My inability to walk past a secondhand bookshop without at least having a “quick glance inside” recently resulted in me purchasing a stack of the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators titles, books I was aware of but have not previously read. So buying 22 of them in no way counts as a spontaneous over-commitment, oh no. Anyway, The Secret of Terror Castle is the first of the series and here are some thoughts on it.
A late-Victorian private detective living in London who exhibits such traits as brilliant deductive skills (highlighted especially in his observations about strangers), a brusque and pompous manner, the application of reason and logic in all his encounters with crime, and a singular lack of personal relationships with anyone beyond his household, the members of the police he encounters, and his chronicler. Sound familiar?
And, of course, he has that glass eye, too. Wait, what?
This isn’t a review, it’s an obituary. My copy of Think of a Number by John Verdon opens with twenty-six glowing review excerpts from a range of authors, publications, and blogs, but it genuinely might be the single worst book I have read in a very, very long time, and without being in the least splenetic about it I’m going to explain why. I will avoid spoiling it in full thoughtless fashion but, honestly, I’m being mindful of your time, your money, your families, and your health in writing the following. I take no pleasure in this, it’s purely to save you the experience of this fustercluck of a novel posing and sold to you as something intelligent and worthwhile. It is neither. That this is on the market at all is a slap in the face to all concerned.
Four businessmen are playing their weekly early-morning round of golf when one of them hits his ball into a sand-filled bunker. Taking his next shot from down in the bunker, out of sight of everyone else, not only does he hit the ball straight out of the sand and into the hole (which he cannot see), but when the others approach the bunker to congratulate him they find it empty except for a blood-stained golf club, with no way for their colleague to have vanished without either being seen or leaving obvious traces. Intrigued? You should be…
Reader, brace yourself for a shock: I — the man who curated an online celebration of Paul Halter’s 60th birthday last year — loved The Madman’s Room. Given the hue and stripe of originality Halter has brought to the impossible crime genre (The Demon of Dartmoor, The Lord of Misrule, and The Invisible Circle, among others, all contain what surely must be original resolutions to the inexplicable), it’s no surprise to find him resolving the mysteries herein as inventively as he does. What I especially enjoyed was the simplicity brought to the answers, particularly the way he occludes that simplicity so smartly so that you look back on come the end and go “Oh, hell, how did I miss that?”.
Thanks to the beneficence of Dan at The Reader is Warned, I have been loaned a copy of Maps (2002), an anthology of short fiction and other reflections by John Sladek which were previously not anthologised elsewhere. Sladek wrote two impossible crime novels — the excellent Black Aura (1974) and the exemplary Invisible Green (1977) — and Maps contains the two short-form tales to feature the same American dandy sleuth, Thackeray Phin. Both could be discussed at length, but TomCat’s already done that very well indeed and I’m more interested in looking at small moments within them that don’t actually contribute to the plot. I know, right, what am I like?
I recently acquired one of the only 175 extant editions produced by Crippen and Landru of the short story ‘The Problem of the Emperor’s Mushrooms’ by James Yaffe, itself originally published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1945. And in the same manner of reflection upon Paul Halter’s ‘The Yellow Book’ (2017) from a few weeks ago, I thought I’d have another look at a short story…though this time to suggest possible alternative explanations for the impossible poisoning contained therein.
“There is no suspense in a bang,” said Alfred Hitchcock, “only in the anticipation of it.” This applies to Stacey Bishop’s sole detective novel because, well, it wasn’t a book a sizeable proportion of GAD readers were aware even existed until Locked Room International conjured this reprint fittingly out of the ether — when John Norris at Pretty Sinister hasn’t read it, you know it’s rare. As such, the gleeful anticipation of its release was undercut somewhat by the fact that we hadn’t even heard of it, and so there’s no weight of expectation: we are free, in this connected age of everything being on demand and everything being remembered, to come into this entirely without preconceptions.
This gets a little convoluted: at the recent Bodies from the Library conference, I was discussing impossible crime novels with Dan of The Reader is Warned when conversation turned to Siobhan Dowd’s very, very good impossible disappearance for younger readers The London Eye Mystery (2007). Dan mentioned that, following Dowd’s death in 2007, the series was to be continued (The Guggenheim Mystery is due out in August) by Robin Stevens, author of the Murder Most Unladylike series. Then he mentioned that one of the MMU books was a locked room and, well, I was in.