Monday, January 6, 2020

No Cornflakes, Kiddos! The Case of the Nervous Accomplice (1955), by Erle Stanley Gardner

"I wish I had one of these facile plotting brains, like Erle Stanley Gardner, or somebody.  I have good ideas for about four books, but the labor of shaping them into plots appalls me."
--Raymond Chandler to Charles Morton, 1944

Younger than Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) by all of a year and six days, Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970) indeed was possessed of a nimble and prolific plotting brain.  Gardner published eighty Perry Mason detective novels in the thirty-six years between 1933 and 1969, with an additional pair published posthumously after his death at the age of eighty, nearly a half-century ago on March 11, 1970. 

This sum accounts for one novel for each year of his life and over two novels a year for nearly four decades, an impressive rate of achievement indeed; yet it isn't even counting:
  • Gardner's twenty-nine Bertha Cool and Donald Lam mysteries, published between 1939 and 1970 (an additional rediscovered novel in this series was published a few years ago)
  • his nine Doug Selby mysteries, published between 1937 and 1949
  • at least seven other crime novels published between 1935 and 1950
This comes to 125 crime novels published in that thirty-six year period, more than three as year.  Between 1953 and 1964, Gardner published three Perry Mason novels every year and during much of this time one or even two Cool and Lam novels as well, meaning that he was publishing four or even five novels a year.  With his literary fecundity  and genuine plotting skill Gardner reminds me a great deal of so-called "Humdrum" mystery writer John Street, who primarily under the pen names John Rhode and Miles Burton published over 140 crime novels between 1924 and 1961.

You might, indeed, call Erle Gardner an American Humdrum: an awesome plotting brain who for decades was able to churn out (via dictation) book after book that maintained an impressive level of plotting ingenuity, even as the books were peopled by thin characters and increasingly shorn of descriptive passages.  Perry Mason may be an iconic detective, but we never really get to know him deeply.  We don't even know whether he was really, like his creator, sleeping with his longtime secretary or, like the man who so brilliantly incarnated him on television, Raymond Burr, leading a covert life of a queerer sort.  Who knows?  The reader can use her own imagination.  From my reading the characters in the series remained remarkably static, at least after Gardner mostly shook off the series' pulpish Thirties roots and settled down to the depiction of Mason's snappy courtroom battles with DA Hamilton Burger, so familiar to us from the television series.

Gardner's remarkable consistency as a crime writer over the years, coupled with his amazing fecundity, helped make him one of the biggest selling crime writers of the twentieth century.  (The television series didn't hurt either.)  Yet after his death his star faded, though there was a nice paperback reprint series by Ballantine in the 1980s and early 1990s.  In the last decade his novels have become available in eBook editions and one was brought back last year as an American Mystery Classic by Otto Penzler; but Gardner still gets far less attention than Agatha Christie, herself enjoying a pronounced renaissance, both commercially and critically.  Maybe the coming Perry Mason series on HBO will help, though as it depicts Mason (Matthew Rhys) as "living check-to-check as a low-rent private investigator" and "haunted by his wartime experiences in France and...the effects of a broken marriage," series traditionalists may be outraged (yet again).

In a 1955 column largely lauding Gardner, mystery critic Anthony Boucher observed that

The most successful writers of mystery novels have not necessarily been the most able or enduring.  Indeed, when one thinks of Fergus Hume, J. S. Fletcher and S. S. Van Dine, who sold hundreds of copies of books unread and unreadable today, the reverse seems almost to be true.  But commercial success and genuine merit can at times be allied, as with Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Georges Simenon and Erle Stanley Gardner. [I have no clue why AB left Christie off this list--TPT.]

Boucher allowed (indeed, he said he knew it from experience) that some of his readers were likely to challenge the inclusion on the above list of Gardner's name:

Mr. Gardner has never been a pet of the more intellectual murder devotes...and it must be admitted that there is some basis for their charges of lackluster prose and oversimplified characterization....

Gardner, of course, needs a critical defense as much as Liberace needs a rave from John Crosby; but I can't asking the articulate few who scorn the Perry Mason novels to look more closely at their virtues--not only the extraordinary narrative pace, the solid craftsmanship of construction, the legal ingenuity, but also the half-accidental quality of genuine naturalism.  Gardner's murders are, like most in fact, committed for simple motives (usually profit) and by simple means....

This 1974 cover
(the sixth Pocket printing) is
surprisingly accurate in its depiction
of the novel's love triangle
A Perry Mason novel which I recently read, The Case of the Nervous Accomplice, which was published the same year as Anthony Boucher's column, illustrates Boucher's contentions beautifully, in my view.  This novel concerns the efforts of Sybil Harlan to win back her man, realtor Enright "Enny"Harlan, from that designing "little minx," as she's called throughout the novel, Roxy Claffin.

Roxy, you see, is five years younger (!) than Sybil (making Roxy all of twenty-one or twenty-two), and as Sybil puts it, Enny's "entranced by the color of her hair, the smooth contour of her skin, and he simply loves those great big soulful brown eyes."

Considering how often Gardner novels deal with sexually errant spouses, they are remarkably "clean" books, by the by.  Nowhere do we hear that Enny loved Roxy's great big bazooms, for example.  (I don't even know if they were big, I'm just assuming.)  I think Perry's and Paul Drake's strongest oath in this book is "Good heavens!", which I find quaintly charming.

Sybil hires Perry to use her money ($32,750 to be exact) to buy stock in a real estate concern, the Sylvan Glade Development Company, to which Roxy, who is represented by Enright (I just can't bring myself to call him Enny anymore), wants to sell her valuable property.  (Hillside property which is going to be leveled off for a freeway, with the dirt sold.)  Sybil wants Perry to gum up the works of this transaction, with the aim of putting Roxy (That mercenary little minx!) at odds with Enright, with the result that he will see Roxy For What She Really Is and come running back to his loyal wife.  Got that?

Perry, legal genius that he is, immediately recalls the doctrine of lateral support--the right of all property to have the natural, normal support of the adjoining property--and, having become a stockholder in the company, he complains that Roxy, by having gone ahead and had her property excavated, has violated this rule.  Instead of leveling the hill and all its properties, Perry argues, the company could terrace the hill and develop a fine hillside property.

the house on the hill
It seems Perry has accomplished his task on behalf of Sybil, but a monkey wrench--or rather a revolver--is thrown into the works when Sybil finds one of Sylvan Glade's stockholders, George Lutts (the man who sold the stock to Perry), shot dead on the interior staircase of an abandoned house on the Sylvan Glade property (the one from which she spies, with binoculars at a third floor window, on her poolside husband and his bikini-clad mistress at Roxy's adjoining house down the hill.) 

Sybil runs from the house, gets a taxi and eventually makes her way to Perry's office, where she spills the beans.  Or is she keeping some of those beans to herself?  And will Perry have to climb a beanstalk of falsehoods to get to the truth?

Perry wins a victory over his legal nemesis Hamilton Burger at the pre-trial hearing over the matter of the taxi driver's identification (a clever sequence and gambit on Perry's part), but despite this Sybil is soon on trial for her life, with the odds against Sybil looking steep indeed.  Will Perry find a way out for Sybil?  Well, of course he will, but getting there is the fun part!

The resolution of the murder plot, when we learn the meaning of the title, I found quite ingenious indeed.  I spotted the culprit, based on the matter of alibis, but the exact mechanics of the crime eluded me.  I was rather reminded, in the dazzling technical precision of the plot, of another British Humdrum mystery writer, Freeman Wills Crofts.  Like Gardner, Crofts and John Street were professional men (an attorney and engineers respectively) who all first published novels in their forties (though Gardner had written for the pulps for ten years) and valued plotting above all else. 

Some would argue, however, that Gardner, with his swift narratives and legal pyrotechnics, is a different sort of writer altogether.  I see similarity as well to Rex Stout, for example, Stout being an author who might also be seen as "formulaic" (though crucially Gardner lacks the sparkling and brilliantly original narration of Stout's Archie Goodwin).  Readers of both series derive a lot of enjoyment from seeing the ways in which their heroes, Nero Wolfe and Perry Mason, nimbly manage to outwit their police rivals. 

For his part Julian Symons classified Gardner not as a Humdrum but as a "big producer and big seller," (which he certainly was), along with Leslie Charteris, James Hadley Chase, Peter Cheyney, John Creasy, E. Phillips Oppenheim, Mickey Spillane, Dennis Wheatley and Edgar Wallace

The latter man was the only one in this group, opined Symons "who possessed genuine imaginative talent."  Of the rest

they have not influenced the development of the [mystery] form, and few of their books are of individual interest....their work has a machine-like nature that removes it from the sphere of literary into that of sociological consideration.  a popular character is devised, the formula for treating him established, and it is then just a matter of producing stories to feed the demand.

In short in Symons' view this is crime fiction as a "ready-made product like cornflakes or puffed wheat."

I don't know that many writers want to see their books compared to packets of puffed wheat, but for his part Gardner, who forthrightly referred to himself as a "fiction factory" (in paperback editions his novels were selling in the Sixties at the rate of 2000 copies an hour) was modest about his writing, saying:

Most readers are beset with a lot of problems they can't solve.  When they try to relax, their minds keep gnawing over these problems and there is no solution.  They pick up a mystery story, become completely absorbed in the problem, see the problem worked out to final and just conclusion, turn out the light and go to sleep.  If I have given millions that sort of relaxation, that is enough.

Maybe Gardner was a victim, when it came to critical esteem, of his own sheer competence.  I will concede that in my reading of him it's hard to pick out one book that stands as a masterpiece above others, as you might say, with Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr.  What is Gardner's Murder of Roger Ackroyd, his ABC Murders, his Three Coffins, his Burning Court?  Yet the fact remains that a book like The Case of the Nervous Accomplice, Gardner's 48th Mason novel and the third one he published in 1955, is a terrific mystery story.  It's also, in contrast with most of the work produced by writers like Charteris, Chase, Cheyney, Creasey and company, a genuine detective novel, legitimately clued.  And that ain't cornflakes, kiddos!

From the series: When Perry (Raymond Burr) met Roxy (the late Greta Thyssen)

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

The Ten Carrs of Christmas: Death in Five Boxes (1938), by Carter Dickson, aka John Dickson Carr

On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me
Death in Five Boxes!


You probably guessed that one was coming, but I also genuinely believe that Death in Five Boxes is an underrated Carr, deserving of more attention.

And, just in case you were wondering, Vox tells us that the twelve days of Christmas run from the birth of Christ (December 25) through the coming of the Magi, aka the three wise men (January 6, the Epiphany).  So I'm on track actually to get this done on time, praise the Lord and all the saints!

Death in Five Boxes begins as so many vintage mysteries do: with a young man who secretly dreams of adventure encountering a pretty "girl" in distress.  She's standing by an elegant row house in the light of a street lamp and the young man, toxicologist John Sanders, at first wonders whether she might be "an ordinary night-prowler"--i.e., a street-walker or lady of the night.  (Carr's mysteries tend to be more sexually frank than other "classic" mysteries.  In the Golden Age, this frankness was rather refreshing, although by the Sixties it seemed merely jejune.) 

However, the girl--or young woman as we would say today--is no hooker but rather respectable Marcia Blystone, daughter of eminent doctor Sir Dennis Blystone. 

Marcia is worried about Sir Dennis, who went out to keep an assignation at the flat of businessman Felix Haye.  Marcia, who followed Sir Dennis to this building, gets John to go up with her to Felix Haye's fourth-floor flat, where, after encountering a surly clerk named Ferguson on the third floor at the Anglo-Egyptian Importing Company [AEIC], they find Sir Dennis and the two other guests of Felix Haye--Bernard Schumann, heard of the AEIC, and art dealer Bonita Sinclair--drugged and insensible in Haye's flat.  Haye himself is dead, stabbed with an umbrella sword-stick.  (See the illustration of the 1991IPL edition, the one I read, at the above right.)

Each of Haye's guests has queer objects in their pockets: four wristwatches, the ringing mechanism of an alarm clock, and bottles of quick lime and phosphorous.  Now there's a fine Chestertonian situation for you!  Carr by his own admission was an adept of Chesterton in everything but religion--admittedly a rather large exception.

It turns out that all four individuals were poisoned with atropine in their drinks (white lady cocktails and a whiskey highball)--under circumstances which seem to have been impossible!  Also, Ferguson soon disappears from the building--under circumstances which seem to have been impossible!

Now the latter impossibility is soon explained, reasonably but prosaically, and while the explanation of the latter matter is held to the end of the novel and it's clever, it's not among Carr's most elaborate pieces of hocus pocus.  So perhaps this is why this novel isn't so well known as many other Carrs. 

Aside from the impossibilities, however, Boxes offers an intricate and well-plotted, fairly clued mystery problem (along with five mysterious boxes, which are broken into, their contents stolen, at the offices of Hayes' firm of lawyers).  I found it all quite satisfying.  On my second reading  of Boxes, I found had forgotten about everything about it after two decades except the poisoning method and I enjoyed it all immensely. 

John Norris has called Boxes one of his favorite Carter Dicksons.  To be sure, those Carr-hating curmudgeons Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor carrped that the novel depends on"false excitement" and "gimmicks" that are "barely plausible," but we know what wet blankets those two could be about anything they didn't (rather arbitrarily) deem "realistic."  Also people sometimes complain about the identity of the murderer, but I have no real problem with what Carr did here, aide from one niggling doubt about something the murderer did.

1940s Dell mapback edition
after which the back of the 1991
IPL edition was modeled over
John Sanders isn't the ass some Carr heroes are, although Carr-like he does to decide to commit the offense of breaking and entering in order to impress a girl (Marcia, of course).  This leads, incidentally, to a section of the book which would have graced any hard-boiled tale in terms of its splendid narrative tension.  (There's another such section as well, involving posh policeman Sergeant Pollard, who played a prominent role in The Ten Teacups, which would have fit wonderfully in a domestic suspense novel.)

Marcia Blystone seems very much a standard Carr leading lady, in both her youthful attractiveness and willfulness and her underlying sympathy with naughtiness, but she doesn't cross the line into irritating, for me anyway, in contrast with some Carr leads I could mention.  (I'm looking at you, Miss Audrey Page.)

Sir Henry Merrivale doesn't come into the story until it's a third over, but he's in splendid form throughout (aside from his pratfall introduction), humorous yet withal a figure of some real character.  (It wasn't for some more years yet that Carr would turn poor HM him into a buffoonish performing monkey.)

It's Sir Henry who here expresses an important credo of Carr's (it's important in the book too): "There's a lot of stuffin' that needs to be removed from shirts, and a good spring-cleaning wanted in the home of the humbugs."  Carr loathed the canting pious hypocrite, who committed sins in private which he sanctimoniously denounced in public; and if that isn't a timeless message I don't know what is.  Bravo, JDC, I shall raise a white lady to you!

recipe at Basco Fine Foods (recommended to readers of the book)

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Ten Carrs of Christmas: Till Death Do Us Part (1944), by John Dickson Carr

On the sixth day of Christmas my true love gave to me
Six Ashes Towering


The whole damned business was too close!  Too personal!  Too entwined with emotion!

"You're telling me," snarled Dick Markham, "or trying to tell me, it was Lesley again?  My Lesley?"
"Your Lesley.  Yes.  Slightly secondhand."

--Till Death Do Us Part (1944), John Dickson Carr

The village of Six Ashes in John Dickson Carr's Till Death Do Us Part is, I assume, named for ash trees, although I don't believe Carr ever mentions them in the novel.  (He does mention a public house called the Griffin and Ash-Tree.)  However, I think a half dozen ash trees would make a lovely Christmas gift indeed, especially in England, given the disastrous disease which has struck them there.

Till Death Do Us Part has always been well regarded, but the John Dickson Carr fandom community seems of late to have elevated this novel to a possible top tenner.  I haven't thought through my own Carr top ten systematically, but I think Part could well be a candidate, despite a few nitpicks I have, which have more to do with style than plot.

As Doug Greene has pointed out in his biography of Carr, the author's writing style began to shift in the Forties, after the publication of The Problem of the Wire Cage in 1939.  I'll quote Doug here:

Carr still saw fiction as removed from involvement with real life, and real life, he thought, was the purview of the naturalistic and realistic writers whom he despised.  But though he never came to like such writers and though he always saw novels as at their best incorporating the wonder of the New Arabian nights, his works were changing.  Instead of being detached from the events, his main characters will become desperately concerned with the outcome of the mystery, for their happiness, perhaps even their lives, are in the balance.

At the time I read it some twenty years ago, I hated The Problem of the Wire Cage, because I didn't want Carr's mysteries to be so full of this emotional tension, which I simply found tedious and wearing.  Carr was one of the most brilliant puzzle constructors in the biz, and when reading him I wanted to focus on a detailed investigation of one of his ingenious murder plots.  But I came to realize that the change in Carr's writing style was reflective of a change that was occurring broadly in mystery fiction at the time: the attempt to more greatly engage readers emotionally in the story.  No longer were these puzzles exclusively to be taken as dry academic exercises.  At this time many readers (and most critics) wanted something from their mysteries more than "mere puzzles."


Hence in Till Death Do Us Part (1944), we have as a protagonist someone who soon gets enmeshed in a highly emotional murder drama in Six Ashes.  This individual is playwright Dick Markham, an author of popular psychological stage thrillers who when the novel opens has fallen madly in love with Lesley Grant, "a little known newcomer" to the village, as the jacket blurb states. 

Right off the bat in the book we learn that Lesley is a beautiful brunette who looks "about eighteen years old, in contrast to the twenty-eight she admitted."  In other words, a typical Carr female love interest.  Why Carr's female love interests at this time so often look eighteen years old I can't tell you, but what I do know is that while they might be blonde or brunette or even black-haired and anywhere in actual age from twenty-five to forty or thereabouts, they will almost always look "barely legal."  And while they may be insipid or pouting or plucky, it seems that they typically will ultimately accede by novel's end to the dominant male, like most women in post-WW2, mid-century mysteries written by men (and, indeed, many written by women).

Ultimately Part is about the emotional anxiety through which women, curse 'em, put men, although here, just as in Carr's excellent He Who Whispers (1946), there's a sinister edge to our leading lady.  Just as you might call the female-centered mysteries of such authors as Mignon Eberhart and Mary Roberts Rinehart female anxiety mysteries, you could call Part a male anxiety mystery.  In so many mid-century female anxiety mysteries, the woman protagonist is presented with the same terrifying question--Could my husband/boyfriend be a murderer?--but in Part, it's the very male Dick Markham who finds himself agonizingly wondering whether his fiancee Lesley Grant might be a twisted murderess.

But, stop a bit, as a Carr character would say--let me backtrack a tad.  When the novel opens, Dick and Lesley have just come to an understanding (i.e., they've become engaged).  Now they have arrived late at a charity fete being held on the grounds of Ashe Hall by Lord and Lady Ashe.  Most of the attendees are off watching a cricket match, but there are a few people hanging about still, including Major Horace Price at the shooting gallery, Dr. Hugh Middleworth at the golf hazard, visiting Home Office pathologist Sir Harvey Gilman at the fortuneteller's tent, and banker William Earnshaw.  Lesley has her fortune told by Sir Harvey and seems distressed by what she years.  The next thing you know, she has accidentally fired a rifle shot straight at Sir Harvey's tent.  Did I say accidentally?...

Soon Sir Harvey, wounded by a rifle bullet, tells Dick, to his horror, that Lesley is a three time poisoning murderess!  And, worse yet, he says she's really forty-one years old!!!  (Despite this, Dick still refers to her as a "girl.")

Now, what's a man to do?  Well, this being a Carr novel, Dick vows to stand by her, even though Sir Harvey tells Dick that Lesley, given her history, surely is planning to murder him next.  After all, she murdered her last three husbands/fiances, didn't she?  (Was anyone else reminded of the clever Agatha Christie story "Accident?")

Again, this being a Carr novel, Sir Harvey divulges that the diabolical Lesley somehow committed her poisoning murders in locked rooms, in order to make them look like suicides.  Ironically, however, it is not Dick but Sir Harvey himself who is next found dead, in a locked room, from poison! Is this Lesley up to her alleged tricks again?  Or was it someone trying to make Lesley a scapegoat?  And could Lesley--sweet, lovely, prim yet intense Lesley--really have done all those horrible things?  (She herself says heavens, no!)

Till Death Do Us Part is a well-written, suspenseful story, with a fine locked room and some excellent clueing as to both the vexing how and who questions.  It's arguably Carr's best English village mystery, I would say, although it's oddly thin on women characters, given how important women characters usually are in this setting. 

Often in Carr mysteries of this period, the main female characters are what I call the blonde one and the not-blonde one--young, attractive rivals for the attentions of the hero.  Here Cynthia's blonde rival is Cynthia Drew, the "nice," ostensibly no-nonsense local girl whom everyone thought Dick would marry, until bewitching Leslie appeared six months ago and swept poor Cynthia right off the matrimonial field. 

The male principals all have spouses but weirdly these wives though referenced never appear.  The only other woman who speaks in the story is Mrs. Rackley, Leslie's comic housekeeper, though the postmistress, Laura Feathers, is mentioned.  (The latter makes a non-verbal appearance in the novel.)  There's also a minister, Reverend Arthur Goodflower (!), but he never appears.  Carr never did have much use for ecclesiastical types, important as they usually are in village mysteries.

The absent Arthur Goodflower excepted, however, the male characters are well portrayed; and to be fair to Carr, Agatha Christie was not that great at portraying characters of the opposite sex in her village mystery Murder Is Easy, reviewed by me here.  Actually, like Fay Seton in He Who Whispers (1946), Lesley is one of Carr's better love interest characters, I think.  Could she really be a murderess, like Dick is being told?  If not, what is the sinister secret which she's so obviously hiding?  I also liked Major Price, who resembles Carr's sleuth Colonel March and like March was obviously based on Carr's mystery writing friend Major Street, with "his thickset figure, his cropped sandy moustache, speckled round-jowled face and light blue eyes...."

Eventually Superintendent Hadley and Dr. Fell show up at Six Ashes. (Fell is needed to solve impossible murders, of course.)  Gargantuan Fell does his usual shtick, wheezing and exclaiming "Archons of Athens!" and making gnomic utterances that frustratingly trail off into ellipses...  It irritates me no end, which is why I tend to prefer Carr's Henry Merrivale's mysteries, though some people conversely find HM intolerable.  (I have a low mind, I suppose.)  We are told that Fell is a "scholar of international reputation" but to me he's mostly just a tiresome old gasbag.  (But then that can be true of scholars of international reputation, I suppose.)

To be sure, many of the Fell mysteries are sheer genius stories, however; and Part most definitely has a whole lot going for it.  It's one of the best examples of Carr emotional anxiety mysteries, along with He Who Whispers (1946), She Died a Lady (1943) and The Emperor's Snuff-box (1942).

Yet there's a little too much anxiety stoking for me in this story.  (See the book quote at the head of this piece.)  Carr's starting to use those irksome exclamatory triplets--"True! True! True!" and "Lesley! Lesley! Lesley!"  There was something about a triplet to Carr, it was like a magical incantation to induce stress in his readers; but it does nothing for me.  Other favorite Carr turns of speech make an appearance too:

Stop a bit!
Hoy!
For the love of Mike!


It just is not a Carr tale unless someone shouts Hoy!

Interestingly, there is a Goblin Wood referenced several times; and I wondered whether this is the same one which crops up in the splendid HM story "The House in Goblin Wood," or did Carr just forget he had used that name earlier?  Also the device of the phone call made to bring the protagonist to the scene of the crime in the early morning hours later pops up in The Dead Man's Knock (1958).  If you read a lot of a prolific mystery writers, even one as imaginative as Carr, you will find they occasionally repeat their devices.

Then there was this eye-roller (for me anyway) on the first page:

It was a scene which, four or five years later [the novel is set in 1938 or 1939-TPT], would come back to Dick Markham with a nostalgia like anguish.  A lush, green burning England; an England of white flannels and lazy afternoons; and England which, please God, we shall never lose for any nonsense about a better world.

Setting aside the white flannels and lazy afternoons for a moment, there was also an England of urban slums and rural squalor, of unemployment and destitution and disease and callous social complacency, of haves and decided have-nots, which is precisely why some people dreamed their hopeful dreams of a better world, however nonsensical those dreams may have seemed to John Dickson Carr.  But you needn't don Carr's English Rose-colored glasses to enjoy such a finely crafted Golden Age mystery as Till Death Do Us Part.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

The Ten Carrs of Christmas: The Dead Man's Knock (1958)

On the seventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me
Seven Collegians Screaming

I've already written about The Dead Man's Knock here,  As I've said before, in this novel Carr presents us with the most agitated group of collegians this side of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  It's the only college novel I'm aware that ends with a...well, I really should spoil it, but it's definitely a unique denouement.  The book is too histrionic for some readers, like much of late Carr, but I rather enjoyed it more then I did the more highly regarded The 9 Wrong Answers), for the reasons I outlined in my review.  I believe Carr set nine detective novels in the United States; and I would say that The Dead Man's Knock is Carr's second best American mystery novel, after, by some considerable distance to be sure, The Burning Court.  Here is my ranking of this group of novels:

The Burning Court (1937)
The Dead Man's Knock (1958)
A Graveyard to Let (1949)
Poison in Jest (1932)
The Ghosts' High Noon (1969)
Deadly Hall (1971)
Papa La-bas (1968)
Panic in Box C (1966)
Dark of the Moon (1967)

Incidentally, I have some Carr pbs I'd be happy to send someone if anyone is interested.  I will send them gratis to anyone in the next couple of days who can guess the remaining six works in the Ten Carrs of Christmas.  Overseas shipping on you!

To recap we have:

Ten Teacups Luring (The Ten Teacups, 1937)
Nine Answers Deceiving (The 9 Wrong Answers, 1952)
Eight Complaints Receiving (The Colonel March stories, 1938-40)
Seven Collegians Screaming (The Dead Man's Knock, 1958)

What will be the last six works in the Ten Carrs of Christmas?  Just email me your answers (click my about me link on this page), as posting here will tip off your competition.  In case of ties I'm going with the person who gets their answers in first.  You have at least thirty-six hours.

The Ten Carrs of Christmas: The Cases of Colonel March and the Department of Queer Complaints

On the eighth day of Christmas my true love gave to me
Eight Complaints Receiving

Among his fellow Detection Club members, the two greatest friends of Cecil John Charles Street, or John Street for short, were Anthony Gilbert (aka Lucy Malleson) and John Dickson Carr.  I talk about both these friendships in my book Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, but I have also blogged about Street and Carr here.

In the late 1930s Carr and Street (who wrote crime fiction as  John Rhode, Miles Burton, and much less frequently, Cecil Waye) at the latter man's spacious mock-Tudor home in Kent collaborated on a detective novel, Fatal Descent (aka Drop to His Death), which was published in 1939.  The two authors had planned more such collaborations, but the Second World War disrupted these efforts.  Other signs from this period of joint inspiration between the two men are Carr's novels The Reader Is Warned (1939) and The Man Who Could Not Shudder (1940), which have decidedly Streetish murder mechanics (Street himself used the murder method in Warned in one of his own novels at this time and in another staged a murder in a haunted house, like in Shudder.)

Cecil John Charles Street
(John Rhode/Miles Burton)
Then there is the series of eight short stories which Carr published in The Strand, the historical abode of Sherlock Holmes, between April 1938 and January 1940.  (A ninth, inconsequential story appeared belatedly a year later in February 1941.)  All of these tales are about Scotland Yard's "Department of Queer Complaints," an organization devoted to investigating "complaints which do not seem to bear the light of day or reason."  The Department is headed by Colonel March, a character whom Carr based on his friend John Street.

In the first story in the series Colonel March is described as "a large, amiable man (weight seventeen stone) with a speckled face, an interested blue eye, and a very short pipe projecting from under a cropped moustache which might be sandy or grey."  If you ever read the paper edition of Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, you will see a photo of Street which perfectly captures this appearance, although this pic from the internet captures something of that essence as well.

Carr had planned to use Colonel March in his novel The Emperor's Snuff-box (1942), which shares the same French setting with the March story "The Silver Curtain," but he decided it was too "psychological" for the good Colonel.  But we see a character who rather resembles Colonel March in Carr's detective novel Till Death Do Us Part (1944) in the person of Major Price, about whom the author references "his bearing, his thickset figure, his cropped sandy mustache, speckled round-jowled face and light blue yes."

But back to Colonel March and the queer complaints which he receives.  The March stories have a somewhat complicated publication history.  As mentioned, there original appearances were made in the pages of The Strand, as follows:

The New Invisible Man (April 1938)
The Crime in Nobody's Room (June 1938)
Error at Daybreak (July 1938)
The Hiding Place aka Hot Money (February 1939)
Death in the Dressing Room (March 1939)
The Empty Flat (May 1939)
The Silver Curtain (August 1939)
Clue in the Snow aka The Footprint in the Sky (January 1940)
William Wilson's Racket (February 1941)


When The Department of Queer Complaints was published in 1940, only seven of these stories were included in the collection, along with three other, unrelated stories.  Racket of course had not been published yet, and The Empty Flat was left out, presumably, because it used the same murder method from a then recent Carr novel.  All nine of the complaints were published together for the first time in IPL's 1991 March, Merrivale and Murder anthology, edited by Doug Greene.  As Doug has noted, Racket is a silly, inconsequential story, so I'm only look at the other eight complaints, as follows.

The New Invisible Man
Nosy Horace Rodman thinks he's seen a shooting murder in a neighboring house.  The queer part?  The murder was committed by a disembodied gloved hand.  This is an entertaining story, but the solution was too mechanical for my taste.

The Crime in Nobody's Room
Ronald Denham drunkenly returns home from a night out (a situation familiar to Carr), lets himself into what he think is his flat and finds a dead body.  He's then hit on the head and wakes up in the hallway. Not only the corpse but the room seem to have disappeared.  Another entertaining story, though both Carr and Ellery Queen used this situation best in novels.

Error at Daybreak
Bill Stacey witnesses the sudden collapse of a man on a beach.  Although no one was around him at the time, the doctor on the scene pronounces that the dead man was stabbed.  My favorite of the first four in the collection.

Hot Money
Concerns stolen bank notes that have vanished from a locked room.  Carr's nod to Poe's "The Purloined Letter."

Death in the Dressing-Room
A dancer is fatally stabbed at the Orient Club in London.  No miracle problem here, but it's a clever story with a neat alibi trick, more reminiscent, as Doug Greene has notes, of Agatha Christie than John Dickson Carr.  One almost expects to see Hercule Poirot and Arthur Hastings on the scene.

The Empty Flat
A man is found dead from fright in a haunted flat.  Was he murdered?  This is another clever story, though as mentioned Carr used the murder method in a contemporary novel.  Also a very similar pair of bickering male-female pair of academics are found, to better use, in Carr's novel The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941).

The Silver Curtain
Carr's favorite of these stories, and rightly so.  It's set in France at La Bandalette on the Norman coast (based on the small town of Tocques, near Deauville), which was also the setting of Carr's novel The Emperor's Snuff-box (1942); and it includes a fine miracle problem murder, once which would Carr would adapt for a novel many years later.  As in Error at Daybreak, it's a seemingly impossible stabbing, but the solution is more ingenious.  The clueing is excellent all round.

The Footprint in the Sky
An English village crime, where a woman is viciously battered in her cottage surrounded by snow.  The only footprints to be found are those of Dorothy Brant, who insists she didn't do it, though she hated the victim of the assault.  The audacious solution was foreseeable for me, but I enjoyed the story nonetheless, with its fair clueing and appealing milieu.

Monday, December 23, 2019

The Ten Carrs of Christmas: The 9 Wrong Answers (1952), by John Dickson Carr

One the ninth day of Christmas my true love gave to me
Nine Answers Deceiving


What John Dickson Carr calls the "fair-play duel of wits between reader and writer" is--to my mind at least--one of the noblest and most enjoyable pursuits in which either reader or writer can indulge; and it's doubtful that even Ellery Queen or Agatha Christie has ever excelled Mr. Carr's virtuosity in that pursuit.  Among dozens of Carr classics, you will particularly recall "The Reader Is Warned" (by Carter Dickson"), with its running footnotes rigorously limiting the problem...and at the same time making it all the more fiendishly impossible to solve.

It's the same sort of trick that Carr attempts in The Nine Wrong Answers; but something has happened to the Master's touch.  Judged purely as fiction, this is an exceedingly long (almost 120,000 words!) and ponderous novel, superficially and even inconsistently characterized.  It will not be read as a story; it must stand or fall as a pure technical puzzle.  And the regrettable fact is that it is not well or honestly constructed.

[...]

Now this sort of thing is...wanton shenanigans unworthy of any novelist of integrity.  It takes no craftsmanship to "deceive" a reader by introducing irrelevancies and not even bothering to explains them away.  The basic puzzle here is a good one...but the inordinate length, the exasperating hero...and above all the pretense at a non-existing "duel of wits" add up to something well below Mr. Carr's usual standard.  The reader is warned.  


--Anthony Boucher, contemporary review of John Dickson Carr's The 9 Wrong Answers (1952)

If only the novel, especially in its
original, unabridged edition
were as good as its dust jacket
I by no means always agree with Anthony Boucher, distinguished critics that he was, but I must admit that when I first read The 9 Wrong Answers about twenty years ago, I didn't like it.  And having reread it this weekend, I still don't like it.

In crafting The 9 Wrong Answers, Carr grafted onto one of his brilliant little radio suspense plays, "Will You Make a Bet with Death?," a daring (if not brazen) murder puzzle, but the two parts fail, for me anyway, to add up to an agreeable whole.

This is the one where emigre Englishman Leonard Hurst persuades emigre Englishman Bill Dawson to travel from New York to London to impersonate Leonard. 

Why, you ask?  Because Leonard's awful old uncle, Gaylord Hurst, has offered to make Leonard the heir to his vast fortune, but only if Leonard returns to England and visits with him every week. 

Why does Leonard not want to make this family excursion himself?  Well, it seems that "Uncle Gay" is a horrid sadist who tormented Leonard all through his childhood; and Leonard simply isn't up to meeting him again.  This incenses Leonard's mercenary girlfriend, beautiful brunette Joy Tennent, who thinks that Leonard should just man up and go to England himself.  (We know Joy is bad news for males, sexually enticing as she is, because she has perceptible "jaw muscles"--Carr hated this in a woman, apparently because he deemed it provokingly indicative of female aggression.  Men with strong jaws are A-OK, of course!)

In spite of Joy, Leonard goes with his own plan and soon--actually though it's not soon, it's not until page 112, a third of the way into this long, 345 page, novel--his new pal Bill is in England, pretending to be Leonard.  There his "Uncle Gay" proves to be a very nasty figure indeed, as does his manservant Hatto, a former wrestler.

What happens during those first 112 pages?  Not a whole hell of a lot, actually.  To be sure, a poisoning occurs halfway into this section, but otherwise there's not much going on here.  In the later part of this section Bill's ex-girlfriend, beautiful blonde Marjorie, pops up on his England-bound plane, in what is a truly astounding coincidence even by Carr's standards, unless I missed an alternate explanation of her presence there late in the book. 

Bill and Marjorie are characters the dedicated Carr reader will have seen in scores of books.  At 5'9" and 145 pounds, Bill is yet another male Mary Sue character for the smallish 5'6" Carr, whom Raymond Chandler (six feet and 190 pounds) contemptuously dismissed as a "pipsqueak."  Bill is a wannabe academic (he came to America to get a job and is now extremely hard-up, apparently because he couldn't afford to be educated at Cambridge), who wants to teach history "as it should be taught." (Carr himself knew a great deal about history, as he is at great pains to show in 9 Wrong Answers, though he was interested in facts not theory.)  Bill was also a former RAF pilot in the late war and a talented amateur boxer and a graduate of Harrow.  Basically, he's an all round swell chap who regularly calls bad 'uns swine, just like he's in a gung-ho prewar Sapper thriller.

However Bill is a jealous type, don't you know, as is Marjorie; and a few years back they had a big, though entirely silly and pointless, fight on New Years Eve that led to them breaking up and to Bill coming to America.  Carr gets quite sentimental about it, even quoting, several times, the lines of Auld Lang Syne, surely about the most banally obvious heartstrings tugger he could have chosen.  I agree with Boucher here: these are not characters who can carry a long novel.  Bill is an ass, Joy a cold, malicious tart and Marjorie ultimately an insipid doormat or "good sport," as Carr puts it.  You know, the kind of girl who doesn't mind when her man spends most of his time on drunken rambles with the boys and even helps him get his pants and shoes off and into bed.  That kind of jolly, sporting girl.

And a long novel it is--about 117, 000 words by my estimate, in its first edition.  Anthony Boucher wasn't the only person, evidently, who expressed dissatisfaction with the novel's extreme and suspense-killing length.  Bantam Books received Carr's permission to trim the novel for paperback publication by 15%, says Doug Greene in his biography of Carr, and future editions have used this abridgment; though by my count the Carroll and Graf pb edition is less than 80,000 words, which would be a more drastic cut of about a third.  Fine by me if so!

What you lose in the abridged versions are some nice descriptive words, but also things like Carr discoursing about airlines, his hatred of bureaucracy and jazz and American films, the state of England in the early Fifties (he likes it better with Labor out of power), the hero's intense admiration for Conservatives and the Confederate States of America, and the state of the BBC.  It amazed me how Carr can be such an adept at suspense in radio plays and so deadly dull here.

Malevolent Uncle Gay graces
the cover of the Harper edition
of The Nine (as they spell it)
Wrong Answers (rental library edition.)
Which isn't to say their aren't some good episodes.  When Bill encounters Hatto and "Uncle Gay," both of the latter men make splendid sneering villains (Swine!), who would have been at home in Carr's regency mystery The Bride of Newgate, published two years earlier.  But we don't get to spend enough time with this pair of malevolent brutes, because they ultimately are subservient to the murder problem from early in the book. 

Supposedly helping us are nine footnotes Carr appends (the titular nine wrong answers), but as Doug Greene has pointed out, the ninth note actually fibs, which irked Boucher too--for good reason, in a novel purporting to be "fair play."  Overall too, I find the murderer's scheme really a stretch.  I'd sooner believe the scenario in Carr's The Three Coffins.  It's most definitely bookish, to put it charitably.

When "Uncle Gay" bets Bill that he can kill him at some point in a three month period, things look to pick up, but there really isn't much of the novel left over for this suspenseful scenario (which comes from the radio play).  And then Bill is off to the BBC where they are putting on a play, for some reason, about the Civil War. (In the US, there was much interest at the time in the Civil War, or War Between the States as Confederate sympathizer Carr calls it, as the ninetieth anniversary of the start of the war had come and the last veterans of the war were expiring--did this interest extend to England?)

In the original edition of the book, we get this passage, among many, many others:

Having always favoured the South in the great war, it occurred to [Bill] that it would be a brilliant idea to hide here and suddenly imitate the hoofbeats of Jubal Early's horse tearing up Pennsylvania Avenue to the very steps of the Capitol.

Was it Jubal Early, or somebody else?  His mind wouldn't focus.  Anyway, it would be fine to shove the actors aside and play Stonewall Jackson--had he finished his coffee yet--on the night they rolled the Union Army into the Potomac, and Old Jack swore--no; he didn't swear--that with ten thousand fresh troops he would take Washington that night.  Or was it ten thousand...


I'm glad Carr was enjoying reading about the Civil War, but none of this verbiage belongs in this book and it was unsurprisingly removed from later editions.  (Sixteen years later he would publish a mystery novel, Papa La-bas, set in the antebellum American South.) 

Also removed from 9 Wrong Answers was some of the jealous lovers' bickering between Bill and Marjorie.  I especially hated the part where Bill gets formal and all seventeenth century on her, suddenly insisting on addressing  her as "Madam" (though maybe that's better than "my wench").  Walking out on Bill was the smartest day's work Marjorie ever did, in my view, but in the end of course she can't resist Bill's charms, as Carr imagines them.  After all, he has been to Harrow and knows all about Jubal Early.  What more could a girl want?

Then there's this luvverly language between our pair of cooing turtledoves:

"Bill.  Bill.  Bill!"
"Marjorie, do you really love me?"
"You know I do!  You know I do!"


Cue Auld Lang Syne.  And pluck the heartstrings!  Maybe it's better when they're fighting.

And of course Bill bests his "Uncle Gay" in a duel of wits (concerning who knows more about French and English history and literature) and he pummels Hatto is a physical contest, being the male Mary Sue that he is.  In what I imagine is a shot at American hard-boiled mystery, Carr several times berates the "hashish philosophy that fists cured all troubles from financial to marital," but in fact Bill's fists prove quite useful to him against Hatto, just as they do with other Carr characters in the Fifties and Sixties in his historical mysteries. 

Carroll and Graf gives the novel the
Cornell Woolrich treatment in their ed.
Would that Woolrich had written it!
Carr at this time had more in common with hard-boiled mystery writers than he may have thought.  Indeed he had more in common with his mortal aesthetic enemy, Raymond Chandler, than he thought.  Both Chandler and Carr were romantics who created male Mary Sue protagonists and had weird hangups about women. 

Sure, Carr thought Chandler's mean California city streets were merely dirty and nasty, but to Chandler they were as every bit as romantic as Carr's rodent- and plague-ridden seventeenth-century London byways were to Carr.  Both men tried desperately to live more exciting lives through their fictional male heroes.  Both were hyper-individualists who hated the modern collectivism of Communism while they admired--and somehow ignored the state institutionalized racism of--a Confederate nation that lay smoldering upon the ash heap of history.

The writer who really should have tried his hand at The 9 Wrong Answers was neither Carr nor Chandler, in my estimation, but rather master noirist Cornell Woolrich. I think Woolrich really could have made something of this material.  In his hands it would have made a darker and altogether more compelling tome.  Maybe he could have called it The Nine Black Answers.  The Reader Is Warned.

To be fair I know there are readers and bloggers too who utterly disagree with me about this novel, holding it in high esteem indeed.  I don't know that there are nine admiring blog reviews out there (see this one here, for example), but if there are, just call it a case of The Nine Wrong Bloggers.  I'll leave you to work out some footnotes for that one.

Friday, December 20, 2019

The Ten Carrs of Christmas: The Ten Teacups (1937), aka The Peacock Feather Murders, by Carter Dickson, aka John Dickson Carr

On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me
Ten Teacups Luring

"Of the Ten Teacups, of course I dare not say a word."
--The Club of Queer Trades, by GK Chesterton

"I don't know what secrets may have crept out of Lisbon or Milan or Toledo four hundred years ago, to turn up in holes and corners of modern London.  I don't know about the Ten Teacups, or the rites they may have practiced...."

There will be ten teacups at Number 4, Berwick Terrace. W. 8, on Wednesday, July 31, at 5 p. m. precisely.  The presence of the Metropolitan Police is requested.    

"Let me answer that with another question, Sir Henry.  Do you believe in the devil?"
"No," said H. M.
"....I don't mean Auld Clootie.  I don't mean an operatic bass in red tights.  I don't mean the versatile personage in our proper proverbs, who does so much: who quotes Scripture for his owns ends: who finds work for idle hands to do: who takes care of his own--in fact, from that description, you might imagine that the devil was standing for Parliament on the Labour platform.  No.  I mean The Devil."

--The Ten Teacups, by John Dickson Carr

What makes British mystery, in the eyes of so many readers, so quintessentially cozy? 

Well, cats, certainly, and bright cheery chintzes and comfy armchairs in country cottages, of course, and, absolutely beyond question, a nice cup of tea.  Right after you discover that battered body in the library and get violently sick in the bathroom (see the floor plan on page seventeen), there's nothing to revive you like a proper cuppa, no indeed (though hold the poison).  Just ask Gladys, the housemaid, to make you one--right after she's stopped all that bloody screaming.

In John Dickson Carr's hands, however, even tea can't be trusted to return us to normality.  Nor teacups.  The most seemingly innocuous homey things can take on a most sinister and menacing shape in his mysteries.

When The Ten Teacups opens, Chief Inspector Humphrey Masters--(lumme, it's the perfect name for this character) has received the Teacups notice quoted above; and he knows that it portends criminal mischief.  Two years earlier, a similar notice appeared before a man was found murdered in a deserted house, with ten rare and beautiful majolica teacups in peacock feather pattern arrayed on a table beside him.  And after that second notice appears it happens yet again, this time in an attic room where both the door and window are surveilled by the police.  Despite police precautions a man is found dead within the room, shot twice at point blank range, with no trace of a shooter to be found.  There are teacups--not nearly so fine ones this time--on a table by his side.  Will even Sir Henry Merrivale, expert in all things impossible, be stumped by this one?

One reason I get disappointed with much of the later Carr detective novels is that the ones from his heyday in the Thirties and Forties are so damn good.  They set such a high--dare I say impossible-- standard.  Yet in his heyday Carr managed to meet his own superlative standard, year after year, like an acrobat vaulting through an endless succession of impossibly high hoops.  Those later Carr mysteries might be good enough for other authors, but not for John Dickson Carr, master of the miraculous.

In his later mysteries, like The Dead Man's Knock and In Spite of Thunder (recently reviewed here), Carr strains so hard to create an exciting atmosphere by having characters roar and shout and run about; but in his earlier books he had no need for such histrionic hurly-burly.  The focus in The Ten Teacups remains tightly on the investigators and their investigation.  There are some colorful characters among the suspects--particularly the ample blonde femme fatale-ish Janet Derwent--but Carr doesn't dwell at length on their emotional states as he does in later novels.  Even young love gets short shrift.  And that's fine, because in this book the slay is the thing--and it's a really clever one.  No one knew better than John Dickson Carr how ingeniously to unlock a murder room; and in The Ten Teacups we witness one of his finest performances.

Even as Carr conducts this clue dense and highly complex murder investigation, however, he simultaneously creates an absorbingly uncanny London atmosphere.  When yet another Teacups notice popped up, I got more of a frisson than I did from anything that I ever read by thriller king Edgar Wallace.  This sort of performance calls not only for good plotting but for good writing as well.  Don't let anyone ever tell you that Carr in his prime could not "write":

A dozen eyes watched the house, but no movement could have been heard under the multitudinous noises of the rain.  In some places it fell with a flat smack, in others with a drizzle, in others with a steady splashing; but always sluggish, and like nothing so much as warm tea.

Carr makes tea as creepy as anything this side of Marjorie Bowen and Sheridan Le Fanu.  Plus there's a simply brilliant locked room murder. As a vintage murder fancier, I can't fancy anything more.  I fully agree with this contemporary review of The Ten Teacups:

The story itself is involved, exciting and and touched with that dash of the macabre and the sinister which is never absent from the detective stories written by Mr. Carr, either in his own name or under his pseudonym. The literary finish of the author's style is always a satisfaction to the reader.

auld clootie himself

On the ninth day of Christmas, what did I find?  Check in soon, I hope, and see.