Continuing our examination of the 15 best impossible crime novels of all time as compèred by Edward D. Hoch in 1981, here is the second of three episodes looking at the titles in question from Dan and myself in our occasional podcast The Men Who Explain Miracles.
I generally try to do the books I have by an author in chronological order, and so should be writing about The Footprints on the Ceiling (1939) here, but when TomCat described NCftC in the comments of my review of Rawson’s first Great Merlini novel Death from a Top Hat (1938) as “abysmal” saying that it “began very promising and then turned into one of the worst locked room mysteries I’ve ever had the misfortune of stumbling across”…well, I just had to try it out. I mean, sure, TomCat doesn’t like Rupert Penny’s Sealed Room Murder (1941) and so is immediately suspect, but I think I’ve shown myself willing enough to believe the very best of any books I try to read, and it might be interesting to go in expecting a dud. So, let’s get into it…
In his lifetime, John Dickson Carr published 76 novels and short story collections, plus a biography of Arthur Conan Doyle and a ‘true crime’ novel predating Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey. Following the closure of the Rue Morgue Press, who had five Carr novels in their books, and the coming disappearance of Orion’s ebook undertaking The Murder Room, who have around 14 or so Carr novels in their ranks, we’re not too far from a point in time where only two Car novels will be available to buy: Orion’s perpetually in-print version of The Hollow Man and the Mysterious Press publication of The Devil in Velvet. So, to return to the question in the title of this post: John Dickson Carr’s out of print — where’s the fuss?
It being the ever-approaching end of the academic year, I’ve tended to focus on short stories for these Tuesday Night Bloggers posts on poison because I simply haven’t had the time to read more than one book a week, and I need to keep those for my Thursday reviews. So this week I thought I’d take on one of Dorothy L. Sayers’ short stories featuring her other sleuth, the purveyor of fine wines that is Mr. Montague Egg. This is another one taken from The Big Ol’ Black Lizard Book of Wowsa That’s a Lot of Stories Massive Gigantic Compendium of Impossible Crimes But for Some Reason They’ve Included A Huge Section of Surely the Most Anthologised Stories of All Time, and so once again it has an impossible element. Yes, I am nothing if not fond of playing to type.
Well, where to start? Locked room murders (plural!), magicians, a hefty dose of self-reference, an extended John Dickson Carr homage-cum-lecture, a sprinkling of magical and mystical esoterica, and some really quite awesomely clever solutions…to be honest this — Rawson’s first novel to feature magician detective The Great Merlini and his Watson, journalist Ross Harte — should be a shoo-in for my favourite book of all time. Something about the conflation of conjuring and seemingly-impossible crimes just gets me all a-giggle with excitement, and Rawson wrote one of my favourite impossible crime short stories of all time (‘Off the Face of the Earth’, since you asked) so has previous with me, but this just comes up a little short to call it the masterpiece it probably should be.
I was recently reading a book on the promise of it providing a locked room murder, to which I am rather partial. When said murder arrived, it took on this approximate form: a large indoor hall with a free-standing stone chapel inside it which has one door and no windows or other points of ingress, a crowd witnesses a lady entering said chapel – which is deserted – alone and the doors are shut, only for them to be opened some time later and said lady found beaten, bruised and devoid of life. It’s moderately classic in its setup and should therefore provide some interest, but once I read the details of the crime I gave up on the book and will not return to it (in fact, it’s already down the charity shop).
This is not due to any squeamishness on my part, or a particular problem I had with the writing or the characters – both were fine, if unexceptional – but rather just because it just wasn’t interesting. It is hard to put this in words, which is why I imagine this post may run rather longer than usual, but there were simply no features of intrigue to me in that supposedly impossible murder. And so I got to thinking…forget plot or prose or atmosphere, take away all the context of an impossible crime, particularly forget about the solutions: what makes an interesting fictional impossibility? Continue reading →