Friday, November 25, 2016

Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit

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.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Desmond Bagley’s The Vivero Letter

The Vivero Letter was the fifth of Desmond Bagley’s thrillers. It was published in 1968. This is only the second Bagley thriller I’ve read but I’m already noticing certain characteristic touches, some negative but mostly positive ones.

This is one of those thrillers in which a very ordinary man finds himself caught up very unwillingly in very extraordinary events.

Jemmy Wheale has heard himself labeled as a grey little man and he’s inclined to agree  with the description. He’s an accountant in his early thirties but in many ways he’s already setting into comfortable middle age. Jemmy Wheale is not a man who has adventures.

Everything changes when his brother is murdered. His brother had been running Hay Tree Farm in Devon, a property that has been in the Wheale family for centuries. It appears that he was murdered for the sake of an old brass serving tray. The tray is a family heirloom but apart from its sentimental value it is worth very little. Or so it had always been assumed. It now appears that the tray may be worth a great deal of money but more importantly it is the key to a mystery that could be worth millions.

The 16th century Spanish tray has connections to the Spanish Armada and to a lost Mayan city. It will lead Wheale to Mexico but others will be led there as well. Among those led to Mexico are three Americans - a millionaire archaeologist, an embittered younger colleague and a big-time gangster. A battered parchment that speaks of a golden sign provides a clue, but a very cryptic one.

Jemmy Wheale now has an adventure on his hands and he discovers that adventures can be very dangerous undertakings, especially for grey little men. But grey little men can be surprisingly tenacious when they need to be.

Bagley manages to make his hero convincingly ordinary but without being dull, and as a hero he performs better than one might have expected. Bagley also provides a suitably menacing main villain.

Bagley is a thriller writer very much in the Alistair MacLean mould although he is not quite as good as MacLean at his best. MacLean’s plotting is more devious and provides more unexpected twists. Bagley’s plotting is fairly straightforward and the surprise plot twists are not always quite as surprising as they should be. Bagley does however have a fine appreciation of the importance of pacing and he has a gift for impressive action set-pieces. 

Another major resemblance between the work of MacLean and Bagley is in the settings. In Running Blind Bagley made superb use of Iceland as a setting. In The Vivero Letter he chooses a setting that is just as harsh and unforgiving - the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico - and he shows just as much skill in getting the most out of the setting. As with MacLean’s best novels you get a sense that the hero’s biggest struggle is with the hostile landscape itself.

Bagley believed in thoroughly researching his novels and as you might expect he gives the reader a lot of infodumps. This can be a dangerous practice - it can slow down the storytelling and it can become tedious. One of the most impressive things about Bagley’s writing is his ability to deliver the necessary infodumps quickly and economically without interrupting the flow of the story. And the infodumps are genuinely interesting - in The Vivero Letter we learn about medieval Chinese progress in the science of optics, scuba diving, fencing, scientific farming, the history of the Mayan civilisation and about cenotes (sinkholes formed in limestone caps common in the Yucatan Peninsula). 

If there is one thing that distinguishes the action sequences in a Desmond Bagley novel from the work of most other thriller writers it is his brutally realistic treatment of gunfights. In a Bagley novel you don’t take shelter in a wooden building during a firefight because a wooden structure offers zero protection from gunfire. You either find hard cover or you die.

The Vivero Letter offers high-octane excitement, plenty of atmosphere and a memorable setting. Recommended.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

R. Austin Freeman's A Silent Witness

A Silent Witness is an early detective novel by R. Austin Freeman (it was published in 1914) and it contains most of the features that characterise his work.

The story is narrated by Dr Humphrey Jardine, a newly qualified medico, and it concerns events that occurred some years earlier. Dr Jardine has a rather strange experience Hampstead Heath. He discovers a dead body in a lane. He goes off to fetch a constable and on his return the body has vanished. Jardine might be young and newly qualified but he is a doctor and he is quite confident of his ability to tell if a man is dead or not. Well, reasonably confident - he did only have time to make a cursory examination. In any case the man, dead or not, has vanished and the police clearly believe that Dr Jardine was mistaken and that the man was merely insensible and has now decamped. There’s not much the young doctor can do about and a few weeks later he has more or less put the matter out of mind.

Jardine had been one of Dr John Thorndyke’s students and Thornydke has found the young man a position as locum tenens for another of his former students, a Dr Batson. Dr Batson has been called away from London for a brief period but before he departs he asks Jardine to accompany him on a routine call to provide a death certificate for a patient who had been suffering from heart problems. Jardine is a little shocked by Dr Batson’s casual approach to the matter but there’s no reason for any suspicions about the death.

These two events were mildly disquieting but things are about to take a very dramatic turn. There is a very serious and rather spectacular attempt on Jardine’s life, and there is no doubt whatsoever that this was indeed attempted murder.

At this point, quite by accident, Dr Thorndyke becomes involved. Thorndyke is not the sort of man who tolerates people trying to murder his former students and he is also convinced that there is a great deal more going on here. Unfortunately, while it is clear that someone thinks Jardine is in possession of evidence of some serious crime and is trying to silence him it is not at all clear what this crime might have been - Jardine himself has not the slightest idea. Dr Thorndyke will not only have to unravel the mystery, he will have to take steps to keep young Jardine alive.

While Conan Doyle invented the scientific detective it was Freeman who perfected the concept. Dr Thorndyke is not merely a detective who possesses some amateur scientific knowledge (like Sherlock Holmes), he is a thoroughgoing scientific specialist. He is an expert in the field of medical jurisprudence. Dr Thorndyke is not a policeman, nor is he a private detective, nor is he an amateur sleuth. He only becomes involved in cases in which his very specialised expertise is called for. 

As a result Freeman’s detective stories do not focus all that heavily on the question of the identity of the criminal. In fact Freeman invented the inverted detective story in which the criminal’s identity is revealed at the very beginning, the interest of the story being provided by Thorndyke’s investigative methods. This book is not an inverted detective story but it is certainly much more concerned with the investigation than with the killer’s identity. In fact it’s not hard to guess who the criminal is. The challenge for Dr Thorndyke (and for the reader) is to figure out exactly what the crime was and how it was carried out, and to find the proof. 

In this case the method by which Thorndyke does this is extraordinarily clever and original. Whether it is scientific plausible or not I have no idea but it’s a truly wonderful idea.

One interesting feature of this novel is that problems with eyesight provide not one but two crucial plot points. Freeman himself was a doctor who worked for a time at an ophthalmic hospital so this is perhaps not so surprising!

Thorndyke is a formidable but rather amiable character. He is a man who is used to having his instructions carried out to the letter but his authority comes from his complete self-assurance and his ability to inspire confidence in his subordinates. Those subordinates, Jervis and Polton, are disciples rather than mere subordinates. Thorndyke is also a fundamentally decent and kindly man. His manners are impeccable and it’s noteworthy that his courtesy extends to everyone he encounters regardless of social class. 

Thorndyke is brilliant of course. He undoubtedly derives a great deal of intellectual enjoyment from his work but he also has a very strong sense of duty. He has great gifts and they bring with them a responsibility to serve society.

This book does have its flaws. The plot, while ingenious, relies way too much on coincidence. There are serious pacing problems and the romantic subplot is an unnecessary distraction. On the other hand there’s a surprising amount of action and suspense, and both are handled with energy and flair. We get a real sense that Jardine is in very real and very immediate danger.

With his Edwardian novels Freeman pretty much established the template for the golden age of detective fiction - an elaborate plot with the reader being given a fair chance to match wits with the detective hero. And his major clues are certainly hidden in plain sight (even if some of the minor clues do rely on Thorndyke’s specialised knowledge).

A Silent Witness is not in the same league as Freeman’s masterpieces from the same era, The Eye of Osiris and The Mystery of 31 New Inn, but its flaws are balanced by some considerable strengths and it’s still worth seeking out. Recommended.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Len Deighton’s An Expensive Place To Die

An Expensive Place To Die was the fifth and final installment of Len Deighton’s unnamed spy series (sometimes referred to as the Harry Palmer novels since that was the name he was given in the film adaptations). There are a few subtle differences between this 1967 novel and the other unnamed spy books.

The protagonist/narrator is a British spy living in Paris. His latest mission is to deliver U.S. atomic secrets to a certain M. Datt. It might be an odd assignment but he has discovered that it’s best not to try to understand the minds of his superiors.

M. Datt runs a psychiatric clinic in Paris. It’s also a brothel and possibly a gambling club. It might also be a front for espionage. Or it might be an operation by the French security services. It might even be a private project run by M. Datt for his own inscrutable purposes (possibly including blackmail). What is certain is that M. Datt has compiled dossiers on some very powerful and important men. With film footage to accompany the dossiers. 

Another man is very interested in this case - Chief Inspector Loiseau of the Sûreté Nationale. Our unnamed protagonist is not exactly working with Loiseau and not exactly working against him.

Also involved is Loiseau’s ex-wife Maria. She takes a shine to our unnamed protagonist but she also has some mysterious link with Datt. There’s an American nuclear scientist mixed up in this as well, and a Red Chinese nuclear scientist to boot. 

As one expects from Deighton the plotting is complex and devious, and the characters are ambiguous and very devious indeed. There’s a good deal of double-crossing and even triple-crossing going on. 

The four earlier unnamed spy novels used first person narration but this time for some reason Deighton occasionally switches to third person narration.

There has been some mild controversy as to whether An Expensive Place To Die really is part of the unnamed spy cycle. There’s nothing in the book to answer the question one way or another. The character is certainly very similar but with perhaps a few minor differences - he seems slightly less fussy although he’s still somewhat insubordinate. Len Deighton has stated that this is the fifth unnamed spy novel so that’s good enough for me, although it appears that at the time of publication he wanted to leave the matter just a little ambiguous.

I would not rate this book quite as highly as its predecessors. It doesn’t seem to have quite the same wit and sparkle. Perhaps Deighton was simply moving towards a different style. It does still have the cynicism we expect, and the delightfully intricate plotting.

An Expensive Place To Die is still a fine example of the Cold War spy novel. Highly recommended, although I’d read the earlier the earlier books in the cycle first.