Murder on the Way! (1935) by Theodore Roscoe

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Theodore Roscoe is, or rather was, one of the most neglected impossible crime writers to ever put pen to paper. Murder on the Way! was regarded as a impossible crime masterpiece for years, but very few got the chance to read it, due to it’s relative rarity in all forms, whether it be physical book or magazine serial. However, a year or so ago, us impossible crime addicts were blessed with the news that Murder on the Way! would be republished by Bold Venture Press in collaboration with a very well known, and highly regarded blogger. Therefore, after months of avoiding the book, I finally got around to the bloody (literally) thing and started my reading, and let me spoil things for you, I wasn’t disappointed.

Patricia Dale is invited to the reading of her Uncle Eli’s will in Haiti, something she is reluctant to do, but her boyfriend (and the narrator of the story) manages to convince her to go, and they both arrive at Morne Noir, her uncle’s estate, in time for the reading. They meet a large variety of characters who have been named alongside Patricia in the fateful document, which range from a one armed Jamaican witch to a tongueless and therefore mute albino. The reading of the will reveals that Eli has decided to leave his fortune to only one person, with the clause that if that person leaves the estate or dies before a 24 hour mark, the inheritance will be passed down along a ordered list that ends with Patricia. This naturally causes tension among the group, which eventually culminates in a long string of murders. People are shot to death in sealed rooms, guns fly through the air, impossible disappearances occur, and several people are resurrected from the grave before the end. The atmosphere grows as the theme of the zombie starts to overtake the narrative, with this being the traditional zombie of Haitian folklore, not the commonly parodied one of Hollywood, and terror starts to prevail above all else, leading to a truly grandiose finale.

This is a complete and utter dive into the fantastic. It encompasses everything I enjoy in the impossible crime genre, it’s unbelievable, it’s entertaining, it shocks, it gives amazing reveals and reversals, it presents a problem and deconstructs it with the ease of a master architect, and in the end, it manages to leave you gasping for breath. This is a early John Dickson Carr novel that would have come to being if he had somehow viewed and been inspired by Scooby Doo. It’s filled to the brim with absurd concepts, events and ideas but still manages to keep the reader from hating it because of said absurdity. Roscoe takes a mythological creature and brings it to life within these pages, creating a world where it actually seems to belong, a world that could make everything that happened in this story seem possible.

The atmosphere here is near perfect. Roscoe utilizes the nation of Haiti and the culture of the people seamlessly, centering the book around the country without it being conscripted to the background. The horror and tension of the plot comes from the beliefs and circumstances of the Haitian people and nation, with the idea of the zombie being held constantly over the plot and leading to some truly spine tingling moments. The atmosphere around the book consistently grows and grows as it progresses and it nearly suffocates us as the terror increases. And then, just like any mystery novel should do, the atmosphere is finally broken by logic, and all is returned to normal, with the world correctly aligned and life and death being separate worlds once more.

The core mystery and everything that surrounds it is brilliant. Roscoe creates a plot that is oh so obvious from the get go but still manages to keep it’s full extent away from the conscious minds of many a reader. The impossible crimes are gorgeous, with them being built around circumstances directly linked to the solution as a whole. The tricks don’t arise out of nowhere, they arise because certain things happened in a certain order or because they fit into a pre ordained plan. I couldn’t pick a favorite from the two main impossibilities, with both being effortlessly simple and maddeningly obvious. The killer’s motive and subsequent reasoning for committing the murders is incredibly unique, once again being tailor made to the events that had already occurred, with the identity of the murderer also coming as a complete shock while also snuggly fitting everything else. Everything about the solution makes you want to laugh out of sheer joy, because everything about the plot is either amazingly simple or stunningly unique in presentation.

This book is really a mixture of a thriller and a detective story. However, instead of focusing simply on the thriller element or just the mystery element, Roscoe gives both their fair share of screen time. The thriller element manages to create it’s own kind of tension for the story while also backing up the tension created by all of the creepy murders and impossibilities. Neither is harmed by the others presence, clueing isn’t sacrificed ( it’s scrupulously fair for the matter) and they bolster each other when put together instead of dragging the opposing party down. The final few pages showcase that mix perfectly. We get a incredibly melodramatic scene that includes everything from zombies to revolutionaries to sudden death (this is perhaps the most entertaining part of the book) which is followed by a clever denouncement that helps satisfy all our unanswered questions while retaining the astonishment felt beforehand by the melodrama.

The only real flaw with the book may be some of it’s characters. They can come off as caricatures and some are only remembered for one distinct character trait and not for a mix of them. Some of the language is outdated and it makes a few sentences somewhat hard to read, but overall it isn’t a large problem and can be easily ignored, especially when a mystery novel from the 1930’s portrays several black characters as people beyond the commonly held stereotype’s of the day in a largely black nation.

To summarize, this novel is And Then There None as perceived by John Dickson Carr under the influence of Scooby Doo. It’s everything I want from a good impossible crime story and it delivers everything in droves. This is a very under appreciated novel that deserves it’s reputation as a impossible crime classic and I am deeply indebted to everyone who made the books reprinting possible. It’s a thriller, it’s a horror story, it’s fantasy, and it’s detective fiction. A 5/5, 10/10, 100/100, something I would recommend without hesitation.

Other Opinions:

Beneath the Stains of Time

Mysteries Ahoy!

The Invisible Event

 

 

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5 thoughts on “Murder on the Way! (1935) by Theodore Roscoe

  1. …would be republished by Bold Venture Press in collaboration with a very well known, and highly regarded blogger

    A predictive text error here, I presume, since you seem to have referred to me as “well known” and “highly regarded”.

    That aside, I am of coure entirely unfounded in my delight that you enjoyed this so much — it’s a great book regardless of my input, it was just a joy to be able to bring it back into circulation with BVP, and I’m chuffed that people are enjoying it this much. Roscoe was something else where speedy plotting was concerned, and it’s lovely to see that others find merit in what he was doing.

    And, I’m just sayin’, but I think I’ll Grind Their Bones might actually be little bit better than this. Veeeeery different, a damn sight more complex, but the fury in it wins out for me. Just, as I say, sayin’.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah yes, I obviously meant to describe you as “forgotten” and “considered to have some of the most outrageous opinions in the community” 😁.

      The book really is speedily plotted, everything is seamlessly integrated and it moves in a cohesive flow of puzzlement and entertainment. It leaves me excited for other stories by him, though they’ll be hard pressed to top this one.

      I’ve heard very little about I’ll Grind Their Bones, but it certainly sounds intriguing, a strange mixture of the classic detective story in an alternate history, a combination rarer than you hating a Rupert Penny!

      Like

      1. I don’t agree with JJ that I’ll Grind Their Bones is better than Murder on the Way, but it’s a fascinating compound of pulp, detective fiction and speculative history. Roscoe made some chillingly accurate predictions and described scenes that would become all too common only a few years later.

        So, in my opinion, Murder on the Way worked better as a detective novel, but I’ll Grind Their Bones has an endlessly fascinating background story. JJ deserves to be kicked for not having noticed the thinly disguised presence of Sir Basil Zarahoff in the latter.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for sharing your thought’s on IGTB. The idea that Roscoe penned another novel on a level very close to this is exciting either way, but the mixture that seems to make up the plot is certainly tantalizing. The idea of it centering around a war also increases my interest, given my weakness for war set Golden Age puzzles.

    Like

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