I love a country house mystery, especially those with a body on page one. So when the murder of ex-judge Sir Ernest Ferber in his private garden by man he sentenced harshly and the subsequent suicide of his assailant at the scene is communicated in the opening ten lines of The Baddington Horror, we’re off to a very good start. To my understanding, Walter S. Masterman wrote as many ‘weird tales’ as he did novels of detection, and so it was always a little uncertain what I was going to get here. But the first chapter could not be more Golden Age detection if it tried: murdered aristocrat, retired amateur detective who takes an interest, two big coincidences, and away we go…
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.
The setup of The Poisoned Chocolates Case is rightly very famous: a lady is killed when a box of chocolates given to her husband by another member of his gentlemen’s club — who himself received them unsolicited through the mail — turns out to have been laced with poison. The police, with no culprit in sight, allow six amateurs with a fascination for real life crimes to theorise and present their own solutions, each one appearing watertight until someone finds a flaw that brings the edifice down. For this conceit alone, and the genius way Berkeley uses his different sleuths to unpick the sparse and simple known facts, this book has passed into near-legend in detective fiction circles.
Alongside classic detective fiction and locked room/impossible crime mysteries of every date, stripe, and hue, I read a moderate amount of both classic and modern SF. And as much as I rejoice in the closedness of the ‘rules’ of detective fiction, I take equal delight in the free-form craziness that can open up in front of you in excellent SF.
Continuing the grand old tradition of crime-solving clergy — I refer, of course, to The Father Dowling Mysteries — Hal White’s collection of impossible crime stories featuring the retired octogenarian Reverend Thaddeus Dean gives us six takes on vanishing murderers, no footprints in the snow, impossible alibis, and more classic staples of my most-beloved of sub-genres. And, no small praise, it bears the stamp of approval from Bob Adey…so, are the stories any good? Well, as part of my continued trek to find something in the realms of self-published detective fiction that’s actually worth your time, let’s have a look…
Over at the excellent and superbly-titled Exploring the History of Women in Mystery blog, wrangler “Unpredictable Notes” recently put up this brief summary of the EIRF school as outlined in Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor’s A Catalogue of Crime (1971). EIRF is a step on from HIBK (Had I But Known) and stands for Everything is Rather Frightening:
In fact, since the modern psychological novel has devoted itself to exploring the abnormal and oddly alarming, no great originality was needed to raise the emotional pitch of the murder another notch and made HIBK into EIRF – Everything is Rather Frightening.
This is a new one on me but, by the same serendipity that seems to manifest itself throughout my blogging, I was reading The Black Rustle — one of the middle period novels from the Little sisters — when I encountered this lexicon, and it struck me how perfectly all the Littles’ books fall into this categorisation.
John Sladek is better known these days as a furiously inventive author of decidedly loopy SF — and I mean that as a compliment — but he did publish two detectives novels in the 1970s that each contained several impossibilities. The first, Black Aura (1974), has two disappearances and a man flying outside a third-storey window (without anything so amateur as wires holding him up, you cynic), and two-thirds of these are explained away superbly — the second disappearance in particular. It is a very good book, if perhaps a little slow in places, and boded well for the next time Sladek opted to dip his toe in our waters. Invisible Green, then, is very much the realisation of this potential, being superior in every single respect, and therefore something of a bittersweet read as we know now that nothing else followed it in the realm of the unachievable provably done.