The Men Who Explain Miracles, Episode 2: Interview with author Robin Stevens

Super excited to announce that the second episode of The Men Who Explain Miracles podcast is now online! Started by myself and JJ of The Invisible Event, the series explores locked room mysteries and impossible crime fiction. In this episode we had the great privilege of interviewing the hugely popular YA detective fiction author Robin Stevens.

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In this interview we talk writing locked room mysteries for a modern audience, Robin’s MA in classic crime fiction, female agency in detective fiction and much more. We also discuss Robin’s new book The Guggenheim Mystery which was written as the sequel to Siobhan Dowd’s wonderful impossible crime novel The London Eye Mystery, which I reviewed here.

We hope you get as much insight, intrigue and laughter as we did recording it. Enjoy, and do let me know what you think! (The Podcast can also be downloaded for listening on your devices by clicking the download button on the top right)

 

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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.

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 . 

Masterworks: Till Death Do Us Part, John Dickson Carr

 

If you have never heard of the name John Dickson Carr before, let me introduce you. Carr was generally regarded as one of the greatest writers in the ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction, and is known as the master of the locked room mystery or impossible crime genre.

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John Dickson Carr, and under his pseudonym Carter Dickson, wrote over 70 novels, almost all of which are impossible crimes or have impossible elements. Agatha Christie famously said of Carr’s work: 

“Very few detective stories baffle me nowadays, but Mr. Carr’s always do.”

And one of the other queens of detective fiction Dorothy L Sayers wrote of Carr:

“Mr. Carr can lead us away from the small, artificial, brightly-lit stage of the ordinary detective plot into the menace of outer darkness. He can create atmosphere with an adjective, alarm with an allusion, or delight with a rollicking absurdity.”

And that is definitely true of his 1944 novel Till Death Do Us Part. In what I have written here I have purposefully described the plot very little, so as not to spoil your reading if you are yet to start this book. Anything I give away would slide something out of this Rubik’s cube of a novel that is so well pieced together you must have every element in all it’s delicious freshness.

I will say this much: the tale begins with the newly engaged couple, mild mannered Dick Markham and the sanguine Lesley Grant, both madly and hilariously in love, arriving late to a small village fete.  All seems charged with laughter and jollity, until a storm approaches and an encounter with an alarmingly accurate fortune teller leads to the revelation of terrible hidden histories. These rumours set the pace for a possible four locked room murders so thrilling as to have you on edge of your teeth from start to finish.

Till Death Do Us Part is pieced together so well that it left me baffled as to how Carr could have constructed it. The huge amount of ideas he places in each chapter never get overwhelming, and just when you think you know what’s happening he throws you in another direction, but each thread ties together without losing speed or agility. It reads like a high paced thriller, but with space enough for locations to tremble with an underlying horror and for clues to be laced everywhere. A lot of this pace rests in the perfectly formed size of cast. This allows for the suspicion that Carr has seeded in each member to grow to a maddening fever pitch as the plot twists further and further around. Similarly well formed is the small amount of locations, each being so well described while at the same time humming with clues and plot movements, each of which, by then end, you feel you know so well.

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John Dickson Carr himself.

I was equally amazed at how many ideas and extra solutions Carr knocks down and brings in as he goes. On page 212 of 224 (in my copy) Carr has one character reel off a possible set up, motive and solution to the murder in one line that could have made the plot for an entirely separate novel.

The solution to the main locked room scenario (which I am happy to say I guessed) is in a way the oldest trick in the book, but with a twist, that twist being one of my favourite types. It has been said elsewhere that one element is a little too technical, but in the end I found it satisfying. And just when you thought that element might not be needed it was explained and encased inside a lovely piece of misdirection – which called to the idea of G.K.Chesterton’s Father Brown story ‘Sign of the Broken Sword’  – and made it totally acceptable in the context, again showing off Carr’s flair and ability to ram a book with 100 ideas.

I can see why Till Death Do Us Part has been so widely praised, and I think it’s the first time I have felt on completion of a detective novel, that I could have picked it straight back up and started over again.