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.
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.
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!”
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!!!
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?
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!