Judson Philips (1903-1989) was a New England mystery writer who began his career writing stories for the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s. He was well-positioned to transition into the paperback original fiction market of the 1950s when most of his novels were credited to his successful pseudonym Hugh Pentecost. Between 1964 and 1982, he authored an 18-book mystery series starring investigative journalist Peter Styles that was published under his own name and reprinted with men’s adventure packaging by Pinnacle Books in the 1970s.
The primary setting of the first installment, “The Laughter Trap,” is a remote upscale ski resort in Vermont’s Green Mountains. A year earlier, Styles lost his leg and his father in an automobile accident on the winding road leading up to the lodge. Two men in a dark sedan - one of them cackling with laughter over the roar of the engines - forced Styles’ car over an embankment killing his father in the passenger seat and costing Styles a leg. The police never found the other car or its joy-killer occupants and justice has become a bit of an obsession for Styles over the past year. In any case, our one-legged hero has returned to the mansion on the hill to help rehab his damaged psyche.
On his first night at the resort, Styles hears distinct laughter in the distance that convinces him that the driver of the car who forced him off the road a year earlier is presently a fellow guest at the resort. The madman may have also slaughtered two women in their cabin bringing law enforcement to the resort to investigate. Efforts to locate the laughing maniac at the crowded but secluded ski resort form the central mystery of the novel.
The first thing that jumps out at the reader when beginning the paperback is that the novel is written in first-person, but the narrator is not Styles. Instead the story is told by Jim Tranter, and the origin story of Tranter’s relationship with Styles is covered in Chapter 3 (no spoilers here). It’s a pretty advanced literary technique that one can compare to Dr. Watson’s narration of the Sherlock Holmes books or Archie Goodwin telling the Nero Wolfe stories. As a result of this narrative choice, much of the on-page gumshoe work is done by Tranter, not Styles.
Notwithstanding the lurid Pinnacle cover art, “The Laughter Trap” is just a pretty basic mystery novel, not an “exciting world of violence and suspense” as promised. The handful of murders that occur in the paperback are plenty gruesome, but they mostly happen off-page. The whodunnit trope of a bunch of people trapped in a winter lodge with a murderer among them is a tale as old as time, yet the author does a nice job with the plotting and the solution is satisfying enough.
Styles and Tranter are interesting characters, and I wouldn’t mind reading more books about them. You’ll probably like this book as long as you know what you’re getting - a basic murder mystery, not an action-packed paperback spectacle.
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