#298: Five to…Try? – Books on My TBR That I Will Probably Never Read

Books waiting

We’ve all done it — in the excitement of finally stumbling across a novel by an author we’ve heard a lot about (or maybe heard nothing about, if you’re feeling adventurous) you snap up a book, take it home…and it lingers and lingers on your TBR, staring at you every time you go near your bookshelves to pick something out.  The guilt of its unread-ness builds inside of you, but the inclination to actually open it and read it never quite matches the initial rush of blood to the head that saw you buy it in the first place.

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#191: Five to Try – My Favourite Jonathan Creek Episodes

bffi

Once upon a time he was fully justified in looking this smug…

Dan at The Reader is Warned shares with TomCat and myself an enthusiasm for the impossible crime in fiction, and has put up this list of his five favourite episodes of once-great impossibilty-fest Jonathan Creek.  Much to the dismay of, I’m hoping, every single right-thinking person in the world, Jonathan Creek has gone somewhat downhill of late, so such a review of past glories is probably in order, especially if you’ve only encountered the show in its recent, non-windmill form.  Because it used to be amazing.

So, below are my top episode picks, arranged by first broadcast date; I’ve also stuck to just the normal, hour-long series episodes because, well, it’s another way of narrowing down from a superb field.  So that’s why ‘Black Canary’ isn’t on here, before anyone asks…

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#188: Five to Try – Debunked Séances in Detective Fiction

seance

Flying lute?  Check.  Ghostly disembodied hand?  Check.  Okay, ladies and gentlemen, let’s call this meeting to order…

Following a recent post on John Dickson Carr’s The Lost Gallows over at The Green Capsule, I was reminded of just how much I love a séance in fiction.  Now, to be clear, I’m with Charlie Brooker on psychics and other such manipulative awfulness, but have a real love of sleight of hand and up-close magic (as perhaps evinced in my enthusiasm for fair play detective fiction and impossible crimes therein) and a debunked séance is often a great way to explore the little ways a set of circumstances can be misrepresented, and often some fascinating insights come out of it.

So, here are five great séances from detective fiction, alpabetically by author.

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#70: Five to Try – Starting Paul Halter

After the fun of jointly analysing Paul Halter’s The Seven Wonders of Crime with Kate at CrossExaminingCrime, there’s now collateral damage to tidy up.  Namely, that the inevitable question for anyone eager to take the plunge with the French maestro des impossibilités (and, frankly, how can you not be?) will be: Where do I start?  Well, start wherever you like, of course, but if I had to pick my first five of the eleven currently available they’d look something like this:

Death Invites You (1998) [trans. 2015]

DIYAs I said in my review the other week, if you’re starting completely new with Paul Halter and/or impossible crimes then this is the perfect place to do it.  The balance of plot and character is just right, the contortions for the murder of a man over a table set for a meal in his locked study – matching exactly the novel he was writing – are not too outré for the novice and, while the locked room element isn’t completely original, there’s no excess of foliage to obscure your view of what’s going on.  This was the first book to feature Archibald Hurst and his harried genius amateur Alan Twist together, and it’s a relationship that feels natural from the very first page of them discussing impossible crimes while drinking in a pub.  If Hurst ends up rather abject following his expressed desire for some “really meaty” case to get involved with, the reader is treated to the beginnings of a rather special relationship that will bring a great many hours of reading pleasure.

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#38: Five to Try – Short Story Collections

Following my torrent of Sherlock Holmes I was tempted to do a ‘Five to Try’ on the short story collections, picking my favourite story from each.  But it’s not as if the Holmes canon doesn’t have enough words dedicated to it already, and thus I thought I’d opt for collections by other authors instead.

So, the rules: collections of short stories by a single author (no compendiums, wherein the quality always varies horrendously), readily available today…that just about covers it.  And so, alphabetically by author, we have:

Fen Country (1950-79) by Edmund Crispin

Fen CountryThe second of Crispin’s two short story collections, published posthumously.  My choice of the two because of the way a lot of the stories hinge on a very simple core idea – homonyms, for example – that might come across a gimmicky but manage in about six or seven pages to communicate setting, setup, event, outcome and misdirection.  Frankly no small feat! Yes, consequently the characters tend to suffer (the ebullient Fen is a curiously neutered presence in the stories in which he features) but for sheer inventive interpretation after inventive interpretation this is hard to beat.  And as an example of Crispin’s tight hold on the reins of his plots (which could, let’s face it, get a bit beyond him in his novels) this reinforces his reputation in a form that has often proved the undoing of lesser talents. [Available in ebook and thoroughly unattractive print form from Bloomsbury]

Recommended reading: ‘Death and Aunt Fancy’, ‘The Hunchback Cat’, ‘Outrage in Stepney’ Continue reading

#19: Five to Try – Starting John Dickson Carr

John Dickson Carr wrote just shy of 80 books and, since he is the finest practitioner of detective fiction the world has ever seen, you would like to know where to start in this cavalcade of brilliance (because some of them are bound to be, er, unbrilliant).  I am here to help.

Just to be clear on the rules: novels that are readily available, as always, restricted to impossible crimes because that’s why we love him, and presented in order of recommended reading (so, start with the first one). That is all, here we go…

Constant SuicidesThe Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) Hey, you; yes, you, with the cup of tea.  I want you to write a book about people inexplicably hurling themselves out of a window when sleeping alone in a room at the top of a tower.  I want it to be creepy, I want it to be fast-moving, I want it to have an undertone of threat; it also has to be fairly-clued, the culprit resonsible must be a complete surprise and you can kill as many characters as you like.  Oh, and make it funny.  Make it laugh out loud, technicolour funny, but light enough to take up residence in your brain without leaving so much as a shadow and without undoing the threat mentioned above.  What’s that?  It’s already been done?  Oh, forget it, then I’ll just read that book instead.  [Available from Rue Morgue Press in print only, the recommended version as some other publishers inexplicably and unforgivably give away key points in their cover art]

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#13: Five to Try – Non-series Christie

With 80 crime novels and story collections to her name, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Agatha Christie had quite a few repeating characters to call upon: Hercule Poirot, Jane Marple, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, and Superintendent Battle all got to be the focus of several books.  Ariadne Oliver, Colonel Johnny Race, and Mr. Satterthwaite cropped up a few times each, as arguably did James Parker Pyne and Mr. Harley Quinn through their short stories.  But then what about the others, the one-offs, those sleuths who strutted and fretted their hour upon the stage and then were heard no more?  What immortality do they get?  Well, since you ask…

SittafordThe Sittaford Mystery (1931) Damn those evil ouija demons!  Up to their tricks again, predicting the death of a man alone in a house cut off by a snow drift, unsettling a friend of his enough to ski down there…and find his dead body.  Makes Charlie Charlie and his spinning pencils seem rather tame by comparison (you’ve probably already forgotten that reference, that’s how behind the times I am).  Possibly breaks one rule of detective fiction, and the investigation largely consists of a lot of similar conversations, but the reveal is one of the watershed moments in my reading life (yeah, no, I’m not exaggerating) and probably singled-handedly convinced me that this was a genre and an author worth pursuing.

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#11: Five to Try – Non-Carr impossible murders

Simple criteria: novels only, readily available, not conceived in the fertile ground of John Dickson Carr’s imagination.  I’ve also restricted the impossible crime to being the comission of the murder – people stabbed or shot while alone in a room, effectively – more to help reduce the possible contenders than anything else.  Several stone cold classics are absent through the inclusion of other invisible events but that’s a future list (or five…).

Carr – doyen of the impossible crime, responsible for more brilliant work in this subgenre than any other three authors combined – will eventually get his own list (or five…), I just have to figure out how to separate them out; restricting it to five novels was hard enough for this list, but if you’re looking to get started in locked room murders these would be my suggestions:

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#7: Five to Try – Golden Age crime fiction

So I love my classic crime, we’ve established that, but where does this leave you?  After all, having someone go on about themselves all the time gets a bit boring.  You’re always saying that, aren’t you?  Sensible person that you are.  So, just for you – yes, you – here’s a list of five books I’d recommend if you’re thinking of getting started reading classsic crime fiction but are a little overwhelmed by all these books by dead authors (I feel the same about classical music, for what it’s worth).

My criteria are fairly simple: novels only, first published between 1920 and 1950, and widely available for purchase now.  It’s all very well having someone recommend the most amazing book ever, but if it was last in print in 1932 and only changes hands in book-fair back rooms for the kind of money that it takes to keep your kids in shoes for a decade…well, that’s just someone showing off, isn’t it.  Why share a love of something that can’t itself be shared?  The list is alphabetical by author, too, because that just seems sensible:

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