Among my at-times multiple versions of various John Dickson Carr titles, I have four Mercury Mystery editions like the one shown on the left above — The Plague Court Murders (1934), The Red Widow Murders (1935), The Unicorn Murders (1935), and The Department of Queer Complaints (1940) — which are of additional interest to me since the novels are all abridgements. So, having just read the unedited text of The Unicorn Murders, I thought it might be interesting to see what was excised from this abridged version.
When a man is found dead, stabbed between the eyes by a unicorn (of indeterminate nationality) — a, yes, fictional animal that can nevertheless apparently turn invisible at will — you don’t expect to find yourself in the GADU. And when a second victim is then killed in the same way but in full view of witnesses, if one can witness an invisible animal, you better hope you’re in the GADU or else things are about to get silly. Well, it’s your lucky day, because you are in a classic impossible crime mystery and things are about to get silly — this book is probably the final time John Dickson Carr had all the ingredients for a classic and didn’t actually write it, instead leaving a few edges untouched so that the overriding impression is slightly more “Er…what?” than “Hell, yeah!”.
Like a latter-day Edgar Rice Burroughs, Manly Wade Wellman’s Earthman-out-of-his-element story casts the protagonist as a near-superhuman saviour who is hated by the powerful, championed by the underdog, and treated to sweet, sweet lovin’ by an appreciative female who’s clearly never experienced this sort of hunkiness before. Think Jack Reacher of Mars for best (?) results.
While we can be thankful for real-life developments in forensic science that enable the speedier detection of criminals, there can be little argument that it was the death-knell of good detective fiction. Dull Inspector Arnold and his genius amateur sidekick Desmond Merrion spend so much time combing through the minutiae of the physical and mental aspect of the crime in Death in the Tunnel, and come up with such entertaining possibilities while doing so, that a crime scene tech in one of those all-over white body suits could never be a fifth as much fun. It makes me all the more appreciative of this kind of classic approach, knowing that this sort of book has seen its heyday pass.
In a week that saw me start and quit three books in a row, it was a relief to open Norman Berrow’s third novel and be put immediately at ease by his nimble capturing of the pre-show backstage goings-on at the latest, most fashionable theatre in London. From the music described as “…a shamelessly stolen conglomeration of Mexican airs, assembled in Tin-Pan Alley, shipped to Europe, and played with astonishing variations” to the beautiful summation of leading lady Lili La Paz as “a miracle to watch; and hell to live with”, it’s the sort of opening salvo that reminds me why I return time and again to Berrow and his slightly disappointing impossibilities (the man does love a secret passage): simply put, he writes glorious prose.
It must be me and a nationalities thing — wow, maybe I’m some sort of literary xenophobe. I’ve gotten off to a bad start with the first and second Ellery Queen books, and failed to connect with ‘Sweden’s John Dickson Carr‘, and have now been left cold by the opening salvo in Dutchman Robert van Gulik’s long-running and much-loved Ming Dynasty-set mystery series. Is my oft-vaunted love of Paul Halter and huge enjoyment varioushonkakutexts just a bluff? Who do I even trust any more?
You know the score: a tough-guy PI in a business slump, sitting in his office typing out a letter using one finger (real men don’t type), when in walks a knockout redhead with “everything that should go with red hair”. She needs his help, he’s her last chance. Well of course, sweets, what seems to be the problem? She’s being hunted, y’see, someone wants to kill her. Calm down, baby doll what’s his name? Well, that’s the problem; she’s being hunted by…Martians. It’s a lovely little moment of confounded expectations early on in Brown’s pulpy tale and sets the tone for the number of conventions he refuses to conform to as things progress. And, since he’s far from smug about it, it works very well indeed.
Umberto Eco is an author who has been on my radar for positively decades now, and I decided to start not with the far more famous The Name of the Rose (1980, trans. 1986) but instead the Middle Ages-set, wandering storyteller tome Baudolino (2000, trans. 2002) because, well, it’s probably not a common starting point (yes, I am contrary; it has been noted). So imagine my frank surprise and delight when about 300 pages in it suddenly — after lots of vignettes and philosophical off-shoots about, crikey, all manner of things — transformed into a legit locked room mystery.