John Dickson Carr: The Men Who Explained Miracles (1963) Part 2

The Men Who Explained Miracles, is a collection of shorter stories and uncollected works from the master of the impossible crime John Dickson Carr. In my last post I focussed on the last piece in the book, a twisty novella entitled All In A Maze. For this one I will move to the eclectic range of tales that make up the first part of this collection.

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There are 6 shorts in total, divided into three sections: Department of Queer Complaints contains two uncollected Colonel March stories. The blustering ex-service man tasked with explaining the more troubling crimes of Scotland Yard. Under the heading Dr Fell Stories we are presented with two shorts from the infamous hat and caped detective of some of Carr’s most famous novels. And Secret Service Stories presents us with two stand alone, non-series pieces, the first set in France and the second an historical thriller.

This all makes for a diverse range of works, spanning a number of years and containing almost every detective or type of story Carr dealt with in his career. In order of appearance:

1- William Wilson’s Racket – Colonel March

The first story in the collection considers a curious problem that the socially distinguished Lady Patricia Mortlake presents to the Department of Queer Complaints. For the past month her husband, the Right Hon. Francis Hale, has started to display strange behaviour. Every time he sees a certain advert in a news paper, he seems to go ‘off his head’. The advert only appears in the best papers and simply reads ‘William and Wilhelmina Wilson, 25Oa, Piccadilly’, nothing more. The company and the names are not listed anywhere. Lady Patricia takes in upon herself to visit the address and upon bursting into the office she finds her husband sitting in a swivel chair, a young red head on his lap, arms around his neck. After shouting and slamming the door, she waits by the main door, expecting him to come and apologise, but he doesn’t come out. When she goes back to the room to investigate, the red head and her husband have gone, leaving no trace. There are no other exits, so Frances Mortlake seems to have escaped from a watched room, and stranger still, he seems to have left all his clothes behind.

It’s just a brilliant set up! Unique to the March stories are where the impossibility itself is totally left field and also funny. The solution is a as unique as the set up, and although audacious, and not groundbreaking, all the clues are there. The story also ends with a nice little twist, leaving you wondering if all was what it seemed.

2 – The Empty Flat – Colonel March

The chilling set-up for the second Colonel March short is one of the best from the collection. Douglas Chase cannot concentrate on his late night studies as someone seems to be blaring a radio a full volume in the flat below. He heads down to speak to the owner, a Miss Kathleen Mills, also studying late night, who presumes Douglas is the one blaring the radio. They both realise that it is coming from the locked and empty flat next to Kathleen’s. No one has taken the flat on, as it is said to cause strange things to happen to it’s tenants. Douglas manages to find a way into the empty flat through the service hatch. Standing in pitch darkness he finds the radio blaring in a dark and empty flat in the room beyond. Entering the room turns it off, leaving the flat in silence. Douglas leaves thinking that it is empty, but the next morning, some building workers find the body of barrister Mr Arnot Wilson, crumpled up in the bedroom. The doctor in attendance declares that Wilson has died of cardiac and nervous shock, caused by fright.

There are two interested things to note from this tale. Firstly there is very similar opening character relationship to the start of The Case of the Constant Suicides (you’ll see what I mean when you read it). And secondly the solution to the frightening to death of Wilson, is the exact same solution, but to a different type of crime (not a frightening to death), from one of Carr’s novels. This novel was printed before this short story, but only picked up by penguin after the short story was published, which makes me wonder if Carr only re-used the solution it because the book wasn’t as popular until penguin took it up so he felt he could? (Thought on a postcard please).

3 – The Incautious Burglar – Dr Fell 

A particularly beautifully written Fell story, this short considers the problem of three super valuable paintings, two Rembrants and a Van Dyck, owned by successful businessman Marcus Hunt. There are some curious questions surrounding the paintings. Why has Hunt just moved them out of secure storage to a poorly locked room? And why has he left them in blaring sun light, which might bleach out. It is suggested that he want’s them ‘stolen’ so he can claim the insurance money.  The only problem with that suggestion, he hasn’t insured any of them for a single penny.

That night, the worst happens. A break-in wakes one of Hunt’s house guests who rushes down to find a masked burglar in a pool of blood and glass, stabbed in the chest. When the body is examined, it turns out to be Marcus Hunt, the owner of the paintings himself. The question then, why would the owner stage a break in to steal his own paintings, even though they are not insured, and who would kill him in the act?

A really nice clue about the scratches on a tea set and the width of the blade leads Dr Fell to the solution, which has a lovely misdirection. Each element is perfectly placed.

4 – Invisible Hands – Dr Fell

A lonely cliff top beach house in North Cornwall (which feels very much like the house of She Died A Ladyis the setting for the second of the Fell shorts. Society beauty Brenda Lestrange is found strangled on ‘King Arthurs Chair’, a natural rock formation in the shape of a throne, surrounded by untouched sand. And of course, there are no footprints leading up to the body or away part from her own. The solution to this one is mad, but could work, (although I think I had a better one in mind). But to Carr’s credit he makes a secondary piece of misdirection work well to solidify how the killer could get away with it.

5 – Strictly Diplomatic – Monsieur Lespinasse 

Over-worked businessman Andrew Dermot is forcibly signed off by his doctor to a spa in the south of France. Telling the Doc that he hasn’t got time to fall in love, the ironic and inevitable happens, he meets Betty Weatherill. All is going like a dream, when Betty suddenly declares she has to leave the spa that very night, and won’t explain why. Getting up from her chair she walks to the ‘arbour’ at the back of the hotel, an arched tunnel of thick flowers and vines that leads to the main building. Dermot watches her go in, but reliable witnesses on the other side say that she never came out the other end.

Again, as with All In A Maze this is a tale where Carr manages to work in the threat of spies, international espionage, double clues, secret identities, the question of reliable witnesses and an impossible situation all into about 15 pages. The solution isn’t mind blowing, but a solid entry, and again a unique location and plot.

6 – The Black Cabinet – Stand Alone Historical Psychological/Thriller

This one is a total surprise in the collection, a tale which travels through the moral and emotional struggle of revolutionary Nina Bennet, as she works out a plan to assassinate Napoleon Bonaparte. There is a brilliantly written opening scene where we see things through the eyes of a young Nina, and how her hatred of the Emperor seeded itself. We are then brought up to the present day as the clock ticks down to the assassination. Nina and her Aunt Maria, whose radical leanings have slipped away over years, battle out Nina’s decision in fraught discussion, until another strange and unexpected historical character enters the scene. Not a mystery here, or impossibility, but this one is reflective of Carr’s historical style of work, where fast paced writing explores one persons relationship to another in power.

What I found most impressive about this short, which again shows of Carr’s early feminist/pro-women out look, is that the whole story is about and told from the perspective of three strong women characters. All of whom are complex, wildly different and not parodied. There is even an interesting discussion in this story about love and beauty verses hate and revenge.

So overall, a wildly different set of stories, with some solid entries that will be loved by Carr fans for sure. This isn’t Carr’s strongest material by far, but you can see these are stories where he was stretching and expanding the form, trying things that he might not have done else where. And from that perspective, seeing a master of plot and form experiment is a fun and insightful experience.

My question in part one was why and how this collection was pulled together. My thought is that as this was published the year Carr had his stroke, and was then limited to the use of one arm, that publishers still wanted to publish something. So they brought together this mixed collection of works that weren’t as of yet on the market, so that they could still put something out? That’s my guess anyhow, but if you have anymore historically accurate knowledge than that do let me know!

John Dickson Carr: The Men Who Explained Miracles (1963) – Part 1

After finishing Carr’s short story collection The Department of Queer Complaints I was devastated. Not because it was bad, but because it was brilliant, audacious and ridiculous, and contains some of the most original impossible crime set ups going.

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I wish Carr had kept producing Colonel March stories in his spare time (which I doubt he had any of, sometimes writing 7-8 novels a year, plus radio plays), and that there were another 10 collections of Queer Complaints where he could have let loose on his most mad locked room ideas. Ideas that he couldn’t try anywhere else.

With this in mind, and with my recent Carr kick going on, I was super excited to find on my last London second hand bookshop walk the collection The Men Who Explained Miracles, which contains another two Colonel March stories, alongside 4 more shorts and a novella.

As there is so much content here the short stories will have to wait till the next post, and today I will go to the end of the collection for some thoughts on the novella, a Henry Merrivale story titled All in A Maze. To have a Merrivale story alongside Colonel March, may seem odd, but in fact the collection contains his detectives March, Merrivale, Dr Fell, French detective Monsieur Lespinasse – written much in the same way as Carr’s first detective Henri Bencolin – alongside a stand alone historical short thriller. Why and how this mix-and-match collection came together, and quite late in Carr’s career, is unknown to me and if any of you have more info out there it would be great to hear it, as I imagine many of these stories were not written as late as the 60’s?

All in a Maze is a gorgeous little piece, with Carr flexing his plotting and impossible muscles to try a few more original ideas out. The story begins with Jenny Holden running out of St Paul’s cathedral, so terrified that she is flying down the main steps at unnatural speed. Journalist Tom Lockwood, seeing her impending fall, manages to catch her. They both run to the safety of a local cafe where Holden tells Lockwood that she believes someone is trying to kill her. For a story of just under 60 pages Carr manages to weave in international spies, switches of identity, double clues and a great dose of humour all round.

All in a Maze also presents us with two impossible problems. Firstly, how could Jenny, in the whispering gallery of St Paul’s cathedral, hear a voice tell her that she will die, when there is no one that could have spoken it? And secondly, later that evening, how did someone enter her locked room, turn on the gas from her fireplace to gas her to death and then escape while the room was securely locked and bolted from the inside?

I would love to know more about how Carr reached his impossible crime ideas, as it often feels he must have been inspired by a location or a generally interesting domestic occurrence to create an impossible puzzle. You can imagine him on a day out with his wife and kids, or at a friends house and seeing the cogs suddenly turning as an new idea comes to mind when someone tops up the electric meter or shuts a window in a funny way. It’s those relationships to a particular setting, atmosphere or everyday situation that gives much of Carr’s work it’s original feel, and the puzzles their unique quality.

The whispering gallery solution is basically the only one there could be, but I won’t fault Carr for that, and the locked room solution is super tidy, and could have been a sub mystery to a larger novel if Carr had wanted. The proofs for the locked room are also really tight, and I appreciate the dedication to plot and solution that Carr strives for even in a short story. It’s not going to blow your mind, but it will leave you feeling satisfied for sure.

But a really memorable part of this novella, is a brilliant and super clever connection between the first impossible problem and the second, with the misunderstanding of a single word uttered by Merrivale. It’s a genius move by Carr as it could throw you off the scent in a clever way, and feels like it could be a part of a central mystery in a Jonathan Creek episode. I’ll leave you to find that one out. The final few pages are a high-speed finish, from which the story gets the nice double meaning of it’s title.

Part two, the short stories, to follow soon.

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P.s – I am also aware of the Merrivale, March and Murder collection, which I hope to get at some point, although it doesn’t contain any other new Colonel March stories that are not in this collection or Department of Queer Complaints. Although the other pieces in there look great.

Miraculous Mysteries: British Library Crime Classics – Locked Rooms and Impossible Murders

The British Library crime classics series, up to 50 books at the time of writing, has been getting better and better. The team have been digging our more obscure titles, and republishing classics that should be better known.

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From what I heard at ‘Bodies From The Library’, the brilliant golden age crime conference this last weekend at the British Library, (which you can read up about here at Cross Examining Crime and Puzzle Doctor) there are some more exciting and forgotten titles on the way.

Editor, writer and GAD encyclopedia Martin Edwards spoke during the conference on his process in deciding what titles to pick for publication. His remit he said, and I paraphrase, was to pick a real variety of stories, from a broad range of sources, and even if the execution wasn’t perfectly realised, that each tale held something of an original and exciting approach to the mystery story. And this is definitely the feeling with Miraculous Mysteries, Edwards’ selection of locked room shorts, which I was thankful to receive a review copy of from the British Library team.

As there are some very thorough and insightful reviews of this new title already out there (great one here from TomCat), I have decided to give you my top 5 (okay, maybe 6 or 7) stories from the 16 on offer, and will give you one thing (okay, maybe two things) that I liked about each story. So without further ado here are my top ten, in order of appearance:

1 – ‘The Thing Invisible’ – William Hope Hodgson
This short takes as it’s supernatural occurrence, the mystery of a haunted dagger, mounted above the alter of a family chapel, that flies from the wall running through any poor soul who dares enter the chapel after sun down. The best part of this story was the scene in which the detective waits over night in the chapel to hopefully witness the event for himself. This waiting scene is so well written, and is absolutely chilling and heart-racing. 

2 – The Case of the Tragedies of the Greek Room – Sax Rohmer
Sax Rohmer was the pen name of the creator of the ridiculous (but for some reason overwhelmingly popular) Dr. Fu Manchu series. It’s popularity is probably down to Rohmer’s story telling ability, which is evident in this short, which sees Moris Klaw, a ‘psychic detective’ who solves mysteries by placing himself at the scene of the crime until he receives and ‘odic photograph’, a mental impression of the last thing eyes of the victim witnessed before death. The ‘Greek Room’ of the title refers to one greek display room in a small museum, which has experienced haunting events, when one of the guards is killed inside the locked museum on night watch. The solution to the locked room and the appearance of a spectre in white, are both absolutely audacious but work simply for the fact that Rohmer committed to them totally. This was also one of only two mysteries that I didn’t guess the solution to.

3 – ‘The Miracle of Moon Crescent’ – G.K.Chesterton
What can I say about this story, it’s just brilliant. There is so much I could say about this, but instead I’ll just say go and read it, and if you haven’t already, go and read the rest of Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, which I’ll write about one of these days. The one thing I’ll pick from this story is a clue. This is one of my favourite clues for how it unlocks the solution to the disappearance of a man from a watched room, who is then found 100 of meters away hung from a tree. The clue: why would someone fire a gun, with a blank round, into the side of a brick building?

4 – ‘The Diary of Death’ – Marten Cumberland
The best thing about this story is the brilliant central idea, and I think Cumberland missed a trick here in not making this into a novel as it would have worked for sure. A famous actress, becoming a recluse at the end of her life, in her last days writes a ludicrous and unfounded diary, slamming all the people whom she felt had wronged her. Now she is dead and gone. But when people start to be killed off one by one, each with a torn page of the diary pertaining to them found on their body, it seems as if her ghost is back to take revenge on her enemies. One victim dies in a locked room, and the solution is super neat, and a favourite of mine from this collection. This was the only other solution I didn’t guess. At least not in full. I was half way there, but a simple idea sneaked up behind me, making it all the more satisfying.

5 – ‘Death at 8:30’ – Christopher St. John Sprigg
This is my first foray into Sprigg’s work which has convinced me that I want to read Death of An Airman, his other re-release in the British Library Crime Classics series. This is probably one of the most hilariously water tight locked room set-ups I have come across: 3 layers of doors, 3 layers of guards, an underground vault, two people either side with revolvers, and the target in a bullet proof glass booth with a gun in hand… and he still dies at 8:30 exactly! The solution is fairly simple and revealed about half way through, but it’s how Sprigg uses the solution to get the untouchable killer to confess which is brilliant, and makes for an great closing scene.

6 – The Haunted Policeman – Dorothy L. Sayers
After two atrocious stories in a row, it was endlessly refreshing to come to this Sayers short, and showed how good a writer she really was. The thing I liked about this one was the originality of the set-up. A policeman on his night round hears shouting and cries for help coming from a long row of houses down a narrow side street. A ruffled looking man runs to the door before the policeman looking through the letter box to see what’s wrong. Beckoning the policeman over, he looks through to see a man lying in the corridor with a knife through the back of his neck, fresh blood on the black and white tiled floor. The policeman bangs on the door of Number 13 to no effect when he notices that the shabby looking man has run away. He pursues him up the street, but doesn’t catch him, and decides to run back to the crime scene. But when he gets there, house number 13 has gone, only even numbers show on the doors, and after knocking on every door on the street none of the houses look like the one he saw through the letter box, even though the other residents heard the cries for help, and saw him and the mysterious man running down the road.

7 – ‘Beware of the Trains’ – Edmund Crispin 
As a massive Crispin fan I was really happy to find a story of his in this collection, and to see that more of his work is going out to the masses. I do think there are better locked room shorts from Crispin, The Name on the Window for example being a miniature masterpiece. However on reading this again for the first time in a while I think I under estimated it, and the level of joy and exuberance coming from Crispin here shows that he was at his prime when writing this. The story concerns the disappearance of a train driver between two watched and surrounded stations, and my top thing from this short are these few hilarious lines which show off Crispin’s wit and revelation of character at it’s top form. The passage concerns station master Maycock angry that he hasn’t been told about a police presence at his station:

‘Mr. Maycock, clearly dazed by this melodramatic intelligence, took refuge from his confusion behind a hastily contrived breastwork of out-raged dignity. ‘And why,’ he demanded in awful tones, ‘was I not hinformed of this ‘ere?’
   You ‘ave bin informed,’ snapped the second porter, who was very old indeed, and who appeared to be temperamentally subject to that vehement, unfocussed rage which one associates with men who are trying to give up smoking…
…’And it wouldn’t ave occurred to you, would it’–here Mr Maycock bent slightly at the knees, as though the weight of his sarcasm was altogether too much for his large frame to support comfortably–’to ‘ave a dekko in my room and see if I was ‘ere?’ 

However, there are one or two duds in the collection (in fact only two) and so, as an addition to this list I want to give the award for, in my opinion, the worst story in the collection to….

‘Too Clever By Half’ – G.D.H and Margaret Cole.
For me, this story is so atrocious that I couldn’t go without mentioning it. It seems that even Martin Edwards didn’t think of them very highly, saying in his introduction that they saw detective fiction as a ‘trivial’ side line to their more ‘worthier’ political work.

I went from anger to laughter with how bad this was, as it seemed to fall into every bad writing and poor detective trope I could think of. The bad writing is too much too number, literally saying things like ‘…I could not rid my mind of the feeling that there was something wrong than a mere suicide’, but in terms of the story, lets take this for instance: The great detective is sure that a suicide note is in fact a note taken out of a letter, with the top and bottom cut off, when the doctor says it could possibly be read that way he states:

“Of course it can,” I insisted. “Once that occurs to you, you see it can’t mean anything else.”

It can’t mean anything else. Wow! This is the classic bad trope of a detective telling the reader what is true, without any evidence, that we are expected to believe. This is the kind of thing that Berkeley so sharply satirised and criticised in the Poison Chocolates Case, which I wrote about in my last post. Here’s another quote for good measure:

‘But I doubt if I should have convinced Inspector Cox of their [my deductions] correctness at that stage if it hadn’t been for that opportune discovery of mine about the colour of the ink.’ 
‘Yes that was the goods,’ said someone. ‘Just like a bit out of a detective story–only there they’d have analysed the ink, and put down a lot of unintelligible stuff about it having the wrong chemical composition.’ 
Ben Tancred laughed. ‘We managed without that,’ he said. 

The covering of the fact that again the ink could have had multiple meanings and reasons for being a different colour, by saying that in a detective story it would have been ‘a lot of unintelligible stuff’ is just so lax it’s hilarious. And what’s even funnier about this, is that it is the exact point that is satirised in The Poison Chocolates Case, even down to ink pots as an example. In saying all this, it is possible that the Cole’s were not trying to create a puzzle for you to solve with the detective, but if that were the case I think it would have had a very different feel. Have a read and let me know what you think.

Well, over all an enjoyable collection with only two real duds that I could speak of. This isn’t a revolutionary set of locked room mysteries, but what Edwards has managed to do with this collection is to give you the experience of each story being so different and consistently interesting, pulling out obscure and forgotten titles along the way, and therefore the collection is great to read as a whole.

I hope there is a second one! (And I hope that one has at least once Carr story in it!)

 

Crime By Design – 1: The Marber Grid

This is the first in a series exploring the best design in crime and detective novels, starting with an absolute icon, the Marber Grid.

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As an artist myself and being married to a graphic designer I am always drawn to a book by its cover, and classic crime is no exception. The green hue of the vintage penguin crime paperback always brings a joy to the heart. But one format in particular stands apart as being one of the most influential and beautiful layout designs of all time.

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The Marber Grid and a Chestertonian example

The Marber grid was designed by Romek Marber in 1961, after Penguin Art Director Germano Facetti commissioned three designers to devise a new grid system to allow for illustrations alongside the bold typography associated with Penguin covers. Marber’s grid was chosen and he went on to illustrate around 70 titles for the Penguin Crime series. Marber retained the classic penguin green but significantly lightened the shade. The text was cropped at the top, which allowed for a broad section of two thirds of the cover to be used for illustration, something which hadn’t been done before across the Penguin brand.

The designs were provocative and eye catching and even a little unnerving to some, as Phil Banes writes in his book Penguin by Design: ‘The imagery used in the area below was often suggestive rather than literal, but even so, there was some adverse feedback about the ‘darkness’ of some of the images.’

These news covers, with striking imagery at an affordable cost brought high quality art and design into everyone’s home. These illustrations perfectly capture some element of the story or characters, as with one of my favourite designs, the covers for the Father Brown series, which show perfectly how Brown reaches his solutions through intuition and and meditative thinking, rather than through scientific or straight deduction. The design is so classic that in even more contemporary re-releases of Brown this same illustration concept has been retained.

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The classic brown cover and a more modern retake

It was later decided that recurring series works should have a recognisable recurring image, as with the covers for Dorothy L Sayers releases, which contained a hand cut white figure placed somewhere on each design.

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The Marber grid continued from here to influence every part of Penguins design output, as The Book Design Blog writes: ‘Facetti was so inspired by Marber’s design that he also used it for Penguin’s fiction range, and would later apply it again, practically unchanged, to the blue Pelican books. Eventually Marber’s layout became the standard layout for the entire range of Penguin paperbacks.’

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Marber’s own story is a fascinating one. Born in Poland in 1925, he escaped the Nazi death camps with the help of Sergeant Kurzbach, who helped saved large numbers of Jew’s during WWII. Arriving in Britain in 1946 he enrolled at St Martin’s school of art (a member now of the UAL group of universities, where I also currently study), to study commercial art. He then went on to attend the Royal College of Art in 1953. Marber then designed a number of covers for the economist. These bold typographic designs were noticed by Germano Facetti who then asked him to work on some Penguin titles, which lead to the commission of the Marber Grid.

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Marber is still alive and retired from the design world, holding a place as Professor Emeritus with Middlesex University. Designers today still look back to this iconic grid and its influence on cover design the world over. I think it’s also helpful in our current climate to think that a Polish immigrant to the UK who lived through Nazi occupation, changed the face of crime and book cover design the world over.

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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.

Twain, Hemmingway, Dickens: Crime Writers?

Sometimes I come across a book so curious I have to pick it up. Ellery Queen’s Book of Mystery Stories is just that book. Its very existence is so fascinating I had to write about it.

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Most followers of this blog will know who Ellery Queen is, but if not let me introduce you. Ellery Queen was the moniker of crime fiction writers, editors and anthologists Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee. They wrote some 30 novels and short story collections featuring their main character, also named Ellery Queen, a writer and amateur detective who helps his police inspector father solve complex cases. They also had a huge impact on editing and anthologising crime.

This anthology originally published in 1952 under the title ‘The Literature of Crime’ seeks to show, in Queen’s words, that ‘few people realise – few critics, too – that nearly every world-famous author, throughout the entire history of literature has tried his hand at writing the detective or crime story’.

And the list of names in this book is extraordinary. Queen brings together short crime stories from none other than Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Rudyard Kipling, Aldous Huxley, Pearl S. Buck, Walter de la Mare, Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck and Fannie Hurst to name but a few.

What made me pick it up, was the foreword by Queen, in which there are some fascinating facts. For example in discussing Mark Twain Queen says ‘Twain’s writings in the detective-crime field are almost wholly unappreciated’ explaining that Twain wrote over 6 detective stories through his career, and that he was ‘the first writer in history to see the plot possibilities of fingerprints… Yes, both in the short story and the novel… as a means of criminal identification.’ And in Huckleberry Finn, often ranked as one of the top 100 books of all time, Twain wrote in the lady detective Mrs Judith Loftus, who uses the gender norms of the time as to uncovering Finn’s disguise. 

And most fascinatingly: ‘did you know what was book Mark Twain was writing at the time of his death? A mystery novel, entitled Jim Wheeler, Detective.’ Truly wonderful stuff. The unfinished Jim Wheeler manuscript is housed in the New York Public library having never been published, but I guess it would be a frustrating read having no ending.
What I find interesting about this collection is that it shows the complexities of the crime form were not snubbed by some of the world’s most famous authors.