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: It Walks By Night (1930) – Allusions to Poe and his Terrifying Trowel.

John Dickson Carr’s first novel is like a perfectly drawn map of everything he would go on to achieve and master in his career as an author of astounding detective fiction.

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In It Walks By Night (1930) we have the beginning of all things ‘Carrian’. The rich and velvety use of prose to describe character and scene, the grasp on setting and the creation of atmosphere that with a few words stays in your head a life time, confused psychologies and motives, double clues, fiercely well written and leading female characters (and the beginning of what would become a staple for Carr – the oppressed or wrongly convicted woman), endless macabre and of course the head spinning impossibilities of an original and water tight locked room mystery.

The story: On the eve of their wedding day Madame Louise and her new husband the Duc de Saligny are spending their first night together at a Parisian gambling house, but they are not alone. Half the Parisian police force is guarding the building at threat of ‘Laurent’, Louise’s psychopathic ex-husband, who has recently broken out of prison and has sent a message explaining that if they go through with the marriage he will kill the both of them. Laurent is a master of disguise and seemingly able to enter and leave rooms at will. But of course head of the police force Henri Bencolin is there, so nothing can go wrong…

During the night at the gambling hall, the Duc de Saligny walks into the empty card room and closes the door behind him with both entrances watched. But when a waiter responds to a bell for a drinks order rung from the room, he opens the door to find Saligny beheaded, and a bloodied sword hanging on the wall, but the rest of the room is empty and there is no sign of Laurent.

The main thing to say straight off the bat is that this was Carr’s first book, HIS FIRST BOOK! The amount of depth, challenge, character, misdirection, impossibility and woven plot is absurd for a first crack at a detective novel.  There are many great reviews of this book out there, most of them you can find on fellow Carr fan The Green Capsule’s ever growing review list, where he is collecting Carr reviews from across the blogging community. So if you want some more opinion on the book and it’s pros and cons, go and check those out.

I want to take things in a different direction by looking at Carr’s relationship to Edgar Allan Poe, and how this book I think acts as a homage to the great American writer of the macabre.  And I’ll start by explaining the title of this post.

If you have read many of Poe’s short stories you may have come across the The Cask of Amontillado (1846). It’s one of Poe’s best and most chilling tales, which opens with these shuddering lines:

‘The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose however, that I gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitely settled – but the very definitiveness with which is was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes the redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.’

Our narrator does indeed take his revenge when he leads Fortunato, a passionate wine expert, deep into an underground cellar with the promise of a rare casket of Amontillado, which he asks him to check is the genuine article. He appeals to Fortunato’s pride by telling him that another wine connoisseur, whom Fortunato believes to be a fool, has said it is the real deal. Fortunato then meets his horrible end (although you are never quite sure) deep in the caverns of the cellar, with a haunting trowel in the hand of our narrator.

So, now to the links between the two. The charged atmosphere in the chilling opening chapters of It Walks By Night, with the possibility of Laurent lurking round every corner, has one particularly horrific moment when Laurent appears in a locked bathroom, a smile hanging on his face, and then vanishes without a trace dropping a metal object onto the bathroom tiles. The object is found to be a metal trowel, as with the killer in Amontillado. There is also the presence of an underground wine cellar from which Carr builds a crucial and chilling plot point in his mystery.

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There is not just similarity here in the placement of key objects from Amontillado, but in their meaning. The trowel in the hand of the killer in Poe’s story is the instrument and symbol of revenge acted out, of confidence tricks and pride played out against the victim. This symbol works exactly the same when Laurent drops the trowel at the feet of his ex-wife in It Walks By Night, as he seeks revenge for the betrayal of their marriage. His pride will not let it go, and he will trick Louise and the Duc De Saligney into his trap. Alongside this,  a reference to Poe and the trowel  is actually made by one of the main characters in chapter 8 entitled ‘We Talked Of Poe’.

Furthermore, if we drift back to the opening lines of Amontillado: 

‘A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes the redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.’

In many ways this quote represents the solution to It Walks By Night, the killer is found because they are overcome in trying to ‘make themselves felt’, and in the end they are caught when retribution overtakes the redresser; the killer goes too far.

Therefore It Walks By Night is homage in meaning, motive and setting which shows that Carr saw Poe in some way a founding father for the type of work he wanted to create, and would go on to create. I found out recently that Carr even produced a radio show on the work of Poe work for the BBC. ‘New Judgement’ John Dickson Carr on Edgar Allen Poe was broadcast on 22 May, 1944 at 22:05 on the BBC Home Service. I’m trying to track a copy of this down, so I’ll keep you up to date with that!

 

 

Anthony Berkeley: The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) – On Crime, Subversion and Detectives Telling Us What to Think.

As a lover of detective fiction, and a growing hoarder of books, it became obvious after reading many great comments and reviews of the Poisoned Chocolates Case that I should really have read this by now.

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So when on another of my London second hand book shop walks I came across the new British Library Crime Classics edition (complete with alternative endings by both Christiana Brand, and Martin Edwards, plus Edwards’ brilliant foreword) I decided to dive straight in. To put it simply, this book really is brilliant, and totally lives up to it’s reputation. It’s genre defining, subverting and attacking, and is well worth your time.

The book has at the helm the motley crew known as ‘The Crimes Circle’. This group was the fictional forerunner to the very real Detection Club, which Berkeley started in 1930, whereby he invited crime fiction writers to discuss real life and fictional crime over lunch, thereby challenging a developing the genre. This group contained names as big as Christie, Chesterton, Carr and Knox and runs to this day.

In the The Poisoned Chocolates Case the fictional Crimes Circle is tasked with trying to crack the tragic unsolved murder of Mrs. Joan Bendix, killed by a box of poisoned chocolates. After a presentation from Chief Inspector Moresby of the facts so far, the Circle agrees that they will each have a week in which to work on the case, and then present their findings. The rest of the book therefore is almost entirely made up of alternative solutions to the same crime. 7 set’s of deductions and with 7 different endings. With a fast paced movement from case to case, each presentation is more shocking than the last, and builds in unexpected and hilarious ways. The final denouement is a smash ending, with subtle ambiguity rippling through the whole affair.

Another reason that this is an important work is that is was written as early as 1929. To be subverting the genre this much at this point in time was no mean feat.

As there are so many write ups of this title I don’t want to review it generally as it would be easy to read more elsewhere. So I want to try and take things a little deeper. I am going to pull out a few brilliant examples of how Berkeley used this work to challenge and subvert what had come before, which have served to challenge and develop my own reading and writing of detective fiction:

The Proclaiming Detective: 

“…Invariably, Mr. Bradley. I’ve often noticed it in your own books. You state a thing so emphatically that the reader does not think of questioning the assertion. ‘Here,’ says the detective, ‘is a bottle of red liquid and here is a bottle of blue. If these two liquids turn out to be ink, then we know that they were purchased to fill up the empty ink pots in the library as surely as if we had read the dead man’s very thoughts.’ Whereas the red ink might have been bought by one of the maids to dye a jumper, and the blue by the secretary for his fountain pen; or a hundred other such explanations. But any possibilities of that kind are silently ignored. Isn’t that so?”

“Perfectly,” agreed Bradley, unperturbed. “Don’t waste time on unessentials. Just tell the reader very loudly what he’s to think, and he’ll think it all right. You’ve got the technique perfectly, Why don’t you try your hand at it? It’s quite a paying game, you know.” (Chapter 6)

The idea of having a detective novelist (Mr. Bradley) in the list of characters trying to solve the case was a stroke of genius from Berkeley. This allowed him to go head-on against the earliest tropes of detective fiction that, as Martin Edward’s comments, Berkeley saw as ‘highly contrived, and…seldom stood up to close scrutiny’. This paragraph I have quoted put into words many things I had noticed in bad crime fiction writing, and have now noticed more, further to reading it. Often this ‘telling the reader very loudly’ what to think comes through the mouth and guise of genius detectives. Those lording figures who cannot and shall not be questioned, and whose brilliance we are swept away by. Berkeley further sums this feeling up in a later passage where the mild mannered Mr. Chitterwick holds forth on the subject:

“I have often noticed… that in books of that kind it is frequently assumed that any given fact can admit of only one single deduction, and that invariably the right one. Nobody else is capable of drawing any deductions at all but the author’s favourite detective, and the ones he draws (in the books where the detective is capable of drawing deductions at all which, alas, are only too few) are invariably right.” (Chapter 17)

In my sketch comedy group Salt, we have written and performed a number of murder mystery comedy shows, and this has always been one of the hardest things to get right in plotting the piece. How not to let the detective just tell the audience ‘this is what happened’ while leaving open any other obvious ways for things to have gone. Or at the very least, how to be aware of it so as to parody it for comedic purpose.

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Murder is… Hilarious

In a particularly bad episode of Death In Paradise from the most recent series 6, our new detective DI Jack Mooney, makes an appalling statement as he makes his case to the killer (and I paraphrase): ‘But for her love wasn’t just love, it was passion, all or nothing, and that’s why she kept a lock of your hair, and that’s how we were able to identify your DNA and thats how… blah blah.” This idea of the victim being a passionate, almost manically in love woman was not really hinted at else where, and the clue just became a very flimsy tool for the detective to be able to get to the ending that was wanted. And we were just told that’s what it all meant, and of course expected to believe it.

It’s seems Christie understood and played with this in her work. A good example is a line I just came across in Death on the Nile, which I am reading in preparation for the up coming Carr/Christie head to head with fellow bloggers Brad and JJ. On being asked how Poirot knew a piece of information that no one had told him – not even the person who has the information themselves (who has been lying) – Poirot pipes up with: I am Hercule Poirot, I do not need to be told.’ It feels like Christie was self aware here, but wether or not that’s true is yet to be seen (comments appreciated). But Christie herself is no second rate detective writer, as her success has attested to. Another writer I can think of who works with this idea for comedic effect is Edmund Crispin, where there is a nice discussion about detective fiction form and ‘coincidence’ in The Moving Toy Shop.

The Only Deduction Possible:

“I told you nothing but the truth. But I didn’t tell you the whole truth. Artistic proof is, like artistic anything else, simply a matter of selection. If you know what to put in and what to leave out you can prove anything you like, quite conclusively. I do it in every book I write, and no reviewer has ever hauled me over the coals for slipshod argument yet. But then,” said Mr Bradley modestly, “I don’t suppose any reviewer has ever read one of my books.” (From Mr Bradley’s case chapter 11).

This quote and the others above show Berkeley’s views on matters of interpretation and deduction. I won’t spoil anything for you, but the findings Mr Bradley put’s forward are a brilliant subversion of the case and the genre of detective fiction, and look to play with the idea of arriving at the truth.

This idea of ‘proving anything you like’ is very much a ‘meta’ statement, as really that is the point of the book as a whole. Berkeley writes to show you that with the same 3-4 pieces of evidence that 7,8 or 9 different deductions (or stories really) can all be credibly created, which is what each of the characters do. So the challenge to the writer therefore is how to create a fiction that doesn’t fall into these traps of ‘silently ignoring’ other glaring possibilities for deduction. Or if it does fall into the traps, how to be aware of them and use them well. This again shows the difficulties in writing high quality clues, plots and using locations, objects and timings well, when everything possible thing is available for you to use, and therefore every possible deduction from those things is also at the disposal of the readers mind.

It’s meta-narrative also because it’s totally self aware. But Berkeley does it without the characters saying they are characters (as is another interesting meta-tool that writers like Carr and Crispin used), he does it instead with the whole form of the book itself. The Poisoned Chocolates Case then is a detective story, but in others way’s it’s like an essay on detective fiction, played and spoken out by this motley cast, all of which in some way represent tropes of the detective form in themselves.

I would be interested in hearing about more subversive works from this period, and I know Berkeley wrote more, compiling the earliest inverted mysteries (?), a form popular with crime writers today. What other genre breaking crime works have you read?

 

 

Ronald Knox: The Short Stories (1931-1947)

Priest, theologian, classicist, translator, tutor, chaplain at Oxford university and detective fiction writer, Ronald Knox like many of the early detective novelists had an eclectic and rich background and output.

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Knox was an avid writer and reader of detective fiction, and wrote many essays on the subject. He was also one of the original members of the Detection Club alongside Agatha Christie, Dorothy L.Sayers, G.K Chesterton and many other prominent and important novelists, started by Anthony Berkeley. Knox compiled a list called the Ten Commandments For Detective Novelists , a set of laws for the club, which the other members went on to joyfully break. The Detection Club also collaborated on a series of three novels, in which each member would write a chapter, Knox contributed to three of these titles.

The priest come novelist also wrote works in numerous areas including essay collections and theological texts. Amongst these were many satirical essays, and his detective novels are frequently satirical in nature. William Reynolds writes in his book The Detective Novels of Ronald A.Knox (1981): “Knox’s satire is directed against persons, institutions, or habits of thought whose principles the modern world accepts most uncritically … he is taking aim at pretensions, substitutions of show for substance.” This is a perfect grasp of satire, and in the vein of making the mighty look humble, a very biblical form of satire also. 

Knox wrote 6 detective novels in total, and also published three short stories. Published at important points in his writing career, these three shorts are all marvellous and perfectly represent the different aspects of Knox’s detective fiction works and impact. So by way of introduction to Knox’s work I will discuss these three brilliant shorts.

Solved By Inspection – 1931
Knox’s first short story showcases his series detective Miles Bredon, who appears in 5 of his novels. Bredon is employed by the ‘Indescribable Insurance Company’ to investigate suspicious claims made by it’s clientele. This is simply one of my favourite short detective works and shows that Knox was a deft hand with the locked room mystery format, creating a very original entry into the cannon. Eccentric millionaire, and darling to the press Herbert Jervison, after a trip to India, has become obsessed with astral projection, meditation and psychic experiments, now calling himself The Brotherhood of Light. Locking himself into what he calls his laboratory, an old gym and racket court, he takes two weeks worth of supplies and says he must not be disturbed on any account. However, when he doesn’t emerge after the two weeks is up, the door is broken down and he is found dead in his bed. But stranger still Jervison has died of starvation, the food all around him being completely untouched. 

The solution is extremely clever, simple and terrifically dark. One that lingers in the mind for some time. I have this story in a collection called The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories, edited by Patricia Craig, which is a collection of shorts that I highly recommend.

The Motive – 1937
Knox also wrote stand alone detective works, and The Motive is a top example. A satirical work no doubt, this short is set in the common rooms of Simon Magus college, a mythical college that Knox used as a way of exploring and satirising the culture of university don’s. Here the story is told by the infamous lawyer Sir Leonard Huntercombe, a man who was ‘probably responsible for more scoundrels being at large than any other man in England’. Huntercombe waxes lyrical, (mainly to stop another don from talking), on a strange set of crimes that almost took him to court.

These two crimes concern firstly a brutal murder attempt, where a young, proud man is challenged late at night to swim 10 lengths of the hotel swimming pool blindfolded. As he does this the swimming pool is slowly drained, enough that he cannot reach to get out, and once his he removes his blindfold he realises that he has been left to lose energy trying to keep afloat which will eventually cause him drown through fatigue. The pool could then be refilled and we have a perfect murder.

But this is unsuccessful and what follows is a very nicely conceived impossible disappearance from a locked and watched train carriage, with a killer solution. The ending of the story is hilarious and totally unexpected, perfectly summing up Knox’s satirical aims.

This story also happens to have been published in the heavily debated Golden Age sweet spot of 1937, which allows me to submit this post for the 1937 edition of Crimes of the Century at the brilliant Past Offences.

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The man himself

The Adventure of the First Class Carriage – 1947
Another aspect of Knox’s oeuvre was his knowledge of the Sherlock works and his input into the world of ‘Sherlockian studies’ or ‘Sherlockiana’.  This he started in a book called Essays in Satire (1928) where he published a satirical essay called “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes”. This and following writings were a series of mock-serious critical and historical writings on Sherlock Holmes, where the writer assumes that Sherlock Holmes is a real figure, and uses historical information to build up biographies and clear up anomalies is the Doyle stories. It’s a fascinating form of writing and worth looking up. 

As a fan then of Sherlock the last short story Knox published doesn’t come as surprise. The Adventure of the First Class Carriage is a Sherlock tale, written in homage to Doyle’s inimitable style in which Watson reflects on the case of the disappearance of Mr Nathaniel Swithinbank. The Swithinbank’s maid, Mrs Hennessy, has made a secret trip to Baker street to discuss strange goings on at the manor house. Arguments, tensions between husbands and wife and a ripped up suicide note with a strange fragment pointing to a specific point in the reeds near the house ‘where the old tower hides both the first and the second floor windows.

What Sherlock is so surprised at is how the clues to this mystery seem so obvious and therefore backwards – why leave a suicide note in the bin where it would be easily found?. The whole reason for the case is another brilliant subversion and ends with Sherlock uttering the latin phrase ‘sic vos non vobis’, which closes the story very nicely, seeing that the work in itself is a homage to the great detective and to Doyle’s work. There is love for Doyle here, and also, a very sly thread of comic parody going on, terms like ‘she dived her hand into a capacious reticule’  being charmingly witty whilst playing with the Watsonian language.

There will be a lecture given this year on Knox’s work at the Bodies From The Library conference at the British Library in June, which I much look forward to. I would be very interested to know if anyone has read any of the Knox novels? And what would you recommend?

Updates:

Golden age expert Martin Edwards very helpfully commented that:

(Knox’s) Ten Commandments were not the laws of the Club. They were included in an essay that prefaced an anthology. Some elements of the Decalogue were, however, introduced into the Club’s initiation ritual, which was primarily drafted by Dorothy L. Sayers.

 

Francis Duncan: So Pretty A Problem (1950)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Predicting Murder’

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

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

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

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

Edmund Crispin: Swan Song (1947)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘such murderous tales as this’

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

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

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