Under the nom de plume Hake Talbot, the magician and author Henning Nelms published two novels and two short stories. Of the novels, The Hangman’s Handyman (1942) is generally overshadowed by the admittedly superior Rim of the Pit (1944); of the short stories, we tend to hear very little.
When Ramble House reissued both the Talbot novels, they included ‘The Other Side’ (1944) as an appendix to Rim of the Pit, but the opportunity to parallel this by including ‘The High House’ (1948) with The Hangman’s Handyman was passed up. And, having now read this later, final fictional publication from Talbot, I have to say that I’m not surprised. It is…not good. It is also — interestingly, given its inclusion in Adey — not an impossible crime. A bit like ‘Too Many Motives’ (1930) by James Ronald last week, this falls into a subcategory of non-impossible crimes that I’m now comfortable classifying, but the classification is in itself something of a mild spoiler. Nevertheless, this and others aren’t even borderline impossibilities, they’re just a specific type of story with no pretensions to impossiblise.
However, we shall come to that.
If Talbot’s work — to differentiate the author from the magician, whose work I know not one jot — has one common factor its his conjuring of atmosphere. The Hangman’s Handyman starts in darkness and remains thus for the first half, Rim of the Pit foments an increasingly panic-inducing isolation making the intrusion of some outside agency vanishingly unlikely, and ‘The Other Side’ dredges up some stark, blank incomprehensibility in its crime that is keenly felt for how unlikely it seems. ‘The High House’ achieves the same degree of nuance, working on the looming gloominess of the Danvers Mansion as recently-demobbed Navy brat Everett Danvers returns home to be with his ailing Uncle Nat. With him come Ann Corwin and Rogan Kincaid, the latter Talbot’s serial sleuth, and these four make up the cast along with Steve Phelps who has been caring for ol’ Nat since his mother, the Danvers’ old housekeeper, passed away.
You’ll notice I’ve not defined Ann’s role in the narrative, and that’s because I don’t really know how she fits in except that Everett Danvers must’ve known that he’d need someone to exposit his family backstory to an outsider for the benefit of an unseen audience at some point.
“It sounds silly to an outsider, I guess, but most people around here believe a sort of fate hangs over the Danvers family, and that this house will kill them … You see, the Doom only applies to the head of the family. Everett’s grandfather, his great-grandfather, and his great-great-grandfather were all killed on the day, or a few days after, they gave up the sea and came to live here.”
Thanks, Basil. The history of the house and the curse is actually very piquantly done: an olde antecedent bringing servants back from “the Spice islands, wherever they are” and leaving them to build a house that ends up a mishmash of “the pattern set by builders in nearby Salem” and yet is “oddly Oriental, as though an earlier generation of Danvers sailors had brought back with them some strange influence from beyond the seas, an influence too subtle to be defined and too strong not to be felt”. Reneging on a deal to return these servants to their homeland Olde Danvers, Sr. finds himself cursed, his family cursed, and his house cursed. Leave a sea-faring life to settle here on the coast, and find yourself dead in under a week.
At this stage, things don’t look good for poor Uncle Nat — clearly American families adopt(ed) the European model of the oldest, nearest relative becoming the head of the house, rather than the English aristocracy’s approach of patrilineality — because he’s the current head of the Danvers clan and, when he inevitably carks it and sails away to the big port in the sky, Everett is next. Hence Ann bringing Rogan along, because she fears for Everett’s safety (Rogan Kincaid, International Ladies’ Man, seems to be under the impression that he’s — well — cock-blocking by being there, as if these two would be at it like rabbits with a dying man in the house but for his presence…). And, well, before Rogan can get too deeply into things, Uncle Nat takes a swan dive off the roof and any bookie willing to take odds on Everett being much longer for this world clearly doesn’t want to be in business any more.
There’s a certain amount here that’s good — the manner of Uncle Nat’s murder (er, spoilers?) that would lead to me classifying this in a moderately-spoilersh manner (which I won’t do, worry not) is neatly misdirected away from, and I like how even though the guilty party is obvious — c’mon, you have four characters, one is The Detective, one is The Intended Victim, one is The Woman Who Humanises Said Intended Victim, and one is Hey I Wonder Why This Guy Is In The Story At All — Talbot is neatly able to introduce a sly way to direct you away from those two words I refused to mention last week and again won’t mention here.
“So…it’s not Pumpkin Spice?”
However, outside of that, some frank shenanigans are used to join the (relatively smaller number of) points together, invoking the Dark Arts of a discovered hiding place, an Expository Olde Letter (“Hey,” Ann doesn’t say, “that’s my job!”) and then a lot of logical leap-frog to bring about the finger of guilt pointing at the only viable person. Also, his “specially constructed a__________ s__________ s_______” might as well be called a Killdevice McThingy for all the evidence we have that it is or is not possible in that universe or this — goddamn, Henning, you wrote Rim of the Pit! You’re better than this! it should be audacious, it should dazzle with its impromptu brilliance of an improvising murderer driven to unexpected means by a changing and unanticipated situation, perforce showing their cunning and twisted brilliance in pulling off a bold scheme under the noses of witnesses (he seems to be expecting Ann, but not Rogan). I’m also not entirely sure that Everett is going to leave this narrative fully convinced that The Doom of the Danvers — dammit, The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941), stop making me think of that scotch-drinking scene — has been lifted and that he’s safe…but, well, since he anticipated that unseen audience maybe he’ll be able to gauge their satisfaction (or, ahem, otherwise) after this couple of days, as Ann will presumably stop spelling out everything and so he’ll know he’s safe.
I wanted this to be brilliant because, well, it’s the last Talbot we’ll ever see — yes, I’m giving up on The Case of the Half-Witness, his rumoured third novel, ever seeing the light of day — and it’s preferable to remember someone who has shown themself capable of greatness in terms of that greatness. This is merely…fine, and possibly because he kept his best ideas for the novel and dashed this off in a rush, or possibly because he only had one brilliant, two very good, and one tired story in him. We’ll doubtless never know, and I’m fine with that. There’s still so much more to discover and love in the genre, and Talbot’s one of the greats no matter what.
I have very much enjoyed my trawling through some of the less-heralded attempts in the impossible crime short story this month, and will doubtless return to Adey and the British Library for other titles in the future. In the meantime, you’re most welcome to the free collection of stories TomCat and I put together drawn from stories mentioned in this very book and/or are heartily recommended to acquire your own copy of Locked Room Murders to pursue your own researches: details here at the Locked Room International site.
Tuesdays in December will be some Minor Felonies — detective stories for younger readers — comprising my first forays into two new series, a return to a classic series, and a collaboration with a fellow GAD blogger. See you next month for those!