (fun fact: called Quin in the synopsis of my Walker Books hardback edition) also feels like more of a presence here, helped by some deft comic writing that plays on his eccentricities:
The American was wearing a fawn suit, yellow kid gloves, spats over patent-leather shoes. The shoes, like his full cravat and the Homburg and walking stick he carried, were of a deep, purple-tinged brown.
“Phin, there’s only one thing you can tell me,” he said. “Who the hell’s your haberdasher?”
“Like the clothes, do you?”
“No, I want to arrest the bastard for fraud. God, you look like best man at a pimp’s wedding.”
Indeed at times the references to pimps, or Phin being told by Inspector Gaylord at one point to “piss off”, feel a little incongruous because what you have here is so classically styled that it’s easy to drop back into a kind of late-1930s assumption. It has that same lightness of touch, that same diaphanous, fleet-footed patter that resulted in the very best of this era defining so much of what came to follow.
Yet at the same time it is very much a book of its era, with the dangerously paranoid Major Stokes’ belief — smartly extended from his wartime obsession with identifying Communists — that he is being tracked by “them” key to the development of the plot and the establishment of the sinister Mr. Green as the killer in their midst. And while a bunch of detective novel enthusiasts involved in a murder mystery runs the risk of being a little too twee for these enlightened and disillusioned times, we have an early reminder of the perceived pointlessness of it all:
They might as well nip down the road to the Gaumont and take in a newsreel. Plenty of death there: Spain, Abyssinia, and now Czechoslovakia. Always a bomb-burnt church or a synagogue and a long file of hurrying, faceless refugees.
This might even be the last possible hurrah for the classically-style detective novel, as we’re not too far from the rise of the police procedural and the advent of ‘serious’ crime writing (my basis for this being that there’s rarely if ever anything from as late as 1977 that I have any interest in reading). Sladek marries the two perspectives perfectly, however, though inevitably the detection fans amongst you will win out over those hoping for hard-bitten realism.
And so we chalk up another sad loss of a superbly talented author of idea-driven, intricate, intelligent detective fiction to the more profitable and intriguing SF pulps (cf. Anthony Boucher, Mack Reynolds). Aaaah, well, at least he left us a couple of great books to remember him by, and this one the fifteenth-best impossible crime novel ever written according to people in the know (though there are a couple above it that probably shouldn’t be in my estimation, so say it’s about the twelfth-best). If you can find it, grab it.
Everyone’s favourite hat-wearing blogger Sergio has also tackled this one over at Tipping My Fedora, and you can see his opinion of it here. Wow, we really are a small community of obsessives, aren’t we?
30 thoughts on “#124: Invisible Green (1977) by John Sladek”
Sad to say, my local Amazon Kindle store only stocks his Sci-Fi titles… I would have rather purchased ‘Invisible Green’ rather than ‘Tik-Tok’. 😦 Nevertheless, glad you enjoyed this title!
It’s odd that his SF stuff is available as ebook but not these two detective novels…clearly some shenanigans going on there, especially as Gollancz (who have the ebook rights) are part of Orion, who could put Black Aura and Invisible Green out as part of The Murder Room. Well, not any more since TMR is shut down, but you get my point…
Thanks for the shout out and so glad you liked this one too – must get round to reviewing AURA and the Phin short stories too
It’s a real shame there are no more novels, as these two really are bloody good. Still, getting use to that — virtually everyone I read is dead, after all — and it’s not like there’s a lack of stuff clamouring to be heard on my TBR. Onwards…
You must be working through the night with all these extra posts you’re doing! Another new author to me. Not sure it’s one for me in terms of setting/time period – why I have such preferences is beyond me, but I think my favourite reads tend to either occur pre 1960 or post 1990s – with the odd exception of something like Sleeping Murder.
Yeah, it’s been a busy week hey? Holidays, clearly plenty of time on my hands!
I’m kinda the same with time periods for reading, as I say here. There’s a point — probably somewhere in the late 1970s, though I’d skip out a lot of stuff in the 1960s for some reason — after which I’m not especially interested unless it’s an impossible crime. Notable exceptions apply, of course, but it’s nice to know I’m not the only one with these weird and hard-to-define rules 🙂
I also highly enjoyed this novel.
In addition to the 2 novels, there are 2 short stories involving Thackeray Phin: By An Unknown Hand and It Takes Your Breath Away. The first is a very good locked room mystery. Both stories are available in the collection Maps:The Uncollected John Sladek.
There is an interesting puzzle in The Invisible Green, which I would like to share with others:
A judge and a model were about to race their bicycles, up a certain hill and back down. One betting man overheard some bookmakers discussing the odds:
“The judge can go one mile per hour faster uphill than the model.”
“Yes, but she can go ten per cent faster downhill than he.”
“No one knows how far it is up the hill, or their speeds.”
“It doesn’t make any difference. The race is a cert.”
Hearing this, and knowing that bookies are always informed and truthful men, the betting man put his money on—whom?
(Hint: Since the bookies are always truthful, the race must be a certainty. But since, they don’t know the speeds or the distance, there is only one way they can be certain.)
Ah, yes, I liked that brainteaser. Going to use it in a lesson next term, actually.
One thing I’ll never understand is how Sladek’s “By an Unknown Hand” was overlooked for every single locked room anthology and there have been one or two of those since the 1970s. Sladek also wrote a clever spoof, simply titled “The Locked Room,” which has been steadfastly ignored by editors, but is well worth seeking out.
Sadly, the last one is not in Maps, but, if you want to get that collection for the Thackeray Phin stories, I can also highly recommend “You Have Got a Friend at Fengrove National.” It’s a fun, practically unknown crime story that deserves to be better known.
By the way, great review and Sladek should have written more, but I wonder if he could have ever written something that I would love more than Black Aura.
I didn’t realise there were more Phin stories than just ‘By an Unknown Hand’. Bonza, shall put Maps on the TBB…
There are only two short stories about Thackeray Phin: “By an Unknown Hand” and “It Takes Your Breath Away,” but the collection is fun all-around.
“And while a bunch of detective novel enthusiasts involved in a murder mystery runs the risk of being a little too twee for these enlightened and disillusioned times”…
This reminds me of Lovesey’s “Bloodhounds” which came out in the 90s and still worked pretty well.
Also I’m not sure about us today living in enligthened times, disillusioned yes, definitely, but there is still a long way to go towards enlightenment I would say.
Oh, haha, I actually meant the times in which it was published — post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, and all that — but I supposed it applies equally well to us here and now.
I enjoyed Lovesey’s Bloodhounds, it was a comparison that occurred to me once I realised this also had a bunch of reading enthusiasts at its heart, but this is definitely a better novel. And the solution to the impossible murder shows far more invention and cunning that Lovesey did, even if there was a wonderful surprise in that book (which everything thereafter failed to live up to, much to my disappointment!).
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My fault then 🙂
Although it seems to me that one of the best reactions in times of political turmoil is to escape into fiction. We are living in equally uncertain times today where a good book provides a welcome distraction from all the horrors in the world.
I see that I already had Black Aura on my Amazon wishlist, now I’ve added Invisible Green too.
I used to own this sucker!
Owned it, read it, liked it, gave it away, forgot it. I did that with so many books, and now they can’t be found.
Sleeping Murder was written in the 40’s, Kate. Don’t go giving yourself any 1970’s credit, hear?
Oh, and if you guys ever try and slip a math problem into a post again, I’ll sic the blogging police on you!
Yes you’re right. I meant Nemesis not Sleeping Murder as a book written after 1960 which I really liked.
I really like Sladek’s writing in general, not just his two mysteries; he was a member of the New Wave of science fiction writers of the 70s that was so horrifying to the old guard, and I suspect here we have a well-read writer who was burlesquing the form to make some money (but he definitely has affection for mysteries!). His science fiction was considered avant garde and daring back in the day. It’s interesting when someone who has success in a different genre tries their hand at mysteries. Not always as successful as Invisible Green, but interesting.
Mack Reynolds produced a sole mystery novel — The Case of the Little Green Men — before defecting to SF full-time, and it’s a brilliantly-written piece of work. Not necessarily good, he also goes for impossibilities and fumbles the explanations badly, but I always wondered what he might do if he’d stuck with it for another couple of books. Reynolds clearly had one of those minds that could just trip and stumble into a wealth of brilliant ideas, and was clearly better suited to less convention-bound genre approaches, but, man, I reckon after three or four detective novels he may’ve come out with something for the ages…
JJ: Glad to see that this came up to your impossible crime standards. I read it back in 2014 (Reveiw Here) and enjoyed it very much. Finally got my hands on Black Aura and need to make time for it.
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Black Aura is very much an apprentice work, and has one of the most irritating impossible crime explanations going…but also one of the best, too (the second disappearance is masterfully done) — you’ll find a lot to enjoy there having already enjoys IG, but I think the second book is easily the superior. A damned shame there was no third Phin adventure, really…!
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I finally tracked down a copy of this recently and just finished it. It’s a delight. The solutions are outrageous, clever, and funny. Very audacious and memorable! And the throwback to Anthony Berkeley style eccentrics works well. Someone mentioned Bloodhounds by Lovesey. A very apt comparison.
I’m really pleased you found this worth the effort of tracking down. I suspect it may never get another official reprint and so will take on legendary status in the years to come, which is a crime given how damn fabulous it is.
Indeed, but it’s odd. Sladek’s Roderick novels are often reprinted. I might try one.
Thanks for putting this novel on my radar. I finally read it, and enjoyed it very much.
Excellent news! The more appreciation there is for Sladek’s criminous work, the closer we get to the reprint they so clearly deserve. Spread the word!
Thanks again for highlighting John Sladek’s impossible crime fiction. After having fun with Black Aura, I pushed Invisible Green to the top of my TBR based on your praise, that of Ben at The Green Capsule and TomCat’s recent re-read on his blog. I have to say I laughed out loud in compliment to the solution of the first murder (rot-13 spoiler: Chfuvat naq gura vasyngvat n ehoore yvsr ensg guebhtu n fznyy jvaqbj va n onguebbz gb gevttre n urneg nggnpx va gur svefg ivpgvz.). That was genius.
Also, I liked how Invisible Green nostalgically used the colour clues as well as ‘Judas Window’ concept (with the rot-13: png-sync qbbe) from the likes of Queen and Carr. Those made the book all the more enjoyable.
Finally, the best impossible crime novels for me are those where I believe the culprit actually would have the skill to plan and execute the murder(s). With Black Aura and now Invisible Green, I could see the murderer accomplishing the crimes. Both highly recommended.
I’m delighted you enjoyed this so much, as I think it’s one of the most unjustly forgotten works in the subgenre — existing in that weird limbo of coming too late to be a classic but too early to qualify as a modern reprint. Maybe it’ll will achieve mythical status in the decades ahead, eh?
And, damn, didn’t we ever lose a talent when Sladek gave up criminous writing. See here for further details….