The Eight of Swords, by John Dickson Carr (1934)

13022855Recently I had occasion to mention this book in the context that it is one of John Dickson Carr’s novels that is frequently overlooked; I recommended it in a comment to a novice Carr reader who has shouldered the huge task of reading all of Carr and assessing it in a blog devoted entirely to the topic, The Green Capsule. When I happened upon my copy of The Eight of Swords, I decided to re-read it — after what I have to confess is many, many years having passed between my last reading and this one — and bring you my report.

There are things about this book that have stuck in my memory clearly over the interval of some 30 years, but I’ll be honest, this is not quite as good a book as I remembered. It is certainly an interesting story that has an interesting premise but suffers from a large flaw of construction. Although you may not enjoy it one hundred percent, if you are a student of Carr you will definitely find it interesting.

WARNING: This essay concerns a work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this novel, although the solution to the crime and many other significant details are not revealed here. You may learn more than you care to about a number of John Dickson Carr novels, but I don’t intend to reveal any significant plot points. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

f07a03263b6476d4f7458e895d84cc3cWhat is this book about?

Chief-Inspector Hadley of Scotland Yard takes a personal interest in a bizarre story about the Bishop of Mappleham, a well-known amateur criminologist, and the Bishop’s recent encounter with a poltergeist — mostly because the Bishop has been staying at the home of one Colonel Standish, the Chief Constable in Gloucestershire. Standish is a partner in the firm that is about to publish Hadley’s memoirs (this is the month before his retirement, although this fact is apparently forgotten later in the series), so when he asks the Assistant Commissioner for assistance, Hadley somewhat reluctantly takes a hand. The poltergeist has thrown red ink all over a local Vicar in a room in the Colonel’s home, and the Bishop was on the spot. The Bishop has also been understood to slide down a banister in the main hall and has assaulted a blameless housemaid, accusing her of being a crook known as Piccadilly Jane.

930182Dr. Gideon Fell (Carr’s series detective) has recently returned from America, via the ocean voyage described in 1934’s (the same year) The Blind Barber. He shows up in Hadley’s office disguised, for his own amusement, as a comedic faux-Viennese psychoanalyst. Colonel Standish is also Fell’s publisher, but this is not the only coincidence. Fell’s homeward voyage also included the Bishop’s son, Hugh Donovan, a charming young man who has ostensibly been studying criminology in New York but who has never cracked a book, and spent his time drinking and chasing women. The Bishop and his son are about to meet, in the presence of Fell, Hadley, and Colonel Standish, when the Colonel receives a telephone call from his estate. Mr. Septimus Depping, who lives in the Guest House on the Colonel’s property, was murdered the previous evening. And a copy of what is later found to be a tarot card, the eight of Swords, is lying by the body.

It seems as though Mr. Depping, although passing as a gentleman in the neighbourhood, has recently retired from a life of crime in New York. In the vicinity is one Louis Spinelli, a former criminal associate of the deceased. Also in nearby Hangover House is well-known mystery writer Henry Morgan and his wife Madeleine. And in the Colonel’s home is his wife, a staid lady known as “Maw” known for her rectitude, and his son Morley, who is engaged to Depping’s daughter Betty, who has been wired to return from Paris upon the discovery of her father’s body.

unknownIn order not to spoil your enjoyment, there is not much I should tell you about the activities of the evening of the murder — or, rather, the first murder. Those of you who are familiar with Carr know that there will be plenty of clues which appear to point one way and actually mean quite the opposite; these include a buttonhook, the aforementioned tarot card, a clumsy disguise, a secret passage, and a dinner that was mysteriously eaten, but not by its intended recipient.

Midway through the narrative, Hugh Donovan falls in love with the Colonel’s daughter Patricia, who is described as a “luscious little ginch”. It is clear by the manner of her introduction that she is innocent of all wrongdoing and there only to be a romantic interest for the Bishop’s son; the narrator out-and-out says so. (And, for those of you who know Carr well, I will add that this is true. She is innocent.) Mr. and Mrs. Morgan and the newly-formed couple investigate the crimes together, although they are not entirely privy to the thoughts of Dr. Fell or the Bishop. There are two more murders and an exciting evening of murderous pursuits in the moonlit countryside before Dr. Fell brings home the crime to a rather surprising perpetrator, and then a number of innocent people and the police join together to explain it all in the last chapter.

Why is this book worth your time?

John Dickson Carr (here, JDC) is one of the foremost figures in the Golden Age of Detection; frankly, I recommend you read his work from start to finish of his career, although some will interest you more than others. This book is automatically worth your time because it was written by Carr. Some of his books are principally interesting as failures (I’m thinking here of the final handful of his novels) and some, like this, are qualified successes. But they are still worth your time; a mediocre JDC novel is better than the finest efforts of a lot of other Golden Age writers.

This is the fourth novel JDC wrote about Dr. Gideon Fell, a character based apparently upon the public person of G. K. Chesterton, in the space of two years (1933/34). And in this context it’s interesting to look at the general flavour or approach of each of these novels.

Carr had already written four novels about Henri Bencolin, all of which had a strong air of spooky violence unleavened by much comedy. Also in the same year as The Eight of Swords he published the first two novels about Sir Henry Merrivale (as by Carter Dickson), both of which have a strong air of spooky violence unleavened by much comedy. In fact, yes, he published five novels in 1934 (the fifth is Devil Kinsmere, a historical adventure, as by Roger Fairbairn, which sank with very little notice); possibly the most productive year in JDC’s career.

ee79ab5084ca775a98de63b5f88a6d49The first four Fell novels from 1933/34 do show a kind of progression, though. 1933’s Hag’s Nook has the same emphasis on menace and spooky goings-on in the dead of night, with a huge emphasis on atmosphere, as much of his other work to this time. 1933’s The Mad Hatter Mystery, though, is the first sign of something a little different. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that while Mad Hatter is a great success as a mystery, there is a peculiar air hanging over the novel of tragicomedy. I’ll use that word because “bathos” is not quite right; this is not an unintentional lapse from one modality to another, it’s merely that JDC appears to be trying to introduce a comic element to a novel but making it similarly creepy to the rest of his work. See the illustration on Dell #706 set into this paragraph? The corpse’s hat is too big for him, and this is directly from the book. It looks … tragicomic, and there are a number of other instances of that unusual genre form in this book (including the ending, where the murderer insists on confessing even though Dr. Fell has indicated he would prefer not to solve the mystery).

The third Fell novel, from 1934, The Blind Barber, I think everyone would agree is one of JDC’s most significant excursions into the very small sub-genre of mystery farce. Wikipedia says it is “generally felt to be the most humorous of Dr. Fell’s adventures,” and I agree, although it does not approach the low-comedy excesses of, say, The Cavalier’s Cup and other later adventures of Sir Henry Merrivale. I have to add that my limited research facilities were not able to precisely determine which book came out first in 1934, but it is certain that they would have been written within months of each other.

6573986169_ae8008afea_mBlind Barber moves at breakneck speed, with many ridiculous adventures made more difficult by the frequent drunkenness of most of the characters. And it is all very fast and very funny, much like the screwball comedies of the 1930s; that was a popular style at the time. 1934 is the same year that produced It Happened One Night. One of the things I find very jarring about Blind Barber (I have elsewhere identified it as my least favourite book published as by Carr) is that this insane level of farce is balanced off by an innocent woman being brutally beaten to death with a blunt instrument, and apparently everyone’s having much too good a time to care. It’s as though Carr remembers every once in a while that, “Oh yeah, this is a murder mystery” and makes the murder bits a little more gruesome and a little more bloody, then returns to people being drunk and running around. There is a difficult logic problem concealed within the book, and it is highly satisfactory in that respect, but the trappings of it are to me very distasteful. I should add that many, many people think that this is a great book and your opinion is likely to be the opposite of mine, because they think it’s hilarious. Your mileage may vary. Anyway, I think it’s fair to say that this book is about 9/10ths comedy and 1/10th horrific mystery and leave value judgements aside.

As I said, there’s a progression here. Hag’s Nook is 10 parts horror/mystery, 0 parts comedy. Mad Hatter is 8 parts horror, 2 parts comedy; Blind Barber is 9 parts comedy, 1 part horror. You will not be surprised to know that Eight of Swords is 5 parts comedy, 5 parts horror.

eightswordsUnfortunately, and this is the major problem with the book, the first half of the book is entirely comedy and the last half is entirely a horrific mystery. The transition is jarring and doesn’t work, and the two halves of the novel seem disjointed from each other. Eight of Swords starts out with every promise of being a Wodehousian comic novel. The Bishop is a broadly-drawn comic figure who hilariously thinks that international crime is everywhere. And yet, those are precisely the people who kick off a screwball comedy plot by,for once in their lives, being right, as happens here. The bishop’s son has to justify an expensive education in investigative criminology when he spent all his time drinking and chasing women. There is a young woman who, it’s pretty much said by the author, is there to be the sexy piece attached to the narrator. There’s lots of drinking, the mystery writer character is making hilarious observations about the nature of murder mysteries, and proposing straw-man solutions to the mystery. Everything you know about Carr’s recent work suggests that Eight of Swords is going to continue to be as farcical as Blind Barber right through to the second half, but boom! all of a sudden the entire tone of the book changes. Dr. Fell essentially stops paying attention to the farcical bits of the plot, and those characters, and walks around looking broody because he already knows whodunit. There’s a fairly artificial build-up to a set of interlocking meetings in the dead of night, a guy gets shot through the head at the precise moment when he’s heaving up his dinner, and the rest of the book is about a squalid lot of gangsters and low-lifes who all get killed in violent and unpleasant ways.

s-l300-1There are a bunch of holes in the plot, frankly. No one ever mentions exactly how it is that the lowlife gangster who is the victim has managed to rent a house from the Chief Constable of the county within the boundaries of his estate. There are certain issues with respect to passports that I find hard to swallow, and also that Scotland Yard was so entirely ignorant with respect to the whereabouts and identity of prominent American criminals. JDC does not, to my mind, understand the motivations of American gangsters very well, and there are some very implausible assertions about the nature of one character’s romantic attractiveness that are impossible to verify.

But once JDC gets into the world of actual murder, he is his usual self. I’m fairly sure you will find the solution to the mystery is really unexpected. Whether you think it’s entirely fair is another thing entirely. I think it is barely fair … but it depends upon you drawing inferences from a set of facts that are wildly at variance to the way they are being represented, and it’s very difficult. Most crucially to the fairness aspect, the essential deductions are not about physical objects, but people’s motivations for doing various activities. The most crucial such motivation would have been much easier to discern if we had had an autopsy report that explained a definitive situation about the corpse; I won’t say what it is but it was absolutely within the forensic capacities of 1934. So this is rather cheated into place, which is not terrible but it’s not what we expect from JDC, who when he pays attention to these things is downright diabolical in his attention to detail.

28116978-_uy200_There is an amusing footnote about the use of language here. JDC describes a young woman as a “ginch” and proceeds to define this term for the reader over the course of a couple of pages; she is sexy and forward and unaffected, apparently. I was curious about this word and went looking for its origin; to my surprise and amusement, it was apparently defined by Carr himself (see the Oxford Dictionary here). In Canada, the term has become associated with the specific style of men’s underwear known as “tighty whities”, but this is far from global usage.

basic_8swordsI also took the trouble to look up the divinatory meaning of the tarot card, the eight of swords; it is nothing like the meaning Carr ascribes to it, and it doesn’t seem to look like he describes it either. The most common style is depicted within this paragraph. JDC must be quoting from something, though, Dr. Fell describes the card quite precisely. So there’s probably a source unavailable to me, and it must have been quite esoteric.

john-dickson-carr

John Dickson Carr

There’s one very amusing piece in this book which deserves to be more widely thought about. Carr frequently breaks the fourth wall in this book — everyone in the final chapter admits that they are in the final chapter, and one character notes that “[t]he public will only glance at this chapter, to make sure it hasn’t been cheated by having evidence withheld.” That actually did amuse me. The other little cute piece is where the mystery writer character Morgan talks about his own novels, and of course the temptation here to hear the voice of Carr in his character is irresistible.

Here, Morgan talks about his series of novels, and honestly they sounded rather like elegant cozies of today. You see, his series character has spent at least six mystery novels in pursuit of killers within the highest reaches of the British government (“the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in The Inland Revenue Murders. I was only letting off a little steam in that one.”). The Bishop’s son remarks that he likes Morgan’s novels better than:

“… the ones that are so popular by that other fellow — what’s his name? William Block Tournedos. I mean the ones that are supposed to be very probable and real, where all they do is run around showing photographs to people.”

Morgan looked embarrassed.

“Well,” he said, “you see, to tell you the truth, I’m William Block Tournedos too. And I thoroughly agree with you. That’s my graft.”

“Graft?”

“Yes. They’re written for the critics’ benefit. You see, the critics, as differentiated from the reading public, are required to like any story that is probable. I discovered a long time ago the way to write a probable and real story. You must have (1) no action, (2) no atmosphere whatever—that’s very important—(3) as few interesting characters as possible, (4) absolutely no digressions, and (5) above all things, no deduction. Digressions are the curse of probability . . . which is a funny way of looking at life in general; and the detective may uncover all he can, so long as he never deduces anything. Observe those rules, my children; then you may outrage real probability as much as you like, and the critics will call it ingenious.”

Well, in the roman a clef sense, I think you will agree that a three-named mystery writer in whose novels no deduction ever takes place has to be Freeman Wills Crofts, King of the Humdrums. (As opposed, as I understand it, to G.D.H. Cole, Queen of the Humdrums. 😉 But I digress.) This is an absolutely killing troll on Crofts, in those pre-Twitter days, and I think it is very revealing. It shows that Carr sees his work clearly, unsentimentally; he knows he’s good at writing those creepy exciting mysterious novels, and people like them, but the critics don’t take them seriously, and they take Crofts seriously. I expect the two men were friendly enough at the dinners of the Detection Club, but their styles are quite opposite and it must have galled Carr to have to work much harder for the same sales.

8309345-_uy200_To sum up, I have to say that other people are well known to like Carr’s sense of humour more than I do. He’s rather in the vein of British seaside postcard humour, which I’m not too pompous to appreciate, but my issue is always that he mixes it with a really ghastly level of violence. But even if you do like his humour more than I do, you will come up short halfway through this book as it goes away and is replaced by the mood of a 1934 British episode of The Sopranos. The book needed to contain humour and action in about this 50:50 ratio, but to have them mixed evenly throughout the process so that each leavened the other. The puzzle is clever, the answer is surprising, and there are JDC’s usual writing skills in plotting and action to entertain the reader. Not one of his best, but not really one of his worst either.

14781997929My favourite edition

I prepared this piece while using the edition from Collier, AS466V, shown at the head of this text. My copy proved to be a little too fragile to want to use in this way and I switched to the undistinguished Zebra paperback from 1986.

If I were looking for a funky edition, I’d be looking for the 1943 trade-size edition from Detective Novel Classic / Novel Selections, shown nearby, which appears to be around US$20 as of today in a Good state. The cover is interesting, the typography is elegant, and the illustration actually depicts the card as it’s described in the book. Other than that, the lady in the orange shift being menaced by an epee is fun, and the Robert Maguire illustration is very collectible. This is Berkley G-48 from 1957, near the top. Pity there’s nothing in the book about a lady menaced by anything at all.

 

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 Greek Coffin Mystery, by Ellery Queen (1932)

The Greek Coffin Mystery, by Ellery Queen (1932)

n60581Author:

Ellery Queen is a fictional detective in the books by Ellery Queen … who is  a fictional writer.  The fictional writer whose name is on a set of novels from 1929 to 1971 was actually two people, cousins generally known as Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, whose joint Wikipedia entry is found here. As Wikipedia makes clear here, quite a few books ascribed to Ellery Queen were actually written by other authors; this one, however, is certainly the product of Dannay and Lee. Dannay also managed the affairs of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (the original version of this post erroneously suggested that it was Dannay and Lee in tandem), and the Ellery Queen name appears on the cover of many books of anthologized short stories reprinted from the magazine. Complicated, isn’t it? There’s also an old-time radio program, a series of vintage movies, a television series, comic books, a game or two, and even reference books about the character and the authors.

2633Publication Data:

This volume is the fourth Ellery Queen novel to be published by the cousins. The first nine books in the series each have a number of common features; there is a nationality in the title, here “Greek”; there is an introduction written by someone known only as “J.J. McC.”, now not considered canonical, and the famous “Challenge to the Reader”.  This challenge stops the action of the book and speaks directly to the reader, asserting that every piece of information necessary to solve the mystery is now in the reader’s hands. This is, in fact, the case; this volume is a strict-form puzzle mystery as I have elsewhere defined this term. One interesting conceit of this particular book is that each chapter has a single-word title; examination of the table of contents reveals that the initial letters of the chapter titles, considered acrostically, spell out “The Greek Coffin Mystery By Ellery Queen”.

The book was first published in 1932 by Frederick A. Stokes in the U.S. and a little later by Gollancz in the UK.  The first paperback edition is Pocket #179, seen at the head of this post. Many paperback editions exist; this book has only sporadically been out of print since its publication. It is now available in multiple e-book formats.

The Greek Coffin Mystery, 1960 - illus James Meese-1Although I have a VG copy of the first paper edition shown above, I actually used an e-book from an unknown source as my reference copy for this review (I found it in my files and have no idea where it came from, possibly as part of a gift of a bundle of e-books from a colleague); pagination is impossible to guarantee and I have chosen to not give page citations.

About this book:

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

IF YOU HAVE NOT READ THIS BOOK, STOP HERE AND GO READ IT BEFORE YOU RETURN. YOU WILL THANK ME. I can’t be any clearer — your first reading of this book should be unsullied by any knowledge of its contents, and the less you know in advance, the happier you will be. 

index-3_1The story begins with the death of wealthy Greek-American art dealer and connoisseur Gregor Khalkis; for once in a murder mystery, there’s nothing suspicious about the death. He’s been suffering from heart troubles for years that have left him blind and under the full-time care of a physician. It’s the disappearance of Khalkis’s will that is baffling everyone; five minutes before the funeral it was there, after the funeral it’s vanished. The house is searched, to no avail, and Mr. Woodruff, the family lawyer, calls in District Attorney Pepper. More searching, and no results. No secret passages or hidden compartments in the furniture or walls; no evidence that it was destroyed. Apparently the disappearance of the will is connected with its provisions, and someone’s desire to return to an earlier testamentary disposition of the Khalkis estate … but no one can figure out what happened. Finally Pepper calls in Ellery Queen, who deduces that the only possible location is inside the only object that’s left the house unsearched — Mr. Khalkis’s coffin. He convinces the authorities of the validity of his logic and they obtain permission to dig up the coffin. Unfortunately the coffin doesn’t contain the will. What it does contain is the strangled body of an ex-convict, a convicted forger named Grimshaw, jammed in on top of the late Mr. Khalkis. 

We soon meet the household and learn that Grimshaw had been admitted to a private interview with Khalkis shortly before their deaths. Khalkis has household staff (including the beautiful British secretary, Miss Brett, who might be romantically involved with Khalkis’s handsome young nephew Alan), relatives (including his mentally handicapped cousin Demmy, who acts as a kind of valet for the blind Mr. Khalkis) and the various employees of his art gallery and other business operations.

Ellery directs the activities of his father, Inspector Queen of the New York Police, with the assistance of DA Pepper, and a large group of officers immediately begin to learn everyone’s every movement. As is common in such fictional situations, it soon becomes apparent that most of the people in Khalkis’s life had recent acrimonious interactions with him, and many of them may well have had interactions with the deceased forger. Promptly upon the start of investigations, multi-millionaire Wall Street baron James Knox, friend of both the President and the late Mr. Khalkis, insists upon being briefed upon progress; Ellery announces that the case is solved. <gasp>

index-5_1A few chapters previously, the people around Ellery were baffled by his insistence on performing a number of experiments with the contents of a tea-urn in Khalkis’s office, and the surrounding used teacups, lemon, et cetera. He boils water, pours it out, measures amounts — no one understands what’s going on, and they think he’s losing his grip. As well, Ellery seems curiously interested in Mr. Khalkis’s neckties; he’d had some new ones delivered for the use of his handicapped cousin in executing his valeting duties. Ellery doesn’t explain until this point, when he reveals that, first of all, the details surrounding the neckties reveal that Mr. Khalkis has spontaneously regained his vision, and second, that two mysterious people who visited Khalkis in his study the night before his death were not actually two people, and that Khalkis had gone through an incredible rigamarole to make it seem as though two other people had been there. This idea, Ellery reveals, is the result of his analysis of tea-cups and tea water. And therefore — Khalkis murdered Grimshaw.

Immediately upon this revelation — about halfway through the book — two things happen. One is that Miss Brett reveals that, oopsie, she forgot to mention that the used teacups were differently arranged than when they were found by Ellery, and Knox reveals that there was indeed a third man in that meeting with Khalkis and Grimshaw.  How does he know?  Knox was the third man.

At this halfway point in the novel, Ellery’s house of logical cards collapses and he sinks into depression; this event actually affects the remainder of his career and all subsequent books that feature him. He determines that because he has revealed the results of his analysis and been disproven, he will never again speak about his investigations until he is absolutely, completely certain of the identity of the murderer (rather like Saul’s conversion on the road to Tarsus). Although it’s not referred to specifically in later volumes, his detective career is forever changed by this event; it also changes the way in which his work is presented. When you think about it, it’s not sensible for a detective to hide the progress of his investigations from the police; this situation was apparently set up by the authors to create a structure for future novels that would delay the solution until the end of the book.

Knox now starts the second half of the plot in motion.  He had been dickering with Khalkis for the right to purchase a Da Vinci painting that had previously been thought to have been destroyed. But Grimshaw had become involved by going to Knox, announcing that he had stolen the Da Vinci some years ago for Khalkis, and Khalkis had apparently been unable to pay him for his labours. Finally Khalkis had agreed to make out his will in favour of Grimshaw and in the interim gave him a promissory note. Khalkis, Grimshaw and Knox had all met and drunk tea on that fateful evening, and then some unknown person had tampered with the physical evidence in order to lead Ellery away from the truth. Ellery soon determines that that unknown person must logically have been in partnership with Grimshaw.

Knox refuses to hand over the Da Vinci and announces that he’ll deny having it in his possession — and that it’s a copy anyway. Ellery then realizes that his deduction of Khalkis having recovered his sight was also incorrect; instead, handicapped Demmy is revealed to be colour-blind. Ellery grimly acknowledges his mistakes and gets back to work on solving the case.

Events now progress more rapidly.  The investigation receives an anonymous tip that the manager of Khalkis’s art gallery, Gilbert Sloane, is actually Grimshaw’s brother. The police discover that an empty house in Khalkis’s neighbourhood was the temporary resting place of Grimshaw’s corpse (until the murderer had the bright idea of disposing of it in the coffin) and they discover a shred of the burned will in a furnace in the empty house, confirming that the missing will indeed left the huge Khalkis estate to Grimshaw. This means that Sloane will actually inherit through his brother; they find a key to the empty house concealed in the Sloane home. Everyone rushes to the Khalkis Gallery to arrest Sloane — and he’s been shot. Superficially it looks like suicide, but Ellery makes a deduction that proves it to be murder. And everything grinds to a halt, because Ellery cannot find a thread of the tapestry upon which to pull in order to make progress with the case.

index-221_1Miss Brent reveals herself to have been an agent of the British Museum, employed to track down the Da Vinci; she’s hired by Knox to help him with his executor’s duties on the Khalkis estate. And the British Museum is about to pull the lid off the case unless Ellery solves it in a hurry.  Soon, the missing promissory note shows up — half of it is used as the paper upon which a blackmail note is typed. The actual typing of this note is of interest; there’s a tiny typographical error that is shown to the reader but not further explained.

At about this point, the above-mentioned “Challenge to the Reader” breaks the flow of the action; you now have in your possession enough information to solve the mystery and identify Grimshaw’s partner and the murderer.  I will from this point on be reticent about what happens; I haven’t yet told you anything that would make any difference to your ability to solve the murder, since if you read the book everything will be available to you.  But henceforth, I will cut back drastically on my comments for fear of spoiling things for you.

It is safe to say, though, that there is a common theme in nearly all Ellery Queen stories that is repeated here; the false solution, then the true. At this point, Ellery makes an announcement about who is guilty of precisely what; this leads to a series of events that brings us to the final solution. Ellery has set a trap for the real killer, and I wager that you will be very, very surprised by the answer, which is revealed dramatically with Ellery being shot in the shoulder and the murderer dying in a hail of gunfire at the end of Chapter 33. Chapter 34 consists of Ellery recuperating from his wound and explaining everything, in great detail, to an assembly of suspects and investigators.

04b_GreekWhy is this book worth your time?

The year of publication of this book is 1932.  In 1932, Agatha Christie had published a mere dozen novels, but including one of the most difficult mysteries ever written (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). Ngaio Marsh was two years away from her first book; Margery Allingham was at the beginning of her career; John Dickson Carr had not yet published a Gideon Fell or a Henry Merrivale novel; Anthony Berkeley had published a number of excellent books including 1929’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case — and the “Golden Age” mystery was in its early stages. It was not completely newborn; perhaps adolescent; still finding its way, outlining the ideas that define the form, the boundaries of the genre, its passions, its likes and dislikes, its enthusiasms and hatreds. S.S. Van Dine and Ronald Knox had both published sets of rules as to what detective stories should and should not be; clever writers like “Ellery Queen” were casting off the old strictures and extending the boundaries of the form.

This particular story has to be one of the most difficult strict-form puzzle mysteries ever written and, frankly, they don’t make ’em like this any more. This book has more sheer logic and detection in it by the halfway point than in the entire oeuvre of your average cozy author; and by the end of the novel, more difficult chains of logic than the entire oeuvre of ten cozy writers. This book was written at a time when readers did not cavil at being faced with an extremely difficult puzzle and it has, over the years, maintained its place as one of the finest examples of such a puzzle. I haven’t worked out the ramifications of this in great detail, but I’ll suggest that this is one of Queen’s top two books — the other being The Chinese Orange Mystery — and one of the top 25 puzzle mysteries ever written. Just don’t make me name the other 23, please!

When I’m analyzing a puzzle mystery, there’s a process I go through that is crucial to determining its level of quality. Simply put, once I know whodunnit, I go through the novel again from the murderer’s point of view and see if everything makes sense. And I think you would be surprised at how often things just do not make sense when I do that. For instance, I recently looked at a poorly-written mystery by Frances Crane, The Applegreen Cat. (My analysis is here.) Among other problems, the plot consisted of a mystery that was difficult from the point of view of the reader — but ridiculous from the point of view of the murderer, who apparently deliberately waited until the country house was filled with house guests before embarking upon a killing spree among the servants. Another example is an early novel of Harlan Coben’s whose name slips my mind along with most of the details. Three-quarters of the way through the book, the protagonist discovers that the murderer has a cabin  in the woods filled with evidence, and this provides everything needed to bring the book to a close. The problem is, as I realized even before reaching the end of the novel, no murderer in his right mind would have left all that tasty evidence in place, sitting in an empty cabin for anyone who happened by. It’s rather like one of those plots where the murderer has the detective at his mercy, but stops to deliver a complete detailed confession before disposing of his nemesis. It helps out the book a lot, but lowers the murderer’s IQ by 50 points in an instant.

If you go through the process of analyzing things from the murderer’s point of view, everything in this book continues to make perfect sense. The murderer’s motives are clear; they make sense and continue to make sense once you know what they are. The only thing that trips up the killer is a trap set by the detectives that is also based on something that the murderer needs to see happen. The tiny clues left by the murderer are tiny accidents; they aren’t taunts left by the killer, or foolish oversights, but something small and careless like closing a door when it shouldn’t have been closed, or not predicting that a character may confess something that is not in his best interests in order to cooperate with the police. And there are not many puzzle mysteries about which this can be said. Nothing depends on coincidence, chance, acts of God or ridiculous motivation. Just about the only logical flaw in the entire novel is the size of the fragment of the will that is found in the furnace of the empty house, and the fact that it contains precisely the information that is needed to move forward; this is a bit of a stretch, but, you know, it could happen. All the clues you need are fairly there, and the Challenge to the Reader is accurate.

The other part of this book that is beautifully crafted is the false trail that the reader is meant to follow. I read this book as a teenager and I remember the sense of exultation with which I came to the conclusion that the authors wished me to reach; I’d spotted the tiny clues, I’d noticed the snippets of dialogue, and I’d realized what they meant. I felt smart. By golly, this mystery business wasn’t so hard after all, I thought. And then I realized that I’d been well and truly fooled, and that was what the authors had meant to happen. Up until that point, I’d merely failed to solve the mystery, or I’d guessed sort of randomly at a possible solution. This time I’d tried to solve the mystery, and I’d been fooled. And it may well be this book that started me on a lifetime of challenging my wits against those of the author.

In short — this is one of the finest strict-form puzzle mysteries that you will ever have the pleasure of failing to solve. In the past, for the benefit of a friend who hasn’t yet had the pleasure of encountering this mystery, I’ve taken a cheap paperback and torn it in half at the point at which the Challenge to the Reader appears, in order to give my friend the chance to give this mystery the attention it deserves without the opportunity to spoil it by peeking. There are not many mysteries worth doing that with. If you enjoy the experience, and you see a cheap paperback copy go by, pay it forward for a friend.

Notes for the Collector:

As of this writing, AbeBooks has on offer a Good copy of the first edition, inscribed by Frederick Dannay to his sister-in-law, for $500, and two unsigned copies of the first for $236 and $250. The second edition will set you back $175, and a copy of the first UK from Gollancz is listed for about $60. I am aware of an interesting edition from International Readers League in 1933, with a street map and floor plan of the Khalkis house (like the ones reproduced here, which are also in the first paper edition), and Abe has a copy for $75.

Some crazy person on ViaLibri wants $500 for the Bestseller Mystery/Mercury edition of 1941, and I can only think that it has about $490 in cash tucked between the pages. Amereon reprinted this title in 2001 and I can’t think why this particular book is bringing prices in the $75 range for an undistinguished hardcover with no jacket.

In paper, the 1942 first paper edition from Pocket is quite collectible because it’s a low-numbered book in that pioneering series, collected by many, even though, as you can see from the illustration at the top of this post, the cover art is downright unattractive — muddy, unexciting and dull. (When you look at the gaudy but exciting cover of The French Powder Mystery from the same company at about the same time, you wonder if the publishers were trying to make the Greek Coffin look boring!) Mine is a relatively nice copy and what appears to be a similar one on Abe is listed for $20; I’ve seen many copies of this book and many of them appear to have vertical creases in the cover, rolling, etc. There is a Penguin greenback available, of which there are many collectors, and many other editions.

1808330There’s a Cardinal edition that has a great piece of “girlie leg art” on the cover and, for once, it actually depicts a scene from the book. One quirky favourite edition of mine has always been a uniform set of Signet paperbacks from the early 70s with a tightly-kerned Helvetica title and cover art of a pretty model posed within a box, holding an oversized prop that has something to do with the plot.  Possibly this has something to do with the fact that in many cases this was the first edition that passed through my hands; at this remove, they look quite camp. Your mileage may vary. The point is that, depending on what your budget and collector’s instincts might be, there’s something for you. My own recommendation would be the signed first, which is quite scarce with any signature, and for smaller budgets the best copy you can afford of the Pocket edition, unless you like “girlie leg art” in which case the Cardinal edition may suit you best.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1932 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; third under “D”, “Read a book already read by another challenger.” This volume was reviewed on February 17, 2014 at a blog called “Classic Mysteries”; the review is found here. For a chart outlining my progress, see below.

Vintage Golden Card 001

The Reader Is Warned (1939)

The Reader Is Warned

the-reader-is-warnedAuthor: Carter Dickson, the best-known pseudonym of the late great John Dickson Carr, a Grand Master of the mystery genre.

Publication Data:  1939, William Morrow, first US is possibly the true first, although it may be the Heinemann edition (UK), of similar date, upon which I am unable to obtain reliable information.  First paper is the beautiful Pocket #303 from 1945, which is worth looking at; unfortunately I have a policy of showing the book which I actually read, and the Berkley Medallion (F972) edition, 1964, was the one at the top of a random box of books.  Mine is in a lot worse shape than the picture here and might be worth the $2 I seem to have paid for it.  As is occasionally and regrettably the case, this cover gives a small clue to the identity of the murderer which is not justified by its contents, and that’s all I’ll say here.

About this book:

The subtitle is “A Sir Henry Merrivale Mystery”, which just about says it all for a certain category of John Dickson Carr (JDC) fans.  JDC, of course, wrote at a furious rate for many years as both Dickson and Carr, with multiple books yearly for many years. Both his series protagonists were nearly the same character; Carr’s Gideon Fell a heavy-set British upper-class amateur, and Dickson’s Sir Henry Merrivale a heavy-set British aristocratic dilettante. Both are irascible, brilliant and magnificently logical. The main difference is that Fell’s books are rarely even remotely funny, whereas Merrivale’s (although the earliest works are serious and eerie indeed) began to contain more humour and continued to outright farce in the later works.

This is the 9th Merrivale novel (in five years!) and the broad streak of JDC’s low humour that once a novel involves Sir Henry in some sort of slapstick calamity has not yet begun to manifest itself. Nevertheless he has already started to harumph and bumble and sputter, although it is still at a mercifully small level.  He calls women “my dolly” and men “my fathead” and is, all in all, a very Chestertonian figure — although he gets very stern and implacable near the end of each book as he’s pinning the crime inexorably to the criminal.

JDC’s style was such that H.M., for so is he referred to, is offstage for the first third of the book while the stage is set and the characters are sketched in. His arrival is usually immediately after the murder; he takes charge, terrorizes the local police and Scotland Yard and finally solves the crime. There is usually a great deal of frenetic activity and some of the subplots of the books are quite eerie, in a Gothic nightmare kind of way. H.M. (and his cognate Dr. Fell) always brush away the cobwebs of the supernatural which JDC so effectively raises and show that there is a logical, sensible, scientific solution to the impossible problem which has developed in the course of the novel.

Since JDC’s strict-form detective works are  always based around a central “trick”, a set-piece of mystification by which the murder is accomplished, the aficionado finds himself describing the individual books in a specific way.  “This is the one about …”  The characters are unmemorable and interchangeable, the locations vague and unspecific, and the motives usually banal or incomprehensible, but the set-piece reigns supreme, and only by mentioning it will you be able to trigger a recognition of whether your listener has read the novel or not.

Thus, “this is the one about” — Teleforce, and the guy who seems to be killed at the top of the stairs with no one near him, with witnesses observing from a number of angles.  Teleforce is the major subplot, about a man named Pennik who seems to be able to kill people at a distance using some sort of mental power. The combination results in the host of a country-house weekend party, a wealthy man with an intelligent wife who writes murder mysteries, being threatened by Pennik and then dying for no apparent reason in full view of witnesses.  There is a great deal of hugger-mugger about Teleforce and whether or not Pennik can be prosecuted for killing his host.  JDC in this novel puts in a good deal of excellent work building the picture of the British national press going doolally about Teleforce, with the passion with which they today might greet a two-headed Royal heir, or Jade Goody.  H.M., of course, sees through all the foofaraw and brings the crime home to the extremely surprising murderer, in a dramatic denouement.

There is an elegant little conceit in this novel that explains its title. At various points in the novel, JDC inserts a footnote guiding the reader away from certain types of solutions to the mystery.  For instance, at page 56 of the Berkley edition, we find:

“In looking over these notes of what I said, I think it only fair to add that [the victim] was not killed by any mechanical device which operated in the absence of the guilty person. The presence of the guilty person was necessary to make the method succeed. The reader is warned.”

And this is signed with the initials of the narrator, whom we are sure is reliable. Similarly, “… the murder in this case worked entirely alone, and had no confederate who either knew the murderer’s plan or rendered material assistance in any way. The reader is warned.” from page 102. JDC was well-known and loved for occasionally breaking the fourth wall in his books — The Hollow Man contains a disquisition upon locked room mysteries, by a character who adds, “We’re in a detective story, and it’s no good pretending we’re not”. But this is perhaps his most determined effort of this sort, although he does it again later in 1952’s The Nine Wrong Answers. JDC literally tells you that he has led you down a bit of a garden path and not to be fooled.  (However, at least one of the asides quoted here is phrased in such a way as to be significantly misleading, although linguistically correct.)

This is not first-class Dickson; that honour belongs to the earliest books from 1934 and 1935. It is, however, a good example of second-class Dickson. There is a nearly impossible puzzle, interesting characterization, significant misdirection (although here not with the overtones of supernatural occurrences, a hallmark of JDC) and, as happens a handful of times in the novels, a sexual frankness which is extremely unusual for detective fiction of the period. The murderer not only engages in sexual activity which was extremely inappropriate for the times, but appears to take physical pleasure from the physical pain of others. (In the ending, the murderer contemplates with pleasure the prospect of torturing a minor character with lit matches before killing her.) And it avoids the twin errors of the later Dickson books, poorly-written farce that breaks the action and characterization which is at the level of gossamer and cardboard.

And I think the best thing about this book is that, essentially, yes, you will be fooled. JDC will lead you down the garden path like he has led so many others, actually dangling the true solution before your eyes in a single sentence before misleading you by dismissing it for what appears at the time to be a good reason. I must say that, for me, most of the pleasure of these novels lies in JDC’s ability to bamboozle me, and he does so here effectively and amusingly. The delight lies in having to slap one’s forehead at the end and say, admiringly, “And the murderer was so-and-so all the time, I never would have guessed.”

As an aside — I have recently made the acquaintance of an extremely intelligent reader who has well-developed literary tastes which hitherto do not seem to have included much of detective fiction, although she does read with pleasure Henning Mankell and a few others. I intend to try this on her and note her reactions, if she cares to share them with me. I will be interested in her point of view about whether the puzzle mystery at this recherche level of the “impossible crime” subgenre is capable of interesting a reader from a more “art fiction” background than JDC’s fans will usually share.

Notes For the Collector:

reader warned 1Abebooks.com offers a VG US 1st (William Morrow) for $400, which seems excessive except that one of the few other such copies for sale notes that this is a “very scarce first edition”. This apparently means that a Fair ex-library copy will cost you $100. Yikes. Perhaps a better investment is the first paper, Pocket #303. What sounds like a beaten-up copy will set you back $45.95, but the cover is an exquisite abstract design in shades of blue and grey, and I suggest that this is the most collectible edition. That means that paying a premium for a copy in great condition will never let you down — $60 for a crisp copy of this would be very fair and I am pretty sure it will hold its value.

There are a number of other paper editions of this title from smaller presses, which I always felt to be scarce; certainly the average mystery bookstore will always have a waiting list for a couple of reading copies. First UK paper is Penguin #812, a typical greenback, and they certainly hold their value well. The IPL (International Polygonics) edition from 1989 seems to me to be priced on Abebooks far beyond its actual worth and somebody in Grand Rapids, MI wants $107.15 for a Like New copy. As I recall, it sold for about $10 and the typical IPL edition was poorly constructed. Its cover is certainly as significantly undistinguished as that of the average IPL paperback, which tend to the mawkish and badly-drawn efforts of a company that cannot afford better. If there are IPL collectors, I’ve never met one and I can’t think of what’s attracting them. So save your $107.15 and get a really good copy of Pocket #303 as an investment.

two_complete_detective_books_194307One interesting-sounding edition that I haven’t personally examined is in the July, 1943 edition of Two Complete Detective Books pulp magazine (#21). But ho boy, the cover looks great!

Afterword

A few days later, it occurred to me that I had been unfair to IPL in the paragraphs above. I can remember being sincerely grateful for bringing books back into print which I badly wanted to be in print, copies of which were scarce or impossible or ludicrously expensive before IPL came into being. Clayton Rawson’s Death in a Top Hat, for instance, was only available in a low-numbered and horribly expensive Dell mapback edition. Et cetera. So, yes, their covers were awful and their production values were shoddy. But thank you, IPL, for doing the sincere service of introducing a generation to writers like Clayton Rawson and Carter Dickson whose lesser-known works might otherwise have passed beyond resuscitation. Your list was superbly well chosen, highly knowledgeably managed, and I am sorry you are no longer with us.