Nine – And Death Makes Ten: Carter Dickson (1940)

This Golden Age classic wins the award for my favourite title for a crime novel ever, closely followed by Murder Is Easy by Christie (so chilling). And Carter Dickson, pseudonym of the master of the impossible crime John Dickson Carr, has excelled himself in my eyes again.

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Set against the backdrop of WWII aboard the ‘HM Edwardic’, this monstrous ship opens the story, pulling out from New York city carrying a huge amount of ammunitions in it’s hold, ‘a floating powder-magazine’. Forcibly on blackout in protection against German attacks, the windows in every room are to be shut and covered at all times and the deck itself becomes a eerie pitch black obstacle course. None of the 9 passengers on board are allowed to know the ship’s destination for the sake of national security, only that they are heading to ‘a British port’. Theses passengers slowly reveal themselves as the days pass, forced together, they make quick assumptions of one another, friendships begin and angers arise. But when one of the nine has their throat viciously cut open in their cabin, the atmosphere moves to fever pitch. A set of bloody fingerprints are left in the victim’s room, but when the prints of all passengers and crew are taken, they match no one on board the ship. Was the victim killed by a ghostly hand, or is there a much more devious plot at work? This seething atmosphere, with the madness of the war bubbling beneath, grows and grows. Not knowing who the killer is each of the nine become worried about ‘meeting each other alone in the corridors’.

The setting Carr works is brilliant. Literal and figurative darkness cast over the ship by the enforced blackout creates an almost other worldly tension. The constant, buzzing of artificial lamps as the only source of light blends and confuses night and day, creating a dream or nightmare like setting. This is magnified by Carr’s descriptions of the constant rocking and groaning of the ship as it creaks and snaps under the movement of the sea. The narrow corridors, the stuffy overheated cabins and the over-decorated gaudy dining rooms all become part of the metaphor for things closing in. Both with the intents of the murderer as well as the continuous unspoken reminders of possible enemy attack as they enter the ‘submarine zone’. This setting is so well observed by Carr because, as he reveals in his pre-book disclaimer, he actually lived something of this trip out. Although it wasn’t the harrowing murderous ride as in the book, he took a similar journey to ‘a British port’. There is a great line that claims ‘everything except the atmosphere’ is fictitious.

The story is seen through the eyes of Englishman Max Mathews, injured in battle (presumably, we never fully know) and having spent the last 11 months confined to a hospital bed, now walking with a cane and limp. This is a great character to travel with, as his adapting back to ‘normal’ life with the constant nagging pain of injury, and worries about his future, puts him in this irate, mental, between space. This is reflected in the tense life of the ship floating in the middle of the empty sea, between lands, submitted to the dream-like state of the blackout.

The rest of the cast is also memorable, the humorous and flippant played out against the serious or aloof, although at one point I definitely became confused between a few of the male leads and had to go back a few pages. Carr is on comedy form in his writing of the magnanimous Henry Merrivale, his Carter Dickson series detective. The scenes in the ship’s barber shop are particularly laugh out loud, as well as important in more ways than one. The character of Valerie Chatford is particularly well placed, and how her role is constantly subverted is both powerful and touching.

The plotting is tight and rises in pace as each chapter reveals and conceals, layering mystery to continually build the atmosphere. Big pieces of information keep you changing suspicions and little clues become maddening details. There is also a lovely use of foreboding time in the first third. Just after H.M has come on the scene, himself and Max hear a gunshot ring out in the pitch darkness of the upper deck which ends the chapter. Carr then takes us back in time to see the run up to the shot from another set of characters, filling those subsequent scenes with another level of charged atmosphere.

The impossibility of the fingerprints is subdued, but with a spot-on and simple explanation, although in many ways I wish the murder could have been in a locked or watched room, as I felt that would have upped the stakes that extra notch. That may have enlivened the slower parts of deduction in the middle third, but we can’t have it all (unless your reading Till Death Do Us Part). The killer is also very well hidden. I confess to not always being that bothered who the killer is when I am reading a Carr, particularly if I am resting in the joys of the impossible elements, but in this instance it was a genuinely shocking and surprising reveal. The whole denouement builds in fast pace, and the ending explanations are very rich. It’s an ending that doesn’t just explain or justify the events of the book, but enriches everything you have read, making the whys and hows all the more clever and all the more harrowing. This will be one I will definitely be re-reading just to see how Carr laced and weaved the pattern of the plot, the clues and the obsessions of the killer.

 

She Died a Lady: Carter Dickson (1943)

 

The date, 1943. The author, Carter Dickson. The story, a classically macabre and unique mystery from the master of the impossible crime.

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The singular Rita Wainwright has found herself tangled in an love affair with young american actor Barry Sullivan. Not being able to take the secrecy of hiding it from her husband, and knowing that they could never be together, the pair decide to make a suicide pact, and throw themselves from the top of the 70 foot cliff at the end of her garden, fitting called Lover’s Leap. The scene is thoroughly examined and only two sets of footprints are left in the damp earth that leads to the edge. But when their bodied wash up it turns out they did not die from falling 70 feet onto a bed of rocks, but were both shot in the chest at close range. The gun that they were shot with is found, and it is impossible that either of them fired it themselves.

Golden Age writer John Dickson Carr, and under his pseudonym Carter Dickson, wrote over 70 novels, almost all of which are impossible crimes or have impossible elements. She Died A Lady was his 17th novel under the Carter Dickson banner, featuring his Dickson series detective, the hilarious Sir Henry Merrivale.

Carr was on top form with his scene descriptions and use of prose here. Lines like: ‘The sky was lead-coloured; the water dark blue; the headlands, at bare patches in their green, like the colours of a child’s modelling-clay run together’, set atmospheres that linger long after the page they appear on. Equally, the characters were quickly and powerfully established, described as to be implanted in your head. All unique without feeling parodied or unnatural, with a sharp dose of humour thrown in.

The real strength of this book though, is the plotting. It’s an absolute roller coaster when it comes to directions and threads being weaved together. For example, about half the way in, just when you think you know what is happening a secret is revealed which is so absurd and shocking it knocks you sideways. After Carr let’s the shock settle in, he shows you how it seamlessly links to everything you have seen so far. To finish, he drops the killer and the solution in a high paced denouement, which leaves you needing a to take a day off.

The solution to the impossibility as with all Carr’s best works, is devilishly simple. Though, for me, there were a few too many theoretical mechanics involved, and it was related to specific things from the time period that you may not be totally familiar with. However there was one simple idea, clued so well in a throw away line (which was so obvious on reflection), that left me smacking my forehead for weeks.  I can see why this book is as well respected as it is.

I had heard about Carr’s poor handling of women characters on occasion, but was yet to experience it. Having recently read the amazing ‘Till Death Do Us Part’, and reflecting on other classics like ‘The Judas Window’, where his women are some of the strongest, plot moving and developed characters, it was difficult to find this less well handled. There are only so many times I can hear the narrator describe the body, face or lip shape of every woman. Although on reflection I am starting to wonder if it was the narrator’s view of these females that we are being thrust into, as his descriptions are consistent with his character as a kind of bumbling, slightly out of touch older male? I was almost coping with that, but then this line dropped as if from nowhere: ‘Though it is dangerous to make generalities, this was far from being the first time in my life when I have observed the absolute incapacity of any woman for telling the truth when truth becomes unsuitable. There is no intent to do wrong in this. To the female sex, it simply does not matter. Truth is relative; truth is fluid; truth is something to be measured according to emotional needs, like Adolf Hitler’s.’

Unless I have deeply misunderstood this line (I have read it over and over) this was simply too much for me, and left a sour taste, even accounting for the time of writing. It seemed to be totally incongruous, and written without enough irony, even if it was a character attribute or parody of the narrator himself. I’m not sure, and would like to hear some thoughts from readers on this. It is (although weirdly shocking) a small moment, and as the brilliant feminist, media critic Anita Sarkeesian always says, it is possible to still enjoy a cultural work while being critical of certain elements of it.

A final thought about this, there was also some interesting gender reflections when Rita Wainwright is maliciously called a ‘theatrical’ woman by certain characters and therefore not taken seriously, her name being dragged through the mud. This idea becomes subverted as the narrative goes on, and people are shown up for judging a book by its cover. Speaking of which the title is really brilliant, and when revealed in the book it’s a real shocker, relating to these ‘theatrical’ reflections and subversions.

My conclusion, grab and read this book. For the plotting, for the feeling of the mystery rippling throughout, the clues that niggle at the back of your head and the tensions coming left right and centre. But as for the difficulties, the reader is warned.

I am submitting this review as part of the Crimes of The Century series by Rich over at Past Offences, this month in celebration of classic detective fiction published in 1943 . 

What are you reading? WWW Wednesday

What have I been reading this past few weeks, and what’s coming up next on the book pile? To show you lovely readers, I’m getting involved with the WWW Wednesday meme over at the brilliant Taking on a World of Words blog.

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The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

Here we go!

What am I currently reading?

I am super excited to be half way through Nine and Death makes Ten by Carter Dickson. A classic golden age impossible crime mystery, that takes the award for my favourite title for a crime book.  Set against the backdrop of WWII aboard the ‘HM Edwardic’, the ship is forcibly on blackout in protection against attacks. This so far has created a literal and figurative darkness over the artificially lit cabins, making way for a ingenious impossibility related to a set of bloody fingerprints that match no one aboard the ship. 

I am also at the start of contemporary crime novel Tana French’s The Trespasser. Having read many glowing reviews I wanted to give this book a go and it’s brilliant so far. The black female lead, the caustic Antoinette Conway, is super refreshing and very well written.

What did I recently finish?

Just closed the last page of a The Japanese Golden Dozen. A very curious and enigmatic collection from the 1970’s by golden age crime writer and anthologist Ellery Queen. I found this treasure on my last London second hand bookshop walk. The book catalogues and translates some of the best detective fiction writers from all over Japan. There are some misses (and shockers!) but a lot of hits in this collection, my review of this will be up in my next post.

What do you think you will read next?

Well… this week I found possibly my best hall of golden age impossible crime novels from a single secondhand bookshop visit. Dropped in on the off chance and got myself 8 titles! These books are all penned by golden age writer John Dickson Carr, who produced over 80 novels in his time, almost all of which have impossible crimes or elements (also under the pseudonym Carter Dickson, see above). I am a big fan of Carr and a few of these are considered classics so I’m pushed for choice! On the contemporary crime front I have also ordered to my local library Sarah Hillary’s first novel Someone Else’s Skin. And keen to get on Sara Paretsky’s feminist crime series with her first book Indemnity Only.

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Spoilt for choice!

What’s on your to read pile, and what top books have you read lately? Anything you want to recommend me?