The blogosphere is just like school at recess: you step into the yard and look fearfully around for people who you can play with and will like you for who you are. I’ve found so many wonderful, thoughtful writers in here who have expanded my understanding of what lies out there in the world of mystery fiction and have even caused me to ponder my own stands on the small amount of knowledge I have acquired. Still, it’s only natural to align oneself with those who seem – at least at first glance – to share many of your own opinions and favorites.
One of these writers is JJ, host of The Invisible Event (here), whose delightful ponderings on mysteries, both classic and (occasionally) modern, I highly recommend to you. (If I could figure out how to put favorite sites up on my own page, you would find regular links to his work right here. Ah, someday . . . )
JJ has inspired me to look at my own relationship with his favorite sub-genre of mystery – the impossible crime – and to expand my own experience of the various authors who specialize in this sort of novel. To that end, I have chosen four books to read and react to in order to hopefully find my way toward a greater appreciation of this type of mystery. This constitutes what will be called The Impossible Crimes Project! Of course, four novels alone – or four authors even – is a miniscule sample from which one may try to come to any conclusions. So maybe, if all goes well, TICP will continue with me for years to come. Thank you, JJ. (Or curse you, you fiend . . . we’ll see what comes of this!)
I am not a novice when it comes to locked room and impossible crimes. I actually started with the best. The third “grown-up” mystery writer I discovered (after Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen) was the king of the locked room himself, John Dickson Carr. I was trolling the mystery section at a local bookstore when I came upon these attractive covers and bought four: The Arabian Nights Murder, The Mad Hatter Mystery, The Blind Barber and The Case of the Constant Suicides. Carr super-fans can tell you how well I chose at the age of 13 or 14, but I enjoyed all of these, particularly the structure of Arabian Nights and the humor of Constant Suicides.
It was enough for me to add Carr to my “must buy” list, but my reasons might strike some as odd. I thoroughly enjoyed the element of surprise Carr often employed, something I found in most Christies and some Queens (and later in Christianna Brand) but which I found lacking in the books of Ngaio Marsh, Rex Stout and Erle Stanley Gardner, authors whom I also read regularly. I also love a good sleuth, and at the time Dr. Gideon Fell struck me as something of a riot, with his girth, his “hmf”s and “harummph’s” and his tendency toward slapstick antics. What I did not pay as much attention to was the most emblematic aspect of a Carr novel: the impossible crime aspect! Oh, I noticed it, of course, but I didn’t embrace it as a favorite part of my enjoyment of Carr’s books. Nor did it make me seek out authors of a similar bent, such as Clayton Rawson (although his stories would pop up in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, to which I subscribed, and I would always enjoy them.)
I’m not stupid, but I know my limitations, and I am not of a particularly mechanical or technical frame of mind. When it came time for Dr. Fell to explain that the killer had threaded the keyhole with a thin filament of conductor material, then utilized a concoction of ammonia, bubble bath and cyanide in a hidden ball of carpenter’s wire under the victim’s study chair to cause a chain reaction that made the third pane in the bay window dissolve and the arrow hidden in the third branch of the oak tree outside the window to . . . well, at this point my eyes tended to go crossways and I just kept reading until I got what I wanted – the name, sir! The name of the killer!!!
Dr. Gideon Fell vs. Sir Henry Merrivale
I read nearly all of the Dr. Fell books, but for some strange reason, I steered clear of that whole other branch of Carr books – those he had written under the name of Carter Dickson – that featured Sir Henry Merrivale. I thought of Merrivale as a pale copy of Fell, and, with the stubborn resolve that only a teenager can muster, I refused to read them. Even when I started to hear from folks who much preferred the Merrivale novels, both for their ingenious deployment of “impossible” strategies and for what, in their opinion, was a superior utilization of humor, I stayed loyal to Dr. Fell. (The good news here is that I am now a much more reasonable man, and I have a whole parcel of Carr books I can look forward to reading. And I liked The Judas Window very much, thank you!)
The funny thing about Carr is how much I have forgotten about what I read. Unlike Christie (some of whose words I can recite by heart) and Queen (whose plots remain indelibly burned in my brain), there is little about the Carr books – situations, characters and solutions – that I can recall. My favorite has always been The Crooked Hinge, and I remember that one well enough for its double surprise ending, but the whole middle eludes me. I remember the surprise ending of Dark of the Moon, which I enjoyed so much despite people saying that this late Carr is really rather terrible. What this means is that I can, if I so choose, go back and reread some books I’m sure I read before. To that end, I recently purchased He Who Whispers and The Problem of the Green Capsule in a used bookstore. Many rank the first as the best Carr, and JJ recently raved about the latter. So I have those to look forward to, and I hope to have them finished in time to join the Tuesday Night Bloggers when they tackle Carr in March.
So which are the four novels that will comprise this first leg of The Impossible Crimes Project? I felt I should begin with the master himself, and fortunately there is one classic Carr title which I have never read. Therefore, Book Number One will be The Hollow Man (1935, a.k.a. The Three Coffins in the U.S.). There seems to be some debate as to where this book rates, although it usually rates highly on fans’ lists, plus it contains Dr. Fell’s famous “locked room murder” lecture, which I am looking forward to reading very much. I’m just about a third of the way through the novel and hope to have a post on it soon, despite a very busy work schedule.
For the next three titles, I decided two things: to choose authors JJ had recommended highly and to read these titles in book form rather than as e-books. (Don’t ask me why, except I’ve built a bookshelf in my bedroom to house my mystery collection, and I wanted a better assortment of authors represented there. Plus, many classic locked room puzzles include illustrations and maps, and some e-books don’t include those.)
Book Number Two will be my first attempt at Paul Halter, the French disciple of Carr who has taken the locked room blogosphere by storm ever since he began to be translated into English. I tried to pick well, and finally I decided to pick one that most seemed to like, as well as one of Halter’s first: The Fourth Door.
Number Three will come from the pen of Rupert Penny, a book (and an author) which JJ has rated highly: Policeman’s Evidence.
And Number Four was written by a man I had never heard of until I read about him in The Invisible Event: Mr. Norman Berrow. I picked The Three Tiers of Fantasy because even JJ hasn’t read that title yet, and I thought it would be fun to discover it together. But given my huge TBR pile – both on the bookshelf and those stored virtually on my Kindle – I figure he will probably beat me on that score.
JJ, I cannot promise that I will come to adore this sub-genre with the same fervor that I feel coming from you when you write about it. But I promise to give it a shot and to share whatever opinions I form about each novel with the respect to which these authors are due. For me to offer anything less would be . . . well, impossible!