Sometimes it can be difficult to know where to start. C. Daly King’s third detective novel Obelists Fly High is such a time in my life. Is it good? No. Is it terrible? Yeah, it probably is. Now I have to explain that, and give examples from the text to back up my opinions, and it should all just fall into place. But it’s not simply a case of hurling invective at King and his attempts, because in some regards this is very clever — well, no, there’s one development, at the start of the fourth…section (they’re not really chapters) which borders on the very canny indeed. At the same time, I really did not enjoy reading this; it is hideously overlong, here’s a competent short novella in here at best, but explaining why is going to be like nailing jam to the ceiling. Ah, well, here goes…
Part of the difficulty is how evidently pleased with himself King clearly is. Take his character names: the comely Fonda Mann, her uncomely sister Isa Mann, the fire-and-brimstone preacher Manly Bellowes. Har-de-har-har. Then he sort of stops trying: the novelist Hugh L. Craven (?), philosopher Isadore Didenot (?!?), psychologist Dr. L. Rees Pons…are these clever or just half-arsed? By the time we got to research scientist Hood Tinkham (yeah, me neither) I’d stopped caring. The first three are moderately diverting. The rest are, let’s be honest, just bollocks. And, frankly, this is sort of the book in a nutshell.
It starts with the epilogue, which opens mid-action and doesn’t represent the final pages of the story, so wouldn’t be the epilogue even if placed at the end of the book. Again, I think King thinks he’s being clever when he isn’t. In fact, it’s all the more irritating because of the falseness of our detective Captain Lord (that’s doubtless a joke, too) referring to the unmasked murderer in carefully gender neutral and non-named terms. Y’know, to preserve suspense. The fact that the prologue is then the last part of the book — for, really no reason again — and would have made a lot of sense if put first compounds this felony. The reviews I encountered before reading this had a common “nothing is quite what it seems in this book” air to them, and that’s true only in the one occasion mentioned above. The rest of it is just pointless. And really, really dull.
You actually need about 10 pages of the 80 you get before the murder. Then Lord sits around and cogitates a lot, goes and talks to the pilots, has some conversation where people knock religion or science, they change planes a few times, there’s a bit in a snowy field, some more cogitation, a lot of alibi checking, then an accusation and admission…end credits. But, oh, the alibi checking! Dear, sweet Methuselah’s beard, the alibi checking! It goes on and on and on…then is summarised in a table which you can check (don’t, it’s not worth it), then goes on some more. Even Freeman Wills Crofts was looking at his watch come the end of that section, and I’ll admit to just jumping about 20 pages only to find it was still going on.
And, once unmasked, the killer’s original plan — pre-Lord’s intervention — is absolute drivel. It’s honestly not even worth going into, and becomes difficult to untangle come the pro-as-epi-logue because, well, it’s so muddled and too lazy and stupid to even want to untwist. By that point, I think I was angrier with a collection of paper, glue, and ink than should normally be attainable and just wanted to get the thing done and out of my life. Its one good idea is stretched diaphanously thin over far too much evidence of having no clue how to go about a murder mystery, with nothing approaching an interesting idea well-executed, and topped off by a lazy reveal which then has a garbled load of tosh dumped on it in the misinformed hope that this qualifies as intelligent plotting.
If you truly, deeply hate someone, and wish to deprive them by removing from their life the joy that detective fiction can be, give them this book and tell them it’s the greatest mystery novel ever written. To paraphrase Christopher Hitchens: were it possible to give a book an enema, you could print what was left here on a matchbox. Avoid avoid avoid avoid avoid avoid avoid.
Vintage Pop Fictions: Obelists Fly High is a bit of a trainwreck but it’s such an odd and intriguing trainwreck that it’s worth a read if only for its curiosity value.
GADetection wiki: While his works have too much plot creativity to ignore, they have too many other problems to be actually good. One might also point out that Obelists Fly High lacks the fabulous plot complexity of Ellery Queen or John Dickson Carr. Its story could be compressed to novella length without any harm.
The only decent thing to come out of this experience is that I can now cross off the category Plane from my attempts to complete the Golden Age Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt at My Reader’s Block.