My favourite puzzle mystery writers (part 2)

Here’s a couple more of my favourite puzzle mystery writers. It seems that most of these writers worked mainly in what’s known as the Golden Age, the 1930s and 1940s; as I said, this style of novel is very much out of favour these days. Its surviving relative is perhaps the cozy, although most cozy mysteries are not much on logical rigour.

Hake Talbot
This writer’s reputation rests pretty much on a single novel, Rim of the Pit. It’s a story that takes place in rural Canada, stars roguish gambler Rogan Kincaid, involves the legend of the wendigo, and features mysterious and apparently inexplicable events galore. The puzzle that’s at the heart of the novel is extremely difficult to work out — it helps if you’re a professional magician, and that’s all I’ll say on that score. There is a professional debunker of spiritualists in the book and he’s kept very busy. One of the things I most enjoyed about this novel was that, like John Dickson Carr, Talbot manages to infuse the proceedings with a strong air of the weird and strange, and makes it plausible that the events of the book could possibly have been instigated by some kind of supernatural being. Of course, to truly count as a mystery, there has to be a human at the bottom of it, and it is certainly so here. Rim of the Pit has always been a difficult book to obtain, although it has been published in paperback (including mapback) a couple of times; be prepared to spend some money to get a copy of this. Note that the illustration is from the most recent publication by Ramble House, although as near as I can tell the map on the back has been lifted from the 1940s Dell mapback edition.
Not quite so successful, and infinitely more difficult to obtain, is the author’s other claim to fame, The Hangman’s Handyman. I think it took me twenty years to track down a copy of this that I could afford, and I was forced to sell my first copy almost immediately; it was too expensive for me to hang on to. It’s recently been reprinted by Ramble House as well and you can get it at a tenth the price of the first edition at around $20. The Hangman’s Handyman is the name of a killer current that swirls around the coastline of a mysterious island; the obligatory creepy mansion plays host to a supernatural force called the odh that kills people and rots their bodies overnight. Rogan Kincaid figures it all out and gets the girl.

Edmund Crispin

Edmund Crispin
The nine detective novels featuring Oxford don Gervase Fen will be a delight to the reader. I can do no better than quote Wikipedia (I may have even contributed these phrases): they have “complex plots and fantastic, somewhat unbelievable solutions, including examples of the locked room mystery. They are written in a humorous, literary and sometimes farcical style and contain frequent references to English literature, poetry, and music.” Crispin’s reputation rests largely on The Moving Toyshop, but I cannot say I agree with the popular taste on this one — it is far less inventive than others. My own favourite is Love Lies Bleeding, where the setting is a private (“public”) school and the victim a schoolmaster named Love, but other excellent entries are Holy Disorders, Frequent Hearses and The Long Divorce. Frankly, they’re all very enjoyable, and I don’t really understand why people like The Moving Toyshop so much, it seems to me to be the weakest. Crispin (a composer of film music) is at his best when he composes around a central theme with multiple fantastic variations, and this novel has very little in the way of side excursions. (Also it will be easy to solve if you are a fan of early Ellery Queen, whereas the others are extremely difficult under any circumstances.) Gervase Fen is a kind of Sherlock Holmes on LSD, constantly making bizarre literary references and going off on wild tangents, and this reader at least enjoys being distracted effectively from the central murderous events by his antics. Twenty-five years after last setting down his pen, and shortly before his death from, among other things, chronic alcoholism, Crispin emerged with The Glimpses of the Moon (1977), which is far more farcical than his other work but also contains at its core a brilliantly complicated puzzle that will have you slapping your forehead when you finally realize what happened to the victim’s missing arm. The novels can be read in no particular order, but I often recommend chronological, which would have you starting with The Case of the Gilded Fly.

Anthony Boucher

As I’ve commented here, I’m not reading very many actual physical murder mystery books these days.  Indeed, many of the ones that have passed through my hands recently were *not* read for pleasure but skimmed for ideas and/or to analyze where they went wrong.  So I will not be treating you all to a scathing review of the work of, say, Leslie Meier.  For one thing, it wouldn’t really be all that scathing.  Ms. Meier writes simple cozies and I am emphatically not her target audience, so why should I take offense at being treated like a dummy if that’s what her readership — which I take to be considerable — actually wants from her?  I was merely curious about how she manages to sell what she manages to sell, and how well she writes, and so on.  So I picked up three of them at a garage sale and skimmed them to see the voice she was using, and the underlying structure, and the opening lines, and how she handled the introduction of characters, etc. Possibly it will be considered scathing to say that she is a “competent” writer. But I think it’s just a case of what an old queen of my acquaintance used to call NOSD — “not our sort, dear”. If you like her work, feel free to keep liking it.  I will continue to avoid it, but not for any vituperative reason, merely that it’s not to my taste.

But a friend recently returned to me a copy of The Case of the Seven Sneezes (1942) by Anthony Boucher, and THAT was worth re-reading for pleasure. Yes, I’d given him the edition whose cover you see here — I love Dell mapbacks. (Look them up in Wikipedia if you’re not aware of them.) Boucher’s mysteries are relatively scarce in paperback and one or two of them are darn near impossible to find, notably The Case of the Seven of Calvary. But they are decidedly worth tracking down if you are a fan of the classic puzzle mystery.

Mr. Boucher was many, many things in the writing field and good at all of them.  He was a superb reviewer of mysteries, he wrote them himself, he was also a science-fiction writer of note, and a great anthologist.  He was also responsible for an enormous body of work writing radio scripts and you can probably find the Sherlock Holmes radio programmes with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as MP3s, freely available, if you go searching for them.

His mysteries are fascinating examples of the puzzle mystery and one or two of them are even locked room mysteries, or “impossible crime” mysteries.  (Again, if you’re not up on this sub-genre, I recommend Wikipedia.) This particular novel takes place on a tiny island and, in the classic pattern, all entry to and exit from the island is controlled in such a way that the suspects are limited to only the people on the island at the time — no extraneous characters can possibly be responsible or even accomplices.  Someone was killing cats and people at a wedding reception 25 years ago and seems to be repeating the pattern in the present day (which is in the 1940s, as I recall without having the book at hand).

I admit that this sort of book held much, much more delight for me in the past than it does these days. As a younger reader, I found myself able to overlook certain mawkish elements like cardboard-y characters and silly plot twists — at one point in this particular novel, a man escapes certain death by stabbing because his heart is on the wrong side of his body, which is a little too much like a cheap radio script for my tastes — in favour of the sheer inventiveness and creativity that Boucher brought to his work, and large quantities of cutting-edge daring. To the modern reader, some of the inventiveness and creativity may go unnoticed and the daring may be overlooked. For instance, in TCOSS,  there is a character (Alyx) who is, essentially, what used to be called a “nymphomaniac” (in present-day terms, a sex addict).  It’s she who is depicted on the cover, threatening to cry rape and tearing her stocking to add verisimilitude. Well, that you can see on daytime TV these days.  But in the 1940s, OMG, that was shocking. Dangerously close to unpublishable. People just did not talk about sex in mysteries of the 1940s in such an open way. They also didn’t speak of these things in terms of psychological syndromes. In this novel, Boucher actually lays the groundwork for the realization of the reader that not only is the nymphomanaical Alyx a sex addict, but she is that way for reasons connected with traumatic events in her past.  Again, that seems simple to the modern reader, but that was not the type of conclusion that people were encouraged to draw in the 1940s.  Think of Carmen Sternwood, for instance. It was only at the level of Raymond Chandler’s writing that this sort of sexual pathology was acceptable.  In the pulps, I think the best explanation for the lack of that kind of verisimilitude is that (a) there was a kind of self-censorship to stay within the obscenity laws of the time, and (b) I suspect there was a common understanding among pulp writers that the audience just wouldn’t get it.

But I digress.  One of the reasons that I enjoy Boucher’s work so much is that he has, simply put, a great sense of humour.  It’s not especially evident in this specific novel, but it permeates his work like an undercurrent.  His detective, Fergus O’Breen, is not especially realistic, but constantly lulls the reader into a sense of mild amusement with his brash comments and general approach.

The main reason, though, is the thought that went into the plotting. Obviously it would be terrible to reveal whodunit, for instance, and I have no intention of doing that here. But Boucher’s level of intricate plotting is equaled by very, very few writers — people like Christianna Brand, Anthony Berkeley, Ellery Queen, Hake Talbot.  The amount of thought that goes into constructing such a plot is monumental.  I can’t say you will never figure this one out, because I actually did (but based on a principle that is unfair to this great writer, since it’s more based on my knowledge of the way mysteries work than anything else).

Incidentally, the “marooned on the island” theme is of course common to the country-house mystery genre of this period; if I were teaching this novel, I’d suggest that students would “compare and contrast” this to, say, Ellery Queen’s The Siamese Twin Mystery and/or The Spanish Cape Mystery, or Hake Talbot’s The Hangman’s Handyman.  Especially now that I’m not one of the few people in the world who’s read that last one, since Ramble House has re-published it. Or, of course, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. You can find examples of the closed circle throughout this sub-genre, but this one of Boucher’s is especially well-done.  Sometimes OTT, but a good, solid, enjoyable read that will probably surprise you at the end.