Hake Talbot, otherwise known as the magician Henning Nelms, wrote three mystery novels, although the third was never published and no surviving copies apparently exist. Despite this, Rim of the Pit was voted by a panel of detective writers as the second greatest locked room mystery of all time, behind, of course, The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr. Intrigued, I forked out for an old Pocket Book Dell edition, with a map of the scene of the crime. So, as H in the Alphabet of Crime Fiction, was the reputation of this book deserved?
The setting is a cabin in snowbound New England, where an assortment of characters have gathered to ascertain logging rights as decided by a deceased step-father by way of a séance (obviously). Needless to say, things don’t go as planned… the deceased stepfather turning up at the séance hovering in mid-air, for a start.
Things get more complicated when the medium is murdered, inside a locked room, of course, and more and more signs point towards a supernatural murderer – not least as there are multiple instances of the killer actually flying. A leap from a snow-covered room lands over 100 feet away across virgin snow. Fingerprints of the medium’s husband are found on a loaded pistol hung well out of reach on a wall. Some of the characters begin to believe that the husband is possessed by the spirit of the stepfather, who has become a windigo, a Native American beastie. Could there possibly be a more human explanation?
I really enjoyed this book. After the slog of The Saltmarsh Murders, it was a real treat to encounter such a fun, enjoyable read. It was very hard at times to put this down – I’ve been very busy this week, but have been carrying it around in my pocket at work in order to catch a quick chapter when I can. It’s completely absorbing and up until the last chapter, it had me going as to whether there would be a completely human rationale behind what was going on.
It reads a bit like a grim episode of Scooby Doo, but the explanations for the most part make sense without being particularly convoluted. The villain of the piece is a very nice piece of sleight of hand and I’d be impressed by anyone who can spot him or her properly. Arguably there is perhaps too much going on at times, and some of the explanations of the minor occurrences, such as the 100 foot leap are a little baffling, but overall this book is an absolute treat and highly recommended. Good luck finding a copy, but if you’re a fan of the locked room, this is an essential read.