Here we are, the third and final week of Dan and I using our podcast The Men Who Explain Miracles to look at the list of the 15 best impossible crime novels as curated by Ed Hoch in 1981.
The novels discussed this week are the big-hitters, the top 5, those titles that should potentially be in everyone’s library, and they are:
The Judas Window (1937) by Carter Dickson The Crooked Hinge (1938) by John Dickson Carr The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907) by Gaston Leroux Rim of the Pit (1944) by Hake Talbot The Hollow Man, a.k.a. The Three Coffins (1935) by John Dickson Carr
It’s all, as ever, spoiler-free, so you’re not going to have anything meaningful ruined if you’re yet to read any of these books. And to round things off, we have a bit of a discussion about the legacy of this list, and the concept of ‘best of’ lists in general.
91 thoughts on “#353: The Men Who Explain Miracles – Episode 4.3: The Edward D. Hoch ‘Best Impossible Crime Novels’ List of 1981 (Books 5 to 1)”
Interesting as always. For once, I’m agreed with you on all the novels discussed here.
My main objection is probably that you seem to find “The Plague Court Murders” so good. To me it’s a quintessential early Carr novel, which means that it simply isn’t that good. It also has that Carr-ian trait where the identity of the killer is too well-hidden – the killer isn’t in the book enough for the reader to get to know him/her. (Cf. “Waxworks Murder”, “Blind Barber”, “White Priory”, “Unicorn”).
And thanks for the link! 🙂
I know what you mean, especially with regard to something like The Blind Barber, but what I enoy about these sorts of books id that there’s one clear and brilliant moment thrown right in your face that — if you’re canny enough to see through it — throws the whole thing wide open. For my money, that’s an appropriate enough clue or declaration: the killer is there to be seen, pretty much laid out right in front of you, and typically we cry “Foul!” only because we’re not switched on enough to catch it!
No. I cry “foul” because I feel it’s not too far from using the penultimate chapter to introduce a cousin from Argentina and then to find out in the last chapter that he was the killer all along, moving around in the bits of the story that weren’t clearly laid out, or worse still, never told at all.
I think a killer should be one of the main characters so we all get the chance to assess and suspect that person. If the killer is kept on the sidelines the entire time, how am I supposed to match my wits with the detective/author?
Apart from the florid prose of Carr’s early novels, this might actually be Carr’s main drawback. It simply happens too often that Mr. Bit Player turns out to be the one. (I managed to remember at least two more examples just while writing this reply.)
Fair enough; I’m not so concerned by it myself, but I know there is a general delight at having the murderr brazen it out in front of the detective. If that doesn’t happen, so long as I’ve had the achance to make the necessary connections I’m happy.
After all, if you’d killed someone and there was a genius of some repute with a 100% record behind them, you’d keep out of their way, right? 🙂
Another week of managing to have read 4 out of the 5 books, though I’d say only one of them was a favourite read – The Judas Window. Found The Crooked House quite a drag to get through. I think writing style density is a big part of that, as I seemed to have fared better with Carr’s middle period of writing i.e. The Emperor’s Snuff Box, The Case of the Constant Suicides etc. Characterisation and writing style definitely come ahead of an impossibility in my reading priorities.
But yes another great episode and look forward to the next one.
Yeah, I can see Carr’s middle period being the era that most appeals to the casual reader (I’m not disdaining you with this term, I promise — I’m just refusing to tar you with the level of dangerous fixation that I bring to his books…!). But then I suppose that’s the case with anyone who writes for any meaningful time — the Early Ones show them learnign the craft, the Late Ones show a decline of their powers…if they’re gonna be any good, it’ll be in the middle.
Carr definitely got less florid and macabre as he went, probably as his focus became more plot-oriented and he simply burned to get the ideas down. In some cases this leads to him overlooking other aspects in the rush to clew and churn, but when he hits it well — Snuff Box, Suicides, Till Death — boy doesn’t he ever hit hard.
Thanks for the kind words, too — maybe we’ll make an impossibility fiend of you yet… 🙂
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haha no I can see myself as a casual Carr reader. Probably should visit his work more frequently though. Given that my TBR pile is not all that fat I might get around to getting some more by him in soon. Just need to remember. That’s always the tricky bit! I don’t mind becoming an impossibility fiend, but are there any you’d recommend which still provide strong characterisation and avoid becoming dry and dense due to having to explain all the highly technical/complicated mechanics of the crimes? (This request hopefully won’t be impossible in itself!)
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I think that rather depends on which Carr novels from the middle period you’ve already read! 🙂
Here are the ones I’d recommend unhesitatingly:
The Black Spectacles/Problem of the Green Capsule
Case of the Constant Suicides
Death Turns the Tables
The Emperor’s Snuffbox
Till Death Do Us Part
He Who Whispers
The Sleeping Sphinx
Death in Five Boxes (C. Dickson)
Murder in The Submarine Zone/Nine – And Death Makes Ten (C. Dickson)
All other novels written between 1937 and 1945 are worthwhile reads, though may have one or two problems that doesn’t make them consistently great.
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Whoa, whoa, whoa — you say you dislike withholding of the culprit and then put in Five Boxes, where the occlusion of a key action prevents the entire thing from being even remotely fair? Christian, you have some explaining to do… 🙂
Only read 3 of these so far so looks like I have plenty more to go at.
See, I’m actually with you in not liking overly mechanical explanations — I’d much rather be misled by someting clever than have it hing on a rope tied in a special knot looped around a lampshade that acts as a pulley and feeds it through a special hidden hole and back under the gap in a door so that when both ends are pulled togethzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
If I think about what I’d call the great impossibilities I’ve read in my life, none of them rely on that sort of principle. I might coin the phrase Chinese Orangery for brevity of explaining what I don’t want in future…
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Gosh another similarity in our reading tastes and its not even a leap year! I shall keep a keen eye out for your top 15 list with Dan for all the non-overly mechanical ones.
At this rate I’ll be a Lily Wu fan before Easter!
and so you should be!
Another absolutely fascinating listen, gentlemen. Now I’m looking forward to *your* list. (Actually, I hope you’ll do two, one for books eligible for the Hoch list and another including everything published subsequently.)
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Thanks, Josh, greatly appreciated. We were discussing whether to make our lists under the same “nothing post-1981” conditions as this one…no update on that at present. I think it may be informed by what we each want to put in when it comes to thinning our choices down to 15. In fact, I’d b etter get started…
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Thanks Josh, quite a few of mine would be post 1981, or very close to it so we’ll have to see!
Well, this is a fine way for me to find this out…
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A great listen with some interesting positions being taken here. Do you guys feel that the way the voters selected was for the best impossibility or do you think that some were thinking of their favorite novels which featured an impossible element?
As we’ve said somewhere in these recordings, far too many people voted — and on far too great a range of books, too, given how many wouldn’t have made the list — for any overal intent to be clear. There’s a range of books that I’d argue cover both cases here — The King is Dead is a great situation but a terrible solution, and Rim of the Pit is a marvellous book — so there’s no overall obvious purpose.
I reckon Dan and I will try to have a distinct aim in mind with our lists, but we haven’t even talked about that yet, so I couldn’t tell you what that would be. Or even if we’ll have the same one…
Thanks – it makes sense, particularly given the range of experiences on the part of the experts. I am certainly curious to see what will make your list!
That makes two of us…
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Seeing that Hoch himself stated in the foreword to the anthology in question that some of the voters only provided two or three novels while others had trouble limiting themselves to ten, I think the voters probably had very different motives for including what they did…
In all, there were fifty novels mentioned on the lists, and one thing Hoch mentions about the results is that “The Hollow Man” was included in 12 of 17 lists, and topped 7 of them. The entire top ten was included on at least four lists, and the next five were included on three. No other books received at least ten points or were included on more than two lists.
Hoch gave the first book on each list 10 points, the second 9, and so on. The full results were the following:
The Hollow Man 104 p
Rim of the Pit 59 p
The Mystery of the Yellow Room 57 p
The Crooked Hinge 55 p
The Judas Window 51 p
The Big Bow Mystery 47 p
Death from a Top Hat 39 p
The Chinese Orange Mystery 35 p
Nine Times Nine 30 p
The Peacock Feather Murders 22 p
The King is Dead 20 p
Through a Glass Darkly 19 p
He Wouldn’t Kill Patience 18 p
Too Many Magicians 13 p
Invisible Green 13 p
What this tells me is that the votes were quite spread out, since there are 35 books not mentioned here, which means at the most two of these experts included them on their lists. None of these novels were placed very high on those lists either since they couldn’t even get 10 points in total.
I’d guess it means that many of the experts chose their favourites, and that their tastes were a bit dissimilar. 🙂
Thanks for the added background and analysis of the voting. I can see that making sense.
I do wonder if you grabbed a similar group of writers and industry professionals today whether their voting would be as diverse. So many of us these days start investigating a genre using these sorts of lists as a guide that I imagine these titles would have an undue advantage in having a wider readership.
On the other hand, perhaps the easier digital availability of oop books and works in translation would give lesser known authors a chance to compete.
I wonder how many of today’s writers and industry professionals would be well-versed enough in the genre, though. That’s not an implied slam or swipe at anyone, I just don’t think there’s the genre awareness on a large enough scope (hindered, no doubt, by the OOP issue you raise). I’d love to be wrong, but given the current trend in the industry, it would be possible to have an encylopaedic knowledge of modern crime fiction without even touching impossible crimes.
Sadly I am certain you are right.
My main problem is that I’ve read too much, so I can’t quite remember everything I’ve read – not well enough that any list of mine would be “correct” even according to my tastes. Well exemplified by how I’d misremembered part of “Death in Five Boxes” just here in these comments.
There are several authors that might be included – perhaps even SHOULD be included – like Clason, Crispin, Boucher and so on, but it was a while since I read them and I can’t really remember them well enough to say whether they should be on a top 10 or not. One could argue that since I don’t remember them well enough, odds are that they shouldn’t be included…
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Dude, you may not remember, but I’ve talked about this recently and so totally feel your pain.
They probably should be included, Christian, if your memory, no matter how hazy, says they should. The only reason I remember Christie so well has to do with the power of repetition – I’ve read them all so many times. I don’t want to reread The Crooked Hinge if it’s going to turn out I like it less than the first time! Don’t let these bullies crush your faith in Death in Five Boxes! (Plus, it’s sitting on my TBR pile as we speak.)
It’s very good damn you! I’m telling you it’s really very good indeed!
Thanks for sharing these totals — I should have thought of that. I remember being struck by just how far ahead The Hollow Man was, which seems crazy to me; it’s a great book, but that’s the sort of lead that simply perpetrates the exact notion of automatic, unconsidered greatness that Dan an I talk about at the end of this episode.
Maybe there’s a way to do a similar thing now that everyone is so much more connected. I mean, there definitely is. It’s just a matter of ensuring it’s the result of people as well-read in the genre as this first vote was.
Another thing to infer is that Carr probably suffered from having so many different impossible novels, while folks like Talbot and Rawson benefited from having written so little. Because if these experts were going to include books by Carr, chances were that they’d choose different books, while if they went for Talbot or Rawson, it was a much bigger chance that they’d pick the same one.
I still find it interesting that both Talbot’s “Hangman’s Handyman” and Sladek’s “Black Aura” seem to have been universally less liked than their other novel, because nowadays, i think that opinions are more divided on their merits.
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This is a great point, and one that definitely deserves exploring at some future juncture. Perhaps there’s the elemnet of “I just don’t know which Carr to go for, so The Hollow Man is the sensible choice”, or possibly even that in many of Carr’s other excellent novels — like Till Death, say — the impossibility isn’t front and centre, and so the sensible thing is to pick one based around two hugely totemic impossiblities. The Rawson, Sladek, Leroux, Queen, and Talbot titles, you’re right, effectively pick themselves…and then all iot requires is Garrett and McCloy to pop up two or three times and they’re in here forever.
I for one really enjoyed Hangman’s Handyman — the first half is very creepy and you get more sense of Kincaid as a character than second time around. No doubt the impossibilities are much more easily denuded, but it’s fun and well-constructed. The difficulty is that it gets put against Rim and immediately pales. Put against a majority of the rest of the genre it more than stands up.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa — you say you dislike withholding of the culprit and then put in Five Boxes, where the occlusion of a key action prevents the entire thing from being even remotely fair? Christian, you have some explaining to do… 🙂”
It was a while I read it, but I remembered it as good. Please don’t make me change my mind. 😦
Replying to myself here: Now that J. J. reminded me and I had a look at what Doug Greene wrote about it, I guess I’ll have to withdraw my wholehearted recommendation of Death in Five Boxes and amend it to “a book I really like”.
Just so you know, J. J., I actually quite like some of Carr’s novels despite him hiding the murderer – “The Unicorn Murders” is one of my absolute favourites of his.
It’s a very good book, but that one exclusion, which would be easy enough to slip past the unwary, does hold it back for me. I mean, sure, there’s potentially a certain amount of understood implicit actions…but in a case as simple as that, not making it explicit is just sloppy (not a word I level at Carr lightly).
However, plot-wise it’s magnificent, and wholly deserves your optimistic opinion 🙂
A very enjoyable listen, as always. One thing though – I don’t like that musical bumper you guys use. It’s not a big deal but it makes me uncomfortable for some reason, although that’s maybe the effect you were going for.
Anyway, on to more important matters. One morsel that caught my attention occurred in the comments on The Hollow Man and related to how it might not be a good novel to introduce a new reader to Carr or impossible crime mysteries in general. Now I adore he book but do take the point on its density and the effect that may have on a novice. And then I got to wondering whether the best example of whatever – insert any literary style or trope you like here – may not always be the ideal way to break in a newcomer. While I think this is a valid point and very possibly true, I don’t believe it has to impact on the established greatness of a particular work. Author X’s greatest book should still remain so even if we decide that it doesn’t act as the strongest way to draw in the newbie.
See, this is why I try to do stuff chronologically…but, yeah, the idea of where to start an author or a specific subgenre remains a quandary for the ages.
Wow! First group where I read four out of five! The Judas Window was the first Carter Dickson I read. I had rejected the CD books as a kid, focusing purely on Dr. Fell. TJW certainly changed my mind. I agree with you, JJ, that the locked room aspect of the book is not its greatest pleasure. I love the set-up and HM’s genuinely hilarious antics in court, and the surprise revelation of the killer. And the whole reputation thing you describe regarding Answell is the best! I just always have problems fathoming the mechanics of many locked room crimes, and that’s what happened here.
I kind of held my breath listening to your comments on The Crooked Hinge. When I first started exploring the GAD blogosphere, I naturally came upon a lot of commentary about Carr – and I was shocked at all the shade given to this novel. I’ll admit that I haven’t picked it up in decades, but this one really stuck with me. I thought the impossibility was shocking, and I really loved the side story about witches cult. Lots of pleasures and twists to be found here! But when you talked about the ranking, I couldn’t help but think how impossible it is to create lists like this – especially by committee. Myriad opinions coming together to form some sort of pseudo-scientific consensus – I can only imagine that these same 17 people would have come up with different names and/or order of presentation on any single given day.
I feel like Rim of the Pit was one of those where most of my blogging friends discovered it together. I highly enjoyed it, as you know, and if I don’t rate it quite as highly as you or the listers do, one of the greatest pleasures of it is that this was one mystery that I didn’t read alone!!!! And that’s something I can say about almost NO mysteries I read before 2015!
I’m definitely more grumbly about The Hollow Man, but I won’t sit here and complain about it. (I have my own room to do that in!) I will say that I admired the second crime more than the first, which makes no sense since every element of the whole crime plot is inextricably linked. I really appreciate that you guys both had some troubles with it as well. It felt more heavy going than even It Walks by Night to me!!!
I’m incredibly jealous of your whole podcast project and of the chance you guys get to sit and discuss all these books together. But I still love listening. And I want to like this blog post – – – but SOMETHING is preventing me from doing so. I don’t know if it’s your site or my laptop, but something refuses to let me “like” your posts, JJ! And so I leave you a little more frustrated than when I arrived . . .
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I couldn’t help but think how impossible it is to create lists like this – especially by committee
Though, of course, making it by committe does make it virtually criticism-proof, since there’s no individual or overall intent to take issue with. Rest assured, when Dan and I share our lists in a couple of months there will doubtless be much criticism…!
As for The Hollow Man, precisely what you mean by the “first” and “second” crimes may require some clarification 😉
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”. . . Precisely what you mean by the “first” and “second” crimes may require some clarification.”
Oh, shoot! I forgot about all that rigmarole! I like the murder in the street!
Your “List of Fifteen” may be too esoteric for me to criticize, but once the TomCats, er, tigers have been loosed on you, we’ll see how much mincemeat is left to bake into a pie!
Purely to catch TomCat out, my list is going to be “The Best Fifteen Locked Room Mysteries by Authors Called Rupert Penny”. Yes, he only wrote 9 books. And, yes, at least three of them don’t feature impossibilities. I’m still ironing out the precise details…
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I’m afraid your plan is doomed to fail, JJ.
Anyway, what I’m really curious about is whether, or not, your (and Dan’s) list will have titles on that will surprise me. Every list has entries on it that one can agree or disagree with, but one or more titles you had not considered, but have merit, is another story altogether.
Time will tell; as in, when I have time to do it, I’ll tell you 🙂
P.S. It seems to be my computer . . . or my server, at least. When I switched from Safari to Chrome, I was able to “like” this! Yadda yadda yadda and that’s all I’m gonna say about that!
I want to make a “You use Safari?!” comment, but let’s be honest — no-one comes here for the web-browser banter.
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Yes, I use Safari, damn your eyes! I’m one of those men who prefers old books. We have trouble catching on to the new-tangled ways of you whippersnappers.
I, too, am one of those men who loves old books — my Kindle has been a revolution, and allowed me access to a huge amount of stuff I would have otherwsie had to skip for price and availability reasons, but something about reading it doesn’t quite process properly. Must be all these people damning my eyes…there woiuld appear to be some sort of cumulative effect coming into play.
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I was going to make a jokey answer, but I actually understand your problem. I’m in the early going of my first Christopher Bush mystery. I saved something like ninety percent of the cost by downloading it, but I’m having a hard time due to the format. I can’t easily page back and check out a character’s introduction or an earlier reference to something. . . and my eyes get tired more quickly staring at a screen. As a result, it’s been slow going!
A lot of my reading of ebooks could well be subtitled How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Ragged Right Edge…I couldn’t finish Dead Man’s Quarry on account of it, and struggled through Bleeding Hooks (alas, to little joy). Coming soon(ish) Cut-Throat by Bush…
WordPress makes it so hard sometimes to continue a chain of conversation, but that is precisely what Christian’s comment above inspires! Sure, I have no 0roblem with one man writing two books and another writing seventy, and one of those two books is considered better than sixty-nine of the more prolific author’s works. That falls under the category of “them’s the breaks”; plus, the whole thing is completely subjective anyway. I do find it depressing that both the prolific guy and the two-book wonder guy are largely forgotten by the mainstream reading public! 😦
The most insightful moment in the whole three parts for me was JJ’s theory for “why these five Carr’s!” An author with this many books under his belt has the luxury of diversifying his methods; indeed, it is his duty if he is to avoid accusations of being formulaic. We’ll never know if Hake Talbot would have had the stamina to effect his lunatic genius for the long run. It’s evident that he himself didn’t want to find out.
This said by the man who seems to be having a bit of writers block on his own blog. 😦
Which of my comments? There are, like, two hundred of them. 😉
Actually, to spin off from the discussion on what books I would include on a personal top 10, and my problems remembering whether a book is actually that good, this is another reason why I like short stories.
Because if I’ve read a short story, and I remember liking the impossibility, then that is a story I can recommend and put on my personal top 10. In a novel, I might remember that the impossibility was really good, but then there’s the other 150 pages that might feature something I didn’t really like. Would such a novel still be eligible for my top 10?
Short stories are simply easier to remember, because there’s less to remember. 🙂
See, having read more short stories I find I get them confused. I need the detail of novels to keep them distinct!
Hey, this now means I can put “Have been praised for my insight” on all future CVs, so I’m sorted for life. Thanks, Brad!
That was an excellent discussion! I also eagerly await your own lists (separate, or do you plan to share one?).
I wonder when it was that The Hollow Man became “canonized” as its extremely high score suggests it has been. Was its reception at the time so universally enthusiastic? It’s always seemed to me that the Locked Room Lecture is more iconic than the book that contains it.
One other thing I’ll mention is that if you intend to do this regularly, you might want to set things up so your podcast is discoverable using podcast apps etc, since I couldn’t seem to find it when I searched.
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Many thanks for the kind words, much appreciated. We’ll definitely do separate lists. I don’t think our approaches overlap enough for it to be sensible to do it any other way — I can be very specific in my judging of things, Dan is the much cooler head.
I can see the revolution in the genre that THM represented at the time — essentially someone throwing down the gauntlet of “Hey, here are the basic tropes — stop using them!” and upsetting everyone’s game. That’s kind of amazing when you think about it, like someone now writing an entirely gripping an super-smart thriller about how lazy and stupid unreliable narrators are 😛
As for discoverably podcast apps — uh, whut? Dude, I have literally no idea what that means or how to go about it….
You know, I don’t quite know either 😀
I did find this, though: https://www.labnol.org/internet/publish-podcast-on-itunes/28226/
It seems like you have all but the last 2 steps done – you’d need to publish to iTunes.
Basically that should mean that if someone opened iTunes (or another podcast app) and searched for “The Men Who Explain Miracles” or “The Invisible Event” or whatever you title it, they would get a list of your podcast episodes.
I searched “locked room mystery” and the only things that turned up were audiobooks, so it seems no one else is making a podcast with this topic yet 😀
Yeah, we figured we’d be the first doing this sort of thing…hopefully riches will follow in due course 🙂
Many, many thanks for the link, I’ll read through what’s involved and see if it’s soemthing that can be achieved relatively easily given the constraints on my time. Here’s hoping, eh?!
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My paperback copy says the New York Times called it “perfection… magnificent”, so I’m guessing it was very highly regarded right from the start.
Wonderful podcast, and I found myself agreeing with nearly all of it (which no doubt also influences my opinion of it!).
A few thoughts:
I would say it’s fair to suggest that Yellow Room was indeed Carr’s favorite locked room novel as well as Fell’s; if any writer ever felt both the freedom and the compulsion to express his own views through that of his characters, it was Carr. Indeed, I’m almost surprised that the line lock-room lecture wasn’t “let’s not fool ourselves— we’re in a detective story, and my opinions and prejudices are merely those of that fellow who created me, John Dickson Carr!”
My problem with the Crooked Hinge is that I’ve always found the penultimate solution much more satisfying than the ultimate one. My objection to the ultimately revealed solution is not a question of logistic plausibility or possibility (it may not be possible, but I don’t know enough about biology or physics to know that), but rather of clue sufficiency. While I don’t accept the concept of “fairness” as applicable to clue sufficiency, the concept of subjective satisfaction certainly is, and there wasn’t sufficient clueing to the remarkable uniqueness of the culprit to make it seem sufficiently inevitable to me. It’s a helluva wallop, but one that seems far too thinly prepared for. That said, I love how Carr plays with the reader’s “loyalties” in the first half of the book, switching him back and forth between believing one claimant and then the other. And his incredible feat of misdirection pulled off in the very chapter he prefaced with a quote about the nature of misdirection is jaw-dropping even for me, a professional magician. Still, my disappointment with the solution is enough to make me doubt I would even include it in my Carr top ten.
The Hollow Man would definitely be in my top ten Carrs but, yes, it is definitely overrated. He Who Whispers, Till Death Do Us Part, The Burning Court, The Judas Window, even The Reader is Warned I would rank more highly than The Hollow Man— which, as with one of you, I had to return to long after o find myself having trouble getting through the first few chapters of this much lauded-tale. I think it’s anything but a great “gateway drug.”
I can’t wait to check out The Invisible Green (not familiar with it at all) and revisit Rim of the Pit.
Thanks, Scott, I really appreciate the kind words. And it’s not an influenced opinion when it’s made on such a good basis — don’t worry!
I don’t seriously question whether Yellow Room was in fact Carr’s favourite book, I just find it interesting the way readers tend to accept something as the opinion of the author just because it refers to something that exists outside the fictional world of the book. I’m pretty sure this was Carr giving creit to Leroux, I just enjoy challenging received wisdom every so often.
The Crooked Hing is an odd one…a lot of people really do seem to prefer that first solutions, and I was heartbroken when I read it and thought it actually was the true solution. It’s all a matter of taste, of course, but it find it gimmicky and ridiculous and just begging to be overthrown. I completely agreeing about the possibility for more clewing where the real solution is involved (a couple of handprints in the sand, for instance, that were too big or too small to be Farnleigh’s…though, of course, there’s then the matter of it being rather too tangible and simply comparing it with the hands of everyone involved).
Twas I who struggled with THM, and I agreeing it’s absolutely not the place to start with impossibilities or Carr. Alas, most people will simply because it’s one of the few now available — but don’t start me on rights and Carr’s OOPness, we’ll be here all day,
And Invisible Green is a doozy; I have reviewed it on here in the past if you’re interested in my fuller thoughts. It’s a grand old time, so I hope you’re successful in tracking it down.
So much to discuss…. I’m going to have to break this out into multiple posts. First, some brief thoughts on the books discussed in this session.
I do think that The Judas Window is deserving of its spot. The impossibility is the true center focus of the book from start to finish and it’s a real perplexing puzzle. To a degree, it’s a simple puzzle as well – the room is locked with absolutely no way in, end of story. With that in mind, the solution (although some might say it is a little complex) is an absolute head slapper. Plus, Carr provides a constant stream of discovery, including some fairly jarring revelations along the way. In terms of pacing, I’d rate it side by side with Till Death Do Us Part.
I absolutely love The Crooked Hinge and find the modern-day slide it has taken baffling. With that said, I don’t count it as an impossible crime, although I question whether my own perspective on that is tinted by hindsight.
I like the point about The Crooked Hinge being Carr’s last gothic hurrah. I hadn’t really considered that, but it may well be true. The Reader is Warned and The Problem of the Green Capsule both have creepy elements and shades of darkness, but ultimately don’t go so far as the horror provided by The Crooked Hinge. Even Carr’s later efforts that built stories around elements of the supernatural (The Man Who Could Not Shudder, The Curse of the Bronze Lamp, He Who Whispers, Below Suspicion) never really captured the same sort of atmosphere.
As for The Rim of the Pit – JJ captured why it is on this list perfectly. A maelstrom of everything that I love about the genre, packed into a sprint of a read. I do wrestle with this one though. As much as I love it, I question whether I’d lend it to someone without knowing that they could take it. Maybe you know what I mean by that. I have no qualms lending, say, The White Priory Murders or The Four False Weapons, to someone who has shown an interest in the GAD genre. Would I lend out The Rim of the Pit though? Well, I haven’t so far…
In part it’s probably because the end doesn’t tie together perfectly. The minor impossibilities are a success, while the grander ones are more questionable. Still, I’d read 100 other books like it in a heartbeat.
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Hey, dude, I’m fuly aware that plenty of people adore TJW and I’m in the minority for my perspective. It doesn’t quite veer into The King is Dead territory for me — wonderful problem, banal solution — but the absolutes present in the setup are something of a limiting facotr in my enjoyment, I think. Typically I prefer an impossibility that hinges on a clear moment of obvious misdirection (The White Priory Murders, The Blind Barber, Policeman’s Evidence, etc) where you’re shown something and because of the construction around it are simply guided to see it in the wrong way. TJW doesn’t do that — it’s on the technical side, and while clever you have very little chance to figure it out — and I think that’s why it falls down for me a bit.
Crooked Hing I take your point on. Where back to the nature of how something qualifies as an impossible crime — se my post about harlan Coben’s Tell No One from a few weeks ago for my further thoughts here.
Rim of the Pit I love, and would actually lend it out ahead of the two books you mention, the puzzles of which I consider much harder work for the uninitiated. RotP is just fun and, no, not all of it works, but very few biooks gel around <i<every single aspect — be it motivation, clewing, cohesion in the narrative, whatever, everything fllas down somewhere. For my money, RotP is insane fun along the way, and more than readily makes up for its flaws in its ambition and the compactness of its execution. But, hey, that’s personal taste for you.
One point about “The Judas Window” that is pointed out by Douglas Greene in his Carr biography is the fact that the killer couldn’t actually know that they would hit the victim, since they had no way of seeing where they were aiming. I’d agree that that is the main drawback of the solution.
This is the inversion of the problem many seem to have with The Ten Teacups and which I simply don’t see as a problem. In that book it wouldn’t actually make any difference, but you’re (or, rather Douglas Green is) correct that it’d cause problems here. Still, no murder is without a bit of risk, eh? I think there’s the tendency when we read aot of this sort of stuff to lose track of how risky an endeavour killing someone is — that it might not go off perfectly is simply part of the risk the killer runs sometimes. Well, all the time, I guess, since they’re always caught 🙂
If I remember correctly, Greene argues that it could have been easily averted by simply having the arrow smeared with poison.
On the other hand, I’m not sure, wouldn’t that have meant that Answell never became suspected since he didn’t have any poison on him? Or at least it would have meant that Carr had needed to account for that fact as well.
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The one defense I’ll make of The Judas Window is this – although technical in nature, there’s an element of the solution where you think “how did I not consider that!” In that regard, there is a simplicity that touches on The White Priory Murders. But, yeah, as you say, then you read the rest of the explanation, scratch your head, read it again…
Second topic – now that we’ve had an overview of the entire list, which titles really feel like they belong?
My own interpretation is that there’s an excitement in talking about all of these Top 5 books. You may not have agreed that each of them deserved their exact spot on the list, but there was a real passion and energy surrounding each title. To paraphrase – “You may disagree this is the X best book, but, OMG, you have to read this one!”
I can’t say that I quite got that from the previous ten entries. A lot of them seemed to fall more under the category of “this is a really solid book and a good example of the breadth of the genre.” But there wasn’t that energy crackling in the air. That suggests to me that maybe all of those titles don’t really belong in the Top 15.
I can’t quite comment as to what belongs and what doesn’t, as I haven’t read nearly enough of these. I’m curious if you have a perspective now that you’ve wrapped up the entire list and can look back at it all, rather than focusing on five books at a time. Is the divide between the top 5 and the rest as tangible as I sense it is?
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The issue of what “belongs” is, I think, only really properly discussed when we know what the motivation behind the list was — and, as has been established, there doesn’t seem to be a single, unifying motivation. So, well, then it’s just a matter of what we each like, or what we’d include in our own lists, which becomes even more subjective.
I’d say that what this list does well, in an expansion of my pont about the five Carr titles, is that it shows the different possibilities (not always deployed successfully!) of how the impossible crime can be deployed. Some sound great — King is Dead, Glass Darkly, Top Hat — and turn out to be disappointing, some have aspects that are wonderful and aspects that don’t quite work and so upset the balance — Ten Teacups, Hinge, Magicians, Bow — and some are marvellous but problematic for entirely different reasons — Hollow, Rim, Patience. As a cross-section of impossible crimes…yeah. that feels about right!
For my tastes, I’d only put about four of these on a list of my own devising, though precisely which ones and for what reasons will have to wait for the Grand Reveal in April…
Third topic – which John Dickson Carr titles belong on the list?
Given the breadth of Carr’s involvement in the impossible crime genre, it’s difficult to read the Top 15 list without thinking that there’s a Carr title that I’d propose higher than some other book that I see. Of course, not all Carr titles are impossible crimes, and as much as I love The Problem of the Green Capsule, I don’t think it qualifies for the list. With that in mind, here are some Carr titles that I think would be worthy of a seat at the table:
The White Priory Murders – this has an impossibility that just nags at you, combined with a solution that shocks with its simplicity. I’d list this before The Ten Teacups.
Till Death Do Us Part – impossible poisoning in a locked room combined with pacing only rivaled by The Judas Window and Rim of the Pit.
The Plague Court Murders – a locked room stabbing in a hut surrounded by a field of mud devoid of footprints – plus, it’s a joy to read.
He Who Whispers – a stark impossibility bolstered by a solid story.
The Unicorn Murders – in terms of audacity of misdirection, this one might take the cake.
The Red Widow Murders – would anyone really place Through a Glass, Darkly higher than this?
I know it seems silly to have a list stacked with Carr titles, but if you were to weigh between these and other entries in the Hoch list, which would you choose?
The notion of The Problem of the Green Capsule not qualifiying intrigues me — isn’t it a poisoning in view of four people, none of who could have done it and yet one of who must have? That’s, like, the one example I use to explain the impossible crime to people, so I’m very interested in your reasons for not seeing it as such.
As to which Carrs…damn, who knows? If it’s audacity, I’d keep He Wouldn’t Kill Patience for the moment in it that made me laught out loud, and Man Who Could Not Shudder (a book I think I enjoy much more than everyone else does) for the same reason. For pure readability it’d have to be the late 30s/early 40s crossover like Constant Suicides, Till Death, etc. I have a problematic relationship with Whispers since rereading it for the spoiler-heavy post Brad and I did, but I love the characters in it. White Priory is superb as a problem and solution, but the text needs a damn good edit…it’s always difficult to draw two or three or eight out on a single motivation, which is why I think the range of Carr represented in the list is good even if the titles aren’t the best.
Again, my selection will be unveiled when I make it, but…well, I have some thoughts that I’ll share at that time. It wouldn’t be entire;y unfair to say that a list of fifteen could be made from Carr alone, and not just because he wrote so much in the genre. I’m with you in the bafflement of Glass Darkly being included at the exclusion of all the books mentioned above but, well, diff’rent strokes and diff’rent folks and all that.
As much as I have read, I’m the last man to consider himself an expert on the impossible crime novel, but just as you describe a story about a man being poisoned at his death in front of five people who couldn’t have done it as an impossible crime, I would say the story of a woman capable of splitting into two people – who seemingly does split in two and murders someone – and who does all of this in front of witnesses . . . falls straight into the category of an impossible crime. In Rim of the Pit, we are dragged to the point where we almost buy the concept of the wendigo and the ghost! McCloy accomplishes the same thing with the doppelgänger- and she does it as much in a sunlit garden as in a spooky school or dim apartment.
Now, you gentlemen are entitled to argue how successfully this feat is accomplished, and I will respect your opinion. Personally I feel like after sustaining the supernatural horror in the face of rational thought for so long, just about any ending would feel flat. So I don’t disagree that the denouement doesn’t meet the standards of what came before. But JJ said the exact same thing about the final chapter of RotP!
Sure, seventeen experts can be wrong, but I don’t think they were here. TaGD meets the criteria that I believe this august group was working with: it creates an impossible situation that leads to murder and has a rational solution, and it does so in a way that is unique from the fourteen other representatives of the genre that were selected.
I…didn’t question TaGD as an impossible crime. My issue is that the solution can only be one of two things and so there’s very little scope for this sort of problem in the subgenre. But, yeah, as presented it’s an impossibility, no doubt.
Similar comment to JJ – TaGD is definitely an impossible crime, and a nice read to boot. The problem is there are about 30 books I’d place on a Top 15 impossible crime novel list before it.
The challenge here is in the very notion of “creating a list!” Say we were all asked to contribute to a list of “The Fifteen Greatest Mysteries by the Queens of Crime.” That means finding mysteries by Allingham and Marsh that I think measure up to Christie. I’m not a Sayers fan at all, so it would be up to the many “experts” who love her to add to the list. Meanwhile, I would be crying out to add Brand and Tey (although the recent diatribe against Tey on the GAD Facebook page suggests I would be shouted down.) This list-making business leads to nothing but trouble! 🙂
Well, clearly you would just fill that list with Christianna Brand’s entire catalogue and then sprinkle in some Christie to round out the 15. Sheesh, you have to make everything so complicated…
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And, I’d actually be very interested in seeing you and, say, Noah, putting together such a list.
I second the call for “Brad and Noah collaborate”. On literally anything…
That means finding mysteries by Allingham and Marsh that I think measure up to Christie.
Far from it; you pick the 15 that you think deserve to be on there, and you vote for them. Nothing in the casting of your vote says that all th Queens of Crime must be present on your (or, indeed, the final) list. Hell, first all y’all need to agree who the QoC are… 🙂
Cleary The Problem of the Green Capsule isn’t an impossible crime, or else it would have been included on the list! It isn’t even included in the 99 Novels for a Locked Room Library list!
Oh, er, you actually want me to articulate my reasoning? From my recollection, although it is extremely likely that a certain set of suspects must have committed the murder, I think there exists the possibility that some random person could have done it. Of course, that would violate the rules of a mystery, but I don’t recall anything that would have ruled out some unknown character from having committed the crime.
Now, you totally have me second guessing my memory on this book, which is funny since I always give you a hard time about forgetting that scene. Obviously the killer needed to be aware of plan for the staged scene, but couldn’t the victim have had an additional accomplice that we weren’t aware of?
I read it pretty recently, Ben, and I think you’re right. The person who runs in could be anybody! The thrill is that it’s actually somebody it “couldn’t” have been, but there’s nothing impossible per se about the set-up.
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Huh. Well, there you go — my memory has already proved faulty on this once and so I’ll bow to your and Brad’s better recall, but I was certain something about the setup meant it had to be one of those watchers who was the killer.
Frankly, now I’m all out of sorts.
I live to unsettle you . . .
Furthermore, it’s the only book by a woman on this list! Hercule Poirot’s Christmas is a straightforward impossible crime story and it’s not here -nor does it deserve to be, since its trick is not unique from all the others here.
Uh, sure. But equally plenty of books on the list could be taken as the only one of their ilk — the only translated work, the only work by a magician, etc. If you’re point is that this can’t be removed because it’s the only book by a female author it’s…flawed, and there are better female-written impossibilities than Hercule Poirot’s Christmas to replace this with if a gender swap was necessary 🙂
My comment was more facetious . . .
but she IS the only woman on the list, and there are at least THREE magicians . . .
Have you done a piece on Red Right Hand yet? The Hanging Rope by Joel Townsley Rogers was one of the first impossible crime stories I read, in a Robert Adey compilation, and Red Right Hand is an extraordinary work. It would suit a Spoiler Warning.
I’d be reluctant to do a spoiler-heavy post on The Red Right Hand because I loathed it so vehemently and hope never to have to read it ever again 🙂 My reasons for diskling it so strongly would no doubt make excellent grist for the Spoiler Warning mill, but if I can avoid that book forever after it’d be time well spent as far as I’m concerned…
Well that’s fair enough then. A good hatchet job would make interesting listening though… I can certainly imagine what annoyed you about it.
Now that I’ve finally marched through all of these…
First off, I saw “Hoch” in the title a few week ago, got overjoyed that you were finally doing him, and instead I get this. How cruel. 😛
The great issue with lists like these is that “best” is wholly subjective. While the way it was done here would probably produce more accurate results, you still suffer from issues of personal taste and lack of genre knowledge, such as works in other languages. Look at Ho-Ling’s blog and check how much he has labeled as locked rooms and impossible crimes, and remember that like 90% are in Japanese! I’d like to see the list updated, now that we have easier access to impossible crimes and a better knowledge of the genre worldwide, but I can’t image who you’d select for that type of list. And would you include things like games or manga on it?
This is a long-winded way or saying I liked your analysis but I’m not sure if I agree with the central concept. 😛 I do think it needs re-looking at, so looking forward to that.
We’ll be doing our own lists in the next episode in April. Dunno what Dan’s criteria will be but mine are…fairly simple!