Penzler Pick, February 2001:
The very thing that first hooked me on mysteries long ago is the element most on display in this fat and satisfying volume: amazement. Not whodunit or why, but how
. And that really means wow
, as in, "Wow, I can't believe what I just read!" Such cases were originally the province of Edgar Allan Poe's Inspector Dupin, whose unraveling of such sensational "impossible" crimes as "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" gave the reading public of an earlier era its appetite for gasp-inducing solutions. Just a few decades later the mystery genre had progressed to a more rational approach, with which Arthur Conan Doyle equipped Sherlock Holmes, though the crimes demanding our greatest sleuth's attention were highly fanciful more often than not. Snakes in airshafts menacing gentlewomen! Clubs restricted to redheaded fellows! Wow!
Next appeared the exceedingly baroque whimsies of John Dickson Carr, who eventually grew to feel the strain of being regarded as the Houdini of mystery literature. But before he saw his powers of invention begin to flag, Carr, who also wrote as Carter Dickson, had defined the subgenre of locked-room crime for all time, producing over 50 novels and dozens of short stories featuring some startling variations on the theme. The Hollow Man, published in the U.S. as The Three Coffins, is considered by experts to be this author's greatest achievement. It offers in the course of the story a seminal lecture about the locked-room crime.
In this bargain tome, Carr is represented by "The Silver Curtain," in which a man standing alone in a cul-de-sac is fatally stabbed in the back. From a less well-known writer, Clayton Rawson (a real-life magician as well as an authorial one), comes a tale written in response to a challenge by Carr, his friend and rival: make a man vanish from a phone booth. (He succeeds, of course.) Also on hand are four clever contemporary tricksters: Peter Lovesey, H.R.F. Keating, Lawrence Block, and Edward D. Hoch. There's almost too much entertainment value in these 29 tales assembled by veteran editor and mystery scholar Mike Ashley. "I've endeavored to bring together a collection of stories," he says, "that seem utterly baffling and where the solution is equally amazing." That's OK. Ration them, and you'll only savor them more. --Otto Penzler