Golden Age, John Dickson Carr, Locked Rooms and Impossible Murders

The Man Who Could Not Shudder by John Dickson Carr

manwhocouldMartin Clarke has purchased and refurbished a historic home with a reputation for being haunted. As you might expect, he decides to throw a haunting party in which he invites some friends and a few experts in their fields to spend the weekend and see if they observe any ghostly apparitions or paranormal phenomena.

Several centuries earlier the owner of the house had died at the precise moment the grandfather clock stopped and more recently an aged butler was crushed by a chandelier after apparently swinging on it. Soon after the party arrives, an equally strange and improbable death is added to the list as a gun appears to have leapt off its wall mount and shot someone. And that is just one of the strange things that takes place in Longwood House that weekend.

I didn’t have much in the way of expectations coming to this novel having heard precious little about it. My reason for reaching for it now is that I read in the incredibly helpful guide at Justice for the Corpse that my planned next read to feature Dr. Fell spoils a key twist in this one. That book, The Case of the Constant Suicides, has now been shelved until later in the month. Also I should take a moment to suggest you check out that guide before reading this because the novel does spoil the solution to a famous Agatha Christie story.

While the story could lend itself to quite an atmospheric, gothic style it is remarkable just how little atmosphere Carr creates in this piece. This is actually quite appropriate given his choice of a more skeptical character to narrate the tale and the composition of Clarke’s party, favoring open-minded but skeptical guests. However, it may well disappoint those who were hoping to see the characters more affected by the prospect of a haunting.

There are some nice touches along the way and the murder, when it does come, is appropriately bizarre and does take place in some intriguing circumstances. We have a shooting occur in a room with just one person present in the room yet the doors and windows and all under observation within seconds of the shot being fired. When the weapon is identified, there are no fingerprints to be found at all and not even any telltale signs of the handler wearing gloves. While the witness’ claim that the gun moved by itself off the wall and shot seems incredible, it is at least partly confirmed by the physical evidence of the room.

While this seems to be one of the most baffling setups for a story I have read to date in a Carr novel, I expected that the investigation would focus more tightly on the mechanics of how the crime was committed. Instead a substantial part of the narrative focuses on trying to work through some contradictory accounts to discover the killer’s identity.

There are some good moments along the way, not least the explanation of the significance of a key, and I did appreciate that the story boasts its fair share of “how on Earth did I miss that” revelations. When the explanations come however I was left with mixed feelings, being struck both by the comparative simplicity of the solutions but also the convoluted way in which they are worked.

And then there is the second crime. While not as ludicrous or frustrating as the one in The Problem of the Wire Cage, I felt it served less of a purpose in the story other than to string the investigation out for a little bit longer.

So far I have only read a handful of Carrs and I am still getting to know the author. I can say that of the four novels I have read, this is the one I found least entertaining though it is still an interesting read. While I liked some elements of the story a lot, I feel it misses some opportunities that its setting and plot might have afforded.

For those interested in reading some different takes on the novel, I would suggest these reviews from Puzzle Doctor, The Green Capsule and Pretty Sinister Books all of whom are more enthusiastic. And while he doesn’t have a full review on his blog, JJ lists the book as one of his Five Carrs to Try. Clearly I am odd man out on this one but hopefully I will enjoy Constant Suicides much more.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Reference to a man/woman in the title (What)

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Monthly Reviews

March 2018 in Review

I cut my television service a few years ago so these days I tend to be a little late in discovering new shows, usually coming to them a few seasons in. This month I stumbled onto How To Get Away With Murder and I have been thoroughly enjoying bingeing on the show these past few weeks.

For those who have never seen it, it stars Viola Davis as a law professor who teaches a criminal law class at a prestigious university. Each year she takes on several students to work for her office, gaining practical experience of trying cases. As we see in flash forwards throughout the series, by the end of the semester those students will find themselves disposing of a body of their own.

Throughout the first season the series combines a case of the week plot in which Annalise and her students defend someone accused (and often guilty) of murder and character and plot development that moves the overall story forwards. Most of those individual cases are really good in that first season and some of the twists and turns in the bigger storyline are excellently handled.

The second season is still very good, although I am a little less fond of the case that becomes the focal point of the season, and so far I am really enjoying the third season (I am about three episodes in).

Book of the Month: March 2018

Let’s get to the books. I found some pretty good reads in March and I am very happy to say that I had some genuine competition for the title of Book of the Month. The eligible titles were:

The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction
The Witch of the Low Tide by John Dickson Carr
The Servant of Death by James Harold Wallis
The Affair at Little Wokeham by Freeman Wills Crofts
A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters
The Blessing Way by Tony Hillerman
The Viaduct Murder by Ronald Knox
Seven Dead by J. Jefferson Farjeon
The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis
The Case of the Headless Jesuit by George Bellairs
The Phantom Passage by Paul Halter
Death at Breakfast by John Rhode
Diplomat’s Folly by Henry Wade
Death Comes at the End by Agatha Christie

And the winner is…

ServantThe Servant of Death by James Harold Wallis. This novel came as a recommendation from Kate at the excellent blog CrossExaminingCrime as part of her review of Curtis Evans’ book about Todd Downing’s mystery fiction reviews, Clues and Corpses.

It’s another instance of the inverted form mystery but with the rather charming twist that it contains a challenge to the reader in its final pages. Though some of the secondary characters are a little less developed, I thoroughly enjoyed the exploration of the main character.

The Month Ahead

I decided to diverge from quite a few of the promises I made last month. Whoops. Still, one thing you can be sure of is that I will be writing in a generally spoilery fashion about John Rhode’s Invisible Weapons with JJ at his blog, The Invisible Event. I am also pretty confident that I will be reviewing The Man Who Could Not Shudder and J. H. Wallis’ Murder by Formula.

Less reliable promises would include Fire in the ThatchA Necessary Evil and New Graves at Great Norne. At least two of those I have promised (and failed to deliver) before… I should also be tackling another non-series Christie and I have selected Destination Unknown.

Agatha Christie, Golden Age, Historical Mysteries

Death Comes As The End by Agatha Christie

DeathComesI have always been intrigued by Ancient Egypt ever since I saw a sarcophagus and set of canopic jars as a child. Lately I have been rekindling that interest while playing Assassin’s Creed Origins and it occurred to me that it would be nice to read a detective novel set in that historical period.

It just so happened that I have been undertaking a project to read through all of Agatha Christie’s standalone mystery novels so I had little difficulty in settling on a title. Death Comes as the End was written in response to a suggestion from a family friend, the archaeologist Stephen Glanville.

The novel stands out for a couple of reasons but its biggest claim to fame is that it is Christie’s only historical mystery. While some reviews assert that it is a ‘typical Christie country house mystery’ that has been given a little Egyptian set dressing, I think such views ignore much of the thematic content of the novel and, in particular, its discussion of Egyptian views of death.

The book centers around an Egyptian family. The father, Imhotep, is away on business and has left his adult sons to manage his estate. When he returns he brings with him a much younger woman, Nofret, who he installs as his concubine. Soon the family realize that the operations of the household are changing to her whims and they worry that they are being disregarded.

An attempt to bully her into submission backfires horribly when she sends a message to Imhotep who is travelling again to tell him about his children’s behavior towards her. His response is to threaten to disinherit his sons and cast them out. Before he returns to make good on that threat, Nofret is found dead at the foot of a cliff. This does not end the drama however and soon the bodies are mounting up.

The body count here is certainly impressive and I think the comparisons some readers make to And Then There Were None are understandable. As with that book, the body count provides a sense of growing tension and impending doom that proves really effective and while there may have been relatively few suspects left standing at the end, I still failed to figure out the killer’s identity.

I also think that it is worth stressing what a good job Christie does of finding a convincing way to tell a mystery story set in the ancient world that still retains all of the hallmarks of her writing. Death Comes as the End is a psychological crime novel, even if it takes place a few millennia before that word was used. Our characters have no forensic science or independent witnesses to rely on. They have to utilize their own intuition and observation to understand the personalities within the house and to identify who would have killed and why.

One of the most impressive things about the novel is the balance she is able to find between the historical and cultural details and the details of the plot. This is a tricky thing for a writer to gauge and I have certainly read many novels by writers who specialize in historical mysteries that fail to keep those elements in balance.

I mentioned earlier that I think this book does a good job of reflecting aspects of Ancient Egyptian society and spiritualism. While some of the plot points could clearly take place in any period of history, the way those events are interpreted could not. This principally can be seen in one of the character’s musings on the relationship between life and death but I think some seemingly supernatural events are also taken more seriously by the cast of characters than they ever would be if the action took place in a contemporary setting.

While I found the book to be an impressive and enjoyable read, I do think there are a few issues. The biggest of these is that I am not sure the reader could reach the killer’s identity through logical deduction. Though there is certainly plenty of information that suggests who is responsible, this is not the sort of case where the attentive reader could only reconcile the clues in one way. Instead the killer really just reveals themselves at the end. Personally I enjoyed the ride and being uncertain of quite how it would all be resolved but your mileage may vary.

The other thing that I think didn’t quite work was the attempt at a romantic subplot. Wikipedia would have me believe that the ending was forced on Christie and later a subject of regret, though I couldn’t easily find out what her preferred ending would have been, and I do wonder if this was one of those elements that she was forced to include. While this is not the only Christie novel that features an attempt to bring a restoration of order with a romantic subplot, I am not sure that it fits with the otherwise bleak tone of the later chapters.

In spite of these less satisfying elements of the novel, overall I found Death Comes as the End to be a very enjoyable and entertaining read. I think it conjures up a strong sense of place and culture and though I think it may disappoint a little as a detective story, I felt gripped by the way it unfolded.

Finally, if anyone has an Egyptian mystery novel they’d like to recommend to me I’d love to hear your suggestions…

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: A historical crime (When)

Golden Age, Henry Wade

Diplomat’s Folly by Henry Wade

DiplomatsDiplomat’s Folly is set just a couple of years after the conclusion of World War II and concerns a rising diplomat, Alwyn Hundrich, who is hoping to be appointed as Ambassador to France. Unfortunately for him, it turns out that he has some skeletons in his closet that someone who knew him before the war is hoping to exploit.

When he is first contacted and offered the chance to buy some old love letters he seeks the guidance of a friend, Sir Vane Tabbard, who he tells about his indiscretion. He follows Vane’s advice that if he won’t confess all then he will need to pay up. Soon a second demand follows and Alwyn decides to enlist Vane’s son, a former army commando, to carry out the transaction for him but he meets with only partial success. And then a third request follows…

The novel is subtitled ‘A Police Novel’, though that is somewhat unsatisfactory as a description given that less than half of the novel features a Police investigation. It seems to me that Wade is not as interested in the specifics of the crime as in reflecting on how the Second World War had changed the British character.

There is a temptation to paint Wade as a purely reactionary writer pushing a view of the country sliding towards socialism and chaos because of a reckless younger generation. I don’t want to deny that those elements are in his works but I think that oversimplifies the themes and the characterizations he creates in his work.

Let’s start with the character of Alwyn, the target of the blackmail. Though we understand him to be a rising figure, he is only a few years younger than Sir Vane and his indiscretions belong to the pre-war era. He is a member of the establishment and you might expect Wade’s sympathies to be with him and yet he is presented as anything but an admirable figure having not only committed some historical indiscretions but also carrying on a clandestine affair with his best friend’s young wife.

Sir Vane is certainly a more likeable figure and tries to act according to a code of honor and yet Wade makes it clear that he is out of touch and ill-equipped to deal with post-war life. He can see that his son has returned from the war brutalized and unable to adjust back to civilian life yet he seems more focused on restoring his family home to its old glory. He certainly doesn’t seem to be able to see the imperfections of those around him. Wade may not be quite as biting in his criticism, perhaps because he belonged to that same generation, but it is certainly present.

The story he concocts is a strong one, even if it is short on opportunities for ratiocination. The first half of the novel follows the string of blackmail demands, building to an evening that will see someone found dead. The second half of the novel follows the investigation into what happened although do not expect to be taxed about who committed the crime or their motive. Nick Fuller in his review compares this second half of the novel to Crofts’ style and while I think its thematic approach gives it a very different tone, I will admit that the mechanics of the investigation can be a little timetabley.

I should probably also note that the novel commits that frustrating sin of having a murderer make their confession long before anything is actually proven against them. While this usually is a huge frustration for me, I think it just reflects that Wade is really less interested in his crime than in addressing the chief themes of his work.

If those themes sound familiar, you may be thinking that this book touches on some similar points to a Wade novel I wrote about a few months ago – Too Soon to Die. Certainly I was struck by some of the similarities though I think the themes are handled in a more nuanced and interesting way here.

Diplomat’s Folly is a novel that, while not wholly successful if judged purely as a detective story, proves interesting both in terms of its commentary on a period of transition in British society as well as in its strong character work.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: It’s by an author you’ve read & loved before (Why)

Golden Age, John Street

Death at Breakfast by John Rhode

BreakfastVictor Harleston, a clerk with an accounting firm, wakes up in anticipation of a very good day. He is expecting a financial windfall that he has no intention of sharing with his half-sister Jane who he exploits for housekeeping duties in exchange for putting a roof over her head. Within a few hours he will be dead.

The crime scene proves a curious one, riddled with contradictions. While it is clear that Victor was poisoned, the evidence collected seems to suggest that the poison was ingested while the autopsy indicates that it was absorbed.

Soon Superintendent Hanslet and Jimmy Waghorn are on the case but while they quickly seem to settle on a suspect, they cannot understand how the crime could have been achieved. Hanslet decides to turn to Dr. Priestley for his advice but before long some further complications emerge in the case…

 

I have only read a couple of Rhode/Street/Burton novels so far (the only one I have reviewed here is The Chinese Puzzle) and this is the first of his Dr. Priestley series. Of the novels that I have tried, this is easily my favorite so far. Knowing that Rhode-expert Puzzle Doctor says that he doesn’t consider this top rate Rhode makes me all the more intrigued to dig deeper into his work.

A large part of my enjoyment was based on the character of Dr. Priestley who is used rather sparingly, brought in to hear the various theories that Hanslet and Waghorn have developed and to set them on the right track with a judicious application of logical thinking. It put me a little in mind of the Professor in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and I like to imagine that after each meeting Dr. Priestley is silently tutting to himself and wondering what they teach them in those schools…

Most of the actual investigating work is carried out by Jimmy Waghorn while Hanslet seems to be mostly content with trying to make the facts he already has work to convict his chosen suspect. Jimmy certainly shows some spark in identifying the method the murderer actually used to carry out their crime and takes the initiative to follow up on some leads. While he lacks Priestley’s ability to analyse the evidence, he does at least show some imagination and his diligent approach to searching the crime scenes and interviewing suspects does bear some fruit.

That murder method is quite cleverly devised and while the methodical approach to the investigation means that the reader will likely reason out the solution much faster than the detectives, I enjoyed reading how Jimmy was carefully piecing the elements together. There are some similarly strong investigation sequences in the middle third of the book, though I do agree with Puzzle Doctor that there is some dragging as the investigators put forward multiple explanations of how a crime may have been managed. I think though that the problem is that the investigators have obviously failed to consider every reading of the evidence at that point so if you are already aware of an alternate reading of that evidence, the reader may feel impatient for the detectives to catch up with them.

Happily when they do I think that the case proves a satisfying one, repaying the reader’s investment. I think Rhode explains his characters’ motivations well and provides us with a credible sequence of events that may lead someone to murder. The mystery is well-clued and plays fair with the reader and though I suspect most will see key developments coming, Rhode spaces those moments out well throughout his story to maintain interest.

As some of you may be aware I will be collaborating with JJ at The Invisible Event next month to produce a spoilery review of another recently reissued book by Rhode, Invisible Weapons. All of the aspects of the plot will be up for discussion so if you fancy joining in, do be sure to pick up a copy. My hopes for a good read and discussion are certainly boosted by the experience of reading this one.

 

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Time/date/etc in the Title (When)

French Crime, Locked Room International, Locked Rooms and Impossible Murders

The Phantom Passage by Paul Halter

PhantomPassageWhat if there was an alleyway that could not be found on any recent maps, that appeared from nowhere and seemed to disappear the moment those who found it have left?

American diplomat Ralph Tierney turns up at Owen Burns’ room, seeking out his old friend with such a tale. He tells Owen and Achilles Stock that he had stumbled upon the passage and witnessed a strange vision in a room on the second floor of a house there. When he fled the passage and tried to find his way back it, and the landmarks that guided him to it, seemed to have vanished completely.

When Owen and Achilles start to look into this they discover previous accounts of similar experiences and that the visions experienced in that room have either happened in the past or will happen in the future. Could this passage really be showing people events from the past or future or is there some sinister design behind it?

The Phantom Passage is, for much of its duration, a truly inventive and bewildering read. Halter skillfully introduces and plays with the concept of a supernatural occurrence. The idea of this passageway into the past and future is so fantastical and its physical presence seems to be so clearly disproved that at times it seems the only possible explanation.

As Owen and Achilles investigate the stories of those who have encountered this passageway before we are introduced to a few striking characters and get to hear of further seemingly bizarre events. By the time we get to the point of revelation I was aching to know how Halter would explain away some of those strange little points of interest in the case and make sense of what seems a truly bizarre set of events.

Unfortunately when that time comes, Halter’s explanation struck me as unconvincing. I did not find it at all credible that anybody who had the motive given in this novel would devise this convoluted method to execute their plans. There seemed to be too much coincidence and too many moments in which those plans might go wrong to make any sense of those choices.

The problem, for me, is that even in that resolution there are individual elements that I think work really well. Ideas that, taken in isolation, make sense and which can be quite effective but that never stitch together to make a convincing whole psychologically, even if they mechanically make sense.

This is particularly frustrating because the book up until the final two chapters is highly enjoyable. While it is quite a short read in terms of its page count, I stretched it out taking regular breaks to consider just how the effects may have been achieved. For all that thought and concentration, I don’t think I ever achieved the full explanation.

I also have to say that I really like Owen Burns and Achilles Stock as a detective pairing and how distinct they feel from his other series pairing of Twist and Hurst. Both characters get some strong moments but I particularly appreciated a lengthy sequence featuring Stock towards the end of the novel and its repercussions. I certainly look forward to trying some other stories with this pairing.

I really enjoyed reading this book up until its final two chapters but because of my frustrations with its explanation I can’t recommend it and would likely place it lowest of the Halter novels that I have read so far. That is in spite of having enjoyed it more than Death Invites You and about as much as The Madman’s Room. I think the enjoyment of the ride probably makes up for its conclusion and so while I ultimately felt frustrated by the novel, I would suggest that you check out one of the more positive reviews out there such as JJ’s and check it out for yourself.

 

George Bellairs, Golden Age

The Case of the Headless Jesuit by George Bellairs

Jesuit2As the time strikes midnight and the New Year is rung in Granville Salter stumbles into the church of St. Mark’s, apparently drunk. When he collapses it is discovered that the man has been murdered having been stabbed in the chest with what seems to have been a German prisoner’s knife.

When Inspector Littlejohn arrives he learns that Salter was not the only local to have mysteriously died and also absorbs a little of the local lore. There are two legends that will play a role in this case. The first is that of a ghost that is said to haunt the area – the titular Jesuit. The second relates to a supposed treasure that is hidden somewhere around the Salter family’s ancestral home.

I have now read several Bellairs novels and I keep waiting to find the knockout read I feel sure the author was capable of. The omens with this one seemed particularly promising from its striking title, suggestions of the supernatural and the attention-grabbing opening chapter. Would this be the novel that would make me fall in love with Bellairs?

There is certainly a lot to like here and I will say that I found the book to be a pretty enjoyable read. Let’s start with its most distinctive elements – the two local legends that are incorporated into this story. From my reading so far, this hardly seems typical of Bellairs’ usual style and I certainly do not think he extracts the gothic atmosphere from these elements that other writers may have achieved but I did respect that he manages to make these elements colorful, distinctive and genuinely important to the plot without overwhelming the rest of his narrative.

While the subject matter may seem unusual for Bellairs, I think this is yet another example of his playing with aspects of rural life. His interest is less in the content of the legend but the way it hangs over and becomes part of a small community’s identity. That it adds a little color and spice to the narrative is a bonus rather than its cause for existence and I can certainly respect that approach.

I also felt that the string of murders we see here are fairly interesting in that they clearly must be connected and yet it is hard to see how they could be given the very different lives of each of the victims. The solution to just what happened is interesting and quite powerful, yet I do think that the number of deaths in such a short book means that a few of the killings get far less focus than the others. I think the resolution justifies the more superficial treatment of a couple of deaths but I could certainly understand if some readers felt frustrated that they do not receive a little more attention in the narrative.

And then there’s the characterization which I think is among the best of the Bellairs novels I have read so far. He always seems to have a good handle on countryside types but what I think he shows in this novel is his ability to condense a characterization down into a pithy description. A good example would be the character of Mrs. Alverston who, we are told:

…had a thin, puffy face and the large appealing eyes of the persecuted. If life does not unduly persecute them, they persecute themselves.

Another character who is given a memorable, scandalous introduction is PC Pennyquick.

He had one secret sin. He loved, when alone, to drink with his mouth full. He liked to mix hot, sugared tea with his food.

There are a surprisingly large number of characters in what is quite a short book, yet I think even the most incidental characters feel memorable and distinctive which is quite an achievement.

Given all of these aspects of the book I appreciated and enjoyed, you may be wondering just why I am not being more enthusiastic about this story. The answer is that I think the investigation just feels flat and passive.

While I would never list Littlejohn amongst my favorite detectives from the Golden Age, I do appreciate that he typically adopts a fairly rigorous, methodical approach to investigating crimes. He does the same here, working as usual with the local police and yet here he never really seems to take charge of the investigation. The result is that the case feels unfocused and only really comes together in the final chapters once a third party comes to explain their actions.

We do learn in the aftermath of that moment that Littlejohn had successfully identified them and yet it is hard to extract much satisfaction from that seeing as how he never shares that information with the reader. Though I think the nature of that reveal plays into the themes of the novel and leads to a pretty striking coda scene, I found the journey to that point unsatisfying, not quite working as a detective story while not being thrilling enough to work as a thriller.

Unfortunately the result is a disappointing novel that has some great ideas and themes but never manages to balance them. It’s certainly very readable and entertaining in places but it is hard to overlook a weak investigative narrative.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: At least two deaths with different means (How)

This book was published in the United States as Death Brings In the New Year.