Thursday, December 26, 2019

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.

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