John Dickson Carr: The Men Who Explained Miracles (1963) – Part 1

After finishing Carr’s short story collection The Department of Queer Complaints I was devastated. Not because it was bad, but because it was brilliant, audacious and ridiculous, and contains some of the most original impossible crime set ups going.

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I wish Carr had kept producing Colonel March stories in his spare time (which I doubt he had any of, sometimes writing 7-8 novels a year, plus radio plays), and that there were another 10 collections of Queer Complaints where he could have let loose on his most mad locked room ideas. Ideas that he couldn’t try anywhere else.

With this in mind, and with my recent Carr kick going on, I was super excited to find on my last London second hand bookshop walk the collection The Men Who Explained Miracles, which contains another two Colonel March stories, alongside 4 more shorts and a novella.

As there is so much content here the short stories will have to wait till the next post, and today I will go to the end of the collection for some thoughts on the novella, a Henry Merrivale story titled All in A Maze. To have a Merrivale story alongside Colonel March, may seem odd, but in fact the collection contains his detectives March, Merrivale, Dr Fell, French detective Monsieur Lespinasse – written much in the same way as Carr’s first detective Henri Bencolin – alongside a stand alone historical short thriller. Why and how this mix-and-match collection came together, and quite late in Carr’s career, is unknown to me and if any of you have more info out there it would be great to hear it, as I imagine many of these stories were not written as late as the 60’s?

All in a Maze is a gorgeous little piece, with Carr flexing his plotting and impossible muscles to try a few more original ideas out. The story begins with Jenny Holden running out of St Paul’s cathedral, so terrified that she is flying down the main steps at unnatural speed. Journalist Tom Lockwood, seeing her impending fall, manages to catch her. They both run to the safety of a local cafe where Holden tells Lockwood that she believes someone is trying to kill her. For a story of just under 60 pages Carr manages to weave in international spies, switches of identity, double clues and a great dose of humour all round.

All in a Maze also presents us with two impossible problems. Firstly, how could Jenny, in the whispering gallery of St Paul’s cathedral, hear a voice tell her that she will die, when there is no one that could have spoken it? And secondly, later that evening, how did someone enter her locked room, turn on the gas from her fireplace to gas her to death and then escape while the room was securely locked and bolted from the inside?

I would love to know more about how Carr reached his impossible crime ideas, as it often feels he must have been inspired by a location or a generally interesting domestic occurrence to create an impossible puzzle. You can imagine him on a day out with his wife and kids, or at a friends house and seeing the cogs suddenly turning as an new idea comes to mind when someone tops up the electric meter or shuts a window in a funny way. It’s those relationships to a particular setting, atmosphere or everyday situation that gives much of Carr’s work it’s original feel, and the puzzles their unique quality.

The whispering gallery solution is basically the only one there could be, but I won’t fault Carr for that, and the locked room solution is super tidy, and could have been a sub mystery to a larger novel if Carr had wanted. The proofs for the locked room are also really tight, and I appreciate the dedication to plot and solution that Carr strives for even in a short story. It’s not going to blow your mind, but it will leave you feeling satisfied for sure.

But a really memorable part of this novella, is a brilliant and super clever connection between the first impossible problem and the second, with the misunderstanding of a single word uttered by Merrivale. It’s a genius move by Carr as it could throw you off the scent in a clever way, and feels like it could be a part of a central mystery in a Jonathan Creek episode. I’ll leave you to find that one out. The final few pages are a high-speed finish, from which the story gets the nice double meaning of it’s title.

Part two, the short stories, to follow soon.

UPDATE: You can now read part two of my review here.

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P.s – I am also aware of the Merrivale, March and Murder collection, which I hope to get at some point, although it doesn’t contain any other new Colonel March stories that are not in this collection or Department of Queer Complaints. Although the other pieces in there look great.

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My Top 5 Jonathan Creek Episodes

After another long hiatus the BBC cult impossible crime series Jonathan Creek, penned by David Renwick, has a new episode on the way! December 28th will see Creek, alongside his new wife Polly, solving the mystery of Daemons’ Roosta christmas feature length special .

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I have a very special place in my heart for the Jonathan Creek series. Renwick over the years has created some of the most ingenious plots, clues and solutions within the impossible crime genre. And with this new episode on the way I thought it would be fitting to open this brand new blog with a list of my top 5 Jonathan Creek episodes!

Jack in the Box (Series 1: Episode 2)

The second Jonathan Creek story and, I could say, still my favourite locked room solution to date, and a total original. A paranoid comedian is found shot through the head with the gun in his hand, 30 feet below ground in a locked nuclear bunker, with two sets of 6 inch thick metal doors that have to be cut open for entry. It looks like an open and shut suicide, but the problem is, the comedian has crippling arthritis, and never could have pulled the trigger to kill himself. The clues are an unused toilet, and a lightbulb, just perfect.

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The Eyes of Tiresias (Series 3: Episode 2)

An old lady vividly dreams every detail of the murder of a french business man shot inside his locked office, even down to his dying words. The next day the murder takes place, exactly how she dreamt it, word for word. Jonathan is tasked to find out how she could have predicted this, and then a second death through her dreams. Amazing dark mood, and the main clue is the fish food she buys in the market.

The Black Canary (1998 Christmas Special)

Lorded as Renwick’s master work. A retired magician shoots herself in a snow covered garden in full view of her aged husband. Yet when the paramedics examine her body moments after, it’s concluded that she has been dead for over 8 hours. The next impossibility is that just before she shot herself a strange man with a limp spoke to her, then ran into the woods. Yet when her ageing husband runs out, there are only her set of footprints left in the snow. The man with the limp seems to have left none. Pure poetry.

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Time Waits for Norman (Series 2: Episode 7)

A man with Chronophobia, a fear of time, (married ironically to a collector of clocks), is seen by reliable witnesses in both New York and London only minutes apart. Cyphers, hamburgers and a spilled cup of coffee lead Jonathan to the simple and brilliant solution. And no, it’s not twins.

The Coonskin Cap (Series 4: Episode 1)

A unknown shooter fires during a police reconstruction of a murder, and disappears from the locked room which they shot from, leaving only the gun propped up at the window, in site the whole time. The killer then strikes again when they strangle a police officer and vanish from a school gym locked from the inside. On analysing the victim’s chilling, dying words ‘You’ll never get away…’, Creek tumbles to the killer’s deeply calculated methods.

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If you are yet to watch the Creek series, and this has wetted your appetite, I am very happy to say that it is all on Netflix. Get on it and let it’s deliciously 90’s feel take you away. If you have watched them which were your favourites?

The new episode I await with bated breath. Perhaps it will be the last Creek tale ever… (Don’t make me think of it!)