DEAD MAN WALKING, PART ONE: Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit

In the world of locked room mysteries, everyone’s always talking about tracks. Tracks on the sand (The Problem of the Wire Cage), footprints in the herbaceous border (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd), tracks in a courtyard thick with mud (The Plague Court Murders).

And don’t get me started on snow! I trekked in the snow exactly once. It was cold, wet and messy, and I ended up with the flu. Snow in mysteries is bracing and powdery, and it cooperates no end by filling in tracks and/or freezing them as needed. If all self-respecting murderers decided to stick with linoleum once and for all – or at least time their murders with the weather – the whole impossible crime sub-genre could be wiped out.

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Thankfully, in the case of Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit (1944), it is not! The snow she comes a’howlin’, leaving a thick blanket surrounding two houses in a remote New England forest so that much can be made of tracks. There’s even a thick coat of dust on the floor of the attic, just in case someone wants to check for . . . you guessed it!

Hake Talbot (real name, Henning Nelms) was, like Clayton Rawson, a magician with a passion for murder mysteries. Most of his writing was non-fictional in nature, and it’s a shame that he only wrote a pair of novels and two short stories. His writing style is just plain terrific, reminding me of Patrick Quentin in his jaunty Peter Duluth days. And like many mystery writers who delved in the field of magic, Talbot takes delight in revealing some trade secrets . . . and then twisting things to make you wonder if maybe, just maybe, something genuinely magical might be going on.

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And Rim of the Pit is brimming with all things magical and occult! At the start of the novel, ten people and a Great Dane named Thor have made tracks (sorry!) to a wilderness retreat called Cabrioun, the former home of a long-dead logging man named Grimaud Desanat. (Who wants to bet the name is an homage to Professor Grimaud from Carr’s classic, The Hollow Man?). The group includes comely babes, a half-breed guide named Madore Troudeau, and a Czech magician with the glorious handle of Svetozar Vok!! Rounding off the list is Rogan Kincaid, the detective hero from Talbot’s only other novel, The Hangman’s Handyman (a link to The Plague Court Murders, right?). In Kincaid I detected a trace of of Bogie in Casablanca: he’s an adventurer and a he-man sort of hero, whose past tussles have given him a world-weary, suffer-no-fools air. The two beautiful girls in the party eye Rogan with a more than a trace of hunger, and everyone seems to want the guy to walk with them when they need to travel through the dark and forbidding woods, especially since there seems to be a nasty evil spirit on the loose called a windigo, whose very touch infects its victims and will have them singing that old Irving Berlin tune, “I’m a Windigo, Too!”

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The novel plays on the popularity thoughout the Golden Age of séances and mediums. Grimaud’s second wife, Irene, has long practiced this psychic art, and her current husband, Frank Ogden, and his business partner, Luke Latham, have decided to hold a séance in the spot where Desanat died years ago (in possibly suspicious circumstances) in order to ask the logger for permission to cut down some trees . . .

Yes, it does take a bit of swallowing for a moment to believe that this is how two financial wizards plan to settle a business dispute. But one of the best things about Rim of the Pit is the way Talbot describes the slow descent of this group from skeptics to believers. The séance itself is a dramatic marvel, full of sound and fury, and it’s followed by a most excellent authorial touch: Talbot pretty much debunks everything we have seen, providing a rational explanation for the “psychic phenomena” the circle of witnesses have experienced. And yet certain aspects simply can’t be explained away, leading the members of this party to their first whiff of doubt . . . and belief!

And that is just the beginning of one hundred and fifty tightly plotted pages of crazy! A dark wet night of the soul lies ahead for our intrepid party as they confront two mysterious deaths that can only have been committed by either a ghost or a windigo. Whatever it is, it leaves tracks like a human but in places no human can manage. And it most definitely can fly – not only because its travel plans are only possible for a flying beast, but because at one point witnesses see it fly through the air!!!

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Like the murderer, the time spent reading this book flies by, jam-packed with incident and snappy dialogue! I’ve read plenty of mysteries stemming from a supposed supernatural incident, where the author piles on the spooky trappings and the reader waits patiently for reality to set in at the finale. Here we have a group of (mostly) modern folk, and while I never once imagined that we would switch genres into horror territory, Talbot does a great job with both atmosphere and characterization to show how a secluded group of people could begin to doubt the set of rules that govern reality.

Talbot is also so good at the tropes of mystery fiction – the throwing out of theories, only to have them dashed by cool logic, the juicy “Lord of the Flies” moment when everybody turns on each other in hysterical accusation  – that it’s a real shame his fictional output was so small. But this is the lament all current classic mystery fans have, right? Uncovering writers like Harriet Rutland, Eilis Dillon, or Theodore Roscoe, and only getting two or three shots of pleasure out of them!

I want to tell you that I figured out the ending because I did something like this to a couple of friends of mine in university days. But the solution to Rim of the Pit is pretty much as loco as its premise. There is a small part of me that believes most locked room mysteries eventually collapse under the weight of their own arch-cleverness, and one could accuse Talbot of committing the same crime here. But honestly, it’s all just in fun, right? And when you think about it, if these sorts of crimes were easy to accomplish, we’d have impossible murders splashed across the headlines every day. Right, TomCat?

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We’re lucky that Ramble House not only decided to re-publish this one but that they included the original Dell mapback of the scene of the crime on the back cover. A number of folks have picked up this book ever since JJ at The Invisible Event announced that sometime in July he and Dan at The Reader is Warned would be holding forth on Talbot’s masterpiece in a juicy spoiler-full event. I will definitely be there to see what these guys have to say and to offer my unexpurgated opinion. I advise you to pick up a copy of the book and join in the fun!

Happy 4th of July, everyone!

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24 thoughts on “DEAD MAN WALKING, PART ONE: Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit

  1. It is a deliciously creepy story , isn’t it, Brad? And Talbot does a fine job I think, of describing the way these people develop that sort collective belief, if I can put it that way. You actually buy into it, with his writing skill, and given the popularity of mediums and so on at the time.

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    1. That, I think, is the best part of the story for me, Margot! We always know that the supernatural will be debunked sooner or later, but it’s nice to read the psychological impact on these people of the events they experience. There’s even that great scene where they discuss how screwed they are for the rest of their lives, even if the whole thing is the work of a spirit!

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  2. I consider myself pretty lucky that this was among the first impossible crimes novels I read when I became aware of the subgenre — it is completely loco, but in the best possible way, with just every kind of brilliant craziness thrown into the brew. I’m delighted you enjoyed it as much as you did, and shall refrain from adding too much more ahead of discussing it with Dan…watch this space!

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    1. Hey, it’s like four days into July. We’re waiting….. Don’t make Brad and me start this party without you… It’s not like we have a holiday to celebrate or anything…

      I honestly can’t wait for the spoiler-fest. There are so many points to make and debates to be had. It’ll be a lot more fun to have it all out in the open, rather than in a few paragraphs at the end of one of my posts.

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  3. Nice. It must be 10 years or more since I read the book. I loved it at the time for its inventiveness, creepiness and craziness and I’m sure I’ll have a similar reaction when I get round to it again. The stuff about seances, fake mediums and exploitation of the occult was a big theme back in the days this was written, and a few writers used the background, and commented on how much a racket it all was – Rawson certainly put the boot in, and rightly so.

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    1. I love seances in books and movies (except the really scary kind in those gross out movies.) Christie used them to good effect in The Sittaford Mystery and Dumb Witness, but they lacked the atmosphere that Carr and, here, Talbot created. We all know that the weirdness will be explained rationally at some point, but as Ben stated so well in his review, Talbot does a great job of debunking and then casting doubt, over and over again.

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  4. I haven’t seen the pink cover to this book before, I kind of like it. The cover with the orange circle is atrocious – a classic example of artwork totally not communicating the vibe for a book.

    It is funny that you read this right after The Plague Court Murders, as I think that is the closest analogy that I’d come for one of Carr’s works – the multiple puzzles, the brooding atmosphere verging on horror, and most importantly, the fun. This is a very fun book.

    As much as you’re going to see me rag on aspects of the puzzle solutions at JJ/Dan’s event, I absolutely love the way that the ending played out. Definitely a top read.

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    1. I think the last chapter does a great job of setting us up for a certain expectation – confronting the murderer – and then pulls one last surprise on us. If I’m not as impressed with the “who” aspect here as I usually am in Carr, Talbot makes up for it with such high entertainment value for the first twenty chapters! And I’ll certainly be there for the event, but I can barely comment on the “how” because I can never follow these things!!!

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      1. I can barely comment on the “how” because I can never follow these things!!!

        See, I think you’re overstating things when you say this: you’re a man of theatre, steeped in stage directions and the precise location of who at what point and exactly what must be done when, and that’s essentially all impossible crimes are — all the world’s a stage, and sometimes people die in seemingly-impossible circumstances…

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  5. I’m probably the odd man out here, but, when I finally got around to The Rim of the Pit (superb title), I was somewhat disappointed. (“What!” I know, I know.)

    I stumbled on to the main trick because I couldn’t think of any other way it could have been done, and the subsidiary mysteries didn’t exactly sustain as much interest. The atmosphere was brilliantly conveyed in the beginning; but, as trick after trick was exploded, I felt a bit like one of those characters in a Carr book who say, “Well, if the ghost stayed in the shadows and rattled some chains, I’d be scared–but if he stood at the top of Nelson’s Column and just shouted at people, I’d only laugh. I can believe the impossible but not the improbable.”

    With all that said, Talbot’s plotting is fun, and the book is (as Mike Grost noted) perhaps the one Carr-pastiche that understands Carr’s own style: piling on impossibility after impossibility, with a clever “rearrangement in space and time” (it fits in the entire subcategory of “impossible crime mystery inspired by The Three Coffins,” which, as JJ and I were discussing, also includes “The Impossible Murder of Dr. Satanus” and Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat, among others that I’m not remembering at the moment).

    By the way, I haven’t read Talbot’s other Kincaid novel, The Hangman’s Handyman (sounds great, though), but his short story “The Other Side,” which reworks (and may actually improve on) a key plot device from The Judas Window, is brilliant.

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      1. Oh, Lord, I hope I didn’t spoil things too much by my one reference–I don’t think it will give things away, but then, one never knows!

        I didn’t know Ramble House included the story in there (the copy of Rim that I read was a battered, dog-eared old copy sent via interlibrary loan); did they also include “The High House,” Talbot’s other Rogan Kincaid short story? I’ve long wanted to read that one.

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  6. By the way, as you fine folks like magician-mysteries, let me recommend (if you haven’t seen them already) Charlie Chan at Treasure Island, which is my favorite Chan picture (despite a noticeable lack of fair play), and Columbo‘s “Now You See Him” and “Columbo Goes to the Guillotine,” all of which have to do with magicians, magic tricks, etc. (The ’37 b-mystery The Great Gambini also tackles the same subject, though less successfully, in my opinion.)

    Oh, and let me second your comment, Brad, and wish a sincere happy 4th to all my fellow Americans out there! 🙂

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    1. I own all the Charlie Chans, and this one is fun, especially since it doesn’t have the usual killer. But it’s not my favorite. I love Charlie Chan in Panama.

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      1. …in Panama is a very good one indeed, Brad–not one of my own personal favorites, but nevertheless high up in my rankings of the movies. (My second favorite, by the way, is …in Egypt.)

        Some wonderful stuff in the Chan movies…

        Do you know Columbo well? Excellent show.

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  7. A very enjoyable review and summary, as always, Brad! I’m especially grateful for all the details you provide, because The Rim of the Pit was one of those bygone reads that I retain no memory of, beyond a vague suspicion that it wasn’t my type of mystery. I am certainly piqued to consider another try at some point based on the enthusiasms of you and others; I may still have the Polygonics Ltd. paperback hiding on the bookshelves.

    I will say, in my own feeble defense, that there have been times when a crime story has been so breathless and over-the-top that I wind up disengaging with it. I can’t quite remember it this was the case here, but when suspension of disbelief snaps (and it’s a pretty flexible entity when it comes to GAD reading for me) because of plot, tone, and/or characterization, it’s hard to recover. Again, just my two cents, and perhaps I’m maligning this particular Pit. I should give it another chance.

    All best wishes — Jason H

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    1. No sweat here, Jason! With so much to read, who has time to re-read a questionable title sometimes. I felt that the people were realistic – their reactions and such – but the plot is over the top crazy, so it just may not be your kind of thing. I know it isn’t always mine either, but I liked Talbot’s writing style, too.

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  8. Karl, just the one story is included . . . and I think I’ll wait to read it until I’ve forgotten your JW reference!!! 🙂

    I’m not that well up on Columbo, I’m afraid. I don’t gravitate toward inverted mysteries as a rule!

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    1. My apologies, then.

      As for Columbo, I understand what you mean, but the endings often have that same kind of satisfying “click”–all the pieces falling into place–as regular whodunits. I hope you get a chance to check it out all the same… “Columbo Goes to the Guillotine,” by the way, does reveal the murderer at the beginning (as in most Columbo episodes), but it’s a locked-room mystery with a faked-paranormal mind-reading session, and the methods aren’t revealed until the end…

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  9. Glad you enjoyed it so much, Brad – it’s one of my favorite mysteries overall, and – when it comes to impossible crime mysteries – the only Golden Age impossible crime story that really deserves to be ranked with Carr at his best. I hadn’t heard that jj was doing something this month – I’ll have to go visit the appropriate blogs for info. I would only add that I think this book has the best opening line I can remember. The closing line’s pretty memorable too, though for different reasons… 😉

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    1. Agreed on all counts, Les! And I hope you do add your thoughts on JJ’s site whenever he decides to get the conversation rolling! One of these days, I hope to meet you at Bouchercon!! 🙂

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  10. Seances and snow and tracks and non-tracks in the snow – what more could you want in a book? I agree with you, this one is tremendous fun. I guessed some of what was going on, but that didn’t spoil the book, and I think it was probably because the book was influential: I’d read others with similar lines.

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