The Men Who Explain Miracles – Episode 6: We interview Martin Edwards at the British Library!

Well this is very exciting friends! It is with a great amount of joy that I announce that myself and fellow blogger JJ have the next episode of our locked room mystery podcast online, and this month we had the opportunity to interview the author, editor and encyclopaedic GAD mind of Martin Edwards! You can listen to the episode right here at JJ’s blog The Invisible Event.

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After this years wonderful Bodies From The Library conference at the British Library, we caught up with Martin to talk about his favourite locked room mysteries, his work on bringing forgotten locked room stories back to life and what he thinks makes a great impossible crime.

Thanks again to Martin for giving his time, and to Abbie and Rob from the publishing team at the British Library for giving us space to record this episode (and staying late to allow us to do so!), and of course for all their work on the whole Crime Classics series, which has done so much to bring golden age Detective stories back into the hands of readers.

Enjoy and do join in the comments and discussion over at JJ’s place!

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Reflections on parody in detective fiction – Case for Three Detectives: Leo Bruce (1936)

Well this has been a long time coming! This little gem has been burning a hole on my bookshelf since I found this gorgeous, beaten up penguin edition in a second hand bookshop at the beginning of the year.

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In the most recent episodes of our locked room mysteries podcast The Men Who Explain Miracles, myself and fellow blogger JJ discussed our top 15 locked room novels and Leo Bruce’s Case for Three Detectives this was on JJ’s list. That inspired me to finally get to it and I’ll tell you now that I was not let down one bit. The story:

After a night of hearty food, drink and rather preeminent discussions about committing and solving murder, the ever genteel, and ever rich Mary Thurston leaves her house guests to go to bed. A short times passes and screams are heard coming from her bedroom. Everyone in the house darts to her door from different angles. It is double locked on the inside with two sliding bolts, and once a panel of wood is smashed through the bolts are slid back (by a reliable person I may add) and the crowd rush in. They find a hideous sight of deep, blood soaked pillows and bed sheets, Mary lies with her throat slit. One of the crowd runs to the only other opening in the room, the window, and slides it open. No one to be seen. There are no footprints in the flower bead beneath, the other windows are too far away to climb to, and there was no way that anyone could have got out in time without being witnessed by the others.

In all aspects then, an absolutely classic locked room set up, and this is the point. For the book from here on will be a wonderful comedic parody and critique of classic detective story set ups, their characters and their mechanics.

The theme of parody begins the next day when three investigators, seemingly from nowhere, have appeared in the house. Each of these characters is a larger than life version of a famous fictional detective. Characters that would have been hugely popular and known at the time, even as they are now.

First we meet Lord Simon Plimsol, a parody of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey. He is stiflingly and hilariously upper class, groaning at beer, sickened by bad decor and having never heard of a strange game called ‘darts’. Secondly we meet the inimitable Monsieur Amer Pecon, which you probably already guessed from the name is our parody of Hercule Poirot, created by Agatha Christie. Amer Picon is an absolutely wonderful name for this character as Amer Picon is the name of a sweet french aperitif, which in many ways sums up Poirot 100%. Picon is uncontrollably french, and wipes off and organises dust at every possible opportunity. Finally we meet Monsignor Smith, a little catholic priest of seemingly no significance. Smith is of course our Father Brown, G.K.Chesterton’s marvellous series creation, and the parody here is wonderful. Smith speaks only in verbose parables and idioms which at times are totally unfathomable. Each sentence is an opportunity for reflection upon humanity and spirituality, and most of the time he seems totally uninterested or is simply asleep during proceedings.

And then of course we have our um… hero, of sorts, the plodding, East Londoner Sergeant Beef. Bain of the local police force, avid darts player and beer drinker, friend to all, but seemingly dunderheaded when it comes to the art of detection.

Once we have met our investigators things start to get very interesting in terms of form. You are aware that with these three famous detectives on the case that you are going to get three different solutions from them. But of course, you are also aware, with the format of the story, and with the presence of Beef from the off, that they are going to be ultimately wrong. Beef says from the first few pages of his appearance that he has already worked it out, but being non charismatic and of the group of simpletons known as the police force, he is constantly told to be quiet or pushed aside.

The fact then that you know that these three detectives are going to be wrong, but not knowing quite how much or why, gives you a very unique, and ‘meta’ reading experience. Instead of trying to keep up in the race with them to the solution, you are instead in a place of critique, trying to see what is incorrect about their deductions rather than what might be leading to the truth. Knowing the end before you start, but not knowing it’s shape puts you in this strange premonitory relationship in regards to the characters. And of course, even though Sergeant Beef keeps getting cut off, when he does get a word in edge ways, it is pregnant with even more significance. But exactly how much people are wrong, and in what way leaves you second guessing yourself.

At the same time, we are aware that we are actually going to get three different solutions from these eccentric investigators, so we are also trying to work out what on earth will be their perspective. And their perspectives in the end are not some weak or comedic piece of detection, but each solution is strong, believable and high quality, and then comes Beef to blow them all away. What is amazing about this is that Bruce had to come up with four different solutions to a locked room problem in one novel, with multiple murderers, motives and clues, all of which were believable and credible. No small task.

But the intelligence of this book doesn’t end here. Not only are the characters parodied, but their detection styles also. Lord Plimsol focuses on details gained through conversation and amiability, Picon looks at ‘matters of the heart’ in his search for truth, and Monsignor Smith ties up his case looking at the spiritual and moral angle.

Bruce then takes this a step further by giving the three detectives solutions that as well as being totally credible and succinct, are parodies of the types of solutions their authors would give them. What really impressed me thinking about the plot at the book’s climax was that Bruce also builds parody into the way that the other characters react to these detectives. Lord Plimsol is deeply admired and respected at all times, Picon draws out everyones emotional secrets and they all confide in him, Smith is ignored and seen as of little consequence until things start to get supernatural. And Beef is seen as the blithering policeman, a classic trope of detective fiction. And Bruce even takes this a step further, in that these parodied responses from the cast are not just a simple send up of the author he is referencing, but they are also pieces of genuine clueing.

How the whole piece rounds up, particularly with Beef’s solution and how he responds to the three other theories is marvellously charming.

My criticisms? When the only strong female character is killed it leaves a super male heavy cast, some of which do blur together because they are so similar. This is frustrating as Bruce was obviously a brilliant writer and creator of character so he could have done a lot more with broadening his cast. But maybe this is parody too? I would also have liked to have seen more of Monsignor Smith. Of course his quiet presence is meant to reflect Father Brown’s, but he is often left a bit till last.

All in all a winner, and I can’t wait to get to the rest of Bruce’s oeuvre.

The Short Stories of Edmund Crispin – Part 2: The Later Works

Back to Crispin’s ingenious and oft-neglected short stories. Last time I looked at Crispin’s early short works and this week I will look at the collecting in Fen Country, which spans the later period of his writing from 1952-1979.

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Love these 70’s covers with the painstaking composition or real objects. Including in this case a stuffed cats claw.

A tiny acknowledgements page at the back tells us that Fen Country is compiled of three different collections. Firstly, many of the 26 stories on offer are from the period between 1950 and 1955 where Crispin was writing stories for the London Evening Standard (oh, to have this back again!). Two stories are taken from editions of Ellery Queens Mystery magazine, and two are taken from a collection called Winter’s Crimes, a series that I have heard a little about but would appreciate more info from those in the know. The first volume is on sale on ebay currently at £103, so it’s a rarity now?

As with Beware Of The Trains each story takes one simple problem, or one very clever and specific idea and uses that as a fulcrum for the tale. I was told by my good friend JJ of The Invisible Event  said he felt that the stories here in Fen Country didn’t contain as good plotting, but the ideas were amazing. And that is a really good way to describe it. The shockingly rigorous plotting of Beware of the Trains is not at play here, but it seems like Crispin was having a huge amount of fun, and being much bolder in experimenting, with the central concept used for each tale. There is a focus on the modernist, meta experimentations that Crispin was so good at with his novels, but pushing them to the limit. One story plays with the idea that Crispin himself is the main characters, and plays with your expectations in the reader/author relationship.

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Here are my tops tales from the collection:

Who Killed Baker – (1950)
Simply a genius piece of work. This is the first in the collection and kicks things off so well as it shows where Crispin had got to in terms of manipulating the form and subverting the form. Crispin was clearly having a lot of fun here, and I’m sure this story might ruffle a few feathers. I can’t say too much more but the whole piece revolves around the simple statement ‘Who Killed Baker?’ (Geoffrey Bush?)

The Hunchback Back Cat – (1954)
‘Were ALL superstitious… whether we realise it or not. Let me give you a test’. This is Gervase Fen’s opening gambit in a story that again could have made a full novel with all that is crammed into it. It tells the story of the Copping family, a family who, due to parricidal tendencies and tragedies, there are only two left of. The murder of one of them in a locked tower (very reminiscent in description of the room in Jonathan Creek’s The Grinning Man), leads to a wonderful set of double and triple bluffs that I never saw coming. How the superstitious angle closes the case is extremely clever.

A Case in Camera – (1955)
Detective Inspector Humbleby, Crispin’s series detective inspector in the Gervase Fen stories, is keeping a case open against his superior’s wishes. His intuition has convinced him, for the moment, that the suspects statements are a little too consistent. Their alibi rests on a single photograph which places them elsewhere at the time of a brutal murder. How Fen catches them out is such a lovely idea, and again feels like one of those simple happenings that Crispin saw or experienced in day to day life, and sculpted it to be a tale of crime. This type of writing feels very Carrian, and as I have mentioned elsewhere Crispin was inspired to take up the mystery field after reading Carr.

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The Pencil – (1953)
When discussing this collection with fellow blogger JJ, this was the story that came to mind for him, and it’s no surprise. Spy thriller in style, The Pencil opens with a contract killer, known only as Elliot, being kidnapped by two assailants, all of which he know would happen and so has planned accordingly.  It has an absolute kicker of an ending and in four pages does more than some novels manage to do!

Death Behind Bars – (1960)
A longer, non series piece, Murder Behind Bars considers how a man being held on suspicion of murder is killed in his locked cell. There is no way of approaching the cell in the time specified, and the murder weapon is no where to be found. Although in ,many ways you can see the solution coming, I really loved it, and it has been used a lot since (and maybe was before). I even saw it in a recent episode of The Dr Blake mysteries even though it wasn’t a locked room scenario. And the motives are especially well spun in this one. But what makes this story even more brilliant is the form that the piece takes, and how that brings everything home to you as the reader, but I’ll let you experience that for yourself.

We Know You’re Busy Writing, But We Thought You Wouldn’t Mind If We Just Dropped in for a Minute – (1969) 
A deliciously dark story, clearly based on the frustrations that Crispin experienced being a writer. The setting is a small, isolated cottage in Devon which is exactly where Crispin lived and worked. The story tells us of one Mr Bradley a writer of adventure stories who has a deadline to meet, but keeps receiving endless interruptions of all kinds at his lonely cottage. The characters here are superb, and the way that Bradley desperately tries to remember the line he was writing as he is interrupted is hilarious. The closing line however, is one of the most chilling you’ll read in a short mystery.

Those are my top stories. I highly recommend this collection. Although they are a mixed bag, I think much of this was down to restrictions in time and word count, especially for the Evening Standard pieces. This struggle for deadlines is something that Crispin showed in full in ‘We Know You’re Busy Writing…’, maybe it was a confessional piece of sorts? If you see this on your travels pick it up!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Men Who Explain Miracles – Episode 5: Our personal top 15 Locked Room Mysteries – My List!

Last week you had the opportunity to listen (and scrutinise) JJ’s list, and this week it’s all about me. Off the back of our 3 parter podcast on the infamous top 15 locked room mysteries list, as complied by Ed Hoch in 1981, we have created out own top 15 lists. And this week you can listen to mine here over an JJ’s blog. 

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Discussion and debate are well and truly underway, so go over and tell me all the wonderful books I’ve left out, the mistakes I’ve made, and what you would have chosen.

And as ever thanks for listening, the response from you all has been so wonderful and we are super super thankful.

Enjoy!

The Men Who Explain Miracles – Episode 5: Our personal top 15 Locked Room Mysteries – JJ’S List

The fan’s gave spoken! You asked for it, and we made it. Off the back of our 3 parter podcast on the infamous top 15 locked room mysteries list, as complied by Ed Hoch in 1981, we bring you our own personal favourites. You can listen to part one here on JJ’s blog.

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Over the next two episodes of our podcast myself and JJ of The Invisible Event will take you through 30 locked room novels in rapid 30 minute delivery. We hope you get some great recommendations, and that you enjoy listening as much as we enjoyed making it.

Onwards!

The Short Stories of Edmund Crispin – Part 1: The Early Works

I have said this many times but I do believe that Edmund Crispin in a totally underrated writer of the golden age of detection. Crispin had some striking ideas in his work, marking many of his stories out as original. And there is no better way to see the most complex and nuanced of these ideas that in his short stories.

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This is going to be the first in a two parter where I look at Crispin’s collections of short stories, both at the start of his writing life and at the end. Originally published in 1953, almost 10 years into Crispin’s mystery writing career, Beware of the Trains catalogues a selection of 16 of the best of Crispin’s short works mostly containing his series detective, Oxford Don, Gervaise Fen. I love this 70’s yellow covered Gollancz copy I have, which I found tucked away on a old book stall that used to run from Spitalfields Market in central London.

For most of these stories, the mystery, plot and solution hangs on a single, intricate idea. It feels here as if Crispin here had so many of these deceptively simple, little ingenious gems that hadn’t found their way into a novel, so he gave them a short story in which to explore their possibilities. It’s this cleverness, and the pushing of one idea to the limit which makes his short works stand apart. They are not just detective works made short, but act as small essays or experiments on the structures and framing devices of detective fiction.

Every story in here I regard highly, so I have chosen my top 5 to wet your appetite. (But you know me by now and my renegade ways, I may even go past 5). Without further ado:

1 – Beware Of The Trains 
The opening story, and one of Crispin’s more famous shorts which concerns how the driver of the titular train impossibly disappears from the driver’s seat between stations. I have read this on a number of occasions, and this time round it really struck me how brilliant it is. There are some lovely tricks here, encased in lush, economic scene description and effortlessly comedic writing, showing off all of Crispin’s skills with flair.

2 – Express Delivery  
A case of who shot who, and why. Eve Crandall sits in the garden of her well to do big game shooting, aunt and uncle’s property. The aunt arrives home to find a gun missing from the cabinet and rushing round to the garden sees James, Eve’s nephew, poised hidden in the garden ready to shoot his cousin. He fires, catching Eve on the side of the head, but not killing her. The Aunt whipping a gun from her pocket, shoots the cousin. It all happens in a moment, but what was a set up, and what wasn’t, and what was the motive for any of it? A super original story idea, a beautiful resolution and the amount of false solutions in such a short time makes this story stand out a mile.

3 – A Pot Of Paint
I am tentative in saying this, but this short story is possibly my favourite short crime story ever written. For me it’s a perfect example of everything that the detective genre can be. In just over six pages Crispin weaves the tale of a jeweller who is knocked out and robbed by an unknown assailant outside the front of his country house while painting the fence. There are four characters, one location, and from the single clue of the titular pot of paint, Fen works out who the assailant was and what happened. I have read this so many times and every time I am blown away.

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The full contents 

4 – Black For A Funeral 
If I was placing a top three of this top five this story be in there, and amounts to a ingenious semi-impossible crime that I wasn’t aware that Crispin had written until finding this collection. The body of adventure story writer Mr Derringer is found beaten to death at the gates of his country home. A ladies man (and often married ladies), there is no shortage of suspects, but there is one problem. He took a train into London for a ‘posh dinner’ that day, and on the way back stopped at a station to talk to a porter friend. But according to the timings, it was impossible for him to have made it back from the station to his home in time to be bludgeoned to death, unless someone had driven him. But there is no sign of the car, and the one road that leads to his property has on it a level crossing, the gate-keeper of which claims that no vehicle or person of any kind had travelled that way all night.

5 – The Name On The Window 
Simply one of the best impossible crime shorts going, another flawless piece of mystery writing. An architect is found dead in an forgotten 18th century pavilion, and there are only the victims footprints in the thick dust. Again the workings are based around a single, ingenious idea, the name written in the dust on the window. This also has a modernist style reference to the ‘locked room lecture’ by John Dickson Carr, who was the writer that got Crispin into writing detective fiction.

6 – Dead Lock
This story is the longest of the collection and is written from the perspective of a child, not something that always works (you can read my last post about when that device isn’t used well), but in this case it’s authentic without being overwhelming, and plays a key role in how the story fits together, subtly acting as a coming of age story. It concerns the murder of another ladies man, found beaten and drowned in the local lock of a small canal. This being a stand alone, non Gervaise Fen mystery, there is a lovely cockney accented and unassuming detective, whose affability pulls the rug out from under the suspects feet. There is some very clever use of bloodstains and body positioning to wrap the tendrils of the mystery together.

I implore you to find this collection if you can, it is well worth the money. Next post: the later works.

Mr Splitfoot: Helen McCloy (1968)

Psychologist, and consultant to the DA’S office Basil Willing, and his wife Gisela are travelling in New England for a skiing holiday when a vicious snow storm cut’s off their journey. Sliding along on perilously icy mountainside roads, there car breaks down and they take to their skis to find help at the nearest town. When Gisela slips in the snow storm and breaks her ankle, they are forced to seek help at the nearest house they can find in this remote landscape.

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I love this old edition I found in London. Paper back with red pages.

They receive a strange welcome at a place called Crow’s Flight, where a party of guests are having a not altogether peaceful family gathering. The snow coming down so hard there are all stuck together for the night, but the house being full there are apparently no spare rooms to offer the Willings. That is until one unthinking member of the party offers the room at the top of the stairs. But, of course, that room has been locked for years, as many moons ago it was the sight of three, horrific and demonic impossible deaths. Anyone who stayed in the room over night was subsequently found dead the next morning. With no marks to be found on the bodies, from the conditions of the corpses the doctors at the time could only say one thing, that these people had died from fright. The horror story has clearly had an effect on many of the family, particularly 15 year old Lucinda. A few suggest that the only way to break this curse is for someone to stay in the room overnight. Casting lots, one goes in, with a book to keep themselves awake, and bell to ring incase of trouble. The door is watched the entire time from the bottom of the stairwell. And no one can enter from any other side. But when that bell inevitably rings what the others find is scary to say the least.

The first thing that I’ll say about this book is that I am glad I had a break before writing about it. I actually read this book a few weeks back, and since then it has grown on me more and more. I am realising that McCloy has a subtlety of writing that in many ways only makes sense upon reflection, after it has a chance to settle. This writing style won’t be to everyones taste (what writing style would?) but this is certainly a book that has grown on me the more I reflect on it.

And when McCloy hits her stride in Mr Splitfoot, she hits it hard. The best parts show off what she was really good at: horror, atmosphere and character, alongside wonderful clewing and misdirection. The set up of the historical impossible murders and the subsequent present day one is pure terror. This is one of those books that you shouldn’t read late at night, or you’ll be seeing things in every shadow.

However, there are few times in this book where McCloy’s subtlety gives way to a dragging pace of writing. This is for a number of reasons. Firstly a large amount of the book is written from the perspective of the 15 year old girl Lucinda. This is surprisingly authentic and believable, Lucinda’s rambling thought processes really feel like a 15 year old brain. The problem is that these authentically meandering reflections make these sections terribly slow going. Pace and atmosphere is lost in the rambling thoughts of the teenage mind. McCloy ironically does herself a disservice in pacing by authentically observing a young character.

In this same context is the misplaced use of psychological reflection in the narrative. I don’t mean that a detective novel or impossible crime story should not have these kinds of psychological angles, but it’s that the novel that McCloy is giving us doesn’t seem to require them. Basil Willing is of course a psychologist and in Cue for Murder, which I read an reviewed last year, there are incredibly intelligent and understated discussions on psychology, and the mind of the killer. And why they acted the way that they did is worked in a totally natural way that forwards and develops the plot, and therefore the solution. With Mr Splitfoot however, this just isn’t a psychological murder case, McCloy just doesn’t give us that. Instead she gives us impossibility butting head to head with horror, within a classic manor house/who-dun-it frame work, and does it well. Therefore the psychological reflections, feels lost, and heavy-handed, slowing the book down again.

I think this book would have worked much better as a stand alone work, without a detective, or with a local officer on the case instead. And the claustrophobia she paints would have been more believable and impactful if we just had this small cast of characters without an outsider coming in.

The final thing that makes elements of this book drag is McCloy’s propensity to over explain clothes, rooms and furniture. She does set a scene very well, and has a deft way with descriptive verse. But, for example, there is a section in the centre of the book when things are hotting up and Willing finds himself in the house of a nearby neighbour. The difference in class from one house to other is explored through the description of the furniture, but oh man you just want to get moving forward! The subsequent scene then acted out is not exciting enough to balance out against the lengthy description.

However, the locked room, and the solution to the impossible death I really liked. In the ranks of ‘rooms that kill’ or ‘rooms where you always die’ this one is up there for me. What takes the solution to the next level, and again this shows McCloy at her best, is that not only is it brutal, and horrific, but the revelation fit’s in totally with the plot, with the atmosphere, and with the nature of the killer. A terrifying method to an equally terrifying book.

So when all is said and done here, Mr Splitfoot has a huge amount going for it, and I would recommend putting in on your to-be-read pile. I look forward to reading more of her oeuvre to see what she was capable of. But there are certainly those dragging moments in this book. It may be to your taste, it may not, but the reader is warned!