Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. There’s something about the sort of ‘impossible’ mystery, especially the Golden Age version of that sort of story. Add to that the context of an eerie house and lodge, and a group of disparate people staying there, and you have the elements of a creepy Golden Age story. Let’s take a look at that sort of novel today, and turn the spotlight on Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit. By the way, it’s worth noting that this is one of only two mysteries Talbot wrote.
The story takes place during a rural New England winter, mostly on a property known as Cabrioun, and the lodge associated with it. The property used to be owned by French émigré Grimaud Désanat. However, he and a companion, Walter Querns, died during a hunting trip some years ago. Désanat’s widow, Irene, now owns the property, and a fortune. Also living there is her current husband, Frank Ogden, and Désanat’s daughter, Seré, whom the Ogdens have adopted, and who’s gone by the name Sherry Ogden most of her life.
The Ogdens own a business with a family friend, Luke Latham. He has a factory that does specialty wood production. The factory gets its logs from forest land that Irene Ogden inherited from her first husband. It uses a specially-patented process developed by Irene’s current husband, Frank. All’s gone well until recently. Now, the proper sort of wood isn’t available any more, and the business may run out. The only solution is a piece of land known as Onawa, which does have the right sort of trees. Irene claims she inherited that land from Désanat, whose wish was that it not be logged for twenty years. The business can’t wait that long, so Irene and Latham have come up with a solution: hold a séance to contact Désanat, and ask his permission to go ahead and log the Onawa.
It’s not as far-fetched as it seems for those two. They both believe in spiritualism, as does Frank; Irene, in fact, is a medium. So, plans go ahead for the séance. That night, a group of people gather. There are, of course, Irene, Frank, and Sherry Ogden. There are also Luke Latham and his nephew, Jeff. Jeff’s new girlfriend, Barbara Daventry, is there as well. Professor Peyton Ambler, who is by profession an anthropologist, has also come, as has Svetozar Vok. Vok is a well-known stage magician who’s taken to debunking fake spiritualists, so he has quite an interest in this event. Taking part in it all, and serving as the sleuth, is itinerant gambler Rogan Kincaid, who knows the Lathams.
The séance takes place, and is a truly eerie experience. It frightens several of the participants, and there are incidents that seem to be otherworldly. Most of them are later explained when Irene is unmasked as a fake. Still, there are some things left unexplained.
Later that night, Irene is murdered in her room. Now the house party is thoroughly frightened. Either her death has a supernatural explanation (scary enough for those who believe in such things), or one of them is a murderer (scary for everyone). Cut off by bad weather, the group tries to find out who killed Irene Ogden, and what can account for some very strange, unsettling events.
This is a Golden Age sort of story in many respects. There’s the disparate house party, the truly creepy house and lodge, and the slow reveal of several different motives as the story goes on. I don’t want to say more, for fear of spoilers, but several of the characters’ pasts play roles in the story, and some of the reveals prove to be important. We also have the final explanation that Kincaid lays out (after another murder).
This is also very much an ‘impossible, but not really’ sort of story. For one thing, there seems no way for the murderer to have escaped Irene Ogden’s room. And yet, her body is found alone. And what explains the occurrences at the séance? Irene’s machinations don’t answer all of the questions. And there are other things that don’t seem possible – but apparently have happened. A few of the characters put it down to the spirit of Grimaud Désanat, who never loved his wife, and now wants to avenge his death on her. But others seek a more prosaic solution, as impossible as that seems. Readers who enjoy intricate, complex ‘locked room’ puzzles will appreciate this.
The story is also of its time in the attitudes of some of the characters. For example, one of the characters, Madore Trudeau, is the property caretaker. He’s half First Nations, and is not portrayed respectfully. There also other ‘isms,’ including sexism. On the one hand, those were the attitudes of the day. On the other, readers who object to those ‘isms’ will notice them.
One of the other important elements in the novels is its eerie atmosphere. The house is creepy, and bad winter weather has made any trip outdoors dangerous. The séance is thoroughly unsettling, even for people who don’t believe in spiritualism. And some of the characters, including the enigmatic Vok, as well as Désanat himself, are portrayed in almost sinister ways. Flickering candles, mysterious sounds, unexplained voices, it’s that sort of story. That said, though, Vok, Kincaid, and a few others do not believe in the supernatural. So, there’s an interesting debate about whether there are supernatural explanations for things.
Rim of the Pit is an intricate, ‘impossible’ sort of Golden Age mystery that takes place in a very creepy atmosphere. It features characters who all have connections in some way to Grimaud Désanat or his widow, and who all have something they don’t want to reveal at first. And it really does have an eerie séance, even if you don’t believe in ghosts. But what’s your view? Have you read Rim of the Pit? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 12 December/Tuesday, 13 December – Cop Town – Karin Slaughter
Monday, 19 December/Tuesday, 20 December – We Are the Hanged Man – Douglas Lindsay
Monday, 26 December/Tuesday, 27 December – The Masala Murder – Madhumita Bhattacharya