As a GAD reader, there’s little more satisfying than closing a book that came through on its promise — the ingenious impossibilitiy was ingenious, the baffling alibi trick was smartly worked, the clues stuck their heads out at you from all over the place, and the detective summed it all up with an added twist just to prove how dolt-headed you, the reader, are.
The reverse of this is how frustrating it is to have a book display promise throughout and then chuff it up on the home straight. And so, here would be my five picks for the most egregious of these — those books that were winning all the way along and then stumbled and fell over themselves in spectacular fashion — including one non-GAD title simply because of how much it irritates me. Spoilers ahead? Nah, not especially.
1. Sparkling Cyanide (1945) by Agatha Christie
On the anniversary of a woman’s murder, her widower gathers everyone who was present that night at the same location to name her killer…only for another death to occur in almost the exact same circumstances. This is such a great hook, and I remember the thrill of waiting at this second gathering just knowing another death was coming and being desperate to find out the who. And when the presence of cyanide is explained at the end…man, what a crock of shit. There’s a famous a highly-regarded short story that pulls a similar ‘trick’ and I hate just as vituperatively, and one would assume Christie was beyond this sort of chicanery at the peak of her powers. The rest of the book is superb, however.
2. The Moving Toyshop (1946) by Edmund Crispin
Controversial perhaps, but I wanted to put this in to see what others make of the thoroughly prosaic use of the movement of said shop. Crispin creates a whirligig, joyously inventive series of notions and strings them together with the insane ease of someone hitting their stride as an author…and then simply stops all these plates spinning for a final section that turns into a ‘toughs threatening a frightened woman’ pulp novel that seems to originate from the wrong side of the Atlantic. It’s still Crispin’s best book for my money, but the creativity and chutzpah of everything that’s come before peters out as he seems to festinate in this tone-shift so that he can stop trying and put the thing to bed. Must try harder.
3. The Second Angel (1998) by Philip Kerr
I apologise for veering so suddenly out of era, but this novel frustrates me so much. Kerr does amazing work in setting up a futuristic society where a fatal viral infection has resulted in blood becoming the most valuable commodity on Earth, to the extent that it is kept in vaults on the Moon. Somewhat inevitably, this becomes a heist novel in which the man who designed the vaults has to break into them with a rag-tag bunch of, etc. And it’s great, even with all the footnotes and philosophy, until the solution of how to break the vault comes so far out of nowhere that I’m inclined to think Kerr was working on a different novel at the same time and accidentally jumbled his manuscript pages.
4. The Slayer and the Slain (1957) by Helen McCloy
It is difficult to talk about this book without giving anything away, and to a certain extent it is worth preserving for the uninitiated, but be aware that it is neither a mystery novel nor an impossible crime (as it sometimes gets labelled). One might call it an extended piece of Margaret Milar-esque psychological suspense, except that where the conclusion should be interesting in its absence of reconciliation it is instead just a point where the book stops (done much better in Though a Glass, Darkly (1951)). As the deliberate building of all that has gone before this feels oddly empty — Jim Thompson did this kid of thing all the time, and far more successfully — and it just fizzles out as the shameful waste of an intriguing premise.
5. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928) by Dorothy L. Sayers
The first half of Sayers’ fourth Lord Peter Wimsey novel is a beautifully intricate puzzle, as he tries to determine which of two siblings who died on the same night died first in order to establish who iherits what. It’s genius, and if resolved at the halfway point would be a masterpiece. Alas, the second half is such a dull trudge that only a brilliant solution can save it…and Wimsey establishes the solution by calling into a bar and overhearing two reporters speculating about what happened and just deciding ‘By gally, that’s how it was done, what?’. And it is. That’s the actual solution to the case. Reached by your genius amateur. By overhearing two uninformed people in a public place. Speculating. How very unpleasant.
I imagine everyone has at least a few of these — hell, I’ve got another fifteen I could give you right now — so c’mon: get if off your chest…!