Much like being stuck with that one relative who wishes to recount every event of note from their life regardless of how interested you appear, my reminiscing about the beginnings of my detective fiction reading continues. This week, with my oft-mentioned fondness for an impossible crime, I’m going to attempt to recall the first few, faltering steps I made into the subgenre. So, let’s see now…
Wait, though! I should probably specify that I mean the first few books I read once I’d realised that locked rooms, absence of footprints, flying murderers, inexplicable poisonings, and others bedevilment were part of a legitimate subgenre and not just the odd book here and there. I’d read The Hollow Man, and from there read Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room, but didn’t immediately latch on to other books that did the same thing. There was Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, but that came so many years earlier and in such a different context that I didn’t even see the connection…yes, I used to be an idiot.
Then, somehow, the penny dropped. I bought a couple of Rue Morgue Press Carrs, and started to realise that more of this stuff existed by other authors too. So, from memory and my incomplete records, I think my reading then went like this…
Rim of the Pit (1944) by Hake Talbot I know, right? What a place to start. Séances, flying murderers, impossible footprints, impossible fingerprints, impossible escapes, a vengeful spirit swooping down from the sky, a man possessed by a murderous demon that can’t be kept behind any locked door…wave after wave of brilliant insanity, and me slack-jawed in the utter conviction that at some point Talbot was going to have to go “Oh, and, er, that one was a ghost or something”. The word to best describe my mindset after putting this down? Giddy. And my head on complete fire with the possibilities. I don’t think I slept for about three days after, just turning it all over and over and over.
Prague Fatale (2011) by Philip Kerr Kerr’s thrillers formed a huge part of my formative reading in my mid-to-late teens, but I lost track of him after he restarted his Nazi Germany-set Bernie Gunther series again after a sizeable break. The blending of real and fictional here is effortless, with Reinhard Heydrich present when a man is shot in a locked bedroom and Gunther tasked with finding a killer in a house full of killers. The investigation comprises a single, 120-page chapter, is intricately fun, and the Christie comparisons are (for once) not a million miles off. The solution isn’t one for all time, but the clues are there are the characters are very well-realised indeed.
Nine Times Nine (1940) by Anthony Boucher One of the classics again, and the introduction of a trope that you see again and again and which I, in my nonage, was on the cusp of seeing through but didn’t trust myself to fully call. What I especially liked here was the throwaway nature of the clues, rather than huge red arrows pointing out THIS IS A CLUE, and there’s one aspect so damn sneaky that I to this day love how Boucher snuck it past me. This is also possibly the murder victim I’m most sad about, because they were easily the most interesting of the lot to draw from, but I guess that’s how we roll in these waters. And Sister Ursula is a wonderful sleuth; Boucher robbed us there by not writing 25 books about her.
The Case of the Constant Suicides (1940) by John Dickson Carr My second Carr, and the root many problems to date: about halfway through I convinced myself that this was someone I needed to read, and when it turned out there were 80 books and most of them were OOP…well, that just made it more interesting. People continually hurl themselves out of a tower when alone and locked in, how can you not be curious? PLus, it’s hilariously funny, brisk, insanely intelligent, and gives you a solution that is so memorably telegraphed I still remember the key line of dialogue that raises it for consideration. One of those hug-yourself-with-excitment books, no contest.
The Big Bow Mystery (1892) by Israel Zangwill This problem of a man found with his throat slit in a locked room only really requires the first and last chapters, but if you skip out the middle you’re missing not only a genuinely funny dissection of London life at the end of the 19th century but also possibly the first instigation of the false solution. The solution is a cheat by today’s standards, but it’s a significant step on from Murder in the Rue Morgue, and never before has the notation ‘(Sensation)’ filled me with so much mirth as it does here. Great variation in styles, too, from outright narrative to reportage and back; a rightly-justified classic.
So that was me off to a great start; there’s been the anticipated mix of great and dreck since, obviously, but as five books at the start of a new phase in my reading life, I think we can agree it could have been far, far worse…
I submit the cover of The Case of the Constant Suicides for the Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt 2017 at My Reader’s Block under the category Castle or Ruins.