January, month of rebirth and self-recrimination. For every resolution to improve there must be some frank assessment of what debilitated you in the first place, and so the month can take on a curiously Jekyll-and-Hyde aspect for some. So my Tuesday posts for this month will be a mixture of what is good and bad in my reading, and where better to start than a celebration of the previous 12 months?
A year before the publication of locked room masterpiece Whistle Up the Devil (1953), and possibly just to get his eye in for the writing of a detective story, Derek Smith wrote a story featuring the popular pulp character Sexton Blake. It was never published, and only came to public awareness when John Pugmire compiled the Derek Smith Omnibus in 2014 which comprised Smith’s two novels, the Blake novella Model for Murder, and a short story entitled ‘The Imperfect Crime’.
You suggested the titles, you voted, and now here we are: these are the top ten novels demonstrating fair-play in detective fiction as selected by nearly 500 votes on 40 titles. Except there are twelve of them, because we had a few ties. So, alphabetically by author we have…
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?
Well, following the discovery of Matt Ingwalson’s Owl and Raccoon novellas I pledged to give more self-published works a go because — hey! — some of it is evidently very good indeed. Sure, an overwhelming majority is awful, but it’s worth the relatively slight cost to potentially find something surprising. Which brings us to The Third Gunman by Raymond Knight Read.
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 →
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: