I’m not by any means obsessed with locked room or impossible crime stories but it’s a sub-genre I do enjoy when it’s done well, and Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit has the reputation of being one of the very best examples.
Rim of the Pit belongs to another crime sub-genre, and one I really am obsessed with - detective stories involving stage magic and illusionism. It also has hints of the gothic and involves ghosts (or possible ghosts) and a séance and that just makes the whole thing sound even more attractive to me.
Using the Hake Talbot pseudonym Henning Nelms (1900-1986), an American amateur magician, wrote just two detective novels, The Hangman’s Handyman in 1942 and Rim of the Pit in 1944.
Rim of the Pit takes place in a hunting lodge deep in the woods on the shore of a lake somewhere near the Canadian border. The events actually occur in a house called Cabrioun and in The Lodge, the two buildings being within walking distance of each other. The novel uses the time-honoured technique of taking a group of between half a dozen and a dozen people and isolating them somewhere so that when the murder occurs there is no possibility that it could have been committed by an outsider. One member of the group has to be the murderer. In this case the isolation is assured by virtue of the story taking place in midwinter with heavy snow.
Rim of the Pit does add a variation to this formula - one of the chief suspects is a man who has been dead for twelve years. Grimaud Désanat and a companion died when they became lost in the woods. Désanat’s wife had died some years earlier giving birth to his daughter Sherry. Désanat had remarried, to a woman named Irene. After Désanat’s death Irene then remarried, to Frank Ogden. Frank and Irene then adopted Sherry. Frank and Irene Ogden as well as Sherry are among the group gathered at Cabrioun for the purposes of a séance, the séance being necessary to clear up a tangled business relationship between Frank Ogden and Luke Latham. Luke and his nephew Jeff are also guests at Cabrioun. The others present are a professor of anthropology named Ambler, an ageing once-famous Czech magician named Vok and professional gambler Rogan Kincaid. When murder is committed one of these people has to be the killer, unless Grimaud Désanat has found a way to comeback from the dead. Initially Désanat actually seems to be the most promising suspect!
Before the murder though comes the séance and that’s another puzzle. Strange things certainly happen, but is it all phony or not? The murder follows the same pattern - certain clues suggest a supernatural explanation while others point to fakery. If it’s murder then the murderer could have been just about any member of the party. Virtually all of the suspects have at least some indirect connection with each other and with the victim and virtually all of them have plausible motives. And not one really has a rock-solid alibi.
Worse than all this is the fact that the circumstances surrounding the murder all seem to have been impossible. There were locked doors, there are tracks in the snow that begin and end nowhere, there’s a gun that could not have been removed from its mounting on the wall and yet it was removed, and it appears that no living human being could have escaped in the way the killer escaped.
The reader is naturally led to suspect that the murder has some connection to the death of Grimaud Désanat twelve years earlier but that doesn’t help since all of the suspects are in some way connected to that event.
Vok’s attempts to prove that the séance was phony and his attempts to debunk the various supernatural explanations for the murder provide much of the interest (for me at least) as he explains some of the many ways in which a conjuror could have employed trickery - his only problem being that in this case none of the tricks he’s familiar with can explain these particular puzzles.
The challenge with an impossible crime story is to provide a solution that is inventive and a little outlandish whilst still being at least vaguely plausible. In this case the solution is very outlandish but it’s still just about believable and it’s certainly ingenious. The ending really is excellent.
The novel tries to keep us guessing as to whether the solution really is going to involve the supernatural or not and it succeeds pretty well in this respect as well.
The snowbound setting is used to excellent effect - quite apart from the chance of being murdered the characters also have to face the danger of becoming lost in the snow every time they set foot outside.
Rim of the Pit is ambitious, with its playful mixing of genres and its elaborate set-pieces, and it succeeds remarkably well. Great fun and highly recommended.