#178: The Tuesday Night Bloggers – Clewing, and Other Subtle Arts of the Detective Story

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As the saying goes, man plans and God laughs.  In last week’s Tuesday Night Bloggers post I offered a tantalising glimpse into a possible future with the line “Next week, if all goes to plan: France,” and has all gone to plan?  Of course not.  So repack your bags, everyone, because this week we’re off to…

ae-martin-australia

Yup, it’s short story time from the Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries, specifically in the shape of ‘The Flying Corpse’ by Australian author A.E. Martin.  Martin himself seems to have led quite an interesting life — setting up and running a newspaper, then travelling to Europe where he apparently fell into association with famed escapologist Ehrich Weiss (look him up…) and did a tour of various vaudeville acts, circuses (circi?), and associated shows, before returning to Australia to settle down in his later years as an author.

‘The Flying Corpse’ comes from this later stage, clearly, and concerns a married couple whose car breaks down in the middle of nowhere (so, basically, anywhere on a road in Australia), leading to them discovering a naked corpse lying some thirty yards from the side of the road with two bullet holes behind its ear and no footprints in the mud surrounding it.  Now, Australia is vast — almost incomprehensibly so; just look at this:

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Or, for an American context:

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I mean, holy shit that’s a lot of space, and pretty much everyone lives around the edge because the seafood is even fresher when you can just surf up to the beach carrying it and throw it straight on the…ah, what’s it called — the grill suspended over hot coals?  That thing.  My point is, the sheer emptiness in the middle of Australia is perfect for some unfathomable impossible crime story — who knows, maybe one has already been written.  June Wright did a decent job with a fairly standard ‘lots of people at a hotel and then they start getting killed’ story in Duck Season Death, but even that could have been set in the Cotswolds with, like, one narrative tweak.  So Martin here sets himself up very nicely to give us some major bafflement…

…and then pretty much immediately cacks it by giving us a convenient shack by the side of the road containing a convenient witness who is able to drop the only key piece of information needed, from which point the resolution is never in doubt.  And this is the thing I really want to talk about, because I appreciate that so much of writing an impossible crime is having the precise workings of your method down before you start — perhaps less important in standard detective fiction, where so long as a number of people can’t provide an alibi a showy method is perhaps simply another layer of distraction.  But in order to provide a certain amount of preparation for the revelation of this method come the end, typically one expects some suitable pointers along the way.

Case in point, Leonardo’s Law by Warren B. Murphy which I reviewed last week; I defy anyone to get to the end of that and argue that the method wasn’t prepared for in the text.  It’s done with a fair amount of subtlety, and I’m not sure there are any explicit clues as such, but the pointers are there.  Martin’s method here is so very…singular…that as soon as the key word is mentioned, and given the direction things then go in, you really have no doubt at all.  When they encounter a woman whose lover is missing but the body can’t be him because he has a moustache and the body doesn’t…that’s the kind of lazy reasoning we’re dealing with here.  Far more interesting the other way around — he doesn’t have any facial hair, yet the body does and still turns out to be him — though I appreciate that’s a harder situation to explain away.

[On a complete aside, and in preparation for its reappearance this Christmas, the single-finest (by which I mean ‘only’) example of an impossible hair-growth problem that I know is the Jonathan Creek episode ‘Angel Hair’ which, if you’ve not seen it, I recommend you track down.  And, hey, are their any other examples of this rather niche sub-subgenre?].

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Six months?!  Amateurs!

So I got to thinking, specifically about how it might be possible to set up the solution Martin provides, and I wanted to run this thought experiment by you.  In order to do this, however, I will naturally have to spoil the story, so I include another ‘read more’ tag here if you wish to continue reading.  Suffice to say, there’s nothing so timelessly amazing about this story that you’re missing out on classic or even high-end example of the form, but SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT ON…

The key word is ‘circus’ — the convenient witness has seen a circus travelling by earlier in the day, and it turns out the body has been fired out of the human cannonball’s cannon.  And it’s actually not that bad a solution if set up correctly — it enables all sorts of false-solution reasoning about bodies dropped from balloons or aeroplanes — but as soon as the word ‘circus’ crops up in a story about a body being a long way from where it should be, the human cannonball angle is going to jump into most heads, I’d wager.

So, having offered this objurgation, what have I got that’s any better, hmm?  It seems to me that this can be made to work for as long as you keep the word ‘circus’ out of things, which is then down to the clewing provided along the way.  So here are three alternatives:

Scenario 1: The couple has been driving along the highway encountering odd objects in the road as they go — perhaps a boot, or a wig, or a large iron stake — before coming across something too big to drive around or ignore (like, an unconscious person in the road) and discovering the dead body a long way from the roadside at the same time.  Any reader savvy enough to pick up on the objects gradually becoming the kinds of things that might be thrown out of a prop van during a fight then feels smug when the couple encounters the circus further up the road…it’s not as if it was just dropped on you, and you’ve had a bit of a chance to find some explanation for the objects they were driving past.  This also reduces the coincidence of the car breaking down at the exact same place that the body just happens to be, plus the convenience of a witness on hand to spill da beanz.

circus

“Yes, officer, all just lying in the road…”

Scenario 2: Or, to use the idea of a witness how about they’re stopped on the road by a man who is clearly agitated, having seen someone fly through the air as if fleeing a great, roaring beast.  They disbelieve him, natch, and offer to drive him home, and upon reaching his cabin find the body.  They see a sign for the circus later on, and when they attend that night — despite seeing the lions in a cage (perhaps a hidden cage!) — the audience is told the lions are ill or…something.  The dead man then turns out to b the lion tamer and the roaring heard at his being fired would be the lions — maybe after killing him the killers tried to feed him to the lions but they weren’t having it, and got aggressive when the body of their trainer was thrown into them, hence he was quickly snatched back and fired out of the cannon.  Ooo, and maybe a second body is also found before this in similar circumstances — clearing that first witness of any suspicion, and showing signs of having been attack by a fercious monster — because the lions injured the first person to get the body back and he died of his wounds but the circus…master was keen to avoid awkward questions…

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Though this seems the more likely outcome…

Scenario 3: I’m trying to find a way to simply imply the presence of a circus, but the four people who I’ve asked “What do you think of when I say the word ‘circus’?” all replied “A big tent”.  The other way to add a bit of subtlety, then, seems to be have our travellers encounter people from the circus without realising they are from a circus — perhaps they’re staying at the same hotel overnight, and one person demonstrates knife-throwing skills, or four guys all get into the same car only for the doors to fall off — and then in the morning the body is found and the circus people have all gone…and then attending the same circus later one they recognise one of the clowns, or see some significant aspect of a person’s physical being during the show — and piece it together from there.  This is actually the idea I like the best, but I’ve not had time to string it out into a reasonable-sounding scheme.  It is my gift to you: go, go and build on this, my children…

Circus Show In China

“Hmmm, haven’t we seen a tiger on horseback somewhere else recently…?”

So what’s my point?  Well, I guess I liked the setting and the solution enough that I wish this idea had been handled better, and since this is often true of a lot of stories — it’s rare you ever read something and can find no flaws with it — I thought I’d actually put my money where my mouth is (a weird expression, that, when you come to examine it) and suggest some different ways of achieving the same ends.  Any other ideas?  Because, as Thomas Edison said: “When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this — you haven’t”.

~

Reading this story has reminded me that I’m sure there must be some great classic-era crime fiction from Australia which is going unrecognised.  I mean, there’s the fabulous Max Afford, and June Wright has recently been partially rereleased, Arthur Upfield is back in print but I’ve found nothing of his that sounds like something I’d like to read…is there some wonderful vein of detective fiction from the 40s that we’re just not discussing?  Feels like that might be the case…

~

Next week…nah, I dunno, and I’m not making that mistake again.  Rest assured, the plan is a country that isn’t Japan or Australia, but apart from that anything goes…I hope.

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18 thoughts on “#178: The Tuesday Night Bloggers – Clewing, and Other Subtle Arts of the Detective Story

  1. Why has Upfield not interested you as a writer? Only read a couple of his which I quite enjoyed. There kind of impossible crimeish moments where characters add things, possibly feathers or something, so they don’t leave obvious footprints and it takes expert trackers to pick up on them. But I don’t know if specifically did an impossible/ locked room mystery.

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    • I’ve only read 4 Upfields, I am currently attempting the 5th one “The Bone Is Pointed”, and so far the plot hasn’t been anything special in any of these mysteries. I enjoy the setting and all the fascinating info about aborigines and life in the outback, but if you took all these exotic elements away, they would be fairly average mysteries. Another problem seems to me that they are so leisurely paced that sometimes very little happens for long stretches. “The Sands Of Windee” for example is more like an outback western with a mystery element thrown in.

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      • Kinda reinforces my feelings on this, which I appreciate. Like, if there’s a great one out there then I’d love to know about it, but I just don’t get the impression that there is a great one out there.

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    • Yeah, nah, there’s just not been a plot of his that I’ve seen synopsised and gone “Ooo, that sounds like it’s worth my time”. He’s probably fine, but I’d like to go in believing slight more than ‘probably’ and ‘fine’ before I try him — so many other books, after all…

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  2. I remember this story and I remember disliking it.

    Circus artists are big No No for me when it comes to mystery fiction, I just have an aversion against people who can walk on their hands or balance on a tightrope to cross the space between two skyscrapers or anything of this kind. This always feels like a cheat to me. I only find it acceptable when the whole story is set in a circus environment where everybody is a freak and therefore it’s obvious that they are capable of things normal people wouldn’t be capable of.

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    • Yeah, thanks for refining my point; I suppose I feel that there should be a good way to integrate circus skills — I mean, someone’s gone to the effort to hone them, so why not use them? — and I’d like to see it done well. I, too, have encountered “Aha, well they must have left on a tightrope carrying the painting on a sling” solutions and hate them…the circus deserves better!

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  3. In terms of Australian mysteries, how about ‘The Mystery of a Hansom Cab’ by Ferguson Hume? Apparently it was the biggest selling mystery novel of the 19th century, though it’s little known today. I haven’t read it yet, though I have a copy on my bookshelves.
    As for other GA Australian mystery writers, the only two I’ve heard of are Upfield and June Wright (who used to outsell Agatha Christie in Australia), and I live in Australia! Recently Wright’s rediscovered ‘Murder on the Telephone Exchange’ was reprinted here, which caused a little flurry of interest in GA mysteries, but apart from that I haven’t seen much else. There are some atmospheric but quite basic nineteenth century mystery stories by ‘Waif Wander’ which use the isolation of the bush to good effect, but they were written at the beginnings of the mystery genre, and show it. I’d love there to be more undiscovered great Australian mysteries, but I haven’t seen any, unfortunately!

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    • Yeah, I can’t believe the country rejected detective fiction on such a large scale that it produced virtually none of its own during this period — it could have happened, but I’d struggle to believe it. It’d be interesting to see how the archetypal Australian 1930s novel of detection differed from its UK and US counterparts, for sure, but we need a decent sample size to begin with.

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      • yeah, I can’t believe the country rejected detective fiction on such a large scale that it produced virtually none of its own during this period

        In 1930 we had a population of about six million. Compared to about 120 million in the US. An Australian writer would have found it impossible to make a living unless he could break into the international market (as Upfield did). Our population in 1930 was comparable to Sweden’s and Sweden didn’t produce all that much in the way of detective fiction in that period.

        Plus our publishing industry was very British-dominated. Very hard to compete with cheap editions of Christie, etc.

        Canada had a much bigger population than Australia at that time. And Canada is kinda huge as well. So an interesting question – how much detective fiction did Canada produce? I honestly don’t know.

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        • You make an excellent point. More than one, in fact. What has Canada been doing all this time, eh? Well, Canada, how about it? You’ve gone awfully quiet all of a sudden…

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      • Arthur J. Rees was a pretty good Australian-born writer of golden age detective fiction. His 1920 novel THE HAND IN THE DARK is excellent. Not sure if he actually wrote anything set in Australia though!

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  4. To digress a little – since when has “clewing” superceded “clueing”? Never seen that spelling before reading this post – am I missing something or have you decided to make an attempt to get a mention in the OED?

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