Friday, March 4, 2011

The Rim of the Pit: Review

The Rim of the Pit (1944) by Hake Talbot is a locked room mystery novel which has in the past been ranked as the second best locked room mystery of all time. Ranked second to the master of locked room mysteries John Dickson Carr's The Hollow Man. That being the case, I had fairly high expectations going in. After all, Carr is absolutely the best at this game and for Talbot to follow him that closely, this must be one humdinger of a story.

Well, it's pretty decent. Most of the positive points come from the atmosphere. The claustrophobic nature of a group of people gathered at a remote snowbound lodge in the wilds of upper New England. The ghostly and bizarre seance scheduled to try and reach the spirit of the deceased husband of the medium herself. In this seance her second husband is looking for permission from the dead man to log a section of land that he had previously barred. As Frank Ogden (the second husband) says at the beginning of the story, "I came up here to make a dead man change his mind." Also gathered at the lodge are the dead man's daughter, a Czech refugee who specializes in exposing false mediums, Ogden's partner in the logging business & his girlfriend, a professor who claims to be an old friend of the dead man, Rogan Kinkaid, an adventurer who turns detective, and a native guide who takes visitors to the lodge hunting.

During the seance, it seems that the dead man really does appear. The description of the scene is spell-binding. It almost had me believing the man was there. Yes, there is evidence of a certain amount of fakery...but the wife is genuinely frightened of the spirit she has conjured and there are many points that don't seem susceptible to logical explanation. There is also much talk of spirit possession and when a murder takes place all evidence points to the deranged spirit of the dead man having taking possession of the second husband. Clues abound, but none of them make sense. There are the footprints that begin and end in the middle of a clean track of snow...a hundred feet from the nearest path or building. There are the tracks leading from the murdered woman's bedroom window, across the roof, and then disappearing into nothingness. There are the fingerprints on a gun that rests 12 feet in the air. It appears that the murderer can fly.

Before the adventure is over motives are revealed for nearly every one of the lodge's guests and the finger of suspicion hovers over each of them. But it is up to Kinkaid to make his way through the suggestions of spiritual interference to the true solution. And I found the solution a bit hard to swallow--the "locked room" quality of this mystery is more convoluted and not near the standard of any by Carr. I had to reread portions to make sure I had understood. I never have to do that with Carr. Not that I'm so clever...but Carr always explains the impossibilities in a way that I can understand. I was a little disappointed to find that this story was the next best thing to the master. Three stars--decent mystery, fair locked room explanation, and good atmosphere.


J F Norris said...

I had a completely different experience. I think this book is simply great. It's a title I recommend all the time. But than again I know I have more of a love of the outlandish (and often crave it) in a mystery novels. In fact, I wanted there to be a real wendigo! I was let down that there was no real supernatural presence. I also remember that the characters were all desperate to put an end to all the madness and spent nearly every minute trying to unmask the killer and figure out what the heck was going on in the snow. In that way it kind of reminded me of the paranoia in And Then There Were None. But I'm glad it rated three stars for you.

Bev Hankins said...

John, actually, I agree with you. I wish there would have been a supernatural presence. I think that would have been more satisfying for me than Kinkaid's wrap-up. Maybe I just didn't like him as much as I like Gideon Fell...perhaps there was a bit of character prejudice working there.

Jenny Girl said...

Great review Bev. I do not like books that make me re-read passages because I don't understand them. It should be because it is so shocking or good I fly over the words and must re-read so as not to miss something. Sorry this wasn't as good as you expected.

Anonymous said...

Bev, I am glad you enjoyed the parts you enjoyed, but I must admit that I still think it's better than you found it to be. Hey, that's what makes these challenges interesting, as we all react differently. I agree with you and John - the atmosphere is remarkably well done. I also think that one of the dangers of "impossible crime" books is our tendency, when the trick is revealed, to say "Is that all there was to it?" I think it's the real reason why stage magicians will never reveal how a trick is done. By the way, I learned a fair amount about stage trickery in "Rim of the Pit" - it's one of the reasons I enjoyed it.