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…
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:
Or, for an American context:
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?].
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.
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…
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…
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.