The Hangman’s Handyman by Hake Talbot
Fulfils “Where – on an island”
Nancy Garwood awakens slowly, still dressed for dinner, with vague memories of a tables laid for thirteen. She descends from her room into a seemingly deserted house…
Enter washed-up gambler Rogan Kincaid, a late arrival to the party, who helps her find their fellow guests. They reveal that at dinner their host, Jackson B. Frant, told the story of a family curse, complete with historic manuscripts, then repeatedly taunted his skeptical half-brother to curse him. Pushed beyond his limits Lord Tethryn cried out “Od rot you, Jack, Od rot you!” whereupon Frant immediately fell down dead.
Kincaid, with secrets of his own, must decide who he can trust as events take an even more sinister turn straight from the pages of Edgar Allan Poe. Can he survive an encounter with the Hangman’s Handyman and get to the truth?
A very atmospheric book as the guests, police, and pressman start to question just what might be possible and how the inexplicable could be explained. Kincaid is an interesting character – for me a cross between Bogart’s Sam Spade and an Alistair MacLean lone-wolf narrator – as is Bobby Chatterton, an uncertain young man with a penchant for magic tricks with a point.
I look forward to reading Talbot’s more celebrated “The Rim of the Pit” in the New Year.
Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles
Although first published in 1931, it was only translated into Swedish in 1974 when it won the Martin Beck award so fulfils “Why – it won an award of any sort”
“It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr Bickleigh took any active steps in the matter. Murder is a serious business. The slightest slip may be disastrous. Dr Bickleigh had no intention of risking disaster.”
So begins Francis Iles’ (Anthony Berkeley Cox) cornerstone of the inverted mystery sub-genre (not a whodunnit but a willtheygeddawaywithit). We follow Edmund Bickleigh as he turns from overpowered worm to overpowering superman (at least in his own estimation) and attempts to fulfil one of his more realistic nocturnal reveries.
I re-read this specifically to help complete the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge and my memory of it was hazy, although parts did come back to me. It is acknowledged as classic but I didn’t enjoy it all that much. As with any inverted mystery I found myself rooting for the Doctor, but actually he is a very unpleasant specimen, and while his wife is no better, she is actually right about a crucial point.
For my money the later “Trial and Error” written by Cox under the Anthony Berkeley pseudonym is much more good fun and much more surprising.