Back in April, I revisited The Hangman's Handyman (1942) by "Hake Talbot," a penname of Henning Nelms, who was an American amateur magician and wrote three, novel-length locked room mysteries and a pair of short stories starring his regrettably short-lived nomadic detective-character, Rogan Kincaid – a kind of anti-hero who "travels around the world and makes his money by gambling." A small body of work rarely bodes well for the longevity of a mystery writer's legacy and Talbot only had 3/5 of his known detective novels and short stories publishing during his lifetime. "The Other Side" was posthumously published in Jack Adrian and Robert Adey's Murder Impossible (1990), but his third, novel-length Rogan Kincaid mystery (The Affair of the Half-Witness) remains unpublished and the manuscript is likely lost to history.
So it says something about Hake Talbot that not only is he remembered as an important contributor to the locked room mystery, but generally considered to be on equal footing with John Dickson Carr. And he did that on the strength of just two novels!
Anthony Boucher heralded Talbot as "a thorough craftsman of the detective story" and praised his second novel, Rim of the Pit (1944), which piled "impossibility upon impossibility" until "one feels all but convinced that this is no detective story," but "a genuine post-Gothic tale of terror" – told "in the tradition of Algernon Blackwood or H.P. Lovecraft." Adey cited Rim of the Pit as the only mystery novel to "successfully emulate" the master himself. So after rereading The Hangman's Handyman, I decided to return to Rim of the Pit while the former was still relatively fresh in my memory. I was honestly surprised at how little I remembered from my first read, but did Rim of the Pit stand up to rereading? Let's find out!
I suppose I'm obliged to start with quoting the opening line, "I came up here to make a dead man change his mind," which should give readers unfamiliar with Talbot a clue why he's always compared to Carr. The dead man in question, Grimaud Désanat, died over a decade ago when he got lost in the "winter-struck wilderness" of New England. Grimaud Désanat left behind a daughter, Seré "Sherry" Désanat, whose widowed stepmother, Irene, remarried Frank Ogden two years later. They officially adopted Sherry and she now calls herself Sherry Ogden. So all's well that ends well, or so it appeared, until the dead man's will proved to be stumbling block in a lucrative business deal nearly fifteen years later. Désanat left Irene and Sherry as the sole owners of large, wooded area to be timbered, but not for another twenty years, because it was all second growth that needed time to develop. Frank Ogden has a patent that changed the equation ("small logs are worth as much per board foot as big ones") and now he and a pulp-mill owner, Luke Latham, want to raise his ghost to get permission to log the timber.
So, on the anniversary of his death, a small group of people gathered at Désanat's house, Cabrioun, tucked in the away in the remote, unpopulated and snow-covered wilds of New England to conduct a séance. This party comprises, beside the previously mentioned characters, Luke Latham's nephew, Jeff, who brought along his uncle's soon to be niece-in-law, Barbara. Professor Peyton Ambler, an anthropologist, who came to ask the spirits about an invention a friend spoke of right before his death. Svetozar Vok is a Czech refugee, magician and debunker who "looks like the oldest inhabitant of a graveyard" or "a mummy that’s still smiling over one of the embalmer's jokes." Rogan Kincaid was in Quebec, headed south, when he ran across Luke and got offered a ride. And, intrigued by the prospect of a business meeting with a ghost, decided to stick around. The party is rounded out by the native caretaker of the estate, Madore Troudeau, who "mixed Christian and Indian talismans with complete impartiality." Oh, and there's a Great Dane named Thor. Thor's a good boy. When he arrives, Kincaid learns Grimaud Désanat has already stirred from his slumber and crawled from underneath the veil of the Great Beyond.
Sherry went skiing that day and, when she in the middle of the frozen lake, she heard her father's voice singing the tune to a chillingly familiar song ("Pierre! Death comes for you; the toad digs your grave; the crows sound your knell..."), but there "wasn't a soul within a quarter of a mile" – after which the voice called out her name. A long-dead, disembodied voice coming out of nowhere is small stuff compared to what's in store for them later that evening and the days ahead.
Irene Ogden is not only a woman of material wealth, but claims to be a spiritual medium who can talk to the dead and acts as the medium at their séance. She runs through a number of the usual "miracles" you expect to be treated to at a classy séance. Such as "a rattle of knocks" and the table quivering "like a living thing" to phantom fingers touching faces, but Kincaid is puzzled how she could have read their questions for the spirits that had been sealed away in envelopes. But then something appeared that made even Irene shriek in terror. The ghost of Grimaud Désanat materialized above their heads with "an almost overpowering quality of death about it" and denounced his wife as a swindler, "you dabble in mysteries you are not able to comprehend, like a child playing on the rim of a volcano," who lied about the timber ban. For that, "no punishment is adequate" and promises she soon will learn about his plan "that will make the Master Himself laugh in the depths of Hell." Désanat turned around and "seemed to drift through the railing as though it were not there" as he floated ("almost a foot off the floor!") into the hallway.
Not quite convinced by the authentic looking ghost, Kincaid ran after the ghost, but, when he reached the top of the stairs to peer down the passage, Désanat had already reached the end of the cul-de-sac hallway. Where he simply blotted out of existence. The empty room at the end of the hall offered no way out as the connecting door was bolted on both sides and "three inches of untouched snow" heaped on the windowsill.
This alone would have been enough to cement Rim of the Pit as a classic of the locked room mystery, particularly how the floating apparition is eventually explained, but, barely a quarter into the story, the plot continues to fire on all cylinders – every answer of exposed inch of the truth exposes new problem and questions. The impossibilities come in thick and fast right up until the ending and they come in all varieties. An old, rusted and dusty flintlock, hanging high on the chimney, which could only have been easily taken down without a sound by someone who can levitate. Like someone who's possessed by an evil spirit. Another person is tomahawked to death in a locked room as the murderer escaped through the bathroom window, leaving a line of footprints in the snow on the flat roof below, but the trail eventually ended. That's the only trail in the story ending as abruptly and inexplicably as they have begun, but even Kincaid has to admit "nothing that did not fly could have crossed the belt of unbroken snow that surrounded Cabrioun." And then there's the windigo haunting, or hunting, the local forests. More than once, the dark shape of a huge animal, like a great horned owl the size of a man, chasing people through the dark, wintry landscape. And it goes on, and on, like this right up until the ending.
The unrelenting artillery fire of locked room murders, impossible situations, apparently supernatural phenomena and superb pacing that keeps the story moving (even when the characters just talk) is the strongest feature of Rim of the Pit. However, if you pack your plot with a wild variety of impossible crimes, you create a dangerous pitfall in the process. And while Talbot didn't tumble into it, he nearly tripped over it as he tried to avoid it.
Noel Vindry's A travers les murailles (Through the Walls, 1936), Richard Ellington's Exit for a Dame (1951), John Vance's The Fox Valley Murders (1966), Paul Halter's Le sept merveilles du crime (The Seven Wonders of Crime, 1997) and Taku Ashibe's Koromu no satsujin (Murder in the Red Chamber, 2004) all tried to offer a wild variety of impossible crimes with varying degrees of success. The problem is that it's very difficult, if not impossible, to deliver a satisfying explanation to every single one of them. No matter how ambitious or well intended, the multiple impossible crime story is bound to have some filler material as the number of impossibilities increases. Rim of the Pit has individual parts that are of a lesser quality, which is where Talbot nearly tripped, but (sort of) got away with it in the way how they were integrated into the overall plot. Talbot didn't go all out with locked room slayings and miraculous incidents to camouflage a weakly plotted or routine detective story, but almost like sleight-of-hand applied to the plotting of a detective story ("...when the whole pack is used, the idea that but ten cards are significant is disguised"). More importantly, the impossibilities create the effect of genuine horror and a house under siege by otherworldly entities or creatures that should not exist in our world. It's not difficult to see why it's a favorite among locked room fans.
All that being said, I've to acknowledge a comment that was left on my review of Talbot's The Hangman's Handyman. Isaac Stump, of Solving the Mystery of Murder, commented, "I just feel like this particular school of writers tend to prioritize effect" and "resolution is kind of secondary." I agreed that's definitely true of Clayton Rawson and to some extend applies to Talbot, but Rim of the Pit shows he had a better understanding than Rawson how to use that effect in bulk to punch up the ending. Just compare Rim of the Pit to Rawson's locked room extravaganza, Death from a Top Hat (1938), which didn't fit together as satisfactory as Rim of the Pit. And the latter also has that typically Carrian, morally dodgy as hell resolution to the whole devil of a problem. Not to mention a strong hint of that Merrivalean cussedness of all things general. So is it a masterpiece of the locked room mystery? Yes. Kind of. But it earned that distinction solely on its masterly showmanship rather than craftsmanship or some dazzling new and original trick.
Notes for the [curious] publishers: there a number of these intriguingly-sounding, multiple locked room and impossible crime novels still out there, but they have not been reprinted in decades. Gaston Leroux has a little-known, impossible crime novel to his name, L'homme qui revient de loin (The Man Who Came Back from the Dead, 1912), which was translated and published in the October, 1916, issue of The Blue Book Magazine – never been reprinted since. Apparently, The Man Who Came Back from the Dead is "a collection of bizarre crimes and impossible murders involving ghosts and seances." Similarly, Horatio Winslow and Leslie Quirk's Into Thin Air (1928) is perhaps the most well-known of all obscure, long out-of-print mysteries crammed with locked rooms, impossible crimes, dodgy séances and magic. William F. Temple's The Dangerous Edge (1951) is another galore of daring impossibilities in the spirit of Norman Berrow's The Three Tiers of Fantasy (1947) and Hilary St. George Saunders' The Sleeping Bacchus (1951), which briefly appeared back in print in 2003, but has since gone out-of-print again. I'm still pretty curious to see if Paul Halter improved on The Seven Wonders of Crime with Le douze crime d'Hercule (The Twelve Crimes of Hercules, 2001).