Panic in Box C, by John Dickson Carr (1966)

Panic in Box C, by John Dickson Carr

Panic in Box C, by John Dickson Carr: X1587, Berkeley Medallion (1968): First paperback edition


Panic in Box C
 (1966) is the twenty-third in a series of 24 mystery novels about Dr. Gideon Fell, by John Dickson Carr (JDC). The adventures of Dr. Fell frequently centre around locked-room mysteries and impossible crimes; this book would probably be considered an impossible crime story. It is certainly a difficult puzzle mystery and contains many elements that will be familiar to JDC’s many fans (of which group I have been a member for decades).

Previously I have discussed specific JDC books here and here and JDC in general here and here  and here.  If you do a search on my blog for John Dickson Carr or Carter Dickson, his major pseudonym, you’ll also find links to other bloggers’ work about JDC and I think you’ll find them of interest.

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others. I do not in so many words reveal whodunit, but I have discussed elements of the murder that will almost certainly make the identity of the murderer clear to you. If you haven’t already read this novel, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What is this novel about?

The story begins on board R.M.S. Illyria heading towards New York. Philip Knox, a historian, and Dr. Gideon Fell are both embarking on separate lecture tours of the United States. They spend the first chapter introducing the reader to themselves and the next few introducing the reader to famous actress Margery Vane (who’s also entitled to be known as Lady Tiverton) and her entourage, including her handsome young boyfriend Lawrence Porter and her faithful secretary Bess Harkness. A shot rings out and misses everyone by a mile, but it amplifies the sense of imminent disaster that Carr so skilfully builds.

Panic in Box C, John Dickson Carr

A later Carroll & Graf paper edition.

Everyone ends up at a Connecticut theatre where the wealthy Vane is both establishing a theatre and endowing a company of players, at the theatre where she long ago played her first roles. Philip Knox meets his estranged wife Judy, and the two seem to have rekindled their romantic interest. Meanwhile Margery’s personal life and the personal lives of the Margery Vane players, including the hot-tempered lead, Barry Plunkett and his beautiful lead actress girlfriend, Anne Winfield, are intersecting and heating up. And people are exchanging stories about a tragedy that happened at the theatre twenty years ago.

During the dress rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet, Margery Vane is locked in Box C of the theatre alone, saying that she wants to experience the play by herself. During the performance there is the twang of a crossbow and, as will be no surprise to the experienced reader, Miss Vane is found in the locked Box C, pierced by a crossbow bolt. Below the box on the ground floor are found some valuable pieces of Vane’s jewelry wrapped up with a newspaper cutting about the recent suicide of someone who acted at the theatre back in her heyday. And across the theatre, under Box A, is a crossbow that had gone missing from the lobby.

As is also unsurprising in the genre, nearly everyone around Vane had a motive to kill her, whether financial or emotional. This includes Judy Knox, who apparently had a run-in with Margery Vane some twenty years ago and is still the object of Vane’s dislike, although no one knows (or perhaps will say) exactly why. Many of the company were on stage, or immediately off stage, at the time of the murder; seven people were in the theatre itself watching the rehearsal, and some can alibi each other, but nothing is certain.

Panic in Box C, John Dickson CarrLawrence Porter is the obvious suspect, because just before her death Margery Vane had wanted to have him arrested for stealing her jewelry, but we soon learn that he has a cast-iron alibi — during the time when he wasn’t onstage, he was shooting craps in a back room with a couple of other actors. This leaves the detectives with no clear-cut suspect and things become more complicated when an elderly alcoholic from the earliest days of the theatre announces that he saw a masked man dressed all in black who fired the crossbow from the stage and then vanished through a concealed trap door.

Dr. Fell rumbles around asking apparently inconsequential questions, and muttering about Honus Wagner (an old-time baseball player) until, after various interviews and searches for evidence, he figures out the identity of the criminal. There is an exciting scene at the end where the murderer is killed just before a second murder can take place, in the Crazy House at the local amusement park, and then a final wrap-up scene where Dr. Fell and local policeman Lt. Spinelli explain all the loose ends.

Why is this book worth your time?

My regular readers will already know most of my answer to this question. As I’ve said about quite a few mystery writers, their work is significantly important to the mystery genre and if you wish to know how mysteries work, or what good ones look like, every single thing that authors like John Dickson Carr wrote is worth your time. You can learn more about writing from Carr’s lesser works than you can from the best offerings of lesser writers.

That being said — this one is pretty bad.

I’ve said before that many famous Golden Age writers perhaps should have stopped writing a few books before they actually did. Christie and Marsh and Queen didn’t need to burden us with their final few efforts, by and large; they’re embarrassingly poor and most GAD critics are tired of apologizing for them. (“Yes, Agatha Christie was a great, great writer and Passenger to Frankfurt is a gigantic turd. Those can both be true at the same time.”)

Panic in Box C, John Dickson CarrJDC’s point of no return seems to be pretty much the book immediately before this one, 1965’s The House at Satan’s Elbow. I wouldn’t now call his decline a steep one (although I have done so before, I’d like to step it back); there’s nothing so incoherent as Passenger to Frankfurt or Photo Finish or The Last Woman In His Lifefor instance. There is much that is boring but not much that is that silly.

Some time ago, I outlined the three things that a JDC novel needs to contain to be among his best work:

  1. A strong well-thought-out puzzle structure, which is usually for him based on a locked-room/impossible crime scenario.
  2. A balance among setting, characterization, and plot, so that there are interesting characters doing interesting things against an interesting background, all well-written in their way but nothing overwhelming the book in any of those directions.
  3. Some sort of creepy quasi-supernatural element; or, if not supernatural, something that creates a sense of menace or impending doom.

I think it’s accurate to say that nothing JDC wrote after 1965 manages to contain all these three things done to the best of his ability — and the present volume has almost nothing that qualifies.

#3 is almost entirely absent; in fact Carr goes out of his way to flatten or suppress elements that could give rise to that. The suicide’s face mask of his younger self? That could have been superbly creepy, but it’s entirely offstage and we are only told about it. #2 is sadly out of alignment; many of the characters are pure cardboard and many of the interesting things that they are doing, or see done, have absolutely nothing to do with the structure of the book. For instance, there’s an entire chapter that consists of almost nothing except a bunch of people bellowing the lyrics to the football-related “fight songs” of various American universities and being very rude to each other. I’ll go into this in a little detail further on.

Panic in Box C, John Dickson CarrAs far as #1 goes, I will say that the actual puzzle structure holds together quite well; I understand how the crime was committed and I’m pretty sure it slipped right by me on my first reading of this, decades ago. There are a couple of problems with it, though, that wouldn’t be found in JDC’s work of 20 years earlier. The book would have been essentially over if Lt. Spinelli had done his damn job properly and thoroughly questioned every single person in the theatre about what they were doing, and with whom, when the crossbow twanged. Surely, SURELY the person upon whom the murderer’s alibi depends would have spoken up; I understand the reason that we’re given for that not having happened, but I don’t buy it. The pressure is just not there. When that person is nearly killed at the end of the book, they still have no idea of what it is to which they could have testified and no real pressure to say otherwise has been applied.

Another problem for me is that I’m not so intimately familiar with the words used to describe the parts of a theatre as I might be, and thus I was labouring under a misapprehension about where people were. Once you grasp where exactly everyone was, and upon what floor of the building, it’s all clearer — and it should have been much clearer to the police. At the end, when everything is being explained, much is made of the fact that a policeman executes the actions of the murderer in a mere 29 seconds.  “Aha!” I thought. “That’s a healthy active policeman, not [for instance] a middle-aged person who is constantly described as a heavy smoker.” But then I realized that although that was true, it simply didn’t matter if the actions had been performed in 29 seconds or 300; the murderer’s alibi would have been essentially unchanged.

The thought that kept occurring to me as I refreshed my memory of this book was that there were a number of things here that hearkened back to earlier JDC novels — it’s as though the writer was dragging things out of his attic to furnish a room, but nothing quite fits or is as well-made as he once thought. For instance, there’s a couple of times during the book when everything quite ridiculously grinds to a halt while JDC adds in a great bolus of historical … stuff.  When Philip Knox meets his estranged wife and seems to fall in love all over again, he expresses his sentiments by — blethering on and on about Stonewall Jackson.  In verse. It is true that Carr knew a LOT about history and his historical novels are highly regarded.  But right about now in his books, he starts packing in great wads of irrelevant historical background that do nothing for the plot except cushion it, like excelsior.

Panic in Box C, John Dickson CarrSimilarly there is a scene at the end set in  the Crazy House that is nowhere near as creepy as a couple of other excursions to such places in earlier Carr novels. It’s clear that he likes writing about fun fairs and amusement parks; they show up a lot in his books.  Here, it’s almost dragged in without rhyme or reason. The murderer is said to be arranging things so that lots of people are in the vicinity but that is soon demonstrated to be ridiculously impossible; the ticket-takers remember exactly who went where.  The scene has nothing connected with the Crazy House and would have been better set at the theatre, but … those settings are in another couple of JDC novels and it worked there. It just doesn’t work here.

I think the biggest problem in the book is everything that has to do with Philip Knox’s estranged wife Judy.  I’m about to give away what might be a crucial plot point here, so be warned. After Philip and Judy split up, she moved to the US and, unbeknownst to him, became a call girl to support herself for some months, then got a job and rose to the top of the magazine industry.  Both Margery Vane and Bess Harkness are aware of her past and Bess at one point starts to call her by her “working name,” Dorothy.  This is what they fought about and this is what Judy and Vane were arguing about immediately before the murder.

Now, you know, nearly everything in this plot line is just complete nonsense. Apparently Judy is worried in the present day that Philip will find out about her past — Philip doesn’t even bat an eye when he finds out. Everyone goes out of their way, officials and bystanders alike, to assure Judy that they don’t care in the slightest and that nobody will be prosecuting Judy for her crime.  (Which, frankly, is absolutely ridiculous. I’d like to see anyone brought into court on a 20-YEAR-OLD prostitution charge, even in 1965; you’d be laughed out of court.)

There’s a little bit at the end that’s very telling in this context. Judy is Telling All to Philip, and here’s what she says about how Margery Vane found out that Judy was a hooker:

“… she saw me with one of her men-friends … I don’t mean boy-friends, just another man of her acquaintance … coming out of my apartment in a place where I couldn’t have been anything except what I was. She didn’t say anything. But she made inquiries, and remembered.”

Panic in Box C, John Dickson CarrExcept — what the hell is she talking about? If there is such a “place”, it would be a bordello, and those don’t have “apartments”. Judy is apparently trying to convince us that she lived in an apartment building that was so well known for housing prostitutes that merely having an apartment in that building meant you were for hire. But in that case, what is Margery Vane doing there and why isn’t she tarred with the same brush?

No, this is just all so much nonsense, and frankly it’s mean-spirited nonsense too. No one in this case investigates Judy in the way she ought to be investigated, and it seems as though there is an unspoken consensus among Fell and the police that Judy is not the murderer and there’s no need to ask her unpleasant questions to remind her of her sordid past. In addition, much is made of the fact that Judy had quarrelled with Margery Vane on an ocean crossing 20 years ago, immediately after Judy had left Philip. And that very interesting development is dismissed in the final lines of the book: they quarrelled about “nothing at all.”

The mean-spirited part is that Carr is saying a number of things here about sex work, and none of them are very attractive. Apparently it completely ruins your life (except where it doesn’t). It is such a horrible secret that it can cause you to cover up things connected with a murder. Now, I’ve spoken before about my admiration for Carr’s forthrightness about human sexuality in books like The Judas Window, where a young woman stands up in court and says, “Yes, I let my boyfriend take nude photos of me, what’s it to you?” (Paraphrased LOL) He talked about sex in mysteries at a time when no one other than Gladys Mitchell was doing so. Here, though, there’s a certain … sniggering quality about the whole thing that is really unattractive. Perhaps it’s Carr trying to be part of the swinging 60s — perhaps it’s Carr indulging his own fantasy life. But because it’s all just nonsense, it’s clear that he put it in for reasons that weren’t connected with the mystery per se — it just doesn’t stand up. Much like he wanted to talk about the Crazy House and Stonewall Jackson, he wanted to talk about hookers, and none of it contributes anything to the novel.

The bit about Honus Wagner? That goes nowhere near that baseball player. And it’s annoying, because where it actually goes is to a person who does not actually appear in the book and who should be front and centre giving testimony.

So it’s all very sloppy work. The sloppy nature of it is exemplified by something that Carr actually seems to have forgotten until the end of the book. Dr. Fell is chaffed by someone for not having mentioned a rip in some fabric — and believe me, he should have done, it might have been an important clue. There’s another forgotten item too. Much is made of a reference to an old stage play called Sherlock Holmes, in which a specific visual device is used to make the audience think that an actor is in one place when he’s really in another. Well and good. But there’s absolutely no point in including something like that unless, in the current plot, you have someone trying to execute the same thing. Or, rather, they are — it’s just that JDC forgets to tell us that anyone was looking at the time. So that clever little reference is completely wasted and any deductions based on it become unavailable.

Oh, there’s certainly more evidence that JDC was starting to decline — honestly, it’s been depressing to even give the plot this much attention, because I keep finding holes and issues. All I can say is, it’s John Dickson Carr so it’s worth reading … just read it quickly and without too much attention to what’s going on.  Let yourself be carried away by characters and scenes that remind you of other spooky Carr excursions; “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” and you’ll be pleasantly amused.

A note on editions

Like many books dating back to the 1960s, this title was not well-served when it came to nice-looking editions. I rather like the aqua curtains and the alabaster hand wrapped with jewelry in the first US paper edition I used to prepare these comments, shown at the very top of the column.  A copy of the first US or first UK editions seems to be about US$50 as of this writing, which seems about right.  I’ve remarked before that a poor book by a good author is sometimes more difficult to obtain than a well-known title and this would be no exception. A small investment in the first US paper edition in perfect condition may pay off very well in the future for the speculative collector.

Other opinions

(Added some hours later) I carelessly forgot to include some links to material which may also interest my readers.

  • My fellow GAD blogger (and blog friend) at The Green Capsule looked at this book (here) earlier this year: the Green Capsule has set out to read his way through JDC and is doing so in a consistently interesting way.
  • My friend Patrick, in At the Scene of the Crime back in 2011, (here) says “It’s readable, but far from Carr’s best.”
  • The esteemed Marvin Lachman in Mystery*File (here), writing in 1987, is terse but highly complimentary; he thinks there is “effective use of the theatre, both its physical settings, and its lore, to add to an unusually good detective story.”
  • Esteemed mystery blogger and my friend Bev Hankins, in My Reader’s Block, looked at this book in 2011 (here), saying “The mystery is a bit of a disappointment.”

 

 

 

Some thoughts on Herbert Resnicow’s mysteries

Please be warned that this essay concerns works of detective fiction; part of their potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about quite a few novels of Herbert Resnicow. In no instance here do I reveal the identity of a murderer, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction. If you haven’t already read Resnicow’s works, they will have lost their power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read his books before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. (The second-last paragraph mentions the two volumes by name that I think you will enjoy the most.)

Herbert_ResnicowThe works of Herbert Resnicow have recently become available to me — okay, I opened a dusty box in “Noah’s Archives” and there they were, held firmly in place beneath the weighty output of Ruth Rendell. As is my habit, I picked one up to flip through in order to remind myself of his work, and eight books later, I thought I’d make some notes. 😉

I mention my personal process only to indicate why I’ve chosen to go against my habit. Generally when I look at an

9780380692781-usauthor, I choose a single book and examine it in depth as a way of talking about a broader view; the author’s themes or preoccupations as exemplified within the pages of one of his/her works. In the case of Resnicow, I found not that much that can be examined in depth and so I thought I’d look at everything at once to see if there was anything of interest that could be teased out with a wider viewpoint.

Resnicow’s oeuvre

Herbert Resnicow’s publication history began in 1983 with The
9780380699230-usGold Solution
, which was a finalist for the Edgar for Best First Novel. There were four more novels in five years in the Gold series, about the adventures of a middle-aged Jewish married couple who trade barbed insults and solve crimes, rather after the model of Mr. and Mrs. North, Nick and Nora Charles, and a host of other married sleuths.

In 1985, he began a second series about a male attorney and his romantic partner, a female university dean, against a background of crossword puzzles and having crossword blanks as part of the story, to be filled in by the reader so as to provide clues to the mystery for the perspicacious.  There were five of these in two years, with the collaboration of well-known crossword compiler Henry Hook (who here has exceeded even his usual brilliance in many instances by constructing puzzles that meet the needs of the plot).

UnknownIn 1987 and 1990, Resnicow published two novels about Ed Baer and his son Warren, a financier and a philosopher respectively. The first of these was The Dead Room and I’ll suggest it’s one of his best known books: it’s the one that appears on lists of locked-room mysteries including the relevant Wikipedia article.

In the latter part of his brief career, he published five novels with famous co-authors: two with Edward Koch, and one each with Fran Tarkenton, Tom Seaver, and Pelé. I must confess I haven’t seen these in a long time and would have been unlikely to re-read them; the celebrity names are uppermost in large type and Resnicow’s name is presented as “with”. I’m not sure it’s fair to call this “ghost-writing” if your name is actually on the book; a writer friend of mine once referred to this as “withing” and that word suits me just fine. Resnicow was a “wither” for celebrity mysteries and there are five of them.

Gold-CurseWhat you’ll find in his work

As I said, I flipped through a bunch of these in a short time, although I’ve certainly read all these volumes and more previously. I re-read all five crossword mysteries and the first two Gold volumes, and The Dead Room. My archives appear not to contain a copy of the second Baer novel, The Hot Place, and I think I shall have to remedy that; I remember it as being quite readable.

The Gold novels set the tone for much of Resnicow’s remaining work. Alexander Gold and his wife Norma are introduced to a mystery that involves some sort of impossible situation. There is a motivation supplied for the Golds to solve the mystery, either financial or in order to save someone from being unjustly convicted of the crime. And the circumstances of the crime are … well, “impossible” is perhaps more precise than I can be in these circumstances. Let’s say it usually seems as though no one could have reasonably committed the crime and then the experienced Golden Age reader will know what’s coming.

md1077001541I don’t think the “impossible crime” puzzles at the centre of these novels are as clever as others do. I have to say, though, that the critical faculties which my fellow bloggers bring to the defence of Resnicow’s abilities are sufficiently significant that I can’t ignore them, and honestly I feel a little guilty for not liking these as much as my peers. Smart and insightful people think these puzzles are clever, and all I can respond is, “didn’t seem that way to me”. I suspect my faculties have been dulled over the years by overexposure to the particular brand of cleverness that produced these plots … or perhaps I’m just not smart enough to see what others see. For a really detailed look at Resnicow’s career from someone who esteems him more highly than I do, I recommend my blogfriend TomCat’s 2011 opinion at Beneath the Stains of Time.

9780345322821-usIn the background of each Gold novel is some consideration having to do with the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Gold. Mr. and Mrs. Gold are nice. Indeed, they are what one would call “good people”; they care about each other and trade barbs and witticisms with the ease of a long relationship with strong bonds of affection (but it’s clear that either would die for the other). They take care of each other, help their friends, and are valuable and productive members of society.

And that’s kind of a problem for me. In modern genre studies there’s a concept that has arisen from the bottom up (rather than as the product of, say, academic thought that gets translated down-market to mere fans ;-)); the Mary Sue. This is seen as a common cliché of wish-fulfillment in fan fiction; an “idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character,” as Wikipedia puts it. Ensign Mary Sue, age 16, single-handedly saves the Enterprise with a bobby pin and starts dating Captain Kirk, etc. And it’s linked to the slightly more academic concept of self-insertion, whereby “a fictional character who is the real author of a work of fiction appears as an idealized character within that fiction, either overtly or in disguise.” The author writes him/herself in as the star of their own story; in academic terms, the character is the raisonneur. Here it seems quite clear to me that Mr. Gold is based on Resnicow himself, as is the male protagonist of the crossword novels. If you read the biographical details in TomCat’s piece linked above, I think you will be even more convinced that this is probable.

9780345327321-usI’m not saying that Resnicow does this in any way objectionably; in fact, it’s quite cute and naive. However, I think it is commonly understood that novels based on a Mary Sue protagonist are usually quite boring, and that’s certainly something to consider here. If the impossible crime is the A plot, then the B plot is — well, it’s not much of a plot of all, it’s mostly characterization. The Golds and their best friends are charming and delightful, but nothing really bad ever happens to them, and not much happens to change them or their personalities. They don’t grow, and this is a characteristic of Mary Sues. Now, fans of Nero Wolfe like myself can stand the idea of a B plot about personalities who don’t change much. But unless you are a writer of the quality of Rex Stout, the B plot tends to fade away, and that’s what I find happens here. I remember the A plots quite clearly after 20+ years, but all but the simplest recollection of the Golds’ personalities had gone.

the-dead-room1The two novels about a father-and-son amateur detective team where the father is a businessman and the son a philosopher seem to me to be Resnicow’s best work; at least, The Dead Room has considerable critical acclaim. I certainly liked it, partly because there is some tension between the protagonists. The story is very strong and is an impossible crime mystery, although with a modern twist; it takes place in an anechoic chamber at the headquarters of a stereo manufacturer. I have to say, though, that I solved this one without thinking very hard about it, which frankly surprised me. I’m not very good at solving these plots, even though I’m very interested in how they’re constructed; when I get one first crack out of the box, it’s a signal to me that either I have a bent for this kind of story or it’s not well done.

md1077051789I actually liked the solution of The Gold Deadline the best of all, and here TomCat and I are in agreement, it seems. The book itself has tinges of homophobia (although to be clear it’s actually biphobia about the unpleasant victim), but the central premise is an ass-kicker. The victim is alone in a theatre box during a performance, under observation and someone is guarding the only door to the box. How the crime is committed will doubtless surprise you but it’s really clever, a contrivance at the level of a Death of Jezebel or The Chinese Orange Mystery. 

The five Gold novels and the two about the father-and-son team, the Baers, are the best of the lot; the other nine are distinctly minor.

3185460The five crossword novels feature a couple similar to the Golds, except that one is the world’s most esteemed crossword composer unknown to anyone. They have a number of good things about them, principal among which is four or five original puzzles per book created by the late great Henry Hook. I’ve read plenty of other crossword mysteries and I have to say these might just be the best crosswords ever found in a mystery. They are integral to the plot — you really should solve them as you move through the book in order to understand what’s going on. They are difficult but not impossible to solve, at the level of a New York Times Sunday puzzle. And in at least one instance Hook created a new kind of puzzle which he gives many names; I’ll call them Crossonics, because the sounds of the words are important to the context of the novel.

Unknown-1The most successful of the five to me is the entry about a group of cruciverbalists who are the stars of a New York crossword club, Murder Across and Down. This is the only one where the addition of crosswords actually makes sense to the plot and the crosswords’ solutions have a bearing on the solution. Other than that, there are various specious excuses under which Resnicow assembles precisely six suspects (why six, I wonder? Ellery Queen got by with three) and has them solve and/or create puzzles. Other plots range from far-fetched (six heirs to a cruciverbalist’s will, six candidates for a plum job) to the absolutely ridiculous (a nonsensical Russian spy plot that involves coded messages in the daily crossword puzzle of a newspaper). This last one reminds me of an equally preposterous bridge spy/mystery novel by Don Von Elsner in which codes are transmitted via the bridge column … just not a very good idea.

Murder_City_HallThe worst thing about these is that really they are not mysteries that are solved, per se. I believe all five share the common thread that the murderer is induced to reveal his/her guilt by the process of solving or setting a crossword. Sure, there are clues to guilt that are noted after the fact, but … what it all boils down to is the old “set a trap and the murderer falls into it”. Not plotting for the connoisseur. I have to say that the characterization is well-done throughout these novels; Resnicow does an excellent job of helping us keep the six suspects distinct each from the other.  The Crossword Hunt is particularly good, where Resnicow lets us see six job candidates and then at the end reveals why five of them shouldn’t have gotten the job — for reasons we’ve seen, but may not have thought about. The author shows an excellent grasp of psychology here. But ultimately these five suffer from the same problem as all “crossword mysteries”; it’s nearly impossible to make crosswords a necessary part of the plot of a mystery without structuring the book with impossibilities.

9780688067168-usAnd as for the five withed novels, the less said about those the better.  I did read these on their first publication and they are … competent examples of commercial writing. It’s hard to say if his collaborators contributed anything at all to the novels except their names and a couple of “shooting the shit” sessions to provide background; I rather think not. It’s just that, as Phoebe Atwood Taylor found with Murder at the New York World’s Fair, when half the book has to be there for reasons which have nothing to do with the mystery, and you really need the money for the book, the mystery suffers. The two books with Ed Koch I recall to be particularly egregious; they are determined to present Koch in the best possible light regardless of how much it strains credulity. If the authors had dared to tell the truth about Koch’s everyday life and political manoeuvrings, they would have been much more interesting and less “safe”, and a lot more readable. As they are, they’re what booksellers think of as instant remainders. (Apparently Resnicow died before he did much with the second Koch title beyond an outline, but he gets credit.)

PeleIf you do decide to try Resnicow’s work, I suggest the Gold novels and the two Baer novels, of course, but probably The Dead Room and The Gold Deadline will be sufficient to give you the highlights.

To the best of my knowledge, most of these books are unavailable in electronic editions. You can see that the crosswords would be tough to make available; all five of the Gold novels are available from Kindle Unlimited but I don’t see any evidence of the Baer novels or the “with” novels having made the E-transition. The Dead Room I used to see everywhere as a used paperback, but here in Canada it was issued by Worldwide Library, a prolific subsidiary of Harlequin. Amazon or ABE should get you any of the others you need, though.

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Book scouting John Dickson Carr (Part 2 of 2)

12784234_10206990403411371_1309856526_nA group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’re now going to continue looking at a different Golden Age mystery writer each month; Tuesdays in March will be devoted to John Dickson Carr.

Book scouting John Dickson Carr (Part 2 of 2)

Part 2 is covers under JDC’s main pseudonym, Carter Dickson. Part 1, with illustrations of paperbacks as by John Dickson Carr, can be found here.

Pocket Books had a close association with both JDC and Carter Dickson in his earlier years and I think they did a particularly good job on his Carter Dickson titles. Pocket’s surrealism period is represented here with a few beautiful entries, and Pocket also provides my all-time favourite Dickson or Carr cover, The Red Widow Murders, with the corpse clutching the Ace of Spades against a background the colour of dried blood (Pocket #86). There are some good Dell mapback covers — Dell #108, Death in Five Boxes and Dell #65, Scotland Yard: Department of Queer Complaints are examples of the lush airbrushed abstract style pioneered by artist Gerald Gregg, and the spectacular “cobra” cover for He Wouldn’t Kill Patience. The Pan/Great Pan editions of Dickson from the UK are both lovely and very collectible. Just in case your heart stopped for a moment at the sight of a Dickson title you’d never seen, Cross of Murder is the UK retitling of Seeing is Believing. Sorry.

One thing to keep your eyes open for when you’re out scouting; some of the Bantam editions of John Dickson Carr titles were abridged, an ugly and reprehensible practice. The paperbacks themselves are still collectible as being in the first thousand or so Bantam titles, but you’ll find that students of detective fiction will be more anxious to have an unabridged version. Real collectors, of course, want all the editions, thank goodness!

8849365236_52126b715e_bThe best scouting tip I can give you is to keep your eyes open for copies of Avon #nn7 (un-numbered, but their seventh title), The Plague Court Murders. This one is interesting for a number of reasons. I have a copy of this surprinted with an indication that it sold for 29 cents in Canada, which I think definitely makes it the first Canadian edition and an interesting little bit of socioeconomic history. The Dickson aficionado will be amused to see that the cover tells you that the star of the book is Chief Inspector Masters (!) instead of Sir Henry Merrivale. And finally, you can distinguish the valuable first printing from the relatively less prized later editions by checking the endpapers.  Avon unnumbered firsts have “globe” endpapers (see above); later editions do not. Your discovery of a copy of this book will be sweet, but knowing the difference between editions will make your experience sweeter. How much sweeter? As of today, a later edition on ABE goes for US$15 and the first — cited with globe endpapers — is US$43 for a Good copy and US$65 for a Very Good copy from a very good bookseller.

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: My five most/least favourite John Dickson Carr novels (Part 1 of 2)

12784234_10206990403411371_1309856526_n

A group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’re now going to continue looking at a different Golden Age mystery writer each month; Tuesdays in March, 2016 will be devoted to John Dickson Carr.

My five most and least favourite John Dickson Carr novels

(and why I think so)

It’s been a while since I sat down to the pleasant contemplation of a large group of interesting mysteries with the task before me of identifying my five most favourite/least favourite books within the group. There are a few things that have to come together. First there has to be a fairly large body of work from which to select; second, a somewhat uneven quality of work so that there actually are good and bad books; and finally, there has to be a reasoned way of making a decision. By this last I mean that it has to be possible to discern what the author in question had as strengths and weaknesses, and to look for books where the strengths are mostly present and the weaknesses are mostly absent.

CARR1

John Dickson Carr

John Dickson Carr, of course, meets all these criteria. He has such a large body of work that I’ve given myself the pleasure of splitting this task into books published under his own name and that of his principal pseudonym, Carter Dickson. (Part 2, on Dickson, will be published later this month, and I’ll go back and add links.) JDC has a decidedly uneven quality of work, such that he has a few magnificent years when he’s at the top of his form, and his later books show a steep decline that is obvious.

In terms of strengths I’ll suggest the following.  JDC’s writing is the most interesting to me when it has these qualities: (1) A strong well-thought-out puzzle structure, which is usually for him based on a locked-room/impossible crime scenario. (2) A balance among setting, characterization, and plot, so that there are interesting characters doing interesting things against an interesting background, all well-written in their way but nothing overwhelming the book in any of those directions. (3) Some sort of creepy quasi-supernatural element; or, if not supernatural, something that creates a sense of menace or impending doom. This is something that JDC handled extremely well and he had excellent skills at creating these elements within the solid logical structure of a detective novel.

As far as weaknesses go: (1) JDC’s sense of humour and mine are rather different; I don’t think he wrote humour well and there is a kind of sniggering adolescent quality to his jokes that I find distasteful. So for me the less humour, the better. (2) Occasionally JDC’s books are unbalanced in one direction or the other. Sometimes the setting takes over and you wind up reading an evocation of his historical research. Sometimes the characters are merely sketched in, and you don’t care what happens to them. And sometimes the plot is so convoluted and difficult that it overwhelms any kind of realism, because there are simply so many plot points that must be gotten across.  And (3) — this one is hard to describe — I occasionally get the feeling with Carr’s work that there’s more in his head than he managed to get on the page. It’s as though he feels he’s given me enough information to understand what he’s getting at, but I haven’t managed to grasp it without re-reading multiple times. I admit this one could be just me being inattentive, but it’s happened enough times to me with Carr’s work that I suspect it’s not all on my side.

With those in mind, here are my choices. I’ll paraphrase myself when I performed this exercise with Ngaio Marsh: as always in situations like this, your mileage may vary. My own experience tells me that I cherish one of JDC’s novels because I read it at a young age and it made a deep impression on me that is perhaps not borne out by the quality of the work itself. Sometimes we like things for reasons that would mean little to anyone else; I like mysteries that take place in bookstores and tend to mark them higher. I cannot gainsay your feelings, folks, and I won’t dare to try. If you have a reason for liking a book that you particularly like, that’s fine with me. Merely allow me mine, is all.

My five most favourite John Dickson Carr novels

And, as you will soon note, in reverse numerical order. My favourite JDC novel is at the end of this list.

carr575. The Dead Man’s Knock (1958)

This is the story of a crumbling marriage between two people who each think the other is having an affair. He’s a college professor (and expert on the work of Wilkie Collins) whose supposed mistress, the voluptuous and vicious Rose Lestrange, is found in a locked room with a sharp dagger plunged into her heart. Meanwhile there’s a series of nasty practical jokes that came very close to murder.  Is Rose Lestrange’s death connected with mysterious notes that Wilkie Collins left about a locked-room mystery he proposed to write? Dr. Fell sorts it all out. I think this book is quite well-balanced among plot, setting, and characterization; the characters seem more human than is usual for JDC and you can believe that people committed acts for the very human reasons that are provided, rather than merely to further a puzzle plot. As well, the supernatural overtones are held to a minimum, which makes the practical joker’s subplot more realistic to me. I didn’t find the mechanics of the locked-room mystery ultimately very satisfying, but there’s a lot more humanity in this novel than many of Carr’s other mysteries.

n465194. The Sleeping Sphinx (1947)

Upon his release from the armed forces, Donald Holden discovers that he’s been presumed dead, which makes his relationship with his fiancee, Celia Devereaux, considerably more strained. Celia’s sister Margot died in peculiar circumstances about a year ago, after a dinner party at which everyone wore the death mask of a historical murderer. Everyone seems to be hinting to Holden that Celia’s mental stability is less than perfect … someone has opened up the disused office of a fortune teller in order to conduct some sort of tryst … and someone or some thing is moving the coffins around inside a sealed mausoleum. While Donald and Celia get to know each other all over again, Dr. Fell investigates and explains Margot’s death as well as all the other mysteries. This one meets my three criteria for a strong puzzle, excellent balance among the story elements, and a strongly creepy atmosphere. Added to which, this is one of the few GAD mysteries where Carr allows himself to be somewhat more frank about sexual matters than was commonly the case; the ideas of hysteria and a concomitant sexual dysfunction are key elements to understanding the motives in this novel.  I think it was very brave of Carr to put it in and very laudable of him to have gotten it right, instead of making up the details to suit the story.

The Nine Wrong Answers by John Dickson Carr, Corgi Books 1325, 1956

3. The Nine Wrong Answers (1952)

This is a non-series novel in which young, broke, and fairly stupid New Yorker Bill Dawson inveigles himself into a position where he agrees to travel to England impersonating Larry Hurst, the heir to a large fortune. Larry is promptly poisoned; Bill tries to fulfill his part of the bargain by leaving immediately for London and meeting with Larry’s wealthy wheelchair-bound uncle, Gaylord Hurst once a week. But Uncle Gaylord and his vicious manservant Hatto are not fooled and begin to play murderous games with Bill. After another death, Bill confronts the very surprising villain in a dramatic denouement. Again, a strong puzzle plot with a truly surprising ending; an excellent balance of story elements; and the escalating conflict between Bill and Gaylord Hurst that provides a nearly unbearable tension by the end of the novel. The element of this story I liked the most is where Carr breaks the fourth wall nine times during the book with footnotes, saying, in essence, “I know you’re thinking I’m trying to fool you in this particular way, but I’m not.” Meanwhile he is pulling the wool over your eyes in nine other ways, all of which are detailed in the final chapters.

images2.The Black Spectacles aka The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939)

The subtitle of this novel is “Being the psychologist’s murder case”, and I think it’s a major clue to the type of entertainment you receive. Wealthy Marcus Chesney believes that the testimony of eyewitnesses is unreliable, and invites witnesses to be present while an event takes place, not only in their view but in that of a movie camera. It’s intended that each witness will answer ten written questions after the event, which appears to be the faked poisoning of Chesney using a large green capsule by a masked and disguised figure wearing black spectacles, who promptly vanishes. To everyone’s surprise except the experienced Carr reader, Chesney is dead, the masked figure has vanished into thin air, and no one can agree on any of the answers to any of the ten questions, including what time it was. It’s my favourite story hook in all of Carr. Meanwhile, in the nearby village of Sodbury Cross, Chesney’s niece Marjorie is suspected of poisoning some children with chocolates in the same way as historical criminal Christiana Edmunds. Gideon Fell investigates the crimes while waiting for the movie film to be developed. At its first showing, the climax of the book is reached and Fell identifies the murderer. The puzzle is the star here, although the characterization has a good deal of merit (it assumes that lots of ordinary people would be familiar with the the Chocolate Cream Killer, but I can live with that). There are not many overtones of the supernatural and I think Carr could sustain the reader’s interest quite well without them, as he proves here.

1271711. The Crooked Hinge (1938)

This might be one of the instances where I have a fondness for a book because I read it when I was much younger and it had a profound effect on me. Definitely this one did … I read this when I was about 16 and can remember having a mostly sleepless night because my dreams involved the fingers of the mechanical hag reaching out for me! But really, folks, I think this is one novel where HDC brought it all together and it clicked. Spooky atmosphere?  Top of his game. Puzzle story, magnificently thought through and difficult but not impossible to solve. Perhaps not the most memorable characterization but the plot surrounding the puzzle is wonderful; complex, interesting, and with lots of elements that don’t necessarily contribute to the puzzle but further the action. The pace is great, the book is beautifully constructed — all in all, this is the one I try to hand people when they want a good place to start with JDC.

My five least favourite John Dickson Carr novels

Also in reverse numerical order. My least favourite novel is at the end of this list.

fire burn 025. Fire, Burn! (1957)

John Dickson Carr wrote some great historical mysteries; this isn’t one of them. He certainly had a great deal of knowledge and expertise about the ins and outs of London society in 1829, and that’s the big problem with this book for me; everything is in there. He’s so proud of how much he knows about this topic that there are seven pages of notes at the end of the novel for all the stuff he didn’t manage to cram in! Yes, I learned a lot. Yes, it’s accurate and interesting. But my feeling is that here, Carr lost track of the idea that you actually have to have an interesting novel to sustain all the research and this one is slow, simplistic, only marginally believable, and BORING.
73164514. The House at Satan’s Elbow (1965)

I regard this novel as the precise point at which it became clear that Carr’s writing powers were henceforth to be on the decline. I’m not old enough to have read this when it first came out (I was about ten in 1965) but I do remember hitting it in my teenage quest to read everything that the greatest writer EVER had ever written (smiling now at my youthful passions).  And I remember thinking, “Wow, that one is really not very good at all.” Which it isn’t. There is a point in Chapter 10 in which a minor character is casually said to have an unusual talent — she can perfectly imitate anyone’s handwriting. I found that hard to accept as a teenager, and today it’s just the point at which I close the book and move forward with something else to read, because that’s just bullshit. Or as I call it elsewhere, “mystery cement” (put in to make the puzzle harder). This book has all the elements of classic Carr — ghostly hugger-mugger in the dead of night, a puzzle, unusual characters. But the elements never coalesce to form a decent readable book. This is what I was talking about when I mentioned that sometimes Carr’s novels don’t always make it entirely onto the page; there’s a good mystery in here somewhere, but Carr didn’t manage to write it.

be25693c48d45ebfc4eb87f06429f0303. Patrick Butler for the Defense (1956)

There’s a lot wrong with this book, but one of the major things is that the protagonist is … well, let’s say “hard to accept”. For me Patrick Butler is made of the purest cardboard, and if you take out all the padding about “I am never wrong” and “I always defend the innocent,” there’s bugger-all that makes any sense as a human being. Here, the spooky atmosphere is almost entirely absent and replaced with salacious leerings at a halfwitted female stage performer with a “funny” French accent which requires Carr to write ridiculous dialogue throughout the book. Everyone runs around at top speed for no real reason. And the mystery element depends on something that is so damn stupid … it’s just ridiculous. (And it depends entirely upon this being a book. If it was a film, the mystery would be over in 30 seconds.) This is a book about cardboard characters doing stupid things against a boring background.

61ZsBl62poL._UY250_2.The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey (1936)

I’m on dangerous ground here, because the very eminent mystery critic and John Dickson Carr expert Douglas G. Greene — hell, he literally wrote the book on Carr, found here — thinks this is a great book. So I’ll say right off the bat, he’s probably right and you should take his word for it rather than mine. My issue with this book is personal. When I was reading my way through JDC’s complete works, this was the last one remaining on what birders call their “life list” … and this was before the internet, and before International Polygonics republished it. So I ended up paying what I recall as a huge amount of money for what was at that time the only paperback edition from Dolphin in 1962. I unwrapped the parcel from a faraway bookseller with trembling hands, because this was the very last John Dickson Carr I’d ever get to read … and oh my god it was boring. Stupefyingly, dreadfully, yawn-provokingly boring. This is, in fact, non-fiction, although JDC brought fictive techniques to it. But since it is a retelling of historical fact, he wasn’t allowed to twist characters and events to make the narrative a little more exciting. Yes, again, as I noted in my comments on Fire, Burn! above, Carr knew a LOT about historical fact. But no amount of historical accuracy could bring this corpse back to life for me. For me, this was like reading a textbook for a course you didn’t want to take but had to. I finished the book in an evening and set it aside forever, extremely disappointed.

6573986169_ae8008afea_m1.The Blind Barber (1934)

There are people who like John Dickson Carr’s sense of humour, which depends largely upon a broad sense of farce reminiscent of the Marx Brothers, or perhaps P. G. Wodehouse. When he can restrain it (as in, for instance, the ghost train sequence in the Carter Dickson title The Skeleton in the Clock) it can provide a useful silly interlude within a larger, more serious story, and relieve some tension only to let it start building again. But here, there is nothing other than pure unadulterated farce, leavened with horrific and bloody violence. The principal figure of fun is an elderly alcoholic puppeteer — I don’t think alcoholism is something to encourage people to think is funny, in this context. Everyone in this book drinks a lot and does silly things against their own best interests in order to further the plot and keep it moving so fast that you aren’t supposed to notice that really, nothing useful is going on. And the most annoying part for me is that, early on, a minor character says something about the official actions in regard to the murder that, as far as I’m concerned, ruins the ending. The reader was told that something had happened and the solution depends on that not having effectively happened. (I’m again on dangerous ground here because I don’t have a copy at hand to give you chapter and verse; this is my memory speaking.) This book isn’t as funny as Carr thinks it is, the mystery is a cheat, the characters are unrealistic in the extreme, the violence is unnecessarily horrible, and a lot of the humour is based on how funny alcoholics are. Ugh.

A note on omissions

I’m sure it will surprise some people to realize that there are two very significant John Dickson Carr novels that are not on my list of favourites: The Three Coffins and He Who Whispers. Most commentators on JDC would, I think, at least have those in their top ten. I have to say that if I had done ten favourites rather than five, He Who Whispers would have been a solid sixth place and Three Coffins might have been ninth or tenth.

51EbYUCUfNL._SY445_He Who Whispers has a lot of great things about it; notably it’s one of the instances where JDC was frank about sexual matters, and I have to think that improves the book when compared to the rank and file of his work. For me — and I know I differ from almost everyone on this — the vampire element just doesn’t work. Perhaps it’s something about me personally, but it was perfectly clear to me from the outset that the crime was not committed by someone with magical powers and so the reader had to look at what actually happened without JDC in the background making moaning noises and saying, “Oooooo, scary stuff over here!”.  The puzzle is clever, the writing is good, it’s just this particular volume didn’t work for me from the get-go because I didn’t believe the premise.

three-coffinsThe Three Coffins is another one with the same problem for me. Do I have something against vampires? Maybe so. All I know is, Carr can bring me to the point of screaming out loud when he writes about, say, the mechanical hag in Crooked Hinge, and here the vampire stuff is just silly. The reason why this book would make it into my top ten list is because of the magnificent chapter where Dr. Fell stops the action, breaks the fourth wall, and delivers a lecture about how locked-room mysteries work. It truly is great. And I think it would have been even better in a work of non-fiction, because what it does for me is slow the action of this novel to a complete and grinding halt from which it never really recovers. Act 1 raises a lot of questions, then there’s a lecture about, essentially, how to read the book, then Act 2 goes off on a tangent about the second crime, then Act 3 is so full of explanations that it’s just three chapters of lecturing by Dr. Fell. Without spoiling it for anyone, I have never liked the reason why no one except Dr. Fell can figure out the second murder; it just doesn’t seem possible to me that everyone overlooked that certain something. The characterization is simplistic (“good” people and “bad” people are easy to identify). And once you clear away the guff about people rising from their graves, what you really have is a book where most of the backstory is crammed into the final third of the book in order to explain the first two-thirds; readability is sacrificed to the goal of making the first third of the book spooky as hell and inexplicable.

Nevertheless, as I say, both these books have lots and LOTS of fans. They may not be to my specific taste, but they might be to yours, so you should definitely give them a try.

 

 

 

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Book scouting John Dickson Carr (Part 1)

12784234_10206990403411371_1309856526_nA group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’re now going to continue looking at a different Golden Age mystery writer each month; Tuesdays in March will be devoted to John Dickson Carr.

Book scouting John Dickson Carr (Part 1)

When I started preparing for this post, harvesting pictures of beautiful paperback covers from all over the internet, I knew after a few minutes there was going to have to be more than one post on this topic. JDC was a very prolific writer for a very long time, and most of his work has been through numerous paperback editions and even multiple translations.

The other thing that crossed my mind was — so much beauty here! Carr’s books are very dramatic and they seem like plum assignments for cover designers. I’ve deliberately eliminated hardcover editions from this collection but still, from the lurid to the salacious to the simply lovely, there is something here for every taste.

There are many Carr collectors and crisp copies of any of his books will generally find a resale market. Until the advent of e-books, the most difficult titles commanded a high price; as is common, his last few books (that showed a decline in quality) are very scarce in paperback or hardcover. Other valuable paperback collectibles are the Popular Library editions, especially with the covers by Rudolph Belarski (generally featuring large-breasted women in tight evening gowns), the earliest Pocket, Avon, Bantam, Berkley, and US Penguin editions, any copy of The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey, and of course the Dell mapbacks.

Part 1 will be covers as by John Dickson Carr himself. Part 2 will be titles under JDC’s major pseudonym, Carter Dickson, and I’ll insert a link here when I do the post.

 

Too Many Magicians, by Randall Garrett (1966)

2262290596What’s this book about?

Lord Darcy is the Chief Investigator for His Royal Highness Richard of Normandy. If you’ve never heard of Richard of Normandy, that’s because this is both a novel of detection and of fantasy; specifically, in the sub-genre of “alternate history”. What if Richard the Lion-Hearted had survived that archer’s arrow in 1199 and then financed the research that codified the Laws of Magic? Fast-forward to 1966, to a world where magic works and science is in its infancy, where men wear swords and where the major enemy of the Angevin Empire (after Britain conquered France once and for all) is the Polish Empire of King Casimir X, and the two empires are currently in the middle of a cold war.

907891267In the middle of some espionage activities that have produced a corpse for the investigative attentions of the great detective Lord Darcy, his “Watson”, forensic sorcerer Sean O’Lochlainn, is attending a meeting of the Royal Thaumaturgical Society at a London hotel. When the Empire’s Chief Forensic Sorcerer, Sir James Zwinge, is found dead behind a locked door in the hotel (and one that has been well-protected by magic spells), Lord Darcy and Master Sean have two cases to investigate that soon reveal international ramifications at the highest diplomatic level. Lord Darcy and Master Sean are inveigled into solving the case by the machinations of the Marquis of London and his assistant Lord Bontriomphe, ordinarily loyal allies but in this case needing to push to achieve fast results. Meanwhile, the relationship deepens between handsome Lord Darcy and Mary, Dowager Duchess of Cumberland, and a young prince of Mechicoe finds a way to express his rare magical talents in a way useful to the investigation. The story proceeds at a rapid pace, pausing only as Lord Darcy rescues a beautiful Polish sorceress from the icy waters of the Thames, and ends up at a gambling club, the Manzana de Oro, where the crimes are brought home to a guilty party who should be a surprise to many readers.

275352632Why is this worth reading?

If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t care for the idea of a fantasy detective story in an alternate timeline where magic works, then you are not likely to find much of interest here. That’s a shame, because this is a very clever story written by someone who was well-read in both the fantasy and mystery genres. Randall Garrett died regrettably young, and so only produced three volumes about Lord Darcy; this novel, and two volumes of short stories. But his fellow writer and friend Michael Kurland knew there was a great demand for more stories of murder and magic, and produced two further novels in the series.

And why was there such demand? Well, there are two major reasons I see for this set of stories being so popular. The first and foremost is that Garrett got the balance right between fantasy and mystery, and that’s very difficult to do — and satisfying to read.

When you begin with a premise like this, there are two competing sets of storytelling themes that have to be balanced. Yes, it is fascinating to speculate on what a gambling club would be like in a world where people have a Talent to affect the laws of chance, or how everyday items like refrigerators and house keys would have developed when based on magical principles. But if you stop for a lecture every time a character in the book opens the fridge or the front door, the action of the book soon grinds to a halt and gets bogged down beyond redemption. Garrett managed to give the reader just enough to interest, and titillate the imagination, without delving too deeply into details.

10562694527The other theme that has to be balanced is the need to have an internally consistent world-view that produces a fantasy murder mystery, without solving the crime by merely making up the rules. For instance, if you tell the reader that only women can use a particular magic spell, but then solve a crime by revealing in the final chapter that a male criminal had come into possession of the long-lost Amulet of Nermepherr that allowed him to cast that spell — well, you’ve just lost my interest once and for all. That’s the equivalent of a Golden Age of Detection writer introducing a master criminal in the last chapter who’s disguised as the local vicar; not fair and not interesting. I can tell you, there are a number of well-known authors who haven’t managed to pull off that balancing act, including the pseudonymous J.D. Robb, where all the technology is cutting-edge 2060 and half the social attitudes are 1985.  Here, it’s balanced beautifully. You learn the details of the spells that the sorcerers are talking about, their limitations, their effects, and everything you need to know to solve the crime. But the actual locked-room mystery itself is clever and very fair. (I don’t think it will be giving away too much to reveal that Garrett was familiar with a specific Carter Dickson novel and a specific Agatha Christie novel to produce this plot, but if you’re relying on what you think you recognize, you’ll be fooled. Very pleasantly, I may add.)

The second reason why these stories were so popular is that Randall Garrett had a very unusual sense of humour that is present in nearly every sentence and paragraph of his stories. I think it’s a conceit that’s based on the idea that in a parallel universe, familiar people and things from our own universe might be barely recognizable; here, Garrett allows himself every opportunity to drag in references to fictional characters from our universe, sometimes in a very hard-to-understand way.

TooManyMagiciansMost of my audience, being familiar with the Nero Wolfe canon, will find themselves smiling at the idea that the gourmandizing and horticultural Marquis of London never leaves his townhouse and employs a womanizing investigator named Bontriomphe to do his legwork. Bon = good; triomphe = win, therefore the gentleman is Archie Goodwin, and that’s an easy example of the kind of referential and macaronic wordplay with which these books are riddled. (See if you can figure out why his chef’s name is Frederique Bruleur.) But Garrett goes much, much further than that, and buries his punning references in the depths of obscurity.  For instance, I mentioned above that Lord Darcy rescues a Polish sorceress; her name is Tia Einzig, and she makes reference to her uncle Neapeler Einzig having escaped Poland and found safety on the Isle of Man. Those facts have very little to do with the story per se, but when you begin to dig into the etymology of the words and their possible cognates in other languages — Tia = Aunt, and Einzig is a bastardized translation of, essentially, “one in a zillion” — “Solo”.  Neapeler is a German word for Neapolitan, a person from Naples; again, a bastardized translation might be Napoleon. So her uncle is Napoleon Solo — the Uncle from Man.

In this volume, there’s a long, long chain of explanations that leads you to a moment where you slap your forehead, because a man named Barbour is a Pole by birth. There’s another set of allusions grafted into a short story that reference, believe it or not, bidding conventions in contract bridge. (If you play bridge, the explanation of why a “short club” was used to hit the victim will leave you giggling uncontrollably.) There’s a James Bond character, hidden references to the Grey Lensmen and the Pink Panther … one of the attendees at the magicians’ meeting is named Gandolphus Gray, which refers to Lord of the Rings. I will hold out temptingly the idea that it’s clear to me that there are other references in these books to people in our own universe but I just don’t know enough to know what they are; some are science fiction writers. The victim, Sir James Zwinge, is apparently based on the famous “magical debunker” James Randi. And to complete the circle, Garrett’s collaborator and continuation writer, Michael Kurland, is here represented as Sergeant-at-Arms Michael Coeur-Terre.

I think why this works so well for the reader is because I suggest that the kind of mind that enjoys solving murder mysteries is the same kind of mind that can look at “Neapeler ” and think “Neapeler = Naples-ian = Napoleon” and from there get to Napoleon Solo and the Man from U.N.C.L.E, and then be amused by the Uncle from Man. If you don’t like that sort of thing, then you will not actively dislike this book for that reason; it’s quite easy to overlook every instance of such wordplay if you’re simply not looking for it. But once you realize it’s there, and you do like that sort of thing — you’ll want to read this book to find out whodunnit, certainly, but you may also re-read it to see if you can catch yet another layer of wordplay that’s been buried by the clever Mr. Garrett.

So for mystery fans, you have a difficult locked-room mystery (and a light espionage plot). For fantasy fans, you have a clever alternate-history story and the interesting idea of state-regulated magic. And for paronomasiacs, you have the kind of word play that is only available when a dedicated and widely-read punster devotes considerable time and effort to burying a level of humour in a novel that’s only there if you look hard for it. I really enjoy this book, and all the Lord Darcy stories; I hope you do too.

Lord DarcyMy favourite edition

This volume and all the Lord Darcy stories have a complicated publishing history, but an interesting one. This novel originally appeared broken into sections in successive issues of Analog magazine, devoted to science fiction stories; so that’s the true first. It was then published in hardcover by Doubleday and the first paper is an ugly edition from Curtis. Someday I’ll write a monograph on how Curtis did nearly everything wrong as a publisher, mostly with covers, but choosing Garrett was one of the few good publishing decisions they ever made. All the Lord Darcy pieces by Garrett have been collected into a single compendium volume, Lord Darcy, and I think this is my “favourite” volume. My favourite is frequently the most valuable and/or the most beautiful, but in this case, it’s the most functional. If you need to flip back and forth to trace the appearance of a single character through different stories, this is how you want to do it.

The Case of the Solid Key, by Anthony Boucher (1941)

The Case of the Solid Key, by Anthony Boucher (1941)

415BWWnlvBL._SL500_What’s this book about?

Under-employed playwright Norman Harker, fresh on the Hollywood scene, gets involved with a small semi-amateur theatre company, formed and financed by a group of actors to bring themselves to the attention of casting directors. His main interest is the lovely but mysterious ingenue Sarah Plunk, but he also wants to have his play produced under the auspices of managing director Rupert Carruthers and business manager Adam Pennworth. The company is currently working on a strange allegorical play called The Soul Has Two Garments, written and financed by famous and very nearly saintly Arctic explorer (but terrible playwright) Lewis Jordan. The experienced mystery reader’s ears will prick up when we learn that there’s a strange insurance policy in existence that pays $50,000 if one of the principals behind this awful play should die before the production is mounted.

Almost immediately, a horribly burned corpse is found backstage, alone in a room locked from the inside, apparently a casualty of an experiment in on-stage pyrotechnics gone wrong; Rupert Carruthers has spent the preceding days quarrelling with his associates and has a long history of gouging and swindling unsuspecting playwrights and actors, and everything points to an impossible murder. The door to the workshop where Carruthers has been working is locked with a very peculiar key; it’s one solid piece, which means to Lieutenant Jackson of Homicide (and amateur actor/detective Fergus O’Breen, part of the company) that no standard jiggery-pokery to hocus the door could have been possible.

Anthony Boucher

Anthony Boucher

Besides the company of actors, many of whom have suspicious backgrounds and motivations, the plot is complicated by the involvement of Lieutenant Jackson’s brother Paul, well-known movie star, and his screen partner (and “girlfriend for publicity’s sake”) Rita La Marr, whose sweater seems to contain her principal assets — and Fergus O’Breen’s sister Maureen, publicity agent at Metropolis Pictures, home of the Jackson/La Marr pairing. Is this well-known romance finally over — and why? And since everyone wants to be noticed by Metropolis, has someone hired well-known “ribber” Vernon Crews to impersonate an important person and get some publicity?

Finally Lieutenant Jackson, assisted by Fergus and Norman, works out what must have happened and brings the criminal to justice. In the process, a romantic pairing reaches a satisfying conclusion and many mysteries, large and small, are solved.

10122566014Why is this worth reading?

As I’ve noted elsewhere, anything by Anthony Boucher is worth reading. They named the world’s largest mystery convention after him — what else do you need to know? His specialty was locked room mysteries and/or impossible crimes. This is the third of four Fergus O’Breen mysteries written between 1939 and 1942, and taken as a whole, they are great work by this great mystery aficionado, prominent critic, and all-around polymath. Fergus O’Breen is brash and charming and devil-may-care; some of the characters are unusual and interesting; and the crime at the centre of the novel has a number of satisfyingly twisty interpretations before the detectives reach the correct conclusion.

In fact, as you can easily tell, I’m a big Boucher fan, whether he’s writing mysteries or science fiction or fantasy or radio scripts or criticism, at all of which he excelled. That being said — this is not his best work. But let me add, Boucher’s second-rate work is better than a LOT of other writers’ first-rate work. I’m not saying this is a bad book, merely that it isn’t as superb as most of his others.

There are a number of things wrong with the plot, most of which I can’t go into in depth because I will spoil your enjoyment. I’ll merely say that a handful of the characters are not easily distinguished one from the other because they’re rather bland; the central premise of the locked room isn’t all that gripping or indeed necessary to the plot; and if there is anyone who doesn’t figure out the “surprise” behind the Jackson/La Marr subplot before the book is half over, well, they should go back to Young Adult reading. A couple of the characters are petty squabblers, and it doesn’t seem that there is any reason for them to be so except that the book needs a little tension. And the character of Vernon Crews, perhaps the most interesting idea in this and other Boucher novels, is offstage, to the detriment of the plot. Crews is based on someone who actually existed in Hollywood at about this time; Vince Barnett was a bit-part actor who made more of a living from acting by being hired in real life to impersonate people or play preposterous characters so that wealthy Hollywood people could play elaborate practical jokes on each other. Now, THERE is the basis for a mystery I’d like to read some day.

There are a couple of other minor issues that niggled at me as I refreshed my memory of this book; I like the character of Fergus O’Breen, but he’s not much on view here because the viewpoint character is most often the bland playwright. And Boucher is well known for adding little snippets of side information that cast an oblique light on the plot; here, the excursions into other areas (such as the visit to an all-girl rooming house near the end of the book, or an amusement park) seem a little forced and artificially vivacious. The romantic sub-plot between the playwright and the ingenue is … sticky sweet and a little unpleasant, especially when you contrast Sarah Plunk with a sad alcoholic actress with whom she chums around.

There’s also a character in the book who is what we would call today gay and, as I remarked in my last piece on a Boucher book, this is unusual for the time and place. I can’t say exactly why I have a problem with this character for fear of spoiling your pleasure, but you’ll know by the end of the book what my issue is — I just cannot accept that he does what he does for the reasons that he gives. It’s an interesting take, but it doesn’t come together, to the detriment of the book. Similarly, Lewis Jordan is probably based on someone in real life, but he doesn’t ever actually come to life; he’s simply cardboard, which is a shame.

I wish Boucher would have taken a little bit longer with this book, or perhaps run it through one more draft before publication; the elements are here to produce a tremendous mystery but it doesn’t actually quite come together with the satisfying “click” that marks his best work. Nevertheless — a second-rate novel by Boucher is still a damn good mystery, and there’s an opportunity here to see a certain element of 1940s Hollywood society depicted by a brilliant writer who actually knew people like this. All four Fergus O’Breen novels are worth your time, even if this one should be fourth on the list.

8f6ed6d8fdef0d7e04a716cf440d2cd7My favourite edition

To the left is Popular Library #59 from 1945, a delightfully lurid cover of an early number from this ground-breaking publisher before they moved to their equally delightful “breasts and guns” themes in cover art exemplified by the great Rudolph Belarski (check out this cover). Other than the fact that there’s a key, I can’t figure out what the cover is intended to depict; it doesn’t appear to relate to the book at all, and I don’t really care. Look at those colours! A Near Fine copy of this early paperback will set you back $40 as of the date of this writing and I think I’d rather own this edition than the Simon & Shuster Inner Sanctum first, shown above (and today’s price for a Near Fine one of those is $400).

Also noteworthy — perhaps for different reasons — is the edition shown at the head of this review, Pyramid X-1733 from 1968, possibly the paper edition most commonly available. This is an entry in their “Green Door” series that could have used the linking device of the green door to great effect, except they’d apparently moved on by that point. So the front cover is merely ordinary. And I have to say, the back cover material intended to give you a taste of the book’s contents is simply and egregiously wrong, almost to the point of giving away the answer to the book. Although there are collectors of the Green Door series, and I’m one of them, if you don’t have a particular interest in this edition you should avoid it.