The new year has treated me well with a number of fantastic Golden Age finds while trawling through second hand bookshops. As many of you that share my obsession know, there are some books that seem forever elusive and out of reach. Therefore I was overjoyed when I came across a brand new, affordable copy of Banner Deadlines, a collection of some of the best short impossible crime works by Joseph Commings.
I mentioned this is passing to JJ on one of our locked room podcast recordings, and he went to the same second hand shop, and low and behold he found a copy too! The stars aligned. Banner Deadlines, collected and printed by Crippen and Landru the publishing house of many lost GAD works, gathers together 14 short stories featuring the inimitable Senator Brooks U. Banner. The gargantuan Banner has more than a whiff of Carr’s Sir Henry Merrivale about him, but with a more maniacal wardrobe and a New York upbringing. Each tale is a pure impossible crime, and creating the most inventive locked room set ups is the aim of each story. Indeed the success of this collection is in it’s ingenuity and rollicking sense of fun. I feels like Commings really doesn’t care what anyone thinks. He just wants to go full scale and roll with it. When reading this collection many of the ideas are so audacious and wonderful that they will stick you for you years to come. But with ingenious set ups have to come ingenious solutions, motives and clues, and Commings doesn’t always deliver, but when he does he really does.
In the introduction written by locked room expert and anthologist Robert Adey, he writes about how Commings initially began writing while he was serving as a soldier in Sardinia during the second world war, as a way of entertaining himself and his fellow officers. Again this sense of personal fun, and the aim of write the most entertaining stories is the feel that comes across from these works. Therefore, in the earliest stories, the clunky writing of a hobbyist is apparent, but the quality jumps dramatically when we get to a time post WW2 when Commings has found a platform for publishing his works.
Funnily enough the best comparisons I can give for the feel of these stories are contemporary ones. These tales read like a mix between Galileo and Jonathan Creek. Galileo for many solutions that require a certain specific, almost scientific, occurrence to take place for the impossibility to work and Jonathan Creek (for Commings best works) for the sense of macabre audacity and focus on magic.
With a collection as large as this I would usually pick a top few works, but as this is a rare find and there are very little of Commings works collected elsewhere I will go for it and introduce each tale, with a little rating and how I feel about it. And I’ll split it over two weeks and two posts so as not to give you a migraine. As ever it will be spoiler free, but I will be discussing the impossible premise of each story so if you want to come to this fresh feel free to skip the rest! So without further ado we begin:
Murder Under Glass (1947) – ★★
A wild start to the collection with one of Commings earliest works, a famous glass blower is found — to death inside a locked room, the main issue hear being that the room is made entirely of glass, as is all the furniture and the door itself. No glass is broken and the bolt is locked solid from the inside. A unique start and it felt like the perfect story with which to be introduced to Banner, but the solution is just one step past audacious for me and in my opinion could have been simpler (though maybe one day I will change my mind). Commings’ prose are extremely over written at this early stage; he loves a good metaphor, and writes a good one, but one every line becomes ridiculous and a little grating. Thankfully he would shed this verbosity as his works went on.
Finger Print Ghost (1947) – ★★★
A spiritualist claims to be able to give information to a family about a past tragedy through a seance. A magician wanting to call him out suggests that he can get the same results if not more in his own seance, to show him up for a charlatan. The set up is extremely tightly wound, the magician is totally in the dark, inside a cabinet, inside a straight jacket tied to a chair. All the other members wear straight jackets, the the door is locked and watched from the outside and they are all in pitch darkness. No small feat then. Silence drops, but after 5 minutes of no noise one of the party is concerned and they call for the lights to be turned on. The magician is dead, stabbed, and to top it all off there are a set of finger prints that don’t match anyone involved. This story predates a famous ‘no finger prints impossibility’ by a number of years, which was a nice surprise, and is pretty audacious. The strength of this story was a few lovely moments in the reveal where clues are unearthed that were waved in your face quite clearly. Anyone who knows and loves the mechanics of fakery in classic seances will love this one.
Spectre on the Lake (1947) – ★★1/2
I loved the set up for this one. Banner is on an enforced holiday at a dusty old establishment in the Catskills named the Mad Moon Inn . Lounging in front of the lake at the back of the estate Banner watches two men push out together on a little boat to fish. Once they are in the middle of the lake Banner hears a shot and finds that one man is down and the other looks like he trying to push something away from behind his head, and then the second shot. When he makes it out to the boat both men have been shot in the back of the head at close range, and there is no other person there and no weapon. Commings spins a super eerie atmosphere on this one (although the metaphors still abound), and the solution has some canny elements (although one of them is handled much better by Crispin in one of his shorts) but some parts may leave you asking, really
The Black Friar Murders (1948) – ★★★★
Now Commings is hitting his stride. The writing has vastly improved and his ability to produce solid atmosphere and well observed characters are allowing the pace and fun of the story to flourish. Banner is summoned to an ancient monastery out on an island, cut off from the main once the water washes over. The legend of the monastery is the Black Friar, who can kill in locked rooms, and then pass through solid walls to escape. And you guessed it the Black Friar strikes again, and is witnessed, blade in hand, over the body before dashing across the room and through the ancient walls of the monastery. The ruse for hiding the killer knocked my socks off and I should have seen it coming 1000 miles away, which was all the better. And the little conceit that Banner pulls to draw it out is gorgeous. The solution to the vanishing friar is insane, and will divide audiences I’m sure, but on reflection it’s audacity makes me like it more and more.
Ghost in the Gallery (1949) – ★★★
‘That afternoon Linda Carewe poisoned her husband. She poisoned him with arsenic.’ A nice opening to a sweet little impossible crime and a unique set up. Linda runs to her secret lover at a popular art gallery exclaiming that she has finally killed her husband. That is until the dead man walks round the corner asking them if they believe in ghosts. After a chase they see him sitting in a room with a glass panel in door, but when they break the door down he has vanished. This is the most ‘Galileo’ of the stories, particularly with the solution. Overall a little too simple for my taste, and the method is pretty transparent. But still a good ride.
Death by Black Magic (1948) – ★★★★★
Everything about this story is wonderful. The pace, the writing, the premise, the atmosphere and the very small cast of characters. The great stage illusionist Xanthe asks Banner to come and observe an ancient illusion he is reworking for his new show. Vanishing from ‘The Chinese Cabinet’, a three walled cabinet with a curtain up front, will be performed on the very same stage that it was attempted the last time many years ago with sinister consequences. The rundown theatre has been closed since that day, and all the rusted doors remain locked and chained on the inside. Banner sits in the audience, Xanthe is on stage and his daughter Konstanz, who acts as assistant for the trick, pulls the curtain across and stands 10 feet away. After an uncomfortable gap of silence, Banner runs up to pull the curtain back and Xanthe has been strangled to death. Some clever time changes and the use of an older impossible crime to draw the threads together is delicious. Some of you with specific knowledge about stage illusions may see through the solution, but its great nevertheless. My favourite of the collection.
A nice way to conclude part one – join me next week for the second half of the collection including much more locked room madness and an afterword written by impossible crime extraordinaire Ed Hoch.