Book Review: Five More American Mystery Classics

Book Review: Five More American Mystery Classics

 

The American Mystery Classics series continues to republish some great crime novels of the past, featuring some of the greatest talents in the genre, including some legends who have unfortunately fallen into undeserved obscurity.

John Dickson Carr made his name with the “locked room” mysteries and impossible crimes that required considerable imagination and think-outside-the-box lateral thinking to solve.  A great fan of G.K. Chesterton, Carr’s major recurring detective was Dr. Gideon Fell, who shared Chesterton’s physical characteristics.  Despite being an American, the lion’s share of Carr’s stories were set in England.

The Crooked Hinge is the story of a long-lost heir to a fortune returning after a quarter-century in exile.  But when not one, but two men claiming to be the inheritor arrive, Dr. Fell must figure out which of the claimants– if either– is the true legatee, and the situation is only more muddled when one of them dies of either suicide or murder.  Comparatively, Carr’s The Mad Hatter Mystery features a serial thief of headgear, a stolen Edgar Allan Poe manuscript, and a series of bizarre locations where the stolen hats are returned.

Carr’s mysteries take entertaining premises and hook the reader, and the heart of the mystery is more howdunit than whodunit.  What gives me the most pleasure about Carr is that he’s clearly challenging the reader to a game, and mundane realism is prized far less than creativity and pure fun.  The novels stretch the mind to test the readers’ preconceptions of what could be, focusing on the fanciful and noting that the improbable is not necessarily impossible.  Only the mentally flexible can triumph in Carr’s literary gymnastic workouts.

Anthony Boucher was one of the foremost mystery critics of the twentieth century, who also co-wrote the radio plays for the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce series The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, along with other forays into genre fiction.  Rocket to the Morgue is the second adventure in the Sister Ursula mysteries.  Sister Ursula, a member of the Order of St. Martha of Bethany, has a knack for solving locked-room mysteries and winning over skeptical members of the police.  It’s interesting how F. Paul Wilson, who wrote the introduction to this reissue, focuses on Boucher’s in-jokes and veiled references to major figures in the science fiction genre, with no mention of the religious themes and insights that permeate this tale of a divided literary community and the attempts on the life of an unpleasant heir to a profitable literary estate.

While some aspects of the puzzle may be familiar to voracious readers of classic mystery fiction, Boucher proves that he is one of that rare breed who can both criticize and write terrific crime novels himself.  The quiet, sweet Sister Ursula, is his most interesting creation, a beacon of sanity and insight amongst a throng of colorful science fiction writers.  Sister Ursula is all the more compelling due to her knowledge of her own faults, and her awareness of her own cardinal sin of pride which can lead to unforeseen and tragic consequences.

Ellery Queen, another legendary puzzler, is represented in The Siamese Twin Mystery.  Many classic mysteries are set in a manor house isolated from the rest of the world due to snow or rain, but Queen put his heroes and suspects in a far more dangerous setting– a mansion on a mountain in the woods, where everybody is trapped by an encroaching forest fire.  Even if they can solve the mystery of a shot surgeon clutching a torn playing card, will they be able to survive the conflagration?

Featuring conjoined twins, multiple explanations for baffling clues, and a final act centered on a desperate fight to survive, The Siamese Twin Mystery is both suspenseful and tongue-in-cheek, as the artifice of the situation does not distract from the fact one of the glories of fiction is that when done right, it can be far more fun than fact.

John P. Marquand’s won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his delightful satiric novel of manners The Late George Apley, but he’s currently known best for his Mr. Moto mysteries.  The first in the series, Your Turn, Mr. Moto, features a down-on-his-luck WWI flying ace who, when a publicity stunt goes awry, finds himself caught up in espionage, and the clever spy Mr. Moto helps straighten out the situation.  It’s notable how the Japanese politics and sentiments of 1935, when the book was first published, would fall out of favor with American audiences after WWII.

Hopefully, the American Mystery Classics series will continue to bring more lost treasures to the public’s attention in the years to come.

 

–Chris Chan

 

The Crooked Hinge

By John Dickson Carr

American Mystery Classics

2019

$25.95 Hardcover

$15.95 Paperback

 

The Mad Hatter Mystery

By John Dickson Carr

American Mystery Classics

2019

$25.95 Hardcover

$15.95 Paperback

 

Rocket to the Morgue

By Anthony Boucher

American Mystery Classics

2019

$25.95 Hardcover

$15.95 Paperback

 

The Siamese Twin Mystery

By Ellery Queen

American Mystery Classics

2020

$25.95 Hardcover

$15.95 Paperback

 

Your Turn, Mr. Moto

By John P. Marquand

American Mystery Classics

2020

$25.95 Hardcover

$15.95 Paperback

Posted in Blog Article, Reviews.

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