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.