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!
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.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Naughty Night: The Dead Man's Knock (1958), by John Dickson Carr

"Are you working?"
"No.  I was reading a detective story."
"Oh.  Is it--is it good?"
"I don't know.  It's reasonably well written.  But I can't tell whether it's good until I've finished it."

Caroline, don't you ever read mystery stories?

Yes I do.  But I only like...the slap-em-down kind, where they're always shooting at each other or beating up the hero.  I've tried to like the other kind....I can't.  When they try to prove how you can be in two places at once, or walk over sand without leaving a footprint, I don't understand it and I don't believe it.  It hasn't anything to do with us."

These locked rooms, I hereby declare, are too locked up to be at all credible. (line purportedly from a letter written by Wilkie Collins)

--The Dead Man's Knock, by John Dickson Carr

When John Dickson Carr published The Dead Man's Knock in late 1958, it was the first time the most revered of his fictional sleuths, Dr. Gideon Fell, had appeared in a new novel in nine years.  Fell's last appearance had been in 1949's Below Suspicion

Almost an entire decade, then, had passed without the telling of a new Fell murder, despite the fact that Carr had remained quite active as a writer throughout the 1950s, producing up to that point a dozen mystery novels.  (Another novel, sans Fell, followed in 1959.) 

Even Agatha Christie, who at the same time was tiring of her beloved Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot (in the 1940s she even killed him off in a manuscript novel to be published after her death), managed to include him in five of the dozen detective novels she published in the 1950s. 

Carr's biographer Doug Greene has asserted, seemingly irrefutably, that Carr had grown alienated from the modern world and had trouble writing about it in his novels.  Instead he turned more and more to historical fiction with strong crime and mystery elements.  In the past he could explore a world of more dash and color and, in a word, fun--at least as he saw it.

Carr's obsession with the past bleeds into The Dead Man's Knock, which is set over a few days in July 1948 (meaning it takes place in the year following the events detailed in Below Suspicion). 

Playing a key role in the tale are rediscovered letters by Wilkie Collins to Charles Dickens referencing a previously unknown planned "locked room" mystery novel by Collins, to be titled The Dead Man's Knock.  Additionally, the denouement of Carr's novel, which can't be discussed here, involves a highly melodramatic episode that would seem to have been more properly at home in one of Carr's historical mysteries, set in the Jacobean or Regency periods, where we expect people to behave more the way that they do in The Dead Man's Knock

Some people find this denouement risible, and below I'll have more to say about it (circumspectly).  However, in the meantime I want to defend the rest of The Dead Man's Knock as a detective novel, one quite a bit superior in my view to the Fell mystery that followed two years later, In Spite of Thunder (reviewed here).  It's Carr's attempt at a more realistically rendered locked room novel, I believe, in what the author deemed a drabber era of hard-boiled mysteries, police procedurals, espionage novels and "psychological suspense," where people no longer believed in miracles.  There are no Castle Skulls, French Chateaux haunted by killer unicorns or vampiric tower murderesses, just some excitable academicians at a mundane American university, who have to crib their local locked room problem from Wilkie Collins.

At its publication distinguished Wisconsin author August Derleth, who moonlighted in mystery himself, praised The Dead Man's Knock as "one of the most outstanding [novels] written by a master of the genre--a neat little classical puzzle that will delight the most exacting devotees."  (Derleth was one of those himself.)  He later included it as one of his ten favorite detective novels of the year, along with Margery Allingham's Tether's End (Hide My Eyes), Agatha Christie's Ordeal by Innocence, Stanley Ellin's The Eight Circle, A. A. Fair's Count of Nine, Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case of the Calendar Girl, Cyril Hare's Untimely Death, JJ Marric's Gideon's Month, Jean Pott's Lightning Strikes Twice and Helen Reilly's Ding Dong Bell.  Who says the Golden Age was dead?

Meanwhile, the Springfield Missouri Leader and Press called Knock a "fantastic and fascinating whodunit" and the LA Times deemed it "highly satisfactory" (though they did not like thee, Dr. Fell, finding Carr's gargantuan magister "ponderous").  Yet the novel seems to have received less attention overall in the US than In Spite of Thunder two years later, the latter novel having gotten a big roll out from Carr's American publisher Harper as his fortieth mystery (though some of the notices of Thunder were something less than favorable).

In the UK, however, there were rave notices for Knock in many high places.  "Mr. Carr has not lost a moment's speed in his conjurer's sleight of hand with impossibilities,"  said Julian Symons.  "Best Dickson Carr for some books," concurred Maurice Richardson.  I agree that Knock is Carr's best pure puzzle novel (with miracle problem) of the decade and it's much more readable than it seems today to get credited with being.

St. John's College, Annapolis Maryland
where mystery writer Leslie Ford's husband, Ford K. Brown, taught for many years

Part of the problem with Knock for some Carr readers today may be that it confounds expectations of what a contemporary Carr crime novel should be.  For one thing, the setting is not even British.  It is, rather, Queen's College, a small American private university in the state of Virginia, not far from Washington, DC.  There is, to be sure, some of Carr's characteristic antiquarianism, with those Wilkie Collins letters and some eerie atmospherics.  The murder scene is the old house at Queenshaven 13 (formerly Blue Ruin Lane) where the alluring but unsettling Rose Lestrange, source of much scandalized gossip in town, resides.

Sign of the Hogshead cottage
Annapolis, Maryland
Carr and his characters call the house, or cottage, a bungalow, but it's actually described as

very small frame house, with a shingle roof, and even older than the [nearby eighteenth-century] brick house which had once been a tavern.  Its boards, carved and blistered by age and sun, had faded in paint color to an ugly pink.  At the front there were four windows, two on either side of the door.

It this facade which is captured on the Hamish Hamilton jacket illustration of The Dead Man's Knock (along with two depictions of Dr. Fell; see above).  In the bedroom of the cottage  Rose Lestrange is found early in the novel, after one splendid appearance, dead from a single knife stroke. 

The windows and the door are locked of the bedroom, of course.  Did the poisonous Rose stab herself?  On the surface it would seem so, but there is suspicion that what we really have is a locked room murder, devised by a dead man, Wilkie Collins himself....

Carr heightens the association of raven-haired, white-pallored Rose Lestrange with witchery by noting the two reproduction paintings she placed in her house.  In the center hall there is "a large black-and-white drawing, by Goya, of a Witches' Sabbath" while in her bedroom there is Antoine Joseph Wiertz's The Young Witch (1857).  "The young woman in the picture, peering sideways past black hair, would have suggested Rose Lestrange in life if she had been smiling."  Carr may have misremembered the color of the Rubenesque witch's hair, but the painting, with its disturbing intimations of erotic diablerie, is well chosen:

Evidently Antoine Wiertz's
The Young Witch
aka The Young Sorceress
had caught Carr's eye
Wiertz's painting is suitably charged with a combination of innocence, overt sexuality and supernatural danger.  Those lecherous faces in the top left corner reminds us that we too are voyeurs of this curious scene, lit by the voluptuous fleshtones of Wiertz's nubile temptress, who is provocatively "penetrated" by the thrusting, phallic broomstick.  The tension arising from the artist's cunning juxtaposition of painterly classicism and somewhat crude titillation invests the work with a striking, magical eroticism. (Chris Blackford, The Wonderful and Frightening World of Antoine Weirtz).

These are nice touches indeed, familiar to Carr fans, but on the whole Knock resembles nothing more than a hyper-emotional women's anxiety crime novel from the Fifties--a Mignon Eberhart, say, or perhaps a Leslie Ford.  These people at Queen's University are quite an excitable lot indeed. 

Carr himself keep telling us how worked up everyone is: "The emotional heat of the room had risen so high that it hissed when Caroline tried to cool it," Carr tells us at one point; at another that a character's "emotions [were] as bare as her arms."  This may be a turn off to some readers; it certainly turned me off twenty years ago when I first read it.  Since then I've read a lot of anxiety novels and gotten more acclimated to that style.  And, indeed, this style became increasingly more characteristic of Carr's own writing going all the way back The Problem of the Wire Cage (1939), another Carr I recall not enjoying.

I'll have to reread that one too someday, because my opinion of Knock has certainly lifted in two decades.   Before I lay out my defense of it, let me say something about the characters and plot of the novel.  The main characters in the story, besides the aforementioned murderee Rose Lestrange, are:

the library at Queen's College
becomes a prominent scene of action
in the middle section
of The Dead Man's Knock
when several characters converge there
Mark Ruthven (pronounced Riven), professor of English at Queen's College and discoverer of the lost Wilkie Collins letters.  He's forty and like Carr looks older than his age, due to "heavy vertical furrows down each cheek."

Brenda Ruthven, his pretty wife, who is thirty-two "and looks younger."  (But naturally, this is Carr.)  Mark has alienated her affections, with the result that she is now attracted to

Frank Chadwick, twenty-three, young ladies man and contemptible cad, who is the spoiled son of an important QU trustee.

That takes care of out triangle (a rectangle if you count Rose Lestrange). We also have:

unimaginative Caroline Kent, twenty-seven, daughter of

Samuel Kent, scholarly head of the history department and a native of England

as well as (back to Caroline) the fiancee of

excitable (even by the standards of this book) Toby Saunders, about Mark's age and a Pentagon historian.  He is, Carr notes sardonically, "among those who were preparing a history of World War II before others had finished their history of World War I."

And we also have

Judith Walker, widow of the late head of the English department, who lives near Rose Lestrange and spies on her curious comings and goings

Arnold Hewitt, unflappable Master of Queen's and holder of the chair in Latin, who has invited to come to the campus for a visit

Dr. Gideon Fell ("Impossible situations and all miracles unveiled!  Isn't that the fellow?")

Mark and Brenda are Carr's usual (by this time) pair of bickering protagonists, with the usual somewhat older husband (who looks older than he is) and his usual pretty but exasperating wife (who looks younger than she is); but at least Brenda comes off as more reasonable than Audrey from In Spite of Thunder, the latter of whom is perhaps the nadir in Carr's capricious "heroines."  These characters bicker enough that I was reminded of Martha and George from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Martin Edwards, who hated the book, condemned its characters' "neurotic squabbling"; and whether its neurotic or not there indeed is rather a lot of it.

like Martha and George, Brenda and Mark are not necessarily a couple
that you want to spend a lot of time with

Not only Frank Chadwick but Rose Lestrange is a disruptive presence in the Ruthven marriage, as she is elsewhere on campus as well.  Moreover there is a "joker" committing potentially lethal "pranks" at various college locales. (This part of the novel reminded me, as it did Martin, of Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night.)  Then Rose Lestrange winds up unnaturally dead.  Whodunit?  And how??

Ultimate Carr authority Doug Greene has criticized this novel as "static."  With one exception the novel indeed is confined to locations on the college campus, but still I preferred it to In Spite of Thunder, where, to be sure, characters dash back and forth across Geneva, Switzerland, but for what reasons it's often hard to discern.  I found the actions of the characters in Knock more comprehensible, which made them work better as characters (rather than puppets) for me.

just another typical Carr couple
The puzzle is quite intriguing, I think, nicely clued with a legitimate locked room problem.  I should also mention that a missing copy of Wilkie Collins' novel Armadale plays a role in the story.  Carr does throw in one red herring which he explains away at the end with breathtaking flippancy, but on the whole I felt this story worked much better than the two which immediately followed it, In Spite of Thunder and the "Victorian melodrama" Scandal at High Chimneys.

As for the criticized ending, which I can only discuss circumspectly, let me just plead that it is effectively foreshadowed and arguably not out of keeping with the characters personalities.  God knows it isn't the first time Dr. Fell acted in a highhanded manner concerning  a police investigation.  That the police would behave as Carr has them behave seems unlikely, I grant, or shall I say romantic?  Carr's crime fiction really does seem remarkably libertarian, breezily confident that people left to their own devices will reach "just" outcomes, if the State will just get out of the way. 

Historically, I regret to say, Carr's notion seems to have afforded the best outcomes to the privileged and well-connected, while everyone else depended on noblesse oblige from their capricious "betters."  Carr might have asked himself just how fair the state of Virginia was to all of its people in 1958.  That very year Mildred and Richard Loving were arrested in the state of Virginia and sentenced to a year in prison for having committed the crime of interracial marriage, making me dubious of  the smug assertion of Carr's cop Lieutenant Henderson's that "We're a peculiar lot here.  We believe in justice.

Indeed, Lieutenant?  For the "right" people, perhaps?  The South was affording precious little justice to blacks in 1958.  (Nor was the rest of the country exactly stellar in this regard.)  Carr didn't seem cognizant of this in his mysteries set in the American South.

Richard and Mildred Loving were rousted out of bed by Virginia's Sheriff R. Garnett Brooks
at two in the morning on July 11, 1958.  They were arrested and charged with violating
Virginia's Racial Integrity Act.  Since the Lovings were a peculiar pair (they believed in justice)
they challenged their conviction and nine years later won their case before the
Supreme Court of the United States in Loving v. Virginia

Yet while I find Carr's political views naive and at times indeed irksome, I like much of his detective fiction, including The Dead Man's Knock.  I can't help but disagree with The Green Capsule, which slams this book hard (it gets dismissed as "crap"), all the while looking relatively benignly on such poorly written late works like Panic in Box C and Dark of the Moon; but I'll try to be fair and give those two books a second look someday.  I see, from my marked copy, that there are entire paragraphs of Dark of the Moon that could be removed from the book with no loss (indeed, it would be an improvement).  Not a good sign!  But I'll save that criticism for another day.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Sherlock Holmes by way of Sauk City, Wisconsin: The Return of Solar Pons (1958), by August Derleth

In January 1959 madly prolific Wisconsin author August Deleth (1909-1971), the so-called sage of Sauk City, wrote in a column in the Madison Capital Times about a recent query he had had from a reader that had obviously hit home.  Late in the previous year he had published The Return of Solar Pons, his latest volume of adventures about Solars Pons, a detective who had started off as a Sherlock Holmes pastiche but taken on a life and (admittedly much narrower) following of his own; and the Derleth reader in question had written Derleth questioning why the author spent so much time on these stories, when he was "certainly capable of better things." Derleth, you see, also wrote mainstream literature, including novels in his Sac Prairie Saga.

While he wrote much mainstream fiction
author August Derleth was simultaneously attracted to
genre writing--crime and horror as well as comics--
and he wrote a great deal of genre literature himself.
Thus the age old criticism of a mystery writers!  Why do you waste your talents on such dreck, when you are capable of better things?  As per Edmund Wilson, why do you worry about trifling matters like who killed Roger Ackroyd, when you could be penning the Great American Novel?  Here was the answer Derleth provided to his questioner:

I write these entertainments--they are no more--because writing them is a relaxation, and because there is a small market for them, and I need the income they afford me. 

It seems difficult for people to understand that even well-known and widely-published freelance writers cannot live by income from work of literary worth alone; I have said many times, in regard to my own work, that no writer would ever have written over 100 books (of which this book is the 84th to see print) if he had not been impelled to do so by economic necessity.

The fact is that the Solar Pons collections sell modestly well, all things considered.  Each of them will outsell one of my best books, which had superlative reviews, a Book of the Month Club recommendation...etc., and in ten years since its publication has sold just over 600 copies--which is not unusual for a work of literary merit. 

Actually, the pastiches in the new volume are not below average for entertainment.  Like the Sherlock Holmes stories, of which they are fond imitations, they vary widely in quality.  
Some, like "The Adventure of the Stone of Scone," are thin; some, like "The Adventure of the Lost Dutchman" and "The Adventure of the Rydberg Numbers," are quite good. 

The seasoned Baker Street Irregular, will find in this collection at least three tales which remain untold though mention in the canon--"The Adventure of the Remarkable Worm," "The Trained Cormorant," "The Grice-Patterson Curse"--though the others of the thirteen stories in the book are not related to the Doyle accounts....Readers who have liked the Sherlock Holmes studies in detection will like these stories, but devotees of the hard-boiled fast action school should avoid The Return of Solar Pons.

Derleth in college, when he was writing
the original Solar Pons mystery tales
When The Return of Solar Pons was published in 1958 by Mycroft and Moran, an imprint of Derleth's own Arkham House (which published weird tales, including much work by Derleth's late pen friend and mentor of sorts, horror writer H. P. Lovecraft), it was in an edition of 2079 copies, which presumably all sold.  Compared with the unnamed "work of literary merit" which sold 600 copies over a decade (just sixty copies a year on average), one surely need not question Derleth's reasoning as to why he wrote Solar Pons short stories.  (Additionally the Solar Pons stores in Return had been published previously in periodicals, mostly in The Saint Detective Magazine.)  Ironically, it is for his work in genre literature--crime and horror fiction--that Derleth is probably best known today, at least outside the precincts of "Sauk City" (i.e., the twin towns of Sauk City and Prarie du Sac, Wisconsin).

While Derleth wrote eleven adult crime novels (and a goodly number of children's mysteries), he is best known to mystery readers for the Solar Pons saga, which ran, in Derleth's hands, to six volumes collecting, I believe, sixty-six tales, with four more rediscovered in the 1990s, for a total of seventy.  (One of you Solar Pons experts correct me if I'm off here.)

In 1968, Derleth recalled that, forty years earlier, during his junior year at the University of Wisconsin, he received a reply from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to a letter he had written the distinguished and beloved author, querying whether he intended to write any more Sherlock Holmes tales.  The reply was a "terse message scrawled across my own letter"; and the answer was "that he did not."  At age nineteen Derleth--who like John Dickson Carr was something of a writing prodigy--thereupon boldly decided that he would write his own versions, about a brilliant British consulting detective named Solar Pons (literally "bridge of light," which Derleth wrote, "seemed to the adolescent mind singularly brilliant, which, of course, it was not.")  Derleth had never been to England (though he was a pronounced Anglophile), but youth will find a way where age dawdles.

Derleth had recently read John Rhode's Dr. Priestley detective novel The Murders at Praed Street (1928), and, influenced by such, he decided to make the headquarters of Solar Pons and his loyal friend, Dr. Lyndon Parker, 7B Praed Street (now the site of a sleek modern apartment building).  Several Solar Pons tales were published in The Dragnet magazine, as well as Detective Trails and Gangster Stories, and Derleth used his new pulped wealth to buy more books, including mysteries by, yes, Doyle, as well as those by Sax Rohmer, J. S. Fletcher,. H. C. Bailey and Ernest Bramah. (R. Austin Freeman was another youthful favorite of his.) 

Derleth received a BA at UW in 1930 and soon set upon a career of writing fiction.  Four years later he published the first in a detective novel series set in his native town (slightly fictionalized as Sac Prairie), which has never been reprinted (though this may be remedied soon); and he began writing mainstream fiction as well.  He hoped to publish a Solar Pons book at this time, but this happy event did not come about until 1945, with The Adventures of Solar Pons.  Its publication resulted from encouragement given by Frederic Dannay and Vincent Starrett after a Solar Pons tale was included in the Ellery Queen edited anthology The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes (1944).

There are thirteen stories in The Return of Solar Pons.  Readers inevitably will have their own favorites, but, as Derleth said, as a group they should appeal to fans of the Master.  There are some nice touches for fans of Golden Age mystery fiction too. 

It should be recalled here that Doyle's last cycle of Sherlock Holmes stories were published between 1921 and 1927, meaning they appeared during the Golden Age, alongside works by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Freeman Crofts, S. S. Van Dine and other stalwarts of the period.  All of the Pons tales are set during the Golden Age, in the 1920s and 1930s, when Delerth was an adolescent and young man.

The two tales which Derleth mentioned as being "quite good"--"The Lost Dutchman" and "The Rydberg Numbers"--are clearly inspired by Holmes adventures, respectively "The Red Headed League" and "The Bruce-Partington Plans."  Derleth cutely puts American spins on both.

As Derleth wrote, "The Stone of Scone" is "thin" but the theme of Scottish nationalism couldn't be more timely, as Scotland contemplates another independence referendum.  (Best of luck, my friends, I say as a descendant of good and true Welshmen.)  Indeed, though modern readers (outside Scotland) may not realize this, it's actually a true crime story.

Police carrying the Stone of Scone away from Arbroath Abbey. 
It would not be returned to Scotland for nearly half a century.
(Photo from Ultimate History Project)

I thought "The Remarkable Worm," one of the adventures referenced in Doyle, was reminiscent of Doyle's "The Dancing Men."  Another Doyle referenced tale, "The Trained Cormorant," is an espionage story that references Solar Pons' archenemy, Baron Kroll (a sort of Moriarty figure in the Solar Pons canon).

The third in this group, "The Grice-Paterson Curse," is a fan favorite and rightly so in my view.  It's about a series of mysterious deaths which spookily afflict a family on the island of "Uffa," located near the Scilly Isles off Cornwall.  Don't want to spoil too much about this one, but it seems to me a tale which Derleth was uniquely suited to write.

British Guiana 1c magenta
the world's most famous rare stamp
Other favorites of mine from this collection are "The Triple Kent," an unusually bloody domestic triple murder story; "The Little Hangman," about the killing of an early released murderer; "The Swedenborg Signatures," another family curse story (I am a sucker for those); "The Penny Magenta," about an attempt to steal an apparently worthless stamp collection; and "The Camberwell Beauty," a London kidnapping case. Both of the latter two stories include delightful references to other mystery writers, the former to Poe and the latter to...

Well, read it yourself, girls and boys, and see who Pons' client is!  Cute.  Derleth's love of classic crime fiction is infectious.

Derleth's involvement with HP Lovecraft's fiction--he essentially had control over it in the nearly thirty-five years between Lovecraft's death and his own--has been highly criticized for the last several decades by Lovecraft scholars, most notably the omnipresent ST Joshi; but whatever one thinks of Derleth in connection with that matter, his Solar Pons tales in my view are delightfully engaging riffs on the Holmes canon and a most worthy contribution to mystery fiction.

Note: All of the Solar Pons tales, along with additional material, have been reprinted, in both paper and electronic form, by Belanger Books.  Now get reading, the game is afoot!

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Sound and Fury, Signifying...Sumthin: In Spite of Thunder (1960), by John Dickson Carr

Kehlsteinhaus (Eagle's Nest)
Nazi gathering place and
intriguing scene of retrospective death in
John Dickson Carr's In Spite of Thunder
pictured in life magazine after the
Second World War
Once more Brian had the feeling that his wits were flying loose and that nothing made reasonable sense.

In another instant the emotional temperature would have been out of all control.

Once more the threat of disaster spread its wings.

Emotion rises too high.  It ends in murder.

"My friend...there is a limit to one's patience."

"That's why I say: deliver me from people with temperament!"

--In Spite of Thunder (1960), by John Dickson Carr

When John Dickson Carr's detective novel In Spite of Thunder was published in 1960, it was heralded as the famed mystery author's fortieth book in thirty years (the first being It Walks by Night in 1930).  This actually understates Carr's achievement, because it leaves out twenty-five books that Carr wrote under the pen name Carter Dickson; but no matter.  The point is that it was an occasion for celebration of the career of someone who indisputably was, though then only fifty-three years old, a "Grand Old Man" of mystery.

For the occasion Carr's American publisher, Harper, revived its "sealed mystery" device of three decades earlier, whereby a band was put over the last chapter of the mystery, daring readers to return the book for a full refund if they could resist breaking it to get to the end of the story and find out whodunit. 

Additionally Harper hosted a luncheon in New York City in honor of Carr (who at this time was living in the nearby enclave of Mamaroneck), at which Harper's president presented the publisher's renowned mystery author with an inscribed, leather-bound copy of his new novel.

At this event Carr sat down for an interview with syndicated book reviewer John Barkham to discuss the parlous state of the detective story--"a genre," declared Barkham darkly, "now in serious decline."  In Barkham's eyes, the name of John Dickson Carr shone, for fans of classic mystery, as a brightly burning beacon of hope:

Harper edition
Unlike current practitioners on this side of the ocean [i.e., hard-boiled writers], who have substituted toughness and violence for deduction and subtlety, Carr prefers to mystify his readers, plays fair with them by presenting all his clues, and endows his stories with human plots that lift them out of the "chess puzzle" category[in contrast with the "Humdrums," in Barkham's view]. 

Carr, wrote Barkham, "is a small, dapper man who looks like a competent bank clerk, until he starts talking.  His conversation sparkles with literary allusions, and he can outline to you the plot of any well-known detective story of the past 30 years.

Carr, whom I suspect would have hated being compared to a "bank clerk" (however dapper), agreed with Barkham "that it was much harder to write a story whose solution requires pure detection than the currently popular bang bang mystery."  In discussing "the most memorable mysteries of the past," Carr invited his enthralled audience "to recall any of them."  They did as urged and the titles which were recalled "all proved to be tales of pure detection."

"This seems to me inevitable among intelligent readers," Barkham concluded loftily.  "The tough tales are as much alike as television westerns."  Happily, Carr assured his audience that he planned "to go right on writing his kind of detective story, compounded equally of ingenuity and human interest."  Declared Barkham: "I have no doubt that he will continue to be read around the world for precisely this reason.  Time, I would say, is on his side, for it is only a matter of time before readers become wearied of slam-bang violence and return to deductive skill."

Alas for predictions!  Carr would publish two more detective novels over the next, The Witch of the Low-Tide (1961) and The Demoniacs (1962)--the latter really more a historical mystery-adventure tale--before suffering a debilitating stroke at the age of fifty-six in 1963.  Although he was able to continue writing and would publish eight more novels between 1964 and 1972 (the first of these, Most Secret, a revision of an obscure thirty-year-old novel), Carr as an author was never the same man again. 

His last novels, with the exception of Most Secret and perhaps The House at Satan's Elbow (which I am rereading and finding somewhat better than I recalled), are tired affairs reminiscent of the weak later works of Agatha Christie.  If classic detection was to have a banner holder in the Sixties and Seventies, it sadly was not to be John Dickson Carr.

But what about the book that provided the occasion for Carr's luncheon with John Barkham and others: In Spite of Thunder, "Carr's fortieth book [actually sixty-fifth] in thirty years"?  How did it hold up?

Certainly it got a thumbs up from Carr's influential New York Times book reviewer friend, Anthony Boucher, dean of American crime fiction critics.  Or did it?

On the front cover of the  1987 Carroll and Graf paperback edition of the novel, Boucher is quoted as pronouncing Thunder "a sensational detective story."  On the inside, however, it quotes Boucher as saying, rather, "an admirable detective story and probably a sensational one."  That sounds kind of weird.  Which is it, admirable or sensational?  Trying to have it both ways, Open Road, who has recently reprinted the novel, on its Amazon page provides the same quote, only with ellipses: "An admirable detective story and...a sensational one."  Well, now we have ellipses in the quotation, begging the question, what exactly is left out from there?

I read the entire review once and the gist of what's left out as I recollect is that Boucher thought the novel would be deemed as "sensational" by newcomers to Carr.  So I think the implication was that to longtime fans who had read his older, often sensational, work it was merely "admirable."  But, hey, admirable ain't bad for a fortieth book.  In England, one review pronounced that Thunder was written in Carr's "best, which is to say fiendishly ingenious, manner."

However, some other newspaper reviews were not so favorable.  Bob Hill in the Spokane Chronicle complained that the novel's "solution...seems ludicrously contrived--and scarcely plausible," while the characters, even "allowing for the fact that the main emphasis quite properly is on the puzzle and not the people" made for "singularly dreary and uninteresting company."

This observation caused Hill, a longtime Carr admirer, to ruminate about the Master's past glory:

In the past John Dickson Carr has not always been so slapdash with his characterizations.  He created a memorable character named Fay Seton in "He Who Whispers," one of his most ingeniously plotted and atmospherically compelling novels.  The people of such a lively period piece as "The Devil in Velvet" have an authentic vitality and dash.  "In Spite of Thunder" will have to be listed as one of the more listless entries in the Carr canon.  

For his part, novelist Russell Thacher in the Hackensack New Jersey Record deemed Thunder a "cluttered and hectic book" that "doesn't seem to get very far very fast."  He added disappointedly:

And when it does get there--to the solution of the mystery about which there is a great, great deal of talk--one impatiently feels that Carr, his famous detective, Dr. Gideon Fell, as well as the innumerable other characters might have arrived there a good deal sooner if people had only stopped trying to be pointlessly evasive and answered a few pertinent questions.

Thacher, I should note, was another longtime Carr fan, writing that

Throughout his career Carr has maintained a remarkable standard for readable writing and an even more remarkable talent for sound, logical plotting,  It is a Carr trademark that the element of suspense never falters in his books, but at the same time, he doesn't outrage one's sense of credibility.  Nor does he cheat his reader--the clues to solve the mystery are there if you can detect them....

It hadn't quite worked out that well in Thunder, however.

To be sure, other newspaper reviewers besides Anthony Boucher gave the novel positive notices.  Ann Fair Dodson of the Springfield (Missouri) Leader and Press, for example, gave the book a fair rave, declaring that Carr, "long a master in the field of eerie entertainment," had outdone himself in Thunder.  More recently, Doug Greene in his biography of Carr, deems the novel "a successful exercise in ingenuity and suspense." though he also concedes the book has flaws:

[P]eople often speak like no one living in the twentieth century.  Some of the dialogue resembles a radio script, with conversation providing stage directions....Not only Dr. Fell but many of the other characters speak portentously and pretentiously.

I quote from these negative reviews (and Doug's criticisms) because unfortunately they express some of my own sense of disappointment with the book, which remains on rereading it after many years.


I first read In Spite of Thunder some two decades ago and on returning to it I recalled virtually nothing about it but the basic murder setup and the pivot upon which the puzzle turns, which is a charmingly clever device (insofar as murder devices can be charmingly clever), apparently drawn from real life, of which murder means master John Street, a great friend of Carr's, would have been proud.  (There's something similar in principle as I recollect in an Agatha Christie as well).  Like a lot of later Carr novels, there's the germ for a terrific short story.  The problem comes from Carr's effort to build a full-length novel around it.  There's a surfeit of emotional hot air to go with the thunder.

you would think it would be
Audrey Page who gets
would be more understandable
than the actual murder
First, a bit about the plot in Thunder.  In centers on aging retired screen actress (She's in her forties!), Eve Ferrier (aka Eve Eden--not to be confused with Eve Arden), who when the novel opens in 1956, has invited a disparate group of people to her home outside Geneva, Switzerland, the Villa Rosalind, which she shares with her third husband, retired stage actor Desmond Ferrier, and Desmond's stolid son from an earlier marriage, Philip Ferrier.  The following people are guests at the villa:

famed painter Sir Gerald Hathaway
lady journalist Paula Catford
appalling nitwit Audrey Page

Said nitwit, Audrey, has been followed to Geneva by another painter, Brian Innes, who was asked by Audrey's surely long-suffering father to retrieve her from what may prove to be a sticky situation at the Villa Rosalind.  And how right Father was!

You see, seventeen years earlier, in 1939,  Eve Ferrier, then Eve Eden, had been a notorious Nazi-admiring actress and had made a triumphal tour of Germany (which cost her her career--sounds vaguely like Sonja Henie, though that's probably unfair to Henie).  The delighted Germans invited Eve to visit with Hitler at Kehlsteinhaus (Eagle's Nest), the recently constructed Nazi mountaintop retreat in the Bavarian Alps. 

Fatefully it was at Eagle's Nest that Eve's fiancee, Hector Matthews, fell to his death from the sun terrace, with Eve standing near (but apparently not touching) him.  Some think she contrived his death (she inherited his fortune), but how could she have pulled off this nasty trick?  Yup, it has all the appearances of a cool "locked room," or miracle, problem, this time an "impossible" defenestration.  But, wait, there's more!

sun terrace at Eagle's Nest
the actual setting for the retrospective death in
In Spite of Thunder (Third Reich in Ruins)
Eve now in 1956 wants to stage a career comeback, though she's getting old--She's in her forties, did I mention?--and as part of this comeback attempt she hopes to clear her name of suspicion once and for all.  So she invites Gerald Hathaway and Paula Catford, who were present at Eagle's Nest when Eve's boyfriend was ostensibly defenestrated.  Audrey Page, who is involved with Eve's stepson Philip Ferrier, is invited too. 

So now the stage is set for another murder, which when it comes turns out to an apparent replication of the defenestration death from seventeen years ago!

This is all pretty neat (apparently the central device came from a Carr radio play), but in the end it makes a lumbering reading experience.  Part of the problem is the characters, who are awfully stock and rather tedious individuals indeed.  The protagonist, Brian Innes, is the usual Carr-substitute hero.  When Carr started publishing mysteries in the Thirties, this stock character, like Carr himself, was a younger man, but now that Carr was in his fifties, the character had aged as well.  Brian Innes states that he is forty-six years old and looks older.  He's a painter, but might as well be a writer of some sort, the usual occupation of Carr's stock heroes.  (Incidentally, did Carr ever have a businessman protagonist?  For a conservative, he sure hated the business world!)

Brian's love interest is said nitwit Audrey Page, who is, Brian says, twenty-seven and looks "much younger."  We later learns that she looks nineteen to be specific, or barely legal, as they say.  Middle-aged men who are attracted to much (indeed inappropriately) younger women are a recurrent and important feature of later Carr novels--see my recent post on Carr's mid-life crisis.  Amusingly at one point a character says Brian is old enough to be Audrey's father and Brian objects, "I'm not quite as old as all that, you know," but of course he is.  There's a full generation's difference between his and Audrey's ages.

Audrey is a stock character too, and not just because she's a young and sexually attractive "heroine" and love interest.  There is nothing else to her personality besides that she's a maddening ditz.  She's there simply to bewitch and frustrate, to tantalize and tease, the hero, Brian, through a series of annoyingly capricious actions.  This sort of thing became a given in Carr novels, but the problem here is that Audrey really is exceptionally irksome even by Carr's standard of irksome women.  "I've been very silly, you know, and I've behaved about as stupidly as anyone could behave," she admits to Brian.  Yes, indeed you have, Audrey!  But does that stop her from continuing to behave that way?  As a Carr character would say: "No, no, a thousand times no!"

We learn that Audrey came to Geneva simply to get Brian Innes to chase after her, because, you know, she simply couldn't tell Brian she loved him, I guess.  It's interesting that Carr expressed hatred for hard-boiled crime fiction, because characters like Audrey behave a lot like femmes fatales in those books, existing solely to bedevil the hero, though ultimately Carr's young "charmers" usually prove to be good girls after all, just rather maddeningly flighty and childish.  She "began to slap at the table like a woman in a frenzy or a child in a tantrum," writes Carr of Audrey at one point, mentally likening women to children in an unflattering comparison. 

All Brian and Audrey do the whole book (until the very end) is bicker.  This "battle of the sexes" motif is a prominent feature in later Carr (indeed it features in earlier Carr too), but it's so damn obtrusive in this novel.  It's hard to understand just why these two love each other--they certainly don't seem to like each other,  What they really need is not a murder investigation but a relationship counselor:

"But can't you s-say you love me," Audrey cried out at him, "without swearing at me and looking as though you wanted to strangle me?" 
"No I can't.  That's how you affect people."
"All right.  I don't mind; I love it."

Brian tells Audrey, in the anachronistically stilted language characters in which male characters speak in this book, "You're a female devil, a succubus of near-thirty masquerading as nineteen....I've been looking for you my whole life."  What a charmer!  I guess Audrey, who seems to have masochistic tendencies, loved that endearment as well.  Was Carr's relationship with his mistress, who threatened to commit suicide when they broke up, like this?  Carr's wife and the mother of his three daughters, Clarice, doesn't seem to have been anything like this.

Through the course of the novel Audrey promises Brian that she will stay put in Geneva, but then several times proceeds to run off somewhere she swore she wouldn't, all for insufficiently motivated reasons.  She's the most frustrating of Carr's female characters that I can remember and truly a woman who could only have been created by a man. 

Some of the other characters aren't any more appealing, however.

Eva Braun and sister at Eagle's Nest
Sir Gerald Hathaway--"fashionable portrait painter, ladies' man, amateur criminologist"--is another stock character: the pompous, pontificating older artist or intellectual.  Gerald can't address a woman by her name, it's always "dear lady."  He's investigating Eve Ferrier, whom he's convinced is a murderess, and functions as a sort of rival to Carr's series sleuth Dr. Fell, who eventually comes upon the scene, making cryptic utterances and harrumphing and ejaculating "Archons of Athens!" and "Oh, my ancient hat!" every so often, which is his equivalent of Hercule Poirot's "Mon Dieus!" and "Sacre bleus!" but somehow more irksome. 

Hathaway rather resembles the character Professor Rigaud from arguably Carr's best book, He Who Whispers (1946), although I never found Rigaud irritating.  Indeed, In Spite of Thunder rather resembles He Who Whispers in its framework (investigation of a crime in the past alleged to have been committed by a "fatal woman"), but Thunder is but a weak rumble compared to Whispers.

Paula Catford isn't so irritating, but she's another stock character, the second banana female, who cattily despises the lead female.  Carr lets us know she's actually feminine, despite being a working woman, don;'t you know; and throughout the novel she is, to be sure, essentially motivated by her feelings of love and spite, like other Carr women. 

Brian Innes "had half expected," before seeing Paula, "a globe-trotting woman journalist to be a tough and strident egomaniac with elaborate gestures and too much makeup [Think Tallulah Bankhead in Lifeboat--TPT]"; but in truth Paula is a "gentle, modest, well-rounded girl."  "You thought 'girl' rather than 'woman,'" Carr helpfully explains, "though she must have been in her middle or later thirties."  Actually if Paula was at Eagle's Nest in 1939, seventeen years earlier, I would have expected her to be past forty when the book takes place, but then I guess in that case she wouldn't be a "girl" anymore.

American soldiers commemorating the
downfall of the Third Reich  at Eagle's Nest
Definitely irritating is Desmond Ferrier, one of those outsize theatrical types in Carr's books who is always roaring and bellowing and who I always hope will be murdered but never is.  Ultimately you feel that this is a character Carr believes we must find charming at heart.  "You would cheerfully seize any woman from fifteen to fifty," wheezing, avuncular Dr. Fell tells Desmond indulgently at one point, "and think it a good day's work.  But marry for money you would never do.

Um, what a guy?  So teenagers of fifteen involved with a guy in his fifties are "women" now, but thirtysomething, non-virginal Paula is a "girl"?  Someone really needs to explain to me the metaphysics of this whole women/girl thing, as Carr saw it.

Desmond Ferrier's actions often seems as inscrutable as Audrey's and, when they are explained, don't come off as much more believable.  Indeed, this is one of those books where, as Doug Greene has noted of Carr's writing at this time, Carr tries too hard to make everything mysterious.  Can you have too much mystery in a mystery?  I think you can.  This tendency makes Carr at times read more like Sophie Hannah than Agatha Christie.  You get exhausted and are left scratching your head at some of the improbable explanations the author comes up with at the end to account for why people acted the way they did.  (Christie only wrote like this near the very end of her career, when she was in her seventies and eighties.)

GI enjoying the view at Eagle's Nest

I still don't understand, for example, where the sulfuric acid in the perfume bottle in the handbag came in, except to provide an exciting ending to one of the chapters, for which Carr had to come up with an explanation after the fact.  (Carr at all costs wants every chapter to close with a thrill, like a vintage serial cliffhanger.)  Or that late second murder attempt at the nightclub the Cave of the Witches.  That felt like it only came about because Carr wanted another thrill and one with a supernatural motif at that (recalling his reputation as a master of eerie atmosphere).  It's a good scene, but it felt utterly forced.  (Why did Audrey and Desmond meet there again?)

Indeed, the whole modern murder plot seemed to me improbable in the extreme (Why was it even necessary to resort to murder?)--though I did guess the murderer immediately on his/her appearance, because I know the type which Carr tends to cast for that role.

Again, for someone who professed to hate hard-boiled mysteries, Carr evidently felt that in his story he had to pile on incident (shouting and screaming if not actual fisticuffs and sex).  If "Humdrum" mysteries can err on the side of being too cerebral, Carr's books at this time can err on the side of being too emotional.  Carr is always telling us, as if we can't tell for ourselves from all the exclamation points, that the emotional temperature in the room is going through the roof, etc.  Yes, there's a very heavy use of exclamation points (!), what with characters shouting and roaring and crying "Yes!" and "No!"  You just want everyone to calm the f--- down already.

Occasionally people become so overwhelmed with emotion that they find it necessary to speak (or rather shout) in triplets, as in:

"Yes, yes, yes!"  (I was reminded of the Meg Ryan character in When Harry Met Sally)

"Stop, stop, stop!" (Okay, that's definitely not the Meg Ryan character)

"Dear, dear, dear!"

"It must, it must, it must!"

To which I say: "Too much, too much, too much!"  I think Carr must have lost some confidence in himself as a writer by this time to come to feel he needed to write this way.  Or maybe it was unfortunate carryover from his period mysteries, set in the Jacobean and Georgian eras, where when people act this way it seems more believable (although I'm not sure that anyone in The Bride of Newgate, say, is as hysterical as they are in In Spite of Thunder.) 

In any event, I think this level of emoting is fundamentally at odds with the aesthetics of the classic detective novel, which should maintain a certain level of calm, or decorum if you will.  It's hard to cerebrate when emotions are dialed up to level ten (or eleven!) throughout the whole book.  And you shouldn't have to scratch your head over some of the revelations at the end.  (He did what because why?)  This novel might better have been titled, for those who still like it, In Spite of Bluster.  To me, however, all the bluster in the telling spoils a potentially good tale.

Happier news for the fans, however: two other Carrs I recently reread came off in my eyes rather better than Thunder.  I'll be posting about these soon, I hope.