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: 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.

200 authors I would recommend (Part 3)

Another ten authors whose work I’d recommend. You’ll find Part 1 that explains this list here; the immediately previous article, Part 2, is here; the next piece, Part 4, is found here.

1339239828921.  Brean, Herbert

This author only wrote a handful of books, but all seven are worth your time. Wilders Walk Away is a spooky tale about the Wilder family, who has this funny habit of walking out of the house never to be seen again. Supernatural shenanigans not far off the approach of John Dickson Carr, where everything is resolved un-supernaturally at the end. Really classic American detective fiction, well-written and smart, and frequently with a strong flavour of what I’ll call “Americana”; Brean takes the flavour of the English village mystery and transplants it to the US very successfully. The Traces of Brillhart is an interesting mystery that used to make my life hell; a paperback publisher had mistakenly attributed it to Carr in the back pages of the book and every so often someone would come in and insist that this was the last Carr on their list to track down and read. I hate disappointing a Carr fan!

100151127322. Brett, Simon

I first came to appreciate Simon Brett through his very funny series about hard-drinking second-rate actor Charles Paris, who is constantly hard up and wondering where his next bottle of Bell’s whisky is coming from. Brett takes his protagonist through murder plots set against nearly every type of acting job, from crummy rep theatres to radio drama to cheesy horror films, all with a knowing wink and a great deal of sympathy for the long-suffering Mr. Paris. Lately Brett’s very active writing career has branched out into three other series; not my all-time favourites but still worth a read. Brett is one of the few writers who, for me, successfully balances light humour with murder.

2700481368_178b0a546623. Brown, Fredric

It’s always astounding to me that an author can find success in both the mystery and science fiction fields; when you couple it with a talent for writing great short stories and superb work at the novel length, you have a recipe for great success. Unfortunately the hard-drinking Mr. Brown never found great financial success in his lifetime; rather like Philip K. Dick, he’s more esteemed today than when he was alive. Brown has the ability to convey seedy and disreputable and poverty-stricken backgrounds wonderfully well — carnivals and cheap printing operations and sad rooming houses. You can just about hear the sad jazz score in the background. His most successful novel is probably The Screaming Mimi, which was made into a film, but Brown-lovers esteem the Ed and Am Hunter series most highly. Start with The Fabulous Clipjoint and be prepared to not put it down till it’s finished — it’s that good. Be warned; if you want to actually own physical copies of his books, it’s likely to cost you a small fortune.

089733033124. Bruce, Leo

Leo Bruce is the mystery pseudonym of Rupert Croft-Cooke, who actually spent time in prison because of his homosexuality (see the Wikipedia article here). His Sergeant Beef mysteries are broadly amusing and still excellent puzzle mysteries; there’s a strong flavour of parody. His best known Beef novel, Case for Three Detectives, features the beer-swilling detective beating out thinly-disguised portraits of Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot and Father Brown to the solution. The series featuring acerbic schoolmaster Carolus Deene is much longer and was less successful towards the end of the author’s career, as frequently happens, but there are more than enough good ones from the 50s and 60s to keep the reader of classic British puzzle mysteries happy. Bruce is a sadly overlooked writer who deserves a revival; his writing is excellent, his plotting is first-rate and his general approach is classic.

071235716525. Bude, John

John Bude is another classic British mystery writer overdue for a revival and I’m happy to say that his first novel, The Lake District Murder, is now back in print and gaining him a generation of new fans. I haven’t read The Cornish Coast Mystery but it too is easily available now. Both will serve as excellent introductions to this author’s many novels, which I found delicate and sensible, without too much blood and thunder; rather like the Humdrum school exemplified by Freeman Wills Crofts. When I was searching them out, these novels were rare and expensive; they were worth savouring as well-written examples of the classic English mystery. Humdrum expert Curtis Evans refers to Bude (in the comments below the linked article) as a “competent third-stringer”; I might be a little more generous. Perhaps it’s merely scarcity that prompts me to recommend him but I think you’ll enjoy his books.

Wycliffe and the Three-Toed Pussy26. Burley, W. J.

Burley is best known as the author of the Inspector Wycliffe (WICK-liff) mysteries set in the British West Country, which became the basis for an interesting television programme that my American friends possibly won’t have seen. When you see the television episodes, you realize that the amazing countryside is indeed a strong underpinning of the books; without that knowledge, they’re merely above-average Scotland Yard mysteries. I also enjoyed the two early novels about amateur detective Henry Pym, including Death In Willow Pattern, but you’ll find it much easier to acquire a handful of the 22 Wycliffe novels and settle in for a relaxing weekend.

murder md27. Burton, Miles

Miles Burton is actually a major pseudonym of the prolific Cecil Street, who is probably better known as mystery writer John Rhode. I wanted to recommend both names (you’ll find John Rhode listed later in this series) because the author’s work deserves to be better known. I have to confess I haven’t read many Miles Burton novels, but the few that have passed through my hands have been uniformly interesting. I recommend Murder, M.D. and Death Takes The Living from personal knowledge as being excellent, and A Smell of Smoke has many points of interest. I note here that Ramble House Publishers have brought a couple of Burton titles back into print in recent years, as has a publisher called Black Curtain Press. I must say that I’m not certain that Black Curtain has permission to reprint these titles; if respect for copyright is as important to you as it should be, you may wish to investigate before you purchase.

51HQ--9M8bL28. Carlson, P. M.

P. M. (Pat) Carlson deserves to be much better known for the eight-volume Maggie Ryan series of mysteries (there are others from this writer but I haven’t managed to read them). I’ve read bunches and bunches of “spunky but loveable young woman takes an amateur hand at solving mysteries” and rarely have I found it better done than this series. Carlson knows what she’s talking about in terms of academic backgrounds — Murder is Academic and Murder is Pathological are, to my certain knowledge, accurate as all get-out, and it’s nice to see these settings portrayed by someone who knows them. (Murder is Academic will absolutely delight the professorial types on your Xmas list; guaranteed.) The backgrounds are interesting, the characters are unusual but not outré, and have depth; the mysteries are clever, and the writing is fine. One of the few times when a “spunky but loveable” character doesn’t make me want to throw the book across the room.

funeral29. Carnac, Carol

Another instance of a great author (Edith C. Rivett) being published under two names, both of which are worth looking for; you’ll find E. C. R. Lorac further down this list.  And another instance where I have to recommend you try to find these books even though I haven’t managed to read all of them myself; Carnac/Lorac novels are scarce, sought-after, and expensive — but for good reason. I really enjoyed A Policeman at the Door and It’s Her Own Funeral, and every other Inspector Rivers/Inspector Ryvet novel I’ve ever managed to find. Classic British detection at its best; an undercurrent of sly humour and a strong knowledge of human behaviour coupled with solid writing make these books very worth finding.

three-coffins30. Carr, John Dickson

There isn’t much I can say about John Dickson Carr if you haven’t found your way to him already; I’m just going to hit the high points. He’s one of the most famous — justly famous — mystery writers of all time. You’ll also find his major pseudonym, Carter Dickson, further down his list; these are the two faces of an absolute Grand Master of mystery. JDC is the master of the locked-room mystery, and my Golden Age Detection Facebook group has spent hours discussing which of his many, many books is the best. Carr as Carr writes mostly about Dr. Gideon Fell, an elderly lexicographer who unerringly puzzles out how murders were committed in impossible circumstances, and a smaller series about juge d’instruction Henri Bencolin. Everything with Carr’s name on it is worth reading (there are a few clunkers at the very end of a long and honourable career, but even those are worth your time). Carr knew how to write melodramatic mystery; not much on characterization, and a bit sexist at a time when that was more acceptable, but holy moly the man could plot mysteries. He’s well known for introducing supernatural elements which turn out to be necessary to the down-to-earth murderer’s plotting. The Three Coffins has a huge reputation as one of the best locked-room mysteries of all time (and stops for a chapter to explain the mechanics of the locked-room mystery). I like to recommend some lesser-known minor* novels as being good places to start, notably The Sleeping Sphinx, He Who Whispers, and To Wake the Dead. Wherever you begin with Carr, I trust you’ll acquire the taste for everything he ever wrote.

(*Corrected on the date of publication; my friend Xavier Lechard is correct, He Who Whispers isn’t “minor”, it’s merely lesser known.)

The Tragedy of Y, as by “Barnaby Ross” (Ellery Queen) (1932)

The Tragedy of Y, as by “Barnaby Ross” (Ellery Queen) (1932)

BR02b_Tragedy_of_YAuthor: “Barnaby Ross” is a pseudonym adopted by the two gentlemen better known as “Ellery Queen” for a series of four books featuring detective Drury Lane, a wealthy retired actor who has become deaf.

Publication Data: The first edition is from Viking Press, 1932. Many, many editions exist. It’s not entirely clear to me when the publication as by “Barnaby Ross” became as by “Ellery Queen”, but an edition from Frederick A. Stokes in 1941 cites both names on the cover and contains a foreword as by Ellery Queen which appears to explain the transition. A number of paperback editions exist, including early Avon and Pocket editions. For this review I used a searchable PDF copy that came in a bundle from a friend, although I’m not sure exactly from whom or when, and so have chosen to illustrate the topmost section of this review with the edition whose cover I find most attractive, Pocket Books #313.

This is the second of four volumes in the brief Drury Lane series; The Tragedy of X, Y (both 1932) and Z were followed by Drury Lane’s Last Case (The Tragedy of 1599), both published in 1933.

10639765895About this book:

Spoiler warning: What you are about to read does not discuss in explicit terms the solution to this murder mystery but it will certainly give away large chunks of information about its plot and characters. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

This story begins with the discovery, by a fishing boat, of a nearly-unidentifiable corpse which is carrying a signed and dated suicide note identifying its transport as Mr. Y. (York) Hatter of New York. The York family consists of the late York, a somewhat ineffectual paterfamilias and dabbler in science who is married to the true governor of the family, the hugely wealthy, eccentric, and tyrannical Emily Hatter.  There are four children in the next generation, and everyone lives in the Hatter mansion — home to, as the tabloids put it, the “mad Hatters”. Eldest daughter Barbara is an intellectual and a well-known poet; Conrad is a drunk weakling who married weak-willed Martha and produced two boys, Jackie (13) and Billy (4). Jill, the youngest, is a sensation-seeking debutante who is constantly gracing tabloid covers. And the fourth child, the daughter of Emily’s deceased first husband Tom Campion, is Louisa, who is completely blind, and soon becomes what was in 1932 called “deaf and dumb”. (We are told soon that there is “something evil in the blood” of Emily, since she has given birth to afflicted children by two different fathers; the word is never used, but I gather they mean syphilis, which was incurable in 1932.) Louisa is in many ways the focus of the household, since Emily is fiercely protective of her, and in many ways ignored by everyone else. One final member of the household is the one-legged Captain Trivett, a dependent of Emily’s first husband. He actually lives next door but has complete access to the Hatter home since he is a friend and companion to Louisa.

tragedyofy-avonSoon after the discovery of the body, someone leaves a glass of eggnog containing strychnine out waiting for Louisa; it is actually gulped as a spiteful joke by little Jackie, who nearly dies as a result. The doctor calls the police, to the great anger of Emily, and Drury Lane is asked to take a hand. He lives in a castle (complete with “feudal village” full of 20th century people) overlooking the Hudson in Westchester County and we see his vaguely Shakepearean intimate household; we also meet Inspector Thumm, who brings him the case. They have hardly begun to get to know the facts of the case when Emily is bizarrely murdered. She is found dead in Louisa’s room and some unusual bloody markings on her face soon reveal that she’s been beaten to death with, of all things, a mandolin that is usually found in the library. Other clues include a strip of carpet covered with spilled powder that reveals some footprints; a bowl of fruit with a bruised pear that has been poisoned with bichloride of mercury, but, oddly, indications that although it seems meant for Louisa, it’s well-known she would not have eaten one with bruises. Finally, Louisa herself was in the room and has two observations; she touched the murderer’s cheek and it was smooth, and there was a faint smell of vanilla in the room.

The household’s alibis prove out or do not, as the case may be, and various subplots within the younger generation’s lives begin to manifest. The children’s tutor is apparently in love with Barbara; the footprints were made by a pair of Conrad’s shoes, which are found to be stained with bichloride of mercury. The entrance to the late York Hatter’s laboratory is surrounded by unmarked dust, but there proves to be a secret entrance into the room via the chimney from Louisa’s room. About midway through the book, someone sets fire to the laboratory; the fire is doused, but no one is clear why the laboratory was set on fire. The police are looking primarily at women suspects, because of the clue of the smooth cheek, but admit that a man and woman could be working together.

Emily’s will contains some odd provisions, mostly concerned with ensuring Louisa’s future; Louisa has become a source of income, in a way, since whoever agrees to take care of her will inherit considerably more money. (Emily’s estate is the enormous sum of more than one million dollars.) Drury Lane and the police begin to understand portions of what happened the night of Emily’s death, but some parts of the story seem inexplicable and almost random.

257e343303cdc023ab204c924a88f84eDrury Lane fakes a heart attack in order to move into the house as a convalescing invalid. The discovery of a document in York’s laboratory  explains quite a bit of what happened the night of Emily’s death, and why it happened, but Drury Lane is certain that the murderer still has more actions to perform. One final murder takes place which completes the story for Drury Lane, and he calls together the police and explains everything to them, with the help of extended logical deductions based upon such things as the distance between the powdered footprints on the murder scene; Drury Lane combines these deductions with the other clues to reveal the unexpected identity of the murderer. He also reveals that he has taken a more active hand in the process and that there will be no further acts of violence in what remains of the Hatter family. In fact, he communicates that he has in effect murdered the murderer without actually saying so, and the police, without actually saying so, decide to let him get away with it, as the book ends.

tragedy-of-y-mapWhy is this book worth your time?

Ellery Queen, of course, is one of the all-time masters of a certain kind of detective story. Its hallmarks are logical deduction from physical clues, characters who are somewhat more types than actual fleshed-out characters, and a certain deliberate amount of bizarrie added in order to interest the reader. And the underlying basis of these stories is always a murder plot which at first glance appears both insoluble and very strange. Many of these stories fall into the “impossible crime” or “locked-room mystery” sub-genre; others you might call howdunnits, alibi mysteries, timetable mysteries, and the like. These are the volumes that come provided with a helpful floor plan so that you can trace the paths of characters as you try to imagine them doing what they’ve said they did, and get a grasp of when people’s paths might have intersected. I think of this kind of detective story as the basis for what we presently call the Golden Age. It is certainly true that not all great Golden Age mysteries are this kind of story, but quite a few of them are. Since Ellery Queen is one of the finest practitioners of this type of story, I’ll suggest that just about anything he (or rather “they”, since Ellery Queen is a pseudonym for two writers, but “he” is easiest) ever wrote is worth your time, pretty much automatically.

Ellery Queen novels are easily separated into a handful of periods, and this is from the first, most puzzle-oriented period. The Tragedy of Y was published in 1932, and Queen’s career started in 1929. One can only imagine the spurt of creative energy that produced, between 1929 and the end of 1932, five Ellery Queen novels of the highest calibre and two Drury Lane mysteries as by Barnaby Ross. In fact, both Tragedy of X and Y were published in 1932 — along with The Greek Coffin Mystery and The Egyptian Cross Mystery, making an unbelievable four volumes of complex, difficult puzzle mysteries in a single year. The two remaining novels in the four-volume Drury Lane sequence were published in 1933.

It’s hard to understand at this remove exactly what might have motivated Ellery Queen to move aside from what seems to have been a very successful mystery series to write another mystery series. Of course the answer is money, since this enormous workload was not undertaken lightly; I suspect there’s a strong component of striking while the iron is hot. Francis M. Nevins, Jr.’s 1974 volume on Ellery Queen, Royal Bloodline, tells us that in 1931 “they were persuaded by their agent to take the plunge and make it as professionals or bust” (p. 5). I can see where, in the middle of an economic depression, it would be important to work very, very hard to maintain a living and people did not give up jobs lightly, so they would be impelled to be writing a lot. Yet it’s generally accepted that Ellery Queen is the far more successful character; Drury Lane is considered artificial and cliched and the Drury Lane series was wisely, I think, retired the next year. I suspect that Drury Lane began for the same reason as John Dickson Carr began publishing as by Carter Dickson in the same period, because the authors had been told that the public understood large numbers of books coming out under a single name as a signal of low quality. At this 80-year remove, it seems hard to understand why Ellery Queen would “waste” so interesting and complex a plot on the meagre talents of Drury Lane. Just as I understand that a later Queen novel, Halfway House, could have been titled The Swedish Match Mystery in order to fit into the nationalities series, so I also see that this book could easily have been called The Peruvian Balsam Mystery and recast with Ellery Queen. Oh well — perhaps in an alternate universe.

51NhO8o-QkL._SL500_AA300_And to the student of Queen, there are elements of this book that are fascinating when you consider the repeating of elements throughout the Queen canon. This is the first example of a story which Queen later re-wrote as by Queen, with 1943’s There Was an Old Woman. An enormously wealthy woman, cruel and dictatorial, as the matriarch of a family that has been tainted by syphilis and that has both sane and crazy members — this is all the same. In 1943, Queen was trying to produce novels that would be taken up by Hollywood and filmed, and so the characters in TWAOW are more caricatures than in TTOY, but there is little difference in the basic elements of both books. The wealthy dictatorial patriarch/matriarch, of course, is a mainstay of the detective story — if these wealthy men and women were not around to quarrel with their relatives and catch their secretaries embezzling hours before they change their wills, the detective fiction world would be a sadder, more sparse place. Yes, this theme of the wealthy parent and angry damaged children repeats through Queen’s novels and stories, but it also does so in the work of almost every other Golden Age writer, because … well, it’s just such a useful basis for a story. Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939) — there’s not much difference between Carmen Sternwood and this story’s Jill Hatter, and only little more between Barbara Hatter and Vivian Sternwood. Offhand, I can think of stories from Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr and Patricia Wentworth about poisonous wealthy parents and their poisoned unhappy children. Queen himself revisits the same territory of damaged children in 1952’s The King is Dead, although the wealthy damaged parent is in this case the eldest brother.

Mr. Nevins suggests that TTOY partakes of a “motif that [has] come to be distinctively identified with Queen … distrust and despair of human nature”, and cites The Origin of Evil and The Glass Village as later examples of this distrust. Fair enough; there is certainly enough here to make one distrust human nature, from the sluttish yet frigid Jill right down to the uncontrollable sadism and misbehaviour of Billy and Jackie. My own take is that what Ellery Queen was getting at here was his interest in the idea of “tainted blood”. I thought this was interesting as an attempt to introduce some motivation to these characters; of course they’re crazy and unpredictable, their brains have been affected by syphilis. Remember that this was at a time when human behaviourists were attempting to explain psychology by the action of glandular secretions; the idea of being somehow “tainted” and therefore not entirely responsible for one’s actions was a new one, but becoming widespread. In TWAOW, this is played for laughs; in TTOY, it is accompanied with a strong air of sadness and despair. Nevins suggests that this is “as haunting in its own way as the nightmare stories of Cornell Woolrich”; I think I would agree. The Hatter household is dark and brooding and there appears to be no way out of it. The blind, deaf, and dumb Louisa is a bizarre personality at the centre of the household, and is described in relatively inhuman terms as, for instance, uttering a “thrilling animal cry”; she’s referred to as “plump” so often that I had the mental picture of a kind of grub with “still, blank, almost lifeless features, the quivering fingers …”. Her “waving fingers were like the antennae of a bug, oscillating with intelligence, clamouring for enlightenment.” Certainly the reader is meant to feel sorry for Louisa’s restricted life, but I can’t help but feel there is a certain component of creepy horror here as well. Everyone in the house is nearly horrible; even the relatively normal people like the one-legged neighbour and the scatterbrained nurse have problems. The general air of the household is that everyone within it is trapped by blood and money and who cannot be released until the mother, whose venereal disease tainted them all, has died and expiated her sin. I have to say that this is considerably easier to advance as a theory when, say, writing an essay about this novel than it is to consider while reading it. Queen’s intention is certainly not to focus on a philosophical stratum that underlies this book; it’s just a detective story, although a very clever and creepy one. I absolutely cannot go as far as Nevins and say that:

“Although rooted in a genre that has traditionally been oriented to reason, order, and optimism, Y evokes depths of tragic despair that are virtually without parallel in the history of crime fiction.”

Put down the cheerleader’s pompoms, Mr. Nevins, it’s not quite THAT important a book. It is well-written and maintains a consistently eerie air throughout, but even The Big Sleep evokes more poisonous despair with the same plot structure, let alone another few dozen novels with more despair and less syphilis. Nevertheless, this is a darn good dark and troubling mystery.

Nevins then suggests that the other such theme in this book associated with the longer view of Queen’s work is that of “manipulation”. Without getting too deeply into the details, this book involves manipulation of one character by another in order to generate most of the criminal actions of the plot, although not in an obvious or even strong way. Such later Queen novels as Ten Days’ Wonder (1948) carry forward this theme of one character creating a plan that another one carries out; similarly, The Player on the Other Side (1963) co-written with Theodore Sturgeon, and … and on the Eighth Day … (1964),  co-written with Avram Davidson, the theme of one personality following the instructions of another appears. The Player on the Other Side even has a criminal who signs himself with the letter Y — and so we come full circle. It’s definitely a useful basis for a mystery plot; one character has guilt and intent, but not physical involvement, and the other character has the responsibility of committing the crime(s), but usually without the ability or intent to design them. I agree with Mr. Nevins on this point, at least that this theme recurs. I see it only as a useful way of establishing the central spine of a detective story, and he may be giving it more importance in the analysis of the character of the two gentlemen who made up Ellery Queen, but we agree that it’s there and recurs in a number of Queen stories.

The only strongly annoying part of this book, in fact, is the character of Drury Lane himself. Let’s face it, he’s a slumgullion of cliches, starting with his name itself. Mr. Lane is a cardboard character who has been marked with deafness not out of any organic understanding of how this would affect someone’s personality, or desire to make the reader understand anything about the nature of deafness, but merely as an interesting trait to attract and retain the reader’s attention. (I admit that the final volume of the four, Drury Lane’s Last Case, brings deafness to the table, but in a kind of meretricious way as merely a plot point explaining an action.) I can’t help but speculate how much more interesting this book would have been with Ellery Queen trying his hand against the Addams-family menage under the roof of the Hatter mansion. Another smaller flaw is that, with the death of the matriarch Emily, the novel’s strongest antagonistic character moves offstage and no one is really there to take her place; this makes the second half of the book rather inactive and smooth, somewhat to its detriment.

All things considered, though, this is a difficult and intelligent puzzle plot, for people who like that sort of thing — I certainly do. Although the Queenian convention of the Challenge to the Reader is absent here, you can readily stop precisely at the chapter heading of “Epilogue” and you will be in possession of every fact you need with which to produce a complete solution of the mystery. If you can successfully pretend that Ellery Queen is generating the long involved logical chains that lead to the solution, you’ll be very pleased with this book in almost every respect. It is difficult, puzzling, surprising, creepy and atmospheric, and an important novel by an important mystery writer.

12026482914Notes for the Collector:

The most interesting take on cover art is perhaps the foreign-language edition pictured nearby, complete with strategically-covered naked breasts (sigh). I believe that the original editions as by Barnaby Ross, pre-dating the admission that the author was indeed Ellery Queen, would be the most valuable, and of course the first edition would have pride of place. I note that today a VG copy without jacket is selling for $150, and this seems about right; it might be anywhere from $300 to $700 with a jacket, depending on scarcity. I’m fond of quite a few of the paper editions of this book; most notably, of course, as I said above, Pocket #313, with the purplish hues and abstract cover; a VG copy of the first edition will cost you about $7 plus shipping. But the Avon editions featuring, in T-337, “girl with large breasts in a nightgown” — this would have to be the plump and middle-aged Louisa, I think — and #450’s  “cat-eyed girl with anachronistic pixie cut” are also good camp value and either, in Near Fine or Fine shape, may cost you less than $25 in a local bookseller’s or an online market.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1932 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; fifth under “N”, “Read one book written by an author with a pseudonym.” This certainly qualifies; it was originally published as by “Barnaby Ross”, which is a pseudonym of “Ellery Queen”, a pseudonym concealing two real people. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.

vintage-golden-card-00112

 

Death Takes the Living, as by Miles Burton (1949)

Death Takes the Living, as by Miles Burton (1949)

burtontakesAuthor:

“Miles Burton” is one of the two major pseudonyms of Cecil John Charles Street, MC, OBE.  John Rhode is perhaps his best-known pseudonym, under which he wrote about forensic scientist Dr. Priestly, and he also wrote as Cecil Waye. As Miles Burton, the series characters are Inspector Arnold and Desmond Merrion.

Well-known critic and author Julian Symons called this author “a prominent member of the Humdrum school of detective fiction”; “Humdrum” is a label applied to a group of writers who were thought (at least by Symons) to be competent but relatively boring. For a much more nuanced and complete assessment, I’ll refer you to a fellow Golden Age Mystery blogger who is probably the world’s expert on Street’s work: Mr. Curtis Evans. Mr. Evans’s assessment of Street’s work can be read in this fascinating volume, and I encourage you to purchase a copy for yourself; he reviews a number of other such novels at his very interesting blog, The Passing Tramp, and I also recommend that to your attention.  Mr. Evans reviews other Miles Burton/John Rhode novels in his blog but not this one. He has given a great deal of time and effort to understanding Major Street and his work (as well as that of Freeman Wills Crofts and A.W. Stewart, who wrote as J.J. Connington; I’ve reviewed a Connington novel here). So if you’re looking for in-depth insight about these writers, start with Mr. Evans’s work. (And it’s from his blog that I’ve lifted the photograph of Street you’ll see in this post; my apologies, but that face was just irresistible.) As Mr. Evans elsewhere notes, Street had a huge output in his lifetime; about 143 mysteries in 38 years. Perhaps it is this prolific quality that encourages critics to view his work as formulaic work, churned out at the rate of about four novels a year. I confess that before I encountered his work in some depth, I merely absorbed the wisdom of other critics who dismissed the entire Humdrum school, but Curtis Evans’s enthusiasm and scholarship have led me to approach these novels with a fresh eye.

c-j-c-streetPublication Data:

The first edition is Collins Crime Club, 1949. This volume was also published as The Disappearing Parson in the U.S., but I am unable to authoritatively confirm a date; judging by the cover art, which you will see below, it’s at about the same time. (I have a knowledgeable comment, below, that says it’s Dodd, Mead 1949; I believe him.) There do not appear to have been any paperback editions about which I can find any information; there is cover art for something which might be a trade edition (depicted below), but it may also be merely the cover for a publication-on-demand version. (See the comments; I was more correct than I realized.)

It is my practice to make the first illustration in a post the cover of the edition which I actually used for the review. In this case I found the book online here, at Blackmask Online (Munseys.com), and thus was unable to do so. Munseys asks me to say that the book is available for noncommercial use under CC 3.0 and I am happy to do so. I am indebted to ClassicCrimeFiction.com for the cover art of the first edition you will see here. Classic Crime Fiction is an excellent bookseller whose holdings include many scarce mysteries, with a strong focus on British writers. The site is informative and useful and I recommend it to your attention, especially if you are looking for a particular volume you’ve been unable to find elsewhere. I haven’t troubled to obtain their permission to show you the cover art; I trust that my attempt at steering you to them for your purchases will allow them to forgive my minor misuse of their property. Representations of the jacket art for this volume are hard to come by and they have just about the only one available.

51KUBLZkPLL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read WILL discuss in explicit terms the solution to this murder mystery. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

The first four chapters of this novel chronicle the quotidian activities of The Reverend Jonathan Denby, who has lately been demobilized from the RAF after serving as a chaplain in the Middle East. He calls upon Bishop Kinghorn to obtain a post that will allow him to indulge his interest in early Saxon history. Bishop Kinghorn was also the headmaster of Denby’s public school (and also that of Denby’s cousin Henry, who is now a Cabinet minister). The Bishop suggests that Rev. Denby would suit the living of the remote village of Clynde, a poor rural district, the living of which is controlled by Lord Mundesley. There are problems; first is that the stipend associated with the living is nearly nothing, two hundred pounds a year, but since Denby’s father Sir Ambrose has settled a generous amount upon him, this is not a consideration. The other major issue is that Lord Mundesley has been difficult to please with respect to the incumbent; he prefers to wait for just the right parson and leave the living vacant until that man is found. Oh, and the “rambling barrack” of a rectory is said to be haunted.

Jonathan Denby meets with Lord Mundesley, whom we learn hates the politics of cousin Henry; Lord Mundesley comes from trade, and Henry is apparently an elitist. However, Rev. Denby makes it clear that he dislikes his cousin’s political career as well. Lord Mundesley is a friend of Sir Ambrose, and thus reluctantly agrees that Jonathan shall have the living. He tells Jonathan that the vicarage is unfit for habitation and tells him peremptorily that he’ll be living at a house Mundesley owns in the village. Jonathan has other plans, but doesn’t mention them to anyone; he obtains the key to the vicarage from a local woman and intends to camp out there until he can make the place more habitable. Jonathan feels that he doesn’t want to be quite so much under Mundesley’s thumb as to accepting his house and intends to present the lord of the manor with a fait accompli. He moves a camp bed and some basics into the deserted vicarage and is awakened in the middle of the night by some noises, which he goes to investigate — and that is the last we hear of the Reverend Jonathan Denby.

In fact, the cleric’s body is found floating in the ocean in Chapter 8 and this kicks off the real action of the book, after a very, very leisurely opening. Sir Ambrose identifies the body and Inspector Arnold embarks upon an investigation, with the help of his friend Desmond Merrion, who lives in the vicinity. (These are Burton’s two series characters.) Merrion is of a level of society at which he knows some of the people, including Lord Mundesley — who invited him to a day’s shooting some years ago. Sir Ambrose announces that he will devote his considerable fortune to finding out who killed his son … and almost immediately is found dead, apparently of a heart attack.

WARNING: You’re about to learn the complete solution to this mystery, which may well destroy any interest you have in reading it.  Please don’t proceed unless you are content with that idea.

I’ve left out the activities of the central portion of this book because they are, essentially, pretty boring. There is nothing wrong with anything that happens in this section, it’s merely the basic activities of the police procedural. Inspector Arnold and his friend Merrion trace down leads, investigate clues and slowly but surely build a picture of what’s happened. It may well be that Burton’s devotees — and I’m sure he had many — found this material delightful. Since it was already reasonably clear to me what was going on, approximately what had happened, and who was responsible, I have to say I found it fairly boring. And so I merely skimmed this middle section and pretty much jumped to the end to learn that, yes, I’d been right about everything and the solution was almost exactly as I’d forecast it.

Essentially what’s happening here is that there are two plots going on simultaneously. In the main body of the book, Lord Mundesley is a wealthy man but he is running a criminal operation that’s been using the deserted vicarage for storage of stolen goods. It’s not clear to me precisely why he’s doing this; he doesn’t need the money, but it seems as though he likes to keep his hand in the managing of a business whose basis is sharp practice. (He’s said to have made his money by selling patent medicines, which I understand at that time were frequently useless preparations taken more for the placebo effect than anything else.) His minions were engaged in clearing out the vicarage, unaware that the reverend was spending the night; a brutish lorry driver kills the reverend and then the gang goes to a great deal of trouble to get rid of the body and conceal their activities. Inspector Arnold and Desmond Merrion soon penetrate the criminals’ activities and bring home the crime to its perpetrators. The lorry driver is condemned to death and Lord Mundesley gets five years’ imprisonment.

When the Cabinet Minister, cousin Henry, learns of the death of Jonathan, he determines that he’s going to inherit Sir Ambrose’s entire fortune and wants it quickly, so he poisons Sir Ambrose with aconitine. When Henry learns that the jig is up, he poisons himself to avoid arrest and disgrace. I have to say that the only dubious point for me was whether Henry and Lord Mundesley had been working together; we are told explicitly in the early chapters that Mundesley dislikes Henry, so my only puzzlement was whether this was meant to be true or whether Mundesley was lying to conceal their mutual involvement. In fact, the two plots were unconnected and Mundesley was telling the truth about his dislike of Henry.

In the final paragraph of the book, the Bishop preaches a sermon that essentially said that both of these powerful criminals got what was coming to them.

n224779Why is this book worth your time?

As I suggested above, although I have a considerable familiarity with the body of detective fiction, the full breadth of the Humdrum school has pretty much escaped my attention. Part of the reason for this is that, generally speaking, these volumes are difficult to obtain, being both scarce and expensive. Major Street wrote about 143 mysteries; I have to say that in my long history, marked by an assiduous attention to tracking down books and authors with whom I was unfamiliar, I may have read fewer than 20 of them. And the only one that I remember with any degree of clarity is the book he wrote in partnership with “Carter Dickson” (John Dickson Carr), Drop To His Death (aka Fatal Descent); I’ve read everything Carr ever wrote, mostly with great pleasure, and this was no exception, so I ascribed my pleasure to Carr rather than Rhode. When I worked behind the counter of a mystery bookstore, any used copies of John Rhode novels which happened to cross my desk vanished into eager hands within a week, sometimes without my having had the chance to read them before departure; Miles Burton novels were almost always completely absent from my stock.

So, unlike many different sub-genres of detective fiction, Humdrum practitioners like Major Street have been largely unknown to me — and, I venture to say, to most of my readers. There are a reasonable number of Freeman Wills Crofts novels available, but John Rhode/Miles Burton not so much. I can’t honestly say that I know the Humdrum School in the same breadth and depth as I do, say, the locked-room mystery or the police procedural or the comedy mystery.  In fact, my opinions are bound to be shallow through lack of experience and I will be looking to read a lot more of these books before I feel I can make any authoritative pronouncements; that’s why I’ve tried to steer you to the well-informed thoughts of Curtis Evans.

That being said, I have to say I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I was going to. Yes, as I have confessed above, the solutions to the crimes were really quite obvious to me almost from the point at which they were described. However, that has happened in a number of different instances, partly because I’ve read so many thousands of mysteries that I’ve grown accustomed to the way that writers’ minds work when trying to fool the reader. So I don’t regard this as a drawback. I actually enjoy re-reading a good mystery for the pleasure of the writing, so it’s not really the “thrill of the chase” that draws me to a book.

One of the things that does contribute to my enjoyment of a mystery is the way in which it is embedded in a time and place; social context, if you will. And here is where I really did find a great deal to enjoy. There are many, many things in this book that are not written down that underpin its actions that have to do with the time and place. For instance — the denomination of the Reverend is never specifically mentioned. That’s because the author, everyone in the book, and everyone in its natural audience understands that the only church is the Church of England. Major Street would never have bothered to mention this, in the same way that he would not have bothered to explain that Scotland Yard had nothing to do with Scotland. In the Humdrum school, other denominations of religious organizations are looked upon with suspicion, and “heathens” and the like are prime suspects wherever they appear.

Similarly, when Lord Mundesley is presented as having come from a background in which he actually sold things for money (“from trade”), the audience is meant to understand that this makes him the social inferior of a gentleman such as Sir Ambrose, because he is a “life peer” rather than the hereditary scion of a long line of Denbys. It’s also not spoken, but understood, that Lord Mundesley has an interest in keeping on the good side of Sir Ambrose for social reasons, and thus would find it difficult to refuse a clerical living under his control to the son of Sir Ambrose. There are many more things that would have been much more clear to the British reader of 1949 than they are to this Canadian of 2014. I’m not precisely sure, for instance, what is being said when the well-born Desmond Merrion mentions that he was invited some years ago to Lord Mundesley’s for a day’s shooting — but doesn’t mention ever returning. Was Merrion snubbing Mundesley? Was Mundesley snubbing Merrion? Was this some kind of inchoate social outreach effort on Mundesley’s part that met with polite acceptance, but no enthusiasm for a return engagement? Since Mundesley turns out to be not only a counter-jumper (look this up, it’s a fascinating turn of phrase) but a criminal, perhaps Merrion was merely exercising good judgment. There are many such fine, fine gradations of social class and background in this book, particularly in the opening chapters. The point is that the levels and gradations of the post-WWII British social experience were obviously Major Street’s milieu and that of his natural audience, and his command of those gradations obviously met with the approval of his audience. I’ll suggest that the British reader of 1949 wished to be confirmed in its opinion that some Lords were no better than they should be, and that Scotland Yard always got its man, and that low-class charladies were rarely thieves but made good honest witnesses, village bobbies were out of their element with complex crimes, et cetera.  And that this was accomplished by reading books in which these concepts formed the basis but were not really spoken aloud.  What was really going on was that the correctness and durability of the long-established social order was being affirmed.

The other reason I enjoyed this novel was because of its writing, which seems a little paradoxical. Major Street was not known at all for skill at writing, but rather at plotting; Symons and other critics suggest that he was something of a utilitarian writer, just good enough to get the job done. And yet I kept thinking, as I read, of Hemingway. Believe me, I have not lost my grip on an ability to judge prose; it’s simply that Hemingway made few words say a lot, and so, in his own way, did Major Street. There is little extraneous prose here, and little in the way of description. Yet Street managed to make seven very slow chapters at the beginning of this book catch my attention; I liked the character of the Reverend and wanted to know more about him, and was somewhat discouraged when he turned out to be the victim. I enjoyed the way in which the writer created the social milieu against which the actions took place, and I even found that Street had something of a flair for writing dialogue that revealed character.

I can’t say that this is deathless prose that will survive through the ages; it didn’t even attract the attention of a publisher for a paperback edition, which says a lot, given their endless quest for inexpensive fodder. But I enjoyed this novel’s attempts to amuse me in a mild, bloodless way, and I am sufficiently encouraged to go look for more of the same. I think you might be too.

Notes for the Collector:

The first edition (Collins Crime Club, 1949) is available in two states, one better than the other, from Abebooks for £40 (about $68 US); a second edition was offered for £29. I was unable to find any copies of The Disappearing Parson available for sale. This does seem to be a scarce book but not absolutely unobtainable; since a reading copy is available for free on the internet as noted above, it’s only collectors of this specific writer who will be interested in this novel, I suspect. In that case, my general advice is to buy a copy of the first edition in the best condition you can find.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1944 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; fifth under “D”, “Read one mystery that involves water.” The titular victim (the disappearing parson of the US edition) is found floating in the ocean and the events of the plot involve considerable activity at sea, involved in the transportation of stolen goods. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.

Vintage Golden Card 001

The Unicorn Murders, by Carter Dickson (1935)

The Unicorn Murders, by Carter Dickson (1935)

pb_unicorn_murdersAuthor:

Carter Dickson, the principal pseudonym of John Dickson Carr, whose Wikipedia entry is found here. The Dickson pseudonym was reserved primarily for the adventures of Sir Henry Merrivale, of which this is one. John Dickson Carr, in all his pseudonymous incarnations, is still the “Master of the Locked Room Mystery”; this particular volume qualifies only as a subset of the locked room mystery, an “impossible crime”.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1943 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; second under “G”, “Read one book set anywhere except the U.S. or England.” This book is set in France. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.

Publication Data:

The first edition is from William Morrow  (U.S.) and a scan of the jacket can be found below. My own copy is Dell mapback #16 (1940), unnumbered except on the spine. Many other editions exist; the book has been occasionally reprinted in paperback (Berkley Medallion, 1964; IPL, 1989; Black Dagger, 2000) and there is a 1944 digest-sized edition from American Mercury #52.

dell0016backAbout this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the details of a murder mystery. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of the plot. I have elected here to not reveal the murderer but it is likely that you will find out more than you wish to know, if you haven’t read this book.  

The protagonist, Kenwood (Ken) Blake, is an agent of the British Secret Service who works for the brilliant and eccentric detective Sir Henry Merrivale; Blake is a recurring character in a few books and is the usual doofus, in charge of the narration because he’s two steps behind the detective and one step behind the reader. He’s in love with his fellow agent, Evelyn Cheyne; together they are in France and become entangled in a bizarre battle of wits between Gaston Gasquet of the Sûreté and his arch-enemy, Flamande. And in a twist that strikes anticipatory delight into the heart of the reader, no one knows what either Gasquet or Flamande looks like, and they are both “masters of disguise”. Sir Henry, Blake and Cheyne are part of a group of passengers — almost certainly including both Gasquet and Flamande, or what’s the point? — whose plane is forced down near a chateau whose master, the Comte d’Andrieu, welcomes them all. 

Everyone goes to rooms on the second floor to change. The driving rain promptly brings down the causeway that is the only access to the chateau; the connoisseur immediately recognizes the standard country-house situation.  The only possible murderers and victims are now isolated in the chateau and the game is afoot. Almost immediately, one of the passengers tumbles down the stairs to the ground floor, in full view of witnesses, with a hole in his forehead that looks like it was made by the horn of a unicorn. But no one was near him at the time.

unicorn-murdersNow, this is rousing stuff, and the story moves forward at a brisk clip until the climax. In fact, the events are dizzyingly difficult to follow; there are so many people who are not what they seem that it’s the rule rather than the exception, and disguise plays a huge role in this plot. Indeed, it is incredibly difficult to solve this mystery, and the average reader may as well sit back and merely enjoy the ride. If you’d care to match your wits against the brilliant JDC in one of his most difficult works, you will need to keep very careful track of exactly who is where at all times — regardless of what they say, or what you’re told. And you will have to figure out exactly what happened in the minute before the corpse arrived at the bottom of the staircase.  I’ve chosen to say very little about what goes on in this novel because it really is worth reading; the answer depends on coincidence, dim lighting, split-second timing and the development of a complicated scheme in a very brief period of time, in an unfamiliar location, but it is absolutely fair. You are given all the clues you need to solve the mystery. One excellent reason to get the mapback edition is that, with this book, you will actually find the map useful; this book requires the reader to form a picture of the building, its furnishings, the location of its inhabitants, etc., in order to have any chance of solving the mystery.

Why is this book worth your time?

For the connoisseur of the fair-play puzzle mystery, and its most rarefied levels exemplified by the impossible crime story, this is an absolute classic. It’s one of Carr’s top ten, in my humble opinion. The difference for me is that I expect most readers to slap their foreheads and say, “Oh, I should have figured that out!” instead of “Oh, who the HELL could have figured that out?”  The first is pleasurable and the second is not. This book is very pleasurable; it’s exciting, fast-moving, filled with unexpected twists and turns and with a solution that will knock you back in your chair.

Of course, it’s well known that Carr was not much on characterization, and this book is no exception. The two agents whose love story underlies the plot are bland cyphers whose love interest is inexplicable, except you sort of have to have one, Carr seems to feel. Sir Henry himself is mostly a collection of annoying mannerisms and verbal tics whose main function is to hide his deductions from the reader until the end. Since all the characters must have an equal chance of being the guilty party, there’s not much to any of them; the backstories are implausible and the events of the plot have obviously been jiggered to pack as many of them into the isolated chateau as possible. In fact it’s pretty clear that Carr worked out the method of murder and then wrote a book around it. But unless you are the most cold-hearted of readers, you will be amused and pleased by this book. True, it has little in the way of what I think of as “literary quality”.  This is not art fiction, this is melodrama with a complex puzzle at its heart. But it is damn good melodrama written by a master of that genre. Some cold-hearted readers may say that the solution is implausible; I agree. It is implausible in the extreme. But such concatenations of implausibility do occasionally happen; those cold-hearted readers at least cannot say that they haven’t been given every piece of information and inference needed to solve the mystery.

This is one of a very small group of mysteries that really is worth trying to solve. Carr seems to have felt that this sort of novel is a kind of battle between the reader and the writer, and if you want to have a chance of winning, I recommend that you take it very, very slowly — know where everyone is and what they’re doing — be aware that trickery and impersonation abound — and stop before the end and formally declare your opinion as to who the murderer is. There are so few of these mysteries in the canon that it is worth savouring this like some exquisite lollypop, taking only slow, careful licks until the centre is revealed.  I envy the reader who has yet to read this book. Don’t spoil your experience by rushing through it.

Notes for the Collector:

As of this writing, a VG first edition without jacket will set you back somewhere between $150 to $200. I didn’t see any copies available with jacket; that might be in the $300 or $400 range. There are a number of collectible paperback editions; principal among them is Dell mapback #16, with cover artwork by Gerald Gregg, and a Near Fine copy is available for $50. That would be my choice as the most collectible edition that will hold its value the best, since mapback collectors abound. My own copy is less pristine; it’s rolled and worn, but the colour is bright (always a problem with this particular cover, for some reason) and I think it’s worth around $20. The image at the top of this post was scavenged from the internet.

The digest-sized editions from American Mercury are also quite collectible and a VG copy of #52 in the series will be somewhere around $25. (I’m adding a note after first publication of this post; an experienced dealer mentions in the comments below that in his opinion the digests are NOT all that collectible, and he’s more experienced and knowledgeable than I am … your mileage may vary.)

Vintage Challenge Scorecard