Friday, June 29, 2012

The Vultures Gather (1945), by Anne Hocking

The daughter of Joseph Hocking and niece of Silas Hocking (the Hocking brothers were two hugely popular pietistic English Methodist novelists), Anne Hocking (1890-1966) was a prolific mystery writer, producing 44 genre novels between 1930 and 1962 (one more, completed by another author, was posthumously published in 1968).

Most of Hocking's 1930s novels were woman-in-peril (WIP) thrillers, but in the late 1930s she began shifting to more of a classical "whodunit" structure in her books.

In milieu these Hocking mysteries from the 1940s and 1950s are similar to those by Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth.  In fact one could say that Hocking out-Christies Christie in producing the sort of books people associate with classical English mystery. Filling the pages of Anne Hocking novels are villages, country houses, maids, butlers, impecunious relations and imperious, will-altering matriarchs/patriarchs just begging to be bumped off.

However, like Wentworth Hocking typically does not have Christie's "talent to deceive." Still, in her best books she compensates for this somewhat through good writing and depiction of character and setting.

Several years ago I read Hocking's Six Green Bottles (1943) and thought it was extremely good.  It is set in Cornwall, Hocking's ancestral homeland; and I found it engrossing, rather resembling one of Christie's more serious mysteries from the forties, like The Hollow or Five Little Pigs.

In The Vultures Gather Hocking's detective, Inspector William Austen, is returned by the author to Cornwall, so that he can solve yet another murder in a genteel family, on behalf of the gentlemanly but utterly incompetent local Chief Constable.

The novel's murder is of a wealthy, tyrannical, elderly lady, just as she is about to change her will. This splendid old harridan is the best character in the tale, and something goes out of it when she expires (obnoxious murder victims so often are the most vividly presented characters in classical mystery).

However, the situation is certainly a classical one and makes for enjoyable reading for most of the book.  To provide love interest there is also Tamsin Tregellis, a winsome young woman who is a step-niece of the old lady's, and her charming beau, Peter Doyle, who happens to the temporary locum treating the old lady (she has a heart condition).

Both Tamsin and William Austen love to drop literary quotations on all occasions, giving the book something of a surface resemblance to a tale by Dorothy L. Sayers.  

Indeed, both Christie and Sayers, as well as Arthur Conan Doyle, are referenced by the author in Vultures.  Here's the Sayers reference:

Austen Paused.  He was getting Shakespearian again.  He mustn't give way to it.  If he weren't careful he might get all Wimsey and start quoting Donne.

Characters in The Vultures Gather
love to quote from the novels of this woman
The quotation-loving Inspector Austen even is a Janeite ("a Jane Austen addict" as the author puts it) who can quote from Pride and Prejudice with facility (Jane Austen was a relative, it seems!).

For her part,Tamsin, not to be outdone, quotes characters from Sense and Sensibility.

And, indeed, from just about everything else!

"Wonderful!" Tamsin breathed, as with the deepest respect.  "'Bearing his blushing honours thick upon him, and so modest, withal.'"

Peter Doyle laughed.  "You still quote, I see."

The whole situation is so classical that even the characters comment on it:

"All this family stuff, you see, and certain defined suspects, and only one visible motive--money.  It quite follows the detective story pattern--almost too neatly."

Indeed!  But who doesn't like a good English genteel family murder?

the vultures gather at a Victorian country mansion
where a will is about to be changed....
There are good descriptions of the beauties of Cornwall and of hideous Victorian architecture, as well as some interesting speculations about social change taking place in England with the war and the coming of the Labour government.

Unfortunately, the the mystery plot itself proves something of a fizzle. Austen declares he is much more interested in psychology than mere material clues and seems to intuit things in a way that struck me as almost magical.

Particularly disappointing, given Austen's "psychological" approach, is a final chapter that feels rushed, as if Hocking grew bored with this year's book and was eager to get on to something else.

So, unfortunately, The Vultures Gather does not live up to the promise of Six Green Bottles.  Yet I found enough of appeal in this book to keep me interested in the author.

Now someday I'll have to reopen Six Green Bottles!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Confession (1917/1921), by Mary Roberts Rinehart

This 1917 Mary Roberts Rinehart novella is one of her earlier criminous works, following the better known novels (all originally serialized) The Man in Lower Ten (1906/1909), The Circular Staircase (1907-08/1908), The Window at the White Cat (1908/1910), The Case of Jennie Brice (1912-13/1913) and The After House (1913/1913) and the Nurse Hilda Adams novellas The Buckled Bag and Locked Doors (both 1914).  In 1921 it was published in book form with another novella, Sight Unseen (1916) as part of the series The Works of Mary Roberts Rinehart.

The Confession is a Rinehart work I had not heard of until fairly recently, but now having read it I find it one of her best tales.  Though Mary Roberts Rinehart was one of the most popular American mystery writers from the first half of the twentieth century (indeed, she was one of the most popular American writers in general), critics, often male, over several decades disparaged her as a "Had I But Known," or what might be termed "feminine anxiety," writer.

"It's nothing human that rings that bell."
An HIBK heroine strikes a classic pose.
The term--HIBK in short form--came into currency in the 1940s after the publication of an Ogden Nash poem, "Don't Guess, Let Me Tell You."

Nash's poem ridiculed the sort of mystery fiction associated most strongly with Mary Roberts Rinehart--most stereotypically that in which a wealthy, inquisitive middle-aged spinster gets involved in the events surrounding a murder mystery, all of which she narrates in a tone of breathless foreboding:

Had I but known on that Monday afternoon that by wearing my blue boa I would set in motion a monstrous train of events that would lead to the horrid butcherings of seven people, three fiendish abductions, the burning utterly to the ground of a stately ancestral home and the theft of my family Bible, I imagine that I would have gasped in horror at the prospect of all this ghastly impending carnage raining down upon my head, immediately run back to bed as fast as my legs could carry me and stuck my head under the covers all day!  But, alas, Bridget was pestering me with a question about the fruit preserves and I didn't give my blue boa anything more than a passing thought....

Mary Roberts Rinehart
Now this is something of an exaggeration (unless the author was simply deliberately engaging in deliberate parody, as I just was), but there was definitely a sort of HIBK style in the day.  Other HIBK writers from the Golden Age include Mignon Eberhart, who came to specialize in frightened ingenues, and Leslie Ford, the great mistress of southern HIBK (also see my discussions of two lesser known HIBK writers, Anita Blackmon and Margaret Armstrong).

However, HIBK will pop up in unexpected places--there are HIBK passages, for example, in such Freeman Wills Crofts novels as Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy, Sudden Death and Man Overboard!  Yes, the fact is, you can have male HIBK writers as well as female ones.  HIBK knows no gender restrictions.

The truth is, HIBK merely is a lineal descendant of the great Gothic novel (one wag once defined a Gothic novel as a story about a woman who buys a house) and the first person narration so often found in HIBK simply is a tried and true suspense-building technique.

To be sure, some male critics sneered at HIBK--as late as 1972 Julian Symons, a late representative of this critical strain, wrote that Rinehart's works "are the first crime stories which have the air of being written specifically for maiden aunts"--but in the last forty years, with the rise of feminist criticism, there has been a pronounced tendency to reevaluate and upgrade Mary Roberts Rinehart and the school of mystery genre fiction that she represents (see most particularly Catherine Ross Nickerson's The Web of Iniquity: Early Detective Fiction by American Women, 1998).

Julian Symons (1912-1994)
not an HIBK fan
My biggest complaint about Rinehart's work has more to do with what I see as its often excessive length (something I suspect arose out of its lucrative serialization).  However, I have no such complaint about The Confession, a succinct 132 page novella.

I'm no maiden aunt (you should see my five o'clock shadow!), but I enjoyed The Confession a great deal.  Not only is it entertaining and suspenseful, but it's ultimately a rather moving and psychologically penetrating tale--a forerunner, I would say of the sort of psychological crime fiction associated most prominently today, perhaps, with Ruth Rendell.

[T]he house was cheap.  Unbelievably cheap.  I suspected sewerage at once, but it seemed to be in the best possible order....

Of course that incisive, wealthy spinster Agnes Blakiston is right to be suspicious of the terms of her rental.  There is something wrong with the house.  But the rot Miss Agnes finds in the house is not in the wood moldings or floorboards.

Spurred on by the mystery of the telephone that keeps ringing in the night (with no answer coming forth on the line when the receiver is picked up) and the small objects that move overnight, Miss Agnes starts to investigate the history of the house.

She finds some some shocking things....

This is a pretty vague description of the novella so far, I'll admit.  But I do not want to spoil the tale for those of you who have not read it.  It is really quite engrossing.  Additionally, Rinehart provides some interesting and rather subversive commentary on genteel family relationships, patriarchy and religion before the Jazz Age (and the Golden Age of the detective novel). Critics like Julian Symons, who I think tended somewhat unfairly to view women crime writers like Mary Roberts Rinehart as complacent apologists for the conservative social and political status quo, might have adjusted the verdicts they rendered on her had they read her Confession.

Yes, there's a creeping cat too!
Characterization in The Confession is excellent and the psychology is acute. At the heart of the narrative are three spinsters: Agnes Blakiston herself, her "old servant" Maggie and the elderly (about sixty, I think!) Emily Benton, who lets the house. They are all quite convincing. The mistress-servant relationship between Miss Agnes and Maggie is interesting too.  Agnes sometimes is condescending to Maggie, Maggie mutinous, but you can tell the two women have a very close bond.

A few men wander in and out of the mystery, confidently render opinions, and most often are completely wrong in what they pronounce.  Oddly, not one of them is named Julian (a joke!).

The Confession
is female-centered, unapologetically domestic...and entirely gripping, I should think, whatever the reader's particular gender may be.  Look it up.  It's even free on the net.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Successful Men Read!

An interesting ad is found on the back of the dust jacket of the 1930s Sun Dial reprint of Todd Downing's 1936 mystery, The Case of the Unconquered Sisters.

Successful Men Read, the headline of the ad declares.  This text follows:

Successful men and women in every walk of life read mystery stories for relaxation, for real enjoyment, and to sharpen their wits for the daily battle with life.

These people are usually leaders because they are mentally alert.  They enjoy matching wits with great detectives, noticing flaws and discrepancies in cases, and tracing down clues, to the ultimate capture of the criminal.  They robustly enjoy their morning paper because they can THINK behind the headlines, they ENJOY the problems of the office because they are adept at solving problems.

Listed below this are the following mystery novel titles:

Saint Overboard, by Leslie Charteris
Murder in the Madhouse, by Jonathan Latimer
President Fu Manchu, by Sax Rohmer
The Puzzle of the Red Stallion, by Stuart Palmer
Merely Murder (aka Death in the Stocks), by Georgette Heyer
The Feather Cloak Murders, by Darwin and Hildegarde Teilhet

How many of these novels have you read?  Did reading them sharpen your wits for your daily battle with life?  Though you may not read a morning paper anymore, does mystery reading help you think behind the headlines of the internet articles you read?

What's always striking to me about pieces like this is their somewhat defensive tone.  Even today, people often still feel like they have to justify time spent reading, say, Jo Nesbo's The Leopard or Ian Rankin's The Impossible Dead.  They're not mere thrillers or detective stories, darn it all: they're crime novels (or, better yet, noir)!

according to Sun Dial Mysteries
reading this novel will sharpen your wits
for the daily battle with life
In the Sun Dial ad, mystery fanciers are assured that reading mysteries is an intellectually respectable, indeed laudable, activity--not some guilty addictive pleasure to be ashamed of, as Edmund Wilsonwould cantankerously assert in the 1940s.

Interestingly, mysteries are defended as puzzles, not as crime novels, which likely would not be done today, when "mere puzzles" are viewed with disdain by so many critics (indeed, even, evidently, by some mystery writers themselves).

P. D. James writes in her Talking about Detective Fiction that the puzzle-oriented detective tales of the Golden Age of detective fiction were only quasi-intellectual--in contrast, in her view, with "serious" modern crime novels, like, just possibly, her own!

Yet intellectuals were some of the most devout readers of detective fiction in the Golden Age.  To be sure, Edmund Wilson loathed the stuff, but T. S. Eliot, for example, couldn't get enough, seemingly.  Certainly T. S. Eliot must have been as mentally alert as Edmund Wilson!  The 104-year-old Jacques Barzun, a man who as a teenager read Arthur Conan Doyle's later Sherlock Holmes tales when they first were published, is perhaps the last such super-intellectual link to this entire Golden era still with us (though I suspect Barzun probably never deigned to read President Fu Manchu).

And there's no doubt that that plenty of businesspeople--the demographic at which the ad seems most squarely aimed--read detective novels, not to mention politicians, judges, lawyers, physicians and clergy, some other notably favored groups in mystery genre promotional efforts.

Sharp wits indeed!
For that matter, in 1936 P. D. James herself, a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl, was reading Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night.  And 74 years later, at the age of 89, Baroness James bested the BBC director general in a battle of wits.  Of course Gaudy Night, James no doubt would tell us, is no "mere puzzle" but a serious novel!  Still, just maybe even we Agatha Christie fans have learned a thing or two also.

This brings me to a final point.  Note how in the Sun Dial ad mention of women is made only below the big, bold headline, in the body of the text.  Yet increasingly book publishers became aware that sharp wits for the battle with life were desired by women (like P. D. James) as well as by men, and that many women were reading detective novels.  Today, I suspect, more women than men read genuinely ratiocinative mysteries.  Certainly this seems to be the perception.  What do you think?

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Inner Still Life:Wallander Season 2 (2010)

I finally got around to watching to Season 2 of the Wallander, the British series devoted to the outer and especially inner life of novelist Henning Mankell's perennially depressed Swedish detective, Kurt Wallander (the great Kenneth Branagh in this version).  I know some have rapped this series as a bore, but I find it fascinating--every glum and gloomy moment of it.  The mystery plots are interesting (if not, to be sure, Golden Age level in complexity); but what strikes me most--besides those expansive exterior landscapes and intriguing interior spaces so stunningly shot in bleak, desaturated sepia tones--is the detailed portrait of our moody hero's personal emotional life of travail: an inner still life of his troubled soul, if you will.  Kurt reaches new depths of depression in Series 2.  At times he makes the late Inspector Morse--arguably television's pathbreaking modern morose police detective--look positively giddy.

our hero, depressed

In all three of the Series 2 episodes, Kurt's personal problems neatly dovetail with the criminal problem he is currently investigating.  Some have found this too pat, but I thought it made a splendid way limning Kurt's inner life.

In the first episode, "Faceless Killers," an elderly Swedish farming couple is tortured and murdered. In an effective nod to the Golden Age "dying message" gambit associated most strongly with Ellery Queen, the wife before expiring manages to whisper "F-" in answer to Kurt's query who did this?  Kurt's investigating team leaps to the conclusion that this "F-" means "foreigners" and soon enough this detail is leaked to the press, spawning a series of violent, escalating reprisals against immigrant laborers, culminating in a fatal shooting.  Now Kurt has more deadly crime to investigate and he feels to blame for even mentioning this whole dying message business.

Kurt beholds a pale horse--
oh, that can't be good!
Meanwhile, Kurt's daughter, Linda, is dating a Syrian doctor and accusing Dad of racism because he seems insufficiently enthusiastic about her boyfriend.  Kurt is feeling guilty about this too!  Also, for good measure, Kurt's father, Povel, has rapidly onsetting Alzheimer's. Povel's increasingly erratic behavior includes vituperation of Kurt, whom Povel feels has abandoned him.

The racial revenge murder is solved through straightforward police work, with a bit of intuition on Kurt's part.  More interesting is Kurt's solution to the original farmhouse murders.

In Episode 2, "The Man Who Smiled," Kurt, wracked with guilt over events from Episode 1 (part of this I personally had trouble empathizing with, but that may just be me) has turned in his badge and dropped out of things to go wallow in misery in the country. When a friend of his asks him to investigate the death of his father (the police are writing it off as an accident), Kurt refuses.

Next thing you know, the son is dead too--supposedly a suicide--and Kurt has yet more to feel guilty about!  But now he's back on the force, investigating a dark corporate conspiracy. At the same time, he must deal with recriminations from both father and granddaughter over his flight into the country.

Seeing Kurt try to shake himself out of depression was quite fascinating.  As one of his concerned (disgusted?) colleagues points out, Kurt's literally sweating all over at one point. I have to say I admired Kenneth Branagh's physical commitment to his performance.  He marches into his office, takes off his shirt, looking decidedly pasty (and really a bit doughy actually), and starts patting his sweaty pits with the curtains.  Talk about giving "deglam" performance!  Bravo, Sir Kenneth!*

our hero, still depressed (and probably kind of smelly at this point)

This episode also has a good subplot involving an disgraced ex-cop (a moving Vincent Regan).  I wasn't sure whether the title referred to this character or the smirking millionaire philanthropist played by Rupert Graves (Lestrade from Sherlock). Any road, this is another engrossing installment.

Finally, there is Episode 3, "The Fifth Woman."  The plot of this one, which involves torture serial slayings of men, reminded me in some ways of The Mermaids Singing, Val McDermid's influential 1995 serial killer novel.  Mankell's novel came out a year after McDermid's, so could there have a specific influence here?  I don't know, but on the whole I think this the best of the three episodes.

Again Wallander's personal situation meshes with the crime problem he is investigating (I can't go into too much detail here because of spoilers).  The climax is emotionally affecting, though probably rather unrealistic if you think about it for very long.  In the coda, things take a bit of a promising turn for Kurt, finally.  Maybe he'll be able to start sleeping nights in a comfortable bed, rather than snatch fitful minutes of sleep in unpromisingly angular modern chairs!

I look forward to finding out just what happens to Kurt Wallander in Season 3.

you just know this is going to be bad news....
*Note: My friend Doug Greene, Anglophile and dean of American mystery scholars, informs me that Kenneth Branagh was knighted just a few days before this article was posted.  Corrected accordingly, sir!  And congratulations, Sir Kenneth (maybe a knighthood would cheer up Kurt Wallander)!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Miss Kent and Major Street: The Case of Constance Kent (1928)

Rhodes [sic] in his 'Case of Constance Kent' has made a great feature of insanity.  Was Mrs. Kent insane?

Constance Kent 1862
So began the missive that had been sent from Sydney, Australia to the offices of Geoffrey Bles, publisher of John Rhode's The Case of Constance Kent (1928). This missive, which was to prove one of the key documents in the great Constance Kent murder mystery, was turned over to Major John Street, the man behind the punning pseudonym John Rhode. Major Street determined to discover for himself whether the writer of the letter indeed was Constance Kent, who at this time, 1928, had been vanished from England for some forty-three years....

Kate Summerscale's bestselling and award-winning The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (2008), an examination of the Constance Kent case, appeared eighty years after the publication of John Street's The Case of Constance Kent (1928).

Although in her Suspicions Summerscale alludes briefly to John Street's important role in the untangling of the Constance Kent affair, most reviewers of Summerscale's book seem to have been under the impression that Summerscale was plowing a virgin field in true crime.  Indeed, some reviewers of Summerscale's most recent book, Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace (2012), have remained under this impression.  "Like her award-winning The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher," writes Rachel Cooke in the Guardian, "[Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace] blows the dust off long-forgotten people and events...."

this latest account of the
Constance Kent case
became a bestseller 
Perhaps it is true that if an event has been forgotten by journalists it has well and truly been "forgotten," yet the fact is that the Constance Kent case incontestably is one of the classic English murder cases and has been treated as such by true crime writers since it so memorably burst upon public consciousness in 1860. The case was the subject not only of Street's book-length study, but of book-length studies by Yseult Bridges (Saint--with Red Hands, 1954) and Bernard Taylor (Cruelly Murdered, 1979/1989), as well as essays by the true crime writers William Roughead and F. Tennyson Jesse, two of the greatest figures in the history of the field.  To say that  the Constance Kent case was a "long-forgotten" event until Kate Summerscale wrote about it seems to me to be a little like saying that no one now recalls just who or what it was exactly that a certain Lizzie Borden was supposed to have whacked with an axe.

For the purposes of this piece, I want to look more closely at John Street's role in the Constance Kent historiography.  It has been a disappointment to me that no review of Summerscale's Suspicions that I have seen has acknowledged Street by name (a 2008 review in The Independent is as close as I have seen to an acknowledgement, but, alas, Street is referred to only as "a writer investigating the case").

Road Hill House, home of the Kent family in 1860, when three-year-old Francis Saville Kent
was found dead with his throat cut, in the household's outdoor privy
It of course is true that due to the success of Kate Summerscale's Suspicions, a great many more people now are familiar with the facts of the Constance Kent case, but I will briefly recount them.

In 1860, Francis Saville Kent, the three-year-old son of Samuel Saville and Mary Pratt Kent (Samuel's second wife), was found dead with his throat cut, in the household's outdoor privy.  Jonathan Whicher, the celebrated Scotland Yard inspector eventually called in by a floundering local police force, soon charged the dead boy's sixteen-year-old half-sister, Constance, with the brutal crime.  The charge against her was dismissed by magistrates, leading to Whicher's public humiliation and premature retirement.

Five years later, however, Whicher was vindicated when Constance, who had come under intense religious influence, confessed that she had indeed done the dark deed with her own hand.  After serving twenty years in prison Constance was released and left for parts unknown.  At the time of the publication of John Street's The Case of Constance Kent, Constance had been absent from England for forty-three years and was generally assumed to be dead.

John Street was not enamored with
conceptions of Victorian patriarchy
and class privilege
In his book on the Kent case Street professed contempt both for Samuel Kent, Constance's father, and the local police chief, Superintendent Foley, bluntly denouncing Victorian concepts of patriarchy and class privilege.  In connection with the letter Constance Kent wrote to Street's publisher, Geoffrey Bles, Street's discussion of Samuel Kent and his relationship with his first wife, Constance's mother, is most pertinent.

Samuel Kent had continued to father numerous children by his first wife, even after her health irretrievably broke down (at the time of the murder and also in Street's day it was accepted that she had developed gradually worsening insanity). Five of the couple's ten children died in infancy.  Himself the father of only one child, Street vigorously condemned Samuel Kent's conception of family planning.  He damned Kent as a "typical mid-Victorian father" who "seems to have considered it right and fitting that [his wife] should continue to become the mother of defective children [meaning the five who died], irrespective of her mental condition."

Constance Kent in later life
Copies of Street's book found their way to Australia, where Constance Kent had migrated and was still living in the late 1920s (she would not die until 1944).  Constance Kent read the book and evidently was provoked to write her letter by Street's discussion of the alleged insanity of Constance's mother.  Constance denied that her mother was mad (she was, rather, suffering from syphilis contracted from her philandering husband); and she insisted that her stepmother, her former governess, had been cruel and vindictive toward the young Constance, provoking the girl to commit "her most callous and brutal crime"--the murder of her young half-brother--as a misguided act of retribution.

Constance pretended that the letter writer was a friend of Constance's and that Constance Kent had died.  Street was unable to determine whether, as he suspected, Constance was truly the writer of the letter.  It was Bernard Taylor who discovered several decades later that Constance indeed had migrated to Australia, survived into the late 1920s and written the letter, which Street had dubbed the Sydney Document.

After the Detection Club was formed in 1930, Street donated the Sydney Document to the Detection Club library of crime fiction and history, where it was lost or destroyed amid the chaos of World War Two.

Providentially Street himself typed a copy of the letter.  This copy was discovered in his papers after his death and included in the 1989 reprint edition of Bernard Taylor's book on the Constance Kent case.

I hope this piece helps provide a fuller picture of the historiography of the Constance Kent case as well as an understanding of John Street's role in aiding scholars of the case to reach definitive answers about it.  Yet more detail on this matter is found in my book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel, 1920-1961. See here.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Round Robin Murders: The Floating Admiral (1931) and Double Death (1939)

The Floating Admiral, a Round Robin novel by England's Detection Club--that august organization of the elite of (mostly) British crime writers--has been reprinted in England--on the strength, one surmises, of participant Agatha Christie's name.

the new edition mentions merely three
of the many once prominent contributors
Although the contribution Agatha Christie made to The Floating Admiral is a chapter of eight pages (in my 1979 Gregg Press edition)--merely 3% of the book--Christie is given top billing by the publisher, with only Dorothy L. Sayers and G. K. Chesterton (the latter of whom contributed, by his own admission, a strictly ornamental prologue of five pages) snagging mentions by name, in much smaller letters.  This hardly is fair to the other authors, many of whom made more significant contributions than Christie and Chesterton, but such are the vagaries of fame and the publishing biz!

It is my view that detective novel, requiring  the most scrupulous planning, is not a form really receptive to the round robin treatment.

Exhibit A in my argument: The Floating Admiral.

Overloaded with complications from too many eager hands, The Floating Admiral begins to take on water and sink well before reaching its final destination (its concluding chapter, by Anthony Berkeley, sadly is all too accurately entitled "Cleaning Up the Mess").

the original edition credits
all fourteen contributors--
though did too many hands sink the book?

Things go well enough for the first five chapters, with the authors (Canon Victor L. Whitechurch, G. D. H. and Margaret Cole, Henry Wade, Agatha Christie and John Rhode) refraining from over-elaboration.  Unfortunately the narrative enters choppy waters with Milward Kennedy's effort (his chapter, which follows John Rhode's "Inspector Rudge Begins to Form a Theory," is impertinently titled "Inspector Rudge Thinks Better of It"; the good inspector--and Milward Kennedy--should have let well alone).

Dorothy L. Sayers tries to steer the now storm-tossed narrative on to a steadier course with a massive 37-page chapter, but she only makes things more confusing.

Clemence Dane complains in the notes to her Chapter Eleven, the penultimate chapter, that the mystery has become "quite inexplicable to me."  This reader had the same reaction.

The fun for me in The Floating Admiral is not, frankly, in reading a cogently plotted detective novel (this novel isn't one), but, rather, in discerning the different narrative approaches taken by the myriad authors in their chapters.

  • G. K. Chesterton writes rich prose.
  • Canon Whitechurch introduces a charming vicar.
  • Henry Wade develops credible, appealing relationships among his policemen.
  • Agatha Christie introduces a garrulous and gossipy old lady innkeeeper.
  • John Rhode discusses tidal movements (the admiral was floating after all) and sympathetically expands the role of the retired petty officer, Neddy Ware.
  • Milward Kennedy overcomplicates the story, as does Dorothy L. Sayers (the ingenious Sayers should have been given the opening chapter--she and Kennedy both clearly wanted it for themselves).
  • Ronald Knox makes a long list.  
  • Freeman Wills Crofts checks alibis and has his inspector travel by train.
The authors notes that follow the chapters often are fascinating.  In the notes to his chapter, Ronald Knox amusingly writes:

I once laid it down that no Chinaman should appear in a detective story.  I feel inclined to extend the rule so as to apply to residents in China.  It appears that Admiral Penistone, Sir W. Denny, Walter Fitzgerald, Ware and Holland are all intimate with China, which seems overdoing it.

In her Guardian review of the new edition of The Floating Admiral, Laura Wilson deems Agatha Christie's proposed solution for the tale "as you would expect, the most ingenious" of all the solutions.

Well, I don't know.  Sometimes ingenuity is bought too dear, at the price of reason.  Certainly Christie's solution is more tricksy than, say, the solution proffered by John Rhode (without a complicated murder means, Rhode doesn't play to his greatest strength here). But it's also, in my view, patently absurd.

Here is how Christie envisioned the state of affairs in the Admiral's household (this is a SPOILER of sorts, though Christie's theory did not win acceptance with her colleagues):

Agatha Christie's proposed solution to
The Floating Admiral is rather a drag

The Admiral's niece is really the Admiral's nephew masquerading as the niece.

The clever chap has been doing this drag routine in his Uncle's household for weeks now, and is able to get away with it because he was "an actor at one time" (that convenient Golden Age crutch for the achievement of improbable master disguises) and because the Admiral has not seen the niece since she was child (he had seen the nephew more recently, however). The servants are fooled as well, as are the various beaux of the neighborhood, whom the nephew "takes an artistic pleasure" in vamping.[END SPOILER]

Ingenious or really kind of asinine?  Decide for yourself, but I know what I think.

On the whole, I prefer Double Death to The Floating Admiral.  The former is a round robin novel with chapters by Dorothy L. Sayers, Freeman Wills Crofts, Valentine Williams, F. Tennyson JesseAnthony Armstrong and David Hume that originally appeared, I believe, in the Sunday Chronicle in 1936 and was published in book form three years later by Gollancz. Although this novel sometimes is listed as a Detection Club novel it was never such, for of its authors only Sayers and Crofts in fact were members of the Detection Club.  It shows!

This wartime edition of Double Death 
deemed only Dorothy L. Sayers
worthy of mention by name
(Gollancz was her publisher!)

In her introductory chapter to Double Death, Sayers sets up a compelling domestic poisoning situation, followed by a death at a railway station, at the evocatively named town of Creepe.  Freeman Wills Crofts able expands this opening situation (he even provides a stunning map of Creepe and Creepe Station), as does Valentine Williams, thought the latter is more known for his "Clubfoot" thrillers than his (underrated) detective novels.

Unfortunately the other three authors are less concerned with mere matters of clueing, so that as a fair play mystery the tale ends up rather a bust (especially if you make the mistake of reading the ill-advised prologue, added later, which essentially gives away the solution of the novel).

Still, the writing and overall emotional situation remains compelling throughout Double Death, making the tale more of a success than The Floating Admiral in my view. It is worth noting in this context that in Double Death, written in the mid-thirties, all the authors concern themselves with maintaining "love interest," while in The Floating Admiral most all the characters are sticks in whom one could not be expected to take the slightest personal interest of any sort (admittedly one exception could have been SPOILER the putative vamping transvestite nephew, END SPOILER as envisioned by Agatha Christie).

Freeman Wills Crofts
 As the 1930s progressed the Golden Age detective novel began to put more emphasis on emotional situations and less on ratiocination.  It is this shift in emphasis that makes Double Death more interesting than The Floating Admiral, in my view.  Admiral depends for artistic success on detection and clueing and too many hands running about on deck finally sink the puzzle plot.

With less than half the people involved, Double Death might well have manged to work as a true fair play detective novel.  Certainly Sayers, Crofts and, to a lesser extent, Valentine Williams made a good start of it.  Unfortunately, Jesse, Armstrong and Hume did not follow through on what their predecessors began.

Dorothy L. Sayers and friend
I rather wish the novel could have been kept simply a collaboration between Sayers and Crofts.  The two authors corresponded over the opening chapter of Double Death in the spring of 1936, with Sayers requesting and Crofts supplying pertinent points of railway station detail.

Sayers had already written her own railway timetable novel, The Five Red Herrings (1931), as a sort of homage to Crofts' Sir John Magill's Last Journey (1930).  These two classic detective novels stand today as the ne plus ultra of railway timetable mysteries.  In the skillful hands of Sayers and Crofts, Double Death might well have become a classic product of the Golden Age.  As it is, at least it is a moderately entertaining read.

Note: For more on The Floating Admiral and Double Death and the participation of Freeman Wills Crofts in the writing of them, see Appendix III of my Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel, 1920-1961.  See here.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Carrion Death: Vultures in the Sky (1935), by Todd Downing

It was a scene which Rennert was never to forget, a taut fear-clad moment in which eight dissimilar people faced one another, drawn together by the magnet of a common dread of what might lie beyond the light....

The vultures gather....
"Carrion Death" recalls the titles of both a recent Michael Stanley African-set mystery novel and one of the most memorably grim and grisly (grimsly?) horror stories from EC Comics in the 1950s (best known today from the 1991 "Tales from the Crypt" television series adaptation, with Twin Peaks' star Kyle MacLachlan in the memorable lead role of an escaped convict lost in the desert while rather inconveniently handcuffed to the corpse of the cop he killed).

But though "Carrion Death" admittedly is not an original title, I felt that it simply begged to be used for a piece on Todd Downing's third detective novel, Vultures in the Sky (1935), a marvelous tale about a murderous Mexican train trip taken from Monterrey to Mexico City by nine ill-fated passengers, along with assorted crew.  A goodly number will not make their destinations.

And Death came too....
Most of Vultures takes place on the Monterrey-San Luis Potosi leg of the long and tense rail journey, with the climax occurring after the cars occupied by the main cast of characters have been uncoupled from the rest of the train and stranded in the desert north of San Luis Potosi (oh, and the electricity has gone out as well for good measure).  Now how is that for a "closed setting" mystery?

This section of the novel not surprisingly is the most gripping, but the narrative pace throughout the story is terrific. Besides a determined murderer running amok on the train, there's engine trouble, an impending railway strike and talk of sabotage by Cristeros (see the recent film For Greater Glory).  And of course all the passengers besides Downing's series detective, the impressive Hugh Rennert of the United States Treasury Department, Customs Service, seem to be hiding mysterious secrets.

Death in the tunnel
The first death takes place, memorably, on the train as it passes through a railway tunnel during the Monterrey-Saltillo leg of its journey.  More deaths follow before the train reaches Mexico City.  These circumstances certainly give added impetus to Rennert's crime investigation!

At times one feels one is reading an Edgar Wallace thriller; yet Downing, though a self-professed admirer of Wallace, manages to keep Vultures tethered to true detection.  In this respect Vultures is a great deal like the novels of John Dickson Carr, another writer Downing greatly admired.  In other words, Vultures manages, like so many of Carr's miraculous works, to be both viscerally exciting and ratiocinative, an uncommon feat indeed.

Perhaps the most obvious authorial influence on Vultures, however, comes from another of the mystery genre's great writers, Agatha Christie.  Downing read Christie's Murder on the Orient Express the year he began writing Vultures and he immediately praised the Crime Queen's novel unreservedly.

To be sure, part of Downing's first detective novel, Murder on Tour (1933), takes place on a train as well, but the influence of Express on Vultures is unmistakable (it's even suspected that a child abductor may be on the train).

Death in the desert....
Nevertheless, Vultures is no pale imitation of Express.  Although it lacks the singular brilliance of Christie's solution in Express (while this solution may have infuriated Raymond Chandler, most of us over the years have loved it), Vultures is a more exciting tale than Christie's and the Mexican setting--one Downing knew absolutely down to the ground--is powerfully evoked and fascinating.

Furthermore, Downing's characters--particularly Rennert and the two women passengers--are memorable. Indeed, the older woman, Trescinda Talcott, is so well-limned that she seems as if she stepped out of the pages of a first-rate mainstream novel, proof that the detective story form is no necessary barrier to a writer's achieving literary distinction.

a Crime Club Selection
Like Downing's immediately preceding mystery novel, The Cat Screams, Vultures in the Sky received the honor of being designated a Crime Club Selection by Downing's publisher, the prestigious Doubleday, Doran.  While The Cat Screams was compared to the work of the American mystery "Atmosphere Queen" Mignon Eberhart, at heart it's a closed setting, Anglo-American country house tale relocated to Mexico (Taxco specifically): nicely-clued, well-written and interesting, yet not nearly as tense and gripping as Vultures.  But then, truth be told, few Golden Age true detective novels are as tense and gripping as Vultures.

Like most of Todd Downing's detective novels, Vultures in the Sky is now pretty hard to find, particularly in editions priced under, say, fifty dollars.  But you just may be seeing a quality, more affordable edition of this novel, which Bill Pronzini called "an expertly crafted whodunit" fairly soon.  Stay tuned!

Vanegas lay flatly prostrate under the afternoon sun.
An unnatural quietness seemed to weigh upon the usually noisy platform....

Note: the three train photos (2, 3, 4) come from this fascinating blog about railways in Mexico. I urge everyone to take a look at Mexican Railroads-TPT.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Sherlock Shrugged: Sherlock Season 2 (2012)

It's all in the hat!
 I was a little slow to warm to the new Sherlock television series in Season One.  I loved the first episode, "A Study in Pink," but the Chinese gang antics of the second, "The Blind Banker," seemed like something more out of a 1920s Edgar Wallace or Sax Rohmer thriller and the third episode, "The Great Game," was marred for me by what I thought was a truly horrendous reimagining of Master-Criminal and Arch-Fiend "Jim" Moriarty.

Watching the first season again on DVD reconciled me to episode two (after all, if Basil Rathbone's Holmes battled the Nazis, why can't Benedict Cumberbatch duke it out with Chinese gangs?), but I still hated this modern incarnation of Moriarty, who seemed a miscalculation in every way.  Obviously intended as scary-mad in the Heath Ledger Joker fashion, to me he was more goofy-sad.

However, Season Two has won me over completely.  I loved the controversial reconceptualization of Irene Adler in "A Scandal in Belgravia," though I know others have dissented, some on the grounds of morality (she's now a lesbian--or bisexual?--dominatrix, oh my!), more on account of seeing her as anti-feminist.  I don't see this myself.  The complaints of both groups seem rooted in the notion that the highly sexualized of Adler is "wrong." 

The Woman
In response I would say that certainly in this day and age--when, for example, American congressmen send pictures of themselves over the internet in states of undress in attempts to sexually entice young women--surely filmmakers must come up with ever more shocking scenarios  than in past days in order to credibly evoke "scandal."  Dominatrix activities would seem to fill the bill in this regard!

Arthur Conan Doyle's Irene Adler was, after all, what was then known as an "adventuress"--a term that definitely had a sexual connotation.

As for the feminist critique that Adler's ultimately bested by Holmes--well, so is everyone else, or haven't you noticed?  Even Moriarty (more on him later).  At least she really knocked him for a loop, so to speak.  As for Adler being revealed as being genuinely attracted to Holmes (the passcode business), well, there's quite a bit of interest in her for his part as well.  One of the really teasing things about this episode was the relationship between these two brilliant but surely rather damaged individuals.

This brings me to my larger point about this series, one I'm not sure has been much discussed amidst all the hyperventilating over Irene Adler's sexuality.  That is the portrayal in Sherlock of the relationship between the Great Detective and society.  To me, this matter really came to the fore in Season Two.

Jeremy Brett
Without a doubt Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock is a compelling portrait of a genius.  No surprise here. Cumberbatch is a truly great actor and Sherlock Holmes is nothing if not a genius.  While Dr. Watson has been (wrongly) portrayed in film as a fool (Nigel Bruce), Sherlock has always been, barring in parodies like the movie Without a Clue, played as an absolute genius, the Greatest among Great Detectives.

Yet Cumberbatch's Sherlock, following in the footsteps of Jeremy Brett's portrayal, is also a supremely odd individual.  Basil Rathbone's Sherlock may have been somewhat eccentric, but Brett's and Cumberbatch's versions disconcertingly often seem to occupy some unsettling borderland of sociopathy.

In the modern series Sherlock Holmes is as lacking in social skills as poor, downcast Molly Hooper, the shy medical examiner so hopelessly smitten with the Great Detective; it's just that he has an overweening self-confidence that she utterly lacks, one which enables him to override societal conventions of which he's often at best only dimly aware (and usually contemptuous of when aware of them).  Yet these conventions remain potentially deadly pitfalls for Holmes.  It's Dr. Watson--so superbly portrayed by Martin Freeman--who, with his "average brain," has to try to act as Holmes' social guide (God knows the series' Mrs. Hudson is too ditzy to do it), in order, essentially, to prevent Holmes from destroying himself.  Watson, in short, has to teach Holmes how to minimally accommodate "the group" so that Holmes can survive within society.

Yup, Moriarty's mad all right!
But there be method in this madness
No wonder Holmes is attracted to Irene Adler, he must see so much of himself in her!  But there is a far more sociopathic genius than Holmes or Adler: the aforementioned Jim Moriarty.  As stated above I hated Andrew Scott as Moriarty in Season One; but in Season Two I thought he was splendid.  This Moriarty truly was scary-mad.  And his devilish master plot against Holmes-- depicted in the clevery titled "The Reichenbach Fall"--was fascinating.

Moriarty figured out how to turn society against its repeated rescuer, Sherlock Holmes.  Moriarty understood that all the mediocrities in the police (Rupert Graves' rather winning Lestrade is the only sympathetic policeman in the series; he's the one copper intelligent enough to know that he's not intelligent enough) don't like depending on an egregiously obnoxious super sleuth to perform the feats they can't accomplish on their own.

One surmises that the cops would rather not solve cases at all than to have to depend on Holmes to solve them (I'm reminded of the transfer scene of the provokingly efficient PC Angel in the brilliant police comedy film Hot Fuzz).  To be sure, it doesn't help that Holmes is so completely lacking in people skills!  Add into this mix a crass and stupid press that delights in the personal destruction of "heroes" and celebrities.  How comforting and reassuring for them all to believe that the Great Detective was a fraud all along!

Don't worry, John--he''ll be back next season!
Moriarty's plan almost worked.  While he failed to kill Holmes, he destroyed Holmes' reputation.  Holmes is in hiding, while Watson is in mourning (and back in therapy).  In Season 3 will Holmes, with Watson's aid, be able to reconcile with society?  Will society realize that it desperately needs Holmes?  I think it should prove quite interesting to see.

Crime writer and critic Julian Symons argued that modern society was incompatible with the idea of the Great Detective, an uber-individual who, whether donned in a deerstalker or a top hat (or even hatless), disregards rules and solves crime completely on his/her own terms.  Yet, Symons notwithstanding, the Great Detective is still with us a dozen years into this new century, whether that individual is named Adrian Monk or Patrick Jane or Sherlock Holmes (Holmes apparently is immortal). Besides being terrifically entertaining, Sherlock more than any other series I know of is a thought-provoking exploration of the concept of the Great Detective in our modern age.  I applaud the series for this.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Carr Talk: Four Capsule Carr Reviews

This fashionably surrealistic 1940s cover
captures some of the eerie nature
of the novel

 The Reader Is Warned (1939)

John Dickson Carr's The Reader Is Warned is graced by exceptional impossibility and the marvelously sinister idea of "teleforce."

A mysterious psychic named Herman Pennik pronounces that one of the people at a country house party gathering will die at a certain time; and, sure enough, this person dies at that time.  No indication of the man's cause of death can be found.  Pennik insists that he accomplished the death by means of a psychic power he calls teleforce.

The next day the dead man's widow denounces Pennik as a charlatan and he, nettled, tells her that she too will die, also by means of teleforce.  And, sure enough, she dies. How she came to die is yet another mystery.

Is teleforce for real?!!  Sir Henry Merrivale is on it!

Most of us, I imagine, can think of thrillers with outlandish premises like this one that ultimately disappoint, but amazingly John Dickson Carr, the old maestro, comes up with a plausible (well, by Golden Age standards, anyway) and fairly-clued explanation for all the outre events.

The resolution, which involves a rather melodramatic and implausible trap and a quite incredibly garrulous killer, is the main weakness of the tale, I think.  But the teleforce idea around which the novel is structured is a brilliant, bravura device and the last lines of the novel are unusually thoughtful for Carr (if perhaps a bit optimistic--one thinks of the advent of atomic weaponry).

As mentioned in my previous blog post, the murder method in Warned is quite similar to one that appears in a John Street novel from the same year, 1939.  Whether Carr discussed with Street this murder method, the exuberant narrative obviously is all John Dickson Carr.  The Reader Is Warned is one of Carr's most brilliantly constructed and engagingly told detective novels.

An attractive Hamish Hamilton reprint edition
illustrating the inadvisability of hanging weapons
over fireplaces in haunted country houses
The Man Who Could Not Shudder (1940)

I wrote first-rate! in my paperback copy of The Man Who Could Not Shudder back in 1993 (nearly twenty years ago!), when as a graduate student I was first buying Carr in all those nice IPL, Harper and Zebra editions that were still readily available in those days.  On re-reading Shudder I found nothing to make me change my original opinion.

This is the one involving the miracle problem at, yes, yet another country house party gathering of a guest who is shot in the study of the house by a gun that seemingly moves of its own volition.

Oh yes, the house is haunted.

There are strange stories of the ankle-grabbing ghost of a former owner of the house who died in 1820 and, from a hundred years later, of a chandelier-swinging, octogenarian butler who died when the chandelier crashed down on him.

Though Shudder is a haunted house tale, Carr does not lay on the Gothic trappings thickly this time.  The novel's house to the contrary is a very modern haunted house indeed, convincingly set in the late 1930s, and the characters act like real, normal, 1930s people (barring some jealous behavior on the part of the narrator's girlfriend).

A couple of the characters, including the egoistic current owner of the house and one of the female guests, the highly desired wife of the murder victim, are very well done (concerning the latter there is some discussion about sex that is pretty frank for the period).

Dr. Fell is on hand in this one, and though I sometimes find his mannerisms irritating I didn't here.  Inspector Elliot appears too--Shudder is a prequel to his later appearances in The Crooked Hinge and The Black Spectacles.

The house in Kent where John Street and John Carr
devised their Fatal Descent.
Originally the area around the house was wooded,
hence the name, The Orchards
Shudder is one of Carr's more John Streetish tales in its murder mechanics.  It also takes place on John Street's stamping ground--coastal, southern England--in a Tudor mansion that resembles John Street's Kentish house, The Orchards, where Carr and Street in the late 1930s collaborated in writing the detective  novel Fatal Descent. As with The Reader Is Warned, I could see Street and Carr discussing plot points of The Man Who Could Not Shudder over pints at the local pub in the little village where Street and his companion Eileen Waller lived.

It's also worth noting, perhaps, that the 1943 John Street novel (published under the pseudonym John Rhode) Men Die at Cyprus Lodge involves a haunted house and some other bits similar to those found in Shudder, though the plot turns out quite differently.

The murder method in Shudder is, as usual with Carr, deftly clued; and there is the bonus as well of a fantastic triple twist solution.  The readers who clears these successive hurdles in The Man Who Could Not Shudder is a clever reader indeed.  One action by Fell I thought utterly outrageous, but for me it was explained sufficiently by the end, when we learn how justice has been done.

He Wouldn't Kill Patience (1944)

This is the one involving mysterious gassing deaths in a locked and sealed room in the home of a London zoo director and, for good measure, a snake named Patience.  Could murder be involved?! Oh, come now, surely we don't have to ask.

Sir Henry Merrivale, who appears in the first few pages, is on hand to solve the crime, along with Inspector Masters, who does very little, and a pair of rival magicians, one male and one female, who provide us with the doubtful joy of observing their constant bickering over silly matters.

I found the obligatory bickering male-female couple easier to take here because they are, literally, theatrical people (and the man actually is not that bad).  There are no other memorable characters outside of a splendidly misanthropic zoo caretaker, but they are sufficiently portrayed and not irritating (except for a middle-aged woman who is meant to be irritating).

There is some first-rate slapstick humor at Merrivale's expense in the beginning of the tale, and H.M. is in superb form throughout it.  The zoo setting is nicely done, amusing and sinister by turns, and it is effectively melded with a menacing London Blitz.

Near the end something happens which seems absurd, but it is all beautifully explained a few pages later.

Ironically, the weakest part of the book may be the sealed room problem, the explanation of which might disappoint some by being...not quite so miraculous.  But it is fairly clued, as is the identity of the murderer.  Though not generally considered one of the great Carrs, He Wouldn't Kill Patience is one of my personal favorites.

He Who Whispers (1946)

Carr's splendidly-titled and much-celebrated eerie tale about the mysterious murder on the top of the ruined tower in prewar France that bedevils a group of people in postwar England is considered by many fans today to be his single best work.  A good case can be made for it.

As Douglas Greene has pointed out, Whispers effectively combines supernatural elements of his earlier work with the male-female sexual and emotional tension of his forties works.  The tale is both thrilling and moving, with greater character interest than is the norm with Carr.

Indeed, the character interest is arguably the strongest element of the book. Concerning the murder puzzle, I would think many readers might identify the culprit of the book's crimes (hey, I did), though the mechanics of the tower murder and the motivation behind it may well prove elusive.  They are quite deftly clued.

Character interest in fact is so strong in Whispers, that I felt the presence of Great Detective Dr. Fell obtruded somewhat, though thankfully he is pretty restrained here.  Still his huffing and puffing, ahemming and harrumphing presence takes me a bit out of an exceptionally serious story.

Other than that, there is nothing I can conceive of criticizing in Whispers.  It's a grand book. The opening section of the novel, where the visiting Professor Rigaud tells the tale of the murder on the tower, and the closing section, which takes place in a powerfully portrayed blitzed London, in particular are bravura narrative set-pieces.

From rooftops
or even murder-haunted tower tops
I would joyfully shout the praises of
He Who Whispers.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Street-Carr Connection: John Street and John Dickson Carr

The greatest English mystery-writing friend of John Dickson Carr, the Golden Age master of the locked room detective novel, was Major Cecil John Charles Street (known not as Cecil but John Street--like Cecil Day Lewis aka Nicholas Blake Street did not want to be called Cecil either!). In England Carr and his wife Clarice during the 1930s regularly socialized with Street and his companion Eileen Waller (Street was married to though separated from another woman and did not marry Waller until shortly after his first wife's death in 1949).

Both John and Clarice found Street a delightful storyteller, with a vast store of colorful and sometimes racy tales of his army days from earlier in the century (among other things Street was an artillery officer in World War One and later served in military intelligence), while John was quite awed and impressed with Street's pronounced ability to hold immense amounts of beer without showing any outward physical effect (John Carr himself was not so blessed in this regard).

John Street's and John Dickson Carr's collaborative novel Fatal Descent,
written under their pseudonyms John Rhode and Carter Dickson
Note the jacket back flap blurb for the John Rhode novel
The Tower of Evil (The Bloody Tower in England)

At John Street's and Eileen Waller's spacious mock-Tudor residence in Kent, Street and Carr collaborated on the novel Fatal Descent (Drop to His Death in England), Street helping to plot it and Carr writing it.  The novel was published in 1939 under the pseudonyms John Rhode (an obvious pun on John Street) and Carter Dickson and it was quite well-received.  Huge Walpole memorably declared in a review, for example, that men as clever as the two authors should be "running A.R.P. or settling the Palestine question." Street and Carr planned more such collaborations, but unfortunately World War Two disrupted these plans.  

Yes, there's no arm attached to that gun-wielding glove--queer indeed!

This interesting if short-lived collaborative effort between two highly regarded Golden Age detective novelists has been discussed by Douglas Greene in his classic biography of Carr, John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles.  Doug also explains how Carr based his short story detective from this period, Colonel March (he of The Department of Queen Complaints), on Major Street.

John Street
model for John Carr's Colonel March
 March is described by Carr 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"
In my own book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel 1920-1961, I discuss the Street-Carr friendship as well as some additional books by the two men that show hints of mutual influences. Street and Carr both published novels in 1939--the same year their Fatal Descent appeared--that show striking similarities in murder mechanics.

Further, a 1940 Carr novel, the haunted house tale The Man Who Could Not Shudder, besides being highly Street-ish in its murder mechanics, is set in a Tudor mansion probably inspired by Street's house in Kent. Further yet, Street himself in 1943 published his own haunted house tale, Men Die at Cyprus Lodge.

Although today Street is, to be sure, much less read than Carr, the Major shared with his younger friend a positive genius for devising dazzling murder mechanics (however he used the specific locked room plot device only sparingly and was a rather more deliberate writer).

Dazzling murder mechanics were just the sort of thing that Golden Age readers loved, though admittedly  today, as P. D. James has written in her short genre history Talking about Detective Fiction, there is in many quarters a preference for what she calls "credibility" over ingenuity.  But doesn't it seem odd to so downplay the idea of ingenuity in a detective novel, as James does?  Carr, I suspect, would have declared that "credibility" is simply another word for drabness.

If you feel as I do and as Carr and Street did and believe that ingenuity should not be shamefacedly shunted to the narrative periphery but, rather, placed at the very heart of a mystery, seek out some Streets to rub shoulders on your shelves, so to speak, with your Carrs.  They would not disgrace Carr's august company (for an interesting recent piece on John Dickson Carr, see Tipping My Fedora).

Was the setting inspired by John Street's home in Kent, where Street and Carr collaborated
on the novel Fatal Descent?  Certainly the murder means in the novel are quite Street-ish.
More Street-ish murder mechanics are found in this Carr novel
Note the blurb for Street's and Carr's collaborative novel
Drop to his Death (Fatal Descent) on the back flap of the dust jacket
as the skull might indicate (dead men do tell tales)
this 1943 John Street tale concerns a lethally haunted house