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?