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?

 

 

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.

A Treasure Trove of a Book Shop (a recommendation)

If you live in London or passing through in the next few months, then there is a place you definitely need to put on your ‘to visit’ list.

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As most of you know I am a frequenter of second hand book shops. And to my joy I found that Halcyon books in Greenwich, south London is moving premises. Why is that a case for joy? Well, this means that they are selling off all of their incredibly large selection of books from their basement stock for one pound each!

As it’s a massive sell all festival inside there isn’t much order to anything (which adds to the fun of being there). However the woman in the shop at the time told me that on the left as you enter they have tried to stock most of the selection of vintage crime that they have just brought in. She also told me that the their new premises have got a good selection of their best vintage crime, and now have a cafe. What more could you want?

On my last rummage through the old premises I found The Devil in Velvet by John Dickson Carr (penguin edition) and nice copies of The Poison Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkley, Cue for Murder by Helen McCloy (oh for it to have been a copy of Splitfoot!), The Door Between by Ellery Queen, Buried For Pleasure by Edmund Crispin and an old school book on magic tricks, all of which I hadn’t read. I even saw a french edition of The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux.

But you need to be quick, as they only have the building for a few more months.

Just a quick post from me today (and yes it’s totally London centric)  but hope it’s of some use to you. Or if not that the whimsical images of overflowing books brightens the day.

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 .