INVISIBLE GREEN (1977) by John Sladek

This detective novel by science fiction author John Sladek offers several impossible crimes in the style of John Dickson Carr and deserves to be much better known. It was paid a great compliment in 1981 when, only two years after its belated US publication, it was included in Edward D. Hoch’s celebrated poll of the best locked room mysteries undertaken on behalf of the Mystery Writers of America. Significantly, Sladek’s book was the only one written by a contemporary author practicing in the classical style. Except that, by then, he had already decided that for commercial reasons he would have to stick with SF. Which is a real shame because it meant no more cases investigated by his dandy amateur sleuth, Thackeray Phin.

The following review is my contribution to Kerrie’s Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog, which this week has reached the letter I. You should head over there right now and check out some of the other selections on offer.

“Those two novels suffered mainly from being written about 50 years after the fashion for puzzles of detection. I enjoyed writing them, planning the absurd crimes and clues, but found I was turning out a product the supermarket didn’t need any more … One could starve very quickly writing locked-room mysteries” – John Sladek in 1983 (Science Fiction Review 46)

For the 1981 poll, Hoch assembled a formidable list of 17 experts including Jack Adrian, Jacques Barzun, Jon L. Breen, RE Briney, Jan Broberg, Ellery Queen, Douglas Greene, Howard Haycraft, Marvin Lachman, Richard Levinson & William Link, Bill Pronzini, Julian Symons, Donald Yates and Hoch himself of course. The list of their favourites inevitably included the likes of Carr, Leroux, Rawson and Queen but also brought back to prominence Hake Talbot’s forgotten classic Rim of the Pit. Sladek was the only contemporary author to make the list apart from Randall Garrett, whose Lord Darcy stories are fantasy hybrids set in a parallel world in which magic is real. Sladek, while better knows for his SF, had created a resolutely old-fashioned mystery novel in Invisible Green, one that revolves round a grouping not too dissimilar in fact from that which voted in the poll. It begins on the eve of the Second World War, when a club of murder enthusiasts meet, almost for the last time, to take a members photo. But could one of them be a murderer? Many of them will eventually be victims of one some decades later …

“The Seven Unravellers were as mixed a bag as any group of genuine murder suspects … all they had in common was murder. The great leveller, he thought. The democracy of death.”

It is now the 1970s and all but one of the seven original club members are still alive – but that is about to change. The acrostic-loving ‘Unraveller’ Dorothea Pharaoh engages eccentric American sleuth Thackeray Phin to look into the claims being by Major Stokes that he is being targeted by a ‘Mr Green’. No one takes him seriously as he is a conspiracy nut and rabid anticommunist (he thought the Nazis were OK, just a bit ‘too foreign’). But the next morning the paranoid Stokes is found dead in his lavatory, his flat’s doors and windows all bolted, and no one could have got through the tiny loo window. But why did Stokes look so terrified and why did he break his fingernails even though nothing was apparently scratched? Phin discovers that all the Unravellers, who are due for a reunion, are being sent colour coded messages. Then two more die in apparently impossible circumstances.

“Being serious, my dear, is a crime I shall never commit” – Thackeray Phin

Phin first appeared in ‘By An Unknown Hand’, the winner of first prize in a mystery short story competition run in 1972 by The Times, the judges including Agatha Christie and Tom Stoppard. This led to the first Phin novel, Black Aura (1974), and another (very) short story, ‘It Takes Your Breath Away’. Both of the stories have been republished in Maps: The Uncollected John Sladek (Big Engine, 2002), edited with love and care by David Langford. Phin is lots of fun, an American in 1970s London trying single-handed to resurrect the Golden Age of deductive crime solving (a bit like Sladek) with an appalling taste in clothes, much to the exasperation of Chief Inspector Gaylord of Scotland Yard (“Phin, there is only one thing you can tell me … Who the hell’s your haberdasher?”). In the end Phin is able to unmask the apparently ‘invisible’ Mr Green, explain how a stranger managed to stab the irascible ex-cop Frank Denby when the house where was found was surrounded at the time; and how a woman could be strangled at her securely locked home when both of the only special keys that can open the doors were accounted for, and when all the suspects were accounted for and half-way across London at a party at the stated time of death. The explanations are both complex and ingenious without straining credulity too far – and most importantly thoroughly entertaining, the author’s delight in the genre never in a doubt for a second. I urge any fans of the Carr, Rawson, Queen, Hoch and the impossible crime genre in general to find and read Phin’s few cases for they are sure to treasure them when they do.

***** (3.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in 2012 Alphabet of Crime, Crime Fiction Alphabet, Friday's Forgotten Book, John Dickson Carr, John Sladek, Locked Room Mystery, London, Scene of the crime. Bookmark the permalink.

47 Responses to INVISIBLE GREEN (1977) by John Sladek

  1. Sergio – What an interesting choice for I! I’d heard of Sladek as a science fiction author but I’m ashamed to say I’ve not read his Phin novels. There are several authors like that who started in or were best known for another genre but also wrote crime fiction. Their novels often have a really interesting slant to them because of that background. I will definitely have to look out for Mr. Phin.

    • Thanks Margot – Sladek loved acrostics and wordplay but was also a sly humourist. In his SF this tended to move his work towards meta narratives occasionally in the style of Borges, but his two Phin novels and short stories (one admittedly little more than a sketch) are well clued and very traditional (barring the odd use of bad language just to remind you that it is the 70s even though nearly all the chararcters are in fact living in a GAD past). The Phin stories were all published in the UK first and in fact Invisible Green only came out in the US some 2 years after the firts publication. Not sure if the novels have ever been reprinted though paperbacks seems reasonably easy to track down (he typed without actually bothering to check any reputable sources …)

  2. Patrick says:

    I absolutely love this book. A great successor to Sladek’s BLACK AURA– and in French-language circles, this novel is regarded even more highly than the predecessor! I loved the detective, the humour, the impossible crimes (though the one in the house was *very* improbable to say the least)… It’s just such a fun read!

    • Thanks Patrick – I do think that ‘improbability’ is part of the charm, especially as it was introduced early on. Admittedly it’s the sort of solution Carr would have dangled in front of the reader and then discarded. It does have more than a whiff of the absurd, but is also quite clever to my mind. The French, as always, do things better and with more respect when it comes to arts and culture …

  3. I do like locked room mysteries and detective puzzles, so this is a book I’ll be looking out for. The book I’m currently reading, ‘Death at the President’s Lodging’ by Michael Innes (my choice for the letter I) is of the locked room type – this time the ‘locked room’ is a college, locked up each night, but still a murderer manages to get in and out.

    • Locked room mysteries are wonderfulyl entertaining, aren’t the? I’m just about to head over to your blog now – I do remember quite liking the early Appleby books (this is his first one, right?) though I am not his biggest fan, though I find it hard to explain just why as I love Crispin and Blake for instance, two authors greatly insprired by him.

  4. westwoodrich says:

    Again, I’d only heard of Sladek as a sci-fi author. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I’ve added it to my wishlist.

    • Cheers mate. Really hope you track it down – I don’t think it is too hard to find and I try to avoid reviewing anythign too obscure, or at least doing so without a warning in advance!

  5. TomCat says:

    I made the mistake of reading this one after its famous predecessor, Black Aura, and ended up thoroughly disappointed. Everything that made the previous book an out-and-out classic (from an ingenious and original plot to brilliant touches of humor and the daydream sequences) were cut-out without being replaced. Taken by itself, it’s not that bad of a story but in comparison nothing more than a shell of its predecessor.

    Maps: The Uncollected John Sladek also contains a number of inverted mysteries with a twist. “You Have a Friend at Fengrove National” is (IMHO) the best of the lot.

    • Thanks TomCat – I think you are probably right about Black Aura being the better book (though it looks like I liked this this one a lot more than you did). Thanks also for pointing to the non-Phin stories in the Maps anthology.

  6. I have not read any John Sladek novel. I gotta remedy that soon!

    Here is my CFA: I post

  7. I will be looking for this one Sergio! Thanks for posting it. I,m just visiting this week, not posting.

  8. Jeff Flugel says:

    Very cool! I’ve never heard of Sladek before your post. Both of these novels sound like my kind of stuff! I love getting alerted to new (to me) authors – cheers, Sergio! Now to try and track down a copy.

    • Cheesr Jeff. Amazon in Japan has a copy available here though it’s a lot cheaper from Amazon in the US or the UK. Second hand copies of the two Phin cases, Black Aura and Invisible Green, are very easy to find on Amazon worldwide I should add.

  9. Pietro says:

    By An Unknown Hand is one of the most extraordinary short stories I have read ever, one of the best Locked Rooms absolutely. His imagination is overflowing, yet the solver mechanism of the plot is simple: it is based only on an orange chair, almost.

    • Thanks Pietro – Sladek’s work is wonderfully clever and funny, a difficult combination to achieve. And critically even harder to describe to be honest (if you’re tying to be honest that is).

  10. John says:

    TomCat has already said it but I will back him up. Black Aura is by far the better of the two Phin mysteries. But both are definitely worth reading. Although both were reprinted in paperback I rarely find Black Aura in a paprerback edition. Invisible Green, on the other hand, pops up all over the place in the used book market. At least over here. It may be even easier to find both in the UK. Been wanting to read those read those two stories for a while. I have yet to find an affordable copy of MAPS and I’ve been looking for several years.

  11. Pietro says:

    I agree with John. The two novels are both significant, but Black Aura is the best. The explanation of the levitation is a trick that’s more about Merlini than Fell or Merrivale, but it is always extraordinary. Call to mind some optical tricks Carrian (that in The Hollow Man, and also that of the table, in one of the stories with Colonel March).

    • Ciao Pietro – I shall definitely see about re-reading Black Aura (it’s been quite a while) and perhaps even run a quick review. I do remember liking it a lot – and I’m a big magic fan of course, so that helps too!

  12. Pietro says:

    Sto per postare l’articolo su Black Aura sul mio blog italiano che tu hai già visitato. Nei prossimi giorni apparirà. E quindi su Death Can Read apparirà nel futuro prossimo. La camera chiusa non è un granché, oggettivamente lo si può dire, ma il trucco della levitazione è una delle sue cose più straordinarie.
    Come stai Sergio? La mia promessa si avvererà prima o poi, ma son sempre alla ricerca di libri per te. Spero in questa estate, in cui appaiono sempre rese di gialli invenduti. Ma al di là del tuo indirizzo londinese, non c’è un recapito italiano (tuoi parenti per esempio, sorelle, madre o padre) dove si possa inviare le cose? Sarebbe facilitato il tutto e non aspetterei ancora per darti quello che ho trovato.
    Ciao.
    Piero

  13. Colin says:

    Really glad you brought this one up. I’d never heard of the book or the author before, but it sounds like my kind of story. I managed to grab a copy off Amazon and, seeing as I’m heading off on holiday in a few days, it will be added to the fairly hefty pile of books and movies I hope to make my way through in the coming weeks.

  14. irene says:

    I must be living under a rock, I haven’t heard of this author either. Thanks for your great review.

    • Thanks Irene, but I suspect that even if it’s a pretty big rock you might not have heard of him as Sladek is a bit of a cult author and mainly known for his science fiction. Very much in the vein of Philip K. Dick )one of whose manuscripts he posthumously completed) and Thomas Disch (with whom he collaborated on several stories).

  15. Pietro says:

    Bellissimo! Un blog internazionale! Io ti scrivo in italiano ed un altro in greco (= la frase voleva dire: ti ringrazio molto amico mio). Fenomenale!

  16. TracyK says:

    Never even heard of this author. And I thought with all the mystery reference I had read… Also, haven’t ever been much into locked rooms and impossible scenarios, although I will certainly give them a try now. Having read so much about Carr in the last few weeks. This is the joy of participating in the Crime Fiction Alphabet. Learning about authors and getting my feet wet in new areas. Thanks for featuring this.book and author.

    • Cheers TracyK – Sladek does not appear in the most of the standard encyclopedias as far as I can tell – but then his output in the mystery genre was not great so from that standpoint it is easy to understand why. Well worth seeking out though, mainly if you do like impossible crimes / locked room mysteries. Otherwise, you might find it a bit arch and annoying potentially, I’ll admit …

      • TracyK says:

        I did find Black Aura in 1001 Midnights. I would like to read that and DeAndrea’s Encyclopedia Mysteriosa cover to cover but don’t know when I will ever find the time.

        I will definitely seek Sladek out. Another one I will have to put on my list to buy later in the year…

        • I only recently managed to get a decent copy of 1001 Midnights – it would be rather nice to be able to say one had ready every book and every review to go with it? Well, one can dream I suppose … Black Aura is a great place to start though TracyK – really look forward to hearing what you make of it!

  17. Valli says:

    I love locked room mysteries. Local library has a copy of Maps. I will check it out. Thanks for sharing!

  18. scott says:

    Another author to check out. :)

    • I knwo how you feel – all these great books and so little time left – but at least I promise that this is a good one! and at least the bibliography won’t be too extensive.

  19. TomCat says:

    Well, your blog has, once again, provided me with inspiration this week to pen a blog post. This time on a very little known parody Sladek penned entitled “The Locked Room.”

    By the way, do you still plan to read/review Baantjer’s The Sorrowing TomCat? If you happen to like it, I might feel like I have returned the favor for so greedily gulping from this prestine well of inspiration. ;)

    • Hi TomCat, I am heading over there right now! After an unexpected delay, The Sorrowing TomCat is literally on my desk right now and I am greatly looking forward to it – I hope to post the review next month. Hope not to let you down mate.

  20. Todd Mason says:

    You’ll find, Sergio, no lack of cross-“genre” writing in certain areas…people who love to write sf “problem stories” (where a single simple or complex problem needs to be addressed) are often the same sort to want to take on locked-room mysteries and the sort, and do them relatively well or poorly, depending…Hoch and (infrequently) Bill Pronzini come to the sf problem story mostly from crime fiction, and the likes of Poul Anderson and Isaac Asimov (and, less reliably in cf, Larry Niven) from sf, but there are hordes of amphibians by any reasonable standard, ranging from Arthur Porges to Edward Wellen to Miriam Allen de Ford (to cite a few other names that don’t get as much attention as they probably should), who have at least moved in this realm. And don’t miss, among the Sladek/Disch collaborations, BLACK ALICE, a relatively straightforward crime novel, nor, if you’re of a mind to move in that direction, overlook Sladek’s gothics, in the 1960s/70s sense of vaguely supernatural-seeming novels of menace, that usually turn out to be crime fiction, as well. Sladek was, as you note, often brilliant and funny (and at times scabrous) at whatever he turned a hand to.

    • Cheers Todd, very good point there, well worth looking beyond such usual suspects as Bester and Asimov (and Fredric Brown and Bloch and …). Some of Henry Kuttner’s later crime novels are just being reprinted, which I am greatly looking forward to. – I haven’t read ALICE actually and really will try and track that one down.

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