#213: On Audacity and How to Prepare for It, via John Russell Fearn’s Thy Arm Alone (1947)

thy-arm-alone

Sometimes someone is so taken with a book that you can’t help but stop and take notice yourself.  So when TomCat was full of praise for this impossible crime, it hopped up my TBR pile with the effortlessness of a mountain goat on an escalator.  I was promised audacity, and I love a bit of authorly audaciousness where an impossible crime is concerned — indeed, the boldness of such schemes as employed in John Dickson Carr’s The Man Who Could not Shudder (1940) or John Saldek’s Invisible Green (1977) make them firm favourites of mine, and if a book of this ilk has chutzpah enough to make TomCat and John Norris sit up and pay attention, then surely you must be onto a good thing.

So, let’s get it out of the way: I really did not like this book.  For so, so, so many reasons, not least because — in much the same manner as Ryan recently highlighted about Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party — so much of the conversation goes like this:

“He was hit on the head?”

“He was hit on the head.  We found metal in the wound.”

“You found metal in the wound?  But he was hit on the head with a stone.”

“We found a stone that we think hit him on the head, but we found metal in the wound.”

“There is no metal in a stone.”

“There is no metal in a stone, and we found a stone that we think hit him, but there is metal in the wound.  We think the metal came from the car.”

“The metal came from the car?”

“As there is no metal in the stone, the metal we found in the wound came from the car.”

“And the stone hit him on the head?”

“The stone has blood on it like it hit him on the head.”

“But you think the meal came from the car?”

“There is metal in a car.  As there is no metal in the stone, we think the metal came from the car.”

There is a short story’s worth of plot in here — and a very good short story at that — but the sheer volume of perseveration in proceedings here is unbearable.  For a large number of the plot points in this mystery our amateur sleuth sees something, thinks about it, discusses it with the inspector attached to the case, thinks about it some more, then goes away and talks to someone else about it, then writes a journal entry about it, then goes and questions the person involved, and then recaps all the other facts to that point in the story to see how the fit in.  One key piece of information is irritatingly not revealed to the police until the 40% mark, but at that point the entire thing is laid bare, and leaves open only one course of action…which is not followed, because then everything would be done in three pages (well, multiplied up for repetition…).

Fundamentally, in spite of the inventiveness of its solution, this represents something of a shunpike on the roads of detective fiction — a cheap and slow route through vistas explored to a far higher standard elsewhere.  Oh, I know, I’m a grouch and famously contrary, like I started this blog purely so I can prove how counter-culture I am, but I really hated Fearn’s inability to tell a good story in a compact and interesting manner.  Yes, it’s probably quite realistic in terms of the investigation, but given the eventual resolution this would have benefitted from being a lot shorter or a lot more packed with incident.  The realist school has no place wrangling with this sort of endeavour — and there’s a good line in some scientific detection — especially as the ingenuity of the solution seems horribly out of place given the hoary, antiquated nature of what precedes it.  I have to give Fearn kudos for his method of death, but dammit if it’s just too far out of any sort of field, dale, sward, or common to fit into the way he reaches it.

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And this got me thinking — especially on the topic of my much-beloved impossible crime fiction, but generally in the firmament of detective fiction overall — about endings that surprise us in ways both good and bad.  The constraints of detective fiction require you to be a least a little prepared for the surprises that cap off a tale, though hopefully looking in the wrong direction, and everyone has an example of one that did or did not work for them.  It’s often a fine line, and I’m not sure where the delineation begins, but I thought I’d examine a few of my most and least favourite examples to encourage you to share your own.

Anthony Boucher’s Rocket to the Morgue (1942) is the classic example of this where it doesn’t work for me.  It’s important to know that it was originally published under the nom de plume H.H. Holmes, because to explain away the attack on an author in a locked, watched, and inaccessible room he literally has a character go “Oh, yeah, that author Anthony Boucher is capable of thing that the attacker was required to do here, it’s definitely a thing people can do, so that’s fine and dandy”.  There’s another novel — I shall not name it, as I’m about to spoil one key mystery — where a man is found crushed dead as if dropped from a huge height, except there’s nowhere nearby that he cold have been dropped from (skip the rest of this if you want to remain unspoiled, though it’s not really worth it): it’s revealed that the killer drove him to a tall building, pushed him off the top, then put the body in their car and drove him back to where he’s found.  ‘Awful’ does not begin to cover it.

9780955694240Some brilliant short stories would have been thoroughly ruined by being stretched out to novels, because sometimes the sheer audacity required to pull something off is better exposed after fifteen pages rather than twenty times that many.  Arthur Porges wrote a series of stories about the wheelchair-bound Cyriack Skinner Grey who solves unfathomable cases, and each is a little piece of perfection for the sheer ludicrous nature of their solutions, finding scientific explanations for time-bombs, impossible hiding places, weapons vanishing from rooms without trace…make me wait 80,000 words to get to these answers and I’d doubtless look on them less favourably, but I urge you to check out the awesomeness that is the Grey stories just so see how seamlessly the payoff works even after only scant preparation.

As for longer works where it is achieved successfully, well there’s the aforementioned Carr above, plus the sudden turn into hard science taken in Catherine Aird’s impossible-murder-in-a-church His Burial Too (1969).  Arguably Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) has this same audacity to it, too, but it was spoiled for me before I read it, so I find it hard to judge.  There’s another book I’m hoping to talk about soon that pulls of its explanation with such panache that I couldn’t sleep for sheer excitement after putting it down — I know, right, how tantalising is that? — but for reason that are reasons I’ll simply leave it for now and add a link here when I post about it.

So, what is audacity in this setting?  It’s more than just a surprise, it’s much more having the ability to throw in something so completely unexpected — no mere Least Likely Suspect, who was there the whole time but you were obfuscated away from — that you can’t believe the author went for that as their explanation.  And sometimes that will be a very good thing, but sometimes that very good thing will not have been worth the effort of getting there.  Thy Arm Alone definitely fulfils this set of circumstances for me, alas, but I’d be curious to know what you think about the cases above and others: is there a stage where audacity jumps the shark/nukes the fridge/turns out to be his secret sister, or is it — as I suspect it always will be — simply subjective and anything goes?  And what have you experienced in your reading that rocked you in not a necessarily good way?  All thoughts welcome, mainly because mine still feel so scrambled…

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See also

John Norris @ Pretty Sinister: The killing in Thy Arm Alone is one of the most bizarrely executed and ingeniously planned murders in all of detective fiction. I have yet to read a book employing the same murder method. It is unusual and imaginative ideas like this that make the Maria Black books worth tracking down and reading.

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I submit Thy Arm Alone for the Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt 2017 at My Reader’s Block under the category A Brunette (woman or man).

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25 thoughts on “#213: On Audacity and How to Prepare for It, via John Russell Fearn’s Thy Arm Alone (1947)

  1. Well, like you, if it;s goof enough for TomCat and John F then it is usually good enough for me … in a bit of a conundrum here. Look forward to hearing about the book that really tingled your molecules JJ as I am now feeling downright rudderless. Certainly, that quoted bit of dialogue is just deadly …

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  2. As said in my reviews of his work, Fearn was a pulp author and very much a second-string mystery novelist. So you have to take that into account when judging his writing, but stand by my opinion that this is a brilliant one. I guess the amount of detective stories consumed will also determine how much you’ll appreciate this one, which might explain why both me and John liked it.

    Regarding your question, I absolutely loath John Basye Price’s “Death and the Rope Trick.”

    Mike Ashley added this obscure story to the lineup of The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries and called it a cunning example of the impossible crime story, which revolved around the legendary Indian rope trick. And supposedly had an answer as to how the illusion could be accomplished. Well, the story was mediocre at best and the plot, such as the challenge and its conditions, were very inconsistent, but the finishing blow came with the solution – which was one of the most ridiculous, unbelievable and far-fetched endings in all of detective fiction. I attempted to review the story here.

    Coincidentally, there’s another such story in the same anthology: “Murder in Monkeyland” by Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg. They also wrote “Death Rides the Elevator,” which was actually a pretty good locked room story, but they took a sharp, inexplicable U-turn in “Murder in Monkeyland” and basically parked the story in a completely different genre. I did not like it.

    Guess I’ll leave it that before this comment becomes a blog-post in itself.

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    • Ursh, Murder in Monkeyland is just godawful, I completely agree. There’s audacious and there’s…simply missing the point. There was another in those books — Three Blind Rats, if memory serves — that was equally promising and then equally embarrassing come the close.

      I

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  3. “If It is good enough for ……. then it is good enough for me”
    I think it is simply not true. Liking a book is a very personal thing. For example,you and I like Paul Halter but Brad and Pretty Sinister John hate him. You like Rupert Penny, but Brad and I find him tedious.
    Very recently John reviewed a book Cat Out Of Hell. He gushed about it and exhorted everyone to purchase it immediately, whereas I found the book so dull that I couldn’t finish it !

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    • It’s true, we often disagree with an individual about a book, but when two people tend to agree there’s a good chance it’ll be a good book. Both John and TC liked the method, which I’m on board with (though I dispute how “well planned” the murder itself was…), so.I guess I was expecting to like the rest as well. My fault, completely — I need to pay more attention to what people actually say as opposed to what I think they imply… 😀

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  4. In all fairness, I based my opinion on only a chapter of Penny. I fully intend to attack him again (oh, maybe that was the wrong word choice), and I am preparing to tackle Policeman’s Evidence as soon as I complete a series of injections of armadillo’s urine.

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  5. Hmm, I’m in two minds as well. First there’s the recommendation, and then the disappointment. And it does irritate me too to see a story spun out into something far more verbose than is necessary.

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  6. I’ll take a swing at this, although I don’t know if I’m hitting the mark that you’re looking for.

    In the case of an infuriatingly audacious ending, GK Chesterton’s The Invisible Man, probably takes the cake. I struggle with whose throat I’d rather choke – Chesterton’s for having written it, or smug Father Brown’s.

    Carr somewhat missed the mark with a “he did what?” ending in Seeing is Believing, with the trick that is pulled off being something that would be at home in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

    As for Carr doing it right – well, there’s The Burning Court, although I know you haven’t read it. Therefore, I’ll call attention to It Walks By Night. My initial reaction was an angry “are you kidding me?”, followed by a swelling love for the solution as time progressed. To me, that solution is audacious – the fact Carr dared to put a full length novel in front of such a simple trick and pulled it off. Plus, I guarantee that no one ever finished that book without flipping back to the map and smacking their forehead.

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    • Ah, yes, ‘The Invisible Man’ — unexpected, surprising, brave, terrible. Exactly what I’m talking about! And you’re pot on with the map in IWbN, too; as soon as the trick was revealed I had a moment of “Hang on, that wouldn’t be…” only to flip back and facepalm in the biggest way 😀

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    • I remember reading, what was it, page 3, and thinking, (SPOILER) “Did anyone else BESIDES her see him go into that room?” and knew I had my killer! (END SPOILER) Same thing happened with Lord Edgware Dies where I kept asking myself why nobody had stopped to consider the reverse of what they were considering! Frankly, I’m not as thrilled with a book when that happens.

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  7. I feel like the worst example of a ‘trying to be audacious’ solution was The Chinese Orange Mystery by Queen. Oh man, I’m still upset about that now. Felt like such a waste of a set up. (To be honest I haven’t read an Ellery Queen story yet that I have actually liked! Lamp of God/House of Haunts had another big set up but the solution literally is the only one it could have been.)

    One of the best examples of an audacious/totally obvious solution which totally caught me off guard, and I loved, was By An Unknown Hand by John Sladek. Man that had me slapping my head for weeks. And also Salvation of a Saint by Higashino, which I think you may agree with me on? That’s a total audacious-grow-on-you over-time thing.

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    • I need to restart my ‘Reading Ellery Queen in Order’ undertaking so that I can get more of him/them under my belt. Not read that Sladek yet, but pleased it’s another good one — the novels are wonderful, and he’s easily one of the lost lights of the genre.

      Salvation is great; the second half of the book adds nothing and knows it, so it becomes a real plod as it goes on, but the solution is very, very clever. I’ll get to Suspect X soon. And more Queen. And the Sladek. And everything else in my TBR. And my TBB. Sure, I’ll definitely get round to all the books I want to read. Just as son as I finish building my hoverboard out of yoghurt pots and figure out the small niggle that’s keeping cold fusion just out of my grasp.

      Sometimes I think there are too many books to track down, y’know? Not very often. Just sometimes.

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      • (SPOILERS) – I didn’t mind the second half of Salvation, and I thought the addition of the second lover and suicide with its link to the main case was genuinely surprising.

        The Sladek is a short story and absolutely worth a go. I’m yet to get a copy of Invisible Green, but have read Black Aura and thought is was great. The disappearance from the chapel in Black Aura is one of my favourite impossible solutions.

        Aah, so many books so little time.

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        • The chapel disappearance is awesome, and hugely underappreciated, I feel, in favour of the ‘flying outside the window’ trick — sometimes the showy ones get all the attention, but sometimes it’s the little schemes you appreciate the most.

          I’m, oh, maybe a third of the way through Suspect X now. It’s…fine, but I’m aware of the transalation in a big way and it feels clunky as a result. (compare this to the excellent work done by Ho-Ling on those LRI titles and these Higashino books don’t stand up at all). But let’s see how it turns out, eh?

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          • The flying window trick did nothing for me really in set up or solution but yes the chapel is totally underrated.

            I know what you mean about Higashino translation, feels like sometimes they are going for the most literal rather than creative. Felt that with Ellery Queen Japanese collection that I reviewed as well.

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          • There’s an abundance of Americanisms in the Higashino which makes it read with an oddly stylistic inflection it’s difficult to believe the original text has. Very, very distracting. Literal feels right, like they plugged it into Google translate, corrected some of the more obscure references, and then didn’t proof-read the resulting manuscript before printing it.

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  8. I have just finished La Chambre Du Fou (The Madman’s Room) by Paul Halter. It has a really audacious murder method. I will review it soon at Goodreads.

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