Saturday, 28 March 2015

Rim of the Pit by Hake Talbot


published 1944


Snow Rim of the Pit



Jeff went to the closet and returned struggling into his coat…Rogan emerged with his coat.

The snow has advantages. It shows marks. If there are tracks on the roof there must be more on the ground. …If people would wait until the evidence was all in, there’d be fewer ghost stories.

Near the front of the house his light picked up the main path from the lodge as it curved to meet the steps at the side of the porch.

[Later]

Lights appeared over the brow of the hill. Madore’s eyes darted to them in superstitious terror. Rogan took advantage of this to step in, catch his wrist and twist it behind him until he dropped the knife. Rogan thrust the pistol into his coat and shouted.

Six heads showed over the hill above. A flashlight picked out Madore and then swung to Rogan…

The low bulk of the lodge sprawled on the crest of the ridge, its blind lightless windows staring down at them.

 
observations: I’ve been waiting for more snow locally, thinking I might run this blogpost on a snowday, but I’ve given up hope – the weather is positively spring-like. Which is a good thing.

I had never heard of Rim of the Pit until comparatively recently: but then I read that it had been voted the second best locked-room mystery of all time, after John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man. I’m a big fan of Carr and his impossible crimes, so I thought I’d better get hold of this one. Apparently the author was a well-known magician who produced just a couple of crime stories, of which this is the best.

A disparate group of people have gathered in a remote spot in New England – there’s a cabin and a lodge, some solid and sinister forest, and a lot of snow. There is a complex plot involving the lumber business, and rather too many characters. A séance is held to get a dead man’s permission for a (lumber) business deal, and things start to look up – there’s nothing like a séance for improving the mood. The usual mixture of fraud and possible reality ensue: could the dead man really have come back to interfere with the living? Has he taken possession of his wife’s new husband? Impossibility is piled on impossibility – there are endless searches in the snow (the sections above have been spliced together from different pages of the book) and a lot of footprints, and missing footprints, and inexplicable footprints. Recently, quoting from Russell Thorndike’s The Slype, I said this:
‘Splendid! Recent footprints in the snow, of course?’ Such an archetypal Golden Age sentence…
I liked the book, and it gets a lot of credit for being short and to the point. I guessed some of what was going on – and it was very clear to me who must be the main culprit. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t enjoyable: and also, guessing is helped by my having read so many similar stories, written since this one – I imagine Rim of the Pit was very influential.

You would definitely think the author must have been a really good conjuror or magician – he really knew his tricks. As a writer, not so much. I think the book could have done with a good edit - I had to read the opening page about six times because I couldn’t work out who was speaking to whom, or where they were, or why, or whom the dog belonged to. But I’m glad I persevered, and the atmosphere of the snow-bound lodges was very well done. And it is a real pity he didn’t write some more.

For séances and snow, click on the labels below.

The picture of a snowshoeing trip is from the Provincial Archives of Alberta.













16 comments:

  1. Been ages since I read this one but I remember thoroughly enjoying all the various tricks on display such as seeing through an envelope and concealing something in the snow - but no, the characters and prose have not exactly stuck with me!

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    1. Yes exactly, Sergio, that's how I felt about it. But being able to think up those tricks is a very valuable talent...

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  2. Moira - This does have a sterling reputation among locked-room mystery experts, that's true. And it goes to show that working out whodunit is only a part of the enjoyment we can get from a story. Interesting that Talbot didn't write more - I wish he had, too. I wonder how he'd have developed as a fiction writer if he had.

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    1. It's always interesting to come fresh to one of those classic, famous books isn't it? I was delighted to finally read it, and, as you say, regret that he wrote so little.

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  3. When I saw that you were taking this on, Moira, I thought, "Oh, she's going to write about the girl whom Rogan discovers 'at the pink silk panties stage' of undressing." That line apparently stuck with me! I read this book years ago and it's been a favourite ever since; the wendigo is a real legend in the north woods, although Talbot changed most of the details for his own plotting benefit.

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    1. Oh that's hilarious Noah, and you are so close to the truth! I decided I had to take on the more basic parts of the story....

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  4. I'm very glad you enjoyed it, Moira - it's been one of my favorites for years. I like the atmosphere, which, in places, rivals the kind of scenesetting we enjoy in Carr. I also think it has one of the best opening lines in any book: "I came up here to make a dead man change his mind."

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    1. Yes indeed, great atmosphere, and great first line... what a pity he didn't write more. Thanks Les.

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    2. There is one more Rogan Kincaid novel, but I don't recommend you go to the trouble of tracking it down. The most interesting thing about The Hangman's Handyman is its title, I think. Talbot tries for the same supernatural suspense as Rim of the Pit but it just doesn't come off.

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    3. Thanks Noah, will take your advice on board. And yes, the Hangman's Handyman is a great title.

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  5. Moira: I was initially skeptical of a snowshoe trip. It is hard work snowshoeing any distance but I looked up the photos and there they were on snowshoes. I think someone with a horse and sleigh was actually bringing supplies.

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    1. Bill, I thought it was a strangely compelling picture, and am glad to have more details. Having someone else follow on with supplies sounds strangely modern, doesn't it, the kind of thing you'd expect pampered 21st C cityfolk to do.
      Snowshoeing is something I tried and really enjoyed at one time (I liked it much better than skiing) but I certainly wasn't expecting to go far.

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  6. Never heard of this one and it sounds good, but......I don't think it's going to happen.

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    1. Are you sure you don't have it tucked away in Tub 85 or so? And at least it wouldn't lead you on to a great pile of unread books - he wrote very little, and Noah says above not even to read his others!

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  7. This is new to me also. I know it is heresy but I have never been drawn to locked room mysteries. Nevertheless, I may try it some day because it gets such praise here.

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    1. I do like locked-room stories, though my preferred ones tend to be in panelled country house libraries in England rather than snowy cabins in the woods! This time I really wanted to know what people liked so much about this, and I was glad to find out - you would probably be the same.

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