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Locked Room Reviews:
A snowbound horror tale!
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Halloween is a great excuse for reading this highly entertaining pseudo horror story – it will provide a real spooky trick and treat!
It was both a pleasure and a bit of an ordeal to reread this famous locked room novel. Ranked second only to John Dickson Carr’s classic ‘The Hollow Man’ on Edward D. Hoch’s 1981 survey of the all time best locked room mysteries, my expectations were very high, though not always proven to be justified by this quite remarkable novel.
Hake Talbot was the pen name of American lawyer, theatrical director, amateur magician and novelist, Henning Nelms (1900-1986). Another of Talbot’s novels, ‘The Hangman’s Handyman’, written in 1942, is also on Hoch’s list, though by 1945 it had become so difficult to publish mystery fiction, that Nelms could not get his third novel published. He stopped writing fiction and to this day no copy of this third novel, reportedly titled ‘The Affair of the Half-Witness’, has ever been found. Nelms is also widely remembered as an amateur stage magician, who wrote several important works on his art. His ‘Magic and Showmanship: A Handbook for Conjurers’, is widely considered to be one of the most important texts on the performance of stage magic. He was an active member of the Society of American Magicians and taught drama at Middlebury College, Vermont.
This novel opens in the wild snowbound northern New England lodge of Luke Latham where Rogan Kincaid, a rather roguish, footloose gambler and Talbot’s principal detective, has just arrived. He has apparently just asked Latham why he has come to the woods in the middle of winter, and Latham’s opening statement is quite clear. “I came here to make a dead man change his mind.”
The background to this novel is rather complex, but crucial to understanding the plot. Over a dozen years before this story begins, Grimaud Desanat, a French man from Provence – who had built a large home in these woods, know as Cabrioun – had died during a hunting trip in the “Hudson Bay country”, with his companion, a chemist named Walter Querns, after they got lost in a perilous blizzard. Desanat had left behind a wife, Irene, and a young daughter, Sere Desanat. However, by the time of this story, Irene has remarried another local man, Frank Ogden, and they have adopted Desanat’s daughter, who has grown up being called Sherry Ogden. Irene had been the one with the money after being widowed, but just after Desanat and Querns were lost, Ogden, a patent lawyer, had registered a chemical process for specialty wood production, and since that time the Lathams and the Ogdens had engaged in a profitable enterprise – logging the woods inherited by Irene, in the factory run by Latham, using Frank Ogden’s patented process. The problem now is that sufficient trees, of the proper caliber, are no longer locally available, and the only place that could salvage the business, is a stand of woods, known as Onawa, which Irene Ogden claims was willed to her by Desanat with the understanding that it would not be logged for at least 20 years. Fortunately, or so it seems at the time, Irene is a medium, and Frank and Latham are both believers in spiritualism! This leads to an obvious solution to the problem, hold a seance, get in touch with Desanat, and get him to reverse this ban on logging Onawa!
Sherry Ogden has already had a bit of a scare that day, when she heard her father’s voice, while skiing across a frozen lake, then she later hears an eerie folk song that is associated with Desanat. It even plays on her accordion, while the instrument is still locked inside its case! However, nothing can stop this emergency seance at Cabrioun, and that night nine members and guests of the two households sit down to summon up the spirit of Grimaud Desanat. The table not only includes the medium, Irene Ogden, Frank Ogden, Luke Latham, Rogan Kincaid and Sherry, but also Jeff Latham, Luke’s son; Peyton Ambler, an anthropology professor from Virginia, who has arrived unexpectedly; Barbara Daventry, a friend of Sherry and Jeff’s love interest; and finally, the rather odd, Svetozar Vok, a Czech immigrant, who is a stage magician – and soon revealed to be a psychic debunker! Also an important character in this story, is the native guide and caretaker of Cabrioun, Madore Troudeau, who introduces the native legend of the “windigo”, an “infectious” evil spirit that can possess its victim, and can only be killed with a silver bullet!
The seance initially follows the usual path, until they go ‘dark’ and a vision of Grimaud Desanat suddenly appears floating in mid air, uttering threats and denying that he had ever told Irene to keep the land from being logged. Jeff and Rogan break away from the circle and chase the supposed spirit down an upstairs corridor, where it impossibly vanishes inside a bathroom. The post seance activity is intense. Vok is revealed as a debunker of fake mediums, and soon uncovers most of Irene’s tricks, though no one is yet able to explain the vision of Desanat!
While the seance is a superb piece of writing, no law is actually broken until Irene Ogden is found with her head bashed in, later that night, inside her own bedroom. As was the case at the seance, there are no footprints on the fresh snow that surrounds Cabrioun, which stands in the middle of a sizeable clearing, though there are two tracks on the porch outside her window, where some flying creature, wearing hobnailed boots, apparently landed and reascended into the night sky. Suspicion immediately falls on her husband, Frank Ogden, who has been acting very strangely since he went outside to investigate after the spirit disappeared, only to return in a panic claiming that he had barely escaped being attacked by a large black flying creature – assumed to be the bloodthirsty spirit of Grimaud Desanat. The only problem with this theory is that Vok had already claimed that Ogden threatened him with a musket while sleepwalking, and Ogden, fearing he had been possessed by the Windigo, had fled to Latham’s lodge, where he had apparently been safely in bed at the time of the murder!
As all the impossibilities come into play – including a locked room murder witnessed in silhouette, footprints that begin and end in the middle of a snow covered field, impossible fingerprints on a gun mounted 12 feet above the floor, and our flying murderer, it becomes extremely difficult to accept any explanation that is not supernatural. This is a highly complex and intricate plot with hundreds of clues and so many minor incidents that it would take far too long to fully summarize. Besides, to go any further would require a spoiler alert. All that can be noted is that this single night goes on for almost 300 pages, with large parts of the action taking place as all the characters trudge back and forth, innumerable times, between Latham’s lodge, Cabrioun, and Madore’s cabin.
There is clearly an over-riding theme which questions the proper balance between science and a belief in the supernatural. Madore is the stereotypical superstitious and rather ignorant native, who can follow a trail, but has little else to recommend his character. Not politically correct, by modern standards, but if you want to read these great classic mysteries, after awhile this just becomes part of the scenery of this era. Irene, Frank and Luke fill out the full quartet of believers, who unquestionably accept that reason cannot define all our experience. On the other side of this equation are Jeff, Rogan and Vok who never fully accept any supernatural explanation, and right in the middle are Sherry, a strong doubter, and the anthropologist Ambler, a well educated man of science who accepts that logic will never answerer many of the questions raised by social scientists and psychic investigators.
Ambler perhaps best sums up this dilemma when Rogan asks him how much of these events he actually believes. “I wish I didn’t believe any of it.. I am more afraid of belief than the ghost itself. It isn’t that I dread the idea of the supernatural. I’ve always believed that to a certain extent. But a supernatural that includes Grimaud Desanat – a supernatural of which he is perhaps the type – revolts my very soul. He makes me feel that if I am not very careful an abyss will open up beneath my feet, and abominable things will crawl out of it… What else can I believe? Every trade marks a man. Mine is science. If that means anything at all, it means becoming the slave of logic. An honest scientist spends his days fighting the will to believe, until at last he ceases to have any control over his own opinions. He follows logic as inevitably and as helplessly as water runs downhill. He can no longer believe a thing because it is pleasant, or because anyone else does. Neither can he refuse to believe anything because it contravenes the theories on which he had based his entire life. I’d like to deny this thing if I could, I’d like to say it is a trick, but the evidence in favour of it seems inexorable.”
This theme is restated several times in various contexts, but only fully answered by Rogan’s final solution, which, as one might expect, proves to be a clear victory for logic over all the hocus-pocus. Yet, fortunately, Talbot clearly understands that a deep part of us is still rooting for the spooks, hoping against all hope that ruthless logic will not strip away all the haunting mysteries that make life worth living. As Talbot was actually the magician, Henning Nelms, I am fairly certain that he recognized this dilemma. The audience is always dying to know how a trick was done, yet they will inevitably feel cheated when the mundane truth is finally explained! And the reader will most certainly feel like he has been taken for a ride by the end of this story! Gadetection includes a quote from Nelms that makes this point quite clearly: “A typical trick has no meaning beyond the fact that it presents a puzzle and challenges the audience to find the solution. When we supply meaning, we eliminate the challenge, and the puzzle becomes secondary”. – Henning Nelms
The best part of this novel is the way Talbot manages to create such a vibrant, eerie atmosphere, where all these impossible events actually seem to have some plausible supernatural solution waiting in the wings. The isolation clearly accentuates this feeling, and excites a feeling of claustrophobia that almost leaves you sucking for air! Irene’s fakery also plays a critical role, setting a tone of sleazy mistrust, that again makes you feel like some easy answer is sitting right on the tip of your tongue! Only Derek Smith’s Whistle up The Devil, and several of the John Dickson Carr novels, manage to maintain such an extended spooky air, filled with images of the weird and strange, as we find in this rather bizarre novel. In fact Carr’s influence is evident throughout this novel. It could hardly be coincidence that the two books atop Hoch’s famous list, Rim of The Pit and Carr’s ‘Hollow Man’, both have central characters named Grimaud! Carr obviously served as Talbot’s primary inspiration, though Talbot is nearly as eclectic as Carr, taking inspiration from a wide variety of recognizable sources.
The seance scene is truly a brilliant piece of writing, as Grimaud’s widow ends up on the receiving end of her former husband’s harrowing visit – all set inside a dark, cavernous anti-cathedral lit only by flickering matches and candles. Meanwhile, outside this dark vault, we are back in the midst of yet another Shakespearean mystery-tempest which forces each character to pass a test of authenticity. One by one they come under suspicion, and are forced to reveal their true motivation, before finally being granted a pass! I find the scene where Vok extracts the confession from Madore, via the Hrosta curse, a unique and compelling example of the storm’s ability to expose lies. It is also worth noting, that some reviewers have claimed this book lacks humour, but this is not really the case. Talbot’s dark humour is present on nearly every page, from Bab’s fearless courage to Madore’s cringing fear and Sherry’s pink panties, but it is a quiet sophisticated grin – no belly laughs required!
Unfortunately, the final solution of this novel is a little clunky and contains at least half a dozen points that stretch the reader’s credulity beyond the breaking point. Without giving away too much, I can only advise the reader to watch for: the explanation of the “the curious incident of the dog in the nightime”; the reason for the 100′ gaps in the footprint tracks; the final complicated solution to the footprints on the porch (when a much more eloquent answer is obvious); how an accordion was played inside a locked case; and the magical abilities of a prestidigitator with far too many talents! I also have a problem with Vok’s early explanation of how Irene saw inside the blacked out seance room. Was that actually done by fake mediums in the day? Sounds quite impossible! I also found the way the police are invisibly managed to be just a little too neat. Would it really be possible to pull off such a con?
This locked room mystery is no great brain buster, the basic solution should be obvious quite early, though I guarantee that many details will not be guessed before Rogan spills the beans. Still, my greatest problem with this novel is all those endless journeys back and forth between the lodge and Cabrioun! This level of activity, during the course of a single night, makes this an exhausting, nerve wracking read, where the reader spends far too much time and effort trying to keep track of the large cast of characters. These city dwelling trolls flit about the snowy woods, with such ease and abandon, that they make Puck and all the Midsummer Night’s Dream fairies look like a tired huddle of snails! I realize this movement is a critical part of the magician’s shell game, designed to confound and confuse, but it really is a case of too much action, in too little time, with too many clues, and far too many puzzles! This is not just a good magician’s use of misdirection – it is pure unadulterated chaos!
So how do we rate this number two locked room mystery on Hoch’s famous best ever list? (A Locked Room Library) Don’t get me wrong! This is a very good locked room novel, but should it be ahead of ‘Nine Times Nine’? Is it better than ‘Through a Glass Darkly’, or ‘Death from a Top Hat’, or ‘The Big Bow Mystery’, or Carr’s ‘The Judas Window’? I just can’t place it in the same league, nor do I accept that Queen’s ‘The Chinese Orange Mystery’ is top ten material. (see review) The best I can do for ‘Rim of The Pit’ is a solid four stars. Well worth the read – but not number two after the Hollow Man!
Note: The Other Side, a Rogan Kincaid story is also included in the RH ebook edition.
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