The White Priory Murders: Carter Dickson (1934) – Does having an authors entire career before you make reading ‘un-fair-play’?

I continue with my current John Dickson Carr (Carter Dickson) binge, and I have come to the conclusion that I officially love being told that a work by Carr is sub standard. Because every time I then seem to love the book!

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I was told Graveyard to Let wasn’t worth a huge amount of time, and now it’s one of my top locked room works. This also goes for The Problem of the Wire Cage, and Nine and Death Makes Ten. It seems that many of us on the bloggersphere over the last few years have had similar experiences with Carr, and that the works always seen as the top tier are being replaced somewhat by ‘lesser’ titles.

I’m not a fool though. I realise that Patrick Butler for the Defense, when I get round to it, is never going to be a surprise smash hit (although there must be good elements to it right? Somewhere?), and Blind Barber was never going to get any easier to read even with the four month break I took at the half way point. And if Ben’s recent review of Papa La Bas is anything to go by, I haven’t got much to look forward to there. However these books are talked about as simply and objectively bad. But these aside, many of Carr’s works are discussed as if they are missing something, or that they don’t compare to the heights achieved in his ‘masterpieces’. This in recent years has lowered my expectation of certain Carr books, only to have these works unexpectedly reveal something wonderful.

This has got me thinking: when we have an authors entire oeuvre in front of us, does that make reading their works a fair process?

As an example I’m looking at the The White Priory Murders, an early Carr novel and one of his first impossible crime works. In reading about this the main opinion seems to be that it’s a brilliant locked room with an amazing solution trapped in a sensationalist and dragging story. So I was geared up for that. I had held off till I had a bit more time, and at 250 pages it’s one Carr’s longer ones. I was ready for a real wrestle just to get to the solution. But, I ended up having the reverse experience.

It felt to me that each scene made sense being there, characters or dialogue didn’t seem superfluous, and even with the extended page count, each piece fitted together in a gorgeous plot with simple but shocking turns over the chapters that it kept me going at high pace. The glamorous Hollywood Movie Star Marcia Tait has traveled to England to make a new film. Staying at the gorgeous White Priory, she insists on sleeping the night in the Pavilion. A building set in the middle of a huge lake, with only one footpath to reach it. The lake is frozen solid. Both the ice and the path are covered with fresh snow after Tait goes in for the night, and it’s proved that no one went in with her. However early morning comes and Tait is found beaten to death, with no footprints left in the snow. The cast surrounding Tait, her agent, lover, play write and all the other trappings of fame, all wanted to control her, but was she playing a roll or was she the one in control?

A great set up and I couldn’t wait to get to the solution. I had heard it was highly original and a real kicker. But alas it was ruined for me. Another lesser author had stolen the solution for another work, and done it so much worse, which meant that I was onto it from early on. But Carr does it so so well, and the misdirection and the clicking of pieces together by the end is luscious. How the dog keeps coming into play is a particular favourite, and there are large amounts of false solutions and ideas presented. It felt as if Carr at this early stage of locked room writing was saying, “I see your no-footprints solution and I raise you 3 more solutions, all of which are false.”

Seeing the solution coming in the distance was another reason why I had a reverse experience with this book. I wasn’t plowing to get to the end and although many say that the middle drags, I was waiting for that moment but didn’t find it myself. Maybe I was in a good mood, and I’ve got it wrong, I’m not sure. There are certainly some sensationalist parts to this book, some misogyny, and some early Carr verbosity (but not to the level of It Walks By Night), but Carr is dealing with the world of Hollywood meats British academia which in itself is a pretty farcical setup. And he lets the caricatures have their day. Carr also knowingly subverts this; Merrivale making a few comments on how people are talking ‘as if they are in a stupid detective play’, so maybe this is the early stages of his subversion that we would see in the more post-modern breakdowns in the likes of The Hollow Man. With that in mind lets head back to the question of Oeuvre .

I have spoken in mine and JJ’s locked room podcast about how strange it is that we are almost always looking back when reading classic GAD. We are looking back on authors’ entire bodies of work in one go, it’s a unique experience. But being able to stand back from an entire life’s work can have negative effects on how certain works are seen. It is much easier for works to become unfairly mythologised (Hollow Man / Murder of Roger Ackroyd) and become supposedly representative of what the writer was trying to achieve in their entire writing career. My feeling is that by not being there at the time of the release of a book, we miss something about what the writer was trying to achieve in that one work at that time, and not over a whole career.

In a funny way I had built a strange anxiety about reading Carr, in that I wanted each one I read to be ‘the one’. The one I could give to people to draw them into GAD, the one that would be representative of his career, and of the ‘master of the locked room’. But I think sometimes these mythologised titles we give to GAD authors and the context of the ‘masterpieces’ they achieved, is unhelpful in approaching their work. We can miss what gems there are in each work by unfairly laboring them with what is to come.

When myself JJ and Ben did our podcast two-parter on the Ages of John Dickson Carr it opened my eyes to see his work in a totally fresh way. I have stopped trying to look at Carr as a locked room master but as an experimental crime, supernatural and suspense author, who was trying out new things with each work and constantly stretching and challenging the boundaries of his genre.

But in saying all this, I know that as I read these lesser known works I can enjoy a ‘substandard’ Carr more because I know that he wrote even better. I can see the light shimmering in the cracks knowing what is to come. So maybe then it’s not a struggle with contextualising an author in terms of their career but maybe a false contextualising that makes you think that a writer had a certain type of writing focus that they actually didn’t, and therefore reading their books in that context isn’t entirely fair-play to them?

This may come under the huge mental subheading of ‘things that only I think are interesting’ but I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Speak soon friends

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Hags Nook: John Dickson Carr (1933)

Back to another Carr. This one is from his early years and the first novel to feature one of Carr’s titanic series detectives Dr Gideon Fell.

Love this Penguin cover, the illustration is lush and has a great balance of story telling while not giving away too much

Hags Nook concerns the terrors of Chatterham Prison, or rather it’s ruins, that stand on the site of the Starberth family home. The Starberths have the history of being governors of the ancient prison, but they also have the history of all being found dead from broken necks. Chatterham, that was built by the hands of prisoners that were to die there, has below it’s faceless main wall a huge and endlessly deep pit cut out of the ground, known as The Hag’s Nook. It was into here that witches and heathen’s were thrown from a balcony above, a noose slipped over their head, the drop deep enough to allow their neck to break if they were lucky.

The Starberth family have another historical haunting to their family line. To inherit the estate, the eldest son must spend one night at Chatterham Prison, and at an appointed time they must open the safe in the governors room and look at what ever is inside. The contents of the safe are unknown to anyone except the family lawyer.

Against the rest of the more modern Starberth families’ wishes, the eldest son takes on the tradition. Dr Gideon Fell is called in to make sure all goes as suspected, and the room is watched from the outside the whole time. But when the light in the window goes out too early panic sets in, and when they find the eldest son below the balcony, his neck broken on the edge of the Hag’s Nook, it’s just the beginning of the terrors.

As you can tell from just this bare plot outline Hag’s Nook is absolutely soaked in gothic macabre. It’s still those early bright eyed days of Carr where he is riding on the back of his love for Poe but has surpassed the more heavy handed and overwritten prose of It Walks By Night, and the plotting, misdirection and sheer breadth of ideas that would make his later novels absolute masterworks of the genre are starting to shine through.

It was very interesting to read Hag’s Nook in the light of myself and fellow blogger JJ’s most recent podcast two parter, where Ben from the Green Capsule set out a new way of looking at the career of Carr. As I mentioned at the start Hag’s Nook is the first novel to feature Dr Gideon Fell, the series detective who would go on to be the lead in some of Carr’s most famous works like The Hollow Man and The Problem of the Green Capsule. Ben brought out in our podcast how different the early Fell character and the developed Fell character are, and how Fell almost switches places with Sir Henry Merrivle, Carr’s other series detective (under his Carter Dickson pseudonym) in terms of the types of characters. Those who have read any of the best Merrivale works like The Judas Window, She Died a Lady, The Reader is Warned or Nine… and Death makes Ten will know Merrivale as a blusteringly brilliant comic figure filling any page he appears on. But in Hag’s Nook, Fell is so much like later career Merrivale it’s uncanny. We even see Fell’s home, meet his wife and hear of his obsession with the study of drunkenness in every culture – all of which are points of comedy fodder that have the finger prints of Merrivale all over them.

Having said that I have just finished The White Priory Murders (review to come soon), the second Merrivale novel, and although the humour is there, there is a more refined and satirical edge to it than is apparent here in Hag’s Nook. Again you can see in this book that Carr is beginning to work everything out including his use of humour.

To come back to the plot – and I feel like I say this kind of thing a lot – but just go an read it! It’s bloody brilliant! I love the kind of solution that Carr weaves with Hag’s Nook. Not the main deception and misdirection of the crime – although that is brilliant and I can imagine even then it might be a fairly original idea for the time, and it has been copied to death since – but the way the deception is carried out in the face of difficulty and complexity for both the killer and the victim. There is a nice link to be made to the solution(s) here and some of what Hake Talbot was trying to do with the impossibilities in The Rim of the Pit.

What I also loved about this book was the real terror that Carr draws out. Carr does macabre very very well, but genuine terror is less of a feature. But it’s here in spades, enough to send genuine chills down your spine. The setting and the build up of tension is superb and there is one description of a character trying to pick up the victim at the edge of Hag’s Nook and feeling his broken neck in his hand which I will never ever be able to forget. Interestingly the first Merrivale story The Plague Court Murders is also properly terrifying. Carr liked to set his detectives off with a strong dose of fear, you could even say the same for Bencolin… another post maybe.

Hag’s Nook is certainly early career Carr so for those who have read his best you will see the gaps and issues here (although a lower tear Carr would still beat most other detective books hands down), but you still won’t be disappointed. Watching the early days of the master at work is such a joy to behold.

The Men Who Explain Miracles – Episode 7: part 2 -The Ages of John Dickson Carr

Part 2 is of our most recent podcast looking at John Dickson Carr’s incredible output of works is now up and ready for your listening ears! For the second round, myself and fellow bloggers JJ and Ben, take on the second half of Carr’s career finishing up with a few indulgent chats about favourites from his oeuvre. Enjoy, and as ever do get involved in the comments and discussion.

You can listen and find all our other episodes right here over at JJ’s blog

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The Men Who Explain Miracles – Episode 7: part 1 -The Ages of John Dickson Carr

It is as always, with great joy, that I announce that myself and fellow blogger JJ have the next episode of our locked room mystery podcast online. This one is going to be a two parter over the two weekends, and has been one of my favourites to make. Not just because we are discussing the career of the wonderful John Dickson Carr in detail, but because the facilitator of our conversation is a very exciting special guest and a good friend. But… no spoilers about that! You can listen to the episode here over at JJ’s blog. Enjoy, and as ever join us in the comments section for discussion and debate.

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How a Solution Becomes a Story – The Curse of the Bronze Lamp: Carter Dickson (1945)

A stone cold classic set-up for a stone cold classic work from Carter Dickson, aka John Dickson Carr. Clearly inspired by the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, the story centres around an ancient Egyptian lamp bearing a curse: anyone who tries to take it out of Egypt will be ‘blown to dust’.

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Love this old 1950s hand painted cover from Pan-books

This threat is made to the young Lady Helen Loring, a fiery, hyper-intelligent woman travelling back from Egypt to England after a 1930s, world famous archeological dig. Helen is told that she will not make it home to her room, and that before she arrives she will dematerialise.

Helen is seen walking into her house by two witnesses, the bronze lamp in hand, ready to prove the curse wrong. Someone on the inside hears her arrive, her footsteps making echoes on the flagstones of the lobby. But the footsteps suddenly stop, the sound disappearing. Two others arrive in the lobby seconds later to find the bronze lamp laying on the floor and no sign of Helen. There are no hiding places in the house (we are repeatedly shown) and every single exit – whether window or door – was watched, there being many hired hands working on the grounds of the house at the time.

A really unique set up – and, it was great to read a disappearance / dematerialisation / impossible set up from Carr. In a dedication written by Carr to Ellery Queen at the beginning of the book, this ‘miracle-problem’ of a person vanishing is, in his own words, ‘perhaps the most fascinating gambit in detective fiction’. He then goes on to say ‘I will do no more than make cryptic reference to Mr James Phillimore and his Umbrella. You have been warned.’ A gorgeous and enticing dedication, and fans of Sherlock Holmes may know that this character of Mr James Phillimore of whom Carr refers, is taken from a line by Dr John Watson in the Sherlock Holmes story, The Problem of Thor Bridge. On talking about cases in his overflowing files that he has not yet the time to write up he states:

‘Among these unfinished tales is that of Mr James Phillimore, who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world.’

There are mixed opinions about this book, but I enjoyed it a lot. It seems that it is simply Carr enjoying himself, playing with ideas and characters and having fun with them, at a solid time in his career. Either side of this book we see top rating novels like Till Death do Us Part, He Wouldn’t Kill Patience and He Who Whispers, arguably some of his greatest works. He was certainly in his stride, and although this book doesn’t have the pace, terror or complexities of plotting that these surrounding books have, you can see and feel he his enjoying the exploration of this (at the time I guess) very current subject matter, and the myths surrounding it, while also dedicating a huge amount of time to observing the snapping nerves of the characters as the days go by and Helen isn’t found.

And the solution to the disappearance? How did I feel about it? Well… to be honest I was unsure… At first. But, as things moved on and more elements slotted into place, the plot tightening to it’s extreme, I grew to love it. Those final three chapters served to take the single line that untangled the mystery and expand it into new regions of thought and forehead slapping.

And this got me thinking. I kind of knew this subconsciously, but hadn’t thought enough about it – namely, that the solution in a mystery novel is not just an answer, but is itself a narrative tool and piece of plotting. In a funny a way I had thought that the plot ended at the beginning of the ‘reveal’ and then from there it was the solution until the end, which unravelled the ‘plot’, a separate, distinct element from the solution. But when you look at a writer as good as John Dickson Carr, you realise that this is not the case.

Carr, and many other brilliant writers, use the solution itself as a plotting tool. They pace the solution out to reveal things at just the right moment for the reader, to be the most impactful and meaningful, and they vary these solutions as much as the mysteries they set out at the start.

Take for example the last few chapters of Nine and Death Makes Ten. The solution absolutely blows your mind for how much it reveals to you that you missed, and actually strengthens everything preceeding, re-contextualising all of it. Another stone cold classic Carr The Crooked Hinge has simply a four word reveal to blast open everything. But when you first read them, they seemingly make absolutely no sense, as it takes the whole mystery and all that you think you understand in to a completely different direction. As these four words are expanded in the final chapters the horror and instability that unfolds is wonderful, which reinforces the macabre nature of the story built by the mystery up till that point. It’s in these kind of examples that Carr has incredible fun with the steady revealing and piecing together of the solution, in many cases still misdirecting you and throwing you read herrings even as he reveals what has occurred.

Of course there are many works that subvert the whole idea of the solution, or where the entire plot is a solution, or multiple solutions as with The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkley. But in this instance I am talking about the more ‘traditional’ mystery set up, with a solution that shifts all that you have just read.

Maybe that’s what a solution is, a ‘re-contextualising’ of everything that has come before. A piece of plotting that shifts all previous plotting into a new lens of viewing. Maybe this is obvious to everyone but me, but I find that my appreciation of these works has grown, thinking about how a writer uses a reveal as a narrative tool. A tool not exclusive to mystery fiction, but pushed to it’s limits by the genre.

And often, as I am taken slowly through the reveal by the author, I grow to love the solution even more.

So tell me friends, what works have some of your favourite and uniquely written reveals? And keep it spoiler free!

The Men Who Explain Miracles – Episode 4 (part 3): The top 5 locked room mysteries of all time?

It is with great joy that I announce that the third podcast episode of myself and JJ’s deconstructed look at the so called top 15 locked room mysteries of all time, is online for your listening pleasure. You can listen to it right here.

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A little late to the game here as it has been online since Saturday 24th, but a bout of illness has kept me away from the blog, can you ever forgive me!?

The locked room novels in question for this episode are:

The Judas Window (1937) by Carter Dickson
The Crooked Hinge (1938) by John Dickson Carr
The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907) by Gaston Leroux
Rim of the Pit (1944) by Hake Talbot
The Hollow Man, a.k.a. The Three Coffins (1935) by John Dickson Carr

There has been some wonderful and full hardy discussion over at JJ’s blog so do go and check it out.

Enjoy!

Reflections on Impossibilities Through Foreign Bodies (British Library 2017) – Ideas Towards a ‘Locked Room Decalogue’

There has been some great stuff in the bloggersphere the past few weeks. After reading the incisive review by JJ of one Ellery Queen’s problematic locked rooms The Chinese Orange Mystery and the brilliant deconstruction of SS Van Dine’s Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories by Noah, they got me thinking: do locked room mysteries need  a different set of ‘rules’ than the average golden age detective story? Are there narrative tools that need to be applied to make a locked room mystery story really work?

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This has set me on the slightly gargantuan task of beginning to create a my own ‘decalogue’ for locked room mysteries. The decalogue I of course reference here is that created by Ronald Knox in 1929. Father Ronald Knox, writer of some wonderful mystery novels and short stories of the Golden age, came up with a set of 10 rules (or a decalogue) for writing detective stories. This famed list was very much tongue in cheek, but was a challenge to the writers of his generation to write better, and has lasted the test of time. You can see the list here at Thrilling Detective. But rather than diving straight in to try and create a possible ‘ten rules for writing locked room mysteries’ (a rather presumptuous task in many ways), I want to begin wrestling with some ideas, with suggestions from you lot, and this post aims to start that.

The other thing that got me thinking about all this was recently completing Foreign Bodies, an anthology of international detective stories, brought together by golden age aficionado Martin Edwards, and published as part of the British Library Crime Classics collection. Foreign Bodies contains a number of locked room shorts, which touch on different aspects of what makes a locked room mystery work (or not work as the case may be). I’ll use these selected impossible crimes from Foreign Bodies to draw out some ideas about what I think makes a great locked room mystery, on the way towards creating some kind of decalogue of my own in the near future.

Wow!! With that massive introduction/caveat over lets dive into it.

1 –  A Locked Room scenario should flow naturally out of the world created by the author
(Venom of the Tarantula by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay)

I have been talking about this a lot lately and mainly because I have been disappointed by the lack of this in so many modern and golden age locked room mysteries. Too often I have seen impossible crimes used as a crude tack on; or that the author seems to have created a nice idea for a problem, but then created a terrible story around it just to facilitate the idea. Ellery Queen’s The King Is Dead (which I have just dragged myself through) is a perfect example of that. I think this rule goes for the solution as well. When an author creates a world in which the impossible crime can naturally emerge, or fit in with the narrative, it’s a wonderful moment, which drives the power of the impossibility. And although you are providing a rational ending to your impossibility, if it can relate to the context at hand, and fit in with world created then it’s a total winner

In Venom of the Tarantula, a sweetly composed Indian impossible crime short, the aged, sickly and foul-mouthed Nandadulalbabu, bed bound and surrounded by a constant stream of witnesses, now dedicated t the process of writing poor erotic fiction, is some how able to ingest ‘spider juice’, a deadly poison that in small amounts gives the addict a rush of nervous energy. His doctor doesn’t know how he gets his hands on it, as everything and everyone that goes in and out of the room are watched. Nandadulalbabu challenges the doctor and his family to find out how he does it. This situation could sound absolutely ridiculous, but here is where my point comes in: Bandyopadhyay sets up the scene and characters in a way that means that it feels like this is exactly the kind of thing that would happen, and it’s also exactly the kind of way those people would act, therefore naturally creating this impossible scenario.

2 – Be creative with the set up, clewing and denouement, especially if the locked room is technical.    
(The Stage Box Murder by Paul Rosenhayn)

As many locked room mysteries can be (sometimes necessarily) complex, and in particular need of a strong mental image (and a map in some cases), if one can use unique and exciting methods of delivering the information this strengthens an impossibility no end. In The Stage Box Murder, both the set up and denouement are pretty involved – a man is stabbed in a locked and watched theatre box – but the whole narrative is delivered as two people writing letters to one another. This style allows Rosenhayn to deliver what could be clunky exposition with a natural edge as (again with point one) it’s flowing as it would, naturally, in that type of letter writing and in that context.

These kind of clever and creative tools don’t have to just be used with the overall format  (and can be used very badly – I’m looking at you again The King is Dead) but can be used in plotting, clewing, character and motive also. For example clues can be laced within scene description and the atmosphere of the mystery (as Carr does so beautifully) which then has the amazing meta-effect of both charging and developing the world of the book, while also pointing at the solution and the motivation for the impossibility.

3 – Taking clues and making them maddening, by making them oblique.
(The Cold Nights Clearing by Keikichi Osaka)

Maddening clues, like why someone took 30 minutes to complete there routine journey home rather than 15 (just to pluck an example from Foreign Bodies at random) are of course vital to all types of golden age detective fiction. But the maddening clue in a locked room is super important to the building of atmosphere and mystery because it’s a how-done-it. We are not just trying to decode a clue to work out who the killer is or their motive, but also to find out how on earth they achieved it. So then, when the clue is made heavily oblique, and by that I mean so seemingly left field and unrelated to the problem at hand (a low wattage lightbulb in the wrong packet, why a £5 note is ripped in a certain place, and why someone would fire a blank gun into a wall – just to again pick a few favourites at random from some of the best locked rooms mysteries ever), it adds to the maddening world that is already being created by the impossible crime. If used well, and linked both to the impossibility and the character of the killer (a real challenge), it makes the solution all the more delicious.

In The Cold Nights Clearing the wonderfully obscure clue of why a the lid from a cardboard box is wet (in an otherwise dry and warm room), is one key to a vanishing killer.

4 – Totally subverting the idea of a locked room itself as a way to create an original problem.  
(The Mystery of the Green Room by Pierre Véry)

Sometimes you come across a story with such a clever and brilliantly executed idea it makes you laugh. Véry here takes the whole idea of a classic locked room, as provided by The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux, and turns it on its head. In The Green Room, a thief has every opportunity to go into a room and steal priceless items, that they knew about in advance, but they don’t take it. There were no doors watched, locked or otherwise, and no blocks to the room, but the burglar didn’t go in. Why? The detective of Véry’s story then calls the whole thing an ‘open-room mystery’, and the whole story runs in total parallel, right down to the villain, to the The Mystery of the Yellow Room. If you haven’t read Yellow Room, don’t read this first! It totally spoils everything! But this story is a little masterpiece so read Yellow Room so you can get to this, and vice-versa.

5 – The reason for why the crime is impossible, must be as satisfying as the solution to how it was done. 

I don’t have a story to reference for this one, but I couldn’t leave it at 4, not rounded up, I’m not some kind of mad man. This rule I think can be the making or breaking of an great locked room mystery. Many times have I come to a great impossible problem that in the end is so flimsy on the reason to why it exists that it serves to totally negate the power of the impossibility.

The recent episodes of Death In Paradise series 7 (oh how the mighty fallen!) are perfect examples of this going terribly wrong. Impossible problems are used to create a ‘hook’ at the outset, but then by the denouement are deemed to be totally unnecessary. By that I mean, that the killer is going to incredible lengths to pull of an impossible poisoning or a faked suicide attempt (to choose the first two episodes of DIP as an example) when they could have just shot or stabbed them on the beach, or poisoned their drink or food at anytime. With this rule ignored the impossibilities become the equivalent of click bait, used to create an interesting starting point, but actually have no bearing on the motive, and the reason why it all happened. We are then just expected to believe as the audience that someone would go to ludicrous lengths for absolutely no reason apart from the writer trying to show off some clever idea they came up with.

So where would you start with your rules for the perfect locked room mystery? Do you agree with these ones?