In The Spotlight: Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit

>In The Spotlight: Rex Stout's Fer de LanceHello, All,

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

47 Comments

Filed under Hake Talbot, Rim of the Pit

47 responses to “In The Spotlight: Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit

  1. Tim

    Margot, I have no heard of Talbot, but you’ve piqued my interest, and I hope to find a copy of _Rim of the Pit_. I’m a sucker for impossible Golden Age mysteries. Thanks for introducing me to Talbot.

  2. Tim

    Correction: “not heard” v. “no heard”
    My keyboarding skills betray me as someone who could not pass English composition classes. Irony!

  3. Howard

    This looks like it may be impossible to obtain through interlibrary loan, not that I won’t try anyway. And the cheapest one on Abebooks is $13. Hardly a princely sum, but I must spend carefully. This one does look like a good book, though, and I hope to read it.

    I always appreciate being made aware of the truly odd and obscure stuff in the field.

    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Howard. Some of the lesser-known books really are good reads. I admit; this one isn’t cheap. But it’s a good example of the Golden Age ‘impossible’ mystery, and it is one of those harder-to-find gems.

      • Howard

        I’m happy to report that I was able to get this Hake Talbot work through interlibrary loan, and it even came from a University library, which in my experience (almost) never happens — the University librarians are generally loath to share their bounty. Today, I received a nice copy of the 1944 edition, well rebound in black buckram, and with yellowed pages smelling like old pulp magazines. I love our library system! I’m about to dive into this book.

  4. I spent years hearing about this “lost” classic before finding a copy and being delighted that it lived up to its reputation – great choice Margot.

  5. This isn’t usually my type of mystery, but maybe if I find a copy at a reasonable price I will try it.

  6. Sounds intriguing! I try to overlook ‘isms’ in older books, but sometimes find it harder than others. But the impossible crime is always fun…

  7. Margot, this has been one of my favorite mysteries for a very long time. It is one of the very few “impossible crime” novels that can be mentioned in the same breath as those of John Dickson Carr. The atmosphere, as you say, is creepy or even beyond creepy; the plot is ingenious, and the look “behind the curtain” at how “mediums” perform their tricks is fascinating.

    For those who may want to buy it, IT IS STILL IN PRINT, from Ramble House, and it comes with the Dell Mapback cover (on the rear) that adds immeasurably to the mystery, showing those impossible footprints which begin and end in unbroken fields of snow. Follow this link – http://www.ramblehouse.com/rimofthepit.htm – to see what the book and the map look like; you’ll find a further link there to order the book from the publisher. I know it sounds expensive (though costing considerbly less than most modern hardcovers), but it really is a unique, well plotted, chilling (in every sense) mystery.

    • Thanks, Les, for sharing the link. It’s so good that publishers such as Ramble House are making these old classics available again. I’m also glad you mentioned the map. It’s a great Golden Age touch that you don’t see much any more.

      As to the book, I agree about the creepiness. It really is eerie, even for those who don’t believe in ghosts, mediums, and so on. And Talbot did a good job, as you point out, taking the reader ‘behind the scenes’ to show the way mediums do their thing. It’s certainly unique, and it does have some very clever plotting.

  8. An author and a book which are completely unknown to me – oh, you do know how to unearth interesting temptations, don’t you, Margot? I’m always a little sceptical about ghost stories and crime featuring mediums, but a creepy atmosphere is a bonus.

    • Talbot only wrote two mysteries, Marina Sofia, at least only two to my knowledge. So I’m not overly surprised you hadn’t heard of him. The atmosphere really is done well in this novel, and the plot is ingenious, with some interesting little knots. If you do read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  9. Margot, this sounds like a truly fascinating story that would be hard to put down. I’ve not heard of the book or the author before but am adding it to my TBR list. I like the idea of locked doors where killers couldn’t possible get out and the creepy lodge sounds perfect for the story. I can image reading this on a dark and stormy night to add to the sensation of the story.

    • It is definitely the sort of story, Mason, that can read on exactly that sort of night. And Talbot actually does the ‘locked room’ part in a really clever way. And the atmosphere? Really deliciously creepy. If you read it, I hope you’ll like it.

  10. I read this last year, and agree with all you say. It was a book I had never heard of before starting to read up on ‘locked room’ mysteries online – I think perhaps it isn’t known at all in the UK.
    Anyway, I was delighted to hear about it and then to get hold of it and read it, all thanks to our modern age.

    • I’m so glad it lived up to your expectations, Moira. It is an unusual find, and I’m quite pleased Ramble House made it available. It’s one of those books that doesn’t get a lot of attention, but it’s a creepy, unusual and interesting example of a Golden Age ‘impossible’ puzzle.

  11. I haven’t read the book, but let me tell you that I will, if I get the chance.
    It’s sounds very classic, nearly cliched, but still very intriguing. There’s some sort of very strange fascination with this kind of story that play on elements we have seen so many times, and still deliver.

    Then I’ll admit I have a penchant for creepy houses and lock room puzzles.
    I’ll hunt this down. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • There is something about those elements (creepy house, locked room, strange occurrences) that really gets people’s imaginations going, isn’t there, Jazzfeathers? Little wonder people love this sort of mystery as much as they do. If you get the chance to read this, I do think you’ll like those aspects of it very much. It is classic, but in my opinion, unusual enough to be well worth the read.

  12. I read it recently, Margot, and yes, you have to close your eyes to some political incorrectness which is of its time, but then it is great fun, a gripping read, and really quite scary. Loved the map, too.

  13. This is one of my favorite “impossible” crime novels and a must-read for anyone who enjoys atmospheric puzzlers.

    You mentioned that Talbot only wrote two novels, which is true (the other one being THE HANGMAN’S HANDYMAN), but there’s also a short story starring Rogan Kincaid which can be found in the anthology MURDER IMPOSSIBLE, edited by Jack Adrian and Robert Adey. According to Adrian’s preface to the story, Talbot (real name Henning Nelms), wrote another novel and some other short stories featuring Kincaid that were never sold and which were either destroyed by the author or which simply disappeared. That’s a shame because, as Les pointed out, Talbot was right there in the same league as John Dickson Carr.

    • When I was much younger I was an amateur magician, and read the book Magic and Showmanship, by Henning Nelms, which is considered a classic.

    • Thanks, Barry, for the information about that short story. The Ramble House edition of Rim of the Pit also includes the short story The Other Side, starring Kincaid. Is that perhaps the one in that anthology? In either case, folks, do try Talbot’s work if you haven’t. I would have loved a chance to read those other stories…

      • My bad, Margot. I meant to include the short story’s title but forgot to. In any event, it is indeed “The Other Side.” It’s good to know Ramble House also published it. Now if only that missing novel and those unpublished short stories would turn up somewhere….

  14. Oh, I’m going to have to add this one to my to-read pile! I love the sound of it! When I was in grad school (for which class, I can’t remember; maybe something media related?) we read a lot about how literary circles were big on seances–and they took them very seriously! So the idea of a seance isn’t that far-fetched to me, especially if this is an older book. Now, where do all these unusual names come from? You said the book is sent in New England…

  15. I am very-very envious, Margot. This has long been on my wishlist but till date I have been unable to get a copy of it. Your engaging review has made me wish for it all the more. And I am looking forward to the spotlight on Madhumita Bhattacharya.

    • I really wish that classics such as Rim of the Pit were easier to find, Neeru. I’m glad places such as Ramble House are bringing them back, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re easy to find. And I’m very much looking forward to discussing the Madhumita Bhattacharya, too.

  16. Denny Lien

    I’ve read this one three times over the last fifty-some years. The first two times I thought it was wonderful; the third time, older and more jaded, I decided it was “only” really, really good.

    I love impossible crime stories and I love seemingly-supernatural detective stories, and as others have pointed out, this is one of the few not written by JD Carr which is good enough, on both counts, to have been written by him.

    Denny Lien

    • Thanks for your comments, Denny. You’re raised a really interesting question, too: how do books fare when we read them for the scone, or third, or…. time? That in itself is terrific ‘food for thought,’ for which thanks. And I agree: this is a fine example of the ‘impossible’ crime story.

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