Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Rim of the Pit

Somehow, although I had read several histories of the detective story, the name of Hake Talbot had never registered, until learning Japanese brought me back to reading detective stories recently. His Rim of the Pit (1944) appears in quite a few lists of classic locked room mysteries. So, to fill in my education, I took a look at it, as an interval between the Japanese detective stories I mostly read.

The setting is an American forest wilderness. The lodges of two partners in the logging business are separated by a short walk. The wife of one of the businessmen is a spiritualist; and now she is calling up the ghost of her first husband, to ask his permission to cut the trees on one part of the land he had left her. But the ghost that appears seems miraculous beyond the possibilities of a fake seance; and it comes with a deep hostility to those that have called it up. Soon we have a Carr style mystery, with a locked room and footsteps that end in lonely untrodden snow, so that the witnesses can only think that a man has taken flight. For local colour the North American windigo legend is adapted to the idea of possession by ghosts. The dead, as evil spirits, can possess a man, directing his actions, while giving his body supernatural powers.

The style of the book is incredible. With huge self confidence Talbot pours out an endless stream of the clichés of popular writing: "A sneer curled Madore's thick lips", "Rogan saw Jeff's great shoulders bulge under his hunting shirt","Lights appeared over the brow of the hill. Madore's eyes darted to them in superstitious terror. Rogan took advantage of this to step in, catch the half-breed's wrist and twist it behind him until he dropped the knife". The attitudes of an old book are always going to be at odds with a modern reader. Mostly I have no problem with such things. Talbot's attitudes perhaps seemed so unpleasant to me, because unlike other dated writers, that's all he has.

The mystery is very closely modeled on Carr; and it looks quite promising as it is being built up. I guess that this setup in the first part of the book is what gets the book mentioned. The second half gets more tedious, as the characters track back and forth between the houses. The solution sort of works, if you're feeling generous; but it's not one of those wonderful "Oh, of course. How did I miss that?" solutions that the best mysteries have. There are a couple of good ideas in it, but they are not the impossible crime part.

When I read a really negative review of something that other people like, I suspect that the reviewer is missing something. Search for this title in other blogs and you'll find plenty of good reviews. So doubtless I'm missing something. At the moment I'm not really inclined to be fair, just snarling a little over the waste of my time.

4 comments:

  1. I remember little of this book, only that 1) I thought it to be a fun read overall, 2) those people should really stay in one place instead of running up and down the lodges/forest and 3) the cover is scary. >_>

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    1. On your point 2, I'm pretty much in agreement. I deliberately left out a scan of the cover to spare the eyes of anyone reading the blog.

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  2. Well, if Rim of the Pit didn’t do it for you, I can recommend Hangman’s Handyman, which was Talbot’s first detective novel and more traditionally styled as a locked room mystery. Kincaid is attacked in a locked room, but there’s also a body decomposing at supernatural speed and the overall story is very, very atmospheric. I’m fond of both.

    Note for the curious: the manuscript of Talbot's third mystery movel, The Affair of the Half-Witness, disappeared and is now considered a lost detective story.

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    1. I may try it some time. I actually thought the idea of a forest wilderness setting for an otherwise Carr style mystery was good in itself, I just didn't like the execution.

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