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 disappointingly:

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 not, 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
defenestrated--that
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 live 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.

12 comments:

  1. I started to reread this a couple of months ago; I got halfway through, then gave up. It's slow and badly needs editing, lacks zest, and is ponderous as Dr. Fell himself. I enjoyed it when I was 14; the murder method (crabbed from Cilea) is clever, and the Nazi stuff gives it a frisson. I reread it when I was 25; it gave me a headache.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. 'CrIbbed', I mean! The solution is cribbed; I am crabbed.

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    3. You know, Nick, a book just about the first murder, set in Nazi Germany, would have been terrific! Definite frisson.

      Cilea--I've seen that! Nice call.

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  2. This novel was my first experience of Carr's work and it really put me off his books for quite some time. I didn't really get back into trying his work until I began my blog and other bloggers were reviewing other books by him, (which thankfully were a lot better!). I'm surprised that it was chosen for a reprint, but I'm guessing publishers maybe limited as to which they can reprint.

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    1. Everything by Carr has been reprinted, practically, because it's Carr. Much of it is very good indeed. I agree though, Thunder is not his best, because of the telling to a great extent.

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  3. Please check the spelling of Mamaroneck as the residents, and your readers from Westchester County, might object to Mamoroneck! Also, and not to be picky, just curious, I thought defenestration was throwing something or someone out of a window -- although I can see how it might suit the circumstances in IN SPITE OF THUNDER. I have trouble with John Dickson Carr and/or Carter Dickson -- either I enjoy his books or find them tedious and just too too something. Dare I say that some are tiresome, hyperbolic, even boring? that could be because of the strain of all that writing....perhaps authors who write endlessly -- churning out several books a year really do run out of steam.

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    1. Oh, dear! My apologies to the good citizens of Mamoroneck! And Dadaroneck too.
      Westchester has come up here before, so I wouldn't want to offend them. As for defenestration, I think being thrown (?) off a sort of balcony is close enough in principle. Besides if you look at the sun terrace at Eagle's Nest, those are rather like windows, those arches. Indeed, windows have been put up there now, one imagines to prevent falling.

      I think Carr did decline in later years, but he's still one of the top figures in the genre.

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    2. Okay, had time to correct that one word in the 4000 word piece. Enjoy Mamaroneckers!

      I wrote an intro to a mystery recently that is set in Westchester, need to write about that here.

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  4. Hi Curt!

    This is off-topic, but I've been going through your 150 Favourite Golden Age Detective Novels (or at least trying to read a couple from each of the authors I'm less familiar with to see which I like). Do you have any tips on how to get access to the John Rhode books on your list? Most of what I'm seeing is either based in the USA or at a very high price (or both). Are there not many still in circulation? Is it a case of trying to hunt them down in smaller, local stores?

    Any wisdom on this would be appreciated.

    Thanks again!
    Calum

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    1. Calum, are you on Facebook? Why don't you message me or email me?

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    2. Is this list of 150 books online?

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