Banner Deadlines – The Impossible Files of Senator Brooks U. Banner: Joseph Commings (1947-84) Part 1

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 post for the second half of the collection including much more locked room madness and an afterword written by impossible crime extraordinaire Ed Hoch.

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The Best Second Hand Bookshops in London – Updated 2018!

Since starting this blog my post on my top 5 second hand bookshops in London has been one of my most popular articles. But since writing it I have found more wonderful and hidden bookshop gems in the big smoke, so it was time for an update!

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The list now includes such treats as the Black Gull bookshops, Pages of Hackney and Walden Books. You can see the post here. Next time you are in London make sure to check these spots out! If you know of more or have visited any of these shops let me know what you found.

The Men Who Explain Miracles – Episode 4 (Part 2): The best locked room mysteries ever written?

Its that time of the week again friends. Myself and JJ are back with part 2 of our 3 part series looking at the so called top 15 locked room mysteries of all time.

You can listen to the podcast episode here over on JJ’s blog, where there is already discussion and debate galore.

This episode we are looking at books 10-6 in the list which are:

– The Ten Teacups, a.k.a. The Peacock Feather Murders (1937) by Carter Dickson
– Nine Times Nine (1940) by Anthony Boucher
– The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934) by Ellery Queen
– Death from a Top Hat (1938) by Clayton Rawson
– The Big Bow Mystery (1892) by Israel Zangwill

Enjoy!

Exciting Announcement: Our brand new Locked Room Mystery podcast!

Yes friends, this is the moment you have all been waiting for (even though you didn’t know it). Myself and fellow blogger JJ at The Invisible Event have started our own locked room mystery and impossible crimes podcast!

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The Men Who Explain Miracles, will explore the best in classic locked room mysteries from across the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s. The first episode, launched as part of JJ’s Spoiler Warning series, is online right now and you can find the link at here at The Invisible Event!

In this first episode we discuss in depth what is known as the second best locked room mystery of all time. Part one of the podcast is totally non spoiler review, and part 2 is full spoiler-riffic, the listener is warned! We hope you love listening to it as much as me loved making it, and this will be the first of many more to come!

Enjoy!

Francis Duncan: So Pretty A Problem (1950)

A sharp sound wakes Mordecai Tremaine from his deck chair dozing. Helen Carthallow runs from her secluded house to the beach side, finding Tremaine she cries out: ‘Please. Come Quickly. Please. I’ve killed my husband.’

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The now deceased Adrian Carthallow lies in a horrible state in the middle of his study come library. Adrian was the controversial painter of the day, his revealing portraits and horrific landscapes, while being classed as genius, stirred up many a critic and enemy.

Helen claims the shooting was a joke gone wrong, she didn’t realise the gun was loaded. But the scene and her account paint an odd picture. However, if she didn’t kill Adrian then it paints an odder picture still, as the house known as Paradise sits on a small piece of cliff top broken away from the mainland, only accessible by a small iron bridge. The house and bridge were watched by a rock solid witness, and no one else but Adrian, Helen and Tremaine crossed over around the time the gun was fired. How then could a killer enter and leave Paradise unseen?

I was introduced to Duncan’s works by TomCat in his recent reviews  and was fortunate to come across this one on my London second hand bookshop walk. So Pretty a Problem is one of a series of five classic detective novels from the 1950’s penned by Francis Duncan and reissued by Penguin last year under their Vintage label. It’s also the impossible crime of the series so of course I jumped at it. Set in the coastal town of Falporth, Duncan’s series detective the retired tobacconist, hopelessly old school romantic and amateur criminologist, Mordecai Tremaine is trying to take a holiday with no murder involved. Alas, he is struck with the impossible problem, and his reputation for solving crimes precedes him, as he is enlisted by the local police force to help break down the complexities of motive, means and opportunity that muddy the case.

The book is divided into three distinct acts: Part one Query: At the Time of the Corpse, dives in with the impossible situation and introduces our cast. Part 2 Background: Before the Corpse then takes us back in time to Tremaine’s first encounter with Adrian and Helen Carthallow at a party and onto the subsequent meetings of each of our motley crew of suspects with all the bubbling tensions between them. Part 2 ends bang up to date as the gun is fired, taking us into part three Exposition: Following the Corpse. A really interesting way to approach a detective novel and one that I hadn’t seen done before, (I’d love to hear of more examples from readers), but one that ultimately makes this book a difficult read, as I will expand on in just a moment.

Another strength is how many strands Duncan manages to hold together around this murder. The impossible solution isn’t super original or exciting, although plausible (and as TomCat noted there are some very late clues), but the psychological manipulations and subsequent confusion of motives, particularly on Helen’s account, are really interesting and how they weave into the final solution is super satisfying. The denouement itself shows off Duncan’s plotting ability, and the pace of the reveal was one I wish he would have kept up through the rest of the book, which brings me too…

The criticisms, and unfortunately there are a few. Firstly, there is what I would call the definitive problem in any type of writing, but that poor detective stories particularly fall foul of: telling not showing. For Francis this occurs very often and in a particularly unfortunate way. Take this passage from part one for example, with Helen as the main dialogue, emphasis mine:

“…you’re quite sure he didn’t kill himself?”

“Of course,” she said. Her voice rose, There was a shrillness in it. “Of course. I’ve told you how it happened. I’ve told the police. I shot him. Adrian gave me his gun and I pointed it at him and fired. That’s what he told me to do. He must have forgotten it was loaded…”

She broke off suddenly. She stared up at Haldean and there was in her face the incredulous look of a person who had just become aware of a new and altogether unexpected possibility.

“You mean,” she whispered, “you mean that perhaps he hadn’t forgotten? That he wanted me to kill him?”

Haldean did not make any comment. Roberta Fairham was leaning forward in her chair, her lips slightly parted. It was as though she was desperately anxious not to miss what Helen Carthallow might be going to say.

Duncan continually does this, shows us a change in mood or character, and then tells us that is what we have just seen, or that is what we are supposed to notice. In this passage the suggestion of suicide is there from the off, and then Helen breaks her sentence, clearly in realisation. But then Duncan tells us ‘she has just broken off her sentence in realisation and her face has the expression of said realisation’. And then with Roberta, leaning forward on the edge of her chair, with lips parted – clearly from that description of her posture and face, waiting to hear what Helen is going to say next – Duncan tells us that she is waiting to hear what Helen will say next.

This may sound like a subtle observation but after this happens between almost every line of dialogue it makes you want to throw the book across the room, and breaks the natural flow of the narrative. It felt that he was writing from a place of anxiety, as if he was worried the audience may not get the characters or remember the clues. This therefore undermines the intelligence of the reader. What this book needed was a good editor, to bring the confidence of part 3 to the rest of the book.

Leading on from this is the frustrating use of the three part structure. This could have been so brilliant, original and striking, but for similar writing problems, it isn’t. Part two, taking us back into the past, ends up lasting over 100 pages and is just pleasant writing with very little in terms of events. There is one deliciously dark moment involving the cast surfboarding together, which Duncan then ruins by literally writing ‘Had it been an accident?’ again telling you what is obviously the whole point of the scene. If part two could have been cut down by 70 pages, gotten straight to the point with the bubbling tensions (with some actual tensions) and then dived into act three, it would have been immensely satisfying. But as it is I was forced to drag myself through the section at a snail’s pace, a section which also contains absolutely no detection of any kind.

So Pretty a Problem is worth a go for the joys it holds, but be prepared for it to drag. I would love to see an experiment taken up for someone to read only parts one and three, and to see if it actually made any difference to the book.

But is it a Locked Room Mystery? The case of the impossible alibi.

Recently I was having a chat with a friend about impossible crimes (believe me this doesn’t happen that often), and though not a big reader they loved the series Death In Paradise. In response to my statement that I liked the impossible episodes of the series so far, they said “but aren’t all the episodes impossible crimes, because no one could have done it?”

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In the intro to his brilliant CADS magazine number 74, editor Geoff Bradley writes a lovely off-hand piece about Death In Paradise, and its wave of bad press despite it’s popularity, (something I considered in this post). In his intro he also calls the stories of the BBC series ‘impossible crimes’.

Both these examples got me thinking. The idea that these stories are all being considered ‘impossible crimes’ seems to be because usually everyone has an alibi. This point of view doesn’t just apply to the TV series, but also to novels I have seen in discussion online. Some have suggested a novel as an impossible crime or locked room mystery because all the characters claim to be elsewhere at the time of the murder.

At the risk of treading some old ground covered by JJ somewhat in this post from last year, (it’s worth reading his post to see how he defines the terms ‘locked room’ and ‘impossible crime’ generally), I want to add my voice into the mix on this more specific point. I do not think a novel or episode of detective fiction counts as an impossible crime or locked room mystery simply if all the characters have seemingly solid alibis, and that is your complete set up. Why do I think this? Well, I think it’s something to do with the fact that an alibi and the impossible or locked room element of a novel are two very different things, with different roles.

Alibis are often created to be broken or solidified and therefore, even if seemingly watertight surely they can’t be the edges of an impossibility for the fact that most of the time they don’t hold up under scrutiny, or are meant to be broken down. Another problem is that the alibi can also be a lie. Many characters may say that they weren’t there or provide themselves with a place to have been, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. I think for a story to qualify as an impossible crime or locked room mystery something impossible has to have taken place, not just that there is a murder in an easily accessible location or within a generally plausible murder situation and everyone says ‘I wasn’t there.’

Seeing as Death In Paradise was the beginning of this thought process, let’s take the set ups of two episodes from series one as an example. Episode 1: ‘Death in Paradise’ tells the tale of a British detective shot while locked inside a solid steel panic room. Only the police know the code to the door, and when they get inside he has been shot at close range, no weapon and no murderer left within. The killer has somehow vanished into thin air. Therefore the physical circumstances under which the murder occurs are baffling and not able to have taken place, in other words an impossible crime. In Episode 3: ‘Predicting Murder’ (the series masterpiece I think) a woman is found poisoned in the classroom of a local school. There are two shot glasses on the teacher’s desk, and a bottle of strong drink, with only hers and the head teachers fingerprints, and only her glass poisoned. For the time of the murder however, the head teacher has an unbelievably rock solid alibi: “So let me get this straight, your alibi is that you were doing charity work, in an orphanage surrounded by nuns.” And so does everyone else who was involved in the school. This I would say, however, is not an impossible crime. The murder method and setup while complex, are not ‘impossible’ to occur, in that anyone could come and go into the room as they wished, even someone outside the cast of suspects could be responsible, and although they have alibis they were not all continuously watched, and it doesn’t mean that they are not lying or conspiring together. It seems as if complicated or tricky murder set-ups are being confused with an impossible or locked room set-ups.

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‘Predicting Murder’

But maybe I am on shaky ground here? Alibis do often provide or hold together an impossibility. We could take the most classic locked room trope of the ‘first on the scene’ as an example. Used countless times over the years, here the alibi is: ‘We were all together when we broke down the door and the victim was found stabbed inside’, which is also the crux of the impossibility/solution ‘you were there, but when you went to examine the victim, who was only incapacitated, you stabbed them without anyone realising.’ Here then the alibi and the mechanics of the impossibility serve each other. Another example could be Keigo Higashino’s Salvation of a Saint (2008), we know who the murderer is, but we also know that she was on the other side of Japan at the time of the murder, so how on earth did she do it? Her alibi is, in essence, the impossibility.

Here I could run into even more problems, in that sometimes an impossible crime story is only such because a character’s testimony says so, but they are later found to be lying. Does that then mean the novel has changed from impossible to not? Or as was discussed a little in the comments on JJ’s post, Carter Dickson’s Judas Window (1938), one of the most important locked room mysteries ever written, requires us to believe that the central figure is innocent for the impossibility to even be there.

But in saying all this, I believe my point still stands, because I would say the impossibility in the ‘first on the scene’ scenario suggested above is: that they were stabbed in a room locked from the inside, but the killer managed to vanish away. Perhaps it’s the circumstances of the type of murder itself, rather than the alibis of those involved taking priority? Maybe it’s something to do with a mix up between the ‘howdunit’ and the ‘whodunnit’ and where final boundaries lie?

So what do you say? I would love to hear your thoughts on what you think constitutes a locked room proper, and how alibis play into that, as I try to traverse this rather narrow, icy path of definitions (leaving no footprints as I go).

Edmund Crispin: Swan Song (1947)

In my humble few years reading detective fiction, I have come to think that Edmund Crispin is a fairly underrated writer. His word play and illustrious flourishes of language – that are able to move the plot and not stall it – are second to very few.  His books are a delight to consume, and his ability to use an unexpected but satisfyingly accurate word or phrase shows a command of the english language fitting for his status as an Oxford grad.

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This also makes his writing style extremely musical. The prose are crafted as to carry you along as if on some kind of linguistic/melodic wave. This is fitting as Crispin, real name Bruce Montgomery, was also an established composer, so his works are steeped in the appreciation of music and composition. It is also potent for this review of Swan Song, his 4th book penned in 1947, an impossible crime novel set in and around the Oxford opera house and its multi-various cast.

The hilarious opening chapter sets the novel off at a solid pace, telling the tale of the awkward love between Elizabeth Harding and Adam Langley. We then see much of the novel through their eyes, Elizabeth as a journalist, writing a piece on the great detectives (Sir Henry Merrivale, Campion and Mrs Bradley all getting a mention) and Adam as a tenor in Die Meistersinger, a three act operatic drama composed by Wagner being staged in Oxford.

The book then flies through the meeting of our cast of voices, composers and stage hands, tension horribly rising until singer and tyrant Edwin Shorthouse, after causing trouble for almost everyone involved, is found hung in his dressing room. The evidence points in many strange directions, and when Crispin’s series detective, Oxford don Gervase Fen, arrives on the scene he unwillingly pronounces murder. However, after Shorthouse entered, the room was watched the entire time, leaving no opportunity for anyone to enter, hang the victim, stage a suicide and leave, without being seen.

Suffice to say I thought this book was wonderful, the pace plotting and clueing are just right, and the cast of characters are of the classic Crispin ilk, richly observed, memorable, touching, laugh out loud, with some of the bit part players having the most hilarious parts to play. I mean how can you not love a disreputable homeless criminal, helping Fen break into a house, on being disappointed that there is nothing to steal saying ‘What we want is socialism, so as everyone ‘ll ‘ave somethink wirth pinching…’

If you think the idea of a mystery set around the opera sounds achingly boring, fear not, as the book is really a sly satire on the culture of the opera house and the academic world of the Oxford don. Much of which feels like a forerunner to the satirical writing of the likes of Woody Allen on these same themes. Note for example the similarity of the laugh out loud conversation between a group of ‘young intellectuals’ in the queue for the opera in chapter 22, to the conversation in the queue for the movie theatre in Annie Hall. It’s Crispin’s inside knowledge and respect of these themes that allow him to manage the satire in such an offhand and satisfying manor. Swan Song acts as much as a love letter to the opera, as well as a detective novel. This is evident in the dedication page which includes a small notation from Die Meistersinger itself.

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‘such murderous tales as this’

Other highlights include chapter 11 which waxes lyrical on the atmosphere of Oxford in the low season, with gorgeous descriptions of lonely objects and places, without being over bearing. This same chapter then takes a snap turn with an unexpectedly dark event, rapidly moving the plot forward. And chapters 21 and 22 manage to recapitulate everything we have read, adding pause for consideration of all we have seen, without it feeling at all forced, this is a very difficult thing to pull off. Chapter 21 feels ahead of its time, almost like it could have been written for screen.

To speak of the impossible crime, the problem is neat, simple (pretty dark) and believable, but definitely guessable to the seasoned reader. The identity of the killer however is a real hidden gem, and a great twist, turning the events of the book on their head.

So if you are new to Crispin or want to try something more, I highly recommend Swan Song, or The Case of The Gilded Fly, another of his impossibles which is set around the theatre. The humour, and solid detection will be no end of pleasure.