Stage magic and Golden Age detection go hand-in-hand: we go in knowing we’re being fooled in both cases, but there’s little more enjoyable than seeing it done well. Clayton Rawson and Hake Talbot were professional-level magicians who turned their minds to the dark arts of fictional (as far as we know…) murder and crafted some wonderful stories in doing so, and the name Bruce Elliott can also be added to the magician/detection-writer set with this country house mystery that benefits from his magical background by stirring in an impossible crime. This is yet another book that’s foisted an unexpected impossibility upon me, and while it’s not exactly perfect, it’s still a bloody good read.
Practical joker Jesse Grimsby — a man whose exploits are so astoundingly annoying that it’s a wonder anyone tolerates him — throws a weekend house part at which, it transpires, there will be many practical jokes. For someone proud of his apparent level of sophistication in such matters (he dismisses the exploding cigar routine as an “old chestnut” that lacks “ingenuity”), these are of the wearyingly tiresome genus that mainly serve to justify his imminent demise. Witnesses see him enter one room, alone, a shot rings out, they break in the locked door and storm the room only to find it empty…and then Jesse’s dead body turns up in a different room entirely…
The essential idea of the trick is very clever (there’s a diagram late on to illustrate, so ‘ware flipping ahead), though unfortunately quite easy to gauge, but you have to commend Elliott for making the necessary connections. What’s especially pleasing here is that with a few minor — and I do mean minor — adjustments he could have written one of the classics of the genre. He’s so close to greatness with his scheme that I’m almost tempted to do an additional post on how it could be expanded to near-perfection. Alas, that would necessarily include gigantic spoilers for this book and I actually think a lot of people would enjoy this and should come to it pure. You’ll almost certainly figure it out — there’s a blatant piece of clue-dropping just in case you don’t — but it’s a great time watching it happen.
Elliott’s not hanging around, either. This Ramble House reissue is 120 pages long, and there’s plenty of character spice, conflicting personalities, motives, unspoken discord, and more than a few borderline-daring issues for the period thrown at you from page one. By the time the wonderfully-named Lieutenant Leonard Brissk (yup, with two S’s) arrives on the scene we have a pen portrait mystery that is haring along and throwing out such gems as morgue attendants who “look like pernicious anemia hunting for a place to happen” and someone complaining that their cocktail glass is “built with the bottom too close to the top”. There’s no real sense of place — it’s outside New York, I surmise — but that doesn’t matter, the context in that regard has no bearing on things, but as a pacy piece of light, fun detective fiction you can do much worse.
The main fault I have is that it’s over rather too quickly. Oh, that Elliott had brought this to me before publication so that I could kill off a character early and add the wrinkle or two to make it a genuine classic…at the loss of its haywire, helter-skelter pace, no doubt. The body-in-the-wrong-room element recalls the wrong-body-in-the-room aspect of Paul Halter’s The Fourth Door (1987, trans. 1999), but the all-out pell-mell tone and loopy fun of the increasingly bizarre setup is rather more reminiscent of The Invisible Circle (1996, trans. 2014). If you like your detection straight, this isn’t for you, but those of you on the fringes, happy with a loopy conceit and out-of-kilter inventiveness will find much to enjoy here.
Frustratingly close to brilliant, then, but that’s still a damn sight closer than a lot of other authors got in their careers…
I submit this book for the Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt 2017 at My Reader’s Block under the category Broken Object.
For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to last week’s The Unicorn Murders because both are (essentially) Country House Murders.