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!

 

 

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Crime By Design – 1: The Marber Grid

This is the first in a series exploring the best design in crime and detective novels, starting with an absolute icon, the Marber Grid.

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As an artist myself and being married to a graphic designer I am always drawn to a book by its cover, and classic crime is no exception. The green hue of the vintage penguin crime paperback always brings a joy to the heart. But one format in particular stands apart as being one of the most influential and beautiful layout designs of all time.

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The Marber Grid and a Chestertonian example

The Marber grid was designed by Romek Marber in 1961, after Penguin Art Director Germano Facetti commissioned three designers to devise a new grid system to allow for illustrations alongside the bold typography associated with Penguin covers. Marber’s grid was chosen and he went on to illustrate around 70 titles for the Penguin Crime series. Marber retained the classic penguin green but significantly lightened the shade. The text was cropped at the top, which allowed for a broad section of two thirds of the cover to be used for illustration, something which hadn’t been done before across the Penguin brand.

The designs were provocative and eye catching and even a little unnerving to some, as Phil Banes writes in his book Penguin by Design: ‘The imagery used in the area below was often suggestive rather than literal, but even so, there was some adverse feedback about the ‘darkness’ of some of the images.’

These news covers, with striking imagery at an affordable cost brought high quality art and design into everyone’s home. These illustrations perfectly capture some element of the story or characters, as with one of my favourite designs, the covers for the Father Brown series, which show perfectly how Brown reaches his solutions through intuition and and meditative thinking, rather than through scientific or straight deduction. The design is so classic that in even more contemporary re-releases of Brown this same illustration concept has been retained.

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The classic brown cover and a more modern retake

It was later decided that recurring series works should have a recognisable recurring image, as with the covers for Dorothy L Sayers releases, which contained a hand cut white figure placed somewhere on each design.

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The Marber grid continued from here to influence every part of Penguins design output, as The Book Design Blog writes: ‘Facetti was so inspired by Marber’s design that he also used it for Penguin’s fiction range, and would later apply it again, practically unchanged, to the blue Pelican books. Eventually Marber’s layout became the standard layout for the entire range of Penguin paperbacks.’

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Marber’s own story is a fascinating one. Born in Poland in 1925, he escaped the Nazi death camps with the help of Sergeant Kurzbach, who helped saved large numbers of Jew’s during WWII. Arriving in Britain in 1946 he enrolled at St Martin’s school of art (a member now of the UAL group of universities, where I also currently study), to study commercial art. He then went on to attend the Royal College of Art in 1953. Marber then designed a number of covers for the economist. These bold typographic designs were noticed by Germano Facetti who then asked him to work on some Penguin titles, which lead to the commission of the Marber Grid.

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Marber is still alive and retired from the design world, holding a place as Professor Emeritus with Middlesex University. Designers today still look back to this iconic grid and its influence on cover design the world over. I think it’s also helpful in our current climate to think that a Polish immigrant to the UK who lived through Nazi occupation, changed the face of crime and book cover design the world over.

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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.