Arsenic and Old Puzzles by Parnell Hall
I have to start off with a disclaimer. Although I did practise doing the Sunday Times crossword during the 1960s and grew quite good at it, I’ve never really been interested in puzzle-solving per se. Indeed, such is the poverty of my numerical skills, that I’ve never even attempted the solution of any problems relying on arithmetic or other basic mathematical techniques. My eyes glaze over instantaneously if I inadvertently find myself in the same room as one of these modern sudoku games. The only thing that has saved me over the years is the machine. In the 1960s, there were adding machines to total columns of figures. I was quickly into mainframes in the 1970s to take out all the drudgery of having to calculate in my head. And the arrival of spreadsheets on home-based computers has revolutionised my view of accounting. I therefore find myself in sympathy with the spirit of the heroine of Arsenic and Old Puzzles by Parnell Hall (Minotaur Books, 2013) A Puzzle Lady Mystery, Volume 14. She can’t do crossword puzzles, but has become the face that syndicates puzzles of all varieties through the newspaper and magazine world (with books an added bonus). I forgive her the ability to solve sudoku puzzles. No-one’s perfect.
From this you’ll understand she has “help”. More importantly, she has to be a cunning manipulator of the world. If it came out she was not the fountainhead of all puzzles, her reputation would be destroyed and her comfortable life would be at an end. She must therefore deflect all conversations with fans and admirers on to general topics. Nothing must disturb the mystique of her puzzle creativity. This puts her under pressure when local law enforcement find themselves confronted by a “puzzle” they can’t solve. Perhaps our heroine could make a few suggestions on who the killer might be. The result is great fun (doubly enjoyable for those who are into puzzle-solving because this book contains crossword and sudoku puzzles for you to break off and solve before continuing to the next chapter — if you’re like me, the solutions are thoughtfully provided some pages later). And talking about fun, this is a genuinely amusing book. It’s not just the number of zingers dotted around the dialogue sequences, there’s a genuinely subversive sense of humour in evidence as the Puzzle Lady navigates the world and contrives to arrive in several ports of call, not all of which are quite what they seem.
Now as to the murders. This book is a delightfully contrived variation on the theme of Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), a wonderful film starring Cary Grant. If you haven’t seen this classic screwball comedy, you should. Even though elements will seem dated today, the underlying farce carries the day. It’s magnificently absurd in an entirely logical kind of way. So in this book we have a boarding house run by two slightly batty old sisters and their nephew is proposing to marry the girl next door. Early on, a elderly man, who proves unidentifiable, dies in their sitting room while drinking elderberry wine laced with arsenic. In his pocket is a sudoku puzzle. Later a second body turns up in the window seat of the same room. An old crossword puzzle is discovered nearby. Naturally, this looks as if the murderer is throwing down a challenge to our Puzzle Lady. Except, from her point of view, absolutely nothing makes any sense. These sisters have been running their B&B for years, have little money and no obvious motive for suddenly wanting to embark on a killing spree. Equally, there seems no point for a murderer to go to all this trouble to replicate the old film. And as to the puzzles. . . well, they are puzzles, but there’s no obvious point to leaving old puzzles as clues unless:
(a) this is a serial killer case in which some crazed individual is ritualising Arsenic and Old Lace to select the dumping ground for the bodies, and
(b) using unsolved puzzles as his or her trademark or signature.
Like that’s ever going to happen. . . However, when this nephew’s older brother turns up and he looks not unlike Boris Karloff. . . Well it gives our Puzzle Lady a nice puzzle to chew on.
This was my first look at a book by Parnell Hall and I find myself an immediate fan of his writing. Style is an indefinable and highly subjective element. I’m therefore unable to say with any degree of certainty just why I like the way this book is put together, In part, it’s the obvious delight the author has in showing us a character who so completely manipulates those around her. Even though she’s got good intentions most of the time, she’s devious and dishonest, qualities we shouldn’t find so endearing. There’s also the amusement factor. It’s not laugh-out-loud but, as you turn the pages, you get into the expectation of a smile or two turning up as each chapter unfolds. Finally, Arsenic and Old Puzzles shows us a fascinating puzzle and gives an entirely plausible solution. I now know why a modern murder should look like a rerun of a 1944 screwball comedy. You will also find the answer pleasing.
For a review of the next in the series, see NYPD Puzzle.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.