Well, see, that’s because I was working at trying to making it happen. And the result of that work is this: Bold Venture Press will be republishing two impossible crime novels by Theodore Roscoe — Murder on the Way! (1935) and I’ll Grind Their Bones (1936) — over the next couple of months or so, with yours truly having edited and prepared the texts for publication as well as writing introductions for each book.
Worry not, I have no intention here of spoiling anything about Death on the Nile ahead of spoiling everything about it next month, but I’ve just reread it in preparation for that and some thoughts came out of it that I’d like to get down here for posterity. Also, having tackled Australian and American authors for the 1937 Crimes of the Century, it struck me that I should probably go for the English-speaking trifecta and take on the most English of English Detective Novelists, too, for completeness if nothing else.
Summoned by an elderly relative to their secluded family pile, a young man finds himself isolated with a fixed cast of closely-related characters as murder, missing documents, an escaped lunatic, and all other sorts of puzzle plotting chicanery inveigle themself onto the scene. Yes, in many ways The Search for My Great-Uncle’s Head is a vade mecum for the Golden Age of detective fiction — vast elements of it will appear achingly familiar — and plays perfectly in time with the tattoo of 1937 that Rich has got many of us investigating this month for Crimes of the Century at Past Offences. But does the rest of the book hold up past these fundamentals?
Philo Vance. ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ by Edgar Allan Poe. Raspberry Jam by Carolyn Wells. ‘The Fairy Tale of Father Brown’ by G.K. Chesterton. The Clue of the New Pin by Edgar Wallace. A character who is detective novelist of some repute. Characters in a detective story discussing whether they are behaving like people in a detective story. All these references and more can be found in the opening salvo of Max Afford’s debut novel, following the discovery of a man stabbed in the back in his locked study with the only key to the specially-constructed lock in his possession, the murder weapon missing, and some subtly esoteric clews that give rise to plenty of canny evaluation and then re-evaluation. Aaah, I love the Golden Age.
Every so often, a novel is adopted by more mainstream fiction when it is in fact pure genre. Typically the result of this is that those of use who read the good stuff in our own genre have to put up with a ripple of brouhaha while we’re lectured by the broadsheet darlings as they fall over themselves to recommend something as inventive or ingenious when in fact we’ve read three books more inventive or ingenious in the last month alone (or, worse, phone someone in to explain incorrectly to others who don’t know any better). In SF, say, we’ve recently been subjected to Hugh Howey’s Wool trilogy which is…well, every single cliché you can name and about as awful as you’d expect, but it especially seems to be happening more and more in crime fiction.
Sometimes someone is so taken with a book that you can’t help but stop and take notice yourself. So when TomCat was full of praise for this impossible crime, it hopped up my TBR pile with the effortlessness of a mountain goat on an escalator. I was promised audacity, and I love a bit of authorly audaciousness where an impossible crime is concerned — indeed, the boldness of such schemes as employed in John Dickson Carr’s The Man Who Could not Shudder (1940) orJohn Saldek’s Invisible Green (1977) make them firm favourites of mine, and if a book of this ilk has chutzpah enough to make TomCat and John Norris sit up and pay attention, then surely you must be onto a good thing.
I was quite excited when I discovered that this sole mystery novel from Rudolph Fisher was to be republished under the revived Detective Club imprint. To my understanding it had impossible crime overtones with a vanishing body, and GAD fiction doesn’t exactly offer up a swathe of BAME authors, so this account of 1930s Harlem promised to fulfil all sorts of fascinating niches — not least how a black author would represent the experience of being a black man in America when times were not as enlightened as we hope them to be now. But, first things first, yes we do get an impossibly-vanishing body, provided by a Red Widow Murders-esque “How could he be talking if he was dead?” impossible murder for which there was no time in which it could have been committed; so do we have a classic on our hands?
I know, I know, it looks like I’ve forgotten my brief for this blog, but I haven’t. This is something I’ve been mulling for a little while, and I wanted to raise it here to see whether it’s been worth my time.
In a recent post about Agatha Christie’s By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968) I made an off-hand reference to something I’ve come to hold as a sort of metric in my detective fiction reading, calling 1937 the “most Golden Age year”. Some of you have asked me to expand on this, and what follows shall be my attempt to explain my having said as much.
I generally try to do the books I have by an author in chronological order, and so should be writing about The Footprints on the Ceiling (1939) here, but when TomCat described NCftC in the comments of my review of Rawson’s first Great Merlini novel Death from a Top Hat (1938) as “abysmal” saying that it “began very promising and then turned into one of the worst locked room mysteries I’ve ever had the misfortune of stumbling across”…well, I just had to try it out. I mean, sure, TomCat doesn’t like Rupert Penny’s Sealed Room Murder (1941) and so is immediately suspect, but I think I’ve shown myself willing enough to believe the very best of any books I try to read, and it might be interesting to go in expecting a dud. So, let’s get into it…