Hake Talbot | John Russell Fearn | Joseph Commings | Alan Green | Hugh Pentecost | Thomas Flanagan | Clayton Rawson | Peter Godfrey | Akimitsu Takagi | Shimada Sôji | Arthur Porges | Michael Harrison | William Brittain | Bruce D. Pelletier | Lionel Booker | William F. Smith | Paul Halter | Michael Kurland | Lois H. Gresh and Robert Weinberg | Phil Mann | Mike Cooper / Mike Wiecek | Catherine Mambretti | Hal White | Bill Pronzini
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
Rogan Kincaid short stories
The Great Merlini
The Death Syndicate (1938)
Impossible Crime stories
American Magazine novellas
Lt. Pascal's Tastes in Homicide
Uncollected Lt. Pascal stories
The Seven Wonders of Crime (1997)
The Phantom Passage (2005)
The Night of the Wolf
Stanley Baum stories
Penelope Peters stories
Horace Masters stories
The Evil That Men Do
The Mysteries of Reverend Dean (2008)
"The Arrowmont Prison Mystery" (1976)
"Ace in the Hole" (1986)
The Best Western Stories of Bill Pronzini
Carpenter and Quincannon: Professional Detective Services
Quincannon - uncollected stories
Gun In Cheek (1982)
Son of Gun In Cheek (1987)
Thanks to Bill Vande Water, for providing important information about impossible crime fiction.
Talbot's mystery technique is closer to Carr than it is to any other writer, such as Chesterton or Futrelle, and one suspects that Talbot was familiar with and inspired by Carr's work. In Carr's The Three Coffins, the reader is often inventively misled about the order of events and their actual significance; the same technique is used in Rim of the Pit, in complex and creative ways. In Carr's work, suspects are often wandering around from location to location, and their position at various times is relevant in the solution. Carr also uses ingenious methods to mislead readers' about these positions. This is an aspect of Carr's work that he took over from the mystery novel as whole, not just its impossible crime wing. (It is most useful as a technique in the novel as opposed to the short story, since in a novel there is room to describe the elaborate wanderings of a group of characters.) We see this same technique in Talbot. There is a certain sophistication and "man of the world" attitude to Carr's characters; we see the same in Talbot. Carr was fascinated by problems involving "impossible" crimes in open fields and beaches, complete with tracks in the ground; Talbot gives us just such a problem, among the many marvelous puzzles in the book. (Carr's hero Chesterton was one of the first to propose such a problem, in The Poet and the Lunatics. His solution was nowhere as good as Carr's many later approaches to this puzzle, but his tale could have fired Carr's imagination.) There is also an air of "creative eclecticism" in Carr, where he was willing to use and combine many different techniques of impossible crime to make up all the puzzles in a novel. Talbot's work shows a similar eclecticism.
I hope it is clear from this discussion that while Talbot was influenced by Carr's approach, he in all cases showed plenty of personal creativity.
The Spring 1948 (Volume 6, #3) issue of Mystery Book Magazine, where "The High House" originally appeared, has a good illustration on the title page of the story. This is the only portrait of Rogan Kincaid I've ever seen. He is shown wearing a good suit: this is the height of the film noir era, and Kincaid seems like the sort of snappy dresser one sees in the heroes of Hollywood crime thrillers of the period.
"The Other Side" is also a short story featuring Rogan Kincaid. It is in the anthology Murder Impossible (1990), edited by Jack Adrian and Robert Adey. (This anthology is known in Britain as The Art of the Impossible.)
The fake curses in "The Other Side" recall those in Hangman's Handyman.
There are signs in "The Other Side" that Talbot is evoking hard-boiled traditions, perhaps in an attempt to appeal to the pulp magazine market. "The Other Side" takes place in Hollywood, and has a background of a Los Angeles religious cult, like Dashiell Hammett's The Dain Curse (1928). Such a cult also shows up in a non-hard-boiled novel, by a fellow impossible crime specialist: Anthony Boucher's Nine Times Nine (1940). The symmetric apartments in "The Other Side" recall Raymond Chandler's "Goldfish" (1936).
The locked room is solved by the sleuth step-by-step throughout the course of the novel, rather than having the solution revealed all at once at the end. This seems atypical of impossible crime books. In some ways, it resembles the way that Freeman Wills Crofts and his followers often share their police-detective's thoughts with the reader throughout the book - although these works by Crofts and others don't usually involve impossible crimes.
Detectives. Death in Silhouette features Fearn's series sleuth Maria Black. "Black Maria", as she is nicknamed, is a middle-aged headmistress of a school, who doubles as an amateur detective. She is not a "snoopy spinster". Instead, she has a vast knowledge of criminology and is a respected expert on detection. Her characterization as a "strong, independent middle-aged professional woman of intelligence and expert skill" recalls Gladys Mitchell's earlier sleuth Mrs. Bradley, although Black Maria is less colorful.
Maria Black is assisted by a tough man she hires occasionally, "Pulp" Martin. Pulp is a comic character. As a tough guy with a crooked past, who is now assisting a detective, he seems modeled on Albert Campion's aide Magersfontein Lugg. Like Lugg, Pulp is intense and has a full range of comic patter and observations. Both men are lower class in mannerism, and full of a swaggering machismo. Pulp differs from Lugg in that Pulp is simply hired by Maria to help on occasional cases, while Lugg works for Campion full time as a servant. Another difference: Pulp is an American. He is described as a "Bowery tough", and he dresses in the loudest clothes imaginable. He is clearly intended to be the sort of tough guy found in the pages of American pulp magazines. While a caricature, Pulp is drawn with affection. Clearly, the author believed that many people would like and be fascinated by an American tough cob on the side of the Good Guys. Pulp has a modest, two-bit quality. He is more a street corner tough and con-man, and is definitely not any sort of gangster or hoodlum.
Settings. Death in Silhouette shows American pulp magazines to be everywhere in the small, typical British town where the murder takes place. The heroine's brother reads them and collects them, and there seems to be a vigorous second-hand trade in them. It is one of the best sociological portraits of the popularity of US crime pulps in England. See the middle of Chapter 6, the later part of Chapter 9, the first part of Chapter 10. SPOILER. Death in Silhouette has a pulp magazine play a role in the locked room puzzle, a good idea.
Death in Silhouette takes place among very modestly middle class people. The heroine is a waitress in a small restaurant, and her family and friends have similarly modest jobs. This seems unusual for British mystery fiction. Everyone is very respectable, though, and the characters are middle class, rather than working class or farmers. There are no servants anywhere. Sleuth Maria Black is described as a "lady" at one point, and there are suggestions that she might be a bit more upper crust than the other characters. Still, she is mainly described through her professional accomplishments in heading a school, rather than through any sort of inherited class status.
Commings also wrote many non-series short stories, not about Banner. At least five of these are impossible crime tales, each about a different detective. The Locked Room Reader (1968) edited by Hans Stefan Santesson includes the excellent "Bones for Davy Jones" (1953).
The freshness of Commings' concepts helps: many of his impossible crimes are new and different. Commings' approach offers plenty of imagination, something he shares with Chesterton, Carr and Talbot. Commings is also generous with his illusions: his tales often feature not one, but numerous ingenious gimmicks, all working together to produce the ultimate illusion.
Commings has a feel for the dramatic possibilities of his locales, whether New England, Washington DC, or East Germany. His characters are lively, colorful and sympathetic, which helps a good deal as well.
One can break down Commings' best tales into series or groups, with some common characteristics in the way they handle their impossible crime solutions.
1) Physical Challenge tales. The general technical approach to the impossible crime in "Murder Under Glass" (1947), shares some similarities to that in "Hangman's House" (1962). Both are stories of startling physical challenges. The crimes in Commings' stories have the feel of magic tricks: they seem carefully staged by the bad guys to produce some effect. Often the villains seize some small edge, and really work it, trying to produce this effect: you get the feeling that the criminals have come in just under the wire, so to speak, and if their space to maneuver were any tighter, they would not have been able to pull off the crime.
"The Giant's Sword" (1963) is another of Commings' "physical challenge" tales. It is a most satisfying piece of storytelling.
"Murder Under Glass" (1947), with its glass room, appeared the year before a comic book story about a whole environment made of glass, the Air Wave tale "The City of Glass" (Detective Comics #136, June 1948). Aside from the settings, the stories have nothing in common. One suspects they both reflect some real-life glass environment of the era.
"The Glass Gravestone" (1966) can also be considered a physical challenge tale. Its solution is simpler than some of the others.
2) Illusion tales. "Death by Black Magic" (1948) seems a central work in Commings' output. Its three impossibilities make it a rich story, especially abundant for a short tale. Its central impossible crime, involving the watched cabinet, will involve an explanation which Commings will vary ingeniously later in "Castanets, Canaries, and Murder" (1962). Both of these explanations center on show business illusionism: magic shows on stage in "Death by Black Magic", film in "Castanets, Canaries, and Murder".
"Death by Black Magic" is also an architecture centered tale. Everything in it revolves around the architecture of the theater stage, the cabinet, etc. Much of Commings' work is similarly architecturally oriented: "Murder Under Glass", "Hangman's House".
"Stairway to Nowhere" (1979), which Commings wrote in collaboration with Edward D. Hoch, also has a central impossibility based in perceptual illusion. It too is an architectural mystery.
"The Black Friar Murders" (1948) and "Ghost in the Gallery" (1949), a pair of linked stories in Commings' approach, are also somewhat in the illusion tradition, found in "Death by Black Magic" and "Castanets, Canaries, and Murder". The impossibilities are simpler in "The Black Friar Murders" and "Ghost in the Gallery". They are also unfortunately less plausible - so these tales are not among Commings' major works. Despite these limitations, "The Black Friar Murders" shows some vivid storytelling and is well worth reading.
3) A Unique story. "Bones for Davy Jones" (1953) is another of Commings' major works. It has a number of broad similarities in its technique to "Death by Black Magic" - although the illusion important in "Death by Black Magic" has no role in this tale:
"The X Street Murders" shows Commings' anti-Communist politics, as does "The Cuban Blonde" (1964), a routine spy tale without any mystery or impossible crime elements.
The storytelling also seems especially Carr like here, with the young lovers trapped in a complex mysterious situation that just keeps getting both creepier and creepier, and full of more impossibilities. Just as in Carr, various suspects about whom the couple and the reader know really very little show up in the middle of events, and are already "positioned" in time and space, having a part in the floor plan and time table of the crime. All of these suspects say what they have just been doing, but any or all of them could be lying about their actions before they appeared to the reader.
Green's novel shows the Golden Age interest in elaborate architecture, here a complex Florida resort hotel. This architecture is interwoven into the mystery plot in the best Golden Age tradition.
What a Body! is better at its mystery aspects than as a novel. Green's characters tend to be a bit one dimensional. Also, the satirical aspects of the book seem a bit off. What a Body! takes on exercise cultists. It is a spoof on the same movement that appears in Richard Thorpe's movie musical Athena (1954). The book tries to suggest that these people are ripe for satire. Actually their regimen - exercise, no tobacco or alcohol, a healthy diet - just looks like the sound medical advice of every physician alive today. So the book is left without a real satirical target. Green is much funnier when going after the press and politicians, as he occasionally gets a chance to do.
Green's work would have been better as a novella. A reader can get all the plot by reading Chapters 1- 5, then the solution in Chapter 15.
Green's satire is directed at early television. The first three chapters have some interesting inside looks at show business, as well as a pleasant follow-up on the progress of his detectives since their last book. Green was an advertising executive; there is an ad man in the book, from the days in which sponsors and ad men were heavily involved in the production of television and radio. However, as an inside look at television, this story is eclipsed by such works as The Dick Van Dyke Show or Clarence Budington Kelland's The Key Man (1951), which is probably the best mystery story set in the world of early TV.
Pentecost's characters are often caught up in difficult circumstances, with which they have to make a valiant personal effort to cope. The old man who is the detective in "Vanished", just doesn't stand around and talk, he has to make a radical effort to cope with the criminals. Pentecost's story also benefits from the novelty of its impossible crime: it is not just another locked room, but something new in magical effects.
Pentecost's first short story "Room Number 23" (1925) was also a locked room tale. It is reprinted in the anthology Maiden Murders (1952). The impossible crime mechanism of the story is of the same general kind as Chesterton's "The Invisible Man" (1910), although Pentecost's plot is different. As in Vincent Starrett's stories of the same era, it is modeled on the Sherlock Holmes tales in its detective characters and setup. There is also the same sort of 1920's big city feel to the tale as Starrett's, complete with a suspect who doubles as a bootlegger.
"Room Number 23" takes place in a genteel New York City hotel, and we see much of the operation and staff of that establishment. It anticipates the series of Pierre Chambrun mysteries Pentecost would later write, about a luxury New York hotel.
Pentecost's introduction in Maiden Murders discusses the real-life background of his characters. The young detective James Bellamy of "Room Number 23" is modeled on a real life friend of Pentecost's, the writer James Warner Bellah. The Watson-like narrator idolizes Bellamy, and is especially impressed by the beautiful clothes Bellamy wears so well. This anticipates the later pair of young men in "The Dead Man's Tale" (1943), one of Pentecost's best novellas. One of them is spectacularly well dressed. Young Joey also idolizes his uncle George Crowder in Around Dark Corners.
"The Murder Machine" (1950) is a novella set in a Pennsylvania mining town. It is a full-fledged scientific detective story, with the operation of a quarry the basis for the mystery. The technological mystery is also an impossible crime, with a murder that seems scientifically impossible to have been committed. Both the technological murder and the impossibility are well imagined. This makes for an unusual, unconventional impossible crime tale, one whose impossible situation has never appeared in any other story.
The whodunit aspects of "The Murder Machine" are more perfunctory, with an easy-to-spot villain. Still, there are fair play clues pointing to the murderer, including both access to knowledge about the victim's plans, and technological opportunity.
"Murder in the Dark" (1949) is a novella about New York City diamond merchants. It is no classic, but it does have its moments of ingenuity.
Luke Bradley, the New York City Homicide cop of Cancelled in Red, turns up in uniform to solve a military spy-mystery in The Brass Chills (1943). The early chapters, which show a Hollywood scriptwriter's struggles to enlist following Pearl Harbor, have some interest as sociological history. But after this, the novel turns into a relentlessly grim look at a small military outpost in the war. It just has little merit as a mystery.
"Bottom Deal" (1941) is a novella with a background in the Broadway theater. Its only notable aspect are its detectives, gambling specialist Coyle and his leg-man, "Harvard" Donovan, characters that also appear in two Pentecost novels, Odds on the Hot Seat (1940-1941) and The Fourteenth Trump (1942). The two are pastiches of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. The year before, Rufus King's Holiday Homicide (1940) had also included versions of Stout's sleuths, so perhaps something was in the air. The story emphasizes "Harvard" Donovan's extreme good looks, as well as his dapper tailoring. Sleuths aside, this is a routine story, with a mystery plot recalling Agatha Christie's Peril at Edge House (1932). Pentecost seems to have revived the character later: the cleverly-titled short story "According to Coyle" (1948) appeared in Mystery Book Magazine, in Volume 7, #1, Summer 1948.
Pentecost wrote a few works about the colorless but penetrating psychiatrist detective, Dr. John Smith. Three of them appeared in the American Magazine during 1945-1946, and were collected in book form in 1947 as Memory of Murder. I've never seen this rare book. Ellery Queen reprinted "Volcano in the Mind" (1945) from it in his anthology Champions of Mystery (1977). "Volcano in the Mind" seems far-fetched as a mystery plot. And like a lot of psychoanalytic fiction, it is grim and joyless stuff. A character in the tale is a jovial artist with a huge red beard; he seems like a dry run for Pentecost's later artist-sleuth, John Jericho.
Among Pentecost's American Magazine novellas, "Murder Plays Through" (1952) is closely related to "The Dead Man's Tale" (1943). Both stories have similar sorts of characters and mystery plot. In fact, the later tale can be regarded as a re-working of material from the earlier. Two men at the center of the plot of each tale are both clothes horses, as well. The backgrounds are completely different however: "Murder Plays Through" is set against an absorbing look at the world of professional golf tournaments. "Murder Plays Through" is less original than the earlier work, but it is still fun to read. It has a flood of storytelling, and several pleasant twists and turns in the plot. Pentecost gives a detailed, sympathetic portrait of a struggling young golf pro, barely hanging on in the tournaments. He would create a similar portrait of a broke young actor, in the little mystery tale "The Missing Miss Maydew" (1959). Both young men are decent, highly likable people.
"Murder in Manhattan" (1952), published earlier in the same year as "Murder Plays Through", also has plot elements that recall "The Dead Man's Tale", although in less pure and concentrated form. It also brings in and develops ideas from other Pentecost works. An ingenious part of the puzzle plot, that dealing with the revelation of the killer at the finale of the story, got a dry run in "Murder in the Dark" (1949). The set-up of the story, dealing with a powerful New York City columnist and his large household, recalls Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe tales, and reminds us that Pentecost did an earlier pastiche of Wolfe in his Coyle and Donovan stories. The tale is narrated by the columnist's leg man, who rather resembles Wolfe's leg man, Archie Goodwin. As a mystery, "Murder in Manhattan" is notable for the steady succession of plot twists, developments and surprises it keeps throwing out. They come as regularly as drum beats.
Pentecost's American Magazine novella "The Talking Calf" (1952) has a nicely developed background, in this case farming and cattle raising. He integrates these well into his mystery plot, both the murder itself, and the thefts behind it. It also has vivid characters. However, the story never builds up into anything like a fair play puzzle plot. The theft scheme is mildly ingenious, and together with "The Day the Children Vanished" shows Pentecost as a writer into clever crime schemes. In both story the crimes take place in the countryside, involving vehicles that traverse their way through a large terrain. Both involve the vehicles hiding or disappearing into obscurity after they commit their crimes. Both stories are rooted more in theft than in murder, although a murder occurs in "Calf". Both stories also involve older men who get involved in amateur detection.
An earlier American Magazine novella, "The Corpse Was Beautiful" (1942), also has a good background, vivid characters, and an ordinary plot. Its local Vermont sheriff shows unexpected shrewdness under his eccentric and clownish exterior, another persistent Pentecost trait. And there is an interest in vehicles and their movements again: here the "vehicles" are airplanes, and they are being tracked by the civilian characters in the story as part of W.W.II Civil Defense.
Around Dark Corners (collected in book form 1970) is a story collection about Crowder. It is mostly pretty minor. The tales suffer from grim violence, made more distasteful in that it often threatens Crowder's twelve-year-old nephew Joey. The long novella "Our Turn to Kill" is hopeless, but some of the short stories are better.
"Hunting Day" (1958) and "My Dear Uncle Sherlock" stand out, because they are actual fair play puzzle plot mysteries. Both tales involve a pair of interlocking puzzles, which makes them richer. "Hunting Day" fooled me, and seems the cleverer story. By contrast, "My Dear Uncle Sherlock" has riddles that are easy to solve, and one wonders how the police were ever fooled by them.
"A Black Eye for Miss Millington" (1958), "The Man Inside", and "The Monster of Lakeview" (1967) are none-too-clever quasi-mysteries, in which Crowder has to show that events that seem to indicate a man is guilty, actually have an alternative explanation. This plot structure does not add up to a full scale whodunit puzzle. The explanations are not clever enough to be interesting, unfortunately. "The Monster of Lakeview" is better than the others, with a more sympathetic protagonist and inventive story-line. Like "Hunting Day" and "My Dear Uncle Sherlock", it deals with "dogs in danger".
"Murder Throws a Curve" (1958) is also somewhat in this format. It has a mildly interesting scientific idea in its solution. "Hector Is Willin'" (1960) also more-or-less shares this same structure. But as the tale itself points out, its solution is based on an old idea with a long history in mystery fiction.
"In the Middle of Nowhere" (1963) is a pure thriller, with good storytelling. Its main asset is a vivid description of flood conditions in the rural small town of Lakeview, Connecticut, where the Crowder tales are set. Pentecost had previously employed rural, and mainly New England settings in non-series novellas like "The Corpse Was Beautiful" and "The Talking Calf", and in "The Day the Children Vanished". "In the Middle of Nowhere" also has some interesting plot twists, linked to the character of Russ Toomey.
There are small elements of mystery in The Death Syndicate. Like a good deal of Pentecost's later mysteries, these involve sinister hidden criminal schemes, which his heroes have to uncover. There are no whodunit mysteries here, however. Even in Pentecost's later mysteries, the criminal schemes tend to be more ingenious and elaborate than his often perfunctory whodunit aspects. Pentecost's fondness for life histories of his characters is also present here, as is his working of romantic triangles into the plots of his stories. Here the triangles are confined to his good guys. In his more mystery oriented tales, the triangles will also be worked into his puzzle plots, with their ambiguities serving a constructing elements for his mysteries.
The Death Syndicate is best in its first half, where Pentecost shows some cracker-jack storytelling. After a while, he runs out of plot surprises. Still the book is surprisingly good natured and upbeat. Its tone is much closer to pulp than Golden Age mystery novels. Carole Trevor and Maxwell Blythe return in Death Delivers a Postcard (1939).
Carole Trevor's detective work clearly recalls that of Theodore Tinsley's series character Carrie Cashin, an earlier woman who ran a detective agency in tales that appeared in the pulp magazine Crime Busters. Cashin pre-dated Trevor by one year: Cashin's first appearance (I think) was in the November 1937 first issue of Crime Busters. Slightly before either character was Rex Stout's female private eye Dol Bonner, who appeared in The Hand in the Glove (1937); and before any of these was Cleve F. Adams' sleuth Violet McDade, who appeared as a series in the pulp magazine Clues. Comic books also featured woman sleuths, with Sandra of the Secret Service pioneering in the 1930's, and "Sally O'Neill, Policewoman" in National Comics and two-fisted lawyer-sleuth "Betty Bates, Lady at Law" in Hit Comics being long running series in the 1940's. With all the interest in female private eyes today, one suspects readers might be interested in some of their ancestors. Bernard Drew's anthology Hard-Boiled Dames (1986) collects several such 1930's pulp tales.
Pulp fiction expert Monte Herridge writes:
"Carole Trevor and Maxwell Blythe of this novel also appear in a number of shorter pieces as well as serialized novels in Detective Fiction Weekly:
The first serial We Trade in Death is likely the same work as the novel published in book form The Death Syndicate.
Pentecost's Hunt Club tales are also noteworthy for the inclusion of a sympathetic Chinese character among his heroes.
Thomas Flanagan's "The Cold Winds of Adesta" (1952) is an impossible crime tale, and the first short story about Tennente. It deals with an apparently impossible smuggling, and has no murder mystery. It has a well developed political background that is interesting in its own right, and which gives a carefully dovetailed framework for the smuggling mystery. Its use of a detailed political context as a setup for an impossible crimes plot has predecessors in Chesterton's work - see "The Finger of Stone" or "The Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse". The story's ongoing political discussion, and philosophical analysis of dictatorships also seems Chestertonian in form.
Smuggling tales have a tradition in mystery fiction - the anthology Rogue's Gallery (1945), edited by Ellery Queen, contains examples by William Hope Hodgson and T.S. Stribling; Queen was the publisher of Flanagan's Tennente stories, as well, in EQMM. Victor L. Whitechurch's "Peter Crane's Cigars" also comes to mind. Both the Hodgson and the Stribling stories focus on the clever personality of a recognized smuggler. This smuggler often uses psychological methods to confuse and outwit the authorities. The portrait of the smuggler is right out of the Rogue tradition. By contrast, Flanagan's tale is more concerned with a scheme of smuggling, a physical process that is largely independent of personalities and psychology.
"The Cold Winds of Adesta" shows the interest in landscape that is a notable feature of Golden Age mystery.
"The Point of Honor" (1952), the second Major Tennente tale, is not an impossible crime. It also seems quite Chesterton-like, with a strange intellectual structure built up around a murder investigation.
"The Lion's Mane" (1953) is the third tale of Major Tennente, and not an impossible crime. This is an intricately plotted tale of a political killing. It is not quite a traditional mystery, with a corpse and a cast of suspects. But still, this is a mystery, and not a thriller. We do not know the background of the killing, and only gradually learn it throughout the story, in which move follows counter move in the sinister politics of the dictatorship. In this, the story resembles "The Point of Honor", which also investigates the background of what first looks like a cut and dried murder, but which uncovers many paradoxes. The two stories form a pair, with similar themes and approaches. The tales show impressive logic and plotting skills. Once again, the political situation is tied to the mystery.
"This Will Do Nicely" (1955) is a minor tale about the aftermath of a killing in New York City. It attempts the same sort of paradoxical dialogue and ideas found in "The Point of Honor" and "The Lion's Mane". But there is no mystery here, and it is much less clever.
The central murder mystery impossibilities in "Ghost of the Undead" (1940), about a vampire that can fly through windows, are given a routine solution. Where the tale excels are the many magic stunts performed by Don Diavolo in the course of the tale. First these are presented as seeming impossibilities. Then Rawson immediately explains how they were done, instead of making the reader wait till the end of the story for the answer. The background Rawson creates for Don Diavolo and his helpers is also rich and colorful. His house is especially interesting.
The five impossible crimes in "Death Out of Thin Air" (1940) are mainly variants of two separate impossible crime ideas. Each variation uses the central ideas in somewhat different ways, creating both variety and ingenuity. They make a rich overall tale, with lots of pleasing plot.
"Claws of Satan" (1940) has a complex series of events happening before, during and after the murder mystery, both outside and inside the murder locked room. This is a Rawson tradition, that runs through many of his tales.
And during the investigation after the murder, more and more bizarre, seemingly nonsensical clues and discoveries keep being found by the detectives. This is part of the delightful surrealism of puzzle plots in the grand mystery tradition. Eventually, all these bizarre clues will get put together into a logical account of the mystery, during the solution.
The Don Diavolo stories often feature dying messages, a kind of mystery puzzle that rarely appears in impossible crime tales. Rawson is throwing every possible mystery ideas into these tales.
The last Don Diavolo novella, "The Enchanted Dagger" (1940), is much poorer than the first three. Its impossible crime solution is a cheat. And it features one of those awful Oriental Villains. By contrast, the first three Diavolo tales were notable for non-stereotyped Asian character of Diavolo's assistant Chandru.
Clayton Rawson's impossible crime puzzles in his Great Merlini novels are disappointing. Rawson's solutions are usually a let down. He finds some uninteresting way to barely explain the problems he has proposed. Carr's solutions, by contrast, tend to be wonderfully imaginative, often at least as much so as the central mystery itself. In addition, Rawson's solutions sometimes stretch believability beyond the breaking point. In addition, there is something unlikable about Rawson's characters and stories, considered as works of fiction. Not recommended. This review is perhaps a bit unfair, considering that Rawson's books work like beavers to try and entertain the reader, loaded with lore about magic and the supernatural, and with numerous impossibilities.
Death from a Top Hat (1938) opens with a long list of what Rawson considered the great mystery writers; made before Haycraft or Queen published their lists, it is an interesting barometer of 1930's opinion.
The Footprints on the Ceiling (1939) contains good storytelling in its opening third (Chapters 1-10), with exciting nocturnal adventures in a now obscure corner of the New York City of its day. These sections benefit from the Golden Age interest in both architecture and landscape, with an island, its buildings and the surrounding waterways nicely imagined and described. Unfortunately, the mystery problem expounded here is ultimately given a complex, but not especially ingenious solution. The subplot about Lamb is the best part of the solution. Also good: the subplot about the footprints. Rawson will include another footprint mystery in "Nothing Is Impossible" (1958). The portrait of psychical research in these early chapters will return in the short Merlini tale, "From Another World" (1948). Rawson will also write an OK story about a man with "real" psychic powers, "The Man with the X-Ray Eyes" (1944).
Chapter 18 of The Footprints on the Ceiling contains witty allusions to S. S. Van Dine's Philo Vance, Ellery Queen, and Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe. These are all members of the Van Dine school. As Rawson points out in the novel, all three are amateur sleuths, like Merlini. We might add that Rawson shares with these Van Dine school authors a New York City locale, and characters chosen from show biz and the intelligentsia. He also shares with Van Dine and Queen a fondness for detailed investigations of crime scenes. Merlini is often expounding expertly on various subjects, also like Philo Vance and Ellery Queen. So Rawson seems like a member of the Van Dine school, as well as being an impossible crime writer.
The Headless Lady (1940) is a mystery with a circus background. Chapters 2-4 vividly recreate a traditional circus, with all its special slang and events. Rawson, who was a professional illustrator as well as a novelist, includes an aerial drawing of the circus. The picture and the text specify with unusual precision the geographic layout of all aspects of the circus. The novel embodies the Golden Age fascination with elaborately described architecture and landscapes, with here the architecture being the layout of the circus. Rawson is also big on circus slang. 1930's circus argot includes words that would later spread to other subcultures: "the fuzz", for the police, and "being hep to" something, indicating having knowledge about a subject, a term that would be used by the Beats and jazz musicians in the 1950's. After its opening, this turns into a long, uninspired novel, one without impossible crimes, except for a brief prison escape.
Rawson includes a mystery novelist as a character, researching the circus for a book; this novelist is especially interested in collecting the words used by circus people. This novelist character is named Stuart Towne, which is also the pseudonym used by Rawson on some of his pulp magazine novellas. One suspects that Rawson has included himself as a character in his own novel. Later, William L. DeAndrea will include himself as a character in Killed in Paradise (1988) under one of his own pseudonyms, a similar reflexive device. Agatha Christie's mystery writer character, Ariadne Oliver, is also a thinly disguised self-portrait.
Among the Merlini short stories, "From Another World" (1948) and "Miracles -- All in the Day's Work" (1958) have a similar structure. The solutions have a similar disappointing feature, in the treatment of witnesses. The later tale compensates with some ingenious extra deception, however, and is the richer of the two tales. These extra ideas involve mechanical concepts, as do the mysteries in "Nothing Is Impossible" (1958).
The second Mr. Mystery tale, "The Man with the Radio Mind" (1941), starts off well, turning the pickpocket Eddie Duke of the previous tale into an assistant who helps Mr. Mystery with his mind-reading act. After this, the story is not very interesting. The tale mentions Merlini, putting Mr. Mystery in the same universe as the Merlini stories.
The third, last and best Mr. Mystery tale is "The Ace of Death" (1942). (All three of the Mr. Mystery works are included in The Magical Mysteries of Don Diavolo.) This story has a genuine puzzle plot. The story gives an in-depth look at the collaboration of Eddie Duke with Mr. Mystery and his magic act.
"The Man with the X-Ray Eyes" (1944) is not a mystery, but rather an action thriller, about a cop battling both the mob and crooked cops. Its portrayal of police corruption is vigorous, and the tale is fairly enjoyable.
Two tales in The Newtonian Egg, "Time Out of Mind" (1948) and "The Flung-Back Lid" (also published as "Out of This World" in his 1954 collection Death Under the Table - the Table being the Table Mountain outside Cape Town, where the stories are set) have some common features, in addition to their similarities in title. Both deal with eccentric characters who are deeply obsessive: the first is set in an insane asylum, the second among characters who have various delusions and obsessions concerning science fiction. In both stories, some of the obsessions involve religious mania. In both, the murder victims are obnoxious and hateful to everyone, and no one is surprised when they finally get killed. Both stories involve stabbing. Both stories describe and depend on the routines of institutions, the asylum in the first tale, cable cars in the second. Both cases are solved by Rolf Le Roux, uncle of Inspector Joubert. There is a whole continuing ensemble of police supporting characters, and the basic setup is similar to the Ellery Queen or Philo Vance tales. Le Roux's wisdom and sternness even recalls Uncle Abner. The strange obsessions of the characters function somewhat similarly to the surrealist backgrounds of Ellery Queen. "The Flung-Back Lid" / "Out of This World" is an impossible crime: Godfrey offers a novel twist on one of the methods included in Carr's Locked Room Lecture. Godfrey's two tales here are fair play detective stories, pleasant in their storytelling, especially their characterization, fair but not extraordinary as puzzle plots.
Godfrey was born in 1917; this makes him part of a younger generation of mystery writers influenced by Ellery Queen, one which includes Anthony Boucher and Jack Ritchie. His work is largely inaccessible in this country. All of these writers emphasized the short story.
There are whole flourishing schools of Southern Hemisphere mystery writers in countries like South Africa and Australia. Most of these writers are not exported, and have been treated as if they were for local consumption only. I am far from being expert on them at all. Most of the work that is exported falls strongly within schools of Northern mystery fiction: there are intuitionists like Godfrey, strongly aligned with Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr, and Jennifer Rowe, who derives from Agatha Christie; realists like Arthur Upfield; hard boiled writers like Peter Coris; and police procedural authors like James McClure.
Akimitsu Takagi's The Tattoo Murder Case (1948) is a formal puzzle plot, Golden Age style detective novel. One has a hard time placing it in a school: one could interpret it as either an intuitionist or a realist work - it shares features of both.
On the intuitionist side are a number of features. First, it has an impossible crime, a locked room. There is also a reference to John Dickson Carr's impossible crime classic The Three Coffins (1935) in the book. The locked room has some features that make it look like the fulfillment of a curse, as well; this sort of fake supernaturalism is a typical feature of Carr and his descendants. The solution of the impossible crime does not feature the sort of "rearrangements in time and space" favored by Chesterton, Carr, Hake Talbot and others of their school. Instead it is in the mechanical tradition of Edgar Wallace's The Clue of the New Pin (1923), and S.S. Van Dine's The Kennel Murder Case (1933), being particularly close to the latter novel. The English title of the book is also in the paradigm used by Van Dine: The (six letter word) Murder Case. However, I have no idea if the original Japanese title is anything like Van Dine; this could just be an artifact of translation. Other Van Dine like features include a team of policemen on the squad, each individually characterized, and clearly designed to be continuing series characters in Akimitsu Takagi's stories.
The puzzle plot recalls aspects of Chesterton's "The Secret Garden" (1910), Ellery Queen's The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932) and Craig Rice's Having Wonderful Crime (1943). It is especially close to Ellery Queen.
On the realist side, much of the actual plot and detection in The Tattoo Murder Case consists of the investigation of alibis. The solution of the case follows that realist school pattern, "the breakdown of identity".
The story also has a Background, the world of Japanese tattoos, which are investigated in depth. The reader gets a whole education in the world of tattoos, in the classic background fashion of such Realist writers as Crofts, Sayers, Blochman, etc. While there are no racial minorities investigated in the work, the book does look at the subculture of tattooing, an outcast group in Japanese society partly associated with the criminal underworld. We learn all about the technology involved: another realist school tradition. However bizarre The Tattoo Murder Case becomes, it is never actually surrealistic. The mystery plot is actually fairly conventional, and so are the characters. Instead, its grotesque tone comes from the world of tattooing itself. This is a bizarre, and to my mind, not very likable subculture.
The detective and the detection is the book are also ambiguous across the two traditions. On the intuitionist side, the hero is a Great Detective. He is a young genius, who has a mastery of science, literature and analytic reasoning. In fact, the teenage nickname of this hero, now in his twenties, was The Boy Genius, and he is usually called this throughout the work. He also solves the crime through pure thinking and insight, another intuitionist school trait.
On the other hand, he is a forensic scientist. This is exactly in the tradition of R. Austin Freeman's Dr. Thorndyke. While he is still an amateur, his declared hope is to join the police in the future.
The Tattoo Murder Case is full of food. These meals are elaborate, and always appetizing - Takagi's characters like to eat.
Commentary on Shimada Sôji:
The serial killer aspects, which form the bulk of The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, are exceptionally grisly, and also involve an unpleasant look into the sick mind of a character. This critic has to admit his personal prejudices: this sort of extreme horror material is not a kind of reading I enjoy.
However, the serial killer segments do include an ingenious and original puzzle plot mystery. Like Akimitsu Takagi's The Tattoo Murder Case (1948), the formal puzzle plot aspects of the serial killer story are in the tradition of Chesterton's "The Secret Garden" (1910), Ellery Queen's The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932) and Craig Rice's Having Wonderful Crime (1943).
The cases fall into linked series:
While the Grey tales are mainly short, Porges goes all out to make his characters vivid. He also tries to get suspense, drama and action to surround his puzzles.
Porges also wrote a large number of science fiction short stories. Richard Simms has edited a science fiction collection, Eight Problems in Space: The Ensign De Ruyter Stories (collected 2008), also available at The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box. There is also a book collecting some of Porges' fantastic fiction, The Mirror and Other Strange Reflections (2002), published by Ash-Tree Press.
Porges' scientist sleuth Professor Ulysses Price Middlebie also solves an impossible crime in "Coffee Break" (1964). The tale is in the broad tradition of Ernest Bramah's "The Ghost at Massingham Mansions", although Porges' solution is different.
Arthur Porges' "Dead Drunk" (1959) and "No Killer Has Wings" (1960) both explicitly invoke John Dickson Carr as the ancestor of their impossible crime plot. Carr wrote several brilliant variations on the "man found on a beach with no footprints near him" gambit found in "No Killer Has Wings". Porges has come up with original impossible crime ideas here, as far as I can tell, something that is not easy to do. Porges' stories do not tend to use the "rearrangement in space and time" developed by Israel Zangwill and often found in Chesterton and Carr. Nor do they use the simple mechanical devices of jiggling locks and keys with string often found in lesser writers. Instead, they tend to be ingenious ideas based in science for creating impossible crimes. Their closest ancestor seems to be Carr's works of 1939 - 1941, such as "The Locked Room" (1940) and The Problem of the Wire Cage (1939). Carr's stories from this period tend to use this same paradigm: science based ingenuity for the creation of impossibilities. In both Carr and Porges, the result is very satisfying.
"The Facts in the Case of the Missing Diplomat" (1968) is the best impossible crime tale in the collection. Readers looking for a mystery in the "main tradition" of the impossible crime, will find a solid example here. The tale has colorful story telling throughout. The solution is also colorful. Like much of the Dupin tales, it offers "visual writing" that helps us see the settings and "look" of the events.
"The Murder in the Rue Royale" (1968) is the book's closest approach to a murder mystery whodunit. The killer is deliberately made obvious: there is only one real suspect. Furthermore, the reader immediately gets an idea about the overall direction of the story: Dupin will have to break down the suspect's alibi. None of this harms the tale. Instead, the interest is in the fascinating detail built up about the solution of the crime. Much of this detail is technological: "The Murder in the Rue Royale" is one of the Dupin works most closely linked to Scientific Detection. The mystery has two parts: a "howdunit", the mystery of how the murder was done in physical terms, and secondly the alibi puzzle. Both mysteries are solved with satisfying detail. Both solutions build on ideas and clues planted earlier in the story, used in unexpected ways: always a satisfying approach.
"The Mystery of the Gilded Cheval-Glass" (1967) is the book's other main murder mystery. It builds up to a clever gimmick, used by Dupin to gather evidence. This seems original: I don't recall it in any other mystery. The gimmick has some technological aspects. The tale also has mild but pleasant "dying message" features. Detectives try to interpret the murdered man's message in various ways. SPOILER. As the story progresses, one interpretation is a direct reversal of a previous interpretation: a nice development, and one that takes skill. The premise, innocent suspect who looks guilty, and fact that the mystery involves a dying message, recall in broad terms "Le petit vieux des Batignolles" (1870) by Émile Gaboriau.
"The Man in the Blue Spectacles" (1966) is a Big Caper tale, and like many such tales, broadly comic in tone. It shows a pleasant mix of wit and invention. The story has an ancestor in Doyle's famous Sherlock Holmes story "The Red-Headed League" (1891). Aspects seem like variations or riffs on Doyle's tale. The story's two main settings, the fancy upper crust bank and the plain cafe, are nicely contrasted. The respectful, non-streotyped treatment of the blind characters shows both the Civil Rights politics of the 1960's, and the long history of positive blind heroes in mystery fiction.
Now for the book's less accomplished stories:
Some of the lesser impossible crime tales are pretty minor. The solution to "The Vanished Treasure" (1965) seems like a variation on Agatha Christie's "The MIllion Dollar Bond Robbery" (1923). More interesting are the tale's background and motivations for its characters. Its setting in Latin America against an exotic region's war-and-politics background is in the tradition of Chesterton's "The Sign of the Broken Sword" (1911) and "The Fairy Tale of Father Brown" (1914).
"The Fires in the Rue St. Honoré" (1967) has a not-bad solution. It is in the tradition of Ernest Bramah's "The Ghost at Massingham Mansions", and of John Rhode tales involving fires, such as The Claverton Mystery (1933), Death in the Hop Fields (1937) and They Watched by Night (1941). Unfortunately, the bulk of the story before the solution, is deadly dull in its telling. It mainly establishes that the "locked building" of the mystery is indeed locked.
"The Missing Fulton Documents" (1965) tells of an impossible theft. Like "The Facts in the Case of the Missing Diplomat", it is an "impossible disappearance" tale: papers vanish impossibly in "The Missing Fulton Documents", a man vanishes in "The Facts in the Case of the Missing Diplomat". The solution of "The Missing Fulton Documents" seems a bit awkward and implausible. It depends on psychological manipulation, that might not have come off. Still, the solution shows a not-bad set of ideas. The mystery puzzle suffers from an overall sense of triviality and limited imagination. SPOILER. I liked everything to do with the ceiling best.
Arthur Vidro's memoir of William Brittain appears in his journal Give Me That Old-Time Detection #30, Summer 2012. It includes many letters from Brittain to EQMM editors and Vidro himself.
Brittain's work involved murder far less frequently than traditional Golden Age writers. This might reflect the prevalence of young people in his stories; it was not considered in good taste to mix children and murder together.
William Brittain's mystery plots tend to turn on some complex, elaborate and imaginative scheme of the villain's. This scheme is hidden from both the reader and the detective; trying to determine of what it consists, is the main subject of the puzzle plot. The detective has to figure out the central idea of the scheme. He also has to elucidate many aspects and components of the scheme. Many of these components have clues to their existence, that Brittain has embedded within the story.
Brittain often develops an elaborate story in which the mystery is embedded. This framework often contains, in a concealed way, clues to the components of the villain's plan. Brittain will also show innocent seeming physical objects or events as part of this story that are actually used by the villain in the scheme. The detective will put these apparently unimportant, incidental objects and situations together, see that they can be interpreted in an alternative way as components of a sinister plan, and piece together all the sub-sections of the villain's enterprise.
Brittain's best stories generate considerable intellectual excitement as the sleuth reveals their solution. It is very interesting to any true mystery fan to see a whole hidden pattern come to light out of a surface story. The fact that the solutions are often rich in detail adds to their excitement.
Brittain's best stories are true mysteries, with puzzle plots and solutions. He and his technique are much weaker on suspense plots, or tales that reveal most of the facts about the crook and his schemes early in the tale. Such tales are strictly among the minor works in his output.
William Brittain is clearly an intuitionist writer. His techniques are those of the intuitionist school: ingenious mysteries solved by pure thinking, often by an amateur, genius detective. Brittain's works are full of references to earlier detective writers, and these are typically of the intuitionist tradition: Doyle, Christie, Carr, Queen, Rex Stout. Several of Brittain's best works can be seen as armchair detective stories, where the sleuth solves the problem immediately after the facts are presented to him, without any further on scene investigation or sleuthing. This too is in the intuitionist tradition. Brittain often shows little interest in investigative technique, moving right from the puzzle to the solution. The fact that his works are compact short stories probably encouraged this approach. But it most deeply reflects his intuitionist emphasis on pure thinking.
Brittain's tales also tend to have a well described scene of the crime. The description often conceals clues about the mystery.
In addition to his pure impossible crime tales, "Mr. Strang and the Purloined Memo" (1983) centers around a hidden object that eludes the most exhaustive search. This was a kind of tale invented by Poe in "The Purloined Letter", and frequently written by Ellery Queen. It has links to the impossible crime: after such a search, it seems impossible that the object is anywhere in the room. Brittain offers intriguing ideas about the theory and practice of such concealment in the tale.
Some of the Strang tales deal with serious social issues. These often involve problems faced by different age groups in society. These tales tend to be extremely sad. They are not as ingenious as some of Brittain's tales written for pure escapism, but they use the same formal techniques, of Mr. Strang uncovering hidden patterns and significances in the details of a case. Among the better of such tales are "Mr. Strang Checks a Record" (1972) and "Mr. Strang and the Cat Lady" (1975).
"The Man Who Read G.K. Chesterton" (1973) has a clue based on the geography of the crime scene. The layouts of crime scenes are important in some of Brittain's puzzle plots.
The priest who turns amateur sleuth in "The Man Who Read G.K. Chesterton" resembles high school teacher Mr. Strang, in that he is an official, but not a high level one or especially powerful. Both men are conscientious about their job and role, even if they are not big shots. Both men go above and beyond the call of duty, to help people who are in their charge.
Both the priest and Mr. Strang work outside of the world of business. Both the cops the priest helps, and Mr. Strang, are government officials, and are seen as positive forces in society.
The priest's interest in detection makes him a bit of a social non-conformist, like some other amateur detectives in "The Man Who Read" series.
"The Man Who Read Dashiell Hammett" (1974) involves the debate between fans of private eye fiction, and those of the kind of genius amateur detectives that populate the intuitionist school. This debate is incorporated right into the plot of the story. This tale is one of Brittain's most light hearted and charming tales. Unlike most of the "Man Who Read" series, it does not try to recreate the style of the author in its title. This is perhaps because Brittain is a fundamentally non-hard-boiled author. Instead, the story propounds a puzzle, embodied in a fictional form. "The Men Who Read Isaac Asimov" (1978) also centers around a riddle, but this is wholly appropriate, because several of Isaac Asimov's Black Widowers stories, of which this tale is a pastiche, are essentially puzzles. Several of Brittain's stories have such a riddle form. It is an alternative paradigm in his work to the pure mystery that often occurs in the Strang tales.
"The Man Who Read George Simenon" (1975) is charming, but it is atypical for Brittain in that it is inspired by a non-intuitionist writer, George Simenon.
"The Hedgehog and the Fox" was a First Story in EQMM.
"The Acting of a Dreadful Thing" contains a lively Background, showing the making of a TV pilot. It concentrates on the actors' point of view. Such a detailed Background in show biz recalls the Van Dine School, including Van Dine's disciple Ellery Queen. "The Acting of a Dreadful Thing" was originally published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.
Lionel Booker is not just the pseudonym of the author of "The Acting of a Dreadful Thing". It is also the name of the tale's central character, who serves both as narrator and sleuth . This is a variation on Van Dine School traditions. In Van Dine and some of his followers, the author's pseudonym is also the name of the narrator in the story, while detection is performed by another character. In Ellery Queen, the author's pseudonym is also the name of the detective, while the stories have no narrator, being told in the third person.
"The Acting of a Dreadful Thing" is not an impossible crime. SPOILER. Instead, it is one of those tales where it looks like that it is physically possible for only one person to be the murderer - and which surprisingly shows that someone else could have done it.
Halter's publisher in English is Locked Room International.
Both of these tales take place outdoors, in front of large Victorian houses. Like "The Call of the Lorelei" (1998) and "The Night of the Wolf" (1990), they show the pleasing Golden Age interest in landscape and architecture, with the landscape around the crime scene playing a role in the impossibilities.
There is something in the arrangement of the rooms of the Victorian mansion in "The Abominable Snowman" that recalls such French impossible crime novels as Noël Vindry's La Maison qui tue (The House That Kills) (1932). Halter has his characters scattered in separate rooms during the time of the killing, as had Vindry before him. Both Halter and Vindry like to show the inhabitants of isolated houses as under siege at night from mysterious and terrifying forces. There are no other plot similarities between the two works, which propound very different puzzle plots. But still, one suspects that Halter is familiar with the Gallic tradition of impossible crimes, as well as the English language one.
"The Abominable Snowman" is also notable for the way in which many of the subplots or apparently insignificant aspects of the case dovetail into the ultimate solution. Something of the same effect is found in "The Flower Girl" and "The Cleaver". Such dovetailing plots are part of the ancient tradition of the puzzle plot mystery, and along with the impossible crimes, mark Halter as a modern day exponent of this school.
"Murder in Cognac" (1999) propounds the same kind of puzzle as Ellery Queen's "The Three Widows" (1950): how was poison seemingly introduced in an impossible manner? The story is set in the Western French town of Cognac, which produces the famous liqueur, but the setting has little to do with the plot. At least in these short stories, Halter shows little interest in the sort of detailed Backgrounds of a region or industry that were so prominent in early scientific detective fiction, British Realist writers like Freeman, Crofts and Sayers, or modern police procedural authors. What Halter instead concentrates on are spooky, detailed portraits of the isolated buildings and landscapes where his crimes occur.
Such stories include:
"The Gong of Doom" (2010) recalls "The Abominable Snowman", in being set in a cul-de-sac in a residential neighborhood. Its impossible crime is difficult to figure out. It offers a very different solution to a kind of puzzle proposed in John Dickson Carr's The Judas Window (1938).
Unfortunately, my French is just not good enough to read Halter in the original - so am actively anticipating the future publication of English language translations of Halter's novels.
Two of the cleverest mysteries are the third and fifth crimes. The third involves alleged visionary experiences; the fifth an apparent premonition. Halter comes up with imaginative solutions to both puzzles. Halter would go on to more impossibilities of this sort in "The Cleaver" (2000).
The first impossibility has a startlingly simple, but fair solution. It was completely unexpected to me.
The Seven Wonders of Crime benefits from the cryptic messages the killer sends to the police. Figuring out hidden patterns in these messages forms some good puzzles. This adds more mystery to the novel, in addition to the impossible murders. One notes that The Seven Wonders of Crime was published six years before another puzzle-filled mystery, The Da Vinci Code (2003) by Dan Brown.
Its other strength is its impossible crime. The crime is imaginative, both in its apparent impossibility, and in its solution - and this is exactly what we want in impossible crimes! This crime is the main subject of Chapters 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, 18, 21, 22, 24.
There is also a nice piece of traditional detective work, tracking down a suspect (Chapters 2, 10, 12).
The impossible crime parts recall a little bit Escape in Time (1967), an episode of The Avengers television show. Both involve a narrow alley in London full of eccentric characters and buiildings, both have time travel aspects. The chic alley in Escape in Time is far more upscale than the slum alley in The Phantom Passage though. And all the impossible crime aspects are completely new in The Phantom Passage, as are the storytelling details.
The Seventh Hypothesis has a linked pair of good impossible crimes in its opening. The crimes are fascinating as a puzzle (Chapters 1, 2, 3), a very challenging puzzle, and have imaginative, original solutions (Chapters 22, 23).
In very broad ways the second crime is in the tradition of John Dickson Carr:
These sections recall the play Sleuth (1970) by Anthony Shaffer. Both Sleuth and these sections center on a sinister but brilliant mystery writer, who gets into a duel of wits with another clever man, often in the mystery writer's lavish home. Both works emphasize the two men's interest in playing games. I didn't like Sleuth, either.
The mystery subplots in The Lord of Misrule are better than the central murder mystery. Both the seance effects and the second murder on the lake come to ingenious solutions. The lake is also vividly described (Chapters 13, 14; solved in the Epilogue). Like the crime in front of the house in "The Flower Girl", it shows Halter's flair for both winter landscapes and ingenious crimes committed in them.
"Death Rides the Elevator" (2000) is an impossible crime tale, in The Mammoth Book of Locked-Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes (2000), edited by Mike Ashley. This story's basic structure recalls that of John Dickson Carr's and John Rhode's Fatal Descent (1939), which also involves an impossible murder of a man alone in an elevator. However, Gresh and Weinberg's locked room idea is new. Even better is the tale's delightful story telling.
"Murder in Monkeyland" (2006) is another locked room mystery about Penelope Peters, in The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries (2006), edited by Mike Ashley. The narration contains more horror material. The mystery involves scientific background and situations, like a modern-day version of an Arthur B. Reeve tale.
His "The End of the Train" (2007) is an impressive combination of the techno-thriller and the impossible crime tale. The short story can be found in the June 2007 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (AHMM). The tale gives a look at the high tech world of modern trains.
His private eye short story, "A Death in Ueno" (2005), appeared in the March 2005 AHMM. This tale offers a look at the lower depths of Japanese society. It is surprisingly political.
"The Sellout" (2012) is a well-done tale of white collar crime. Its unnamed detective hero, who works as an accountant who investigates crime, seems very close or maybe identical to Cooper's hero Silas Cade. Silas Cade appears (so far) in two novels: Clawback (2012) and Full Ratchet (2013).
There is a Mike Cooper web site. Previously Mike Wiecek had a personal web site. It said his name is pronounced "WHY-sek".
"The Odds of Death" (2008) is a scientific detective story, involving both statistical analysis and medical details. It also offers a background look at the modern-day jury system.
Catherine Mambretti has a personal web site.
The best tales in the collection, "Murder at an Island Mansion" and "Murder in a Sealed Loft", are notable impossible crimes tales. "Murder at an Island Mansion" contains not one but two impossibilities. The two crimes, both original in their concepts, echo each other in interesting ways. Both deal with a geometrically complex murder area; both puzzle with a killer who has somehow miraculously escaped from the crime scene, an apparent impossibility. The two solutions are different. But both involve a step-by-step approach by the killer: a sequence of events. These sort of puzzles recall in broad terms such Joseph Commings tales as "Hangman's House", although White's problems and solutions are original.
"Murder in a Sealed Loft" deals with a single crime, but one which is provided with two separate solutions. The first solution is clever, involving some subtle misdirection. "Murder in a Sealed Loft" also has the best characterization of the stories, introducing the sleuth's policeman friend, Detective Mark Small.
Most of the creativity in The Mysteries of Reverend Dean is lavished on the impossible crimes. Unfortunately, little ingenuity is spared for the other aspects of the mystery plots. I was able to figure out whodunit right away in all of the tales, for example.
"Murder at the Fall Festival" has a clever subplot (the material about lividity). But it is embedded in a long-ish tale that is not as interesting.
Hal White has a personal web site.
Several of the Casefile stories benefit from being set against backgrounds that Pronzini knows well in real life. (I am indebted here for information on Pronzini's life, to a biographical sketch of Pronzini that appeared in Best Mystery Stories of the Year, 1973, by Edward D. Hoch.) "Sin Island" is set on Majorca, where Pronzini lived for a year. "Where Have You Gone, Sam Spade?" takes place in a warehouse, and Pronzini worked in a warehouse in his youth. "Booktaker" is set in the sort of second hand bookstore that Pronzini, a collector of pulp magazines, presumably knows very well. I have no direct evidence, but I suspect that "Dead Man's Slough" is also set on the type of island where Pronzini has often gone fishing. In all of these works there is an immediacy, a fullness of interesting detail. These settings also seem to trigger something in Pronzini's imagination, some sense of a much thought about, much mentally dwelled upon place finally stimulating the growth of a mystery set in it, and integrated with it. This is speculation, of course - I can't see into Pronzini's mind or creative processes. What is certain is that these are among the most successful of contemporary mystery tales - with imaginative, well constructed mystery plots, good storytelling and characters, all against interesting backgrounds.
Both Undercurrent and the Casefile stories benefit in that they concentrate on theft. Theft in early mystery fiction was often a snoozer. But here it helps the author concentrate on mystery, as opposed to action or literary artiness.
The best parts of Pronzini's novels are often digressions that have nothing to do with the mystery itself, but which concern Nameless and the people he meets. These "digressions" actually function like short stories embedded in the larger text. Undercurrent has my favorite character in Pronzini's novels: the veteran pulp writer Russell Dancer. Dancer makes return appearances in Hoodwink (1981) and Bones (1985). The latter novel also has a spaghetti dinner that is one of Pronzini's best comic set pieces.
The Nameless Detective shows distinct similarities with Dashiell Hammett's The Continental Op. Both are middle-aged, somewhat overweight men, based in San Francisco; neither detective's name is ever learned by the reader. Both detectives have a professionalism and a veteran's experience of detective work, both are low key, neither is ostentatiously macho. Hammett's detectives and Pronzini's tend to work with partners, with whom they have a close relationship. The stories of Pronzini and Hammett both tend to feature prominent puzzle plots. Nameless definitely bears little resemblance to Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe; Pronzini is one of the few post-Chandler private eye writers who have not used Marlowe as a model.
Pronzini's best impossible crime tales involve Impossible Disappearances. Men disappear in "Vanishing Act" (1975), "The Arrowmont Prison Mystery" (1976), "Dead Man's Slough" (1980), "No Room at the Inn" (1988), "Devil's Brew" (2006), with the last three tales being particularly close in approach. Objects vanish in "The Terrarium Principle" (1981), "Booktaker" (1982), "Ace in the Hole" (1986) and "Cache and Carry" (1988). Pronzini shows a wealth of imagination in these tales, which often involve clever hiding places. His amusing look at a crooked seance, "Medium Rare" (1998), also is related to this tradition.
Pronzini has also written a series of locked room problems. These tend to show a physical approach to creating locked rooms:
Both "No Room at the Inn" and "Burgade's Crossing" involve the detective hero Quincannon's attempts to prevent an assassination. This makes them sound like suspense stories, not mysteries. But actually, the stories have considerable elements of mystery. Quincannon knows that a murderous attempt is going to take place, but he does not know how or where. He is continually searching the landscape of the two stories, trying to find out where the attack might take place. This involves an in-depth analysis of the landscape itself, trying to figure out which building or architectural feature might contribute to the murder-to-be. The reader sees what Quincannon sees, and all his ideas about the potential use of landscape features in the coming crime are fully shared with the reader. What Pronzini has done here is create an innovative sort of puzzle plot, one in which the challenge is to figure out how a crime will be committed.
Pronzini has a fondness for scenes of night and rain. In part, this simply makes things harder for his characters to see, thus increasing the mysteriousness of his situations. Some of his plots, such as that of "The Arrowmont Prison Mystery" (1976), make good technical use of this obscurity. But it also serves a purpose in creating atmosphere and emotion. As in the works of Mary Roberts Rinehart, his characters are often exploring the dark, and are not sure what might turn up. In both Rinehart and Pronzini, there is something archetypal about this. I always loved wandering around in the dark as a kid, and I still love being out in the rain, especially near water. Reading about such situations gratifies deeply held human needs.
Pronzini came by his hybrid of Western and detective fiction at an early date. "Fergus O'Hara, Detective" (1974) is a fine mix of the two. Its tone and storytelling approach anticipate the later Carpenter and Quincannon tales. The hero and his wife could serve as rough sketches for the two later detectives. It is set in Pronzini's best location, the river area from San Francisco to Stockton. The name of its hero, Fergus O'Hara, recalls Anthony Boucher's series detective Fergus O'Breen. Both O'Hara and Quincannon love showing off at the end of the tales, explaining to others how they deduced the criminal's identity and schemes. The various rooms and structures on board the steamship here are described with Pronzini's typical architectural precision - they form one of his architectural "landscapes". The comic militiamen here recall the equally comic riflemen aboard ship in the Lockridges' Voyage into Violence (1956).