I took inventory, and 15 of the 17 novels written by Robert Colby between the years 1956 and 1972 are now available as ebooks for your Kindle. Based on the three Colby novels I’ve read thus far, I’m convinced that the author is an unsung hero of American crime fiction. As such, I was excited to read his lean 1961 novel, In a Vanishing Room, a book originally released as half of an Ace Double paperback.
The novel opens with an odd scene. While waiting to board a flight from Miami to New York, Paul Norris sees a fellow passenger in line abruptly run out of the airport and two other men in the airport pursue the runner on foot. Upon arriving in New York, a woman waiting at the gate (ah, remember when that was a thing?) is clearly waiting for the man who ran away before boarding. She says the man is her lawyer and appears perplexed that he didn’t make the flight.
Norris accepts a ride into Manhattan from the woman - her name is Eileen - and tells her about the odd circumstances surrounding her lawyer’s escape from the airport. Upon arrival into the city, she invited him up to her apartment for a drink, and it becomes a near-certainty that Norris is about to get laid - 1961 style.
Not so fast, Mr. Norris! It seems that Eileen has something else up her sleeve. The seduction routine is just a ploy to get her hands on a shipping receipt for a large crate slipped into Norris pocket before the lawyer took off running at the Miami airport. In any case, Eileen splits fast leaving Norris with the receipt and a case of epididymal hypertension (Google it). This set-up is all rather contrived and tortured but will be worth it if the mysterious crate propel Norris into an exciting and mysterious adventure, right?
Lots of people want the receipt, so they can get the contents of the crate. Some are willing to befriend Norris to get the crate. Some are willing to pay dearly for it. Some are willing to kill for it. Understandably, Norris (and the reader) is uncertain who to trust. As the story winds through additional twists and turns, he pairs up with an attractive female corporate secretary on his mission to recover the crate for a wealthy benefactor.
The second half of the book introduces a fascinating hired killer and a vexing architectural mystery - the titular Vanishing Room - making for the kind of floor-plan mystery often devised by author John Dickson Carr. Unfortunately, the solutions to the Vanishing Room Mystery and the What’s Inside the Crate Affair were both rather ho-hum.
In a Vanishing Room is a difficult book to recommend. There were definitely some cool parts, but none of them fit together nicely into a coherent or particularly enjoyable crime novel. I’m not giving up on Robert Colby because I’ve seen what he can do when he’s firing on all cylinders - check out The Captain Must Die. Unfortunately, this one just isn’t much good. Take a pass.
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