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.

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).

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?